A first collection of 12 stories, winner of the Iowa Short Fiction Award for 1997. Henry's young characters decry the existential angst of the generation that preceded theirs, and yet often end up embracing it. In ``Mouthfeel,'' for instance, a married couple seems to have a happy future, until the wife begins to see pointlessness all around her and goes mad—the implication seeming to be that madness may be a sane response to a culture obsessed with throw-away goods, meaningless sex, and money that can never buy happiness. In the strange ``Motherhurt,'' Henry highlights depression in ordinary surroundings by wildly exaggerating the rituals that families go through to cheer up their own—in this case, a mother. The rituals begin to seem extreme, even bizarre. Henry appears to want to argue that insanity is only what we say it is, and that ``normal'' behavior is never far from insanity. ``Congressman Spoonbender,'' told in an exact, detached style, concerns an aging congressman who's losing his sense of purpose. He calls his mistress back in Ohio, who's drunk and getting drunker, to find his bearings, but she can't help, can't even understand him. Finally, Henry takes a rather maudlin turn in ``The Prodigal Corpse,'' in which the narrator's father returns from the grave to make a few astringent comments about life and death and to settle one score with his wife, who for 20 years was afraid of the word ``penis.'' After he's made her say the word, he's content to return to the grave. Ann Beattie, final judge for the award, compares Henry's sense of humor to Donald Barthelme's, and there is indeed a kind of skewed, grim, and even misanthropic comedy lurking here that may be what gives most promise to this debut.

Pub Date: Oct. 27, 1997

ISBN: 0-87745-610-0

Page Count: 152

Publisher: Univ. of Iowa

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 15, 1997

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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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