An intellectually ambitious if uneven introduction to a talent worth watching.

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THE TORTURER’S APPRENTICE

STORIES

While running the gamut from realism to fabulism to parable, the 14 stories in Biguenet's debut collection share a profound concern: the issue of what constitutes moral behavior.

Aiming more at the mind than the heart, these high-concept exercises in fictional ethics constantly ask what if? At his best, Biguenet can be apparently straightforward about situations that are anything but. In "The Vulgar Soul," the first story here, the narrative takes on a low-key tone to tell about a man who experiences stigmata, first as a disease, then as a lucrative gift, and finally as a spiritual responsibility. In "Fatherhood," a couple's grief over the loss of their unborn child leads them toward a creepy alternative reality worthy of The Twilight Zone that may also offer genuine redemption. In these pieces and others, notably "The Open Curtain," in which a salesman enjoys a few charmed days of clarity as his life slides into failure, and "Lunch With My Daughter," in which a father chooses to keep his parenthood a secret for his daughter's sake, Biguenet weaves a fabric so delicate that it is almost transparent, his message elusive yet haunting. Unfortunately, the author often turns preacher, condemning slavery in "My Slave" and racism in "I Am Not a Jew" in terms most of his readers will find redundant. His weakest stories can be lifeless: "Rose," another narrative of parental grief, is as unpleasantly contrived as "A Battlefield in Moonlight." But Biguenet is a brave writer, forcing the reader to consider uncomfortable realities. "Do Me" is a particularly disturbing exploration of the boundaries of contemporary love within the context of sadomasochism. The title piece, which follows "Do Me," explores the same subject but as a fable, its more formal tone belying its basic brutality.

An intellectually ambitious if uneven introduction to a talent worth watching.

Pub Date: Feb. 1, 2001

ISBN: 0-06-019835-4

Page Count: 192

Publisher: Ecco/HarperCollins

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 15, 2001

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THE THINGS THEY CARRIED

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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EXHALATION

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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