Category Archives: .Short Stories

Look Who’s Morphing by Tom Cho

Look Who's MorphingEach of Tom Cho‘s 18 stories in his just-over 100-page-debut is a surprise waiting to happen to you. Already lauded and awarded in Cho’s native Australia, his Stateside arrival is sure to elicit gasps, guffaws, and more.

Welcome to half a century of pop culture icons – before you ask ‘how can pop culture be that old?’ allow me to point out that ‘the hills came alive’ 49 years ago on a screen near you back in 1965. That said, Cho’s Captain Von Trapp isn’t who you might expect. In fact, morphing proves to be the occupational hazard of choice throughout.

“Suitmation” has a different identity available to anyone and everyone, from Godzilla to Olivia Newton-John, while two siblings admit in “Dinner with My Brother” they might choose “Marlon Brando” and “Indiana Jones” over their own Chinese monikers, given the chance. “Dinner with Auntie Ling and Uncle Wang” becomes a computer adventure, and “Learning English” means hiring Bruce Willis to talk instead. Inner rage goes out of control in “Today on Dr. Phil,” while “The Bodyguard” chivalrously deals with a bionic stalker to save Whitney Houston. Mother and son get transformative makeovers in “I, Robot,” and the girlfriend dismisses a Muppets adventure in “Pinocchio.”

As the stories unfold in surreal glimpses, a blurred outline of the unnamed narrator emerges: a Chinese Australian young man with extended relatives on multiple continents, including parents and a brother Hank, who has a sometime girlfriend Tara among many, many lovers, who is driven by a fertile imagination without boundaries – not to mention quite the multi-platform command of TV, film, music, and games. In his many morphing guises, Cho explores a myriad of unexpected identities and impossible situations. This is fluid fiction, he seems to insist on every page: forget any expectations about culture, race, gender, sexuality, and more … embrace the pure, fantastical stories found here.

Readers: Adult

Published: 2009 (Australia), 2014 (United States)

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Filed under ..Adult Readers, ..Young Adult Readers, .Fiction, .Short Stories, Australian

How Do I Begin? A Hmong American Anthology edited by the Hmong American Writers’ Circle

How Do I Begin“For any serious artist, it is a terrible feeling of surrender when you realize there is no place in the world for your voice, when all that you express seems marginalized or in vain … But this isn’t a story about defeat. This is about survival.” So begins Burlee Vang‘s compelling introduction to this dynamic anthology of Hmong American prose, poetry, and art.

Founder of the Hmong American Writers’ Circle (HAWC) which, since 2004,”has served as a forum to discover and foster creative writing within the Hmong community,” Vang explains that artists of Hmong descent are “born into a people whose written language has long been substituted by an oral tradition.” In spite of a substantial cultural history, “there are no novels, plays, or collections of poems, essays, or short stories. There is no account of Hmong life preserved in writing by a Hmong hand and passed down through the centuries.” As newer Asian Pacific Americans whose initial immigration wave happened in the late 1970s into the 1990s, Hmong Americans used English to begin the shift from oral to written literary traditions. “It is exciting to be Hmong these days,” Vang celebrates, “and to finally write. But as pioneers, these are challenging times.”

Vang and 16 other HAWC members explore their Hmong American heritage, each defining his or her own identity as artist, Hmong American, both, neither, other – embracing and eschewing labels and expectations. One writer, Anthony Cody, stands out as the lone non-Hmong (at least not ethnically); a self-defined Mexican American, Cody “attempts to echo the tragedies, routines, and reality of the life I share” among the Hmong American community in their co-hometown of Fresno, California.

Of the 13 prose and poetry writers, Vang – as the leading ‘pioneer’ – has the indisputable standout piece: his short story, “Mrs. Saichue,” about a childless woman who helps her husband find a younger, fertile second wife, elicits comparisons to Ha Jin’s Waiting, in its sharp, spare evocations of small details amidst a difficult situation that create poignant depth and understanding.

Other notable prose pieces include Ka Vang‘s “Pao Dreams of Bodyslams, André the Giant, and Hulk Hogan” about a filial son with untraditional ambitions, and Ying Thao’s “The Art of Fishing,” about the distant relationship between two brothers, one of whom is gay.

Among the poets, Soul Choj Vang‘s works open the collection, giving it its title from “Here I Am,” about a new generation of American poets: “Now, here I am, adopted citizen, / not rooted in this land … How do I begin my song / Where do I enter the chorus / when my part is not yet written …” While many here ponder leaving and belonging, explore history and identity, May Lee-Yang plays with language, as she writes for “Hmong Americans who are bilingual”; her poem, “Endings,” warns of the importance of endings in Hmong words, how a single last letter can turn “Fish … into salt / Horse into human / Sour into penis.”

In addition to text, two fine artists (including Seexeng Lee whose “Hmong Woman Sewing a Paj Ntaub” graces the cover) and a photographer take center page in full color.

As is often the verdict in diverse collections, How Do I Begin is important more as significant literary history than for the quality of its uneven contents. Not surprisingly, the accomplished contributions are mingled with as many amateur pieces. But as the title implies, this is still a beginning, as Hmong American voices continue to develop, intensify, and multiply into this new century.

“There are no infrangible boundaries here. We have persevered through war, persecution, and exile. Through ethnical, cultural, and language barriers,” Vang bears witness. “We have survived the elements, the invisible. We have overcome ourselves. Our writing attests to this. Legitimizes us. After all these centuries, we are still standing.” Dreaming, producing, thriving, too.

Readers: Young Adult, Adult

Published: 2011

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Filed under ..Adult Readers, ..Young Adult Readers, .Fiction, .Memoir, .Nonfiction, .Poetry, .Short Stories, Hmong American

The Frangipani Hotel by Violet Kupersmith

Frangipani Hotel*STARRED REVIEW
What is most haunting in Kupersmith’s nine multi-layered pieces are not the specters, whose tales are revealed as stories within stories, but the lingering loss and disconnect endured by the still living. With an American father and a Vietnamese “former boat refugee” mother, the author channels her bicultural history to create contemporary, post-Vietnam War glimpses of reclamation and reinvention on both sides of East and West.

In “Skin and Bones,” two Houston sisters visit their Ho Chi Minh City grandmother “to rediscover their roots” but more realistically because “Vietnam Was Fat Camp.” In “Guests,” a pair of American expat lovers have diverging expectations. A dying youth tries to steal another’s body in “Little Brother,” and an insistent knock at the door demands retribution 40 years after the war in “One-Finger.” In “Reception,” set in the titular Frangipani Hotel, the clerk’s family’s past overlaps with the coming new brand of the ugly American.

Verdict: The wunderkind moniker will soon enough be attached to the 1989-born Kupersmith, who wrote most of these stories as a Mt. Holyoke undergraduate. Her mature-beyond-her-years debut deserves equal shelf space with other spare, provocative collections, such as Paul Yoon’s Once the Shore, Lauren Groff’s Delicate Edible Birds, and Yoko Ogawa’s Revenge.

Review: “Fiction,” Library Journal, January 1, 2014

Readers: Adult

Published: 2014

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Filed under ..Adult Readers, .Fiction, .Short Stories, Hapa, Southeast Asian, Southeast Asian American, Vietnamese, Vietnamese American

Boy in the Twilight by Yu Hua, translated by Allan H. Barr

Boy in the Twilight* STARRED REVIEW
Recipient of the James Joyce, Prix Courrier International, and Premio Grinzane Cavour awards for novels such as To Live (adapted to film by director Zhang Yimou) and Brothers, shortlisted for the 2008 Man Asian Prize, Yu Hua is an international sensation. His latest collection comprises 13 stories, written between 1993 and 1998, that offer a laconic, piercing glimpse into the daily life of citizens living in post-Mao China.

In “No Name of My Own,” a mentally challenged young man loses his one true companion to neighborhood bullies. A hungry boy is brutally punished by a fruit vendor in the titular “Boy in the Twilight”; by acute contrast, a groceries kiosk proprietor watches the playful son of doting parents who repeatedly appear at the hospital entrance across the street in “The Skipping-and-Stepping Game.” The sanctity of marriage gets trampled, challenged, and mocked in “Why There Was No Music” and others. The longest story, “Timid as a Mouse,” in which a long-ridiculed young man finally decides to strike back, proves the most indelible.

Verdict: Aficionados of the short form will savor these stories as both adroit literature and a sharp cultural lens. Appreciative readers of such diverse recent collections as Emma Donoghue’s Astray and Yoko Ogawa’s Revenge will want to add this title to waiting shelves.

Review: “Fiction,” Library Journal, October 15, 2013

Readers: Adult

Published: 2014 (United States)

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I Am an Executioner: Love Stories by Rajesh Parameswaran

I Am an ExecutionerTo put a word so violent as Executioner next to a muzak-soundtrack-inducing subtitle like Love Stories, on a cover sporting a cutesy, heart-shaped tiger’s tail is exactly the sort of unsettling experience you can expect from Rajesh Parameswaran‘s uniquely original debut story collection.

Animals take control of their narratives in a third of the nine stories here: in “The Infamous Bengal Ming,” a tiger newly smitten with his zookeeper unintentionally becomes a gory killer than a gentle lover; in “Elephants in Captivity (Part One),” a captive pachyderm’s hurriedly penned (trunked?) memoir is presented in translation from its original “Englaphant,” with more footnoted annotations than original text; in “On the Banks of Table River (Planet Lucina, Andromeda Galaxy, AD 2319),” the vicious mating rituals of oversized insects with each other, as well as humans, are revealed in churning detail.

While love among different species might be less than compatible, cavorting with one’s own kind is also no guarantee of ‘happily ever after.’ In the eponymous “I Am an Executioner,” the titular protagonist works desperately to start a relationship with his shocked new wife In “Demons,” a wife’s deathly wish towards her overbearing husband shockingly comes true – and then what is she to do? In “Narrative of an Agent 97-4702,” spouses can only share lives of half-truths and repeated deceptions.

When love morphs into power-play, tragedy inevitably ensues, from a failing computer salesman posing as a medical doctor in “The Strange Career of Dr. Raju Gopalarajan,” to a railway employee marrying up in “Four Rajeshes,” to a production designer’s desire to claim directorial control in “Bibhutibhushan Mallik’s Final Storyboard.”

Parameswaran’s imagination makes startling twists and manages to achieve unanticipated feats of bizarre fancy. A little shock to our jaded systems can only be a good thing – uncomfortable laughter, sudden squeamishness, unrestrained gasps all included!

Readers: Adult

Published: 2012

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Filed under .Fiction, Indian American, ..Adult Readers, .Short Stories, .Audio

Between the Assassinations by Aravind Adiga

Between the AssassinationsFor fans of Aravind Adiga‘s unforgettable 2008 Booker Prized first novel, The White Tiger, who were perhaps not as enthralled with his 2011 follow-up, Last Man in Tower, might I suggest you look backward a few more years to his very first book? Introduced to eager readers just after Adiga’s Booker win, Between the Assassinations was actually written before Tiger in spite of getting to the presses a little later.

With intriguing cleverness, Assassinations is an interlinked short story collection, presented as something like a tourist guide, introduced with a town map and a note, “Arriving in Kittur.” Located between Goa and Calicut on India’s southwestern coast, the three months following the monsoon season which ends in September “are the best time to visit Kittur. Given the town’s richness of history and scenic beauty, and diversity of religion, race, and language, a minimum stay of a week is recommended,” the guide advises.

That seven-day set-up which Adiga used with such success in The White Tiger, works equally well here. Presented as a ‘what-to-do’ schedule during seven days and nights in Kittur, Adiga embellishes each suggested go-to location with a related narrative. On arriving the first day into the railway station, Adiga offers the story of a young Muslim boy who initially works in a nearby “tea-and-samosa place” and moves from job to job – for awhile counting all the incoming and outgoing trains for a seemingly fancy stranger – unsure of his coming future.

On Day Two, you might go to Lighthouse Hill and see what happens when a bookseller who’s already been arrested 21 times for offering illegally photocopied books begins to sell Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses. In the evening, you might visit the Market and Maidan, and meet Keshava who came from a small village two years ago, only to learn how disposable human life can be in a big city. On Day Four, Umbrella Street – Kittur’s commercial center – will introduce you to Chenayya who is not so young, who needs all his energy to deliver furniture throughout the city. On Day Five while you stroll by the Cathedral of Our Lady of Valencia, you might meet George who is convinced a “princess” will save him from a life of drudgery. On Day Seven at the Salt Market Village, perhaps you’ll see Murali, who at 55, might be coming to the realization that he has wasted his privileged life for an uncompromising cause when what he really longs for is a family of his own.

Populating streets, buildings, and neighborhoods with an array of characters with multiple stories – hopeful and bittersweet both – Adiga presents a multi-dimensional view of a bustling town on the verge of drastic change, caught at the crossroads of inescapable backgrounds and fresh new ideas. If you choose to visit Kittur aurally, rest assured that narrator Harsh Nayyar literally breathes life into Adiga’s workers and dreamers, politicians and escapists, students and fathers. Go ahead, take the trip – travel couldn’t be easier: by book or by iPod, Kittur awaits.

Readers: Adult

Published: 2009

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Filed under ..Adult Readers, .Audio, .Fiction, .Short Stories, British Asian, Indian

Lost in the City: Stories by Edward P. Jones

Lost in the CitySo first off, I read backwards (see yesterday’s post) … which seemed to have worked out okay, but I still wish I could time travel back to read in the ‘correct’ order: this, Lost in the City, first, THEN All Aunt Hagar’s Children. If you haven’t read either, take my advice, start here first. Also, if you choose to stick Lost in the ears, rest assured that a talented ensemble of multiple narrators take turns bringing Edward P. Jones’ tales of the capital city to life.

MacArthur “Genius” Jones began his lauded literary career with these 14 stories, all set in Washington, DC, in which he captures the every day, what might be called ordinary, lives of African American residents through the decades of the 20th century. Some are native DC-born, while others are transplants who have come north seeking, if not rebirth, then at least improved opportunities.

A young girl raises pigeons on her roof in the aptly named “The Girl Who Raised Pigeons,” a wayward young man gets and keeps a job at “The Store” run by an initially acerbic owner, a highly successful woman who has just received news of her mother’s death climbs into a cab hoping to get “Lost in the City,” and an aging woman agrees to record her life’s remembrances on a series of cassette tapes in “Marie.”

Certainly, Lost stands magnificently on its own. But  – and what a ‘but’! – here’s the gawwww-inducing kicker: the 14 stories here line up with All Aunt Hagar‘s 14 stories, written 14 years apart. What do I mean by line-up? Here’s an example: story #2 here, “The First Day,” and story #2 in All, “Spanish in the Morning,” are both about a young girl’s first day of school. Be assured, these are not rewrites of each other, but expertly aligned companion pieces. If literature has but seven basic plots (others insist on less, still others more), then they’re represented multiple times throughout Jones’ stories in both collections, albeit with resonance and grace, each uniquely presented beyond fleeting moments of familiarity.

So here’s a partial key – how horrible would I be if I spoiled all your ‘aha’-moments?! If you’re like me and don’t want to know anything more, then stop right here … and go get both books already. If you need just a few hints, try this: #4s’ Caesar; #8s’ Georgia and the daughter “who would have earned more than all her ancestors put together”; #11s’ blind woman. Good start for you? Now go discover the rest … your own ‘gawwww’ will start soon enough!

Readers: Adult

Published: 1992

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Filed under ..Adult Readers, .Audio, .Fiction, .Short Stories, African American

All Aunt Hagar’s Children: Stories by Edward P. Jones

Aunt Hagar's ChildrenEdward P. Jones takes up little space on library shelves. Over the last 20+ years, he’s published three books: two story collections and a single novel. Proving the adage ‘quality over quantity,’ Jones’ awards are considerably more extensive, from the PEN/Hemingway Award for his first title, to the Pulitzer, National Book Critics Circle Award, and IMPAC Dublin Award for his second, and his PEN/Faulkner finalist nod for this, his latest. In between, Jones also earned a coveted MacArthur “Genius” Fellowship in 2004.

In a random moment of browsing through my overflowing shelves, I opened up All Aunt Hagar’s Children; once I started, of course, I kept going. Fourteen stories later (some of them stuck in ears, impeccably read by actor James Peter Francis), here I am … only to realize that I should have read Jones’ 1992 debut, Lost in the City, first because the two titles are actually companions to each other. Published 14 years apart, both collections contain 14 stories set in Jones’ home city of Washington, DC, with each story correspondingly connected to a story in the other book – that is, the first story in Lost and the first in All are a matching pair, just as Lost‘s 14th and All’s 14th are linked. Here’s hoping I can make the connections backwards.

A marriage begins to fall apart “In the Blink of God’s Eye” with the discovery of an abandoned baby tied up in the trees, while a family flounders because of illness, distance, and even religion in “Resurrecting Methusalah.” A single gesture – misinterpreted – destroys the last of an ex-prisoner’s already strained faith in his family in “Old Boys, Old Girls,” and a Korean veteran returns home in the titular “All Aunt Hagar’s Children” and must solve the murder of longtime family friend’s errant son.

In “Root Worker,” a young doctor takes her mother back to North Carolina in search of a local healer to exorcise the older’s woman’s witches. In “Common Law,” a once independent woman succumbs to the charms, and then to violence, at the whim of a man she can’t seem to let go. A woman inexplicably loses her sight in “Blindsided,” while an elderly widower loses virtually everything in “A Rich Man.” In “Tapestry,” the final story – and my personal favorite – the not-lived life of a just-married young woman is interrupted by the life she’s just begun.

Jones, thankfully, is not a superficially tidy writer: his stories are not about artificial assurances, predictable narratives, easy endings. Each story is a microcosm to ponder and process; collected together, they weave together a diverse, dynamic tapestry – to borrow the final story’s title – of every day, seemingly ordinary African American life through a quickly evolving, unexpectedly changing 20th-century Washington, DC.

As rewarding as All proves to be, I admit I’m looking forward to getting Lost, already convinced I’m about to experience even greater enhancement and enrichment. I’ve just started Lost … stay tuned – I’ll be back in 14 stories.

Readers: Adult

Published: 2006

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Filed under ..Adult Readers, .Audio, .Fiction, .Short Stories, African American

Delicate Edible Birds and Other Stories by Lauren Groff

Delicate Edible BirdsIf the name Lauren Groff sounds familiar, that might be because her latest title, Arcadia, appears on oh-so-many Best-of-2012 lists. I admit I haven’t yet read Arcadia (it’s high in my ‘must-read’ pile), but if I have the option among an author’s titles, short stories are usually my first choice.

Just as I clicked ‘on’ knowing nothing more than the lauded reputation associated with Groff’s name, I hope not to dampen anyone else’s eyebrow-raising, shudder-inducing surprise factor. That means you might want to stop here, or you’ll have to risk even the bare minimum being too much …

In “Lucky Chow Fun,” the only girl swimmer on the high school team watches as the discovery of a human trafficking operation destroys the idyllic haze that protected her small town. Swimming transforms the legendary real-life 12th-century lovers, Abelard and Heloise, into 20th-century “L. DeBard and Aliette,” an Olympian and his teenaged wheelchair-bound protegé. In “Majorette,” the oldest daughter in a dysfunctional family finally finds comfort, stability, and lasting happiness. Dysfunction ceaselessly controls the relationship between two intimate friends in “Blythe.” Always maintaining distance, the ex-pat wives bear witness to the slow destruction of “The Wife of the Dictator.”

A professional storyteller becomes the wife of a childhood friend in “Watershed,” only to have her narrative cut short. In “Sir Fleeting,” a Midwestern farm girl reinvents her own personal narrative to eventually match, even surpass, that of the glamorous playboy who appears in and out of her life. In “Fugue” – so aptly named as the most intricate story in the collection – disintegrating relationships overlap and overpower. And, in “Delicate Edible Birds,” again, the lone woman among men, this time in a pack of war correspondents during World War II, falls prey to inhumanity.

All nine stories later, I know I chose remarkably well! [Stuck in the ears – narrated by Susan Eriksen who's amply capable of multiple nuanced voices – the collection makes for mesmerizing running/walking/laundry-folding company; you'll just keep going in order to listen!] From absolving to traitorous, from desperate to destructive, each story is a complete narrative to absorb, appreciate, and ultimately admire. Now, Arcadia, here I come!

Readers: Adult

Published: 2009

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Filed under ..Adult Readers, .Audio, .Fiction, .Short Stories, Nonethnic-specific

Revenge: Eleven Dark Tales by Yoko Ogawa, translated by Stephen Snyder

RevengeWhat are the chances …?? So having just finished Hikikomori and the Rental Sister – an absolutely phenomenal read you should not miss! – I opened to the first story in Yoko Ogawa’s latest Stateside collection to find another parent mourning a young dead son. Talk about eerie and creepy, as if some darker power is directing my book choices (and more?). And then – and then (!) – not quite 2/3 of the way through Revenge, another freaky déjà-vu repeat: a lovers’ scene with a haircut on the balcony. I keep thinking: just what are the chances??

Some (most?) of you will be glad to know, that goosebumpy chill will stay with you all the way through to the final page and beyond (my fingers are getting cold just typing!).

Okay, so you’ve got 11 “dark tales” here. They’re interrelated, but in quite an ingenious way as to keep you focused (on alert? on edge?) from story to story. And yes, most definitely, these need to be read in order to get the full effect. No sloppy skipping allowed.

In the shudder-inducing opening story, “Afternoon at the Bakery,” a mother marks what would have been her late 6-year-old’s 18th birthday by buying strawberry shortcake; that “strawberry cake covered in a thick layer of whipped cream” reappears in the next story, “Fruit Juice,” about a schoolgirl who takes along a classmate to have a fancy lunch with her estranged, powerful, famous father. At story’s end, “Fruit Juice” highlights “enormous heaps of kiwis” … kiwis that just might have come from the fruit trees – mostly kiwis – that open the next story, “Old Mrs. J.”

From tale to tale, details carry over – beginning with something minor like pieces of fruit, to whole paragraphs transcribed from one story (“Old Mrs. J” again) into another in a very, very different context (the final tale, “Poison Plants,” about the relationship between a wealthy widow and an aspiring musician). The spooky particulars range from five-fingered carrots to murder, from a mis-placed heart to custom bags, from a dead hamster to a pet Bengal tiger, proven-to-be-used instruments of torture to a dead writer, all ending pretty much where it started – a curled up corpse in an abandoned refrigerator! And you’re thinking, ‘how did she dooooo that?’!!!

You must, of course, read the collection in full to make all the connections … your hairs will just continue to stand on end as you piece together the multi-layers. I just noticed my fingertips are turning purple-ish blue at the ends … proof indeed of a frightfully successful Revenge.

Tidbit: In case you can’t get enough of Yoko Ogawa, check out The Housekeeper and the Professor, which appears as one of my “Absolute Favorites” on BookDragon. Others also had high praise for Hotel Iris (shortlisted for the 2010 Man Asian Literary Prize, for example), but me, definitely not so much (reviewed for San Francisco Chronicle).

Readers: Adult

Published: 2013 (United States)

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Filed under ..Adult Readers, .Fiction, .Short Stories, .Translation, Japanese