All That Work and Still No Boys
 by Kathryn Ma

University of Iowa Press, 2009, Paperback
First collection

awards: Winner, 2009 Iowa Short Fiction Award

Kathryn Ma is a lawyer and a Bread Loaf Scholar. She was awarded the 2008 Nathan Meyerson Prize for fiction and her work has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and Best New American Voices. She is a first -generation American whose parents are from Wuxi and Mengzi , China. Born and raised a Pennsylvania Quaker, she now lives with her family in San Francisco.

Read an interview with Kathryn Ma

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"Oh, in America we don’t worry about such things as ghosts and evil spirits and all that old fashioned nonsense.” A lie, I know it because Joe is buried in the best section of Mesa Verde where all the Chinese want to go because the feng shui is ideal I went to buy a plot there for Cecil and me; all full, they told me, and then six months later Joe Liang went right in."

Reviewed by Michelle Reale

Kathryn Ma's All That Work and Still No Boys is a truly touching collection of short stories. Ma, a lawyer, conjures the Chinese-American and immigrant community, primarily in northern California, with a wide gaping eye. While some stereotypes live on because they are based, however tenuously, on truth, Ma does not in any way cling to them as a way of pandering to her readers. Instead, what she offers is a fresh way of looking at family and community and the difficulties in honoring one's culture while at the same time being true to oneself.

She understands the brutal dichotomy of having a foot in each world and having to figure out what's best to save and which cultural touchstones would be okay to leave by the wayside. But it is never as easy as one decision. In the title story, a Chinese mother needs a new kidney and even though her son Lawrence is the best match, tradition wins out and the mother refuses to take a vital organ from a son. "One of the girls will be fine," she says.

The interplay between the sisters and their brother Lawrence reveal the underlying tensions caused by the persistent favoritism Lawrence has always gotten instead of his sisters. It deepens when the sisters feels as though Lawrence doesn't do enough to convince their mother that she needs his kidney to live longer.

In the story The Scottish Play two old Chinese women who occasionally meet one another for lunch at the Senior Center live vicariously through the lives' of their children and grandchildren while invoking the saintly characteristics of their dead husbands. The women constantly stick one another with verbal knives until everything comes to an end at a Shakespeare production. In this story in particular, Ma's wit is sharp and she is more than deft with the barbed dialogue that the two old women lob back and forth to one another.:
"But you are so lucky." Mrs. Liang interrupts my dreaming, “that you have a daughter who is willing to take you in. My daughter-in-law said that I could have their spare bedroom, but I said no. I'd have to give up so much of my independence."

Oh," I say innocently, "Mrs. Liang, did you finally learn to drive?"
Even if you know nothing about the Chinese community, you can tell that Ma is getting it just right.

In Mrs. Zhao and Mrs. Woo, Ma shows the survival tactics of two immigrant women. When Mrs. Zhao must return to China, Mrs, Woo takes her place caring for a family with children. But showing that nothing is permanent and security is often only the recipient of the lucky, Ma tells a deceptively simple tale of how some people must survive by their wits.

All in All, Ma's collection of ten stories is a pleasure to read. While the main focus may be the immigrant community, what Ma focuses on is the one desire we all share: to be happy. In the story The Long Way Home, Joanna questions her younger sister about a tragic event when they were young and the effect it has had on both their lives:
"'You're not happy anymore are you'" Joanna asks. I shake my head, no. 'It only last a moment,' she says, 'then it goes.'"
Indeed, all the characters in this collection learn that lesson, sooner or later.

Read an excerpt from this collection on

Michelle Reale iis an academic librarian on faculty at a university outside of Philadelphia. Her fiction has been published in Smokelong Quarterly, Word Riot, elimae, Monkeybicycle and others. Her fiction chapbook, Natural Habitat, will be published by Burning River in April 2010.

Michelle's other Short Reviews: Sana Krasikov "One More Year"

Jody Lisberger "Remember Love"

Anne Donovan "Hieroglyphics"

Joan Aiken "The Serial Garden"

Shellie Zacharia "Now Playing"

Eva Tihanyi "Truth and Other Fictions"

Stefanie Freele "Feeding Strays"

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