Radio host Keillor (Wobegon Boy, 1997, etc.) takes a station break and puts together this year’s Best American collection. Most of the entries, it must be said, are a long way from “above average.” The withering of the few mainstream journals still interested in fiction was a process underway long before Tina Brown stepped off the Concorde, but its effect is still being felt: the majority of pieces here have the sketchy, tentative feel of outlines, first drafts, or’sadder still—mere scribblings rather than fully crafted narratives. Many are simple recollection pieces, like John Updike’s elegiac, unsatisfying “My Father on the Verge” (a young man growing up in small-town Pennsylvania in the 1930s) or Poe Ballantine’s even flatter “The Blue Devils of River Avenue” (a shy suburban boy’s encounter with the disreputable family down the block). The “slice-of-life” genre is beginning to seem more and more like a sitcom in which nothing happens, although Carol Anshaw’s “Elvis Has Left the Building,” about the daily travails of a couple of lesbian friends, manages at least to wrap up several uninteresting characters in a modicum of wit. The more ambitious stories nearly all disappoint: Doran Larson’s “Morphine” offers an undergraduate rendition of Molly Bloom’s soliloquy, while Diane Schoemperlen’s “Body Language” (on the less-than-blissful marriage of “he” and “she” from an anatomical perspective) is only slightly less pretentious. Among such company, more ordinary narratives like Tim Gatreaux’s “Wedding With Children” (an old man attempts to provide some moral direction to his fatherless grandchildren) or Akhil Sharma’s “Cosmopolitan” (an Indian immigrant has an unhappy love affair with an older American woman) come as something of a relief, if not much of a pleasure. For the trade only, as they say: a coffeetable book that few will want to crack.

Pub Date: Oct. 30, 1998

ISBN: 0-395-87515-3

Page Count: 352

Publisher: Houghton Mifflin

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 1, 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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