Family life is dicey. Tolstoy turned that truism into opera; Knight makes it Muzak.



In two novellas that somehow manage to be both precious and dull, Knight (Goodnight, Nobody, 2003, etc.) offers scenes of mildly dysfunctional domesticity.

The first novella, The Holiday Season, is set in Alabama in the 1990s. The Posey men—Dad, Frank, Ted—are floundering. Mom’s died, and they're witless. Dad nurses the wound of his failed run for Congress while starting his drinking earlier each day. Frank shrugs off dreams of stardom by settling for journeyman work in Shakespeare Express, a Bard's “Greatest Hits” package that tours schools. Only Ted seems to thrive, with beautiful wife Marcy, twin daughters and suburban bliss. And Frank’s eaten up by unacknowledged, condescending envy. When the twins get dream gifts for Christmas, he chafes: “I kept feeling one stop removed from everything or like maybe all this was a set, the ponies and the girls and Ted.” The story brings the family, predictably, more misery as they stagnate in a bog of ambivalence-about-life. Dad is tempted by the French neighbor next door; Frank fantasizes about Marcy; Ted longs for Dad’s approval (even though he’s not sure it's withheld). The brothers attempt strained conversation. And on and on it goes. The second novella, Love at the End of the Year, is somewhat better, mainly because its families are more colorfully creepy, what with 12-year-old Evan Butter “masturbating pretty much nonstop” and Mom threatening Dad with divorce while they're getting lost on their way to a New Year’s party. Whether it’s Kevin and Urqhardt, the obligatory gay couple, teenaged Lulu Fountain, love struck by an older, callous boy, Ike Tiptoe, or sad-eyed Stella, mooning after her ex-husband Boyd, the characters are simultaneously whimsical and too-literary.

Family life is dicey. Tolstoy turned that truism into opera; Knight makes it Muzak.

Pub Date: Nov. 1, 2007

ISBN: 978-0-8021-1857-8

Page Count: 144

Publisher: Grove

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 1, 2007

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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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