Wherever these stories take the reader, the tone is quintessential McGuane.




A writer renowned for his evocation of the wide-open spaces of the American West (his native Montana in particular) here explores a rewarding range of both geographical and thematic terrain within his second collection (after Nothing But Blue Skies, 1992).

Throughout these ten stories of place and displacement by novelist McGuane (The Cadence of Grass, 2002, etc.), geography forges character and character shapes destiny. It’s a reflection of his consummate command that his fiction can be simultaneously so funny and so bleak. Whether he’s writing in the first or third person (with both narrative approaches prevalent here), his characters contend with minor frustrations and everyday absurdities within lives that just might be pointless, inconsequential beneath the big sky. His settings extend from the West to New England (in both “Aliens” and the concluding title story, the culture clash between Montana and Boston proves crucial) and from the Great Lakes to Key West. As the collection’s penultimate story, “The Refugee” is the longest (comprising more than a quarter of the volume’s pages) and perhaps the most ambitious, reflecting the mind of a suicidal alcoholic who tries to find some semblance of stability on the sea, attempts to come to terms with his role in the death of a friend who had betrayed him (was it an accident or murder?) and ultimately finds himself both marooned and returned to some sort of Eden. Among the other standouts, “Miracle Boy” conjures the slapstick of mourning within the mysteries of family; “Old Friends” details the inertia of the relationship between life-long friends who have never really liked each other; “Ice” finds a man reminiscing about his Midwestern boyhood, in a coming-of-age story that stirs sexual awakening and intimations of mortality; and the darkly comic “The Zombie” relates the tale of a banker’s son determined to retain his virginity and the escort hired by his father to seduce him.

Wherever these stories take the reader, the tone is quintessential McGuane.

Pub Date: July 11, 2006

ISBN: 1-4000-4156-2

Page Count: 256

Publisher: Knopf

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: June 1, 2006

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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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