An uneven collection focusing on men, worth sifting through for the gems.


Whatever Makes You Happy


In this collection of short fiction, gay men struggle with relationships, sexuality, and life.

The volume’s six stories primarily explore the experiences of a variety of gay men. These range from a privileged high school athlete, trying to figure out his place in the world, to men just past youth seeking to make their way in Manhattan, to an aging man whiling away his final days in an upstate New York nursing home. The cleverer that Hill (Myxocene, 2015, etc.) gets, the less engaging his stories become. In the titular tale, an elderly man tries to comprehend the concepts—such as polyandry and nonbinary gender identity—that inform his grown grandchildren’s lives. While the narrator’s well-meaning attempts at understanding remain endearing, too much emphasis is placed on the premise, giving the account a sitcom feeling. The collection’s one dud, “The Prince and the Executioner,” is set “long ago in the Frenglish Kingdom of Facedom.” The faux medieval surroundings are apparently meant as a lens to establish a parable around real issues—a key question presented is “how could the King tolerate a Prince turned Princess?”—but the conceit, speech, and plot become too stilted and haphazard. On the other hand, the two stories situated in the more expected locale of early 21st-century Manhattan are very powerful. In both “The Nose” and “The Dried Plum and the Envelope,” heavy-drinking gay men circling 30 find ways to come to terms with disappointment and the choices they’ve made. Hill firmly controls the (very different) voices of each of these characters, and he deftly builds to moments of quiet betrayal. The elderly narrator of “The Final Plan” inhabits some of the same territory when he reminisces about his life in pre-AIDS Manhattan, “a place where you could feel sort of like you belonged and relatively safe.” Unfortunately, this tale soon veers into a convoluted nursing home drama. Hill’s exploration of the lives of gay men in New York is strong, nuanced, and originally drawn. The volume should be picked up for these narratives, but readers will likely wish Hill had stuck to this terrain throughout the book.

An uneven collection focusing on men, worth sifting through for the gems.

Pub Date: May 21, 2016

ISBN: 978-1-5305-6707-2

Page Count: 228

Publisher: CreateSpace

Review Posted Online: July 29, 2016

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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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