One of our best writers gives us her best book.

BAD DIRT

WYOMING STORIES 2

The much-honored author tightens her grip on the laureateship of western working-class America in this follow-up to Close Range: Wyoming Stories 1 (1999).

Here, again, Proulx limns the harshness of life in Wyoming (mainly in the mountain hamlet of Elk Tooth, site of three thriving saloons) in 11 unsparingly realistic stories. One of them, for instance, chronicles an arty New York couple’s eventual failure to adapt to the rugged surroundings they’d romanticized (“Man Crawling Out of Trees”); another depicts the renewed enmity between long-estranged siblings as they settle their recently deceased centenarian parents’ affairs (“Dump Junk”), rekindling unwelcome memories of “hard years . . . with their entanglement of emotional and money problems, vexing questions about the cosmos, the hereafter, the right way of things, and. . . the slow, wretched betrayals of the flesh.” Proulx’s genius for grim humor glows in wry tales about a beard-growing competition (“The Contest”), a geological malfunction that gives infernal aid to an overworked game-and-fish warden (“The Hellhole”), an ornery barmaid who deals with cattle illegally grazing her land by importing distinctly nonindigenous fellow critters (“Florida Rental”)—and even in the middling “Summer of the Hot Tubs” (predictably anecdotal, though it does make you wish Proulx had included her recipe for “son of a bitch stew”). Comparisons to Mark Twain are inevitable, but Proulx’s wiry sentences have more of the snap and crackle of vintage Ambrose Bierce, and the writer she really resembles most is Flannery O’Connor, as evidenced best in richly detailed accounts of a luckless drifter’s encounter with a violent white-trash “family” (“The Wamsutter Wolf”); of a young part-Sioux woman’s accidental discovery of a prosperous white family’s appropriation of her heritage (“The Indian Wars Refought”); and of a stubborn rancher who long outlives the wild old days, his youth, and all the opportunities he failed to grasp.

One of our best writers gives us her best book.

Pub Date: Nov. 30, 2004

ISBN: 0-7432-5799-5

Page Count: 240

Publisher: Scribner

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 1, 2004

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A mixed bag of stories: some tired but several capable of poetically piercing the heart.

THE HIDDEN GIRL AND OTHER STORIES

Science fiction author (The Wall of Storms, 2016) and translator (The Redemption of Time, Baoshu, 2019) Liu’s short stories explore the nature of identity, consciousness, and autonomy in hostile and chaotic worlds.

Liu deftly and compassionately draws connections between a genetically altered girl struggling to reconcile her human and alien sides and 20th-century Chinese young men who admire aspects of Western culture even as they confront its xenophobia (“Ghost Days”). A poor salvager on a distant planet learns to channel a revolutionary spirit through her alter ego of a rabbit (“Grey Rabbit, Crimson Mare, Coal Leopard”). In “Byzantine Empathy,” a passionate hacktivist attempts to upend charitable giving through blockchain and VR technology even as her college roommate, an executive at a major nonprofit, fights to co-opt the process, a struggle which asks the question of whether pure empathy is possible—or even desired—in our complex geopolitical structure. Much of the collection is taken up by a series of overlapping and somewhat repetitive stories about the singularity, in which human minds are scanned and uploaded to servers, establishing an immortal existence in virtuality, a concept which many previous SF authors have already explored exhaustively. (Liu also never explains how an Earth that is rapidly becoming depleted of vital resources somehow manages to indefinitely power servers capable of supporting 300 billion digital lives.) However, one of those stories exhibits undoubted poignance in its depiction of a father who stubbornly clings to a flesh-and-blood existence for himself and his loved ones in the rotting remains of human society years after most people have uploaded themselves (“Staying Behind”). There is also some charm in the title tale, a fantasy stand-alone concerning a young woman snatched from her home and trained as a supernaturally powered assassin who retains a stubborn desire to seek her own path in life.

A mixed bag of stories: some tired but several capable of poetically piercing the heart.

Pub Date: Feb. 25, 2020

ISBN: 978-1-982134-03-7

Page Count: 432

Publisher: Saga/Simon & Schuster

Review Posted Online: Dec. 9, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 1, 2020

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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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