Extremely well-executed (so to speak), but it still seems more like a stunt than an artistically necessary stratagem.




Decapitated heads give us their final thoughts in 62 very short stories from Pulitzer Prize–winner Butler (Good Scent from a Strange Mountain, 1992, etc.).

The author’s previous collection, Had a Good Time (2004), also had an overarching premise, but inventing the life experiences behind postcard texts isn’t nearly as bizarre as his launching pad here. Two opening quotes inform us that a severed head retains consciousness for 90 seconds after it’s severed, and that “in a heightened state of emotion, we speak at the rate of 160 words per minute.” So each of these monologues, most by historical figures, contains 240 words, not a lot in which to capture the essence of someone’s existence. Still, the ever-ingenious Butler manages to create some haunting moments as he moves through time from a hunter beheaded by a saber-toothed tiger in 40,000 b.c. through his own imagined demise in 2008 (decapitated by an elevator door, it appears). A 19th-century French criminal seems to almost welcome the guillotine’s “ferocious embrace” in his frighteningly erotic musings. A Chinese wife crippled by foot-binding cries, “please, before my head, cut off my feet.” A baroness killed on Hitler’s orders nostalgically recalls the decadent pleasures of Weimar Germany and sees her executioner dressed in white tie and tails, just like the emcee in Cabaret. Several creepy entries are reminiscent of the style of murder Middle Eastern terrorists prefer for dispatching their hostages (mercifully, Daniel Pearl is not among them), and the thoughts of a Muslim woman beheaded by fatwa powerfully evoke her imprisonment behind the veil. But the primary emphasis here is existential rather than political; people remember the caress of a mother or a lover, the joys or traumas from which they have just been finally separated. Thematic unity is the only thing missing: The volume as a whole doesn’t cohere into anything more significant than the sum of its oddly beautiful parts.

Extremely well-executed (so to speak), but it still seems more like a stunt than an artistically necessary stratagem.

Pub Date: Sept. 1, 2006

ISBN: 0-8118-5614-3

Page Count: 264

Publisher: Chronicle Books

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 15, 2006

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