Eleven poignant stories that look to the past to portray the present.



An insightful collection of stories that paint diverse portraits of present-day Los Angeles.

Johnson (Elsewhere, California, 2012, etc.) exposes the deep ruptures between her characters' relationships to one another, their surroundings, and their pasts. In “Rogues,” J.J., a broke college student, clashes with his older brother, Kenny. Kenny laughs off J.J.’s more idealistic worldview. “Sorry College,” he says after J.J. critiques his use of the n-word as a man of color. Later, Kenny states more bluntly, “Well Obama don’t live in this neighborhood, do he?” This question resonates as the story examines the consequences of race and racism on their lives. In the title story, Dean is haunted by the city’s past and the knowledge that he, too, will belong to the past one day. As he sits with his mother on the roof deck of his building in downtown Los Angeles, he imagines the city before he lived in it. Downtown has gotten nice, his mother notes. It’s all cleaned up. “And by all cleaned up,” Dean thinks, “she means, of people.” In “The Story of Biddy Mason,” Johnson’s timeline is widest and creates the most powerful view of the palimpsest of this American city. We see Los Angeles as it was shaped by two people in history: a white man from “good stock” who was a railroad magnate and art collector and a former slave who walked from Mississippi to California, where she became a philanthropist and founded a church. We end with an arresting second-person perspective that shows us the Los Angeles we might see today and what, if anything, we'd experience of those who came before us. The city doesn’t figure prominently in every story in the collection, but the themes of race, perspective, and history carry through.

Eleven poignant stories that look to the past to portray the present.

Pub Date: Aug. 9, 2016

ISBN: 978-1-61902-732-9

Page Count: 224

Publisher: Counterpoint

Review Posted Online: May 18, 2016

Kirkus Reviews Issue: June 1, 2016

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What's most worthy in this hefty, three-part volume of still more Hemingway is that it contains (in its first section) all the stories that appeared together in the 1938 (and now out of print) The Fifth Column and the First Forty-Nine Stories. After this, however, the pieces themselves and the grounds for their inclusion become more shaky. The second section includes stories that have been previously published but that haven't appeared in collections—including two segments (from 1934 and 1936) that later found their way into To Have and Have Not (1937) and the "story-within-a-story" that appeared in the recent The garden of Eden. Part three—frequently of more interest for Flemingway-voyeurs than for its self-evident merits—consists of previously unpublished work, including a lengthy outtake ("The Strange Country") from Islands in the Stream (1970), and two poor-to-middling Michigan stories (actually pieces, again, from an unfinished novel). Moments of interest, but luckiest are those who still have their copies of The First Forty-Nine.

Pub Date: Dec. 2, 1987

ISBN: 0684843323

Page Count: 666

Publisher: Scribner

Review Posted Online: Oct. 7, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 15, 1987

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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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