Distinctive, quirky stories that deftly capture some of life’s messiness.

FUNNY ONCE

STORIES

In her immersive new collection of nine stories and a novella, Nelson (Bound, 2010, etc.), a much lauded novelist and short story writer, introduces not-always-happy or well-behaved protagonists who make questionable choices.

Ex-boyfriends and -girlfriends, stepchildren from dead marriages and former in-laws crop up in the present, affecting the status quo. In “Soldier’s Joy,” a woman who married her college professor goes home years later to help her injured father and rediscovers the attraction of an old boyfriend, whose rejection of her in the past is about to haunt her anew. A rich example of Nelson’s ability to conjure a fully peopled scenario in only 20 pages, “iff” reveals the poignantly interdependent relationship between a divorced woman and her ex–mother-in-law. Lovey in “First Husband” comes to the aid of her needy former stepdaughter—tending her children, accepting her manipulation—while considering different kinds of married love. These stories are set in scattered cities—Albuquerque, Houston, Telluride, Chicago—and focus on everyday families dealing with long-resonant emotions. While irony pervades many of them, a streak of despair runs through several, and suicide is touched on softly but repeatedly: in “iff”; in “The Village,” whose central character, Darcy, finds herself paying tribute to her father’s mistress, who rescued her once; and in “Winter in Yalta,” where a 30-year friendship unravels during a reunion weekend in New York. Nelson’s central characters can sometimes seem interchangeable: Mostly they are not-so-young women bruised by love, by leaving or being left, whether through death, divorce or dementia. But others—like Phoebe, the badly behaved woman of the title story, whose hair catches fire—are uniquely memorable.

Distinctive, quirky stories that deftly capture some of life’s messiness.

Pub Date: May 20, 2014

ISBN: 978-1-62040-861-2

Page Count: 304

Publisher: Bloomsbury

Review Posted Online: May 7, 2014

Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 15, 2014

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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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