A portrait of small-town residents grappling with the good and evil in and around them.

THE SOUND OF HOLDING YOUR BREATH

Fourteen stories peel back the lives of men and women in present-day Appalachia.

Much of Sypolt’s debut collection is set in a small town called Warm, “a place where no one cares if you live in a trailer,” which many of the characters do. The Golden Egg, a restaurant/bar, is a common landmark. Its frequent mentions across the book further establish the strong sense of setting that unifies the stories. Most residents have known one another since childhood, and neighbors witness each other’s tragedies. There is violence everywhere: drownings, domestic abuse, rape, murders, runaways and disappearances. All are told, however, with a similar quiet, retrospective tone. Sometimes, the tone clashes with the content. Narrators fail to describe the full urgency and intensity of a scene. They do acknowledge this: “There’s no way to tell it that doesn’t sound like a cliché,” Marianne says of her brother having shot and killed his wife. Elsewhere, hiding a body is compared to a movie: “The only way to go about it was to pretend it was a movie, and we were actors.” Even in “Lettuce,” a haunting story with a subtle, more emotional central conflict, the narrator notes that her life feels like “some melodramatic, made-for-TV movie.” Still, the book is full of powerful images—a tiny figure of Jesus set on fire in a church attic is just one example—and the questions characters are left with will haunt the reader, too.

A portrait of small-town residents grappling with the good and evil in and around them.

Pub Date: Nov. 1, 2018

ISBN: 978-1-946684-57-8

Page Count: 168

Publisher: West Virginia Univ. Press

Review Posted Online: Aug. 21, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 1, 2018

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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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