Unusual and charming stories that successfully revive a nearly forgotten form of storytelling. One hopes we will hear more...



Echoes of Isaac Bashevis Singer, Sholom Aleichem and S.Y. Agnon sound throughout this high-concept collection’s engaging stories.

Keats (The Pathology of Lies, 1999) frames the tales with a “Foreword” in which scholar Jay Katz summarizes the Talmudic concept of the Lamedh-Vov: those 36 righteous individuals upon whose continued existence the survival of humanity depends. He then offers 12 of their stories, gathered from as many villages. Later an “Afterword” announces Katz’s mysterious disappearance, but hints that the remaining 24 stories may be likewise “discovered.” The righteous encountered in these stories are humble souls burdened with responsibilities that prove to have broad universal applications. Examples include a naïve fisherman (“Alef the Idiot,” who rather too closely recalls Singer’s “Gimpel the Fool”), gifted with an ability to love that transforms even his superior, shrewish wife into a wiser being; a failed circus performer (“Heyh the Clown”) whose ingenuous talent to amuse warms the heart and awakens the love of a melancholy monarch; and a simple bricklayer (“Yod-Alef the Murderer”), chosen by lot to introduce death into a village “once forgotten by the grim reaper.” Though each story is given a convincing folkloric texture, several do not persuasively develop their invariably intriguing premises. There are two brilliant exceptions. “Zayin the Profane” recounts the spiritual odyssey of an apothecary’s daughter who adopts her father’s employment of hopeful placebos, accepts responsibility for the “arrogance” she has thus shared and, in an entirely unexpected way, becomes a renowned healer. “Yod the Inhuman” concerns a widowed scholar who fashions from clay a beautiful and submissive golem. His creation endures severe hardships, achieves prosperity and high position and assumes a more-than-human compassionate humanity.

Unusual and charming stories that successfully revive a nearly forgotten form of storytelling. One hopes we will hear more of these Lamedh-Vov and their all-too-human struggles and triumphs.

Pub Date: Feb. 1, 2009

ISBN: 978-0-8129-7897-1

Page Count: 226

Publisher: Random House

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 15, 2008

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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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