Not by any means the book it might—perhaps should—have been. But don’t overlook those three terrific stories.


There are some spectacular moments, and also several inexplicable miscalculations in this extremely uneven yet unquestionably promising debut collection of nine stories by Yale Law student Haslett.

Most of Haslett’s characters are silent sufferers or unrequited lovers who live out lives of silent desperation unrelieved by full connection with others or disclosure of their innermost secrets. This is particularly true of stories that focus on gay characters, such as an orphaned high school boy powerfully attracted to a surly, violence-prone classmate (“The Beginnings of Grief”); an unmarried brother and sister who have loved and lost the same man (“Devotion”); and a terminal AIDS patient whose carefully planned withdrawal from job and relationships ends in (harrowingly described) surreal dementia (“Reunion”). These are edgy, disturbing explorations of loneliness that don’t quite work—as are “My Father’s Business,” a mock-documentary look at a bipolar patient with a curious philosophical bent; and “The Volunteer,” an initially gripping account of the relationship between a lonely elderly woman and the effectively motherless teenager who bonds with her that falls apart into inexcusable contrivance. And yet Haslett’s riskiest, most far-reaching pieces are his best. “Divination,” about a private school student who has inherited his father’s unwanted prophetic “gift,” grates expertly on the reader’s nerves. Even better are “The Good Doctor,” in which a callow physician’s efforts “to organize his involuntary proximity to human pain” are unsettled by the story of a luckless family’s destruction by economic failure and drug addiction; and “The Storyteller,” a hypnotically strange amalgam of Chekhov and Beckett, about an American in Scotland torn between suicidal guilt over his lingering depression and its erosion of his marriage, and his compulsive intimacy with a stoical old woman and a dying boy: it’s one of the finest, and most unusual, stories of recent years.

Not by any means the book it might—perhaps should—have been. But don’t overlook those three terrific stories.

Pub Date: July 2, 2002

ISBN: 0-385-50167-6

Page Count: 224

Publisher: Nan A. Talese

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 15, 2002

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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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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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