LAND OF BIG NUMBERS

STORIES

Chen’s stories are both subtle and rich, moving and wry, and in their poignancy, they seem boundless.

An astonishing collection of stories about life in contemporary China by a Chinese American writer.

Chen, a reporter for the Wall Street Journal, has an eye for the wry, poignant detail in her fiction debut: Elderly men who meet in the park to play chess bring their pet birds along, hanging the birdcages from tree branches while they play. Most of the stories are set in China. In one, a young girl who works in a flower shop becomes dangerously interested in one of her customers. In another, an older man in a remote village tries to build a robot and, later, an airplane. Whether her characters are women or men, young or old, Chen displays a remarkable ability to inhabit their minds. She is gentle and understanding with her characters so that their choices, desires, and regrets open up, petal-like, in story after story. Often, in the background or off to the side, a hint of violence will make itself known: A young man’s twin sister is arrested and beaten by the police; a woman’s abusive ex-boyfriend appears without warning, and she remembers his old penchant for harming animals. A young man borrows money to invest in the stock market, and as his hopes begin to plummet, he learns the details of his father’s traumatic past. Again and again, Chen reveals herself to be a writer of extraordinary subtlety. Details accrue one by one, and as each story reaches its inevitable conclusion, a sense emerges that things could have gone no other way. Still, there’s nothing precious or overly neat here. Chen’s stories speak to both the granular mundanities of her characters’ lives and to the larger cultural, historical, and economic spheres that they inhabit. She is a tremendous talent.

Chen’s stories are both subtle and rich, moving and wry, and in their poignancy, they seem boundless.

Pub Date: Feb. 2, 2021

ISBN: 978-0-358-27255-7

Page Count: 256

Publisher: Mariner Books

Review Posted Online: Feb. 4, 2021

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 1, 2021

Categories:

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

Categories:

THE AWKWARD BLACK MAN

The range and virtuosity of these stories make this Mosley’s most adventurous and, maybe, best book.

A grandmaster of the hard-boiled crime genre shifts gears to spin bittersweet and, at times, bizarre tales about bruised, sensitive souls in love and trouble.

In one of the 17 stories that make up this collection, a supporting character says: “People are so afraid of dying that they don’t even live the little bit of life they have.” She casually drops this gnomic observation as a way of breaking down a lead character’s resistance to smoking a cigarette. But her aphorism could apply to almost all the eponymous awkward Black men examined with dry wit and deep empathy by the versatile and prolific Mosley, who takes one of his occasional departures from detective fiction to illuminate the many ways Black men confound society’s expectations and even perplex themselves. There is, for instance, Rufus Coombs, the mailroom messenger in “Pet Fly,” who connects more easily with household pests than he does with the women who work in his building. Or Albert Roundhouse, of “Almost Alyce,” who loses the love of his life and falls into a welter of alcohol, vagrancy, and, ultimately, enlightenment. Perhaps most alienated of all is Michael Trey in “Between Storms,” who locks himself in his New York City apartment after being traumatized by a major storm and finds himself taken by the outside world as a prophet—not of doom, but, maybe, peace? Not all these awkward types are hapless or benign: The short, shy surgeon in “Cut, Cut, Cut” turns out to be something like a mad scientist out of H.G. Wells while “Showdown on the Hudson” is a saga about an authentic Black cowboy from Texas who’s not exactly a perfect fit for New York City but is soon compelled to do the right thing, Western-style. The tough-minded and tenderly observant Mosley style remains constant throughout these stories even as they display varied approaches from the gothic to the surreal.

The range and virtuosity of these stories make this Mosley’s most adventurous and, maybe, best book.

Pub Date: Sept. 15, 2020

ISBN: 978-0-8021-4956-5

Page Count: 336

Publisher: Grove

Review Posted Online: Sept. 1, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 15, 2020

Close Quickview