These 17 tales explore personal and familial relationships with both pathos and humor—and all are well worth reading.


Masterful stories by a writer of great lyrical gifts.

Upton focuses on personal relationships, especially the immediacy and estrangement that emerge from the intensity of family life. The first story, “The Ideal Reader,” blends fact and fantasy as the narrator presents herself as the biographer of Malcolm Alfred Kulkins, a fictional literary lion and supposed friend of Truman Capote and other glitterati. Mysteriously, Kulkins had published almost nothing during the last 17 years of his life, a period dating from the suicide of Seyla Treat, one of his former loverswith whom he had a daughter, Flame. The biographer ultimately learns that talent is passed across generations when she intuits that some priceless material supposedly left by Kulkins might have been forged by Flame instead. “The Tao of Humiliation” (which one character within the story mishears as the “cow” of humiliation) introduces us to Barry, Everett and Lucas, three men on a retreat in the woods who are forced to confront some unsavory moments of their pasts—and in their farcical misadventures, they don’t seem to have learned from their mistakes. One of the best stories is the wryly comic “You Know You’ve Made It When They Hate You.” Here, a community-theater drama critic continually savages the performances of Molly Crane, a hapless local actress, but by the end of the story, they literally find themselves in hot water when they share a hot tub, and she realizes that she’s “as miserable at being a wife as she was at being an actress.” Upton specializes in ending her stories with epiphanies that can be searing in their poignancy.

These 17 tales explore personal and familial relationships with both pathos and humor—and all are well worth reading.

Pub Date: May 13, 2014

ISBN: 978-1-938160-32-5

Page Count: 304

Publisher: BOA Editions

Review Posted Online: April 3, 2014

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 15, 2014

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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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