An uneven collection, but the best entries are outstanding.



Five short stories set around the world, from the author of The Blue Taxi (2006).

“Pearls to Swine” is a comic gem in which a perfect snob, Celeste, vents without censure or apology. A paragon of good taste, Celeste decides that the only fixture her graciously appointed home in Spa, Belgium, lacks is a guest to appreciate it. She resolves to invite two: the daughter of a friend from New York and a young woman who has taken refuge in a local convent after getting pregnant. Neither guest follows the script their hostess has imagined for them. The convent girl is particularly disappointing. Says Celeste: “What did I expect, you ask? Someone thinner, first of all.” Celeste’s outrage is purely aesthetic: She is offended that the girl doesn’t look like a Pre-Raphaelite painting. “Wondrous Strange” is quite different but equally enjoyable. In it, an African djinn gives a middle-class, middle-aged English woman instructions for healing her husband’s strange malady. In the aforementioned stories, Köenings demonstrates an incisive yet generous understanding of human behavior that is reminiscent of A.S. Byatt and Iris Murdoch, and, like those authors, she is willing to entertain mystery without dissecting it. Occasionally though, in both “Pearls to Swine” and “Wondrous Strange,” nervous, amateurish tendencies appear, and these tendencies unfortunately dominate the collection’s other three stories. The title story is an interminable series of extravagant descriptions; “Sisters for Shama” is an elaborate concept—a storyteller conjures imaginary girls to replace a lost sibling—and not much else; “Setting Up Shop” is basically gossip arranged in the shape of short fiction. In these stories, Köenings relies heavily on exotic settings (East Africa, the Indian Ocean coast), overwrought metaphors and preciously ethnographic characters while providing little narrative substance.

An uneven collection, but the best entries are outstanding.

Pub Date: March 25, 2008

ISBN: 978-0-316-00186-1

Page Count: 272

Publisher: Back Bay/Little, Brown

Review Posted Online: June 24, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 15, 2008

Did you like this book?

No Comments Yet


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

Did you like this book?

No Comments Yet



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

Did you like this book?

No Comments Yet