Short Takes: “Thank Your Lucky Stars” “Asia Ascending”

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The pleasures of “Thank Your Lucky Stars” are doubled in the re-​reading. The 50 stories tucked into 189 pages encourage a binge. Most are short short, sometimes just a few paragraphs; about 10 are traditional-​length short stories (if size matters). But when you return to browse through the collection, images and phrases bust out like popcorn popping. “I ran away long ago. It’s okay to run. It’s just the stopping that hurts,” says the unnamed voice in “House.” In “Wyoming,” we learn that “Birds fall fast and furious from the sky. They don’t get hurt. It’s all an act, like Houdini, a sleight of hand.” “The Bottle” opens with Francine “having a fine dinner” with Seth, her husband of 10 years, and smashing the neck of a wine bottle on the table, for no apparent reason: “The world just didn’t fit right.”

Sherrie Flick, who teaches at Chatham University, has established herself nationally as a foremost practitioner of flash fiction (and she is series editor of the annual “Best Small Fictions,” published this year by local heroes Braddock Avenue Books). While the 40 stories rushing by “Thank Your Lucky Stars” have an enchanting wall-​of-​sound effect, I appreciated the contrast created by the full-​bodied stories, each one a gem.

Expectations” is the one set in Pittsburgh, and just glancingly at that. (Flick’s stories emerge from the heavy lifting of imagination; the places are not the things.) Sarah, “who wondered why she ever married,” is separated from Walt, who won’t quite concede and still calls to say “I love you” a lot. Then there’s a call from “Big Walt,” her blustery father-​in-​law, in town for a six-​hour layover. He takes her to lunch at the place she and Walt could never afford (with a great name: Cushion). Over multiple scotches and beer, they peel back the truths of life. “You’ll be fine. We’re all fine, really,” says Big Walt. “It’s just expectations, that’s all.”

Every time I bump into Dennis Unkovic around town, he has either just returned from work travel in Asia — or is on his way to an Asian nation or other far-​flung locale. So while he’s not your typical member of the Allegheny County bar, he doesn’t come across as any different from your average Pittsburgh guy (in a nice suit). His regular-​guy demeanor must contribute to his success in these exotic climes — and as his comprehensive work “Asia Ascending” shows, he’s well-​informed, well-​prepared and dedicated to fair play.

In my view the Chinese are among the best negotiators in the world for one simple reason — they enjoy it,” Dennis says, setting the scene for a detailed playbook on how to Get to Yes in Beijing and beyond. (“Time is not of the essence” is one insight. Putting a Western-​style deadline on negotiations will just backfire.) As with all of his advice on working there and in Japan, India, Korea, Singapore, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, Philippines, Vietnam and Myanmar, it’s all based on respect for customs and protocol, sufficient knowledge of history (especially in relation to immediate neighbors) and building trust with local partners. Dennis is no pushover, but he’s dedicated to building long-​term relationships.

Oh, and he has a great anecdote about a young lawyer on his first big formal dinner in Japan. Unfamiliar with the sushi on display, he grabbed “a mound of greenish substance in the shape of a small pyramid” — a full portion of wasabi. Talk about fire in the belly. “I was the young lawyer wallowing in physical pain and embarrassment” more than 30 years ago. But he recovered (with multiple glasses of Sapporo beer) and went on to success. “Be humble and embrace the diversity” is his motto, and it works around the world.

John Allison

John Allison reviews books for Pittsburgh Quarterly.

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