One part Faulkner, one part McCarthy, but the recipe here isn’t complete. The parts that are Pancake are strongest, and the...


Twelve debut stories, all partly perfect and partly contrived, about Appalachian folk trapped between a cruel mood of nature and an intrusive brand of civilization.

Here are all the calamities that can afflict the mountainfolk: ghosts, floods, droughts, fires, car accidents, bulldozers. Amid the mayhem, people try to find their place: in “Jolo,” a girl thrills at her relationship with a burn victim; in “Redneck Boys,” a woman remembers when she still had the option of running away. Pancake informs us in “Dirt” that West Virginia lost more men in Vietnam per capita than any other state; if her vision of Appalachia is accurate, then the backcountry has the highest concentration of poets as well. There’s plenty of luster from these people in the form of florid prose, but it’s not always clear that “luster” is what would best describe them. It’s a world where the land is like a body, and the bodies are like the land, and everyone has dirt for blood. But it rings false when lyricism is assigned to that which is simply utilitarian for these folk. The sense that this is forgotten country is best seen in “Bait,” in which residents mark time by counting off local highway fatalities. It’s the quieter moments that impress: a woman’s realization that the last part of her lover’s body she will see naked is the crown of his head (“Redneck Boys”), the observation that what has been Joby Knob for locals (“Crow Season”) becomes Misty Mountain Estates when the developers arrive to steal away the author’s Appalachia.

One part Faulkner, one part McCarthy, but the recipe here isn’t complete. The parts that are Pancake are strongest, and the perfections linger.

Pub Date: Aug. 1, 2001

ISBN: 1-58465-118-0

Page Count: 160

Publisher: N/A

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: June 1, 2001

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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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