Of more journalistic and sociological than literary interest, without the inventiveness of recent writing south of the 38th...

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THE ACCUSATION

FORBIDDEN STORIES FROM INSIDE NORTH KOREA

Fugitive fiction—literally—from inside North Korea, devastatingly critical of the Kim dynasty and its workers’ paradise.

What do you do when your baby cries at a solemn gathering? You excuse yourself and leave the room—unless you’re standing before a huge portrait of your beloved leader alongside beloved runner-up Karl Marx, in which case you pray that the baby in question does not bring down suspicion on your head as an enemy of the state, a saboteur, and that the tears do not unleash mythological monsters, to say nothing of “hundreds of figures hovering at [the] windows, peering out like rabbits from their burrows, eyes narrowed in accusation.” A squalling infant might be one thing, a drawn curtain another, a bird cage another still: in claustrophobic North Korea, everything has significance, and though ordinary communication comes barking down from loudspeakers, it’s the silences and pauses that carry more than their share of the weight. In these seven stories, Bandi—the name means “firefly” in Korean—describes, with numbing gravity, how awful life inside a totalitarian state really is. “What do you think, Comrade Hong,” says one bureaucrat, thinking his way through a worker’s crime of holding hands with a “factory girl.” “Can this be classed a general incident, or is it a political matter?” There is a streak of satire in these stories, but mostly they are grimly realistic. Bandi is rumored to be a writer within the government, and certainly the author has access to the broad sweep of North Korean society, from industrial workers and farmers to midlevel political functionaries; all are equally oppressed by an all-encompassing system that crushes ordinary emotion and replaces it with piety. Laments one young cadre, “Oh, when would Min-hyuk’s uncle be allowed to join the Party and see his true worth discovered?”

Of more journalistic and sociological than literary interest, without the inventiveness of recent writing south of the 38th parallel—but still an important document of witness.

Pub Date: March 17, 2017

ISBN: 978-0-8021-2620-7

Page Count: 288

Publisher: Grove

Review Posted Online: Dec. 26, 2016

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 15, 2017

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THE THINGS THEY CARRIED

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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EXHALATION

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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