A short, quirky and sometimes-compelling book from the author of The Flamethrowers (2013).


Three offbeat tales that border on the surreal yet are curiously (and paradoxically) anchored in a version of historical reality.

In the first story, “The Great Exception,” an unnamed admiral tells a queen he believes the Earth is pear-shaped rather than round and requests money to allow him to fulfill his vision of exploration. This she grants him, though his voyage concludes with the natives of “Kuba” cooking and eating him. (First, however, they sever his toes so he can't “tromp inland and subjugate the island.”) While awaiting word of the disposition of the admiral’s voyage, the queen pines for him with an intensity bordering on the sexual. In “Debouchment,” despite a woman’s disclaimer that life on an island (also reminiscent of Cuba) is not especially violent, a faith healer provides hope to the people in his illegal radio broadcasts—all this in a landscape where there are “humans hanging in the trees beyond the security fence.” The final story is the most complex and subtle, and it gives the collection its title. The action unfolds explicitly in Havana in 1952 against a backdrop of Batista's rise to power; it focuses on the mysterious Rachel K, a “zazou” dancer from Paris who entertains (in all senses) her male audience and particularly gets the attention of Christian de la Mazière, a French Nazi now living on the island after having been sentenced to five years in a rather cushy prison.

A short, quirky and sometimes-compelling book from the author of The Flamethrowers (2013).

Pub Date: Feb. 10, 2015

ISBN: 978-0-8112-2421-5

Page Count: 96

Publisher: New Directions

Review Posted Online: Nov. 29, 2014

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 15, 2014

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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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