A promising debut from a writer who may cast her net more broadly in time.




A first collection celebrates in vivid prose those breakthrough moments that lead to understanding or action—in people whose lives may be either fashionable or feminist clichés of despair and disarray.

The settings here range from Oregon to Philadelphia, but the characters, who tend toward the narcissistic and self-absorbed, are not as varied. It’s this insular, even claustrophobic sensibility that makes these 15 well-crafted stories ultimately less affecting—with two exceptions. One is the novella, “Liability,” in which a young bisexual woman fleeing her dysfunctional family moves to Portland, Oregon, a place that seems to suffer from “terminal niceness”; after her counterculture landlord has to be hospitalized and she moves out, however, a chance meeting with her landlord’s troubled teenage daughter, now living on the streets, offers a transforming yet scary opportunity for her to help someone else. Then there’s “I Seen Some Stuf Horabl Stuf Lisen,” in which a single mother, abandoned by her lesbian lover, worrying that she may be damaging her six-year-old son (she slaps him once in the grocery store), is touched by a loving and wise story the boy has written at school. Another piece describes a girl who works as a professional weeper at funerals because she cannot stop crying, although when she begins laughing, all sorts of magic happens (“Aggiornamento”); a gay friend who died from AIDS is recalled by two lesbians and their daughter as they prepare a celebration of his life (“In Case of Emergency”); a young woman with an eating disorder learns that her accomplished mother also once suffered from compulsive behavior (“What’s More”); and an adolescent girl’s nascent sexuality and sense of self are aroused by a sleepover at which a game becomes a catalyst for change and revelation (“The Whole Truth and Nothing But”).

A promising debut from a writer who may cast her net more broadly in time.

Pub Date: May 14, 2000

ISBN: 0-312-24118-6

Page Count: 240

Publisher: Picador

Review Posted Online: June 24, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 1, 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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