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Book Reviews   |    
People I Wanted to Be: Short Stories
Reviewed by Marcia L. Zuckerman, M.D.
Psychiatric Services 2005; doi: 10.1176/appi.ps.56.12.1634
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by Gina Ochsner; Boston, Houghton Mifflin Company, 2005, 192 pages, $12 softcover

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Gina Ochsner's collection of 11 short stories, People I Wanted to Be, was much anticipated. The author's first collection of stories, The Necessary Grace to Fall (2002), won a number of awards, including the Flannery O'Connor Award for Short Fiction. Her stories have been published widely, including in the New Yorker, The Best American Nonrequired Reading, and the Kenyon Review.

Ochsner brings a number of strengths to her writing. Interested in Eastern Europe and Slavic culture, she very credibly sets many of the stories overseas, or peoples them with immigrants from faraway places. She also has a sense of humor. One of the stories in this new collection, "A Blessing," concerns a run of remarkable luck that visits a couple from Siberia who have emigrated to Oregon. "First came a dozen roses meant for a woman at the end of the hall who had moved away but left no forwarding address. On another day, a man in a brown uniform delivered an enormous basket filled with pears and apples and chocolate from secret admirers, 'Harry and David.' 'Who's Harry? Who's David?' Vera asked Nikolai, showing him the baskets stuffed with Anjou and Bosc pears."

And she has a good ear for language, as well as a knack for providing quirky details about even her minor characters. The narrator of "The Fractious South," who lost his father to the Soviet war in Afghanistan, and who will himself be the only one of his schoolmates to come back from the Chechen conflict, says, "Part of being invisible is being quiet, so if any of this bothered us, we didn't complain. Except Grandpa Ilya, who grumbled that all the dust and the noise had completely unnerved the fish." In "A Darkness Held," Imogene McCrary fills in for the dying nun whose austere teaching had made her miserable as a girl. When she tells her students that Sister Clement has passed away, one of them asks, "Is this going to be on a test? Because that's not an essential mystery, and today is Wednesday, and we always talk about essential mysteries on Wednesdays."

Many of the stories involve ghostly presences or near-magical occurrences. This approach works well in some stories, such as "From the Fourth Row," in which the narrator, a lonely illustrator of advertisements in a Prague marketing firm, suffers increasingly sharp invectives from the characters he's created. On the other hand, "The Hurler" comes across as heavy handed when the narrator builds a contraption to rid herself of her dead parents' junk—starting with Ferdinand, the stuffed pet hedgehog, "who'd quilled me many times when I was a girl for no good reason"—and ultimately hurls away her own heart.

The weakness in Ochsner's work is really in the tales themselves. After she skillfully draws her characters and puts them in interesting places, she often doesn't do much with them. Fans of James Joyce may find this style to their liking, but I hope to see Ochsner move on to focus her considerable talent on the story.

Dr. Zuckerman is clinical psychiatrist at the Cambridge Health Alliance in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and associate editor of The Carlat Report.

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