Still, an impressive start for this Bakeless Prize winner (2003) with a lean, efficient style and an understanding of the...




Twelve stories, many set in New Bedford, in the tradition of Andre Dubus and Raymond Carver, illuminate the lives of working-class people with moments of rare beauty.

In “Wheatback,” a 17-yeat-old boy visiting his father in a nursing home has a moment of unexpected intimacy with a 104-year-old resident. “Fun with Mammals” begins, “Mother’s Day in the Year of the Rat and I’m riding shotgun for my brother-in-law Phil in a borrowed flatbed semi as we throttle north on Interstate 91 toward Canada, but instead of packing a firearm, I’m trying to keep a wine cork on the tip of a nine-inch hypodermic, just in case the narwhal wakes up ahead of schedule.” After a few wry twists (the whale, apparently in labor, ejects a small man in a wetsuit, a client Phil was trying to smuggle to Canada), Duval zeroes in on the moment when the narrator decides he has to take charge: “Let’s get a move on. We need to get this narwhal to the sea, and I mean now.” It’s a subtle moment, but the shift from ride-along to authority feels authentic, reminding us that morality often revolves around one individual’s small choices. A similar moral dilemma is at the heart of “Bakery,” a powerful story about a man who’s lost his business and takes a job working nights at a baking company; in confronting a sadistic bully, he finds himself forced to choose between passivity and violence. Oddly, the title story is the slightest: a slice of nightlife where two brothers-in-law, drunk on Christmas Eve, pick up three equally drunk strangers who offer them a glimpse of nudity.

Still, an impressive start for this Bakeless Prize winner (2003) with a lean, efficient style and an understanding of the brutality of life on the economic margins.

Pub Date: July 28, 2004

ISBN: 0-618-44140-9

Page Count: 192

Publisher: N/A

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: June 1, 2004

Did you like this book?

No Comments Yet


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

Did you like this book?

No Comments Yet

Visionary speculative stories that will change the way readers see themselves and the world around them: This book delivers...

Our Verdict

  • Our Verdict
  • GET IT

  • Kirkus Reviews'
    Best Books Of 2019

  • New York Times Bestseller


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

Did you like this book?

No Comments Yet