MY CENTURY

A masterly synthesis of fiction, history, and autobiography. My Century is one of Grass’s most skillfully crafted books and...

            On September 30th, Sweden’s Nobel Committee righted what many have long considered an egregious wrong by awarding its 1999 Prize for Literature to Germany’s greatest living novelist.  Grass remains most celebrated for his early masterpieces, The Tin Drum and Dog Years, but forty years’ worth of vigorous fiction, poetry, and sociopolitical commentary testify eloquently to his ongoing creative vitality, as do a highly controversial recent novel (to appear here next year as Too Far Afield) and his ingenious new fiction, My Century:  a mosaic history of modern Germany, comprising a hundred brief stories, one for each year of the present century.  Thus:  a young Bavarian soldier recounts his experiences in China during the Boxer Rebellion in 1900; a pieceworker at the Krupp munitions factory explains how a (then) ultimate weapon was named “Big Bertha” after her; a “peat cutter” forced to help build a concentration camp comments on Jesse Owens’s domination of the 1936 Berlin Olympic Games; and unnamed representative citizens offer their perspectives on such watershed events as the “economic miracle” of the late 1950s, the trial of Adolf Eichmann, and the dismantling of the Berlin Wall.  Grass varies these narrating voices, which, though engagingly differentiated, are uniformly lively and seductive.  The war years 1914-18 are discussed, in conversations held nearly a half-century afterward, by prominent German novelists Erich Maria Remarque and (the now centenarian) Ernst Juenger.  A nameless war correspondent fills in details of the period 1941-45.  And Grass himself chimes in, first in 1927 (the year of his birth), then with increasing frequency from the 1980s forward, as he wryly observes his country’s resurgent militarism, gathers material for the aforementioned Too Far Afield (which was published in1995), and, when in the 1990s geneticists begin cloning sheep, expresses his fear of a coming “fatherless society.”  And in the mischievous and dazzling final chapter (“1999”), Grass’s late mother (d.  1954) tartly laments the prospect of her now elderly son, who’s “made quite a name for himself…bringing me to life again for one of his stories.”

            A masterly synthesis of fiction, history, and autobiography.  My Century is one of Grass’s most skillfully crafted books and proof positive that the Nobel Prize – passing this year from José Saramago to Günter Grass – once again rests in good hands.

Pub Date: Dec. 1, 1999

ISBN: 0-15-100496-X

Page Count: 288

Publisher: Harcourt

Review Posted Online: May 19, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 15, 1999

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SIGHTSEEING

STORIES

A newcomer to watch: fresh, funny, and tough.

Seven stories, including a couple of prizewinners, from an exuberantly talented young Thai-American writer.

In the poignant title story, a young man accompanies his mother to Kok Lukmak, the last in the chain of Andaman Islands—where the two can behave like “farangs,” or foreigners, for once. It’s his last summer before college, her last before losing her eyesight. As he adjusts to his unsentimental mother’s acceptance of her fate, they make tentative steps toward the future. “Farangs,” included in Best New American Voices 2005 (p. 711), is about a flirtation between a Thai teenager who keeps a pet pig named Clint Eastwood and an American girl who wanders around in a bikini. His mother, who runs a motel after having been deserted by the boy’s American father, warns him about “bonking” one of the guests. “Draft Day” concerns a relieved but guilty young man whose father has bribed him out of the draft, and in “Don’t Let Me Die in This Place,” a bitter grandfather has moved from the States to Bangkok to live with his son, his Thai daughter-in-law, and two grandchildren. The grandfather’s grudging adjustment to the move and to his loss of autonomy (from a stroke) is accelerated by a visit to a carnival, where he urges the whole family into a game of bumper cars. The longest story, “Cockfighter,” is an astonishing coming-of-ager about feisty Ladda, 15, who watches as her father, once the best cockfighter in town, loses his status, money, and dignity to Little Jui, 16, a meth addict whose father is the local crime boss. Even Ladda is in danger, as Little Jui’s bodyguards try to abduct her. Her mother tells Ladda a family secret about her father’s failure of courage in fighting Big Jui to save his own sister’s honor. By the time Little Jui has had her father beaten and his ear cut off, Ladda has begun to realize how she must fend for herself.

A newcomer to watch: fresh, funny, and tough.

Pub Date: Jan. 1, 2005

ISBN: 0-8021-1788-0

Page Count: 224

Publisher: Grove

Review Posted Online: May 19, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 15, 2004

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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