Interesting premises developed with varying success: an uneven yet promising first volume.

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THE VIEW FROM STALIN’S HEAD

Ten debut stories find Western expatriates settled—and, more usually, unsettled—in 1990s Prague.

Several of the expats are gay men seeking love but making do with sex, mostly with unresponsive or emotionally neutral partners. The unnamed narrator of “Exile,” for example, is an American-Jewish artist who supports himself with pornographic drawings, checking out Czech males to little effect, and returning to the States still unsure whether he’s a real Jew. The protagonist of “A Man of the Country” achieves sexual gratification with Jirka, his affable, casually sensual English-language student—but realizes that he’s only a momentary blip on Jirka’s kaleidoscopic radar screen. And in “Garage Sale,” Canadian teacher Donald quietly accepts exploitation by both the male dancer who squeezes him for “loans” and the cultured woman whom he dutifully marries. Hamburger offers fairly conventional satire on outsiders otherwise attracted by Prague’s dark romantic history, such as Rachel (in “Jerusalem”), who finds herself drawn to an intense Jewish theology student yet finds the strength to dump him when she realizes his religiosity is her rival; and Debra (of “You Say You Want a Revolution”), “a rich girl in revolutionary’s clothing” whose fiery espousal of what she labels “New Socialism” alienates her from American friends and Czech colleagues alike. Such stories are less interesting than “Control,” which reveals the avaricious derelictions of a checkpoint security guard, and than the two best pieces here: “The Ground You Are Standing On,” about the tourist Sarah Schroeder, who discovers, in evidence of ongoing anti-Semitism, her determination “to become a better Jew”; and “Law of Return,” about the American Michael, who overcomes a lifetime of passive indecision by declaring his Judaism and moving with his male cousin (and lover) to Israel.

Interesting premises developed with varying success: an uneven yet promising first volume.

Pub Date: March 16, 2004

ISBN: 0-8129-7093-4

Page Count: 224

Publisher: Random House

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 15, 2003

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Readers seeking a tale well told will take pleasure in King’s sometimes-scary, sometimes merely gloomy pages.

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THE BAZAAR OF BAD DREAMS

STORIES

A gathering of short stories by an ascended master of the form.

Best known for mega-bestselling horror yarns, King (Finders Keepers, 2015, etc.) has been writing short stories for a very long time, moving among genres and honing his craft. This gathering of 20 stories, about half previously published and half new, speaks to King’s considerable abilities as a writer of genre fiction who manages to expand and improve the genre as he works; certainly no one has invested ordinary reality and ordinary objects with as much creepiness as King, mostly things that move (cars, kid’s scooters, Ferris wheels). Some stories would not have been out of place in the pulp magazines of the 1940s and ’50s, with allowances for modern references (“Somewhere far off, a helicopter beats at the sky over the Gulf. The DEA looking for drug runners, the Judge supposes”). Pulpy though some stories are, the published pieces have noble pedigrees, having appeared in places such as Granta and The New Yorker. Many inhabit the same literary universe as Raymond Carver, whom King even name-checks in an extraordinarily clever tale of the multiple realities hidden in a simple Kindle device: “What else is there by Raymond Carver in the worlds of Ur? Is there one—or a dozen, or a thousand—where he quit smoking, lived to be 70, and wrote another half a dozen books?” Like Carver, King often populates his stories with blue-collar people who drink too much, worry about money, and mistrust everything and everyone: “Every time you see bright stuff, somebody turns on the rain machine. The bright stuff is never colorfast.” Best of all, lifting the curtain, King prefaces the stories with notes about how they came about (“This one had to be told, because I knew exactly what kind of language I wanted to use”). Those notes alone make this a must for aspiring writers.

Readers seeking a tale well told will take pleasure in King’s sometimes-scary, sometimes merely gloomy pages.

Pub Date: Nov. 3, 2015

ISBN: 978-1-5011-1167-9

Page Count: 512

Publisher: Scribner

Review Posted Online: Aug. 17, 2015

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 1, 2015

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THE THINGS THEY CARRIED

It's being called a novel, but it is more a hybrid: short-stories/essays/confessions about the Vietnam War—the subject that O'Brien reasonably comes back to with every book. Some of these stories/memoirs are very good in their starkness and factualness: the title piece, about what a foot soldier actually has on him (weights included) at any given time, lends a palpability that makes the emotional freight (fear, horror, guilt) correspond superbly. Maybe the most moving piece here is "On The Rainy River," about a draftee's ambivalence about going, and how he decided to go: "I would go to war—I would kill and maybe die—because I was embarrassed not to." But so much else is so structurally coy that real effects are muted and disadvantaged: O'Brien is writing a book more about earnestness than about war, and the peekaboos of this isn't really me but of course it truly is serve no true purpose. They make this an annoyingly arty book, hiding more than not behind Hemingwayesque time-signatures and puerile repetitions about war (and memory and everything else, for that matter) being hell and heaven both. A disappointment.

Pub Date: March 28, 1990

ISBN: 0618706410

Page Count: 256

Publisher: Houghton Mifflin

Review Posted Online: Oct. 2, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 15, 1990

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