Although her material can be macabre, mawkish and deeply unsettling, Oates' hypnotic prose ensures that readers will be...

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BLACK DAHLIA & WHITE ROSE

STORIES

Another gallery of grotesquerie from the staggeringly prolific Oates.

This latest collection of Oates’ previously published short stories (the sheer range of venues, from Playboy to Ellery Queen, The New Yorker to video game-inspired e-fiction is an indication of her vast reach) showcases her talent for imbuing mundane events with menace and the kind of irony that springs from narrow brushes with disaster. Thus, in the title story, the depraved serial killer of a Hollywood pinup model known as Black Dahlia could, but for circumstance, just as easily have targeted the starlet who would become Marilyn Monroe. Protagonists are drawn, with equal authority, from the underclass and the self-satisfied professional class. In “I.D.,” a pre-adolescent whose single mother has left her alone for days desperately clings to normalcy even as she’s being called out of class, possibly to identify her mother’s body. In two stories, “Roma!” and “Spotted Hyenas: A Romance,” middle-aged women married to prominent, uncommunicative men act out in diverse ways, from a frightening foray down Rome’s back alleys to a walk on the wild side as a were-hyena. (“A Brutal Murder in a Public Place” is a more contrived attempt at human/animal identification.) Narrators can be so subtly unreliable as to force readers to question their own perceptions. In “Deceit,” a mother summoned to discuss her child’s possible abuse may be the perpetrator—her memory has been ravaged by anti-anxiety meds. The divorced father in “Run Kiss Daddy,” attempting to start again with a new family in a favorite vacation spot, uncovers evidence of a long-ago crime that could be his own. A young woman who finds a wallet on a train injects herself capriciously and dangerously into a family of strangers. The linked stories “San Quentin” and “Anniversary” cover the excruciating discomfort—and unmistakable voyeurism—of well-meaning individuals teaching in maximum security prisons. 

Although her material can be macabre, mawkish and deeply unsettling, Oates' hypnotic prose ensures that readers will be unable to look away.

Pub Date: Sept. 1, 2012

ISBN: 978-0-06-219569-2

Page Count: 288

Publisher: Ecco/HarperCollins

Review Posted Online: Aug. 3, 2012

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 15, 2012

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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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