A fine collection of stories.

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LADIES AND GENTLEMEN

STORIES

Following his dazzling debut, Ross drops seven more doses of disquieting fears and misleading hopes.

Having established his penchant for head-turning narrative architecture in his much-lauded first novel, Ross (Mr. Peanut, 2010) wrings bleakly funny, if somewhat panicky moments out of this fierce collection of short stories. The opener, “Futures,” drills straight down into the collective discomfort of the American middle class. A man dressed in his best suit tries desperately to hide his anxiety moments before a job interview, fantasizing that his interviewer might just be an attractive woman with a job offer to save his life. His cynicism is tempered, a little, by his affection for his neighbor and her troubled son. But as with most things in America, the wish granted is a far cry from the wish envisioned. In “The Rest of It,” a small-minded professor’s run-in with an aggressive maintenance man turns his thoughts to the human condition. “Because the world seemed too wide, its fortunes too random, and its blessings too fleeting to honor one man’s bravery—or to punish his cowardice,” Ross writes. A remembered tale of college hijinks ends with an awful blow in “The Suicide Room,” while “When In Rome” details the consequences of a long-standing rivalry between two brothers, one a citizen of sorts and the other your basic lowlife. One of Ross’ great strengths is walking that eternally fine line between showing the reader things—a bloody fistfight between brothers, or a Twilight Zone-esque reveal—and the heartbeat monitoring of a character’s internal life. The latter comes into play in the finely honed title story, in which a traveling freelance writer weighs a life-changing moment against the stories she might tell a stranger someday about that very decision. In those moments, these characters are either untethered by their own vividness or weighed down with all the trouble in the world. In either case, it’s impossible to look away.

A fine collection of stories.

Pub Date: June 30, 2011

ISBN: 978-0-3072-7071-9

Page Count: 288

Publisher: Knopf

Review Posted Online: April 18, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 1, 2011

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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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Visionary speculative stories that will change the way readers see themselves and the world around them: This book delivers...

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EXHALATION

Exploring humankind's place in the universe and the nature of humanity, many of the stories in this stellar collection focus on how technological advances can impact humanity’s evolutionary journey.

Chiang's (Stories of Your Life and Others, 2002) second collection begins with an instant classic, “The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate,” which won Hugo and Nebula awards for Best Novelette in 2008. A time-travel fantasy set largely in ancient Baghdad, the story follows fabric merchant Fuwaad ibn Abbas after he meets an alchemist who has crafted what is essentially a time portal. After hearing life-changing stories about others who have used the portal, he decides to go back in time to try to right a terrible wrong—and realizes, too late, that nothing can erase the past. Other standout selections include “The Lifecycle of Software Objects,” a story about a software tester who, over the course of a decade, struggles to keep a sentient digital entity alive; “The Great Silence,” which brilliantly questions the theory that humankind is the only intelligent race in the universe; and “Dacey’s Patent Automatic Nanny,” which chronicles the consequences of machines raising human children. But arguably the most profound story is "Exhalation" (which won the 2009 Hugo Award for Best Short Story), a heart-rending message and warning from a scientist of a highly advanced, but now extinct, race of mechanical beings from another universe. Although the being theorizes that all life will die when the universes reach “equilibrium,” its parting advice will resonate with everyone: “Contemplate the marvel that is existence, and rejoice that you are able to do so.”

Visionary speculative stories that will change the way readers see themselves and the world around them: This book delivers in a big way.

Pub Date: May 8, 2019

ISBN: 978-1-101-94788-3

Page Count: 368

Publisher: Knopf

Review Posted Online: Feb. 17, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 1, 2019

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