Swamps and streams, lightning and dogs all play a part in these beguiling, suggestive fables. The stories are of perfect...

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THE TEETH OF THE COMB & OTHER STORIES

Elegant, often elegiac sketches by Syrian-born writer Alomar, now a resident of Chicago.

“He was born with a silver knife in his mouth. And he was its first victim.” Thus, in its entirety, one of Alomar’s short stories, this one with the simple title “The Knife.” Others stretch out to a page, a few others a little more than that, but all are masterpieces of compression, presented with the generally unironic matter-of-factness of a fable that, no matter how improbable the circumstances, behaves perfectly well according to its own logic: that knife could be literal just as easily as metaphorical, considering the violence and mayhem of the world. The title story is a sly allegory about the human desire for—well, for better circumstances than most of us enjoy, anyway, the teeth of the comb standing for aspirations that, even when fulfilled, do not go unpunished. Occasionally Alomar goes full-tilt for the classical fable, letting animals and sometimes even plants stand in for human beings; when humans and the natural world meet, it is seldom to our credit, as when an ear of wheat beholds a throng of human ears on heads that “were bent before their tyrant leader” and mistakes their posture for a boon. No good deed goes unpunished, indeed; in one fable worthy of Kafka, a writer is made to sit on his pen in torture, and his blood turns blue in the bargain. “He became prominent…and slowly came to his senses,” Alomar writes, leaving us to guess whether the writer became complicit in the regime that afflicted him or came to his senses in some other way, pleasant or horrific.

Swamps and streams, lightning and dogs all play a part in these beguiling, suggestive fables. The stories are of perfect length, but one wishes the book went on for much longer.

Pub Date: April 25, 2017

ISBN: 978-0-8112-2607-3

Page Count: 96

Publisher: New Directions

Review Posted Online: Feb. 2, 2017

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 15, 2017

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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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Tinny perhaps, but still a minutely rendered and impressively steady feminist vision of apocalypse.

THE HANDMAID'S TALE

The time is the not-so-distant future, when the US's spiraling social freedoms have finally called down a reaction, an Iranian-style repressive "monotheocracy" calling itself the Republic of Gilead—a Bible-thumping, racist, capital-punishing, and misogynistic rule that would do away with pleasure altogether were it not for one thing: that the Gileadan women, pure and true (as opposed to all the nonbelieving women, those who've ever been adulterous or married more than once), are found rarely fertile.

Thus are drafted a whole class of "handmaids," whose function is to bear the children of the elite, to be fecund or else (else being certain death, sent out to be toxic-waste removers on outlying islands). The narrative frame for Atwood's dystopian vision is the hopeless private testimony of one of these surrogate mothers, Offred ("of" plus the name of her male protector). Lying cradled by the body of the barren wife, being meanwhile serviced by the husband, Offred's "ceremony" must be successful—if she does not want to join the ranks of the other disappeared (which include her mother, her husband—dead—and small daughter, all taken away during the years of revolt). One Of her only human conduits is a gradually developing affair with her master's chauffeur—something that's balanced more than offset, though, by the master's hypocritically un-Puritan use of her as a kind of B-girl at private parties held by the ruling men in a spirit of nostalgia and lust. This latter relationship, edging into real need (the master's), is very effectively done; it highlights the handmaid's (read Everywoman's) eternal exploitation, profane or sacred ("We are two-legged wombs, that's all: sacred vessels, ambulatory chalices"). Atwood, to her credit, creates a chillingly specific, imaginable night-mare. The book is short on characterization—this is Atwood, never a warm writer, at her steeliest—and long on cynicism—it's got none of the human credibility of a work such as Walker Percy's Love In The Ruins. But the scariness is visceral, a world that's like a dangerous and even fatal grid, an electrified fence.

Tinny perhaps, but still a minutely rendered and impressively steady feminist vision of apocalypse.

Pub Date: Feb. 17, 1985

ISBN: 038549081X

Page Count: -

Publisher: Houghton Mifflin

Review Posted Online: Sept. 16, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 15, 1985

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