A step forward for a strong talent.



A powerful second collection (after A Night of Music, 1989) of ten connected stories about family and history in the tradition of Alice Munro’s The Beggar Maid.

Sandor’s distant first-person permits an examination of the repetition of history in a single family. “They named her Clara,” begins the first story, “Legend,” which follows Clara’s mother through the aftermath of giving birth and serves as launching pad for a wandering treatise on motherhood, the past, and “the future, that perverse and squirming bundle whose gaze tells you nothing you can count on, but watches your move with unblinking eyes.” “Capacity” catches up with Clara, now grown, on her first failed attempt to leave home for situations she isn’t prepared for; and “Gravity” follows a much older Clara, now married to Gabe, who, despite Clara’s vertigo, arranges for her to go up in an airplane to spread his ashes when he dies. The title piece switches to Gabe’s family for another daughter’s recollections of her mysterious mother. It coalesces around the time when her mother is pregnant with the narrator, but not so far along that she can’t commit the vague sin of posing for a painting that will never be seen. “It was a year of maiden-lady suicides,” begins “Elegy for Miss Beagle,” a piano teacher. Music is a theme throughout the Sandor’s writing. She is sentimental and nostalgic in the best of ways: you sense an unblinking affection for characters, a positive regard even in the face of error and sin. Their sadness is real, their regret tangible: “Closing my window, I wished myself in her place, going north on that bus, leaning my cheek against the cool window while other passengers, men and women with unknowable lives, slept or told each other stories, making them better or more horrible than real life . . . . ”

A step forward for a strong talent.

Pub Date: May 1, 2003

ISBN: 1-889330-83-3

Page Count: 216

Publisher: Sarabande

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 1, 2003

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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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