At its best, this creates a landscape at once realistic and fantastic, inhabited by characters whose eccentricities make...

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ORDINARY GENIUS

Plainspoken, sharply observed collection from O. Henry Award–winner Averill (The Slow Air of Ewan Macpherson, 2003, etc.), first in a new series focused on the nation’s heartland.

A dozen stories explore the unexpected moments, surprises, shocks and setbacks of daily life in Kansas, a place where “late summer has its own rhythm of days, as dawn moves more slowly into the sky, as corn swells and stiffens in the fields.” The author writes of couples like Harry and Mavis, who while expecting their first child observe a naked man running with a herd of deer that visits their land some mornings. The sense of wonder this creates eases Harry’s transformation to fatherhood in some mysterious way. “Topeka Underground” is a midcentury fable about the artist’s place in a conforming society. A white-bearded man and his tiny wife live in the basement of an unfinished house in a new suburban development. Despite his father’s warnings to stay away, a young boy who lives nearby is drawn to the older couple by their unkempt lawn and eccentric habits. Once he discovers the treasures they’ve created, he realizes how extraordinary they are. “The Onion and I,” another father-son tale, compares the earthiness of growing onions to the aridity of cyberspace. Some of these pieces are brief: “A Story as Preface: Running Blind” takes only a page to show a runner teaching a blind friend, who soon outstrips him; and “The Summer Grandma Was Supposed to Die” is almost as spare, although this account of a young boy being bitten by a rattlesnake is marred by an unnecessary last sentence. The most fully realized story, “During the Twelfth Summer of Elmer D. Peterson,” takes up many of Averill’s characteristic elements—a solitary young boy, a rule-setting father, a grandfatherly figure who fosters rebellion, and a powerful natural setting—and polishes them to a fine point.

At its best, this creates a landscape at once realistic and fantastic, inhabited by characters whose eccentricities make them fully human.

Pub Date: April 18, 2005

ISBN: 0-8032-1068-X

Page Count: 160

Publisher: Univ. of Nebraska

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 15, 2005

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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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