Winningly arch and unusual takes on common household predicaments.



Eleven quirky tales from the Chilean novelist (Ways of Going Home, 2013, etc.), powered by people's fear of relationships and the strange ways we project our urge for connection onto others.

Twice in this collection a character clings to a computer for warmth, an act that symbolizes the alienation the inhabitants of Zambra’s world feel and his curious take on those feelings. “Memories of a Personal Computer" tracks the history of one machine from its purchase in 2000 to its banishment years later; in between, Zambra exposes just how much the machine draws together and separates the owner's family, wryly depicting it as quasi-human (“the computer’s conduct was, during this period, exemplary"). Similarly, “Family Life” follows a man who’s taken a catsitting gig after hitting the skids; searching for the cat, he begins a flirtation with a local woman, prompting him to extend his bumbling playacting at domesticity. Zambra is particularly interested in the childhood roots of his characters' harmless but unusual behavior: In the title story, an altar boy is guilt-stricken after caressing another boy; in “Camilo,” the arrival of the godson of the narrator’s father throws off the household’s rhythms; and the school kids in “National Institute,” who are terrified of their domineering teachers, are at first so dehumanized that the narrator refers to his classmates as numbers. Though the subjects throughout are serious, Zambra has a light touch; former dictator Augusto Pinochet is referred to numerous times but more as a generational marker than as political shading. At times, Zambra’s cleverness gets the better of him, as in “I Smoked Very Well,” an offbeat quitter’s diary, but the concluding “Artist’s Rendition,” about a crime writer rushing to finish a story, artfully shows the transformation of difficult fact into resonant art.

Winningly arch and unusual takes on common household predicaments.

Pub Date: Feb. 10, 2015

ISBN: 978-1-940450-52-0

Page Count: 200

Publisher: McSweeney’s

Review Posted Online: Dec. 6, 2014

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 15, 2014

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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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