Another impressive addition to an already impressive oeuvre.



Elegance and versatility—those familiar Barnes strengths define this latest story collection from the distinguished British author. 

Six of these 14 stories are about contemporary relationships; another four are miscellaneous; and there’s a quartet called "At Phil & Joanna’s," presenting four separate evenings of dinner-table conversation. The same hosts and guests form a group of upper-middle-class Londoners; well-fed, well-lubricated, kicking back. Their collective profile is fun-loving, casually erudite, liberal and bawdy. The conversation ranges from dog poop and prosthetic testicles to Latin tags and climate change to an overview of sex and love. Barnes artfully calibrates their dialogue so that it transcends brittle repartee to convey warm conviviality and humanist concern. Two of the relationship stories ("East Wind" and "Trespass") feature male protagonists looking for a mate. In ways both funny and painful, they fumble their approaches to women. Two others are not quite so successful; "Sleeping with John Updike" fails to live up to its risqué title, while in "Gardeners’ World," marital problems are obscured by horticultural detail. Their partial failure is more than redeemed by "Marriage Lines," a wrenching study of a young widower’s grief, and the powerful title story about two marriages. The narrator’s admiration for his parents’ enduring intimacy grows as his own marriage crumbles. To diversify the collection, Barnes moves back in time."Carcassonne" is a piquant inquiry into erotic attraction; the great Italian liberator Garibaldi figures prominently. Further back, in 18th-century Vienna, a most unusual doctor seeks to cure the blindness of a musical prodigy. The formal narration fits the period like a glove ("Harmony"). Most memorable, though, is "The Limner." Long ago, a humble artist traveled on horseback, seeking commissions to paint portraits. Wadsworth was also a deaf mute. He is stiffed by a pompous bureaucrat, but nonetheless gives his undeserving sitter the dignity he craved. It is a moving affirmation of true dignity.

Another impressive addition to an already impressive oeuvre.   

Pub Date: May 1, 2011

ISBN: 978-0-307-59526-3

Page Count: 240

Publisher: Knopf

Review Posted Online: April 6, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 15, 2011

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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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