An eminently adult look at desire and attachment, with all the usual regrets and then some—but also with the knowledge that...

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ENIGMA VARIATIONS

Love among the ruins—and with Ethan Frome, tennis, martinis, and Starbucks on the set as well.

As often in his fiction, Aciman (Harvard Square, 2013, etc.) immerses readers in a milieu that is achingly sensuous—and sensual, too—with not much regard for pedestrian ideas of what constitutes whatever normal behavior is supposed to be. Even so, his characters are often beset by moral agony over the choices they make in following their hearts. In the case of Paul, a definitively sensitive man of fleetingly passing years, just about everything is a Proustian madeleine: Greek and Latin, the glint of Mediterranean sunlight, “the cooling scent of coffee from the roasting mill that seemed to welcome me no differently now than when I ran errands with my mother.” Then there is music, so elegantly alluded to in the title, and the memories of men and women who have fallen in his path and bed and sometimes imparted wisdom along the way; as an early object of desire says, knowingly, “It could be life or it could be a strip of wood that refuses to bend as it should.” Paul bends easily in his pursuits, broadly catholic in his affinities. Aciman’s portrait of him and his world is thoughtful, sympathetic, and never prurient; Paul is very much, as a friend of his remarks, like Sicily in having many identities and “all manner of names, when in fact one, and one only, is good enough.” He is not at all reprehensible, yet he is not blameless, either; Paul’s quest for self-awareness, to say nothing of his quest for pleasure, carries plenty of collateral damage. Most of it he bears himself, though; as he says, with knowing resignation, “I think everyone is wounded in their sex…I can’t think of one person who isn’t.”

An eminently adult look at desire and attachment, with all the usual regrets and then some—but also with the knowledge that such regret “is easy enough to live down.”

Pub Date: Jan. 3, 2017

ISBN: 978-0-374-14843-0

Page Count: 288

Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Review Posted Online: Oct. 5, 2016

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 15, 2016

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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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