THE LOWEST BLUE FLAME BEFORE NOTHING

SHORT STORIES

If Candace Bushnell had settled in Park Slope or Ann Arbor instead of Manhattan, Stapleton might have got herself a plagiarism suit. But as things turned out, this debut collection about young women trying to strike off on their own won its author the 1998 Columbia Journal fiction prize instead. Workshop prose can have a stultifying effect on the writer as well as the reader, and all the pieces here display that obsessive attention to voice at the expense of plot that one can only pick up in a classroom. To begin with, nearly every piece is a portrait rather than a story. The title one, for example, describes in pointlessly ominous detail a girl’s decision to defy her family and go out on a date with a neighborhood tough. The resolution (the girl becomes pregnant and dies) is only hinted at, and in a way that adds more confusion than depth overall. Similarly, “The Middle of October” tells of an unpleasant first date—one that goes sour when the boy’s mentally disturbed twin sister wanders in. The waitress of “The Great Artist,” who has recently settled in New York, dates a succession of bad men, while the child-care worker of “No Such Absolute” finds herself equally unable to connect (“Ana felt everyone was right when they said there are two kinds of men in the world”). The longest piece is “Pure Impending Glory,” which describes the slow coming of age of a woman from a poor family who goes to good schools, studies hard, and eventually becomes a college professor. Journeyman work of considerable talent but no originality whatsoever. If Stapleton can find a way of matching her imagination to her prose, she—ll have a good future ahead of her. But there’s no sign of that here.

Pub Date: Oct. 1, 1998

ISBN: 1-879960-54-0

Page Count: 208

Publisher: N/A

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 1, 1998

Did you like this book?

No Comments Yet

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

Did you like this book?

No Comments Yet

Visionary speculative stories that will change the way readers see themselves and the world around them: This book delivers...

Our Verdict

  • Our Verdict
  • GET IT

  • Kirkus Reviews'
    Best Books Of 2019

  • New York Times Bestseller

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

Did you like this book?

No Comments Yet
more