GETTING IT IN THE HEAD

STORIES

A creepier, more macabre side of Ireland is revealed in the 16 stories here, an arresting, prizewinning debut collection from McCormack in which axes, knives, and transgressive acts figure prominently. The lead story, “The Gospel of Knives,” sets the tone for what follows, as a female hawker of knives persuades a young man, none too gently, that she has goods he can’t do without. One of the few other female characters appears in “The Stained Glass Violations,— in which a librarian sitting on a park bench during her lunch break meets a retired circus freak, a glass-eater, and soon finds herself drawn into an act of glass-eating that sparks what may be a miracle. A transformation of a grimmer kind (in —The Angel of Ruin—) is worked on a sallow Irish youth in the US who’s been hired to help demolish a dangerously contaminated industrial site. Other forms of unsavory change involve a sculptor who makes the ultimate sacrifice for his art (“Thomas Crumlesh 1960—1992: A Retrospective—), chopping himself up over the years with the help of a whacked-out surgeon, who finally cuts off the artist’s head and bleaches it according to his instructions for the Documenta, an avant garde art show in Germany. The title story features a pair of brothers, the younger brilliant and deeply twisted (he laughs while reading about the plague and other human disasters), the older a dark-haired drunk with a temper. They loathe each other, but when the brainy one sets off a homemade explosive that kills his best friend, the drunk’s instinct is to protect him—until goaded to the point where a baser instinct takes over. Comparisons to Poe are apt, and while shocks here on occasion seem only stunts, there’s no denying McCormack’s knack for throwing a harsh light on some of life’s grimmer corners. Disturbing, audacious work.

Pub Date: May 1, 1998

ISBN: 0-8050-5371-9

Page Count: 232

Publisher: Henry Holt

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 1, 1998

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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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