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Although her tone can veer toward bitterness, Bender excels at characters on the edge of despair, particularly mothers who...

In these 13 stories, Bender (A Town of Empty Rooms, 2013, etc.) showcases families that "endure" in both senses of the word: suffer patiently and carry on despite enormous travail.

The title story—concerning a sublet in Tribeca that goes horribly wrong for both the struggling couple renting it out and the woman who takes it beginning in September 2001—epitomizes the high anxiety that permeates Bender’s stories. The New York setting is unusual, though. The book’s landscape is mostly drab fast-food– and mall-saturated suburbia, often in Southern states where displaced northerners, usually Jewish, have arrived under financial duress. In “Free Lunch,” two New Yorkers in North Carolina are as uncomfortable around a Hasidic rabbi and his wife as they are among their Christian neighbors; in “The Third Child,” an overwhelmed mother, distraught to find herself pregnant again, nevertheless acts generously toward a neighbor child, only to be viciously snubbed by the girl’s Baptist mother. Family and financial tensions often combine. In “For What Purpose?,” a woman whose parents died in a car crash experiences a brief sense of belonging with work mates until she’s let go. In both “What the Cat Said” and “This Cat,” the family pet becomes the metaphor, or scapegoat, for disappointment and dysfunction. “Anything for Money” offers the book’s only wealthy character, who becomes the most desperate when his daughter needs a new heart. The first two stories are among the least depressing. In “Reunion,” a woman goes off the deep end, buying a phony beach lot from an old boyfriend, but her marriage survives. In “Theft,” an aging scam artist and a jilted young woman forge a friendship that improves them both. And the volume’s gentlest story, “The Sea Turtle Hospital,” concerning a young teacher’s kindness to a kindergartner, takes place in the aftermath of a school shooting.

Although her tone can veer toward bitterness, Bender excels at characters on the edge of despair, particularly mothers who resent the children they love.

Pub Date: Jan. 13, 2015

ISBN: 978-1-61902-455-7

Page Count: 256

Publisher: Counterpoint

Review Posted Online: Oct. 21, 2014

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 1, 2014

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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

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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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