Uneven overall—but its best stories reaffirm that Novakovich is one of the great American writers of recent emergence.



The Croatian-American author’s third collection offers 11 darkly comic stories about “Yugoslavia. Wars. Emigrants. Disappearing places.”

Those subjects are enumerated in “59th Parallel,” one of three stories focused on Balkan immigrants in America. Its narrator is displaced in numerous ways—as he rides the New York subway in the wake of the World Trade Center catastrophe, converses with an attractive redhead and, when nothing further develops, relates his experience and observes that “after 9/11, it’s nice not to have a plot, or big events.” A similar willed flatness limits the effectiveness of the story of a solitary immigrant college professor’s encounter with a straying wife and her suspicious husband (“Night Guests”); and the account of a Slovenian-American writer’s family trip to Russia, and frustratingly romantic night at the Bolshoi Ballet (“Tchaikovsky’s Bust”). But when Novakovich returns to the Balkans, he’s in his element. “The Stamp” wryly fictionalizes the assassination of the archduke Ferdinand, which precipitated WWI. The murderous legacy of Slobodan Milosevic takes numerous ingeniously seriocomic forms: the sexual dysfunction experienced during a “half-Serb, half-Croat” immigrant woman’s misconceived dalliance with a fast-talking countryman (“Spleen”); a Serbian grocer’s indecision whether to emigrate with his family, as bombs keep falling (“Neighbors”); and a Bosnian soldier’s accusation of betrayal when he attempts to follow newly adopted Buddhist principles (“Hail”). Civilian and pacifist protagonists suffer increasing privations and indignities in two longer, more ambitious stories (“Ribs”; “The Bridge Under the Danube”). And in two masterpieces, Novakovich traces the descent into war fervor of a thoughtful schoolboy who loves the exhilaration of winter and fears global warming (“Snow Powder”); and the roiling emotions of a cardiac patient who forms a strange relationship with his potential donor, then finds an unconventional path to renewed vitality (“A Purple Story”).

Uneven overall—but its best stories reaffirm that Novakovich is one of the great American writers of recent emergence.

Pub Date: Sept. 1, 2005

ISBN: 0-06-058399-1

Page Count: 256

Publisher: Perennial/HarperCollins

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 1, 2005

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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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