Not every story works, but Gay is an admirable risk-taker in her exploration of women’s lives and new ways to tell their...

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DIFFICULT WOMEN

A collection of stories unified in theme—the struggles of women claiming independence for themselves—but wide-ranging in conception and form.

The women who populate this collection from the novelist and essayist Gay (Bad Feminist, 2014, etc.) are targets for aggressions both micro and macro, from the black scholar in “North Country” who receives constant unwelcome advances and questions of “Are you from Detroit?” to the sisters brutally held in captivity while teenagers in the bracing and subtle “I Will Follow You.” Gay savvily navigates the ways circumstances of gender and class alter the abuses: “Florida” is a cross-section of the women in a wealthy development, from the aimless, neglected white housewives to the Latina fitness trainer who’s misunderstood by them. The men in these stories sometimes come across as caricatures, archetypal violent misogynist-bigots like the wealthy white man playing dress-up with hip-hop culture and stalking the student/stripper in “La Negra Blanca.” But again, Gay isn’t given to uniform indictments: “Bad Priest” is a surprisingly tender story about a priest and the woman he has an affair with, and “Break All the Way Down” is a nuanced study of a woman’s urge for pain in a relationship after the loss of her son. Gay writes in a consistently simple style, but like a longtime bar-band leader, she can do a lot with it: repeating the title phrase in “I Am a Knife” evokes the narrator’s sustained experience with violence, and the title story satirizes snap judgments of women as “loose,” “frigid,” and “crazy” with plainspoken detail. When she applies that style to more allegorical or speculative tales, though, the stories stumble: “Requiem for a Glass Heart” is an overworked metaphorical study of fragility in relationships; “The Sacrifice of Darkness” is ersatz science fiction about the sun’s disappearance; “Noble Things” provocatively imagines a second Civil War but without enough space to effectively explore it.

Not every story works, but Gay is an admirable risk-taker in her exploration of women’s lives and new ways to tell their stories.

Pub Date: Jan. 3, 2017

ISBN: 978-0-8021-2539-2

Page Count: 272

Publisher: Grove

Review Posted Online: Oct. 19, 2016

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 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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