A laudable set of premises, but thin writing and faux disclosures keep this garden from bursting into full bloom.

GARDEN PRIMITIVES

SHORT STORIES

A debut collection from a Minnesota writer pits its mainly suburban characters against a nature that is both unforgiving and creepily profligate.

Sosin has a gift for the narrative hook. Many of these 12 stories place their protagonists in potentially humiliating situations, then watch them struggle out with varying degrees of grace. In ``Internal Medicine,'' a woman talks a group of firstyear medical students through her own pelvic exam while pondering her recent divorce. ``Ice Age'' gives us a resentful farmer who, cornered by his own act of kindness, finds himself trapped at an awkward dinner with yuppies he despises for encroaching on his land. At her best, Sosin is able to milk these reversaloffortune setups to alchemical effect. ``Mother Superior,” one of the best pieces here and the only one to depart from a middleclass milieu, follows a burntout former bar owner through a date gone sadly wrong; the quietly devastating climax feels like a slap not only to her face, but to ours. Elsewhere, though, these revelations can sound like unintentional punch lines, especially when allegories from nature start gumming up the works. ``Submersion'' draws a clunky parallel between a woman's obsessive vigil over a turtle nest on a Mexican beach and the recent drowning death of her son, revealed at the end in a distinctly unsurprising twist. ``There Are No Green Butterflies'' solemnly depicts the unraveling of a nascent romance that the reader is unlikely to mourn (`` `Sex is holy,' he says, looking off in the distance''). Only the title story steps back from this relentless intersubjectivity, offering a restrained, almost photographic vignette of the varied urban types frequenting a public greenhouse. Meanwhile, Sosin's generally graceful prose has moments of startling infelicity: one heroine lies in bed ``exacerbated,'' wielding ``the fineedged knife of selfblame.''

A laudable set of premises, but thin writing and faux disclosures keep this garden from bursting into full bloom.

Pub Date: April 1, 2000

ISBN: 1-56689-100-0

Page Count: 176

Publisher: Coffee House

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 15, 2000

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A magnificent achievement: a novel that is, by turns, both optimistic and fatalistic, idealistic without being naïve.

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THE OVERSTORY

Powers’ (Orfeo, 2014, etc.) 12th novel is a masterpiece of operatic proportions, involving nine central characters and more than half a century of American life.

In this work, Powers takes on the subject of nature, or our relationship to nature, as filtered through the lens of environmental activism, although at its heart the book is after more existential concerns. As is the case with much of Powers’ fiction, it takes shape slowly—first in a pastiche of narratives establishing the characters (a psychologist, an undergraduate who died briefly but was revived, a paraplegic computer game designer, a homeless vet), and then in the kaleidoscopic ways these individuals come together and break apart. “We all travel the Milky Way together, trees and men,” Powers writes, quoting the naturalist John Muir. “In every walk with nature one receives far more than he seeks.” The idea is important because what Powers means to explore is a sense of how we become who we are, individually and collectively, and our responsibility to the planet and to ourselves. Nick, for instance, continues a project begun by his grandfather to take repeated photographs of a single chestnut tree, “one a month for seventy-six years.” Pat, a visionary botanist, discovers how trees communicate with one another only to be discredited and then, a generation later, reaffirmed. What links the characters is survival—the survival of both trees and human beings. The bulk of the action unfolds during the timber wars of the late 1990s, as the characters coalesce on the Pacific coast to save old-growth sequoia from logging concerns. For Powers, however, political or environmental activism becomes a filter through which to consider the connectedness of all things—not only the human lives he portrays in often painfully intricate dimensions, but also the biosphere, both virtual and natural. “The world starts here,” Powers insists. “This is the merest beginning. Life can do anything. You have no idea.”

A magnificent achievement: a novel that is, by turns, both optimistic and fatalistic, idealistic without being naïve.

Pub Date: April 3, 2018

ISBN: 978-0-393-63552-2

Page Count: 512

Publisher: Norton

Review Posted Online: Jan. 23, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1, 2018

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Tinny perhaps, but still a minutely rendered and impressively steady feminist vision of apocalypse.

THE HANDMAID'S TALE

The time is the not-so-distant future, when the US's spiraling social freedoms have finally called down a reaction, an Iranian-style repressive "monotheocracy" calling itself the Republic of Gilead—a Bible-thumping, racist, capital-punishing, and misogynistic rule that would do away with pleasure altogether were it not for one thing: that the Gileadan women, pure and true (as opposed to all the nonbelieving women, those who've ever been adulterous or married more than once), are found rarely fertile.

Thus are drafted a whole class of "handmaids," whose function is to bear the children of the elite, to be fecund or else (else being certain death, sent out to be toxic-waste removers on outlying islands). The narrative frame for Atwood's dystopian vision is the hopeless private testimony of one of these surrogate mothers, Offred ("of" plus the name of her male protector). Lying cradled by the body of the barren wife, being meanwhile serviced by the husband, Offred's "ceremony" must be successful—if she does not want to join the ranks of the other disappeared (which include her mother, her husband—dead—and small daughter, all taken away during the years of revolt). One Of her only human conduits is a gradually developing affair with her master's chauffeur—something that's balanced more than offset, though, by the master's hypocritically un-Puritan use of her as a kind of B-girl at private parties held by the ruling men in a spirit of nostalgia and lust. This latter relationship, edging into real need (the master's), is very effectively done; it highlights the handmaid's (read Everywoman's) eternal exploitation, profane or sacred ("We are two-legged wombs, that's all: sacred vessels, ambulatory chalices"). Atwood, to her credit, creates a chillingly specific, imaginable night-mare. The book is short on characterization—this is Atwood, never a warm writer, at her steeliest—and long on cynicism—it's got none of the human credibility of a work such as Walker Percy's Love In The Ruins. But the scariness is visceral, a world that's like a dangerous and even fatal grid, an electrified fence.

Tinny perhaps, but still a minutely rendered and impressively steady feminist vision of apocalypse.

Pub Date: Feb. 17, 1985

ISBN: 038549081X

Page Count: -

Publisher: Houghton Mifflin

Review Posted Online: Sept. 16, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 15, 1985

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