A powerful argument against selflessness, a treat for fans and a grand introduction for those new to the author’s curious...



A welcome showcase of short (or shortish) fiction by quirky comic master Self (Liver: A Fictional Organ with a Surface Anatomy of Four Lobes, 2009, etc.).

Eccentric and learned, Self, as Rick Moody points out in his introduction, is a keen student of language, adept at switching registers from East End Cockney to Sloane aspiration and Oxbridge pomposity. Indeed, it seems safe to say that not since Dickens has any English writer been so interested in English sounds and the improbabilities of English orthography, whence one setting called Inwardleigh and another somewhere along the “Edgware Road/Maida Vale hinterland.” Of course, Dickens would not have imagined a post-Kafkaesque correspondence between the bugs and other creepy-crawlies that dwell in a Suffolk cottage and its hapless owner: As they inform him, they don’t have much of a choice in the matter in this grim world, but instead enter “because in the normal course of things there is usually some carrion within which we can deposit our eggs,” to say nothing of the cleaning services they offer in this “flytopia.” Self sometimes operates on the edge of science fiction, but in a J.G. Ballard sort of way; he may write of “emotos” and “procros,” but at the same time he is interested in the all-too-human, in “vast vaginas” and acne so florid as to recall the “Grand Canyon at sunset.” Though seldom meta or self-referential, many an aspiring writer will recognize corners of Self’s imagined worlds, as when he puts one earnest creative-writing instructor inside a prison (“they may have all been sex offenders, but despite that they managed to exemplify the three commonest types of wannabe writer”) and proposes a new genre of writing called Motorway Verse, helped along by lashings of “kaolin and morphine.” Each story is a pleasure, and most are occasions to head to the dictionary or encyclopedia and learn a thing or two.

A powerful argument against selflessness, a treat for fans and a grand introduction for those new to the author’s curious view of the universe.

Pub Date: Nov. 1, 2010

ISBN: 978-1-59691-297-7

Page Count: 480

Publisher: Bloomsbury

Review Posted Online: Aug. 23, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 15, 2010

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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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Told through the points of view of the four Garcia sisters- Carla, Sandi, Yolanda and Sofia-this perceptive first novel by poet Alvarez tells of a wealthy family exiled from the Dominican Republic after a failed coup, and how the daughters come of age, weathering the cultural and class transitions from privileged Dominicans to New York Hispanic immigrants. Brought up under strict social mores, the move to the States provides the girls a welcome escape from the pampered, overbearingly protective society in which they were raised, although subjecting them to other types of discrimination. Each rises to the challenge in her own way, as do their parents, Mami (Laura) and Papi (Carlos). The novel unfolds back through time, a complete picture accruing gradually as a series of stories recounts various incidents, beginning with ``Antojos'' (roughly translated ``cravings''), about Yolanda's return to the island after an absence of five years. Against the advice of her relatives, who fear for the safety of a young woman traveling the countryside alone, Yolanda heads out in a borrowed car in pursuit of some guavas and returns with a renewed understanding of stringent class differences. ``The Kiss,'' one of Sofia's stories, tells how she, married against her father's wishes, tries to keep family ties open by visiting yearly on her father's birthday with her young son. And in ``Trespass,'' Carla finds herself the victim of ignorance and prejudice a year after the Garcias have arrived in America, culminating with a pervert trying to lure her into his car. In perhaps one of the most deft and magical stories, ``Still Lives,'' young Sandi has an extraordinary first art lesson and becomes the inspiration for a statue of the Virgin: ``Dona Charito took the lot of us native children in hand Saturday mornings nine to twelve to put Art into us like Jesus into the heathen.'' The tradition and safety of the Old World are just part of the tradeoff that comes with the freedom and choice in the New. Alvarez manages to bring to attention many of the issues-serious and light-that immigrant families face, portraying them with sensitivity and, at times, an enjoyable, mischievous sense.

Pub Date: May 1, 1991

ISBN: 0-945575-57-2

Page Count: 308

Publisher: Algonquin

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 15, 1991

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