Solidly constructed work that doesn’t immediately wow.

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BABYLON

AND OTHER STORIES

Ohlin follows up her debut novel (The Missing Person, 2005) with a low-key collection that dabbles gingerly in suburban angst.

The 17 stories here are mostly too brief for satisfying developments, a problem exacerbated by the author’s habit of employing quick turns at the end for mild surprise. “Simple Exercises for the Beginning Student” exemplifies Ohlin’s understated tone in its portrait of Kevin, a friendless, seemingly dull-witted eight-year-old boy who decides he wants to take piano lessons, even though his parents are struggling to pay the rent and don’t have a piano. Moreover, his mother is pregnant with a child her husband apparently doesn’t want, and the tentative lessons assume a redeeming, albeit fleeting beauty in the face of the father’s abandonment of his family. “A Theory of Entropy” moves along in a similarly uninflected manner. It takes place at an isolated lake cottage inhabited by freelance designer Claire and her hermit boyfriend Carson, an academic hammering out a book based on his highly abstract notions about entropy—which Claire imagines is a “scientific term for fate.” When his young, female editor, Jocelyn, arrives to spend several days working with Carson on the manuscript, Claire finds Jocelyn wonderfully human in a way that her boyfriend is not. The title story imagines a love affair between two emotionally damaged people: Robert, a lonely financial analyst, and Astrid, the strangely unhinged woman he meets at a wedding in Babylon, Long Island. In spite of the alarming tissue of pathological lies he catches her in, Robert stands by his rare love for Astrid: “Without her there was nothing. Yet he had no idea who she was.” One of the few stories that do bear an organic growth is “The Tennis Partner,” a rueful coming-of-ager told by a now-adult narrator who remembers how he loved from afar and lost the beautiful daughter of his father’s tennis partner.

Solidly constructed work that doesn’t immediately wow.

Pub Date: Aug. 1, 2006

ISBN: 0-375-41525-4

Page Count: 288

Publisher: Knopf

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: June 15, 2006

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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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