Earthy, spare stories that paint a bleak portrait of human shortcomings.

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ARID DREAMS

Thirteen short stories by a Thai writer making her English debut examine life under the strictures of capitalism and rigid gender roles.

In these stories, published in Thailand from 1995 to 2014, villagers, prostitutes, and wage workers struggle with the impossibility of their dreams in lives marked by drudgery. In “The Attendant,” an elevator operator thinks wistfully of a youth spent hauling cassava roots on a farm, in stark contrast to the atomized work his body does now, operating a deadening piece of machinery shaped like a coffin. In “The Awaiter,” the title character is unemployed, aimless, and hoping for human connection when he finds money next to a bus stop and waits for someone to come back for it. Those who hope for a glamorous rise to the top end up reflecting bitterly on their choices: In “The Second Book,” Boonsong becomes a promising politician thanks to his connections to a powerful kingpin; when that kingpin is killed, Boonsong’s hopes—both his political ambitions and, eventually, even his childhood dreams—are summarily dashed. And in “Within These Walls,” a politician's wife realizes, as her grievously injured husband lies in the hospital, that her life has been entirely defined by his choices. Because these characters are trapped, either by their circumstances or by their own obsessive thought processes, the prose is rife with repetition, an effective narrative strategy that can also become frustrating: “I was the one suffering from having to lay hands on it. Isn’t it twisted? When I hurt others, I’m the one that suffers; when others hurt me, I’m the one that suffers again.” Several of the stories are told with heavy irony from the perspectives of blinkered or boorish men whose foibles and fragility seemingly are the point. But these stories about gender also arrive at the most unsatisfying insights: In the title story, the sex-obsessed protagonist ultimately “realize[s] that, with women you’ll never stand a chance of sleeping with, it’s better to learn as much as you can about them, until lust gives way to other feelings.” Many of these stories, though punctuated with flashes of mordant humor, conclude with similarly pithy, oddly formal lessons.

Earthy, spare stories that paint a bleak portrait of human shortcomings.

Pub Date: April 16, 2019

ISBN: 978-1-936932-56-6

Page Count: 192

Publisher: Feminist Press

Review Posted Online: Feb. 4, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 15, 2019

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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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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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