Despite an occasional slip into glib slice-of-life, Nelson is at her best creating densely packed, almost novel-like family...



Although family or the desire for family is frequently the overt subject, secrets and solitude lie at the heart of these 11 stories, of which several have appeared in the New Yorker.

Nelson (Some Fun, 2006, etc.) tends to front-load her crises. Not only is Emily, the heroine of “Party of One,” dying of cancer when she agrees to meet her sister Mona’s lover, she also knows—although Mona doesn’t know she knows—about Mona’s previous affair with Emily’s husband. Despite the potential for melodrama, Emily’s encounter with Mona’s lover evolves into a painful education. In the title story, another less-than-heroic heroine lives with her 15-year-old problem son while her ex-husband gets the son she favors, but when the troubled boy’s girlfriend has a baby, family relationships clarify into something resembling redemption. In “OBO,” a young grad student weasels her way into spending Christmas with her professor’s family. A con artist, she’s also heartbreakingly, cluelessly infatuated with the professor’s distracted wife. A similar loser in “Or Else” pretends to himself as much as to his date that a vacation house belongs to his family. The actual owners treated him with generosity until he betrayed them one time too many. In “Shauntrelle,” a woman who has destroyed her marriage describes her “season of uncertain and drifting identity,” summing up many of these characters’ predicaments. The liberal family of “We and They” adopts two black children with unintended, depressingly comic consequences. The brilliant, obese scientist in “People, People” has the unerring ability to tell people truths they don’t want to know. The settings are Western and middle-middle class—Sarah Palin country—but the characters defy stereotype. In one of the loveliest stories, “Kansas,” characters who assume disaster when a baby in the family goes missing with her teenage aunt find themselves almost disappointed by the benign ending.

Despite an occasional slip into glib slice-of-life, Nelson is at her best creating densely packed, almost novel-like family mini-sagas.

Pub Date: Feb. 1, 2009

ISBN: 978-1-59691-574-9

Page Count: 304

Publisher: Bloomsbury

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 15, 2008

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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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