An excellent introduction to a substantial and distinctive oeuvre, and a welcome reminder of how good this often underrated...




A retrospective collection of 27 stories, written over a period of more than half a century, by a southern writer whose best fiction merits comparison with the work of Katherine Anne Porter and Eudora Welty.

This is a much more rigorously selective, and hence more satisfying, volume than the 1981 Stories of Elizabeth Spencer—if only because it omits her tepid, meandering novella “Knights & Dragons,” substituting for it “The Light in the Piazza,” perhaps her most triumphantly Jamesian contrast of American and European manners and morals. Simultaneously, it’s an augmented version containing six previously uncollected stories, the finest of which offer fresh variations on Spencer’s central preoccupation: women’s inner lives and the secrets they harbor, and sometimes uncover. Especially effective are “The Legacy,” about an inheritance that encourages a lonely young disabled woman’s gesture of independence; “The Master of Shongalo,” in which a spinster teacher visits the lavish home of an adoring student’s family—and stumbles over the skeletons in its roomy closets; and “Owl,” which reveals in a terse four pages a neglected wife’s submerged erotic longings. The other 21 stories are grouped geographically, according to the three places (the American South, Italy, and eastern Canada) where virtually all of Spencer’s fiction is set—and showcase her graceful prose and impressive descriptive powers as they explore her characteristic themes: racial tensions in (her native) Mississippi and thereabouts (“The Little Brown Girl”); romantic and sexual fixation (“Ship Island,” “The Girl Who Loved Horses”); crippling psychological disturbances (“The Finder,” “First Dark”), and compact social studies in which the attitudes of the Old South are tested by the pressures of other cultures (“I, Maureen,” “The White Azalea”).

An excellent introduction to a substantial and distinctive oeuvre, and a welcome reminder of how good this often underrated writer can be.

Pub Date: Aug. 7, 2001

ISBN: 0-679-64218-8

Page Count: 448

Publisher: Modern Library

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 15, 2001

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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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