A distractingly entertaining second collection, nimbly executed.



Weird boyfriends, bad novels, sexually perverse collegiates.

Almond, author of the collection My Life in Heavy Metal (2002) and the nonfiction Candyfreak (2003), has a nice treasure trove of ideas and a smart way with his characters, but he always seems to lose interest just as the going gets good. The title story is a good example. Here, an editor at a women’s magazine starts a relationship with an odd, short little doctor whom she’s powerfully attracted to despite his childlike tendencies and bedroom ineptitude. The affair goes seriously sour when she meets Chow’s ex and uncovers some secrets; but Almond had an interesting start here, slyly inverting the chick-lit setup with the narrator’s caustic and unsentimental running commentary. It’s too bad he truncates it. Sex is a constant theme, especially in the funny, lascivious teacher-gone-errant “Appropriate Sex” (“This was a Friday in April, one of the last days of the term, and the undergrads were all worked up”). What happens (neurotically slutty student comes on hard to her writing professor, who ends up just sharing a joint with one of the dimmer bulbs in the class) is less important than Almond’s sarcastic limning of the none-too-impressive undergrads the teacher is forced to endure. The masterpiece is “Larsen’s Novel,” about a man with an impossibly pushy best friend, Larsen, who agrees to read that friend’s novel, a 600-page pile of execrable cliché, soon regretting his decision (another reader: “Surely [it was] a labor of love . . . So, too, was the Third Reich”). Almond strains for source material at times—see the lazy bull session that makes up “The Idea of Michael Jackson’s Dick”—and may not include much of great consequence, but the effortless humor throughout compensates for a lot.

A distractingly entertaining second collection, nimbly executed.

Pub Date: April 22, 2005

ISBN: 1-56512-422-7

Page Count: 256

Publisher: Algonquin

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 15, 2005

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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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