Fourteen variously weird tales from the producing half of the Coen Brothers movie team. Though only one of the stories is titled “It Is an Ancient Mariner,” most seem to be told by somebody more determined to buttonhole his audience than to explain exactly what he has in mind. One of Coen’s two favorite subjects, as you’d expect from films like Raising Arizona, Barton Fink, and Fargo, is seriously skewed annals of crime. “Cosa Minapolidan” chronicles the efforts of a clueless crime boss to establish his reputation after he migrates to the Twin Cities. “Destiny” follows the world’s worst boxer through his equally unsuccessful stint as a bedroom dick. “A Fever in the Blood” asks how another private eye copes after getting his ear bitten off. The title story tosses a California weights-and-measures man into a Japanese blackmail plot. Coen’s crime stories work up to climactic tableaux rather than resolutions, and therefore aren’t all that different from his other stories, which focus on the psychopathology of everyday life. He follows a father on a hellishly ordinary camping trip with his two sons in “The Boys,” wonders what might happen to Hebrew school bullies in “The Old Country” and “I Killed Phil Shapiro,” and recounts selected events leading up to a long-suffering woman’s murder of her husband in “It Is an Ancient Mariner.” The deadpan, playfully grave tone throughout both kinds of stories is amusingly consistent, whether Coen is evoking Samuel Beckett or Philip Marlowe with a propeller atop his fedora. Surprisingly, three dialogues——Johnnie Ga-Botz,” “The Old Boys,” and the promisingly titled “Hecter Berlioz, Private Investigator”—are both less funny and less substantial. Maybe they need John Goodman and Frances Macdormand to fill in the blanks. A final surprise: “Red Wing,” the one story that tries to root weird abnormalities in weird normalities, is a bit too precious to come off. Like this debut collection as a whole, though, it’s a valuable portrait of the artist as a middle-aged neophyte.

Pub Date: Nov. 4, 1998

ISBN: 0-688-15914-1

Page Count: 256

Publisher: Morrow/HarperCollins

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 15, 1998

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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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