Mostly finger exercises (think Mozart’s shorter works), but the best of them are executed with finesse and power.



Ironic what-ifs and narrative legerdemain are featured in the 1991 Nobel laureate’s 11th story collection.

Several of its 11 pieces are fragmentary, and one suspects they’re embryos of fuller stories left unwritten. For example, “A Frivolous Woman” depicts the trouble caused by a German Jewish woman (“A grandmother who’d never grown up”) who escapes death at the hands of the Nazis despite refusing to scale back her hyperactive social life, and “Safety Procedures” describes a turbulent airplane flight which nevertheless offers the spectacle of a woman passenger possessed of a preternatural inner calm. In the inchoate title story, Gordimer envisions a future in which whites proudly claim, rather than attempt to conceal, evidence of African descent. She seems to enjoy herself in a nondescript tale (“History”) of people whose secrets are revealed by a parrot with a “relentless memory,” and a rather better one (“Gregor”) that riffs amusingly on Kafka’s The Metamorphosis. There’s little more than affectionate tribute in “Dreaming of the Dead,” which imagines a conversation on “policies and ideologies” conducted in a Chinese restaurant by the late Susan Sontag and Edward Said, joined by South African newspaper editor Anthony Sampson. Gordimer surprises us with “Tape Measure,” in which a tapeworm narrator discusses with compressed allegorical ingenuity the strategies of surviving in an unfriendly host (country?), and the perfectly titled “Allesverloren,” about a widow who recaptures an ampler understanding of her late husband’s life by meeting with his former gay lover. At first appearance a stunt, this beautifully articulated story becomes increasingly dramatic, tense and achingly sad: It’s a near-perfect miniature. The volume concludes with “Alternative Endings,” which gathers three thematically similar stories whose developments are shaped by the physical senses of sound, sight and smell. It’s labored and uninvolving.

Mostly finger exercises (think Mozart’s shorter works), but the best of them are executed with finesse and power.

Pub Date: Dec. 5, 2007

ISBN: 978-0-374-10982-0

Page Count: 192

Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 15, 2007

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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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