More like bits and sketches than stories, from a writer who is often very funny and inventive, and occasionally profound.


Stories about storytelling from a young Israeli author.

With stories this short (many are a paragraph or two or a page or two, making the 22 pages of the penultimate “Surprise Party” feel like an epic), every word counts, so it’s quite possible that something has been lost in the translation (with no slight intended to the three translators credited, including noted author Nathan Englander). However these stories might read differently in Hebrew, and signify something different within a different cultural context, they function like fables and parables, fairy tales and jokes, with goldfish that grant wishes, parallel universes, an insurance agent who suffers (and then prospers) from his own lack of insurance, a woman who mourns her miscarriage with a creative-writing course (with her husband becoming jealous of the instructor and responding by writing his own revelatory stories). Bookending the collection are two stories featuring a writer as protagonist, a first-person narrator that the reader is invited to identify as the author, who is being forced to perform the act of writing for the benefit of others. The first, the title story, finds him coerced to create at gunpoint, conjuring a plot that proceeds to transpire within the story as he takes some pleasure from “creating something out of something.” The final story, “What Animal Are You?,” shows the self-conscious writer being filmed for a TV feature as he’s in the process of writing (or at least simulating it), wondering whether a hooker might seem more natural on camera as his wife than his wife does. His pieces elicit comparison to sources as diverse as Franz Kafka, Kurt Vonnegut and Woody Allen. He also recalls Lydia Davis in his compression and Donald Barthelme in his whimsy. Yet the stories are hit-and-miss, some of them slight or obvious, though the suggestion that “in the end, everyone gets the Hell or the Heaven he deserves” might be a fantasy that readers will wish were true.

More like bits and sketches than stories, from a writer who is often very funny and inventive, and occasionally profound.

Pub Date: April 3, 2012

ISBN: 978-0-3745-3333-5

Page Count: 192

Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Review Posted Online: March 5, 2012

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 15, 2012

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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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