The first thing you notice about Gina Ochsner's characters is the way they see things. In one story a guy runs "his hands through his hair, as if...

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“Commander of All Lincoln’s Armies: A Life of General Henry W. Halleck”

by John F. Marszalek

Belkknap/Harvard University Press, 307 pp., $29.95

Henry Wager Halleck seemed to have it all. A successful army officer, engineer, attorney and businessman, he was author of influential texts on military theory, international law and land litigation. Nicknamed “Old Brains,” he was the U.S. Army’s reigning intellectual.

When the Civil War began, Halleck was given command of Union forces in the West and soon basked in the glow of victories won by subordinates. Abraham Lincoln thought he might be just the man to energize the nation’s war effort, so Halleck was summoned to Washington, D.C., and placed in command of all Union armies. There he soon demonstrated the truth of the Peter Principle: Everyone rises to his own level of incompetence.

Historian John F. Marszalek pulls no punches in this incisive, crisply written biography. He tells how Halleck became obsessed with administrative detail and refused to make decisions or give orders, an attitude that reduced his usefulness, in Lincoln’s words, to that of a “first-rate clerk.” Gideon Welles, Lincoln’s Navy secretary, called Halleck “a moral coward.”

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Why did Halleck fail? A free-spirited boy, he rebelled against a strict father, but as he grew older it became obvious Halleck possessed both traits, strictness and rebelliousness. He “could never quite resolve the conflict” between the opposite poles of his personality, Marszalek says. The result was “stress, which produced physical problems that created more stress, which produced more ill health, and so on in a tragic and unending spiral.”

Marszalek credits Halleck with reaching “the pinnacle of achievement as an intellectual, writer, soldier, statesman, archivist, architect, attorney, and businessman.” Yet he “is remembered most for what he did not do.”

“He could not break the mold of a cautious and obsessive administrator at a time when the nation needed him. … He could not bring himself to take charge, to command men into battle.” In his ultimate test, Halleck was a failure.

Reviewed by Steve Raymond

“People I Wanted to Be”

by Gina Ochsner

Mariner, 204 pp., $12

The first thing you notice about Gina Ochsner’s characters is the way they see things. In one story a guy runs “his hands through his hair, as if making sure it was all still there.” Later in the same collection of short fiction, a man in south Russia uses the shape of dust in the road to predict an arriving vehicle: bike or truck.

Then you realize this is how Ochsner sees, a vision that shapes the stories in “People I Wanted to Be” with images that capture and hold your attention.

A story called “When the Dark is Light Enough” has 73-year-old Lusya dying on her kitchen floor. “Her heart stuttered and stopped … and her spirit pulled away from her body as if it were an old sheet of silver unpeeling from the back of a mirror.”

A meeting of sorts takes place in a hospital morgue where forensic technicians Karen and Nick comb, cut and probe bodies for evidence in violent deaths. Lusya is one. Lusya’s ghost hovers as Karen examines the deceased’s prayer scarf for evidence and pulls back her lips to reveal the broken teeth. Karen talks to the dead woman: “It’s not fair.”

In this story and others in this collection, the characters care for and about dead people.

In “Halves of a Whole,” twin sisters work at a family-owned funeral home. Estera is the dominant twin. She likes pop music, boys and makeup, and aspires to more than a life in the family business. Lucy is the shy twin with a slight limp, always in Estera’s shadow. Lucy is an artist when it comes to preparing bodies and faces for showing. She’s meticulous with every detail. Lying awake at night in a small room she shares with her sister, Lucy thinks about the dead downstairs.

Ochsner uses the dead to inform us about the living. It sounds gruesome, but in this writer’s hands the feeling you end up with is more akin to acceptance of the way life ends.

The first story of this collection, “Articles of Faith,” details the disappointments of Evin and Irina, a couple desperate to have a family. Early on, we meet the ghosts of three children Irina was unable to bring to term. The ghosts live in a nearby shed. Evin brings them hot cocoa; Irina has knitted them sweaters.

Christmas brings a heart-wrenching scene. Still, Ochsner offers a resolution for the living and dead. Not all the dead in this collection are people; one story involves a dog, another a bird, another a fish.

It is the angler in “The Fractious South” that reads the dust in the road and learns lessons in life through fishing with his grandfather.

Ochsner lives in western Oregon, and one story is set there. “How One Carries Another” is about a family moving on after the death of the mother. Ochsner writes about the often uncomfortable human condition with insight and warmth. Each story has a resolution that saves us from sadness and often celebrates the vitality of life.

Her first collection, “The Necessary Grace to Fall,” won the Flannery O’Connor award for short fiction. This latest work is another not to miss.

Reviewed by Ginny Merdes