An uneven but frequently affecting collection.




A charming collection of short stories populated by an array of characters of various ages and backgrounds, making wildly different mistakes.

While mothers are frequently featured in these stories, the title can be misleading; these fictions explore many themes, not just the trappings of motherhood. Instead, Caswell (Luck: A Collection of Facts, Fiction, Incantation & Verse, 2010) has chosen an admirable selection of characters, some of whom toe a too-precious line without overstepping it: an out-of-work parade-float designer who has taken residence in an office building; a man who’s lost his wife, his dog, his roof; a fiercely independent aged herbalist whose pregnant daughter is trying to get her into a retirement home; etc. Caswell finds the most traction when she takes the time let her character sketches evolve into full stories. The collection’s most successful story, “64 with a Sharpener,” describes Frances Dugan, a 10-year-old girl who feels out of place in her 1970s neighborhood. Caswell does wonderful work establishing the setting, where middle-class, suburban respectability lives on streets bordered by dirt tracks still waiting to be developed and inhabited. When Frances misplaces a crayon from her beloved box of 64, she ventures to the end of one such gravel street, where she encounters one of the people living in shacks at the outskirts of town. It’s a magnificent, dramatic moment that underscores the need for more moments like this in Caswell’s other stories. Too often she’s content to set up an interesting situation—a series of texts between a mother and her son in the military, for instance—without a satisfying follow-through. It’s a shame, because Caswell is such a gifted sentence-level writer. For instance, in “Guinea Pepper,” she describes the seasons: “Summer that year had refused to drop away and the line between it and autumn blurred, congealed like old jam. Too much of a good thing, past its prime.” When that gift is put to good use, as in the impressive closing story, “Salvation,” the results are striking.

An uneven but frequently affecting collection.

Pub Date: Sept. 1, 2015

ISBN: 978-0989788571

Page Count: 88

Publisher: Lorimer Press

Review Posted Online: June 1, 2015

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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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