A vivid imagination and luminous writing compensate for too-easy epiphanies.




From acclaimed novelist Hegi (The Vision of Emma Blau, 2000, etc.), 11 short stories: finely wrought fables with transcendent resolutions rather than the usual open-ended contemporary slices of life.

Using backdrops that range from Mexico to Germany, Hegi places her characters, who are seeking outcomes of one kind or another, in situations where they can find them. In the title story, a young seminarian with doubts about his calling finds fulfillment helping a recently widowed aunt renovate the family hotel (located near a shrine) so that each room’s décor reflects a particular saint. Another notable entry, “A Woman’s Perfume,” depicts a teenaged girl, on holiday in Venice with her recently divorced father, who learns the disturbing difference between pure romantic love and sensual desire when she’s befriended by an older woman and her music-loving but sexually chaste husband. In other distinguished stories, an elderly and terminally ill German woman carefully plans her suicide by drowning in Mexico (“Freitod”); a man fishing for marlin off the Baja realizes, as he frees a fish whose colors are more radiant than ever, that he cannot hold on to the wife who recently left him (“For Their Own Survival”); a mentally retarded boy heals a family rift in postwar Germany when he tries to help an uncle paint the fence that divides the warring relatives (“A Town Like Ours”); and watching a juggler joyfully plying his risk-taking trade enables a worried mother to appreciate her daughter’s courage in falling in love with a blind man (“The Juggler”). The least successful piece is the uneven, overlong “Lower Crossing,” in which a middle-aged woman living on the Spokane River with her sister understands when they must put their old dog to sleep “that what nurtures us will also sustain us at times of pain.”

A vivid imagination and luminous writing compensate for too-easy epiphanies.

Pub Date: Nov. 1, 2001

ISBN: 0-684-84310-2

Page Count: 192

Publisher: Simon & Schuster

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 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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