As stand-alone stories, they mostly work, but in the context of a collection, the author’s lack of empathy for his...




Debut collection of nine dispassionate short stories from a 2004 National Magazine Award finalist in fiction.

In “A Cryptograph,” Sharon searches for her missing son, wandering the city with her only clue: a paint-dusted stencil in the shape of a tank. One of Sharon’s elementary-school students, Eaton Slavin, remembers seeing the image painted on a telephone pole and offers to take Sharon there. At the site, Sharon paints a message for her son; when stopped by the police, she lets them believe that Eaton is responsible and watches silently as he is taken away. “1987, The Races” recounts an unusual joint-custody afternoon. After seeing his gambler father humiliated at the track, an 11-year-old boy decides to desert dad and telephones his mother to come pick him up. In the title story (first published in the Atlantic), Bobby, a sewer-treatment employee, reunites with his former high-school football coach in a hare-brained scheme to kidnap the coach’s daughter from the world of pornography. Once they arrive at her Los Angeles home, Bobby discovers he doesn’t know the full extent of the father and daughter’s past. The best of the lot is the almost-novella “Nepal.” A glazier named Thomas, hired to finish a castle in southern Missouri in 1922, is restoring the greenhouse when he meets Carmen, English niece of the wealthy owners. She was sent to Missouri to recover from the death of her fiancé, killed in the war, and Thomas bears more than a passing resemblance to the dead man. While Carmen’s obsession with him lands Thomas a prestigious stained-glass assignment, it also culminates in a near-tragedy.

As stand-alone stories, they mostly work, but in the context of a collection, the author’s lack of empathy for his characters becomes off-putting.

Pub Date: May 16, 2006

ISBN: 1-59692-168-4

Page Count: 275

Publisher: MacAdam/Cage

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 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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