Masterful stories that peel away at the thin border between everyday life and profane violence in modern-day Mexico.


Twelve crime-tinted short stories from an American writer who lives part-time in Mexico.

There’s a Carver-esque quality to these painterly portraits of everyday people living in and around Mexico City. Barkan (Before Hiroshima: The Confession of Murayama Kazuo and Other Stories, 2011, etc.) brings a journalist’s eye to his stories and lends each of his primary characters a believable sympathy and often a life-changing moment. Despite the inherent compassion in many of these stories, there’s also an underpinning of violence from Mexico’s ongoing drug war that gives them a very unsettled air. In the opener, “The Chef and El Chapo,” a highly trained chef is faced with the unenviable task of making a delicious dish for the infamous head of the Sinaloa Cartel—using only two ingredients. Desperate to save a restaurant full of potential victims from harm, the chef dishes up slices of Wagyu beef seasoned with a child’s blood. In “The God of Common Names,” a Jewish schoolteacher tries to protect a star-crossed romance between two of his students and learns a hard lesson about faith and redemption. In “I Want to Live,” an angry cancer patient confronts a famous and beautiful woman about her scars. Sometimes the violence in these stories is casual, as related by the narrator of “Acapulco,” who blithely tells a tale of nightclubbing that ends in an execution. Yet in the very next story, “The Kidnapping,” the violence is visceral and ugly and very real. “The cry from that woman, there was no faking there,” says the narrator. “They take a pair of kitchen shears. They run it up along the skin. They scrape your knuckles with the edge of the blade of the scissors, until they bleed. I know how they do it, 'cause later they took one of my fingers off and sent it to my family. This is what they do.”

Masterful stories that peel away at the thin border between everyday life and profane violence in modern-day Mexico.

Pub Date: Jan. 24, 2017

ISBN: 978-1-101-90629-3

Page Count: 304

Publisher: Hogarth/Crown

Review Posted Online: Nov. 1, 2016

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 15, 2016

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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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