A Northwest Based Literary Journal

TLR Recommends: Fiction Book Reviews

Letters from Dinosaurs
Stories by Leland Cheuk
ISBN: 978-1945796104
Thought Catalog Books
September, 2016

Some of the stories in Leland Cheuk’s new collection rank among the best I’ve read this year. The book opens with “A Letter From Your Dinosaur,” which ran in our premier issue in 2014, and reminded me of just how much I loved that flash fiction. The imagination behind “First Person Shooter” and the speculative “1776” make them engrossing reads. Other tales are more traditional narratives, but all are well crafted, informed and driven by the author’s knowledge of the exterior world—current events and passions, politics, our manipulation by moneyed interests—the stories are never one dimensional. Cheuk frames his fictional worlds with these realities, and uses them to help motivate his characters. It’s the technique of a mature writer, one who is aware that characters (and people) are connected to their environments, and to more than just one or two other people.

This approach works exceptionally well because thematically, the stories in this volume explore the conundrum that people of Asian ancestry often face, especially those who live in the U.S.: as a group they are not nearly as marginalized as African Americans or Latinos, yet they’ve hardly been accepted enough to feel the comfort of privilege. Even when they do well in life it is somehow attributed to race; so much so that some characters disdain their origins, especially when the old values are still embraced by members of their families. Also, there is always someone around to notice the differences, to make the awkward comment—occasionally that someone is the Asian-American himself. As Cheuk subtly shows in many of these pieces, Asian-Americans live in a kind of cultural limbo in which they are driven to adhere to the dominant, white narrative, but sometimes feel guilty about doing so. That gives the title of the collection an added dimension—more than just borrowing from the opening story, Cheuk seems to be hinting that these “dinosaurs” need to move forward, to stop looking over their shoulders at the asteroid glow of racial mayhem relentlessly chasing after them.

Sure Things and Last Chances: Stories from the Soul of New York
By Lou Gaglia
ISBN: 978-0986349041
Spring to Mountain Press
September, 2016

Having been born in New York City and raised on Long Island, I was intrigued by Lou Gaglia’s pitch for his second collection of stories, all of which take place in the boroughs and neighboring areas. It’s been decades since I’ve been back—not that I’ve missed the place—but I’ll admit to a certain curiosity about the intricacies of life there, the internal logic that’s subtly different from that of folks in other places around the country. The fact that the book received endorsements from writers like Jen Knox, Clifford Garstang, and Jen Michalski helped as well.

Gaglia’s previous collection, Poor Advice, won the 2015 New Apple Literary Award for short story fiction and the 2016 New York Book Festival Award for fiction. So although unfamiliar with his work, I felt comfortable taking it on.

What I found were simple stories about relatively simple people, the ones whose lives butt up against NYC affluence but rarely cross into that terrain. These are tales of the blue collar folks who make up the bulk of the population back east, people who work and play, and love and hate much like people in other places, but who respond to life’s challenges not with resignation or militancy, as we are accustomed to seeing in fiction based elsewhere, but with a resolve that is often perceived as attitude. Whatever ya got, we can take it. It could be explained as a fatalism that stems from a long tradition of Catholic/Jewish value systems (my layman’s guess), and that’s different from the way people in the rest of the states react to adversity. That subtle difference I was looking for.

The stories are closely focused through the characters’ perspectives, so the language is not dense or poetic; it’s fitting for this fictional demographic. In fact it has that populist ring that’s established a beachhead on fiction’s lofty territory over the last couple of decades, and which defies the old order’s attempts to repel it, something like what the Russians did in Crimea. It represents a progression from Carver/Lish to George Saunders, and promotes a writing style that is now embraced by a significant percentage of MFA grads and lit journal editors. Gaglia does it better than most. Deeper themes emerge from his characters’ apparently shallow observations of their worlds, and he uses their piddling concerns to take readers to the edge of the profound. And he has the skill and good sense to leave them there, inviting them to take the leap, but not insisting on it.

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Categorised in: Book Reviews, Fiction