THE COLLECTOR OF HEARTS

NEW TALES OF THE GROTESQUE

Oates’s newest collection (and, to nobody’s surprise, second major work of fiction this year) intriguingly revisits the “gothic” terrain surveyed in such earlier volumes as Night-Side (1977) and Haunted (1994). As is generally the case with Oates, the result is a mixed bag, containing several flimsy (though invariably atmospheric and suggestive) vignettes and anecdotes (“The Sky Blue Ball,” “Intensive”); affecting dramatizations of intense relationships among children and their elders (the nerve-rattling “Death Mother,” and a story entitled the “black rectangle” that symbolizes its narrator’s repression of a traumatic visit to menacing relatives); and breathless portrayals of the enthusiasts-cum-fanatics who have long since constituted a subgenre of Oates’s work (“Death Astride Bicycle,” “Elvis is Dead: Why Are You Alive ?”). A few stories employ overworked supernatural conventions (an Indian relic comes voraciously to life in “The Dream-Catcher”; a child’s grotesque plaything menaces her apprehensive mother in “The Hand-puppet”). And literary influences are sometimes strongly felt, even if ingeniously made new (Poe’s tales in the parable-like title piece; Hortense Calisher’s “The Scream on Fifty-Seventh Street,— to which Oates previously demonstrated indebtedness in “Unprintable”). A choice few belong among the author’s very best: notably the swift tale of a vacationing family’s lost little boy and his likely fate, recounted in a chillingly bland colloquial voice (“Labor Day”); the story of a painter who makes inimitable art out of the disease that plagues him (“The Affliction”); and two superbly imagined and skillfully constructed exercises in psychological horror (“The Crossing” and “Shadows of the Evening”). The paradoxical momentum frequently traced in these stories—of escape from an impoverished or frightened childhood into a stable world of culture and order, though it may be snatched away violently at any time—gives them the further dimension of close relationship to Oates’s more purely realistic fiction: the “night-side,” as it were, of her oeuvre. One of Oates’s more interesting recent books, and impressive further proof of her continuing mastery of the short story.

Pub Date: Nov. 2, 1998

ISBN: 0-525-94445-1

Page Count: 336

Publisher: Dutton

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 15, 1998

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With humor and insight, Straub creates a family worth rooting for.

ALL ADULTS HERE

When Astrid Strick witnesses a school bus run over a longtime acquaintance of hers—Barbara Baker, a woman she doesn't like very much—it's only the beginning of the shake-ups to come in her life and the lives of those she loves.

Astrid has been tootling along contentedly in the Hudson Valley town of Clapham, New York, a 68-year-old widow with three grown children. After many years of singlehood since her husband died, she's been quietly seeing Birdie Gonzalez, her hairdresser, for the past two years, and after Barbara's death she determines to tell her children about the relationship: "There was no time to waste, not in this life. There were always more school buses." Elliot, her oldest, who's in real estate, lives in Clapham with his wife, Wendy, who's Chinese American, and their twins toddlers, Aidan and Zachary, who are "such hellions that only a fool would willingly ask for more." Astrid's daughter, Porter, owns a nearby farm producing artisanal goat cheese and has just gotten pregnant through a sperm bank while having an affair with her married high school boyfriend. Nicky, the youngest Strick, is disconcertingly famous for having appeared in an era-defining movie when he was younger and now lives in Brooklyn with his French wife, Juliette, and their daughter, Cecelia, who's being shipped up to live with Astrid for a while after her friend got mixed up with a pedophile she met online. As always, Straub (Modern Lovers, 2016, etc.) draws her characters warmly, making them appealing in their self-centeredness and generosity, their insecurity and hope. The cast is realistically diverse, though in most ways it's fairly superficial; the fact that Birdie is Latina or Porter's obstetrician is African American doesn't have much impact on the story or their characters. Cecelia's new friend, August, wants to make the transition to Robin; that storyline gets more attention, with the two middle schoolers supporting each other through challenging times. The Stricks worry about work, money, sex, and gossip; Straub has a sharp eye for her characters' foibles and the details of their liberal, upper-middle-class milieu.

With humor and insight, Straub creates a family worth rooting for.

Pub Date: May 5, 2020

ISBN: 978-1-59463-469-7

Page Count: 368

Publisher: Riverhead

Review Posted Online: Feb. 10, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 1, 2020

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A daring concept not so daringly developed.

THE BOOK OF LONGINGS

In Kidd’s (The Invention of Wings, 2014, etc.) feminist take on the New Testament, Jesus has a wife whose fondest longing is to write.

Ana is the daughter of Matthias, head scribe to Herod Antipas, tetrarch of Galilee. She demonstrates an exceptional aptitude for writing, and Matthias, for a time, indulges her with reed pens, papyri, and other 16 C.E. office supplies. Her mother disapproves, but her aunt, Yaltha, mentors Ana in the ways of the enlightened women of Alexandria, from whence Yaltha, suspected of murdering her brutal husband, was exiled years before. Yaltha was also forced to give up her daughter, Chaya, for adoption. As Ana reaches puberty, parental tolerance of her nonconformity wanes, outweighed by the imperative to marry her off. Her adopted brother, Judas—yes, that Judas—is soon disowned for his nonconformity—plotting against Antipas. On the very day Ana, age 14, meets her prospective betrothed, the repellent Nathanial, in the town market, she also encounters Jesus, a young tradesman, to whom she’s instantly drawn. Their connection deepens after she encounters Jesus in the cave where she is concealing her writings about oppressed women. When Nathanial dies after his betrothal to Ana but before their marriage, Ana is shunned for insufficiently mourning him—and after refusing to become Antipas’ concubine, she is about to be stoned until Jesus defuses the situation with that famous admonition. She marries Jesus and moves into his widowed mother’s humble compound in Nazareth, accompanied by Yaltha. There, poverty, not sexism, prohibits her from continuing her writing—office supplies are expensive. Kidd skirts the issue of miracles, portraying Jesus as a fully human and, for the period, accepting husband—after a stillbirth, he condones Ana’s practice of herbal birth control. A structural problem is posed when Jesus’ active ministry begins—what will Ana’s role be? Problem avoided when, notified by Judas that Antipas is seeking her arrest, she and Yaltha journey to Alexandria in search of Chaya. In addition to depriving her of the opportunity to write the first and only contemporaneous gospel, removing Ana from the main action destroys the novel’s momentum.

A daring concept not so daringly developed.

Pub Date: April 21, 2020

ISBN: 978-0-525-42976-0

Page Count: 432

Publisher: Viking

Review Posted Online: Jan. 27, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 15, 2020

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