Inspired by Matisse paintings, these three splendid stories (two have appeared in the New Yorker) pay homage to the artist as they offer equally memorable verbal portraits of apparently ordinary lives driven by pain and disquiet. Just as Byatt (Angels and Insects, 1993, etc.) prefaces each story with an appropriate illustration, each also begins on a deceptively simple, even homely note: a middle-aged woman having her hair cut; a mother trying to work at home while she waits for the doctor to check her son's chicken pox; and a woman meeting a colleague for lunch at the Chinese restaurant she regularly patronizes. But it is soon clear that darker forces are at work here. In ``Medusa's Ankles,'' the woman about to have her hair cut recalls how she had first visited the salon because it had a copy of Matisse's Rosy Nude in the window. The decor has recently changed, the Nude is gone, and the narrator wants an especially flattering haircut for an upcoming television appearance. But the stylist is distracted: He must choose between his girlfriend and his wife, who, he says, has ``let her ankles get fat.'' The comment, which evokes painful memories of the woman's lost youth and beauty, leads her to an uncharacteristic but cathartic outburst. In ``Art Work,'' suggested by Le Silence habitÇ des maisons, Debbie, a harassed working mother, relies heavily on her eccentric housekeeper, Mrs. Brown. Meanwhile, her self-absorbed husband, a failed artist who works at home, can't abide Mrs. Brown, but the housekeeper reveals a surprising talent. Finally, in ``The Chinese Lobster,'' a troubled art student's charge of sexual assault leads two lonely academics to critique Matisse's attitudes toward women and art as they lunch, revealing in the process the frightening emptiness of their own lives, symbolized by the haunting image ``of a white room with no doors or windows.'' Like all good art, these paintings of the human heart linger in the mind's eye. Byatt at her accessible—if rather brief—best.

Pub Date: April 1, 1995

ISBN: 0-679-43882-3

Page Count: 144

Publisher: Random House

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 15, 1995

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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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