Short story collections are often difficult things to review. Usually the stories in them are of mixed quality, a few gems surrounded by average or su...moreShort story collections are often difficult things to review. Usually the stories in them are of mixed quality, a few gems surrounded by average or sub-par filler stories. Stories of Your Life and Others by Ted Chiang is not that kind of collection. Every story in this book is absolutely worth reading, and a few of them are so incredible as to be some of my favorite short stories of all time. I've read a good number of science fiction short stories in my day, and this collection stands out as one of the best I've ever read.
Chiang's writing is absolutely stellar. He is able to perfectly capture the mood and tone of a particular place and time, making all of his worlds feel remarkably real. His characters have realistic voices and feel incredibly genuine. His writing style is just as beautiful as it is convincing and realistic. Always capable of finding just the right word or turn of phrase, his stories are a joy to read.
What really sticks out for me about Ted Chiang's stories is the way he integrates ideas and feelings, theory and life, into an emotionally and intellectually impactful whole. I've read science fiction stories that focus so much on ideas and speculation that they fall short in other areas, stimulating the mind but not the emotions. Chiang knows that theory and ideas are the things that people use to navigate the world, and that they should therefore have meaning to the characters, and the reader, outside of the simply mathematical and scientific. Ideas about numbers, language, or science should impact the way we think about ourselves and our relationships with other people. Chiang manages to show how this interaction shapes people's inner lives better than almost any other writer I know.
The ideas that Chiang writes into his stories are always fascinating. Story of Your Life, the story for which the collection was named, explores time perception, linguistics, memory, and free will through the lens of learning an alien language and the changes in perception that follow. That sounds really intellectual, and it is, but is also incredibly emotionally resonant. The main character, one of the most realistic female main characters written by a male writer that I've ever seen, and her relationship to her husband and daughter feel painfully real, the emotions portrayed hit home in ways I wouldn't have imagined. All of his stories left me both feeling and thinking log after they were done.
Other stories in the collection include:
- Division by Zero, which explores mathematics, relationships, the value of empathy, and the importance of out core beliefs. What does it mean to really be there for someone? A hauntingly beautiful story, it somehow manages to connect mathematical principles and emotions in a way that is devastatingly honest.
- The Tower of Babylon imagines the myth of the tower of Babylon from the perspective of one of the miners hired to crack the vault of heaven. A lyrical musing on motivation, home, and the shape of the universe, it reads like an old legend.
- Seventy-Two Letters imagines a world where both Golems and homunculi are real, and where scientists manipulate names as a means of making automatons. An exploration of language, science, and to what lengths we should go to help humanity, this story was impossible to put down.
- Liking What You See uses a series of fictional interviews, speeches, and news articles to explore a world in which people can choose to turn off their perception of the physical beauty of human faces. What moral and ethical questions come up around beauty? How does it affect our relationships and our ideas of self? This story felt all too real.
- Hell is the Absence of God imagines a world in which God is real and visitations by angels routinely cause both miracles and catastrophes. If loving God is the only way to enter heaven, can a man whose wife was killed in an angelic visitation ever see her again? This story takes an interesting and strange new perspective on the question of suffering, God, and fate.
- Understand tells the story of a man given a treatment for brain damage, the side effects of that treatment, and the mental and moral implications of those side effects. A fast-paced thriller, it manages to be both philosophical and exciting.
- The Evolution of Human Science imagines what science and discovery would mean in a world where human beings aren't making their own discoveries, but simply trying to understand and explain the science of beings of superior intelligence.
Every story in this collection is beautifully written, provocative, and intelligent. Ted Chiang has managed to write stories that will stick with me and influence my thinking for a long time. If you like short stories, science fiction or not, I absolutely recommend this collection.
Rating: 5 stars Recommendations: Beautiful prose, realistic characters, interesting ideas, and emotional resonance. A book for everyone.
When I first picked up A Visit from the Goon Squad, I didn't know much about it other than it had won the Pulitzer prize and that there was one chapte...moreWhen I first picked up A Visit from the Goon Squad, I didn't know much about it other than it had won the Pulitzer prize and that there was one chapter done completely in PowerPoint. Usually I don't take chances on buying books that I'm not completely sure I'll like, but I had an Amazon gift card and I needed some summer reading, so I decided to give it a shot. Besides, the blurb on Amazon said that it was pulsing with music on every page, and I'm a big sucker for music in books. What could possibly go wrong?
The answer is, sadly, a lot. I guess, after the disaster that was Wolf Hall, I should have known better than to read a book just because it won a prize. A Visit from the Goon Squad was disappointing in so many ways. There were glimmers of potential and a few good moments scattered here and there, but they were lost in the overwhelming sense of mediocrity and self-conscious hipness that characterized the novel.
First of all, the writing in this book was only mediocre, which is not something I expect from a Pulitzer winner. The tone of the writing was detached and almost neutral. While this could have worked for a book so focused on self-destruction and faded glory, Egan didn't quite pull it off. Instead of that detached style conveying the disillusionment and faded glory of the characters, it only serves to separate the reader from the action and keeps us from connecting with or feeling for the characters.
The reader is also kept from connecting with the characters by the book's poor characterization and use of voice. Each chapter is told from the perspective of a different character at a different point in time. While fragmentation is one of my favorite literary devices when used properly, it is only effective when the characters' voices are distinct enough to allow the reader distinguish between them. Sadly, all of the character in this book sound the same, with the exception of the one chapter narrated by a punk teen and the two narrated by madmen (and even the two madmen were pretty darn similar). If you are going to make the focus of your book the varied and intersecting lives of a few generations of interconnected people, you should at least make those people and their lives different enough that the reader can tell them apart. I think Egan meant for there to be "Aha!" moments when you realized how people had influenced each other over time, but as it is I spent more time trying to remember who everyone was and how they were related than actually caring about them.
My biggest problem with this book is that it is too self-consciously hip and modern. With every name-drop, use of slang or text speech, reference to drug use, or casual mention of recent events, I can feel the author trying very hard to be cool, relevant, and contemporary. I hate to say this, but if I can feel you trying to be cool, you aren't. The music, which the blurb on my book said would be central to the book, is incidental and mostly used as an excuse to name-drop and sound hip. It's like the author is screaming through the pages "Look at me. I'm so modern and cool. Maybe if I put in enough pop-culture references someone will find my work relevant." Now, pop-culture references don't automatically make a book bad, nor does writing for a specific time and place. What this books misses, though, is everything else that makes a book worthwhile, like realistic characters, an interesting plot, or a discernible purpose.
There were some instances where I felt like Egan could have really hit it out of the park and written a book that had meaningful commentary on modern life. The chapter in PowerPoint, for instance, could have been really great. Sadly, she didn't use the format to its full potential. I was expecting the PowerPoint chapter to be something corporate, a subtle and meaningful twist on a modern form of business communication, a mix of company presentation and personal reflection. Instead, the PowerPoint is simply the format in which a young girl keeps her diary, meaning that it's basically a more visual version of every other chapter. It was still one of my favorite chapters, but that had nothing to do with the format. When you add something interesting and revolutionary like that, it should be because it is in some way necessary, not just because you want to show off. Like so many of the other modern things in this book, this just gave me the impression that Egan was writing to impress. She did a great job of showing off her formal skills, but inside that formal structure the book was hollow.
For a story about aging punks, the march of time, and the inevitability of death, A Visit from the Goon Squad lacks any real profound moments. The biggest realization is that everyone eventually gets old and dies, but that realization is generalized and cliched, rather than poignant or meaningful. Though it is concerned with being relevant and modern, A Visit from the Goon Squad fails to have anything truly new to say, and is therefore completely forgettable.
Rating: 2 stars Mediocre writing, lack of characterization, no discernible meaning, self-conscious, labored, forgettable.(less)
Do you ever wonder about why people choose to read the books they do? Well, I can tell you, I read Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel because it won the Book...moreDo you ever wonder about why people choose to read the books they do? Well, I can tell you, I read Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel because it won the Book Prize For Fiction in 2009. You see, The Children's Book by A.S. Byatt was nominated for the Booker in 2009, but did not win. Curious to see what book could beat one of my favorite books of all time, I looked up Wolf Hall. And what do you know, it's another piece of historical fiction set in England and written by a woman. This could be interesting! I was intrigued, so I picked it up from the bookstore, determined to see if it was really better than The Children's Book.
Well, dear readers, I am sorry to say that it was not. I had such hopes for this book. It is set during the time of King Henry VIII, whom we all know was an interesting character in English history. The main character and narrator of the book is Thomas Cromwell, about whom there has been much speculation. Other main characters include Anne Boleyn, Thomas More, and Queen Katherine. I went into this book expecting the best, but I was sorely let down on every front. Wolf Hall was an exercise in disappointment.
First of all, I have to say that the writing was of a fine literary quality. I have no doubts that Hilary Mantel has a strong grasp of the English language, which is not something I can say about some authors I've read. Her only stylistic flaw was the tendency to put little artsy cliffhangers at the end of each section. I got the feeling that she didn't want to end a section without putting something that sounded either meaningful, artistic, or foreboding. While that can be a good technique when used sparingly, it came off feeling very contrived to me, like she was trying a little too hard. By the time I got to the middle of the book, which is a good 600 pages long, I was over it.
The main problem with this book was its lack of both character development and plot. First, the plot. I got to the end of the book not really sure what the point was. Quite frankly, I was expecting there to be more pages, because I didn't feel like the book had gone anywhere or come to any kind of conclusion yet. That is not a feeling I like. There was no climax, no conclusive event, nothing that tied together all the disparate happenings throughout the book. I felt like I was reading a series of events rather than a novel.
That would have been fine with me, had the characters made up for it. I don't need a plot-driven book if there is enough character development to make it character-driven. Sadly, this book fails on all fronts when it comes to characters. Our narrator, Thomas Cromwell, is so nebulous that he almost doesn't have a character to develop. His defining traits consist of a willingness to please the people he works for, a gift for business and diplomacy, and a tendency to treat his underlings well. That's what we start with at the beginning of the book, and that's what we're left with at the end. I had trouble believing he had aged at all throughout the course of the novel simply because he changed so little. Sadly, all the characters in the book are relatively similar to him, if not in character traits, than in voice. Though they are described as being very different, I had trouble distinguishing between characters. While their political leanings may have been different, there was hardly a difference between the voices of Thomas More, Anne Boleyn, or any other character. Mantel should take note that dialogue without tags or quotation marks (which is a device I actually like when used correctly) only works if the characters are distinct enough not to need them. Sadly, this was not the case in Wolf Hall.
There were a few things I liked about this book. Like I said, the writing itself was not bad, which is always a positive thing. I enjoyed that Mantel gave a fresh perspective on some very tired historical figures. I can't tell you how many saintly depictions of Thomas More I've read in my day, so it was nice to see him in a different (read: heartless and heretic-burning) light. Still, this book was mostly a let-down. It wasn't terrible enough for me to hate it, but rather squarely mediocre in every category. In my opinion, Wolf Hall should not have beat The Children's Book for the Booker prize, and I do not recommend it.
No character development, very little plot, mediocre overall. Not recommended.(less)
I was really looking forward to reading The Remains of the Day. Not only did it win the Booker Prize and get turned into a movie, but Ishiguro's book...moreI was really looking forward to reading The Remains of the Day. Not only did it win the Booker Prize and get turned into a movie, but Ishiguro's book Never Let Me Go is one of my all time favorites. You can imagine my disappointment when The Remains of the Day turned out to be mediocre at best, a warmup for books like Never Let Me Go. Both of these books were introspective, told through flashbacks, and didn't have much in the way of plot. While Never Let Me Go had both character development and some final meaning or conclusion, The Remains of the Day lacked both of these elements, and ended up flat and boring. I still believe that Ishiguro is a good writer, and his prose is always lyrical and contemplative, but I cannot in good faith recommend The Remains of the Day.
Rating: 3 stars
Writing style good, lack of plot, lack of character development. Would not recommend.
This book is incredible. It manages to link together so many people and stories and events into one narrative that's actually pretty easy to follow.
T...moreThis book is incredible. It manages to link together so many people and stories and events into one narrative that's actually pretty easy to follow.
The story follows the story of two poetic scholars, one studying R.H. Ash and another studying Christabel LaMotte, as they follow a lead, search through old letters and clues in the artists poems, and try to uncover the truth of their lives and relationship. While that sense of mystery and detective work would be enough on its own, this book covers much more than that. It explores such topics as the ethics of modern biographers and scholars, different ideas and interpretations of religion, and the strange and varied ways we come to love, whether we want to or not, and despite how inconvenient it may be at the time.
Most importantly, this book manages to be both realistic and romantic, which is a task not easily achieved. The ending is so beautiful, but still so perfectly bittersweet, that I got both the closure I needed and the realism that I wanted at the same time. Books that can manage to leave both the skeptic and the hopeless romantic in me completely satisfied don't come around too often, and for that alone Possession is truly a rare and precious find.
Now, for the negative. The beginning is very slow. I honestly hated this book for the first 200 pages or so. Once you get past that it is more than worth it, but getting past that exposition stage is truly torturous. On top of that, some of the poetry is very long and difficult to get through. I will admit to skipping quite a bit of it. The chapters switch narrators between many characters, including the two scholars, their mentors, their rivals, and the two poets, which is a wonderful touch and a great way to fill in detail. The only downside it that the chapters told in Cropper's voice are annoying and leave a foul taste in my mouth. This is not a fault of Byatt's, but rather an achievement of hers, because that is exactly how Cropper's character should leave you feeling. Still, I am always relieved when his chapters are over. Honestly, it is hard to find too much to be negative about in this book.
The beginning of the book may be slow, and the poetry may be dense and hard to get through, but the last half of the novel is nearly impossible to put down, and the beauty of all these intertwining stories is more than worth the work.
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This book is utterly incredible. I love Le Guin's writing style. I swear she could write about paint drying and I would read it. Luckily that didn't h...moreThis book is utterly incredible. I love Le Guin's writing style. I swear she could write about paint drying and I would read it. Luckily that didn't happen in this book. The story is set on the planet of Winter, where the inhabitants are mostly asexual, except during certain times of the month when they can take on sexual characteristics of either males or females. This means that there isn't a concept of gender on Winter, which makes it a very interesting place for Ai Genry, a human ambassador from a sort of interplanetary United Nations, who is trying to convince Winter to join the league. Lots of exciting things happen to him as he learns about the cultures, peoples, politics, and weather of the planet.
The thing I love best about this book is Le Guin's world-building ability. She is a master of building a perfect new world, complete with thousands of years of culture and tradition and political parties, without having to go into almost any kind of explanation that would slow the plot. I'm not really sure how she does it, but she somehow gives you the information you need without ever stopping to explain or give much back story. And you know that she has every little detail thought up in her mind, even though you never learn them. She's like Faulkner with Yoknapatawpha county. It's incredible. Because of that, her descriptions are wonderful. To hear her describe the deadly beauty of Winter, a snow covered planet in the midst of an ice-age, is one of the supreme joys of this book, and I'm not even a person who likes much description in a book. Something about her writing style makes what could be a very dense and boring book completely enjoyable and easy to read, while still maintaining its artistic and emotional impact. And that emotional impact is very strong. The ending of the book moved me very strongly in a way that not many books have. After reading this book I fully intend on reading the rest of her books set in this universe, known as The Hainish Cycle.
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