Still, Orringer stakes out some ground for herself with these compact little pieces about growing up in tough circumstances.

Mordant snapshots of lives under stress.

As a career calling card, one could definitely do worse than this debut collection of nine stories. In the opening piece, “Pilgrims,” a simple Thanksgiving Day visit by a family to the house of some friends takes a macabre turn when the game being played by the children in the backyard goes too far. This dark-tinged flavor is echoed in “Stations of the Cross,” the volume’s climactic story, which has deeper things on its mind—the travails of a Jewish girl trying to figure out where she stands in an almost entirely Catholic small Louisiana town—before going off the rails with a children’s reenactment of the Crucifixion that starts to mirror a lynching. If Orringer has a problem, it’s one endemic to the modern short story: that these are for the most part still lives; they don’t go anywhere. “The Isabel Fish” is an extremely competent and well-wrought tale about a teenaged girl who recently almost died in a car wreck that killed her older brother’s girlfriend—something he now hates her for, a strange variant of survivor guilt. But as convincingly as Orringer is able to travel the strange by-ways of the adolescent mindset, there’s no movement in the story, just the usual onionskin peeling away of memory until the details surrounding the primal crash are revealed. One piece that breaks the mold is “Stars of Motown Shining Bright,” in which a young girl (another one) is made an accomplice by a friend who’s planning to elope with a guy who doesn’t exactly seem like husband material. While it’s not the best entry here, it at least progresses from A to B and gives you a reason to persevere to the final lines; it’s unlike most of these stories, which just peter out, albeit in a quiet and artful manner.

Still, Orringer stakes out some ground for herself with these compact little pieces about growing up in tough circumstances.

Pub Date: Sept. 9, 2003

ISBN: 1-4000-4111-2

Page Count: 240

Publisher: Knopf

Review Posted Online: May 19, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 1, 2003



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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