on January 20, 2013
I really enjoyed this one. Initially, I was wanting to make comparisons to Calvino or Borges (both of which would be accurate), except, as I worked through the collection, what stood out--even when there were bursts of intense creativity and magical realism--was the personal and emotional energy running through all of them, the elegance and the tendency to do away with unnecessary artifice. The stories are about alienation, love, self-discovery to the same extent they're concerned with self, representation, mythology. Some of the standouts for me were "The Political Conceptions of Getting Fired", "Gradients", and especially "Chronology of an Egg. It was also great to see so many stories dealing with China or Chinese Americans. In general, the only thing I felt was missing was a longer story to act as sort of the center of the collection--the longest story was about 17 pages, whereas I would have preferred to see one or two between 30 and 60, since so many of these pieces dealt with the relationships between people over long periods of time. It's been a while since I read through a short story collection in just a few days, and this is one I would definitely recommend checking out.
on May 19, 2013
This marvelous collection of short stories is crazily inventive, completely creative, fascinating, superbly written and reality-expanding. Peter T. Liu is one of those writers that make you wish your mind worked even half as well and that creative writing classes really could have given you a drop of his brilliance. All the stories had their own beauty and life but my favorites involved eggs or dancing! Highly recommended and I can't wait for more from this exciting writer.
on October 27, 2012
There was something that grabbed at my attention when Watering Heaven was requested to me. Perhaps it was the fact that I haven't read much in terms of Asian fiction, or perhaps because it was described as a travelogue. Whatever it was, it sparked something in me.
Watering Heaven is a collection of nineteen short stories, all with some connection to Asia, be it the setting or the characters themselves. There's also a lot of Asian folklore including in Watering Heaven, and I loved how these were included into the stories. They complemented each other well, and I thought that they were a fantastic edition into the stories. The stories wove together well too, not always with the characters featured but also with the settings and landmarks. I love it when stories do that, as I feel it really helps them to interlock together well.
The writing in Watering Heaven is exquisite. And I really do mean that. There are so many beautiful quotes in this book. They didn't feel misplaced within the stories either. Sometimes, a quote can be brilliant, yet stick out like a sore thumb for the wrong reasons. This isn't the case with Watering Heaven, everything flows together seamlessly. My favourite stories, basically the ones that have stayed with me, were A Beijing Romance, Staccato and Searching for Normalcy. That's not to say the others were bad, those three were the ones that made the largest impression on myself. A lot of these stories are incredibly thought-provoking, asking weighty questions and taking the characters through experiences that I hope to never have to go through myself.
My one real complaint with Watering Heaven, and this is an extremely petty complaint that I have about nearly every single short story I read: some of the stories were too short. I know that's the point of short stories, I honestly do. I just get so attached to the characters and their backgrounds that I want to spend more time with them, learn more about them and their relationships with others. I just get so frustrated reading short stories sometimes, it's like getting a lick of ice cream when you just want to have the entire scoop. Watering Heaven also has some mature themes running through it, so this isn't one for people who don't like reading about sex or death. I didn't personally have a problem with the themes, but I am all too aware that there are people that do.
Overall, Watering Heaven was an interesting and, at times, thought-provoking read. Whilst it's not something I'd have picked up off my own back, I'm pleased I got to experience the beautiful writing that is contained within these stories.
on February 17, 2013
I've been fumbling for days now, searching for the exact right words to describe this book. I'd started writing my review even before I finished the book. So many stories stood out that it became hard to pick which ones I could claim as my favorite. Even that word--"favorite"--all but loses its meaning when you come across such a wonderful collection.
One of the elements of Liu's collection I enjoyed most was the way he elegantly layered in different myths with his modern stories where the protagonist would ultimately learn something. Beyond that, Liu has a way of tying the myths and stories together often with incredible single lines. They're like a punch to the solar plexus when you see what he's done.
"I wanted something so badly, I tried to destroy it when I couldn't have it."
"Unfortunately, my essence too was just a shard, a sublimation of everything I'd wanted. . . . Death was the normal end for everyone: there, and only there, would my search for normalcy end."
These two quotes are from two different stories, but they share one commonality: they guide the reader toward what's really important from the story. They help the reader as well as the protagonist take something away.
Some of these stories demanded that I put the book down and let the impact of the language sink in. For other people, the book can be read in a couple sittings, but for me, I had to process each story on its own. I felt like it'd be a disservice not to give each one individual attention.
Therein lies one of the other elements I enjoyed most: the way each story stands out on its own, yet feels perfectly selected for inclusion in this collection. There are recurring characters--Larry Chao might be the most memorable--as well as recurring themes, though never do they feel rehashed.
Superlatives run thin at this point in some reviews. I can't recommend the book enough. It's got an incredibly tender, human element that is missing from so much of today's literature, which is really some of the highest praise I can give a book.
on October 25, 2012
Watering Heaven is an edgy and past-faced collection of 20 short stories, mainly set in Beijing and Los Angeles. The themes covered in this book include happiness, love, relationships, identity, workplace satisfaction, and death. Several minor details overlap in some of the stories, but each stands alone and centers around a young, male protagonist. The women characters are feisty, strong, independent, and intelligent.
It's been more than 20 years since I've been to Beijing, so I especially enjoyed the stories set there. Tieryas Liu does an excellent job of bringing the reader into his stories, so I thought it was fun to read about contemporary Beijing. Both men and women will enjoy this book, as will Old China Hands and people who haven't had much exposure to Asian culture.
on August 28, 2013
I can't remember the last time a short story made my jaw drop so abruptly that I skinned it, but "Chronology of an Egg" did that to me. And that was just the first story.
I've read many a story that uses a symbolic device or tries too transparently to be clever, but Liu's storytelling has a naturalness that's rare. What I appreciate about these stories is that they all seem to belong together, and most importantly, they come across as sincere. You feel the truth behind the words, whether they convey the pain of love or the sorrow over its brevity, and the magical realisms feel more real than magical. There's plenty of wonder to be felt, but these stories resonate because every reader can relate with the ambiguities of relationships, and the sputterings and burnouts that ensue between people whether or not chance meetings ever develop to that level.
You'll discover tenderness here that will compel real emotion, and ponderings that don't try to offer answers but keep you rooted in the big question: why DO we exist?
At times I felt that each individual character was merely asking a different iteration of this question, but that's what's so exceptional . . . that the question doesn't change . . . just our way of framing it. What could have been repetitious instead sings. You should read this.
on February 17, 2013
Do you like your fiction in small, tantalizing, unexpected bites? If so, these short stories, many of which are quite brief - curious little capsules of wonderment - will move you to ponder such things as obsession, identity, extraterrestrial encounters, the limitations of levitation, and the philosophical relevance of the cleanliness-is-next-to-godliness argument regarding wholesale rat extermination. The stories take place in China - in urban high-rises, a clandestine basketball court in the Forbidden City, an abandoned amusement park, a makeshift nightclub along the Great Wall. There is nothing commonplace about these stories.
on January 28, 2013
"Anonymity was my secret identity. I was lost in the sea of Beijing, a nonentity in the metaphor of a metropolis crammed with millions."
~The Buddha of Many Parts, Peter Tieryas Liu
In The Buddha of Many Parts, the main characters, a man and a woman who meet by chance, are never named, and so they remain anonymous. Both have their own reasons for living in Beijing, and seem to relish the freedoms that accompany anonymity in a very populous city. Inspired by the story of the Buddha sculptor who sought to create physical perfection, the blond American woman living in Beijing focuses on the body parts of people, and having "fallen in love" with the man's fingers, wants to cast them in clay.
Watering Heaven by Peter Tieryas Liu is a collection of twenty short stories, including The Buddha of Many Parts. Published in 2012, the stories are set in various locations, mostly in Beijing, but also in other places including Bangkok and Los Angeles, and present numerous characters (some unnamed), in a variety of situations. The stories that take place in China keenly depict Beijing and other locales, bringing them to life through descriptions of 'Worm Street', men playing xiangqi (Chinese chess), Changcheng (the Great Wall), assorted street vendors, kaoya (Peking Duck), and much more.
Dedicated to his wife, Angela, Watering Heaven features a lot of romance, which seems to be a refuge for the (young) protagonists, an escape from a world of detachment, superficiality, anxiety, and unpredictability. In the first story, Chronology of an Egg, the girl in the story, Sarah Chao, lays an egg every time she has sex. This story is odd yet funny and compelling at the same time, a story that brings to mind the books of medical abnormalities I couldn't help but pore over, secretly, as a child. Romance in a large city such as Beijing seems inevitable because of all the people out and about (perhaps it's similar to NY in this way, where I grew up--romance was always handy); it offers some protection and diversion as well. These contemporary stories are set in present times and feature the technology of today, such as email and Facebook: how does modern technology affect romance? In The Political Misconception of Getting Fired, the male protagonist, Byron Zhou, excitedly reconnects through Facebook with a girl he had a crush on in high school, June Guan, only to find out that they've both changed (he's no longer attracted to her). This is a dauntless story for anyone who has ever wondered how a reunion through Facebook might turn out.
Other themes in this collection of stories have to do with jobs and working, and a hefty dose of job-related angst, failure, and dissatisfaction are in the mix, reminiscent of Kafka. In some of the stories, characters are fleeing from jobs (and relationships) that are no longer satisfying. In the story, Forbidden City Hoops, the main character, a collector of TV sets, is fleeing from his job as a photographer, which no longer seems fulfilling to him. In another story, The Interview, the protagonist is let go from his current job for mistaking a masculine-looking female manager for a man. An interview for a new job starts out very well--in fact, it's too good to be true. Soon it becomes a dreadful nightmare when he's interrogated by a different manager and the questions become intensely personal; the entire encounter is extremely upsetting. In the story 58 Deaths and Unrequited Love, filmmaker Larry Chao fails to achieve a successful career during his lifetime. On the whole, the book stresses the importance of meaningful work and professional fulfillment, which are seen as worthwhile but difficult to achieve. The author's edgy, exploratory voice and tone reflect more than a few unsettled feelings concerning jobs and working.
Overall, I greatly enjoyed this collection of short fiction. Each story is unique and imaginative, and not surprisingly, they've been featured in various literary publications and magazines, including Gargoyle, Indiana Review, Word Riot, and ZYZZYVA. What I value most about these stories is their originality and inventiveness. They seemed very creative and novel to me, strikingly different from anything else I've encountered in books. The format of the stories is also quite creative. In the first story, Chronology of an Egg, the author gives dates and times of events within the story, as if he's writing a report. Longer stories have numbered chapters, or at least sections within each story, while other stories, such as Colony, Unreflected, and The Death Artist, are very short (like longer flash fiction).
Peter Tieryas Liu's short fiction is fresh, distinct, and intelligent. Watering Heaven presents situations that are sometimes surrealistic and often serious, but laced with humor and more than a bit of irony. Although I just read these stories, I plan to reread at least some of them soon because they're so unusual, thought-provoking, and remarkable.
on January 5, 2013
Watering Heaven is a fantastic collection of stories all with a connection to Asia. Whether they were realistic or more on the magical side of things, they all demanded my attention. I was immediately sucked in by the story of a woman who lays an egg every time she has sex. Very strange! This story might have stayed with me the most throughout the entire collection. I wouldn't be against reading an entire novel based around this woman and her "curse" because it such an original and odd idea.
Another story that really grabbed my attention was Resistance, the story of a man trying to help his friend get out of a pretty serious situation. This story starts out with one of the best opening lines I have ever come across:
"I'm inside an abandoned shopping mall and a hooker's chasing me with a kitchen knife. It's 6 a.m. Goddamn Martin for getting me into this s***."
How could you even consider turning away from a line like that? I definitely couldn't. Each story has its own pull that sucks you in deep and plays with your emotions. Each character is dealing with something incredibly personal, whether it be love, loss or just trying to figure out what the meaning of their life is.
Not only are the stories original and emotionally raw, but they are written so beautifully. You have no choice but to connect with each character and envision yourself in their situation. Liu has done an exceptional job bringing each of them to life with all of their imperfections for our viewing.
If you are a lover of short stories like me or are looking for a deeper, yet shorter read. I highly recommend you pick up Watering Heaven. This is one collection that is going to stay with you long after you have turned the last page.
on January 25, 2013
Watering Heaven by Peter Tieryas Liu simply stunned me with its sheer inventiveness and its celebration of the darkness that sometimes seem to be spreading over the urban landscapes of the world. Some times in life you must decide either to cry or laugh. I think Peter Tieryas Liu has shown us how we can laugh at some very terrible things without losing our humanity. My first temptation on this collection is just to blather on a bit then just say read it as soon as you can and you can thank me latter.
There are twenty stories in Watering Heaven by Peter Tieryas Liu. As is my normal procedure I will talk individually about enough of the stories to give a potential reader a feel for the collection without spoiling any of the superbly entertaining plots. Upon completion of this I will then talk a bit about why I love these stories so much.
"Chronology of an Egg"
"I first met Sarah Chao in Beijing over tequila shots after a game conference. I tell her she is beautiful and she tells me she has a genetic quirk that scares off most men.
'Every time I have sex, I lay an egg'"
The narrator figures this is a joke and gives her his email address when he hears she will be coming to the USA in a few months. Sure enough in four moths she shows up in Los Angeles and he takes her to "an exhibition about talented circus performers who've died in the act". The story is told in the first person by Ethan Zhou a game designer who lived in China for three years researching pandas and iguanas. Sarah Chao is a producer (of video games-not sure) who has spent half of her life in Kentucky and half in China. She has a fun thing she likes to do. Whenever she leaves a restaurant she writes on the wall outside it, in Mandarin, a rating for the place as a warning to others. She also does this to bars and once even writes something on the dead of a drunk. She is amazed and a bit revolted of the shallow snobbish culture of Sunset road where breast implants are the norm and everyone is a celebrity wannabe. The woman asks him what he wants to be. He says in the short term he wants some green tea ice cream. I can relate as I love green tea frozen yogurt. He tells her the story of his ex-hippie uncle who started a green tea ice cream parlor. He ended up killing himself by putting 1000 Tylenol pills in his own ice cream. The story is told in the form of journal entries. In one scene which made me think of the scene in Pulp Fiction where John Travolta and Uma Thurman dance they visit a dance club. As the evening passes and the tequila shots flow on they wind up in a Korean Karaoke club. As the night goes on Sarah and Ethan have some real fascinating conversations. They wind up at her place. Now things get unspeakably weird. I was sitting by myself in our gazebo when I read the ending of the story. At first something really shocking and immaculately described occurs and just when you think things cannot get any stranger one of the very weirdest shocking and hilarious endings to a story I have ever read caused me to gasp out loud in the darkness of the Manila night. I guarantee you will not forget this ending and you will have wonder if you could do what Ethan and Sarah do. I finished this story pretty much flabbergasted and eager to read on. "Chronology of an Egg" is a great story.
"The Wolf's Choice"
"Was she trying to reproduce that moment when she poured Drano into her coffee?"
"The Wolf's Choice", also told by a young man, is a fascinating story about a man trying to remake and run from himself. He spends eight months adrift, seeking solitude, "wandering through the honeycomb of Asia, shifty Bangkok, grand Beijing, contemporary Shanghai, futuristic Tokyo". While in Korea he has plastic surgery done to reshape his face. He returns to his old work place and his colleagues are shocked by the change. His coworkers do not understand at all what is behind this. He feels very alienated from office politics and cubicle wars. He goes to see his family hoping they will make him feel better. Instead they feel insulted. Why did he reject the face he was born with? He worked, as did the man in "Chronology of an Egg" (maybe it is the same man) as a programmer for online games. The jobs of the programmers are in the process of being outsourced to India and China. He gets laid off and he is informed by Nikki from Human Resources. She is young and cute and she asks him out for a drink after telling him she feels bad over his layoff. He runs into a panic stricken VP who was just laid off. We wonder how long until he cracks up his Porsche, assuming he can keep the payments up. He talks about the differences in attitudes of people in Los Angeles and the parts of Asia he has been to. Nikki comes across pretty vacuous. The ending is just great. Again I could not help laughing and it was a perfect depiction of some very plausible events.
"The thousand multiplied into millions and the town became a playground for rodents. Other than curious tourists or travelers who got lost, no one new ever came to town. Except for the new town hooker, Kathy Chao and a failed film director, Larry Chao."
"Rodenticide" somehow maybe be think of a Simpson's plot written by William Burroughs with the help of Hunter Thompson, after a very bad, very long night in Tangiers.
The story opens with Mayor Douglas Kwan in bed in a cheap motel with a hooker. He is explaining his political plans to her when she tells him "Your time's almost up". He tells her he has plans to get himself elected to congress.
The setting is the town of Antarsia and it was founded by a whacked out millionaire who created a city out of a H. P. Lovecraft story. A famous entrepreneur, Wang Toufa (a Pynchonesque name) thought he could cure baldness and erectile dysfunction and was convinced that these were connected. He brought in 1000s of rats to use in experiments and when the idea failed he let the rats go and now they have turned into millions and they totally dominate the town. Mayor Kwan figures if he can get rid of the rats popular esteem will take him into Congress. The story lets is learn more about the hooker Kathy Chao (she and the mayor Douglas Chao are not related) among them that her best friend killed herself. The extermination campaign begins. Rat poison is dropped off all over town. A small bounty is paid for dead rats. The town has been doing real bad lately, made worse as no business will open there. We learn a lot about the rat killing crusade. "Rodenticide" is, among many other things, a great satire on American politics. You create a problem and then you solve it at other people's expense. There is a shocking protest of the rat campaign. This was just a flat out really fun to read totally imaginative story. The ending is incredibly gruesome. Liu is a very cinematic writer.
"The Political Misconception of Getting Fired"
"When the steak arrived, I ripped it apart with my bare hands, chewing savagely, with my mouth wide open"
Several of the stories are told in the first person by a man, seems like in his mid-twenties or so, who works for a southern California IT company called SolTech. There is a lot in this story. I was really moved by the part of it where he recalls his father who failed at every job he ever tried and died working as a clerk surrounded by people a third his age. The narrator makes very good money and he knows it enslaves him and his coworkers through their obsessions over the latest gadgets. He has been at SolTech nine years. He has just gotten a Facebook message from a woman he had a crush on in high school but who would not give him the time of day. He was surprised when she suggested they meet up but he agreed to it. I know enough now to expect some weird dark twists and turns in this story and Liu does not disappoint me. There are really two plots. One involves downsizing at SolTech and the other with his old flame who thinks she was kidnapped by aliens. Like the other stories, death haunts us and the search for love is ongoing, hidden though it may be. One of the plot lines comes to what might pass for a happy ending. I really liked the way the backstabbing and the lying were depicted at SolTech. It reminded me of a big international corporation I once worked for.
"The doctors told me that brain imagining had revealed a colony of tapeworms in my brain"
If you ever wondered what it might be like to have tapeworms living in your brain, then read "Colony". It is one of the shortest stories in the collection, three pages, and one of the strangest, and this is saying something! I love and am very baffled by this line "relativity is sugar mixed with with a dissolving chocolate souffle, and all the lovers I've disappointed remind me of overcooked salmon simmering in brunt coffee and impossible expectations". The man feels guilty about medical plans to kill the tapeworms. It may also be a story of a man completely driven mad by isolation amid too much stimulation trying to find way to explain himself to himself.
"I'm inside an abandoned shopping mall and a hooker's chasing me with a kitchen knife"
Like a number of the other stories in the collection, this is a story told by an IT worker. It is kind of a dystopian work but not quite. Both of the characters, as are a lot of the people in these stories are Chinese-Americans. I guess part of the angst in these stories comes from trying to blend two very different cultures. This story also involves the LA Branch of SolTech. SolTech is an IT company but they are not doing Nobel Prize type stuff. The narrator and his friend Martin work on computer simulated Vegas dealers in the form of Playmates. Once they are perfected, casinos will replace dealers with these programs. The man and Martin talk about guy stuff, girls, cheap pizza the company gives them instead of overtime, and the guilt they feel about created digital replacements for people. I do not want to tell the plot of this story other than to say it involves and abandoned shopping mall full of the long time out of work, hookers with AIDs, the insane, and now his friend Martin. This story would make the basis for an exciting video game with the narrator running through the old mall killing hookers and being chased by lunatics.
There are in all 20 stories in Watering Heaven by Peter Tieryas Liu, each one stranger than the one before it. They are sort of interrelated in that several of them deal with an IT worker and his life. Most of the main characters are Chinese- Americans, mostly with American roots but still with ties to a very different world. Some of the characters speak Mandrian and three, though we think they are not related, have the same last name, "Chao".
I really liked the stories in Watering Heaven by Peter Tieryas Liu. They contain strong elements of surrealism, I think Alfred Jarry would like them, and magic realism. The stories are very mega-city urban and very tuned in to how social media and its permeation of the world connects us no more than it isolates us. There is a preoccupation with death and suicide. Someone kills themselves in a number of the stories. There are a lot of hookers and no happy old fashioned relationships or marriages accept maybe of a character's grandparents and even that may have been a sham. The use of language is marvelous, the details are perfect. At the start of the e-book there is a quote from on the book that says "his surreal brilliance and vulnerability reminds one of the best of Borges, Calvino and Pynchon". When I first read this I thought "oh, sure" but I now fully agree with this (with the clarification I have not read much Calvin but I have read all of Pynchon's work more than once). Of course Pynchon constructs a whole universe and his best work was in the 1970s but I respect the comparison. I know of no other writer as attuned to how social media is taking over the world as Liu.
Above all these stories are great fun to read, really laugh out loud hilarious. Even people like me who grew up reading Mad Magazine will love these stories.