From veteran actor, writer, and current UNICEF ambassador-at- large Ustinov (The Old Man and Mr. Smith, 1991, etc.), nine stories suggestive of other days and styles, featuring some rather dated themes and humor. Most of the tales here are European in setting and reflect the world of the late '40s and '50s, with characters who embody every national stereotype. Which would be fine if Ustinov's strained satire worked, but it doesn't—with one exception: ``The Assassins,'' a labored but occasionally amusing riff involving a band of aging anarchists who are sent by the French police to Corsica on vacation every time they threaten to blow up a visiting world leader. The title piece follows the career of Mitzi, a Hungarian singer whose doleful admirer reminds her that ``life is not an operetta.'' The admirer, however, is repeatedly confounded by the remarkably resilient Mitzi, one of those ``impossible, dangerous and impervious people'' for whom ``life is an operetta after all, and can never be anything else.'' Other stories limn an American president and a Soviet leader, who, at the height of the Cold War, discover that they share a common passion for stamp- collecting, including even the same rare stamps (``Dream of Papua''); a newly married Englishwoman who decides that she's more in love with the dog an old lover gave her as a wedding present than with her boring husband (``The Gift of a Dog''); and a French banker, vacationing in Switzerland, who becomes embroiled in local feuds (``The Swiss Watch''). Most poignant and affecting of all is ``The Loneliness of Billiwoonga,'' which traces the struggles of a concentration camp survivor, his entire family lost in the Holocaust, to establish a new life in a small Australian town. He marries, then finds himself in business with a former Nazi officer, so anxious now to be liked that ``every gesture was a bribe, the payment of a debt on the installment system.'' Faded period charm.

Pub Date: July 1, 1997

ISBN: 1-57392-150-5

Page Count: 258

Publisher: N/A

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: June 1, 1997

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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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