THE VIEW FROM BELOW

Nine stories by a San Francisco writer, most depicting the sadnesses of domestic life. The characters we meet here, as in so many debut collections, are mostly children who don—t know how to begin something or grownups who wish they had never started. The title piece, for example, is a recollection of childhood set in1969, contrasting a little girl’s TV viewing of the moon landing with her vaguely untroubled observation of her mother’s alcoholism. —The Splendor of Orchids— is a kind of one-step-forward/two-steps-back narrative, in which we watch the inner confusions that overtake Claire, a young garden- catalogue copywriter living by herself in New York, once she decides to end her affair with a married man: —It had been two weeks since they—d broken up, but she still found herself looking for one of Kenneth’s stray socks under the sofa, a tie draped over the back of a chair.—Another memory play is —Bees for Honey,— a grown man’s recollection of a disturbed childhood playmate and his awareness of the guilt that haunts him over his role in the accident that precipitated her final breakdown. Intimate glimpses of family tension are found in —What Her Sister Wanted— (two girls and their mother wait uncomfortably for their divorced father’s appearance at the younger sister’s birthday party) and —Tell Me Something I Don—t Know— (after the death of his mother, a son descends into petty crime and hooliganism). —Like This—describes a recovering addict’s attempts to stay clean, whereas —Careful— presents the tentative efforts of two graduate students to make their relationship work—though they begin to see the impossibility of it during one camping vacation. Pretty thin gruel: well-crafted and meticulous, but not much of a meal—nor our idea of a feast.

Pub Date: Feb. 15, 1999

ISBN: 0-922811-40-7

Page Count: 168

Publisher: N/A

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 15, 1998

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THE THINGS THEY CARRIED

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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EXHALATION

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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