Sensitive insights conveyed in elegantly plain prose—an auspicious debut.



Ten stories cast an unsparing yet tender eye on the human condition.

The death or impending loss of a loved one drives every narrative in this poignant collection. Jack Snyder’s daughter Lila, blinded at six in a freak accident, is now 17 and poised for independence, but he’s not really ready to give up being “The Guide” as he takes her to choose a dog. Claire lost her beloved husband to cancer when she was 36; three years later, she clings to grief so tenaciously that she loses Kevin, the good man who loves her. The author so warmly draws shell-shocked Claire and faithful Kevin that we hope for a happier resolution beyond the last page of “Pine,” but in this collection mistakes are mostly irrevocable. Jeremy’s bitter response to an incident of teenage recklessness destroyed his marriage and his relationship with his daughter before “A Country Where You Once Lived” begins, and a visit after 13 years of estrangement merely underscores that ex-wife Cathleen and daughter Zoe have an intimacy based partly on his exclusion. Jeremy’s new love for the much-younger Rose offers hope that fresh starts are possible—“wishes made correctly do come true,” asserts the title character in “Harriet Elliot.” But note that caveat, and people seldom do things correctly here. The collection’s most wrenching piece, the title story, is a monologue by a woman whose arrogant young neighbor builds a six-foot-tall wall on their mutual property line. He doesn’t care that it forces her to park 20 feet from her door, a long way for a woman dying of cancer, or that her devastated husband is trying to figure out how to break the news to their brain-damaged, institutionalized son. Neither Black nor her characters have any use for “the fantasy of putting things to rights,” or “the myth of uncomplicated lives.” Yet there is redemption in finding the courage to love and the wisdom to see clearly.

Sensitive insights conveyed in elegantly plain prose—an auspicious debut.

Pub Date: April 1, 2010

ISBN: 978-1-4000-6857-9

Page Count: 288

Publisher: Random House

Review Posted Online: Dec. 24, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 1, 2010

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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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