M*A*S*H, with lots more sex and cursing.

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DON’T MEAN NOTHING

SHORT STORIES OF VIETNAM

Debut assortment of Vietnam pieces, from a nurse who was there, that wants to be a true story collection, but the madcap anecdotes flush with familiar tropes fail to either stand alone or cohere.

A cast of hospital personnel stumbles through the alternate craziness and boredom of life just behind the front lines, all the while struggling to calculate the meaning of the war. In “Butch,” a young Specialist tries to adopt an even younger Vietnamese boy to give himself a clear wartime identity. In “Psychic Hand,” a short-timer nurse palm-reads for a Vietnamese girl whose lifeline has a dot at the end: they’re both about to check out, so to speak. Most often, it’s O’Neill herself who gets in the way of these pieces. In “One Positive Thing,” a pregnant nurse contemplating abortion participates in surgery on another pregnant woman who’s been shot—the scene has the potential to rivet, but the payoff for the character is simply sentimental, where O’Neill could naturally have been colder and more damaged. In “Monkey on Our Backs,” a nurse puts out a contract on a small primate that almost stands for all that is ancient and sacred about Vietnam (the actual Vietnamese characters are little more than cliché furniture), and while the story threatens to become allegory, O’Neill cuts it off before it comes to mean anything. There are nice moments—an M-16 as heavy as a corpse, a nurse who finds a blown-up snapshot of herself hung on a wall as a pinup, the intensity of a moment when an anesthetist decides not to medicate a patient undergoing surgery—but they are random and infrequent. The high-jinks that follow the spiking of a barbecue’s steak sauce in “Drugs” perhaps comes closest to capturing the absurdity of war, but the horror of it is almost absent here, and many of these stories may just as well have come from day camp.

M*A*S*H, with lots more sex and cursing.

Pub Date: Nov. 1, 2001

ISBN: 0-345-44608-9

Page Count: 272

Publisher: Ballantine

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 1, 2001

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THE THINGS THEY CARRIED

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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EXHALATION

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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