Readable and comfortably undemanding. Fans will enjoy.

Oprah’s Book Clubber Berg (Open House, 2000, etc.) offers 15 stories deftly detailing those defining moments in ordinary women’s lives when fresh insights help explain their discontents.

Easily accessible, like photos in a family album, these tales record the specific and offer conventional breakthroughs that console. A woman suffering a recurrence of cancer who left her husband because she wanted to be alone now realizes she needs him (“Departure From Normal”). A visiting nurse who takes care of the dying regrets that she refused a patient’s invitation to make love, because she now understands that “there are exquisite acts of tenderness lying latent in all of us, waiting only for our permission to come into being” (“Sweet Refuge”). A childhood attempt at matchmaking includes the lesson that all of us are a mixture of things and that “the trick was to focus on the better parts” (“The Matchmaker”). In the poignant recollections of a beautiful but mentally ill mother, we see that she nevertheless has given her daughter enduring gifts of wisdom (“What Stays”). A married woman, sharing treasured childhood memories with a lover, ponders ending her unsatisfactory marriage (“Things We Used to Believe”). “The Party,” deliciously bawdy and frank, features a group of married women who start talking about men, their genitalia, and sex, until their husbands come to claim them. In the title story, the most original here, 79-year-old Mavis locks herself in the bathroom with a supply of food, reading matter, and enough pillows and blankets to making sleeping in the bath comfortable, telling her bewildered husband that she’s “on retreat.” With the uninterrupted time she craves, she is able to review her life, her marriage, and her family, emerging finally at peace with the realization that she had “done everything right.”

Readable and comfortably undemanding. Fans will enjoy.

Pub Date: Feb. 26, 2002

ISBN: 0-679-43746-0

Page Count: 304

Publisher: Random House

Review Posted Online: May 19, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 1, 2001



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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