Mason has written some fine novels, in particular In Country (1985) and Feather Crowns (1993), but the short-story form has...

NANCY CULPEPPER

STORIES

Four previously published stories, a novella and two new tales follow the author’s semi-autobiographical heroine in an uneasy back-and-forth between her native Kentucky and the wider world.

Like her creator, Nancy Culpepper is a farm girl who went to graduate school up north, married a non-Kentuckian and stayed away, without ever being able to much loosen the tenacious bonds that held her to her parents and her country roots. In modest, unassuming prose studded with simple, revelatory details, Mason (An Atomic Romance, 2005, etc.) traces Nancy’s odyssey over a quarter-century as her grandmother dies (“Blue Country”), her mother is treated for breast cancer (“Spence Lila”) and Nancy separates briefly from her husband (“Proper Gypsies”), sells the family farm (“The Heirs”) and learns she is going to be a grandmother (“The Prelude”). Son Robert is only a shadowy presence, and although Nancy’s fraught marriage to photographer Jack is subtly delineated, that too never has quite the emotional force as her relationship with her kin and her past. Mason writes with quiet authority about that most unfashionable of American subjects, class differences; we see that Nancy has always been the unusual one in her family, the one with her nose stuck in a book, “meant to use her mind.” But she never feels entirely at home among northern intellectuals, and we see that some of the problems in her marriage stem from Jack’s frustration with her overriding commitment to her birth family. Yet, as Nancy acknowledges in “The Heirs,” “she had gone away and not shared her life with them, except in her imagination.” This story and “The Prelude” remind us that such divided loyalties are the lot of every artist, no matter what her origins.

Mason has written some fine novels, in particular In Country (1985) and Feather Crowns (1993), but the short-story form has always seemed especially congenial to her; there’s hardly a wasted word or a sloppy sentence in this quiet, gently moving collection.

Pub Date: July 18, 2006

ISBN: 0-375-50718-3

Page Count: 240

Publisher: Random House

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 1, 2006

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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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Old-fashioned short fiction: honest, probing and moving.

A PERMANENT MEMBER OF THE FAMILY

One of America’s great novelists (Lost Memory of Skin, 2011, etc.) also writes excellent stories, as his sixth collection reminds readers.

Don’t expect atmospheric mood poems or avant-garde stylistic games in these dozen tales. Banks is a traditionalist, interested in narrative and character development; his simple, flexible prose doesn’t call attention to itself as it serves those aims. The intricate, not necessarily permanent bonds of family are a central concern. The bleak, stoic “Former Marine” depicts an aging father driven to extremes because he’s too proud to admit to his adult sons that he can no longer take care of himself. In the heartbreaking title story, the death of a beloved dog signals the final rupture in a family already rent by divorce. Fraught marriages in all their variety are unsparingly scrutinized in “Christmas Party,” Big Dog” and “The Outer Banks." But as the collection moves along, interactions with strangers begin to occupy center stage. The protagonist of “The Invisible Parrot” transcends the anxieties of his hard-pressed life through an impromptu act of generosity to a junkie. A man waiting in an airport bar is the uneasy recipient of confidences about “Searching for Veronica” from a woman whose truthfulness and motives he begins to suspect, until he flees since “the only safe response is to quarantine yourself.” Lurking menace that erupts into violence features in many Banks novels, and here, it provides jarring climaxes to two otherwise solid stories, “Blue” and “The Green Door.” Yet Banks quietly conveys compassion for even the darkest of his characters. Many of them (like their author) are older, at a point in life where options narrow and the future is uncomfortably close at hand—which is why widowed Isabel’s fearless shucking of her confining past is so exhilarating in “SnowBirds,” albeit counterbalanced by her friend Jane’s bleak acceptance of her own limited prospects.

Old-fashioned short fiction: honest, probing and moving.

Pub Date: Nov. 12, 2013

ISBN: 978-0-06-185765-2

Page Count: 304

Publisher: Ecco/HarperCollins

Review Posted Online: Sept. 1, 2013

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 15, 2013

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