A debut collection weaves several narratives into one richly defined (if oddly static) tapestry portraying the history and obsessions of a troubled Jewish intellectual family. Ruth Klingle, the narrator, stands at the center of most of the ten pieces here. A young mother who grew up in suburban New Jersey, she is married to her old high-school headmastera vicious Dickensian bigot who in his fits of rage and paranoid racism isn't able to show us what could have attracted Ruth to him in the first place. We learn early on that Ruth's father molested her on a regular basis throughout her childhood, and that her mother learned of this many years later, to her great consternation and chagrin. Ruth's own feelings about it are submerged and surface only obliquely, mainly in response to her husband's perpetual rantings against the left-wing politics of her family. ``It was true, I thought: liberals are irresponsible, self-indulgent people. I would no longer be like them, no longer be the daughter of those Jews who marched and sang.'' Motive and explanation, however, are not part of the economy of these tales, which seem to be extended exercises in portraitureprecise, restrained, and ultimately rather precious (``His appendix burst slowly, almost gracefully....He had felt it: the rush of liquids, then the onslaught of life, which is pain''). There is a real skill present in the interweaving of one piece with another, all of them interrelated as evidently and problematically as the members of Ruth's family, although the narrative that emergesrevolving around incest, genocide, madness, and homosexualityis somehow dragged down by the heaviness of the prose and the intricacy of the descriptions. An overly ambitious start from a talented beginner.

Pub Date: Aug. 31, 1995

ISBN: 1-882413-19-9

Page Count: 168

Publisher: N/A

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: June 1, 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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