A lot of gauntlet-throwing for a slim book, but its provocations are worth meeting halfway.


An entertaining, spiky batch of experimental fiction concerned with the disconnect among siblings, lovers and parents.

The third book of fiction by Jemc (My Only Wife, 2012, etc.) comprises 42 short stories, some only a paragraph long, and with each she seems determined to upend received wisdom about how a story ought to be structured. “Marbles Loosed” is a brief recollection of a girl who’s bounced around foster homes, but there’s no forward motion to the narrative; its energy is in its wordplay, with provocative lines like, “people told me I had pearl eyes. I’d rub my sandy fingers in them, sure that was the only way to keep them smooth and beautiful.” “The Wrong Sister” is a harrowing tale about a woman who trades places with her sister, whose husband turns murderous. In “More Mysteries,” a woman minds her addict brother in an ICU but struggles to keep her grasp over him. Jemc’s abstract, metaphorical language can make her stories demanding, sometimes frustrating. But her command is consistent, as is the somber tone that infuses each of these stories despite their wild wordplay—something serious is at stake for each of the (usually female) protagonists. That’s clearer in the longer, more conventional pieces, such as “Bent Back,” in which a teenage girl with scoliosis grows more distant from her older artist sister, even while her oeuvre largely consists of paintings of the girl’s warped body. Similarly, in “Filch and Rot,” two teenage girls rise from petty thievery of lipstick to become more ambitious criminals; “[a]ll those manners and ethics were being pulled loose of us like too many bones,” Jemc writes. Here, as elsewhere, she argues that we only truly come alive when our bodies and minds misbehave.

A lot of gauntlet-throwing for a slim book, but its provocations are worth meeting halfway.

Pub Date: Oct. 14, 2014

ISBN: 978-1-936873-53-1

Page Count: 184

Publisher: Dzanc

Review Posted Online: July 31, 2014

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 15, 2014

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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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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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