Book Reviews and Highlights

How to Pronounce Knife

Souvankham Thammavongsa

  • Asian American
  • Fiction
  • Literary
  • Short Stories (single author)
  • Day after day, the sight of him in the same place and in the same clothes and giving her the same greeting each morning showed that, for them, nothing had changed. Nothing had happened.
  • Paris | Page: 20
  • The only love Red knew was that simple, uncomplicated, lonely love one feels for oneself in the quiet moments of the day. It was there, steady and solid in the laughter and talk of the television and with her in the grocery aisles on the weekends. It was there every night, in the dark, spectacular and sprawling in the quiet. And it all belonged to her.
  • Paris | Page: 24
  • That’s the thing about being old. We don’t know we have wrinkles until we see them. Old is a thing that happens on the outside. A thing other people see about us. I didn’t know why she was talking to me this way. Maybe it had nothing, really, to do with me.
  • Slingshot | Page: 39
  • I wondered whether, in life, you get one big role, some message you need to deliver to someone, and when it’s done, it’s time to go.
  • Slingshot | Page: 39
  • My mother did not know what Amen meant, but she guessed it was something you said at the end of a sentence to let people know the sentence was finished. “Three apples, Amen,” she would say at the corner grocery store.
  • Randy Travis | Page: 44
  • There was no fish sauce with hot spices and herbs at the table.
  • Randy Travis | Page: 45
  • I loved having mashed potatoes and corn and steak and roast chicken. My father did not. He wanted papaya salad, padaek, pickled cabbage, blood sausage, and sticky rice.
  • Randy Travis | Page: 46
  • He thought that because he was there, that was all that was needed to show his love. He thought his silence was love, his restraint was love. To say it out loud, to display it so openly, was to be shameless. He thought it was ridiculous to be moaning about love so much.
  • Randy Travis | Page: 47
  • He was no star. He was no leading man. He packed store furniture into cardboard boxes for a living. No one would pay to see him sing, but he didn’t care. He was only trying to be what my mother wanted.
  • Randy Travis | Page: 50
  • I hadn’t noticed how beautiful Lao food was before. After the bland yellows and browns of those TV dinners, it felt like a homecoming. Arranged together, the colours were so bold and bright, the flavours popped and sharpened. Every meal tasted like a special occasion. It was a reminder of where she came from and her love. I could now see why my father insisted on eating nothing but this.
  • Randy Travis | Page: 51
  • Fermented fish sauce is like a fingerprint—you could trace who it belonged to by how it was made.
  • Randy Travis | Page: 53
  • He came from nothing, and to stand up anyway and to try for something—well, if that wasn’t courage, he wasn’t sure what was.
  • Mani Pedi | Page: 58
  • It amazed him to see clients transformed. It was like what happened in the ring, but in reverse. They came in looking like they’d been through a few rounds, sad and exhausted, shoulders slumped, but left carefree and happy and refreshed.
  • Mani Pedi | Page: 60
  • But hands come with fucking bodies! You can’t be turning a client’s hand three hundred and sixty degrees to draw a fucking heart!
  • Mani Pedi | Page: 62
  • Raymond was good with the endless repetition and with assessing what needed to be done. It reminded him of sparring at the gym, having to think and act quickly, anticipate what was coming, and then respond.
  • Mani Pedi | Page: 64
  • “Fuck! I’m lucky if I get two or three dollars. It’s because you’re a fucking man, isn’t it? Even in a business I own myself and built up myself, men are still being paid more. And these are women who are doing this. They should know better!”
  • Mani Pedi | Page: 65
  • I know I don’t got a chance in hell, but it’s something to get me through. It’s to get through the next hour, the next day. Don’t you go reminding me what dreams a man like me ought to have. That I can dream at all means something to me.
  • Mani Pedi | Page: 70
  • Hope was a terrible thing for her—it meant it wasn’t there for you, whatever it was you were hoping for.
  • Mani Pedi | Page: 72
  • I was certain then that he really had lost his job and what we were doing was part of his plan to send us away, something our parents often threatened when we were misbehaving or we wanted something they didn’t have the money for.
  • Chick-A-Chee! | Page: 79
  • When we got home, Dad and Mom emptied the pillowcases and sorted the candy. We couldn’t have anything homemade, or any loosely wrapped or already-opened things.
  • Chick-A-Chee! | Page: 82
  • Our friends had kept to their buildings or to the houses next door or hadn’t gone out at all, so they had only little gum balls or one or two tiny chocolate bars. We had bags and bags of chips, whole chocolate bars, and packs of gum—and there was more waiting for us at home.
  • Chick-A-Chee! | Page: 82
  • He liked these clients best. The farmers with dirt under their fingernails from working out on the fields all day, the butchers who didn’t have time to change out of clothes stained with blood, the seamstresses who only had twenty minutes before they had to get back to work. They reminded him of himself—all of them doing the grunt work of the world.
  • The Universe Would Be So Cruel | Page: 86
  • The clients he didn’t like were the salesmen who came in wearing expensive business suits yet always asked him to give them a deal.
  • The Universe Would Be So Cruel | Page: 86
  • To own a thing yourself, and to be able to say, “Fuck you! All of you all! Fuck you into hell!” It had been something that was said to him and it was fun to turn the tables and say it to someone else, to see them lose their cool and make a quick, fumbling exit.
  • The Universe Would Be So Cruel | Page: 87
  • The guests had just been served a nice meal of papaya salad, spring rolls, sticky rice, minced chicken with fresh herbs and spices, and sweets wrapped in banana leaves.
  • The Universe Would Be So Cruel | Page: 88
  • “It doesn’t matter! The language should be there whether you can read it or not. It’s where you come from. Why leave it out?”
  • The Universe Would Be So Cruel | Page: 90
  • He did everything he could possibly do to ensure that his daughter’s wedding invitations were perfect and ready to be sent out into the scrutiny of the universe.
  • The Universe Would Be So Cruel | Page: 91
  • But how could he tell her that the boy she loved wasn’t kind or good, that he didn’t love her, that sometimes what felt like love only felt like love and wasn’t real.
  • The Universe Would Be So Cruel | Page: 92
  • He told them how he said “Yes, sir!” in English at work whenever anyone told him what to do, but he said it with the tone and force of a “Fuck you!” Then he marched around the room and saluted everyone like a dutiful soldier, saying in English, “Yes, sir! Yes, sir! Yes, sir!” each time.
  • Edge of the World | Page: 97
  • I never thought to ask my mother why she slept in my room most nights. I was just glad not to be alone in the dark.
  • Edge of the World | Page: 100
  • My father did not grieve. He had done all of this life’s grieving when he became a refugee. To lose your love, to be abandoned by your wife was a thing of luxury even—it meant you were alive.
  • Edge of the World | Page: 104
  • I said it out loud again, and even though it disappeared, I knew what I said had become a sound in the world.
  • Edge of the World | Page: 104
  • I went to the bathroom mirror and stared at the back of my mouth. I opened my mouth wide, saw the hot, wet, pink flesh, and the dark centre where my voice came out of, and I laughed, loud and wild.
  • Edge of the World | Page: 106
  • The developer needed to unload these homes quick, so no one questioned whether the bus driver and his wife could really afford it. Still, they owned a home of their own now, even if they couldn’t quite manage the mortgage payments.
  • The School Bus Driver | Page: 111
  • What was it about her, the woman wondered, that was so embarrassing? Was it the perm? She hadn’t looked at the instructions on the package and had left the formula in for too long, so her hair now curled tight to the scalp. Was it her blue jeans, bought at the flea market and fitting high and loose like a flag around the hips? Maybe it was just that she was a mother and all mothers were embarrassing. Maybe it was just something to say to put more distance between them.
  • You Are So Embarrassing | Page: 124
  • “You won’t understand this now, but some day, when you’re a mother yourself, you’ll remember what you just said to me and you’ll hate yourself for having said it. You don’t know what it’s like to give birth, to have your body bust open like that. And then to have to clean and bathe and feed that life—just a bunch of cries and burps and shit to attend to. And I did it on my own! You just don’t know!”
  • You Are So Embarrassing | Page: 125
  • “But let me say this to you. And you, you remember it! You remember it! No one really wants to be a mother. But you can’t know this for sure until you are one.”
  • You Are So Embarrassing | Page: 125
  • where he worked. The gas station man. He came out to pump the gas. He was not beautiful, but she liked looking at him. Beauty was boring. To be ugly was to be particular, memorable, unforgettable even. He was uglier than that. Grotesque seemed right to describe him.
  • The Gas Station | Page: 139
  • All the money in this country was green. It was easy to give away the wrong denomination. She checked all four corners for the number fifty, to be sure.
  • The Gas Station | Page: 140
  • She did not like how he used that first word. Hey. As though she were some hole in the wall you could just stick your questions into.
  • The Gas Station | Page: 141
  • I wanted him to go on liking his job, to get up in the morning with a sense of purpose and pride like he did.
  • A Far Distant Thing | Page: 154
  • “All you have to do is work hard. That’s all it is, hard work.”
  • A Far Distant Thing | Page: 154
  • “Just to see what you’d do. See how no one comes when they hear you screaming? You’re on your own.” She sounded a lot like Dad when he was giving me advice about how life was.
  • A Far Distant Thing | Page: 159
  • Sometimes people have a way of looking at you that makes you feel you have to explain yourself.
  • A Far Distant Thing | Page: 162
  • But a job is a job, and even one like that, you could still have your dignity.
  • Picking Worms | Page: 166
  • kitchen. When we all sat down to eat on those nights, everyone would talk about their work, their bosses, how hard it was back home, how they all came to the country we live in now—but no one cried or talked sad. They all laughed. The sadder the story, the louder the laughter. Always a competition.
  • Picking Worms | Page: 166
  • You’d try to one-up the person who’d come before you with an even more tragic story and a louder laugh. But no one was laughing here. Every face was serious.
  • Picking Worms | Page: 167
  • I do remember that he used to call me Ugly. My mother said he called me that so my looks wouldn’t go to my head.
  • Picking Worms | Page: 170
  • I didn’t tell my mother they don’t wear uniforms in college here. I wanted her to have her dreams.
  • Picking Worms | Page: 171
  • You wouldn’t know just by watching them that it was worms everyone was picking. From this distance, it looked like some rich woman had lost a diamond ring and everyone had been ordered to find it.
  • Picking Worms | Page: 172
  • I didn’t want her to get too attached to him. I didn’t want him to break her heart.
  • Picking Worms | Page: 174
  • His counts were very high for a first-timer because she was the one who trained him on what to do. All the little things that had taken her months and seasons to learn and figure out on her own were given freely to him.
  • Picking Worms | Page: 175
  • Back in Laos, the men who worked in this field had been doctors, teachers, farmers with their own land, like my mom. None had set out for a life spent crouched down in the soft earth, groping for faceless things in the night, this shit of the earth. And they picked like it. James had never been anything else, except a kid. James picked like a man who was free.
  • Picking Worms | Page: 175
  • I looked over at my mother, but I couldn’t see anything because it was so dark. I knew what James got was something she wished for herself. She loved this job and she had been at it for much longer than James, but no one had noticed her work at all. And James? He was happy to have a job that paid so well. He didn’t wonder if he deserved the job or not. He was fourteen and he was boss.
  • Picking Worms | Page: 176
  • I watched her heart break. She had been the best, but it hadn’t mattered. The low count of her harvest now didn’t tell you what had happened to the job or how it had changed. And yet the numbers could be used to say a picker was unskilled or lazy. Those things, I knew my mother was not.
  • Picking Worms | Page: 177