The impulse to shed our birth families and make our own, and the contrary tug of blood that lures us back to our origins, are the emotionally charged matter of these ten linked stories, set in North Carolina Arkansas, and Texas, by a talented new Arkansas writer. Their common bond is protagonist and narrator Richard, whom we first meet (in “Why I’m Talking”) as an eight-year-old who stops speaking when his mother attempts suicide, and is appeased by bonding with the teenaged daughter of his grandfather’s black mistress, as well as with his unregenerate father’s new girlfriend. The complex folly of his parents’ on-again/off-again marriage is disclosed to him a few years later (in “What Men Love For”). Subsequent pieces depict Richard’s own troubled relationships with girls and women (“At the Edge of the New World”), fatherhood and marital failures (“Everything Quiet Like Church,” “When Love Gets Worn”), and partial reconciliations with the crazy people who gave him life and never can seem to relax their grip on him (“What We Are Up Against” and the resonant, concluding title story). There’s some unavoidable repetition, and a couple of particularly shapeless stories (such as “Corporal Love”) that amass anecdotes from various stages of Richard’s early life. But the collection’s strong points are the vivid characterizations of Richard’s parents (seen only briefly, but always to telling effect) and firm control of a tone of reflective melancholy that exactly suits Phillips’s empathetic portrayal of a thoughtful man trying to understand where he comes from and what he’s made of. “We were a hard people,” Richard muses, “who counted time by tragedies and who took a storyteller’s pleasure in reshaping our sadness.” Just so; and that’s why we take a reader’s pleasure in sharing it.

Pub Date: March 1, 1999

ISBN: 0-393-04715-6

Page Count: 192

Publisher: Norton

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 1, 1999

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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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