A mixed bag: not as satisfying as Kalfus’ recent novels, though technically accomplished and often with great insight into...


A gathering of new stories by Kalfus (Equilateral, 2013, etc.), drawing on his long-established interests in history, science, and at least a few of the seven mortal sins. 

A self-satisfied French financier “in the service of the public” luxuriates in the oversized bathroom of an oversized deluxe hotel in New York, reflecting on a pattern of sexual behavior that has landed him in the newspapers and in court—and on the legal and political radar of his home country as well, since “Sarkozy is another Nixon” keen to put evidence about his enemies, however gathered, to bad use. If the reader connects with a certain legal case much in the news of late involving a French financial wizard and an African hotel housekeeper, then it’s certainly no accident; the value Kalfus adds, so to speak, often involves illuminating certain prurient details (“With her eyes closed and her skirt pulled up, she was intently fingering herself”) while examining the psychology of a man who blends an unhealthy dose of paranoia with a host of very real enemies. Whether those enemies are deserved or not is for the reader to judge, but Kalfus’ titular novella, detached and sometimes stilted, won’t do much to engage his or her moral compass, well-written though it is. The shorter stories tend to be less fraught than all that; one is a seemingly tossed-off vignette about a spell in the hygienist’s chair (“Given the long, bloody history of my gingivitis, I go in for a periodontal cleaning every three months”), another an obligatory homage to Borges, still others less obvious nods to Borges, some quite effective, as when Kalfus imagines the possibilities of resurrecting a language “that is not spoken by more than one other living person.” In one of the best pieces, human law meets quantum physics; in one of the least successful, a would-be writer laments how hard it is to be a would-be writer.

A mixed bag: not as satisfying as Kalfus’ recent novels, though technically accomplished and often with great insight into the curious ways of people.

Pub Date: May 12, 2015

ISBN: 978-1-62040-085-2

Page Count: 272

Publisher: Bloomsbury

Review Posted Online: March 2, 2015

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 15, 2015

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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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