A welcome reminder of this still-evolving writer’s steadfast mindfulness and clarity of vision.


Often concerned with themes of Catholic faith in both nonfiction (Joan of Arc, 2000) and fiction (Pearl, 2005), the versatile Gordon demonstrates her stylistic staying power in 41 stories written over several decades.

Twenty-two of them are “new and uncollected”; the rest appeared in Temporary Shelter (1987). Taken as a whole, the array demonstrates Gordon’s increasing narrative sophistication. The earlier collection’s title story, for example, deals in a rather flat, straightforward manner with the themes of ethnicity and heritage that dominate her work—in this case, the shame a Polish maid’s 13-year-old son feels for his mother in the presence of her sophisticated, educated employer. Also in the previous volume, “The Only Son of the Doctor” treats a familiar love affair between an urbane middle-aged journalist and a modest country doctor whose adult son ultimately reveals the fissures in their doomed relationship. Yet Gordon’s preoccupation with methods of storytelling, as evinced early on by her humorous reworking of classic fairy-tale themes in “A Writing Lesson,” morphs in the newer stories into several playfully self-conscious narratives. “I Need to Tell Three Stories and to Speak of Love and Death,” for example, begs the reader to help connect three seemingly unrelated tales that end in mortality and ugliness. Similarly, the narrator of “Vision” questions the kind of information a storyteller leaves in and takes out as she ponders a yarn her mother’s best friend spins on the front porch. The more recent stories also have a more muscular, socially conscious quality. The spare, nearly angry “Conversations in Prosperity” shows two older women relying on their easy friendship to shield them from life’s harsh, sad truths, while “Separation” is a dry-as-bones account of a single mother struggling between her love for her son and her own legacy of neglect and abandonment.

A welcome reminder of this still-evolving writer’s steadfast mindfulness and clarity of vision.

Pub Date: Oct. 3, 2006

ISBN: 0-375-42316-8

Page Count: 480

Publisher: Pantheon

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 1, 2006

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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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