An uneven but fascinating collection of 20 stories (dating from 1950—68): a welcome companion volume to 1997’s The Springs of Affection, which likewise showcased the work of the late (1916—93) New Yorker staff writer. Many of the pieces here previously appeared in Brennan’s In and Out of Never-Never Land (1969) and Christmas Eve (1974). All are uniformly limpid, precisely phrased glimpses of (mostly) Irish-American women imperfectly adapting to their new lives. In several related stories, set in “Herbert’s Retreat,” a posh Hudson River enclave north of New York City, Brennan bleakly observes the social maladroitness of Leona Harkey, a parvenu trying nervously to “fit in,” and the acidulous preciosity of her permanent guest-mentor, persnickety theater critic Charles Runyon (“Taffeta? Leona, how could you!—). Another group of stories records—quite convincingly—the —adventures,” and even the thoughts and dreams, of Bluebell, an aging Labrador retriever who inhabits a fabricated milieu that’s both old-moneyed exurbia and (it seems, literally) “never-never land.” But the real heart of the collection beats in five superb tales focused with Chekhovian concentration on “little” people vulnerable to both changing personal circumstances and the simple passage of time: the irascible “ladies’-room lady” (“The Holy Terror”) who outlives her usefulness, and takes a petty, ineffectual revenge on her tormentors; the country woman (of “The Beginning of a Long Story”) too “eternally unsure of herself” to accept her family’s unconditional love; the self-deluding “artistic” couple (“The Bohemians”) who render their dutiful son unfit for any life outside their own artificial orbit. Brennan had a real genius tor tracing the downward arcs followed by people who perversely throw away their best chances for happiness. Her finest stories resemble and rival the fiction of Frank O’Connor and Mary Lavin, and are well worth retrieving.

Pub Date: Jan. 17, 2000

ISBN: 1-58243-050-0

Page Count: 320

Publisher: Counterpoint

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 15, 1999

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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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