Comparable to Jhumpa Lahiri’s Pulitzer-winner, Interpreter of Maladies, and very probably the beginning of a fine career.



A strong sense of character and place, and an impressive variety of themes and tones, distinguish this striking debut collection by a talented Indian-born American writer.

The ten stories, set in both India and the US, frequently deal with culture contrast and shock, and make especially good use of narrators and viewpoint characters who only partially understand the experiences they’re relating. For example, preadolescent Chik-Chik, a restaurant delivery boy whose romantic fascination with “The Lodger in Room 726” trembles—as he scarcely realizes—on the brink of a first sexual experience; or the young girl (in “Summer”) who’s molested while (literally) “play-acting” with her teenaged cousin; or the orphaned protagonist of “My Grandfather Dreams of Fences,” who must grow up before he grasps the motivating forces of his eponymous relative’s harsh treatment of less prosperous neighbors. The distances between people are also subtly traversed in the bittersweet title piece, about a mild-mannered husband whose chance viewing of a Western porn film troubles his relationship with his conservative wife; and the moving “Sixteen Days in December,” in which a young journalist’s conflicted feelings for her stroke-ridden father (and mentor) are observed against a background of heightening Hindu/Muslim violence. The best stories are those animated by the more unusual premises: notably “The Sculptor of Sands,” about a young artist whose discovery of a dead woman’s body sharpens his empathy and imagination to the point where he becomes a legendary—and, ultimately, mysteriously elusive—local figure; and “The Curry leaf Tree,” an intriguing fable in which young Dilip Alva, born with “a most sensitive nose” that enables him to distinguish subtle flavor combinations, survives the loss of his “gift,” a traumatic relocation to America, and a rickety marriage to “a woman capable of serving mass-produced, cheese-covered pizza, out of spite.”

Comparable to Jhumpa Lahiri’s Pulitzer-winner, Interpreter of Maladies, and very probably the beginning of a fine career.

Pub Date: April 16, 2002

ISBN: 0-375-42111-4

Page Count: 224

Publisher: Pantheon

Review Posted Online: June 24, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 15, 2002

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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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