This book leaves us to wonder about both the authority of the project and also its intention—whether or to what extent, in...

DOCTOROW

COLLECTED STORIES

Doctorow wrote some powerful short stories, but it's not clear why they need to be collected again.

There’s something unsettling about collecting, once more, the short fiction of Doctorow, who died in 2015 at age 84. Partly it’s that he remains best known for his novels: The Book of Daniel (1971), Ragtime (1975), Billy Bathgate (1989). (Indeed, Doctorow published only 18 stories, parceled out over three collections, in a career spanning more than half a century.) But even more, it’s that his new book overlaps almost entirely with All the Time in the World, the new and selected stories he put out in 2011. Each of the 12 efforts there appears here as well, along with three others, drawn from Lives of the Poets (1984) and Sweet Land Stories (2004). This is not to criticize his writing, which is often sharp and resonant, just to suggest there is little point in gathering it again. Doctorow’s strength as a short story writer was similar to his strength as a novelist: an acute eye, an attention to detail, an understanding of both the promise and the limitations of narrative. “I thought how stupid, and imperceptive, and self-centered I had been,” the young narrator of “The Writer in the Family” admits, “never to have understood while he was alive what my father’s dream for his life had been.” A similar sensibility marks the magnificent “Wakefield,” inspired by the Hawthorne story of the same name, in which a successful attorney leaves his family and spends months hiding in the attic above his garage. What such stories have in common is a sense of displacement, what Doctorow once described as “dereliction”: a posture of drift or irresolution, as if the very act of living had become too much. Nonetheless, how can this not be undercut by gathering the same pieces yet again, as if they were less literature than monument? This might not be so problematic had the book included all of his short fiction, but three stories from Lives of the Poets, including the title novella, which is among the finest of his shorter works, did not make the cut.

This book leaves us to wonder about both the authority of the project and also its intention—whether or to what extent, in other words, the author’s legacy is being served.

Pub Date: Jan. 10, 2017

ISBN: 9780399588358

Page Count: 321

Publisher: Random House

Review Posted Online: July 28, 2016

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 15, 2016

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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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Rather than settle for a coming-of-age or travails-of-immigrants story, Hosseini has folded them both into this searing...

THE KITE RUNNER

Here’s a real find: a striking debut from an Afghan now living in the US. His passionate story of betrayal and redemption is framed by Afghanistan’s tragic recent past.

Moving back and forth between Afghanistan and California, and spanning almost 40 years, the story begins in Afghanistan in the tranquil 1960s. Our protagonist Amir is a child in Kabul. The most important people in his life are Baba and Hassan. Father Baba is a wealthy Pashtun merchant, a larger-than-life figure, fretting over his bookish weakling of a son (the mother died giving birth); Hassan is his sweet-natured playmate, son of their servant Ali and a Hazara. Pashtuns have always dominated and ridiculed Hazaras, so Amir can’t help teasing Hassan, even though the Hazara staunchly defends him against neighborhood bullies like the “sociopath” Assef. The day, in 1975, when 12-year-old Amir wins the annual kite-fighting tournament is the best and worst of his young life. He bonds with Baba at last but deserts Hassan when the latter is raped by Assef. And it gets worse. With the still-loyal Hassan a constant reminder of his guilt, Amir makes life impossible for him and Ali, ultimately forcing them to leave town. Fast forward to the Russian occupation, flight to America, life in the Afghan exile community in the Bay Area. Amir becomes a writer and marries a beautiful Afghan; Baba dies of cancer. Then, in 2001, the past comes roaring back. Rahim, Baba’s old business partner who knows all about Amir’s transgressions, calls from Pakistan. Hassan has been executed by the Taliban; his son, Sohrab, must be rescued. Will Amir wipe the slate clean? So he returns to the hell of Taliban-ruled Afghanistan and reclaims Sohrab from a Taliban leader (none other than Assef) after a terrifying showdown. Amir brings the traumatized child back to California and a bittersweet ending.

Rather than settle for a coming-of-age or travails-of-immigrants story, Hosseini has folded them both into this searing spectacle of hard-won personal salvation. All this, and a rich slice of Afghan culture too: irresistible.

Pub Date: June 2, 2003

ISBN: 1-57322-245-3

Page Count: 368

Publisher: Riverhead

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 1, 2003

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