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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Old-fashioned short fiction: honest, probing and moving.


One of America’s great novelists (Lost Memory of Skin, 2011, etc.) also writes excellent stories, as his sixth collection reminds readers.

Don’t expect atmospheric mood poems or avant-garde stylistic games in these dozen tales. Banks is a traditionalist, interested in narrative and character development; his simple, flexible prose doesn’t call attention to itself as it serves those aims. The intricate, not necessarily permanent bonds of family are a central concern. The bleak, stoic “Former Marine” depicts an aging father driven to extremes because he’s too proud to admit to his adult sons that he can no longer take care of himself. In the heartbreaking title story, the death of a beloved dog signals the final rupture in a family already rent by divorce. Fraught marriages in all their variety are unsparingly scrutinized in “Christmas Party,” Big Dog” and “The Outer Banks." But as the collection moves along, interactions with strangers begin to occupy center stage. The protagonist of “The Invisible Parrot” transcends the anxieties of his hard-pressed life through an impromptu act of generosity to a junkie. A man waiting in an airport bar is the uneasy recipient of confidences about “Searching for Veronica” from a woman whose truthfulness and motives he begins to suspect, until he flees since “the only safe response is to quarantine yourself.” Lurking menace that erupts into violence features in many Banks novels, and here, it provides jarring climaxes to two otherwise solid stories, “Blue” and “The Green Door.” Yet Banks quietly conveys compassion for even the darkest of his characters. Many of them (like their author) are older, at a point in life where options narrow and the future is uncomfortably close at hand—which is why widowed Isabel’s fearless shucking of her confining past is so exhilarating in “SnowBirds,” albeit counterbalanced by her friend Jane’s bleak acceptance of her own limited prospects.

Old-fashioned short fiction: honest, probing and moving.

Pub Date: Nov. 12, 2013

ISBN: 978-0-06-185765-2

Page Count: 304

Publisher: Ecco/HarperCollins

Review Posted Online: Sept. 1, 2013

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 15, 2013

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