The narrator’s callowness undercuts the sophistication of his topic.



Tired collection of S&M stories—hardly a slap, much less a tickle, in the bunch.

Elliott (Happy Baby, 2004, etc.) explains in his introduction that enough of these pieces contain autobiographical components to make the whole collection serve as a memoir. If that’s true, too bad for him, not because he’s had such a hard time finding the right partner to dominate him in a consensual S&M relationship, but because his relationships are so mind-numbingly dull. The introduction contains stock perorations about the importance of sexual freedom in our buttoned-up culture and the benefits of openness about sex in general. That’s all fine, of course, except that story by story, the hint that dangerous truths are about to be revealed in the service of such freedom leads to nothing. The 11 roughly chronological stories share the same narrator, who moves from the drug scene in Chicago to the bondage scene in San Francisco, driven by desires he does not fully understand, but which nonetheless seem to guide his every waking moment. He doesn’t find it at all difficult to meet women willing to dominate him, but most of the stories are about how such relationships fail to nourish him either emotionally or spiritually. He either gets what he wants from partners he doesn’t really like, or he doesn’t know how to get what he wants because he doesn’t know the rules of such sex play. Eventually, he learns those rules, and finds Eden, with whom he has a nice, normal relationship that incorporates plenty of the domination he enjoys. The narrator has a knack for descriptions of sex that walk a fine line between the clinical and the sensational, but for all that, he tends to fall back on unsatisfying and clichéd pop-psych analyses of why he likes to be dominated. His emotional fulfillment turns out to be rather too sweet a dish to end the collection.

The narrator’s callowness undercuts the sophistication of his topic.

Pub Date: Oct. 28, 2006

ISBN: 1-57344-255-0

Page Count: 144

Publisher: Cleis

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 1, 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