Smart and technically accomplished fiction that is sometimes a bit too self-consciously artful.

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DOLL PALACE

STORIES

Past traumas bleed into present experiences in Lippmann’s stark, occasionally enigmatic debut collection.

A divorced slacker dad, good in his teenage son’s eyes only for beer runs and his not-too-attentive chaperonage of a ski trip, remains haunted by the car crash that killed his best friend (“The Last Resort”). Ten years after her toddler brother fell into an empty swimming pool and died before her eyes, the narrator of “Everyone Has Your Best Interests at Heart” is still punishing herself, listlessly going through the motions in a dead-end summer job, with no plans now that she’s graduated high school, and taking up with the vaguely creepy host of a reptile show. Parenthood only brings more woe; in both “Jew” and “All This Happiness,” thoughts of their terminally ill babies shadow the protagonists’ actions. The settled moms of “Body Scan” and “Reunion” seem nostalgic for their wild, pre-kid days, while the embittered divorcée of “Doll Palace” says of her once-adored ex, “[e]veryone falls short in real life.” Lippmann writes well about damaged lives and ambivalent relationships, and she displays a knack for crafting mildly surreal scenarios that reveal the characters’ fragile emotional states (“Starter Home,” “Talisman”). She also has a weakness for abruptly ringing down the curtain on her stories with jarring developments left ostentatiously unexplained (“The Best of Us,” “Queen of Hearts,” “Babydollz”). This taste for obfuscation is balanced by sharp observations of the social landscape: The mother crankily guiding two girls through endless lines at Doll Palace, the “overpriced and unopposed retailer of all things doll,” or the restless wife attending the funeral of a high school boyfriend, passing “identical stucco townhomes with plastic play yards out front where apparently half of the entire class lived and screwed each other and worked to make ends meet.”

Smart and technically accomplished fiction that is sometimes a bit too self-consciously artful.

Pub Date: Sept. 1, 2014

ISBN: 978-0-9910657-1-4

Page Count: 192

Publisher: Dock Street Press

Review Posted Online: July 30, 2014

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 15, 2014

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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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