Tharoor is clearly a monumental talent, and his debut is a pleasure, from the first page to the last.

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SWIMMER AMONG THE STARS

Tharoor’s debut story collection ranges widely across geography, between centuries, among circumstances.

In the first story, a woman, the last speaker of an unnamed language, is interviewed by a handful of anthropologists. “Please speak as it comes naturally to you,” they tell her, so they can record the language before it dies out completely. She finds herself making up a story for them: a bride takes off on a rocket after realizing she’d always wanted to be an astronaut and never a bride. But because there is no word for “astronaut” in the woman’s language, she constructs one herself, from suffixes that literally mean “swimmer among the stars.” So language becomes both the setting and the means for exploration, for wonder. The idea echoes through the collection’s other stories. In “Tale of the Teahouse,” a small city prepares to be overtaken by Genghis Khan’s army: men and women sip tea and munch pastries as they speculate on the habits and customs of the marauders. In “Elephant at Sea,” an Indian diplomat assists in the laborious transportation of an elephant to Morocco, a gift for the Moroccan princess. Tharoor, who presented the popular BBC program Museum of Lost Objects, seems equally at home in the present and in the distant past. His debut work of fiction is a truly global collection: he skips as easily between continents as if he were jumping rope. Sometimes he specifies the time period and setting of a story; other times, you’re left to wonder. Either way, he takes obvious delight in the playful, the gently absurd. His prose can be elegant, ironic, deadpan. Just as often, it is sweetly melancholic.

Tharoor is clearly a monumental talent, and his debut is a pleasure, from the first page to the last.

Pub Date: March 14, 2017

ISBN: 978-0-374-27218-0

Page Count: 256

Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Review Posted Online: Dec. 15, 2016

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 1, 2017

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THE THINGS THEY CARRIED

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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EXHALATION

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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