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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Told through the points of view of the four Garcia sisters- Carla, Sandi, Yolanda and Sofia-this perceptive first novel by poet Alvarez tells of a wealthy family exiled from the Dominican Republic after a failed coup, and how the daughters come of age, weathering the cultural and class transitions from privileged Dominicans to New York Hispanic immigrants. Brought up under strict social mores, the move to the States provides the girls a welcome escape from the pampered, overbearingly protective society in which they were raised, although subjecting them to other types of discrimination. Each rises to the challenge in her own way, as do their parents, Mami (Laura) and Papi (Carlos). The novel unfolds back through time, a complete picture accruing gradually as a series of stories recounts various incidents, beginning with ``Antojos'' (roughly translated ``cravings''), about Yolanda's return to the island after an absence of five years. Against the advice of her relatives, who fear for the safety of a young woman traveling the countryside alone, Yolanda heads out in a borrowed car in pursuit of some guavas and returns with a renewed understanding of stringent class differences. ``The Kiss,'' one of Sofia's stories, tells how she, married against her father's wishes, tries to keep family ties open by visiting yearly on her father's birthday with her young son. And in ``Trespass,'' Carla finds herself the victim of ignorance and prejudice a year after the Garcias have arrived in America, culminating with a pervert trying to lure her into his car. In perhaps one of the most deft and magical stories, ``Still Lives,'' young Sandi has an extraordinary first art lesson and becomes the inspiration for a statue of the Virgin: ``Dona Charito took the lot of us native children in hand Saturday mornings nine to twelve to put Art into us like Jesus into the heathen.'' The tradition and safety of the Old World are just part of the tradeoff that comes with the freedom and choice in the New. Alvarez manages to bring to attention many of the issues-serious and light-that immigrant families face, portraying them with sensitivity and, at times, an enjoyable, mischievous sense.

Pub Date: May 1, 1991

ISBN: 0-945575-57-2

Page Count: 308

Publisher: Algonquin

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 15, 1991

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