The author’s trademark gifts—vivid, economical characterizations, distinctive voices, fierce intelligence—are evident on...




Another fine collection from short-fiction master McCorkle (Creatures of Habit, 2001, etc.), in a very dark mood indeed.

The title story sets the tone, limning the constricted life of a woman who stays home with her dying mother while her selfish married sisters patronize her as they always have. Debby was the unusual one who “dated people of different colors” and wore white shoes after Labor Day; now she’s trapped by her own niceness and can only dream, “Pack a bag. Pull the plug. Take your turn.” Death is a frequent visitor here. The sexy, can’t-pin-him-down boyfriend in “Driving to the Moon” lost his parents in a plane crash at 17 and flits in and out of the narrator’s life after high school, phoning whenever there’s an air disaster. The living cling to the dead in “Another Dimension,” the saddest piece. After their mother dies, 11-year-old Jimmy and eight-year-old Ann sabotage their father’s happiness with a kind waitress; Jimmy can’t tolerate her low-class ways, and Ann goes along, even though she’s drawn to the woman’s warmth. In the framing narrative, we see the adult siblings unable to sustain loving relationships, while the spurned waitress is a contented grandmother. Only the ultrasarcastic “PS,” a woman’s post-divorce letter to the marriage counselor who didn’t help, provides a welcome dose of McCorkle’s tart humor, and it’s extra tart here. (“I suspect being bored and having your mind wander during marriage counseling is not a good sign.”) “Magic Words” is downright scary, as a woman heading toward a first-time adulterous tryst is stymied by a girl fleeing her gang’s spookily angry “leader,” who is terrorizing their retired math teacher. The lone tender note is struck in “Intervention,” about a woman comforting her alcoholic husband because he forgave her an affair and her own drunkenness.

The author’s trademark gifts—vivid, economical characterizations, distinctive voices, fierce intelligence—are evident on every page. Now let’s hope she cheers up a little next time.

Pub Date: Sept. 22, 2009

ISBN: 978-1-56512-632-9

Page Count: 272

Publisher: Algonquin

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 1, 2009

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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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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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