A debut collection of 13 stories, most of them portraying the unhappy domestic life of contemporary Americans. Brown seems to have set out to reverse Tolstoy’s famous dictum by offering us a group of unhappy families that appear remarkably similar, at least from the outside. Mad or terminally ill mothers predominate, as do drug-addicted children going through detox, and Vietnam vets who never quite pulled themselves together. “Thief” is a young man’s recollections of his adolescence, during which he responded to the trauma of a mother’s mental illness through kleptomania—even going so far as to steal presents in order to impress girls. “Animal Stories” is also a son’s account, this one being the reminiscence of his mother’s death of a brain tumor in the summer of 1972. In “Dog Lover,” a heroin addict and his blind Vietnam vet father—both haunted by the death of the mother and wife who killed herself years ago—argue religion and live unhappily together amid a litter of puppies being raised by the son. “Detox” portrays life inside a county detoxification center where one of the inmates plots an escape. “The Coroner’s Report” describes the daily routines of a county coroner as he trains a new employee in the art of informing survivors of the deaths of their loved ones, while the title piece relates the experiences of an ambulance driver who delivers human organs to hospitals in time (he hopes) for successful transplant operations. “The Sadness of the Body” proceeds in a somewhat more postmodern vein, examining in mock-medical terminology (—The spleen suffers from terminally low self- esteem. It refuses to talk to the rest of the body—) the physiology of an alcoholic Vietnam vet who, back in 1968, “was in charge of the body count.” New wine that needs aging: overwritten, ponderous, and crammed with the sorts of platitudes (—It seems that what we know makes us sad and what we don—t know is who we are—) that only undergraduates could find profound.

Pub Date: April 1, 1999

ISBN: 0-393-04721-0

Page Count: 192

Publisher: Norton

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 15, 1999

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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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