No dead author is more alive on the page than Berlin: funny, dark, and so in love with the world.

Twenty-two more stories from an author who died in 2004 and made it big in 2015.

Berlin (A Manual for Cleaning Women, 2015, etc.) published 76 stories in her lifetime in a number of small-press books. Three years ago, a collection that reprinted 43 of them took the literary world by storm, with placement on top-ten lists and comparisons to Carver, Paley, Munro, and Chekhov abounding. (The book was also a finalist for the Kirkus Prize for Fiction.) Blessedly, a second volume with 22 more stories is in no way second rate but rather features more seductive, sparkling autofiction with narrators whose names echo the author's in settings and situations that come from her roller-coaster biography (which is summarized in an appendix). The stories are arranged in roughly chronological order, beginning with two set in El Paso, Texas, about a little troublemaker named Lucha, followed by three in Chile. In "Andado: A Gothic Romance," Laura's family is invited to spend four days at the country estate of a man named Don Andrés. Her parents can't make it, so they send her by herself. "Ted said his child would be coming, not a lovely woman," comments the former ambassador to France, one of the wealthiest men in Chile. "I'm fourteen," Laura replies. "I'm just all dressed up for this party." This information will not have much effect on Don Andrés' conduct. The title story takes its inspiration from the period when the author was married to Buddy Berlin, a jazz player and sometime heroin addict, and the two lived with their kids outside Puerto Vallarta. It features cameos by Richard Burton, Liz Taylor, Ava Gardner, and John Huston, whose appearance in that area during the filming of Night of the Iguana is legendary. Its lightheartedness is immediately balanced by "La Barca de la Ilusión," which finds its protagonist in a palapa with a floor of sand on the Mexican coast, home-schooling her boys, hoping that living in the middle of nowhere will keep her husband off drugs. (What she does to his dealer is probably fictional, but we'll never know.) For black humor and alcoholism, go straight to "The Wives," in which two exes of the same man get together to chug rum and reminisce, spilling drinks and burning holes in their clothes.

No dead author is more alive on the page than Berlin: funny, dark, and so in love with the world.

Pub Date: Nov. 6, 2018

ISBN: 978-0-374-27948-6

Page Count: 256

Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Review Posted Online: July 1, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 15, 2018



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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