A strong appetite for Southern shtick (if not for gruel itself) might enhance readers’ appreciation for the down-home whimsy...

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DROWNING IN GRUEL

From South Carolina writer Singleton (Novel, 2005, etc.), a collection of 19 reprinted stories, some of them suffering from a slight case of the cutes.

The fictional hamlet of Gruel is one of those towns that time forgot, though it attempts various scams to attract tourists and boasts Victorian houses that speculators can buy for about five percent of what they would cost elsewhere. While some characters reappear from one story to another and keep showing up at the same old places, particularly Gruel BBQ and Roughhouse Billiards, there’s a surprising amount of mobility in this South Carolina town. Strangers find themselves drawn here for inexplicable reasons (or Victorian houses), while natives who left and vowed never to return somehow make their way back. Many of the characters have more education than the stereotypical small-town rube; a surprising number either work or have worked in academe (Singleton is a writing teacher). Thus, for every story like “Runt,” which depicts Sister the Wonder Dog and her record-setting litter of 24, there’s one like “The Novels of Raymond Carver,” which involves a made-up course on the noted short-story writer’s made-up book-length fiction. The guy who sells gas masks as the perfect Valentine’s Day present to protect the one you love in “Snipers” is balanced by the heart-attack victim who cuts a swathe through his neighbors’ backyards on a power lawnmower in “John Cheever, Rest in Peace,” a sardonic riff on “The Swimmer.” Perhaps the best story here is “Soldiers in Gruel,” which features an overeducated Northern woman who brings her brand of conceptual art to the annual car show and finds a deeper meaning than her schooling could ever have provided.

A strong appetite for Southern shtick (if not for gruel itself) might enhance readers’ appreciation for the down-home whimsy of these tales.

Pub Date: June 5, 2006

ISBN: 0-15-603061-6

Page Count: 320

Publisher: Harvest/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 1, 2006

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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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