Finely nuanced hymn to the world before Ikea, and the stout West Virginians who peopled it. Recommended.




Ayer (Tales of Chinkapin Creek, 2011) returns with more sparkling sketches of rural West Virginians who lived by their hands, hearts and wits before the age of machines.

Life in the Mountain State in the early 1900s was blessed but hard—even for Nellie Wister, the eldest daughter of prominent farmer Jack and homemaker extraordinaire Carrie, who together raised five children while presiding over hired hands and serving girls who might have graced the set of Upstairs Downstairs, the Appalachia edition. As in her debut volume of stories, Ayer recreates the titular riverine patch in a series of sketches told by Nellie. To the Wister homestead come vendors, gypsies, widows and farm boys marked by solitude, struggle or need—sometimes all three. Yet Nellie’s nostalgia can be as devilishly wry as it is deeply profound. When indoor plumbing is installed on the farm, unflattering misadventures follow. Later, an impending trip to Baltimore sparks a sewing marathon that hushes the household for days. Oddballs with hard-luck stories emerge. There’s the blacksmith, Robert E. Lee Kilgore, a tortured soul who forges a macabre legacy, and the pacifist basket weaver, Levi Eads, who recounts a deadly appointment at Antietam. Ayer’s prose is accomplished throughout, and her details intoxicate—from a blind organ tuner’s flylike fingers and tiny tools to a corpse’s wrinkled trousers. Yet a tendency to summarize occasionally dilutes the drama of otherwise well-told tales. That, and some sentimental stretches, make this a slightly shallower Creek than its predecessor. But only slightly. Especially rich is the author’s descriptive language: The dew before sunrise that cures freckles; the ring of blackberries that sprouted from a lightning strike; the echoing pop of exploding pig bladders announcing well-being to distant neighbors; calf’s jelly and horehound lozenges and leather baseballs fashioned from balls of socks. This is a book to be read much as one would listen to a reed organ, hearing beyond its deep tones high piano notes that herald the changing timbre of a new age.

Finely nuanced hymn to the world before Ikea, and the stout West Virginians who peopled it. Recommended.

Pub Date: June 27, 2012

ISBN: 978-1470135799

Page Count: 168

Publisher: CreateSpace

Review Posted Online: Aug. 13, 2012

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 1, 2012

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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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Readers seeking a tale well told will take pleasure in King’s sometimes-scary, sometimes merely gloomy pages.

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A gathering of short stories by an ascended master of the form.

Best known for mega-bestselling horror yarns, King (Finders Keepers, 2015, etc.) has been writing short stories for a very long time, moving among genres and honing his craft. This gathering of 20 stories, about half previously published and half new, speaks to King’s considerable abilities as a writer of genre fiction who manages to expand and improve the genre as he works; certainly no one has invested ordinary reality and ordinary objects with as much creepiness as King, mostly things that move (cars, kid’s scooters, Ferris wheels). Some stories would not have been out of place in the pulp magazines of the 1940s and ’50s, with allowances for modern references (“Somewhere far off, a helicopter beats at the sky over the Gulf. The DEA looking for drug runners, the Judge supposes”). Pulpy though some stories are, the published pieces have noble pedigrees, having appeared in places such as Granta and The New Yorker. Many inhabit the same literary universe as Raymond Carver, whom King even name-checks in an extraordinarily clever tale of the multiple realities hidden in a simple Kindle device: “What else is there by Raymond Carver in the worlds of Ur? Is there one—or a dozen, or a thousand—where he quit smoking, lived to be 70, and wrote another half a dozen books?” Like Carver, King often populates his stories with blue-collar people who drink too much, worry about money, and mistrust everything and everyone: “Every time you see bright stuff, somebody turns on the rain machine. The bright stuff is never colorfast.” Best of all, lifting the curtain, King prefaces the stories with notes about how they came about (“This one had to be told, because I knew exactly what kind of language I wanted to use”). Those notes alone make this a must for aspiring writers.

Readers seeking a tale well told will take pleasure in King’s sometimes-scary, sometimes merely gloomy pages.

Pub Date: Nov. 3, 2015

ISBN: 978-1-5011-1167-9

Page Count: 512

Publisher: Scribner

Review Posted Online: Aug. 17, 2015

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 1, 2015

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