Not everyone’s cup of tea, certainly, but very few can write their way out of a corner better than Aira.

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THE MUSICAL BRAIN

AND OTHER STORIES

Twenty hallucinatory, open-ended short stories by Aira (Shantytown, 2013, etc.), an Argentinian master of improvisational writing.

Reading Aira's work can give you the feeling of being swept up in a flash flood and carried along whether you're ready or not. It’s certainly constant momentum that marks this collection of work, written over the past decade or so—stories begin in the middle, spin on a dime and are often as warped as a Salvador Dalí landscape. The opener, “A Brick Wall,” joins stories like “The Infinite,” “The Two Men” and the title tale in remembering (or dis-remembering) a childhood in Argentina but also paying testament to the enduring strangeness of a child’s imagination and sometimes mocking the author's own literary reputation. “Daydreams are always about concepts, not examples. I wouldn’t want anything I’ve written to be taken as an example,” Aira writes in “The Infinite.” On the flip side, “The All That Plows through the Nothing” finds the first-person narrator working out in a gym, eavesdropping on local housewives and ultimately offering a tender but also funny meditation on aging and death. “Death is the exorbitant price that a failure like me has to pay for becoming literature,” he writes. Then there are the stories that are, as they say, completely different. For instance, “God’s Tea Party,” in which the creator regularly celebrates his birthday with a lavish affair to which only apes are invited as "a kind of deliberate and spiteful (or, at best, ironic) slight on the part of the Lord, aimed at a human race that has disappointed Him.” Or “A Thousand Drops,” in which drops of oil paint from the Mona Lisa run off to start creative lives of their own. Or “Poverty,” a love letter that anthropomorphizes the condition of being poor into a constant companion.

Not everyone’s cup of tea, certainly, but very few can write their way out of a corner better than Aira.

Pub Date: March 3, 2015

ISBN: 978-0-8112-2029-3

Page Count: 240

Publisher: New Directions

Review Posted Online: Dec. 20, 2014

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 1, 2015

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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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