Distinguished and disturbing work, from a lavishly gifted new writer.



Defrocked academics and football freaks, good ol’ boys and enticingly wicked women mingle to fine effect in Mississippian Vice’s impressively varied debut collection.

In a razor-sharp style studded with sparkling metaphors, Vice introduces a gallery of unhappy, embattled or just plain ornery southern souls. There’s the history student who finds in his overprotective father’s Russophilia both an objective correlative for his own ingrained timidity and a way to forgive and understand his dad (“Stalin”); the writer-teacher abandoned by his wife, and subject to panic attacks, whose paranoia is relieved by the druggy ministrations of a freewheeling Vicksburg beauty (“What Happens in the ’Burg, Stays in the ’Burg”); and the bereaved Greek-American mother who sublimates her grief by composing indigenous cookbooks (“Artifacts”). The author’s virtues as a regional realist are showcased in richly detailed portrayals of an aged black widower who “conjures” gardening success from the detritus of his happy family life (“Mojo Farmer”); a high-school athlete for whom Alabama football coach “Bear” Bryant’s “Spartan military discipline” is less threatening than his backbreaking everyday labors (“Report from Junction”); and a submissive retiree overmatched by his take-charge wife, her ebullient daughter and the coal-black studhorse that embodies the energies he cannot share with them (“Mule”). Even better is the sardonic title fantasy, about an automotive design engineer’s mischievous pet project; the seriocomic tale of a transplanted northerner’s flirtation with her absent husband’s golfing buddy, some draggletailed KKK troublemakers and ubiquitous lunatics escaped from the local asylum (“Tuscaloosa Knights”); and the chilling “Chickensnake,” in which a stoic farm boy apprehends how his family’s ill fortune is destroying its members, while also realizing that “he just couldn’t stop the world from eating itself.” The latter is a perfect little nightmare, worthy of Erskine Caldwell in his heyday.

Distinguished and disturbing work, from a lavishly gifted new writer.

Pub Date: Oct. 10, 2005

ISBN: 0-8203-2745-X

Page Count: 168

Publisher: Univ. of Georgia

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 15, 2005

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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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