``You skitter over the surface of things. Your feelings have no substance,'' remarks a character in Solwitz's first collection. Unfortunately, it's a judgment that could also apply to this sometimes affecting but ultimately disappointing compilation. Social and political contradictions, the transcendence of personal histories, and hierarchies of victimhood are the themes explored here, mainly by women in their 30s who feel immobilized by a conviction that everyone else is more certain about things than they themselves are. Each story turns on a startling event that yanks the protagonist out of confused moral relativism. In ``Editing,'' a filmmaker considers a second marriage while reminiscing about her first. A memory of a pilgrimage for enlightenment is compromised by a highly prejudicial take on Indian life, and burdened by a weirdly symbolic attack on a sacred icon. ``If You Step on a Crack'' evokes the feel of Chicago's Wrigleyville neighborhood on game day, complete with rude young men urinating in alleys. When a woman who is preoccupied with an impending biopsy lashes out at an unstable, violent man, he rams her house with his car, inspiring a romantic reconciliation between her and her emotionally distant husband. ``Polio,'' the only tale that hasn't appeared previously in literary magazines, powerfully depicts the quietly heartbreaking protectiveness familiar to parents of a slow learner. But when the family undertakes a camping trip with friends who have a quick-witted child, Solwitz is so determined to make and underline a point about rising to the occasion that she has the kids' tent get set on fire. Though sometimes richly characterized, the stories are too often undermined by an obsession with competitive suffering. A rape victim who struggles with the complicated aftermath in ``Mercy'' begrudges her husband's Buddhist friend, who had a much worse rape experience but let it ``pass through without touching her.'' An admirably ambitious collection that's held back by its own earnestness from reaching the larger themes waiting beneath the surface.

Pub Date: May 15, 1997

ISBN: 1-889330-01-9

Page Count: 248

Publisher: Sarabande

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 15, 1997

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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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