An ambitious but ultimately unsatisfying set of loosely interconnected tales, each of which require further embellishment to...

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Heart on a Sleeve

Lamb (Do as I Say and Not as I Do, 2013, etc.) charts rifts and bonds in American families across four centuries in this novella.

The five stories presented here tell of the Collings, Flournoy, Landis, and Atkins families, beginning in the early 1800s and ending in the early 2100s. Each story is linked to the previous one by blood ties (all laid out in a family tree at the beginning of the novella). The opening tale introduces John Collings, a 13-year-old boy whose father, Richard, is away fighting the British. It becomes his responsibility to take care of the livestock on his parents’ farm, yet as he struggles to fit the mold of manhood, his relationship with his mother deteriorates. The young boy’s rapid coming-of-age in the wilderness is engaging and psychologically detailed, yet the story is disappointingly cut short with an open-ended conclusion. This is the novella’s standout tale, however, and it showcases the author’s skill as a master of suspense; the accelerated breath of fear is almost audible in Lamb’s writing: “As the sounds came closer they did not resemble any animal he recognized. Within seconds a man passed through the dense undergrowth about twenty feet to the left of John, paused for a moment, and then fell forward on a cluster of elderberry plants as heavily as a drunk collapsing onto his bed.” Other stories recount a shotgun wedding, a family’s relationship with an African-American servant, and the complex and fraught relationship among a father, his son, and his Native American foster child. Each story shows that the author possesses the necessary tools to engage and hold his audience, but he also struggles to conclude his narratives. As a result, four stories here seem more like promising beginnings to tales that are yet untold. The fifth, set at the beginning of the 22nd century, approaches the concept of memory augmentation and tells of a mother receiving treatment to erase painful recollections of her dead son. It’s a short, abstract, and undeveloped vignette tacked on seemingly as an afterthought in order to stretch out the narrative timeline.

An ambitious but ultimately unsatisfying set of loosely interconnected tales, each of which require further embellishment to make them feel whole. 

Pub Date: Aug. 17, 2016

ISBN: 978-1-5350-2613-0

Page Count: 118

Publisher: CreateSpace

Review Posted Online: Sept. 16, 2016

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A vivid sequel that strains credulity.

THE ESCAPE ARTIST

Fremont (After Long Silence, 1999) continues—and alters—her story of how memories of the Holocaust affected her family.

At the age of 44, the author learned that her father had disowned her, declaring her “predeceased”—or dead in his eyes—in his will. It was his final insult: Her parents had stopped speaking to her after she’d published After Long Silence, which exposed them as Jewish Holocaust survivors who had posed as Catholics in Europe and America in order to hide multilayered secrets. Here, Fremont delves further into her tortured family dynamics and shows how the rift developed. One thread centers on her life after her harrowing childhood: her education at Wellesley and Boston University, the loss of her virginity to a college boyfriend before accepting her lesbianism, her stint with the Peace Corps in Lesotho, and her decades of work as a lawyer in Boston. Another strand involves her fraught relationship with her sister, Lara, and how their difficulties relate to their father, a doctor embittered after years in the Siberian gulag; and their mother, deeply enmeshed with her own sister, Zosia, who had married an Italian count and stayed in Rome to raise a child. Fremont tells these stories with novelistic flair, ending with a surprising theory about why her parents hid their Judaism. Yet she often appears insensitive to the serious problems she says Lara once faced, including suicidal depression. “The whole point of suicide, I thought, was to succeed at it,” she writes. “My sister’s completion rate was pathetic.” Key facts also differ from those in her earlier work. After Long Silence says, for example, that the author grew up “in a small city in the Midwest” while she writes here that she grew up in “upstate New York,” changes Fremont says she made for “consistency” in the new book but that muddy its narrative waters. The discrepancies may not bother readers seeking psychological insights rather than factual accuracy, but others will wonder if this book should have been labeled a fictionalized autobiography rather than a memoir.

A vivid sequel that strains credulity.

Pub Date: Feb. 11, 2020

ISBN: 978-1-982113-60-5

Page Count: 352

Publisher: Gallery Books/Simon & Schuster

Review Posted Online: Oct. 21, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 15, 2019

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A miscellany of paternal pride (and frustration) darkened by the author’s increasing realizations of his mortality.

DAD'S MAYBE BOOK

Ruminations and reminiscences of an author—now in his 70s—about fatherhood, writing, and death.

O’Brien (July, July, 2002, etc.), who achieved considerable literary fame with both Going After Cacciato (1978) and The Things They Carried (1990), returns with an eclectic assembly of pieces that grow increasingly valedictory as the idea of mortality creeps in. (The title comes from the author’s uncertainty about his ability to assemble these pieces in a single volume.) He begins and ends with a letter: The initial one is to his first son (from 2003); the terminal one, to his two sons, both of whom are now teens (the present). Throughout the book, there are a number of recurring sections: “Home School” (lessons for his sons to accomplish), “The Magic Show” (about his long interest in magic), and “Pride” (about his feelings for his sons’ accomplishments). O’Brien also writes often about his own father. One literary figure emerges as almost a member of the family: Ernest Hemingway. The author loves Hemingway’s work (except when he doesn’t) and often gives his sons some of Papa’s most celebrated stories to read and think and write about. Near the end is a kind of stand-alone essay about Hemingway’s writings about war and death, which O’Brien realizes is Hemingway’s real subject. Other celebrated literary figures pop up in the text, including Elizabeth Bishop, Andrew Marvell, George Orwell, and Flannery O’Connor. Although O’Brien’s strong anti-war feelings are prominent throughout, his principal interest is fatherhood—specifically, at becoming a father later in his life and realizing that he will miss so much of his sons’ lives. He includes touching and amusing stories about his toddler sons, about the sadness he felt when his older son became a teen and began to distance himself, and about his anguish when his sons failed at something.

A miscellany of paternal pride (and frustration) darkened by the author’s increasing realizations of his mortality.

Pub Date: Oct. 14, 2019

ISBN: 978-0-618-03970-8

Page Count: 384

Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

Review Posted Online: July 28, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 15, 2019

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