A varied and absorbing collection of 16 stories by the Croatian-American author of Apricots from Chernobyl (not reviewed) and Yolk (1995). The influences of Kafka, Isaac Bashevis Singer, and Bruno Schulz are traceable throughout Novakovich’s unsettling fiction, in which violence and death often lie just beneath ostensibly benign comic surfaces. Many of his protagonists are survivors of “the Balkan wars”: specifically, Serbia’s Yolk oppression of Croatia. “Fritz: A Fable”—in which a dog’s hatred for a cat deftly allegorizes ethnic and nationalistic enmity—brilliantly updates the beast fable, and there are irresistibly lively pictures of children’s ability to thrive in even hostile environments in stories like “Ice” and the delightfully anecdotal “The Devil’s Celluloid Tail.” A handful set in America memorably limn the immigrant experience (especially “The End,” which explores, in a densely packed 20 pages, the lingering culture shock endured by a Croatian family). The best of these pieces, which analyze the alienated states of people who regret or cannot make sense of their past allegiances, include “Sheepskin,” the confession of a war victim who murders the wrong man in what he thinks is an act of justified vengeance, then pursues his victim’s widow; “Rye Harvest,” the tale of an immigrant desperately seeking security who finally reaches the US only to learn he’ll be immediately deported; and “A Free Fall,” which describes with wonderfully mingled humor and pathos the whole arc of its disabled narrator’s life, “from sperm to worm.” Novakovich’s characters aren’t just survivors; they’re energetic, hopeful souls whose appetite for life is best expressed by their exuberant, playful sexuality—for which their author repeatedly finds fresh, amusing metaphors (during sex, a woman —felt as though she were a computer accessory, for him to move his cursor around, or, more likely, a bit of physical to augment his virtual reality—). First-rate fiction, from one of the best short-story writers of the decade.

Pub Date: May 1, 1998

ISBN: 1-55597-271-3

Page Count: 216

Publisher: Graywolf

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 15, 1998

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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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