ST. CHRISTOPHER ON PLUTO

A kind and earnest debut collection of connected stories set in blue-collar northeastern Pennsylvania.

MK and Colleen, former classmates at Our Lady of Perpetual Help Elementary School, reconnect as middle-aged women, both working retail jobs in a mall that’s just months away from closing its doors. From the outside, they seem to live just on the edge of despair and economic ruin, except both have too much moxie. In "St. Christopher on Pluto," for example, Colleen entangles MK in a plot to ditch Colleen's car by the Susquehanna River for insurance money. While MK lectures Colleen on committing fraud, Colleen wisecracks and tells MK to lighten up. That's the setup of many of McKinley's stories: Bighearted, redheaded Colleen has a scheme (or a volunteer gig), and she wheedles practical MK, often the narrator, into coming along. These slice-of-life stories touch upon social issues on the verge of fracturing already economically stressed, conservative communities: immigration, America's never-ending post–9/11 wars, the HIV epidemic, drug addiction, and the disappearance of good blue-collar jobs. In "Complicado," Colleen volunteers to photograph an ESL class graduation, but it turns out the women don't want their pictures taken for fear of becoming the target of a rising tide of jingoism. Once she understands, Colleen yanks the film from her camera, and the party ends with the church organist's offering her accordion to a young Mexican man, "the Latin sounds creat[ing] fusion in a room steeped with polka fests." While we yearn for such happy endings in life, they can seem a bit treacly in fiction. When McKinley resists the lure of “Kumbayah” moments, she delivers emotionally devastating stories about how places with bleak economic futures hurt good, ordinary people—as well as how such people quietly craft lives full of intangible bounty.

Warm, generous stories.

Pub Date: Feb. 1, 2020

ISBN: 978-1-949199-26-0

Page Count: 228

Publisher: West Virginia Univ. Press

Review Posted Online: Nov. 25, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 15, 2019

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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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