While there’s no denying the author’s considerable skill at turning a wry phrase, all the glitter here yields precious...

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FORMS OF DEVOTION

STORIES AND PICTURES

Echoing her first novel’s artifice (In the Language of Love, 1996), Schoemperlen uses images culled largely from the 18th and 19th centuries as inspiration for her storytelling, winding up with a string of aborted experiments

It may be inaccurate even to call all 11 pieces here stories, since several are witty, wicked mock pieces of social commentary. The title piece offers ten categories for understanding “the faithful,” defined through reference to such things as innocence, abundance, and hope, and using as illustrations of these qualities engravings of good burgher-citizens leading unremarkable, inane lives. Similarly, a decorative alphabet seems to have been the inspiration of the concluding piece, “Rules of Thumb,” in which the text appended to each letter offers ironic advice on everything from well-being to xenophilia, lampooning those who think too well of themselves to accept the burgher label. Sandwiched between these is more ironic material, ranging from the purely expository “How to Write a Serious Novel about Love” to the more allegorical “Count Your Blessings (A Fairy Tale).” The latter offers the book’s single sop to conventional narrative: A perfect woman, Grace, finds a perfect mate, William, who gives her perfect children but can—t prevent her from sinking ever-more deeply into depression, until an old-fashioned doctor making a house call uses radical surgery to cure her (the cure, obviously, being worse than the affliction). Among the less sustained narrative efforts is “How Deep Is the River?,” a quixotic look at passing trains, each with its cargo of discontented passengers headed in opposite directions in search of the same satisfactions.

While there’s no denying the author’s considerable skill at turning a wry phrase, all the glitter here yields precious little substance. (144 b&w line drawings and half-tones) (Author tour)

Pub Date: May 1, 1998

ISBN: 0-670-87696-8

Page Count: 240

Publisher: Viking

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 15, 1998

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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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