Vital, vivid, and angry.

Provocative reinterpretations of some very old stories.

MacLaughlin was a classics major before she began a career working with wood, so anyone who read her memoir, Hammer Head: The Making of a Carpenter (2015), may remember the occasional quotation from Ovid. In this collection of stories, she finds her main subjects in the Roman poet’s Metamorphoses. MacLaughlin has set herself a considerable challenge. Ovid was writing about 2,000 years ago, and people have been translating and riffing on his poems—which were, themselves, based on well-known myths—ever since. Of course, the fact that artists continue to find inspiration in Daedalus and Icarus and Hercules and the Fall of Troy is testament to their power and mutability, but this means that MacLaughlin is inviting comparison to everyone from Homer to Walt Disney Studios. One way she sets herself apart is by focusing on female characters, many of them less well known to a contemporary audience. This choice creates its own challenge, though, in that so many of these stories are about rape. MacLaughlin succeeds in making these stories fresh and distinct by allowing her protagonists to speak in their own voices. This creates stylistic variety across stories, but it also makes a powerful point. In so many of these tales, a human woman or wood nymph or other female who attracts the attention of a lustful god or an angry goddess is turned into an inanimate object or dumb beast. She literally loses her voice. Indeed, even when these heroines can speak, the patriarchal culture in which they live robs their words of meaning. Io says “No” to Jove, but she finds that the language she knows no longer has any power. The sounds she makes are no more meaningful than the lowing of the white cow she will become. Some of these stories have distinctly modern touches—Galatea faints at a 7-Eleven because she’s been on a fasting cleanse—but these moments only reinforce a sense of timelessness. There have always been men who will not hear when women speak.

Vital, vivid, and angry.

Pub Date: Nov. 19, 2019

ISBN: 978-0-374-53858-3

Page Count: 352

Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Review Posted Online: July 14, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 15, 2019




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

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