A masterful evocation of a displaced people caught between past and present.




Like the poignant lament of a Scottish piper, this first collection by the acclaimed Canadian writer (No Great Mischief, p. 410) details the bittersweet lives of the Highlanders and their descendants who settled on Nova Scotia’s Cape Breton Island.

Chronologically arranged according to publication date, MacLeod’s 16 tales reflect a lifelong preoccupation with a place, a people, and a language: the Gaelic tongue that everyone once spoke. By the 1980s, the time of “Clearances,” only the old-timers speak the language, since—as the aging protagonist, the last to farm the family land, observes—the Highlanders are now, like other minorities, “trapped in the beautiful prisons of the languages they loved.” Earlier stories are also infused with memories of past sorrows and hardships as characters recall how avaricious landlords forced their ancestors out of the Scottish Highlands, and how, once they landed on the island to contend with treacherous weather and fractious seas, they cleared the land, raised livestock, and fished the waters. The volume includes the two stories that earned MacLeod inclusion in the Modern Library’s list of the 200 greatest writers in English since 1950. In “The Lost Salt Gift of Blood,” a teacher at a midwestern university returns to see the young son he fathered but never acknowledged, and reluctantly rejects the claims of both fatherhood and the timeless place where the old superstitions linger, and children still catch trout, trap lobsters, and sing Gaelic songs. And “As Birds Bring Forth the Sun” shows how the spectral sighting of a gray dog whose feral pups once killed the ancestor of a Toronto family portends further death. Other pieces depict families losing loved ones to coal-mining disasters, to storms at sea, and more insidiously to cities like Toronto as the fishing dies out, the mines close, and tourists buy up the oceanfront farms.

A masterful evocation of a displaced people caught between past and present.

Pub Date: Feb. 1, 2001

ISBN: 0-393-05035-1

Page Count: 320

Publisher: Norton

Review Posted Online: June 24, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 15, 2000

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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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