A strong appetite for Southern shtick (if not for gruel itself) might enhance readers’ appreciation for the down-home whimsy...

DROWNING IN GRUEL

From South Carolina writer Singleton (Novel, 2005, etc.), a collection of 19 reprinted stories, some of them suffering from a slight case of the cutes.

The fictional hamlet of Gruel is one of those towns that time forgot, though it attempts various scams to attract tourists and boasts Victorian houses that speculators can buy for about five percent of what they would cost elsewhere. While some characters reappear from one story to another and keep showing up at the same old places, particularly Gruel BBQ and Roughhouse Billiards, there’s a surprising amount of mobility in this South Carolina town. Strangers find themselves drawn here for inexplicable reasons (or Victorian houses), while natives who left and vowed never to return somehow make their way back. Many of the characters have more education than the stereotypical small-town rube; a surprising number either work or have worked in academe (Singleton is a writing teacher). Thus, for every story like “Runt,” which depicts Sister the Wonder Dog and her record-setting litter of 24, there’s one like “The Novels of Raymond Carver,” which involves a made-up course on the noted short-story writer’s made-up book-length fiction. The guy who sells gas masks as the perfect Valentine’s Day present to protect the one you love in “Snipers” is balanced by the heart-attack victim who cuts a swathe through his neighbors’ backyards on a power lawnmower in “John Cheever, Rest in Peace,” a sardonic riff on “The Swimmer.” Perhaps the best story here is “Soldiers in Gruel,” which features an overeducated Northern woman who brings her brand of conceptual art to the annual car show and finds a deeper meaning than her schooling could ever have provided.

A strong appetite for Southern shtick (if not for gruel itself) might enhance readers’ appreciation for the down-home whimsy of these tales.

Pub Date: June 5, 2006

ISBN: 0-15-603061-6

Page Count: 320

Publisher: Harvest/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 1, 2006

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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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HOW THE GARCIA GIRLS LOST THEIR ACCENTS

Told through the points of view of the four Garcia sisters- Carla, Sandi, Yolanda and Sofia-this perceptive first novel by poet Alvarez tells of a wealthy family exiled from the Dominican Republic after a failed coup, and how the daughters come of age, weathering the cultural and class transitions from privileged Dominicans to New York Hispanic immigrants. Brought up under strict social mores, the move to the States provides the girls a welcome escape from the pampered, overbearingly protective society in which they were raised, although subjecting them to other types of discrimination. Each rises to the challenge in her own way, as do their parents, Mami (Laura) and Papi (Carlos). The novel unfolds back through time, a complete picture accruing gradually as a series of stories recounts various incidents, beginning with ``Antojos'' (roughly translated ``cravings''), about Yolanda's return to the island after an absence of five years. Against the advice of her relatives, who fear for the safety of a young woman traveling the countryside alone, Yolanda heads out in a borrowed car in pursuit of some guavas and returns with a renewed understanding of stringent class differences. ``The Kiss,'' one of Sofia's stories, tells how she, married against her father's wishes, tries to keep family ties open by visiting yearly on her father's birthday with her young son. And in ``Trespass,'' Carla finds herself the victim of ignorance and prejudice a year after the Garcias have arrived in America, culminating with a pervert trying to lure her into his car. In perhaps one of the most deft and magical stories, ``Still Lives,'' young Sandi has an extraordinary first art lesson and becomes the inspiration for a statue of the Virgin: ``Dona Charito took the lot of us native children in hand Saturday mornings nine to twelve to put Art into us like Jesus into the heathen.'' The tradition and safety of the Old World are just part of the tradeoff that comes with the freedom and choice in the New. Alvarez manages to bring to attention many of the issues-serious and light-that immigrant families face, portraying them with sensitivity and, at times, an enjoyable, mischievous sense.

Pub Date: May 1, 1991

ISBN: 0-945575-57-2

Page Count: 308

Publisher: Algonquin

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 15, 1991

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