3 out of 4 stars
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I love fortune cookies, not least because their messages can work on so many levels. One that could augur well or badly is: “The more you plan, the harder coincidence may hit you.” That would resonate with author Richard Yu, who had hoped to spend his retirement travelling and perfecting his tennis when he was diagnosed with leukaemia. In a twist not unlike those in his stories, a man who had previously struggled to compose an aerogramme to his parents in Hong Kong discovered a talent for writing. After a bone marrow transplant, he attempted to write a memoir but found himself penning short stories instead, using fantasy as an escape. The stories collected in I Believe in Fortune Cookies not only chronicle the author's treatments but are also inspired by his travels, his childhood in Hong Kong, and his adult life in the USA.
In addition to having travelled widely, Yu is cultured, so that the short stories also draw on Ingmar Bergman films, Bach, art, and more. The tales are so diverse that it is hard to generalize about them. Yu does not shy away from fusing spiritual imagery, for example. A fascinating aspect of the stories on spiritual themes is that Yu debunks superstition while showing how the realities behind the symbols cannot be denied. So it is that in the story “Delicious Red”, a woman receives a tempting apple following an introduction to the Kama Sutra. Her eyes are opened not by her boyfriend, who could not bear to set foot in a temple, but by her Indian tour guide; a common theme in the stories is that of people who end up in the wrong place married to the wrong person. The role of fate in correcting these mismatches is another theme.
Each story took just minutes to read, and Yu always got straight to colouring in the background while building tension. I was in awe at the stories’ neat packaging. One condensed an entire murder mystery plot into a few pages, in which a sleuth paid out a long line to catch a big fish. In time-honoured detective story fashion, the serial killer eventually made a mistake, but that wasn’t all – like all of the stories, that one veered sharply at the end.
As is apparent from that example, the stories were often dark and fatalistic, although some took lighter turns. Although sex and death were frequent topics, there were no really gory or graphic passages, making this collection suitable for teens and up. This anthology comes highly recommended to anyone who relishes short fiction that showcases the best of the craft. Not a word was wasted, while telling details were picked out, such as the taste of the kimchi soup served to a man by the wife he was planning to murder.
Not all fortune cookies are created alike, of course, and there were occasional weaknesses. For example, the voice in a story narrated by a six-year-old didn’t sound like that of a child, and one denouement was too predictable. Some characters seemed stereotyped, like a fat person who was compared to a puffer fish.
With only minor lapses in quality, the book was professionally edited and I found no errors in the early sections or towards the end. However, there was something of a dip in the middle, and my error count went over ten. That’s the fundamental reason for my rating of three out of four stars; the book was excellent overall. Crack open I Believe in Fortune Cookies to feast on a banquet of paradoxes.
I Believe in Fortune Cookies
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