Careful and poignant, and mercifully short on melodrama.

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THE FIRST HURT

STORIES

Tales of domestic dysfunction fill this debut collection from Sherman, who has a knack for capturing folks at their most fragile.

Most of Sherman’s stories center on teens and 20-somethings for whom matters of sex and even companionship are brand-new and baffling. If Sherman were a photographer, she’d be a paparazzo exposing people’s most desperately concealed flaws. But unlike a cold soul with a zoom lens, the author renders her subjects clearly and empathetically, and her airy, poetic prose is a perfect match for the brittle environments she describes. Sarah, the protagonist in “The Neutered Bulldog,” grows increasingly involved in the secret affairs of one of her high-school teachers, one of which is with a student; the story elegantly tracks Sarah’s emotional somersaults, from shock to fear to a sort of smirking understanding of how sex shapes her world. But other characters aren’t quite lucky enough to reach such moments of revelation. The teenage girl in “The Reaper” can’t believe that her soldier pen-pal is more interested in seeing her naked than reading about the great time she had bowling; in “Keeping Time,” a young girl becomes an unwitting victim of the neurotic relationship between two of her camp counselors. The mood of the book is downcast, but Sherman’s prose never becomes melodramatically glum or tedious. Her melodic style, rife with dream imagery, gives these stories a lift—her deceptively revealing dialogue and direct sentences lay her characters bare but never pummel them. She’ll fall into the occasionally clichéd archetype or clumsy experiment, as she does in “Homestay,” an attempt to describe a Danish au pair’s life through supposed notes written by her young charge, but the successes more than outweigh the failures.

Careful and poignant, and mercifully short on melodrama.

Pub Date: May 10, 2006

ISBN: 1-890447-41-2

Page Count: 160

Publisher: Open City

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 15, 2006

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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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