These stories feel like portraits of lives scaled down to pivotal moments, but together they form a mural of humanity in...

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THE EXIT COACH

A novella and six short stories each find people on the brink of change.

Staffel (Lessons in Another Language, 2010) is not gentle with her characters. “Leaving the Meadows” follows a man as he moves his mother from an assisted living facility to a space that can better accommodate her changing needs, while he’s also distracted by a problem at work. More than one story builds upon confrontations between women: the woman who refuses to help a friend in “Arrogance” immediately questions the impulse, but Lana in “Three Rivers” ends a relationship that has become a financial burden and ends up finding a moment of human connection. Fairly routine activities have a polished truth about them in these stories; the couple at the heart of “Mischief” are a massage therapist and school superintendent, and glimpses into their work lives and daily concerns generate empathy for the things they do without telling one another (including the adoption of the titular goat). The Exit Coach, a novella, runs on change and self-discovery. Marilyn changes her name to Ava to establish distance from her burlesque dancer–turned–MTA driver mother, Cleopatra, and takes a job caring for an elderly man that leads her in loop after loop back to where she came from. The description of the health care job and the way Ava is slyly drafted into a performing arts career that draws on her mother’s brassiness exudes grit with a dash of glamour; it’s easy to get absorbed in the world of creating a show, having it succeed, and dealing with the ego flare-ups that ensue. Ava’s triumph is that she doesn’t make one defining change but keeps adapting to circumstances until she begins to feel her own will at the heart of her decisions, and it’s a pleasure to share in.

These stories feel like portraits of lives scaled down to pivotal moments, but together they form a mural of humanity in common.

Pub Date: Sept. 20, 2016

ISBN: 978-1-935536-80-2

Page Count: 169

Publisher: Four Way

Review Posted Online: July 31, 2016

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 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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