An intense and button-pushing collection.

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TALES

A clutch of early stories from the poet, playwright, and provocateur, infused with jazz and informed by racial alienation.

First published in 1967, this debut story collection by Baraka (1934-2014) displays his roots in the Beat movement: run-on sentences abound, as do observations of smoky clubs and hipster friends. (“I had a little cup full of wine a murderer friend of mine made me drink, so I drank it and tossed the cup in the air, then fell in line behind the last wild horn man.”) But it’s also evident that Baraka was eager to break out on his own and find a style and theme that reflected his particular sense of African-American life. On that front, these stories are best read as experiments in how to convey conflicting moods: by turns his style is satirical (black college students mock a professor who insists “we are white and featureless under this roof”), vengeful (in “Unfinished,” a character fantasizes about strangling a Southern governor), or philosophically resigned (“reality was something I was convinced I could not have”). Baraka’s prose, often loose and abstracted, sometimes gets over on sheer energy—“The Screamers,” set in a jazz joint, ends in a run-on crescendo of racial violence spilling out onto the streets. But he could make a story work in a more conventional and muted form, as in “Going Down Slow,” in which a man’s jealousy over his wife’s affair prompts a violent act. Alas, there are also glimpses of the casual homophobia that, along with his anti-Semitic remarks, would in time make Baraka a lightning rod and a relatively isolated literary figure. Those retrograde intonations make many stories feel dated. But the book is worth reading to see the way he feverishly tinkered with ways to explore a multiplicity of black experiences.

An intense and button-pushing collection.

Pub Date: Jan. 5, 2016

ISBN: 978-1-61775-395-4

Page Count: 150

Publisher: Akashic

Review Posted Online: Oct. 22, 2015

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 1, 2015

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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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