A tough-and-tender study of street life.

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THE SUN ON MY HEAD

A clutch of stories exploring the perilous and complex inner lives of residents of Rio’s favelas.

This taut debut collection is mostly populated by young men who’ve been quickly hardened by the druggy, violent milieu of Brazil’s slums, where “sorry’s a feeling you get and lose quick,” as one narrator puts it. But most tend to be spectators, not participants, and none are so hardened that their characters lapse into gangland clichés. The drug-dealer-adjacent narrator of “Lil Spin” just wants to avoid being hassled by a cop for smoking a blunt on the beach; in “The Tag,” a veteran graffiti artist is trying to keep painting despite having a son at home and violence in the air; a recovering crack addict in “Padre Miguel Station” laments the drug’s impact on his old neighborhood, down to the pregnant junkie he spots on one grim visit; and the hero of “The Crossing” is a low-level thug ferrying a corpse to a landfill, though Martins wryly allows a sliver of guilt to slip inside him. (“He was so sure he was done for, he even started thinking about God.”) Martins’ prose (via Sanches’ translation) is fast-paced and slangy (“riding dirty’s a cinch, the parley’s slick”) while preserving the flavor of its Portuguese source; the word “perrengue,” slang for “problem,” stands untranslated for a kind of struggle remembered with a certain fondness (“We’ve been through plenty of perrengues together”; “one person’s perrengue can be another’s joy”). That word crystallizes the retrospective mood of these 13 stories, which are more sketches of remembered moments than full-bodied tales. At their best, though, Martins' sketches are remarkably powerful, as in “The Case of the Butterfly,” in which a boy watches a butterfly sink in a pan of frying oil and recognizes a symbol of his impending fate.

A tough-and-tender study of street life.

Pub Date: June 11, 2019

ISBN: 978-0-374-22377-9

Page Count: 128

Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Review Posted Online: March 18, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 1, 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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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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