A lesser work than such fully achieved recent fictions as The Years with Laura Diaz and The Eagle’s Throne, but of real...

HAPPY FAMILIES

STORIES

Sixteen cleverly varied short stories, separated by mostly free-verse interludes, form a broad image of modern Mexico in the latest fiction from that country’s most prominent writer (The Eagle’s Throne, 2006, etc.).

As its title allusion to Tolstoy promises, many of these pieces are concerned with relations among parents and children, spouses and siblings. “A Family Like Any Other” explores the stunted lives, graced only by sustaining illusions of accomplishment and empowerment, of a department-store salesman forced into early retirement, his romantic dreamer wife (a former bolero singer) and their career-challenged, embittered stay-at-home adult children. There follows a plaintive “Chorus of the Street Gossips,” channeling the plea of an unborn child not to be born into poverty and misery. Thus it goes, as Fuentes examines the ordeals endured by a crime impresario (“The Mariachi’s Mother”) who cannot divert her son from following her path; a powerful military commander whose own sons work for powers he helped overthrow (“The Armed Family”); a pair of male lovers whose contented union reflects the social changes of several decades (“The Gay Divorcée”); and a sexually adventurous woman who confesses to her present lover her enslavement by a brutal egotist (“The Secret Marriage,” perhaps intended as an allegory of Mexico’s ongoing vulnerability to opportunists and tyrants). The stories’ range is both impressive and somewhat predictable, as we keep meeting characters whose passions appear to confirm generic clichés about Latinos’ volatile emotions and ingenuous submission to the demands of a religion that counsels endless patience. Still, even when plots seem unoriginal, Fuentes earns our attention with vivid dialogue and detail.

A lesser work than such fully achieved recent fictions as The Years with Laura Diaz and The Eagle’s Throne, but of real interest as a Latin American little brother to John Dos Passos’s U.S.A., the book that may have inspired it.

Pub Date: Sept. 30, 2008

ISBN: 978-1-4000-6688-9

Page Count: 352

Publisher: Random House

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 1, 2008

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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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