How Does a Single Blade of Grass Thank the Sun?by Doretta Lau. Nightwood Editions, Gibsons, BC, 2014, 120 pp, softcover $19.95
Reviewed by Janet Nicol
Lau takes risks in her lively collection of short stories, inviting the reader to imagine young Asian Canadians who are sassy, guilty, funny, angry and much more. The poetic title of the book is also the final story, previously short-listed for the Journey Prize. A character with the moniker ‘Sick Man of Asia’ narrates. He describes life hanging out with his “Chinger” pals who are “Slanty-eyed teenage disappointments with no better place to haunt but the schoolyard….” The writing sings with teen slang of an Asian bent, as the group taunt each other and scheme on “Lotusland” (Vancouver) streets.
In “Robot by the River” a character named Oliver Andrews provides the female narrator with a diversion when her Japanese boyfriend leaves Vancouver. When Andrews introduces himself, there is a “pause” between the two. He then explains he is a Korean adoptee, “…as if I had queried the dissonance between his surname and his appearance.” A story of love and separation follows.
A more humorous plot evolves in “Two-Part Invention” when a single woman decides to date dead men. She sets her sights on the late Toronto-based pianist, Glenn Gould. In the process the reader learns a fair amount of true information about the internationally acclaimed—and eccentric–musician.
Vancouver is the dominant setting for these stories. The Burnaby ghost at Deer Lake, the Sugar Refinery live music venue and the historic neighborhood of Strathcona are among familiar landmarks mentioned throughout, sometimes in detail. This gives place an importance, in contrast to characters grappling with belonging. Lau possesses an impressive talent and beneath her often playful writing there is much for the reader to consider.
Behaving This Way Is All I have Left, by Gonzalo Riedel, Insomniac Press, London, Ontario, 2013, 119 pp, $19.95
In his first collection of short stories, Winnipeg author Gonzalo Riedel provides concise, snappy situations with ordinary people who, more often than not, make bad decisions. They commit crimes, live outside the mainstream or have unworthy thoughts which lead to wrongful deeds. Riedel gets inside the head of these characters and as a result, readers gain insights in to their motives. The prose is spare, each narration leading to an end that jolts or twists.
Child acrobats from Russia appear in “The Trained Performers.” A sudden unscripted tightrope performance leaves the reader in suspense up to the final sentence. “Clubbers” tells the story of a man’s collapse after taking a recreational drug and the reaction of the drug dealer who is responsible. Male fantasies are played out in “A Matter of Degrees” as Adam provokes a brawl with his rival over a love interest at a “downtown dive that pulled in a crossover crowd of either punks or old prairie rednecks, depending on the night.”
In “The Escort Agency” Paul nervously sets up a paid encounter with a woman over the telephone. The voice of the man he calls to arrange the service is “deep, impatient, ambiguously accented.” Paul’s tentative feelings become out of control by story’s end. The content of each story is original and contains humor and truth.
Developing a stronger presence of place, such as Winnipeg, would give more dimension to this otherwise thoughtful and entertaining collection.
Republished from Maple Tree Literary Supplement, Sept-Dec. 2014 – an on line journal at http://www.mtls.ca