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

LAND OF BIG NUMBERS

STORIES

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/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

Review Posted Online: Feb. 5, 2021

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 1, 2021

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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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Taylor tackles a variety of taboos and articulates the comfortless sides of the soul, and it's thrilling to watch.

FILTHY ANIMALS

A story collection full of vital insight into murky human interactions.

Lionel, who animates several of the linked stories in this high-wire act of a collection, is a Black, queer graduate student at an unnamed Midwestern university—much like Wallace, the protagonist of Taylor’s Booker Prize–shortlisted debut novel, Real Life (2020). He studies pure math and is recovering from a suicide attempt. At a party, he mimics other grad students’ laughter because he doesn’t innately feel the social cues most people would. But Lionel isn’t devoid of emotion. In fact, the “feeling of falseness vibrating in his sinuses” from pretending to enjoy social events utterly wears him out. So when Lionel becomes involved with bisexual Charles and his girlfriend, Sophie, both of whom are studying dance, the frisson may be too much for him: “Some lives, Lionel thought, had to be ordinary or ugly or painful. Ending your life had to be on the table.” Other stories share this rueful, sepulchral cast of mind. In “Little Beast,” babysitter and private chef Sylvia knows that “the world can’t abide a raw woman.” In the title story, one character’s “favorite act of violence is to burn holes into people’s clothes when they aren’t looking.” The settings here are bleak—alienated suburbs; petty college campuses—and the mood unsparing. But the daring in these stories is bracing. Despite its accolades, Taylor’s debut novel could feel listless; this collection is a deeper achievement.

Taylor tackles a variety of taboos and articulates the comfortless sides of the soul, and it's thrilling to watch.

Pub Date: June 22, 2021

ISBN: 978-0-525-53891-2

Page Count: 288

Publisher: Riverhead

Review Posted Online: March 31, 2021

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 15, 2021

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