An uneven collection, but the best entries are outstanding.

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THEFT

STORIES

Five short stories set around the world, from the author of The Blue Taxi (2006).

“Pearls to Swine” is a comic gem in which a perfect snob, Celeste, vents without censure or apology. A paragon of good taste, Celeste decides that the only fixture her graciously appointed home in Spa, Belgium, lacks is a guest to appreciate it. She resolves to invite two: the daughter of a friend from New York and a young woman who has taken refuge in a local convent after getting pregnant. Neither guest follows the script their hostess has imagined for them. The convent girl is particularly disappointing. Says Celeste: “What did I expect, you ask? Someone thinner, first of all.” Celeste’s outrage is purely aesthetic: She is offended that the girl doesn’t look like a Pre-Raphaelite painting. “Wondrous Strange” is quite different but equally enjoyable. In it, an African djinn gives a middle-class, middle-aged English woman instructions for healing her husband’s strange malady. In the aforementioned stories, Köenings demonstrates an incisive yet generous understanding of human behavior that is reminiscent of A.S. Byatt and Iris Murdoch, and, like those authors, she is willing to entertain mystery without dissecting it. Occasionally though, in both “Pearls to Swine” and “Wondrous Strange,” nervous, amateurish tendencies appear, and these tendencies unfortunately dominate the collection’s other three stories. The title story is an interminable series of extravagant descriptions; “Sisters for Shama” is an elaborate concept—a storyteller conjures imaginary girls to replace a lost sibling—and not much else; “Setting Up Shop” is basically gossip arranged in the shape of short fiction. In these stories, Köenings relies heavily on exotic settings (East Africa, the Indian Ocean coast), overwrought metaphors and preciously ethnographic characters while providing little narrative substance.

An uneven collection, but the best entries are outstanding.

Pub Date: March 25, 2008

ISBN: 978-0-316-00186-1

Page Count: 272

Publisher: Back Bay/Little, Brown

Review Posted Online: June 24, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 15, 2008

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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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