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November 04, 2001|SUSAN SALTER REYNOLDS

ESTHER STORIES, by Peter Orner, Mariner Books: 228 pp., $13

In "Shoe Story," one of the shortest and most dangerous in Peter Orner's shotgun collection, two guys are having burgers and talking about love when the couple upstairs starts fighting. "Then she winged her shoes at him. I know this because Cal and I were sitting there listening, wiping our hands on our pants--Ike's got no napkins--when two white shoes dropped into the street like tiny planes crash-landing....They lay sprawled on the pavement, toe to toe, linked in the agony of the fall." You can see why the stories might be dangerous. They are sharp and frequently without mercy. Lives often boil down to a pile of clothes or worse,explode in the sudden violence of long-repressed pain. "Thumbs" is a good example of the kinds of pain that can lead a high school boy to kill a teacher. The stories build on each other, as if the characters from one story could hear the characters from another yelling through the thin walls of an apartment complex.

In the story, "Esther Stories," the narrator swirls through his Aunt Esther's fall from beauty to misery like a conjurer, like a wizard flipping through images in a crystal ball. And the slightly blurred edges don't make this story any less brutal.

NO MORE WORDS, A Journal of My Mother, Anne Morrow Lindbergh, By Reeve Lindbergh, Simon & Schuster: 174 pp., $24

Caring for an aging parent, being the daughter of famous people, helping someone die, but at the heart of this book is a child's never-ending need for approval from her parents (in this case, specifically, her mother) and how much power they have over us until we release ourselves from it. Reeve Lindbergh suffered from it all. Her mother, Anne Morrow Lindbergh, died last February, surrounded by round-the-clock caregivers, many of them Buddhist, in her own house on Reeve's property in Vermont. Reeve is 54 with a family of her own when her 93-year-old mother comes reluctantly to live on her property. Her father, Charles, had died 25 years earlier, and Anne went on to write many books, most famously, "Gift From the Sea." At 93, she hardly spoke at all, and this is what her daughter missed most acutely. The grande dame is silent, except for an occasional harsh word thrown in her daughter's direction. Once, she even dumps a glass of water on Reeve's leg. We see the daughter dutiful, trying to forgive and one suspects, to forget that her mother has perhaps been imperious her entire life.

In a touching moment, and there are a few, Anne becomes convinced that a small boy is hiding somewhere in the house, and Reeve suspects that she means her kidnapped son, "the Lindbergh baby." Reeve also remembers her father, and her own worries about the anti-Semitism many accused him of. She writes that her parents' lives symbolized the best and worst elements in American culture: the heroism (both of their careers as pilots) and the greed (the kidnappers demands for ransom). In caring for her mother, Reeve is often made to feel the way she felt as a child: "I smell bad and I am ugly and stupid." Like her mother's writing, this memoir can be raw. She looks at her mother one day, still beautiful, and thinks, "I wonder if we look alike."

THE DISTANT LAND OF MY FATHER, A Novel of Shanghai, By Bo Caldwell, Chronicle Books: 374 pp., $23.95

This is a marvelous story, straightforward without being prosaic, full of momentum yet complex and unpredictable. Bo Caldwell's novelized memoir of her father and of their lives in Shanghai in the 1930s and '40s, portrays an idyllic childhood, vividly remembered, a time of verandahs and parties and white linen suits, that is abruptly shattered when the Japanese invade Shanghai. There are bloody bodies and kidnappings and burning buildings, but more painful is the steady erosion of the child's faith in her father. When Anna is 6, the illusion of stability is easier for her father to create, but as she gets older, it becomes clear that he is a smooth-talking claims adjusting, yen-swapping black market businessman with shifting loyalties and an overdeveloped sense of ambition.

Anna and her beautiful mother go back to her mother's house in Pasadena, then move into their own bungalow and wait for Anna's father to join them. He is taken prisoner by the Japanese and sent to a concentration camp, but finally does arrive in Pasadena, five years later. He cannot sit still. We watch Anna's disappointment harden each time he abandons them, until it is perfectly sharpened into a thin blade of grief that she carries into adulthood. Caldwell polishes this grief until it shines. "The Distant Land of My Father" is a study of the glittering visions that wear us down; to ashes or diamonds.

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