Though Livings works as a journalist, his fiction shows a whole lot more than moonlighting potential.



A debut collection of stories by an American author about post-Mao China provides fresh perspective through its understated, straightforward prose.

These stories are sneaky, almost subliminal, in their ambitions and connections. Almost all the protagonists and other characters are Chinese or at least indigenous to the region, with the lone exception of Claire, an American student in “The Pocketbook,” who “savored the taste of the unsettled air between the two arenas of existence.” For the reader and perhaps the author, these stories also seem to exist between two arenas, not typically American nor authentically Chinese, but in a realm of possibility that invites similar savoring. Claire discovers that the streets outside her cloistered college aren’t as safe as she might have thought, as a 10-year-old expert robs her (and then himself falls victim to social Darwinism as he loses his spoils to older and tougher thugs), while Claire becomes caught in a protest that she barely understands. Because the author writes so simply, and so well, the human complexities of these stories and the connections among them reveal themselves subtly rather than with great drama. None of the stories are explicitly political, though “The Crystal Sarcophagus,” the longest tale, illuminates what it means to live within a value system likely very different from the reader’s. With the death of Chairman Mao, the commission for his crystal coffin represents a great honor but also an impossible challenge, as it is decreed that a project that should take more than three years must be completed in 10 months. “When completion of a task requires conditions that do not exist, create proper conditions!” orders the official from “[t]he Party [that] outranked physical laws, scientific fact, logic.” Within all of these stories, the human element provides the common denominator.

Though Livings works as a journalist, his fiction shows a whole lot more than moonlighting potential.

Pub Date: Aug. 5, 2014

ISBN: 978-0-374-17853-6

Page Count: 240

Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Review Posted Online: July 2, 2014

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 15, 2014

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Miller makes Homer pertinent to women facing 21st-century monsters.

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A retelling of ancient Greek lore gives exhilarating voice to a witch.

“Monsters are a boon for gods. Imagine all the prayers.” So says Circe, a sly, petulant, and finally commanding voice that narrates the entirety of Miller’s dazzling second novel. The writer returns to Homer, the wellspring that led her to an Orange Prize for The Song of Achilles (2012). This time, she dips into The Odyssey for the legend of Circe, a nymph who turns Odysseus’ crew of men into pigs. The novel, with its distinctive feminist tang, starts with the sentence: “When I was born, the name for what I was did not exist.” Readers will relish following the puzzle of this unpromising daughter of the sun god Helios and his wife, Perse, who had negligible use for their child. It takes banishment to the island Aeaea for Circe to sense her calling as a sorceress: “I will not be like a bird bred in a cage, I thought, too dull to fly even when the door stands open. I stepped into those woods and my life began.” This lonely, scorned figure learns herbs and potions, surrounds herself with lions, and, in a heart-stopping chapter, outwits the monster Scylla to propel Daedalus and his boat to safety. She makes lovers of Hermes and then two mortal men. She midwifes the birth of the Minotaur on Crete and performs her own C-section. And as she grows in power, she muses that “not even Odysseus could talk his way past [her] witchcraft. He had talked his way past the witch instead.” Circe’s fascination with mortals becomes the book’s marrow and delivers its thrilling ending. All the while, the supernatural sits intriguingly alongside “the tonic of ordinary things.” A few passages coil toward melodrama, and one inelegant line after a rape seems jarringly modern, but the spell holds fast. Expect Miller’s readership to mushroom like one of Circe’s spells.

Miller makes Homer pertinent to women facing 21st-century monsters.

Pub Date: April 10, 2018

ISBN: 978-0-316-55634-7

Page Count: 400

Publisher: Little, Brown

Review Posted Online: Jan. 23, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1, 2018

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A modern day fable, with modern implications in a deceiving simplicity, by the author of Dickens. Dali and Others (Reynal & Hitchcock, p. 138), whose critical brilliance is well adapted to this type of satire. This tells of the revolt on a farm, against humans, when the pigs take over the intellectual superiority, training the horses, cows, sheep, etc., into acknowledging their greatness. The first hints come with the reading out of a pig who instigated the building of a windmill, so that the electric power would be theirs, the idea taken over by Napoleon who becomes topman with no maybes about it. Napoleon trains the young puppies to be his guards, dickers with humans, gradually instigates a reign of terror, and breaks the final commandment against any animal walking on two legs. The old faithful followers find themselves no better off for food and work than they were when man ruled them, learn their final disgrace when they see Napoleon and Squealer carousing with their enemies... A basic statement of the evils of dictatorship in that it not only corrupts the leaders, but deadens the intelligence and awareness of those led so that tyranny is inevitable. Mr. Orwell's animals exist in their own right, with a narrative as individual as it is apt in political parody.

Pub Date: Aug. 26, 1946

ISBN: 0452277507

Page Count: 114

Publisher: Harcourt, Brace

Review Posted Online: Nov. 2, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 1, 1946

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