Intimate portrayals of darkness told in Schutt’s tight and affecting prose.


Ten stories and a novella that give us oblique glimpses of tragedy.

Schutt’s (Prosperous Friends, 2012, etc.) distinct and economic style is on full display throughout this slim collection. She makes use of parentheticals frequently. In “The Duchess of Albany,” the main character recalls her late husband’s old age in an off-camera, single-sentence scene: “(Owen at the long table, saying to the ringing phone, ‘Go away, people. Leave us alone,’ and people pretty much did).” Schutt offers surprising reminders of the ghastly and gruesome that are never too far away. The second and penultimate stories, "The Hedges" and "Oh, the Obvious," feature accidents that occur on vacations. In each, the narrative perspective makes the reader essentially a bystander witnessing terrible, even fatal, events that befall a stranger. In “Where You Live, When You Need Me?” a mother recounts the summer when Ella, a much-needed babysitter, appeared out of nowhere. “Everyone shared Ella. She had work every day if she wanted.” Nobody ever even knew Ella’s last name, and this was no innocent time of naiveté. Indeed, this was 1984, “the summer when little parts of little bodies turned up in KFC buckets in Dumpsters in the city.” The title piece, the novella, layers the tragedy. We open on a California wildfire and then meet Mimi, a young, recent widow of a famous comedian who was four decades her senior. We see Mimi relive her own troubled childhood before she becomes an unintentional witness to another family’s tragedy. Through this, the novella—like the collection—maintains a dark wit that keeps it buoyant. In a tense conversation with her late husband’s son, Mimi is asked, “What did you and my dad ever have in common?” She answers with the perfect punch line, “He didn’t really like his kids and neither do I.”

Intimate portrayals of darkness told in Schutt’s tight and affecting prose.

Pub Date: March 13, 2018

ISBN: 978-0-8021-2761-7

Page Count: 144

Publisher: Grove

Review Posted Online: Dec. 24, 2017

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 15, 2018

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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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