Graceful but with few surprises.



Romantic collapses and mismatches abound, often in all-too-familiar ways, in the debut story collection from Barbash (On Top of the World, 2003, etc.).

If Raymond Carver had lived in Manhattan, he might have delivered stories like “The Break,” in which a serious author despairs over the low-rent, bosomy waitress her college-age son hooks up with, or “Balloon Night,” in which a man tries to cover up for his estranged wife’s absence at a party celebrating the Thanksgiving Day parade. (His apartment offers a view of the parade balloons being inflated, hence the title.) The Carver-esque strokes are evident: The clipped style, the bad romantic choices, the sense that the protagonists are victims of self-delusion, a tad too dim to recognize the awfulness of their predicaments. If the approach is derivative, Barbash at least has clear empathy for the many adolescents who inhabit his stories: In “Howling at the Moon,” a teenager awkwardly adjusts to his mother’s relationship to a wealthy man, the boy calibrating his movements among his possible future stepsiblings, while the boy in “January” takes a certain glee in watching his mother’s new boyfriend stumble. Yet each busted-love tale moves to well-worn conclusions, from the foolhardy May-December romance (“Spectator”) to the story about a man anxious about one of his students dating his son (“Her Words”). Barbash has a gift for crispness and clarity, and he can be entertaining when he busts out of the upscale dirty-realist groove, as in an epistolary story in which a tennis academy headmaster loses his grip on a star student. But Barbash's attempts to explore class conflict lead to missteps like “Paris,” in which a reporter condescends to the poverty-stricken town he reports on, with an ending that’s less comeuppance than non sequitur.

Graceful but with few surprises.

Pub Date: Sept. 10, 2013

ISBN: 978-0-06-225812-0

Page Count: 224

Publisher: Ecco/HarperCollins

Review Posted Online: July 19, 2013

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 1, 2013

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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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