Uneven in execution, but permeated with a mature understanding that our lives are an accumulation of moments—and we live...

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CREATURES OF HABIT

STORIES

In her third story volume, McCorkle (Final Vinyl Days, 1998, etc.) again demonstrates that there’s room to grow in New Southern fiction as she explores various stages of human existence with emphasis on our kinship with animals.

It’s the narrative voice that distinguishes this North Carolina–born author from her less accomplished regional peers. McCorkle’s prose is contemporary without annoying K-Mart modernism, cognizant of her characters’ quirks without making them gothic freaks. Only the ubiquitous animal metaphors are occasionally strained, though they work brilliantly in the best pieces. “Billy Goats” ponders human vulnerability and male cruelty as the adult narrator recalls biking at dusk with other friends “too old for kick the can and too young to make out,” vowing never to be like the disappointed, depressed adults in their small hometown. (Scattered references pinpoint McCorkle’s habitual setting of Fulton, North Carolina.) “Hominids” is a scathing monologue by a 40ish wife sick to death of the dirty jokes and obsession with breasts of the men gathered for her husband’s annual golf weekend—readers can easily imagine the guys beating their chests and posturing for fellow gorillas. Not that the female characters are perfect: “If I were a dog I would have been put down by now,” boasts the angry, self-isolated narrator of “Dogs,” and the dead mother in “Toads” is revealed to have stifled two husbands with her insistence on being a depressed victim. Some of the best stories in the collection, which follows the arc of a lifespan, concern the elderly. Strongest of all is “Turtles,” a searing portrait of life in a nursing home and the slow, agonizing loss of mental and physical faculties. Though McCorkle deals uncompromisingly with often grim material, there’s still plenty of tough-minded humor and an elegiac tenderness for happiness past, struggles long ago won or lost, our perennial yearning for love.

Uneven in execution, but permeated with a mature understanding that our lives are an accumulation of moments—and we live most fully when we slow down to savor or recollect them.

Pub Date: Oct. 12, 2001

ISBN: 1-56512-256-9

Page Count: 256

Publisher: Algonquin

Review Posted Online: June 24, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 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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