You have to play the hand you’re dealt, these bitter fictions imply. And Cox's worst-case scenarios read just like that:...

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BARGAINS IN THE REAL WORLD

THIRTEEN STORIES

Three-time novelist Cox (Night Talk, 1997, etc.) offers 13 stories with familiar Southern Gothic topics—child abuse, brain damage, race relations, absent fathers, fate, and free will—but her undistinguished prose adds little to the litanies of woe.

One particularly unconvincing piece, “Old Court,” set in Mississippi after the Civil War, finds a widowed mother and her teenaged son defending their remote farm from drunken intruders. Though the father here died in an accident, the other men in these somber tales disappear for all sorts of reasons: the father in “Stolen” commits suicide, leaving his troubled son with only one friend, the local junk-dealer; “Biology” shows a 15-year-old whose father has left home transferring her need for affection to an itinerant preacher who seduces her before leaving town; Dad’s dead in “Washed,” and his widow’s warnings against men have no effect on their daughter, who falls heavily for a soldier stationed near town. On a happier note, “O Tannenbaum!” takes two kids whose parents are separating to spend Christmas with their uncle’s family, where they witness the true spirit of the holiday. However badly off some of Cox’s characters seem, her stories often suggest that things could be worse: two follow the sad lives of retarded boys, one loved by his long-suffering parents, the other protected by a kind doctor. At the extreme, in “The Third of July,” an unhappy housewife plans to run away from home until she comes across a horrible auto accident during her escape. Similarly, the young boy in the title story, whose parents are divorced, thinks his life stinks until he helps out a friend who lost his entire family in a car wreck. A particularly creepy tale, “The Last Fourth Grade,” intimates that its narrator in her youth actually encouraged the attentions of her teacher’s husband, a degenerate child-molester.

You have to play the hand you’re dealt, these bitter fictions imply. And Cox's worst-case scenarios read just like that: sententious life lessons with little art.

Pub Date: March 9, 2001

ISBN: 0-679-46329-1

Page Count: 272

Publisher: Random House

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 1, 2001

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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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