Novelist and short-story writer Flanagan retains her acerbic tone and dark vision in this second collection (after Bad Girls, 1985), with results alternately incisive and blunt. An ``ages of woman'' theme loosely binds these diverse tales, whose female protagonists range from terrified children to old ladies on the lam. The stronger offerings turn an expatriate American's cold gaze on English xenophobia. In ``Mrs. Tiggywiggle Goes to Town,'' for example, a struggling single mother resents her best friend, Alison, a normally kindly, upper-middle-class homemaker who nevertheless later cracks and assaults a Pakistani mother and child. ``The Octopus Vase'' shows English homebuyers virtually destroying both a Greek island and an idealistic woman— in a genteel way, of course. Racism mingles with misogyny in the title story when an English editor rants against ``yobs'' in a Greek cafe, then turns his venom on his young lover: ``You'll sit in cafes, wrinkled and ridiculous and menopausal.'' Professional men come off poorly, from the abusive husband of ``When I'm Bad'' to a slick urbanite who treats a young drifter to a chic restaurant meal in ``Alice's Ear'' (that severed appendage is found the next morning in the park). Despite a flair for dialogue and visual detail, Flanagan often fails to make her emotional landscape convincing. ``Bye-Bye, Blackbird'' closes with a genteel Mrs. Dallowayesque character, forsaken by children and a male friend, on her knees in garden mud, trying to rescue a wounded bird from a tomcat. Here and elsewhere, though, the victim is treated dismissively—where she seeks to be dispassionate, the author seems instead to abandon empathy. It's as if Flanagan is in a hurry, trying to let extremity in situation or detail—a purple wedding dress, say—substitute for emotional resonance. A readable collection that chooses sensation over depth.

Pub Date: April 1, 1995

ISBN: 0-393-03803-3

Page Count: 320

Publisher: Norton

Review Posted Online: May 19, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 15, 1995




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


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

Close Quickview