Emotionally unflinching stories of considerable power, wonder and humor.




A prize-winning poet (and MacArthur Fellow grant recipient) extends her literary mastery with a debut story collection.

While these stories reflect the poet’s plainspoken virtuosity and elliptical compression, they are very much rooted in her experience in the Pacific Northwest. Perillo (Inseminating the Elephant, 2009, etc.) majored in wildlife management and worked summers at Mount Rainier National Park. Not that she idealizes or sentimentalizes the natural world, but it puts her very human characters in perspective: “There was beauty…and also decay, and the years were just a factory for changing one into the other.” The opening and closing stories (“Bad Boy Number Seventeen,” “Late in the Realm”), as well as one in the middle (“Saint Jude in Persia”), have the same first-person narrator, a young (initially), spirited woman whose love life is undermined by her limited possibilities, as she deals with a sister with Down syndrome and a mother embittered by the husband who deserted them. Funny and sad in equal measure, the stories find the narrator admitting, “I haven’t always proved to be the shrewdest judge of human nature. My romances have left me with a recurring dream in which I’m slashing tires and the tires’ blood is spilling out.” Throughout the fiction, blood ties are tenuous, commitment is provisional, and fate is arbitrary: “She packed her things and headed west, and when she hit the ocean and could go no further she tossed a coin and made a right-hand turn.” Thus do so many of the characters in these stories find themselves in the area around the Puget Sound, which more often seems a last ditch than a last chance. These are characters with grit and survival instincts, but ones who ask, “What was sadness, after all, but the fibrous stuff out of which a life was woven? And what was happiness but a chemical in the brain?”

Emotionally unflinching stories of considerable power, wonder and humor.

Pub Date: May 7, 2012

ISBN: 978-0-393-08353-8

Page Count: 224

Publisher: Norton

Review Posted Online: April 22, 2012

Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 1, 2012

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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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