Not Bloom at her very best, but impressive enough confirmation of this clever writer’s ability to challenge the way we see...

Nine uncollected stories plus three that appeared in earlier collections are interestingly arranged and recombined in this latest from the Manhattan psychotherapist and versatile author (Away, 2008, etc.).

The first four chronicle the adulterous relationship, then the sad late-life marriage of 50-somethings Clare and William, who find amorous moments together during shared vacations and visits to and with each other’s unsuspecting spouses. Bloom’s plainspoken, witty prose is displayed to fine effect in unglamorous snapshot revelations of self-indulgent, heart-attack-waiting-to-happen William and weary, unillusioned Clare (who sardonically asks herself, “What has it ever been between them but the rubbing of two broken wings?”). Four other interrelated stories span years of familial and less conventional love between Julia, a music journalist who becomes a black jazz musician’s third wife, then his widow, and his son and namesake Lionel, a biracial heartthrob who is drawn much too closely into intimacy with his grieving stepmother. Except for the last of these four, in which Lionel is both further injured and paradoxically healed by his weakness and guilt, this is an original and moving dramatization of the complex burdens of togetherness and independence, soaring ambition and muted resignation. The remaining unrelated stories—which seem to belong in another book—are a mixed bag. “Permafrost” suggestively links a hospital social worker’s compassionate identification with a young girl’s sufferings to the former’s lifelong fascination with the historic Shackleton Arctic expedition. “Between here and here” and “By-and-By” deal somewhat melodramatically with family-related traumas. But in the wry title story, stoic survival is persuasively incarnated in a saturnine widower who takes botched relationships, failing bodily functions, even “women OD’ing on coke in front of their children” phlegmatically in stride.

Not Bloom at her very best, but impressive enough confirmation of this clever writer’s ability to challenge the way we see ourselves and to show us as we are.

Pub Date: Jan. 19, 2010

ISBN: 978-1-4000-6357-4

Page Count: 224

Publisher: Random House

Review Posted Online: Dec. 31, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 15, 2010



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




A newcomer to watch: fresh, funny, and tough.

Seven stories, including a couple of prizewinners, from an exuberantly talented young Thai-American writer.

In the poignant title story, a young man accompanies his mother to Kok Lukmak, the last in the chain of Andaman Islands—where the two can behave like “farangs,” or foreigners, for once. It’s his last summer before college, her last before losing her eyesight. As he adjusts to his unsentimental mother’s acceptance of her fate, they make tentative steps toward the future. “Farangs,” included in Best New American Voices 2005 (p. 711), is about a flirtation between a Thai teenager who keeps a pet pig named Clint Eastwood and an American girl who wanders around in a bikini. His mother, who runs a motel after having been deserted by the boy’s American father, warns him about “bonking” one of the guests. “Draft Day” concerns a relieved but guilty young man whose father has bribed him out of the draft, and in “Don’t Let Me Die in This Place,” a bitter grandfather has moved from the States to Bangkok to live with his son, his Thai daughter-in-law, and two grandchildren. The grandfather’s grudging adjustment to the move and to his loss of autonomy (from a stroke) is accelerated by a visit to a carnival, where he urges the whole family into a game of bumper cars. The longest story, “Cockfighter,” is an astonishing coming-of-ager about feisty Ladda, 15, who watches as her father, once the best cockfighter in town, loses his status, money, and dignity to Little Jui, 16, a meth addict whose father is the local crime boss. Even Ladda is in danger, as Little Jui’s bodyguards try to abduct her. Her mother tells Ladda a family secret about her father’s failure of courage in fighting Big Jui to save his own sister’s honor. By the time Little Jui has had her father beaten and his ear cut off, Ladda has begun to realize how she must fend for herself.

A newcomer to watch: fresh, funny, and tough.

Pub Date: Jan. 1, 2005

ISBN: 0-8021-1788-0

Page Count: 224

Publisher: Grove

Review Posted Online: May 19, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 15, 2004

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