Short stories fit schedules

Summer is supposed to be the time to laze away a whole afternoon reading a book.

But in reality, entertaining out-of-school kids and out-of-town guests, work, travel and other summer activities eat up our time.

That's why the Ashland Public Library's section devoted to short story collections is so welcome this time of year. To find it, walk to the left of the check-out counter on the main floor and, just before you reach the bathrooms, you'll find shelves filled with short story collections.

It's easy to squeeze in a short story during a lunch break or before bed, or to knock off several stories and get a real sense of the author's style during car or plane trips.

Here's one collection from National Book Award winner Ha Jin, the author of several story and poetry collections.

Jin's "The Bridegroom: Stories" captures China from a time soon after the Cultural Revolution to today as it both embraces and struggles with change.

In the story "Alive," father and husband Tong Guhan is traveling on business to another town when an earthquake strikes. He loses consciousness and has no memory of his past life when he wakes up. Guhan must face the Form New Families movement, meant to "promote social order and provide havens for homeless children and old people."

Thousand of people sign up and weekends are marked by group weddings.

"As long as you were healthy and normal, you were entitled to a spouse and a child or two, sometimes even to an old mother or father," Jin writes.

Tong marries a woman whose family was killed in the earthquake and they take in an orphaned boy.

Thrown together, the three slowly develop emotional bonds, cuddling together at night in the same bed with a hot water bottle tucked under the little boy's feet.

But when Tong's memory is brought back by the taste of traditional leek dumplings, he must choose between his old family and his duties to his fragile new family.

Peter Jiao, one of the main characters In "After Cowboy Chicken Came to Town," would have been bound for a low rank in society in traditional China. His Chinese father was captured by the Americans in the Korean War. Like most former POWs, his father was classified as a suspected traitor by Chinese officials and shipped off to live on a supervised farm. Peter's Chinese mother had a Japanese father.

But Peter uses his English skills to become the indispensable manager of a Kentucky Fried Chicken-style fast food restaurant owned by an American boss, who only speaks English.

Peter, Hongwen and the other employees deal with various emergencies, like when wedding guests feasting at the restaurant are sickened by the greasy American food. The employees outwit a man who makes the wild assertion &

by Chinese standards &

that he will sue the restaurant because he found a fly in his food.

The restaurant becomes a success with Chinese business people and wealthy residents interested in emulating the West. But that success creates ripples of jealousy.

Hongwen's father sees his son's paycheck for 468 yaun and laments, "Hongwen, I've joined the Revolution for almost forty years, and I earn only three hundred yuan a month. But you just started working and you draw a larger salary. This makes me feel duped, duped by the Communist Party I've served."

Hongwen tries to argue that he works hard at his job, while his father gets to sit in his office and drink tea all day. He pines for his own salaried office job.

Later, Hongwen and the other low-ranking employees are shocked when they go on a bicycle ride and discover that Peter is building a three-story house and garage with his earnings as manager of Cowboy Chicken.

Hongwen thinks to himself, "After that trip, I noticed that my fellow workers often looked suspiciously at Peter, as though he were a hybrid creature. Their eyes showed envy and anger. They began learning English more diligently."

Determined either to get raises for themselves or to oust Peter altogether so one of them can become the new manager, the other employees band together and take action.

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