It’s not easy to identify author Kalfus in this debut volume, since its mode, manner, and voice change as with the colors of the chameleon. Perhaps the 14 pieces vary so from having been written over a long a period; many, in any case, are notably less original or adept than others. The ghosts of O. Henry and his legions haunt simple, surprise-ending stories like “Bouquet” (an Irish au pair aghast at the licentiousness of Paris) and “Suit” (a young man being tailored for his appearance in court); others follow the same path but stroll also toward the occult, as in the Jekyll and Hyde “Night and Day You Are the One” and “The Weather in New York” (an apartment-bound man realizing that a snowstorm will never end). Kalfus’s least resonant efforts are his most “realistic,” as in the suburban tale of boyhood cruelty to animals (“Cats in Space”) or the Hemingway-esque effort about coming home again (“Among the Bulgarians”), which lies limp on the page in spite of its echoes of classics like “Soldier’s Home.” The fellow who lusts after his wife’s friend (“Rope Bridge”) has far too little to show or tell for himself, and a Thailand-set tale of human tragedy (“No Grace on the Road”) becomes clumsy and tendentious. Kalfus’s stronger talent lies in less conventional directions the sparkling little essay-pieces of “The Joy and Melancholy Baseball Trivia Quiz,” for example, or the simultaneously historic, surreal, and lovely “The Republic of St. Mark, 1849”). Even then, Kalfus needs to guard against a debilitating coyness of tone, as in his “Invisible Malls” (Marco Polo explains malls to Kublai Khan), but his inventiveness and lyricism here or in “A Line Is a Series of Points” (entire villages wander across the countryside) are his best, and often captivating. A middling mix, with glimmers of real strengths in the offing.

Pub Date: June 19, 1998

ISBN: 1-57131-018-5

Page Count: 210

Publisher: Milkweed

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 1, 1998

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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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