While Kay’s midlife dilemma is not uncommon, Giles’s handling of this endearing heroine’s shucking off her “iron shoes” to...

IRON SHOES

Award-winning storywriter Giles (Creek Walk, 1997, etc.) shows that she can extend her gift to the longer form, in an edgy debut novel.

We first meet 40-something part-time librarian Kay Sorenson when she’s visiting her mother Ida in the hospital following a second leg amputation. Sounds dismal, but Ida, glamorous and larger-than-life even without her legs, is as brave and funny as she is difficult. Kay is dutiful yet wary, and with good reason: Ida’s illnesses have been the defining ritual of Kay’s life. Ida has been falling and breaking bones since Kay was born, a pregnancy, Ida later reveals to Kay, she tried to abort. Nevertheless, Kay has stuck close to home, so eclipsed by her mother’s histrionics and her father’s inscrutability, and so uncertain she and her brother, Victor, were ever truly loved, that she can barely acknowledge her own arrested development. Kay’s romance with the mythology of her parents’ cracked devotion to each other makes her life with her son Nicky and health-obsessed husband Neal, whose best shot at comfort is a stingy, “Oh, babe,” seem as warm and safe as an empty bank vault. So, to stave off the encroaching chill, and to delay her inevitable reckoning with the truth, Kay, like her mother and father, cracks jokes and drinks. Paradoxically, as the story unfolds, alcohol will serve everyone as both the potion of illusion and, after Ida dies from cancer, of clarity. The magic of this tale lies in Giles’s exquisite prose (a scent, a sound on every page without strain), her willingness to lay bare her characters’ warts with equal parts of mordant humor and affection, and in dialogue that sounds overheard instead of created.

While Kay’s midlife dilemma is not uncommon, Giles’s handling of this endearing heroine’s shucking off her “iron shoes” to navigate the terrain of a new life is an uncommon beauty.

Pub Date: Aug. 1, 2000

ISBN: 0-684-85993-9

Page Count: 208

Publisher: Simon & Schuster

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 1, 2000

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THE THINGS THEY CARRIED

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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BEYOND THE GREAT SNOW MOUNTAINS

Superb stylist L’Amour returns (End of the Drive, 1997, etc.), albeit posthumously, with ten stories never seen before in book form—and narrated in his usual hard-edged, close-cropped sentences, jutting up from under fierce blue skies. This is the first of four collections of L’Amour material expected from Bantam, edited by his daughter Angelique, featuring an eclectic mix of early historicals and adventure stories set in China, on the high seas, and in the boxing ring, all drawing from the author’s exploits as a carnival barker and from his mysterious and sundry travels. During this period, L’Amour was trying to break away from being a writer only of westerns. Also included is something of an update on Angelique’s progress with her father’s biography: i.e., a stunningly varied list of her father’s acquaintances from around the world whom she’d like to contact for her research. Meanwhile, in the title story here, a missionary’s daughter who crashes in northern Asia during the early years of the Sino-Japanese War is taken captive by a nomadic leader and kept as his wife for 15 years, until his death. When a plane lands, she must choose between taking her teenaged son back to civilization or leaving him alone with the nomads. In “By the Waters of San Tadeo,” set on the southern coast of Chile, Julie Marrat, whose father has just perished, is trapped in San Esteban, a gold field surrounded by impassable mountains, with only one inlet available for anyone’s escape. “Meeting at Falmouth,” a historical, takes place in January 1794 during a dreadful Atlantic storm: “Volleys of rain rattled along the cobblestones like a scattering of broken teeth.” In this a notorious American, unnamed until the last paragraph, helps Talleyrand flee to America. A master storyteller only whets the appetite for his next three volumes.

Pub Date: May 11, 1999

ISBN: 0-553-10963-4

Page Count: 288

Publisher: Bantam

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 1, 1999

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