Ambitious writing, but, for the reader, more effortful than rewarding.




From poet and writer Svoboda (A Drink Called Paradise, 1999), a novella and 14 small and usually gnomic stories in a collection that has some moments of allure but puzzles and poses more than it stirs.

In the stories, Svoboda has a way of setting aside the credible in exchange either for a highly oblique way of telling or an archness in tone that then becomes what sustains the piece—as in "Sundress," about a derelict but highly glib couple who pretend to be house-sitters, or "Electricity" (about self-involved and uncaring parents), a complexly daring but unmoving piece. At times, the self-consciousness simply overwhelms what could in fact be moving, as in "Doll," about a brother and sister in childhood; the less believable "Cave Life," about two Flamenco dancers beaten down by a snowy winter; or "Psychic," a kind of trick O. Henry tale. Yet at some moments the power of real life does rise up out of Svoboda's words, as in "Petrified Woman," about a mother tyrannizing her grown daughter, or "Party Girl," a pitch-perfect rendering of teenaged girls at a slumber party. The title novella, filling something over half the volume, tries hard to lift emotion up out of squalor, but, by and large, the squalor wins. Having previously been institutionalized, Svoboda's narrator now lives in a trailer court that seems almost the pinnacle of grotesquerie and ruin. Semi-wild kids run around, the narrator (known as "the trash lady") survives on cat food and hot dogs, and in the trailers around her, when TV isn't being watched, there are sex, threats, beatings, and, before end, will be torture, madness, and murder. The trailer girl, trying to help just one lost victim, observes all as best she can, a kind of parallel to the herd of cows that gaze from the other side of the gulch.

Ambitious writing, but, for the reader, more effortful than rewarding.

Pub Date: March 1, 2001

ISBN: 1-58243-085-3

Page Count: 240

Publisher: Counterpoint

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 15, 2001

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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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