Poet Block’s story debut is a find: droll tales full of real, rumpled, irony-laden life. Even the weaker links here—the more linear stories—offer their passing if humbler pleasures, as in the tales of a high-school band whose leader marches it actually out to pasture (—The Gothenburg Marching Band—), a farmer who keeps a chimpanzee (—A Bed-Time Story—), or two toughs so jealous of a local boy made good that they want to murder him (—The Stanley Andrews Story—). When a nun, though, runs out of gas outside a farmer’s house (—St. Anthony and the Fish—), then moves in and transforms his life, the result deepens gracefully into real seriousness (—At night, sometimes, Ned could feel . . . nothing creep right up to the house and almost stare in the windows—). Though Garrison Keillor is better on the air than on the page, Block can catch the tone and pace of an oral Keillor and tack it down for keeps, as in —Land of the Midnight Blonde,— about life in the Fargo of today. And at his very best, Block turns the dreariness of existence in Nebraska or the Dakotas into something approaching musical hymns to humanity—in stories like the 1918-set —Zadoc Xenophon Cannot View Bright New Moons. Can Vera Montague?—, about a spinster liberated through learning to type; or —Demon in the Closet,— the positively uproarious tale of a pregnancy in the family; or —The Dirty Shame Hotel— itself, about the denizens of a flea-bag hotel, which has the bleakness of an Edward Hopper painting, the happy tumult of a Calder circus, and the lyricism of a Dylan Thomas—and features, among other remarkable characters, a professor set on explaining —the physics of human desire— by proving that —both light and gravity work on the principle of suction.— A Sherwood Anderson for our time—funny, ironic, inventive, brimming with sympathy.

Pub Date: June 1, 1998

ISBN: 0-89823-187-6

Page Count: 160

Publisher: N/A

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 1, 1998

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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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