Meteoric, and still going up.



Strong first collection from a robotics researcher at MIT who knows, despite it all, that heart is every bit as important as math.

Iagnemma’s prose is always lively, well suited to the quirky characters and odd subjects he tends toward. The fine title story, winner of prizes from Pushcart and the Paris Review, follows a Ph.D. candidate at a failing Michigan engineering institute as he ruminates on history, math, his weird girlfriend, and love in a world that is as complex as an equation, but that refuses solution: “There are elements in nature, I’ve noticed, that cannot be explained or reproduced, that simply are. It’s enough to give a person hope.” “The Phrenologist’s Dream” (of a perfect woman’s skull) is a good excuse for the history of an offbeat science—but shouldn’t the hapless doctor suspect that the perfect skull, when she arrives, might also be a femme fatale? More love between mathematicians comes in “Zilkowski’s Theorem,” a Best American selection, where romantic betrayal might just bleed into the refutation of important theories. A progressive couple (“The Confessional Approach”) in a fanciful world—she designs artistic mannequins, he sells them to gun owners for target practice—go through changes as their lives become more business-oriented. And in “Children of Hunger,” controversial experiments on living subjects provide context for the story of a woman who spends a lifetime in the shadow of the greatness of her scientist husband—and amid the surprising possibility of family. Whether Iagnemma can step outside from these subjects may be in doubt, but he has the lonely man of science down pat: “A scientist’s life, he thought miserably, was like a midnight walk across an unfamiliar field, without a lantern, without even the moon’s faint glow for guidance.”

Meteoric, and still going up.

Pub Date: May 6, 2003

ISBN: 0-385-33593-8

Page Count: 224

Publisher: Dial Books

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 1, 2003

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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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What's most worthy in this hefty, three-part volume of still more Hemingway is that it contains (in its first section) all the stories that appeared together in the 1938 (and now out of print) The Fifth Column and the First Forty-Nine Stories. After this, however, the pieces themselves and the grounds for their inclusion become more shaky. The second section includes stories that have been previously published but that haven't appeared in collections—including two segments (from 1934 and 1936) that later found their way into To Have and Have Not (1937) and the "story-within-a-story" that appeared in the recent The garden of Eden. Part three—frequently of more interest for Flemingway-voyeurs than for its self-evident merits—consists of previously unpublished work, including a lengthy outtake ("The Strange Country") from Islands in the Stream (1970), and two poor-to-middling Michigan stories (actually pieces, again, from an unfinished novel). Moments of interest, but luckiest are those who still have their copies of The First Forty-Nine.

Pub Date: Dec. 2, 1987

ISBN: 0684843323

Page Count: 666

Publisher: Scribner

Review Posted Online: Oct. 7, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 15, 1987

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