A wispy second collection (after Bodies of Water, 1990) of 11 often inchoate stories from the Jamaican-born author of, among others, Free Enterprise (1993). Mostly told in present tense and dominated by brief sentence fragments, these are expressions of cultural and ethnic dislocation and conflict whose protagonists are, generally, Caribbeans either possessed by visions of American wealth and security (as in the title piece) or struggling to understand the imperfect fulfillment of their fantasies once they’ve emigrated. Cliff’s prose is assured and rhythmic, but there’s virtually no dramatic tension in the majority of these sketches (several really can’t be called stories). Some verge on sociological reportage (“Apache Tears”); a few seem autobiographical (“Stan’s Speed Shop,” “Wartime,” and especially a tale of former lovers’ reunited: “Art History”). But the most frustrating inclusion is “A Public Woman,” which, though fascinating in its elliptical account of a courtesan’s murder a century ago, is clearly only a prÇcis—Cliff’s notes, if you will—of a story she hasn’t written yet. Vivid descriptions help, as do recurring elements—such as the use of American movies as examples of possessions and states of being to which her frequently indigent characters aspire (“Some of our best times are spent in the dark, thrilled by the certainty that in the dark anything can happen”). Accordingly, Cliff succeeds best with the nicely developed “Monster,” about an ardent newlywed determined to bond with his Jamaican bride’s family by stubbornly completing a screening of the classic horror film Frankenstein—even after the theater catches fire. Better yet is the volume’s opening story, “Transactions,” which traces the grimly comic consequences of an American traveler’s purchase of a defiant young girl from her impoverished family. Apart from these two, the momentum is essentially downhill in a disappointing patchwork publication from a writer who’s capable of much better work than this.

Pub Date: May 15, 1998

ISBN: 0-395-90129-4

Page Count: 128

Publisher: N/A

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 15, 1998

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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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