One of America’s most underrated, important writers, Scott gets better with every book. A must-read.



The prolific, protean Scott’s latest is a collection of ten thematically linked stories that comprise an episodic history of love in the previous century.

The author’s pictorial imagination and gift for narrative economy are vividly displayed in the opening story, “Heaven and Hell,” which offers glimpses into the hearts and minds of members of a 1919 wedding: the demonstrably happy couple, the bride’s ne’er-do-well father, the benevolent uncle who assumes the latter’s responsibilities—even a burly retriever that chases a stick, endangering the life of the boy who throws it. It’s a precisely exfoliating anatomy of the pleasures—and perils—of marital love. The subsequent story, “Stumble,” is an examination of the wasted life of an “easy” girl who seeks happiness in promiscuous sex, and “Worry” looks at maternal love through the story of a warmhearted matron whose children seek risks that will free them from her smothering protectiveness. In “Freeze-Out,” meanwhile, “love at first sight” exposes a self-pitying retiree to the wiles of a family of amoral cardsharps. In the collection’s finest story, “Across from the Shannonso,” a bored apartment dweller can neither explain nor understand her eagerness “to sacrifice her father . . . for the sake of a hoodlum boy” whom her imagination has transformed from an arsonist’s accomplice into a brooding romantic soul. Scott concludes with two ambitious, only partially successful, experiments: a mordant novella, “Or Else,” which imagines four contrasting consequences for its unloved protagonist’s childhood traumas; and a gathering of several brief incidents, “The Lucite Cane,” in which love propels its variously connected characters into fateful chance meetings. Throughout, the author’s abilities to concoct arresting premises instill a quirky sense of menace and enrich her narratives with metaphoric and allegorical implication that keeps the reader riveted to the page.

One of America’s most underrated, important writers, Scott gets better with every book. A must-read.

Pub Date: Dec. 11, 2006

ISBN: 0-316-01345-5

Page Count: 272

Publisher: Back Bay/Little, Brown

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 15, 2006

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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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