Lightly plotted but emotionally intricate tales about the risks we take in trying to belong.

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USEFUL PHRASES FOR IMMIGRANTS

Longing characterizes the lives of Chinese and Chinese-American families in this solid short story collection.

In the title story, there is a moment when the protagonist, Guili, reflects back regretfully on her family’s decision to xia hai, a phrase that translates roughly as "to jump into the sea of commerce," or to leave a stable job for something riskier. In Guili’s case, she and her husband left good jobs in China to come to America “only to discover everywhere they looked, there were Chinese who’d come earlier…started mindless businesses, and made a fortune.” These are the characters that fascinate Chai (Training Days, 2017, etc.): the ones who feel that “invisible lines” have been drawn “between themselves and the rest of the world.” There is the young girl just discovering an attraction to other women who watches her uncle’s homosexuality cause irreparable rifts in her extended family (“Ghost Festivals”). An 11-year-old’s apprehension over getting a new training bra causes her to see her mother in a new, disappointing light (“Canada”). Teenage Xiao Yu, a migrant worker who leaves the countryside to work at a city restaurant, learns toughness to survive his unsavory surroundings (“Fish Boy”). Chai uses similar narrative structures and even repeated details to link the stories, though this sometimes serves to make them run together rather than acting as a successful unifying device. (The supernatural noir story “The Body” is a satisfying departure from the rest of the pack.) But Chai’s confident writing and insights into characters wanting, but unable, to fit in—whether because of class, sexuality, ethnicity, or the everyday complications of human connection—make her a writer to remember.

Lightly plotted but emotionally intricate tales about the risks we take in trying to belong.

Pub Date: Oct. 23, 2018

ISBN: 978-0-932112-76-7

Page Count: 158

Publisher: Blair

Review Posted Online: July 31, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 15, 2018

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

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THE BAZAAR OF BAD DREAMS

STORIES

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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