Sunday, September 29, 2013
Short Stories: Birds of Paradise Lost by Andrew Lam
Date: March 2013
Source: World Literature Today Book Club
Read: for the WLT Book Club
From GoodReads: The thirteen stories in Birds of Paradise Lost shimmer with humor and pathos as they chronicle the anguish and joy and bravery of America’s newest Americans, the troubled lives of those who fled Vietnam and remade themselves in the San Francisco Bay Area. The past—memories of war and its aftermath, of murder, arrest, re-education camps and new economic zones, of escape and shipwreck and atrocity—is ever present in these wise and compassionate stories. It plays itself out in surprising ways in the lives of people who thought they had moved beyond the nightmares of war and exodus. It comes back on TV in the form of a confession from a cannibal; it enters the Vietnamese restaurant as a Vietnam Vet with a shameful secret; it articulates itself in the peculiar tics of a man with Tourette’s Syndrome who struggles to deal with a profound tragedy. Birds of Paradise Lost is an emotional tour de force, intricately rendering the false starts and revelations in the struggle for integration, and in so doing, the human heart.
My review: I am not, as I have probably mentioned before, an overly huge fan of short stories. I have rarely managed to muster more than a lukewarm reception for them, so I am not the best judge of a collection's worth.
I did, however, enjoy Lam's work. There is no precise reason I can place my finger on as to why I enjoyed the stories, other than that I did think they were well-written. Lam is certainly able to effectively condense all he wants said into a relatively brief amount of space; the stories are very self-contained and usually feel complete. Perhaps what I most appreciated, though, was the broadness of experience represented in this collection. It was a little strange to me that, as part of a recently-published book, the stories are about earlier immigrants rather than those who have come over or who have been born during my own generation. Yet the stories cover old and young, male and female, wealthy and poor, successful and struggling. There's several stories with GLBTQ characters. But at the same time, all of this is understated - it's not obvious that the author is trying to be particularly broad or inclusive. There are just tales of ordinary people's life experiences, told succinctly and simply, that carry a power beyond their deceptively understated style.