Facts and skills galore in a mix of stories, the best quite fine.


From a prolific writer and producer of documentaries (including Nature) for PBS: a collection that’s varyingly deft and has many subjects—including nature and animals.

Whitty’s “science” stories are in fact the strongest here, including the title piece with its simultaneously tender and melancholy portrait of Tonga from its paradisiacal pre–Captain Cook era down to the abused and species-depleted place of today—though thankfully still not without its great tortoises, which are wondrously described by Whitty indeed. The soberly comic “Darwin in Heaven” is just as fine: a chronicle of Darwin’s ongoing research into the mystery of life once he’s in heaven—and of his consultations there with, among others, Lao-tzu and Richard P. Feynman. Much less prepossessing, though, is a tale told by zoo animals (“Lucifer’s Alligator”) that labors preciously under the weight of its message; while “Jimmy Under Water,” about Antarctic ocean-diving, defies credibility in spite of its knowledgeable details. Other stories, also, are filled chock-full with informational expertise yet seem programmatic—like “Daguerreotype,” a look at generations of child-bearing women in a family—or just don’t convince psychologically—like “Stealing from the Dead,” about a young woman painter who seduces a Byron biographer in Venice and then, quite inexplicably, turns on him. “Senti’s Last Elephant” offers a close-up of African safari land but suffers from its easy satire of complacent Americans, while “Falling Umbrella” tries hard—and almost succeeds—in wrenching genuine emotion from its portrayal of the old age and death of a widowed mathematician. “The Dreams of Dogs” closes the volume with the tale of a young widow who moves onto two thousand wilderness acres in the Pacific Northwest and lives out her life there in the company only of the few local Indians—and of her dogs, who, like the tortoises, are described with a tender, knowledgeable perfection.

Facts and skills galore in a mix of stories, the best quite fine.

Pub Date: April 3, 2002

ISBN: 0-618-11980-9

Page Count: 208

Publisher: N/A

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1, 2002

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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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