Watson consistently delivers that elusive element great Southern writers have always brought to the table—a delicious sense...

ALIENS IN THE PRIME OF THEIR LIVES

STORIES

Domestic dramas, failed marriages, gunshots in the night and a dash of alien intrigue punctuate a collection of gothic tales.

Returning to the pungent stories that represent his best work, National Book Award finalist Watson (The Heaven of Mercury, 2002, etc.) reaches new creative heights with some pieces and falls prey to literary navel-gazing in others. Fortunately, great works outnumber baffling ones in this mostly splendid collection. The first story, “Vacuum,” paints childhood not as we remember it but in its mad flush of abandon, as three boys get into trouble when their overworked mother reaches the end of her rope. Some entries are little more than snapshots, among them “The Misses Moses,” which profiles two spinster sisters, or “Terrible Argument,” which ends in self-inflicted gunfire. But when Watson is on his game, even the slightest tale carries narrative weight. That’s the case with one of the slimmest, “Fallen Nellie.” A beach girl sees her life pass before her eyes in seven pages of Watson’s sand-dry prose: “In this manner she tumbled through time all the way to the very end of it. Doesn’t matter which one did it to her, which gaptooth left her here in the palmettos beside the trail in the wildlife preserve along the beautiful white dunes of Bon Secour Beach. It was done.” There are some missteps. “Water Dog God” feels like a leftover from an earlier collection, and “Ordinary Monsters,” a confusing pastiche of flickering moments, is impenetrable. Elsewhere, though, the author focuses with Carver-like intensity on his characters’ lives; standouts include “Are You Mister Lonelee?” about a man who pretends his wife is dead when she’s really just a different woman now, as well as the time-bending, melancholy title story.

Watson consistently delivers that elusive element great Southern writers have always brought to the table—a delicious sense of the unexpected.

Pub Date: March 22, 2010

ISBN: 978-0-393-05711-9

Page Count: 272

Publisher: Norton

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 15, 2009

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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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