There are ghosts, too. At least, they seem like ghosts. Maybe they’re just wacky neighbors.

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MOVIE STARS

This collection of droll, wicked, and sometimes painfully funny stories, pastiches, and comic interludes could more appropriately have been titled something like “Stellar Screw-Ups On Parade.”

What’s also stellar is the manner in which Pendarvis, who has minted tales of the marginal, the weird, the hapless in such previous collections as Your Body is Changing (2007), somehow manages to be both caustic and compassionate in depicting his fumbling, comic characters. With most of these stories, he discloses how the movies, both in their myth and their melodrama, irradiate otherwise mundane or confused lives. In “Cancel My Reservation,” whose title is borrowed from a 1972 comedy that turned out to be Bob Hope’s last theatrical film, a small-town fellow who doesn’t seem to get out much decides he’s going to fly first class to Los Angeles to bid at an auction of Hope’s memorabilia. “They gave Chuck paddle 187, police code for murder,” the story relates in the sardonic tone that prevails over most of these tales. Chuck’s not exactly sure why he’s there beyond some impulse to snag an artifact for a friend who likes Hope. All one can safely say without spoiling things is that whenever you arrive in a strange place with no real direction, somebody will point you somewhere anyway, whether you like it or not. Similar unpleasant surprises happen to the sad-sack protagonist of “Jerry Lewis,” in which his search for a missing cat yields the realization that “he was happy being miserable. He was happy that living in Mississippi would give him a great excuse to be a failure.” Oh, and why is it called “Jerry Lewis?” Something to do with an open box of doughnuts, but that would be telling too much. And, as one might expect from such a collection, there’s a story called “Your Cat Can Be a Movie Star!,” in which another deluded dreamer seems to be one of those souls upon whom everything is lost. Such bleak hilarity may not be to everybody’s liking. But for those who have a taste for smoke-cured Southern droll, Pendarvis is among the more satisfying, laugh-out-loud absurdists a post-Millennial reader can ask for.

There are ghosts, too. At least, they seem like ghosts. Maybe they’re just wacky neighbors.

Pub Date: April 12, 2016

ISBN: 978-1-938103-45-2

Page Count: 184

Publisher: Dzanc

Review Posted Online: Jan. 21, 2016

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1, 2016

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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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