Moving, strange, and occasionally piercing.

HOW TO PRONOUNCE KNIFE

Fourteen short stories about being Lao and working class in North America.

In poet Thammavongsa’s (Cluster, 2019) first collection of fiction, privilege is a concrete force, arbitrary and inexorable. Red, a woman who plucks chickens at a factory, longs for the money to get a nose job to turn hers into “a thin nose that stuck out from her face and pointed upward. Everyone who worked in the front office had that kind of nose.” When a spot in the office opens up, Red’s co-workers get nose jobs, but "none of them got the job. It was given to a girl just out of high school whose father worked in the front office.” Other stories are about the poignant need for hope when you have nothing else: In “Mani Pedi,” a failed boxer begins working at his sister’s nail salon and longs for one of his clients, a woman he calls Miss Emily. “That I can dream at all means something to me,” he tells his sister when she berates him. Many of the narrators here are children, which feels apt when the stories explore the vulnerability of being ignorant, of knowledge as a form of privilege: One narrator can’t bear to tell her father what “thief” means after he hears his co-workers spitting the word at him. In the title story, a little girl asks her father how to pronounce knife. “It’s kahneyff,” he says. But when she’s asked to read aloud in class, her teacher won’t let her continue until she pronounces the word correctly. “Finally, a yellow-haired girl in the class called out, ‘It’s knife! The k is silent,’ and rolled her eyes as if there was nothing easier in the world to know.” These stories, written in a spare, distant register, twist the heart; Thammavongsa captures in a few well-chosen words how it feels for immigrant children to protect their parents. But occasionally the stories lean on stereotype to make their point—that scornful yellow-haired girl, blue-eyed and freckled, has a mother who wears a black fur coat and heels and drives a “big shiny black” Volkswagen.

Moving, strange, and occasionally piercing.

Pub Date: April 21, 2020

ISBN: 978-0-316-42213-0

Page Count: 192

Publisher: Little, Brown

Review Posted Online: Jan. 26, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 15, 2020

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Despite some distractions, there’s an irresistible charm to Owens’ first foray into nature-infused romantic fiction.

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WHERE THE CRAWDADS SING

A wild child’s isolated, dirt-poor upbringing in a Southern coastal wilderness fails to shield her from heartbreak or an accusation of murder.

“The Marsh Girl,” “swamp trash”—Catherine “Kya” Clark is a figure of mystery and prejudice in the remote North Carolina coastal community of Barkley Cove in the 1950s and '60s. Abandoned by a mother no longer able to endure her drunken husband’s beatings and then by her four siblings, Kya grows up in the careless, sometimes-savage company of her father, who eventually disappears, too. Alone, virtually or actually, from age 6, Kya learns both to be self-sufficient and to find solace and company in her fertile natural surroundings. Owens (Secrets of the Savanna, 2006, etc.), the accomplished co-author of several nonfiction books on wildlife, is at her best reflecting Kya’s fascination with the birds, insects, dappled light, and shifting tides of the marshes. The girl’s collections of shells and feathers, her communion with the gulls, her exploration of the wetlands are evoked in lyrical phrasing which only occasionally tips into excess. But as the child turns teenager and is befriended by local boy Tate Walker, who teaches her to read, the novel settles into a less magical, more predictable pattern. Interspersed with Kya’s coming-of-age is the 1969 murder investigation arising from the discovery of a man’s body in the marsh. The victim is Chase Andrews, “star quarterback and town hot shot,” who was once Kya’s lover. In the eyes of a pair of semicomic local police officers, Kya will eventually become the chief suspect and must stand trial. By now the novel’s weaknesses have become apparent: the monochromatic characterization (good boy Tate, bad boy Chase) and implausibilities (Kya evolves into a polymath—a published writer, artist, and poet), yet the closing twist is perhaps its most memorable oddity.

Despite some distractions, there’s an irresistible charm to Owens’ first foray into nature-infused romantic fiction.

Pub Date: Aug. 14, 2018

ISBN: 978-0-7352-1909-0

Page Count: 384

Publisher: Putnam

Review Posted Online: May 15, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: June 1, 2018

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FOR WHOM THE BELL TOLLS

This is good Hemingway. It has some of the tenderness of A Farewell to Arms and some of its amazing power to make one feel inside the picture of a nation at war, of the people experiencing war shorn of its glamor, of the emotions that the effects of war — rather than war itself — arouse. But in style and tempo and impact, there is greater resemblance to The Sun Also Rises. Implicit in the characters and the story is the whole tragic lesson of Spain's Civil War, proving ground for today's holocaust, and carrying in its small compass, the contradictions, the human frailties, the heroism and idealism and shortcomings. In retrospect the thread of the story itself is slight. Three days, during which time a young American, a professor who has taken his Sabbatical year from the University of Montana to play his part in the struggle for Loyalist Spain and democracy. He is sent to a guerilla camp of partisans within the Fascist lines to blow up a strategic bridge. His is a complex problem in humanity, a group of undisciplined, unorganized natives, emotionally geared to go their own way, while he has a job that demands unreasoning, unwavering obedience. He falls in love with a lovely refugee girl, escaping the terrors of a fascist imprisonment, and their romance is sharply etched against a gruesome background. It is a searing book; Hemingway has done more to dramatize the Spanish War than any amount of abstract declamation. Yet he has done it through revealing the pettinesses, the indignities, the jealousies, the cruelties on both sides, never glorifying simply presenting starkly the belief in the principles for which these people fought a hopeless war, to give the rest of the world an interval to prepare. There is something of the implacable logic of Verdun in the telling. It's not a book for the thin-skinned; it has more than its fill of obscenities and the style is clipped and almost too elliptical for clarity at times. But it is a book that repays one for bleak moments of unpleasantness.

Pub Date: Oct. 21, 1940

ISBN: 0684803356

Page Count: 484

Publisher: Scribner

Review Posted Online: Oct. 7, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 1, 1940

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