An unrepentantly offbeat collection by an admirably free-spirited writer.




This unusual, sometimes-unsettling debut story collection provides the reader with an unvarnished look into the inner lives of a mix of curious characters.

Barrodale, an editor at Vice whose work has appeared in Harper’s, McSweeney’s, and the Paris Review, which awarded her its 2012 Plimpton Prize for Fiction, gives voice to characters who may be a bit creepy or crazy and who could maybe use more self-control, a clearer sense of purpose, or a better way to connect. The uneasy souls who inhabit Barrodale’s stories could stand to drink less, screw around less indiscriminately, and take fewer hallucinogenic drugs, but her portrayal of them is honest and unflinching, and she writes with an almost stark simplicity, unapologetically laying out their missteps and half steps toward and away from one another and themselves. In “William Wei,” the story for which Barrodale won the Plimpton Prize, a man spends his weeknights in his barren apartment, eating the same meal and watching the same movie, until a woman draws him out and takes him on a “bad trip” that changes his life. The male therapist at the center of “Frank Advice for Fat Women,” in the midst of a divorce, slides into inappropriate relationships with an attractive client and her even more attractive mother. The possibly autobiographical narrator of “Catholic,” meanwhile, fools around and falls in love with a married drummer, whom she drunk-emails as he tours the world and grows famous. When, sometime later, she sees him in concert, he catches her eye before the band plays "a song with the refrain ‘my is wrong.' " That could be a refrain here as well: the people in these stories are a little off—is it the drugs? The alcohol? Or are those just symptoms?—yet they are searching for something: a connection to one another, a grip on themselves. Like many of her characters, Barrodale’s stories can be undisciplined, at times veering off in confusing directions. But even so, they remain compelling. You never know where they will take you or whether, at the end of the trip, your life won’t feel at least a little changed.

An unrepentantly offbeat collection by an admirably free-spirited writer.

Pub Date: July 5, 2016

ISBN: 978-0-374-29386-4

Page Count: 208

Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Review Posted Online: April 13, 2016

Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 1, 2016

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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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