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.
I've recently taken a personal interest in T.S. Eliot. I studied Prufrock and The Waste Land in one of my classes last semester, and that got me inter...moreI've recently taken a personal interest in T.S. Eliot. I studied Prufrock and The Waste Land in one of my classes last semester, and that got me interested in Eliot. Over the summer I read The Four Quartets, which is now one of my all-time favorite literary works and which has taken up much of my study this semester. I'm hoping to read his plays throughout the course of next year. When I went to talk to one of my professors, an Eliot scholar, about Eliot's poems, he gave me a copy of The Selected Prose of T.S. Eliot. On a recent plane ride I finally had time to finish this excellent collection of Eliot's prose writings.
I will admit that I was a little worried about reading prose written by a well-known poet, but luckily Eliot's prose writing is as virtuosic as his poetry. His essays are both easily enjoyable and incredibly beautiful, and I found myself noting passages for both their insight and their beauty. This collection is helpfully split up into three types of essay, essays in generalization, appreciations of individual authors, and social and religious criticism, which are categories that Eliot described when looking back on his writing. This makes it easy to read the kind of essay you feel like reading at the moment while skipping things you might not be interested in, and makes the essays flow together nicely.
I found the essays in generalization to be the most interesting, as they dealt with criticism, theory, aesthetics, poetics, and the use of poetry and criticism. His essay on "Verse Libre" was a short but thorough look at the misconceptions surrounding supposedly "free verse" poetry, and what makes poems without a strict meter or rhyme scheme good. Easy to read, and with lovely quotable passages like "Freedom is only truly freedom when it appears against the background of an artificial limitation," this essay should be assigned reading for poetry students everywhere. His essay "Tradition and the Individual Talent" should likewise be required reading. In this essay, Eliot argues that modern writers can only be evaluated in light of their relation to the past, and that classics are made by how they fit into and change our perception of the course of tradition. Eliot's essays on criticism are equally useful, stressing that critics focus on the facts of the content and structure of a piece rather than writing florid essays about how a work made them feel. "When we do not know, or when we do not know enough, we tend always to substitute emotions for thoughts." With a brilliant mind and a way with words, Eliot is an excellent essayist on the subject of literature.
While I loved his essays of generalization, I found the section on individual authors slightly less helpful, though not any less well-written. Because I had not read many of the authors he was writing on, I couldn't really appreciate the essays as well as I would have liked. On the other hand, his essay on a few poets made me eager to add them to my to-read list, and his praise of Joyce made me want to quit being such a chicken and pick up his books already. For those who may be more well-read than I, this section of the essays may be more useful.
While I found this collection as a whole to be very informative and eye-opening, there were a few essays that I did not enjoy, and a few points about which I disagreed with Eliot. His emphasis on Latin being the most universal language to Westerners was a bit weird, and had a little too much classical studies bias for me to really buy into it completely. His essays on religion and culture were, at least to me, disappointing. He talked about Christianity as if it were a threatened minority, when of course Christians are both the majority of the population and of governments. His fears of the secularization of society and the adaptable nature of anything other than Christian morality seemed very close-minded to me, which was surprising to see in a man whose ideas are otherwise so expansive and cutting-edge. Since he was a convert to Anglicanism, I guess I can understand his need to do what he saw as defending Christianity, but I feel that he went too far and came off as close-minded. Luckily for us, his poems, even those that are overtly religious like The Four Quartets, lack that pedantic dogmatism and remain focused on the personal contemplative mysteries of his religion, and are therefore enjoyable by all.
Overall, I would say that Eliot's essays are absolutely incredible. Even when I don't agree with his subject matter or think that his logic follows, the writing is always superb. His insights into literature, especially in the essays at the beginning of this collection, were enlightening and enthralling. If you at all interested in Eliot, who was an influential critic and cultural icon of his day as well as an incredible poet and playwright, I would highly recommend this collection.
Rating: 4 stars Recommendations: If you're a literature geek like me, these might be the essays for you. I especially recommend the essays of generalization at the beginning of the book.(less)
I picked this book up because the book store was doing a two-for-one sale and it looked mildly interesting. As a supporter and performer of modern mus...moreI picked this book up because the book store was doing a two-for-one sale and it looked mildly interesting. As a supporter and performer of modern music I'm always interesting in the avant-garde movements in other arts. Maybe there would be something interesting, challenging, or new! To put it nicely, this book was a complete and total disappointment. I have never in my life seen such a generic collection of essays, short stories, and interviews. I think I would have gotten more shocks from a newspaper. Not only were they not new or counter-cultural, as the cover and blurb claim they are, but they are also just not written very well. Bad writing, boring subjects, and pretentious marketing all conspired to make this book a total waste of my time. Avoid this one at all costs.(less)
What can one say about The Waste Land that hasn't already been said? It's disjointed, difficult, long, and brilliant. Parts of it are confusing and gr...moreWhat can one say about The Waste Land that hasn't already been said? It's disjointed, difficult, long, and brilliant. Parts of it are confusing and grotesque (I'm looking at you, carbuncular young man) while other parts are strikingly painfully beautiful. It is laden with symbolism and references to everything under the sun. The only interpretation people can agree on is that something is terribly broken, though no-one can seem to agree on exactly what that thing is. If you like poetry, and are up for a challenge, I can definitely recommend The Waste Land. I promise, the only greater satisfaction than being able to brag to other people that you've read The Waste Land is the satisfaction that comes from reading it. It really is quite beautiful and immensely satisfying.
If you aren't as lucky as I am, and you don't get to read this in a classroom setting with people to help you sort through all of the rich symbolism and literary references, then I highly suggest you read the Norton Critical Edition or some other similar edition. What I like about this edition is all the extra stuff in the back. It has excerpts from every work that Eliot quotes or refers to, which is very helpful if you're like me and haven't actually read The Inferno or don't know of the top of your head who Philomela is. It even has a copy of the sheet music for the Shakespearean Rag. Now that is just cool. It also contains lots of critical essays written by other people about The Waste Land. Each has a slightly different interpretation, so reading them can really help you see the poem from lots of different angles and decide for yourself what interpretation makes the most sense.
I suggest that everyone at least tries to read The Waste Land at least once in their lives, if only so you can say that you have. It's really quite an experience. If you are as scared of this poem as I was and you don't have a class to help with the interpretation, then I suggest getting The Norton Critical Edition, or some similar edition, to help you through it. But no matter what edition you can get your hands on, just read it. Spend some time with it. Don't let the intimidation keep you from enjoying the language. I promise you won't regret it.(less)
The first thing that struck me about this anthology was the quality of the writing. Sheldon has absolute mastery over the English language, and she di...moreThe first thing that struck me about this anthology was the quality of the writing. Sheldon has absolute mastery over the English language, and she displays it at every turn. Her descriptions are incredibly rich and detailed, and yet I didn't feel like the story was being bogged down. She somehow fit lush worlds full of sights and sounds right into the plot, never slowing down or forgetting her purpose. Her characters were mostly well rounded, with a few one-dimensional or token characters spread throughout the anthology as a reminder that it was in fact written by a human being. Her plots were beautiful, nuanced, and often unexpected, though many shared a sense of despair or hopelessness. Though some of her stories were kind of long for a short story, all in all I'd say that her writing is absolutely top-notch.
All that said, I had some problems with Sheldon, and I'm not the only one. See, the problem with Sheldon is that she is often writing satirically. Well, that itself isn't really the problem, but that's where my problems with her start. Back when Sheldon was alive and before anyone knew that she was a woman rather than being James Tiptree Jr, many people criticized her stories for being incredibly sexist. Now she is known as a great feminist icon, so I always wondered how this mistake came about. Well, after reading her stories, I think I understand. Even knowing that she was a woman who was writing satirically, some of the people in stories still made me sick. There are some serious portrayals of sexism and general misogyny, and even for a satire it was a bit much for me. If I hadn't been told, I would have thought that she meant everything she said, and it honestly made me uncomfortable.
All in all, I don't really know what to make of this anthology. The writing is excellent, but the subject matter is often very difficult, and nearly all the stories end in tragedy. Even though the writing was good, I still had a lot of trouble just getting through it. I think I would recommend this book, but I would suggest that you read it one story at a time with breaks in between, rather than trying to read straight through like I did. The stories are good, and the writing, while very dense, is rewarding. Sheldon is a complicated writer, and this anthology is definitely something that will leave you thinking long after you've finished.
Rating: ? I recommend this book, but suggest that it be read one story at a time rather than straight through. (less)
This book is exactly what the title says it is. It is a collection of short stories that use fewer than 25 words, but hint at a larger story. First of...moreThis book is exactly what the title says it is. It is a collection of short stories that use fewer than 25 words, but hint at a larger story. First of all, this is a super easy read. I think I finished it in 15 minutes, but you can choose to read as many of the stories at a time as you want. I think this is a very interesting concept, and would be a great way for teachers to show students that less is very often more when it comes to writing. While I wouldn't really call this a great book, and it isn't something I feel the need to keep around my house, I think it is a great writing exercise that can really help writers to think outside the box. (less)
Alright, I'm going to come right out and admit it. I love short stories. Short stories have all the wonderful things about a novel compacted down into...moreAlright, I'm going to come right out and admit it. I love short stories. Short stories have all the wonderful things about a novel compacted down into bite sized chunks that you can read between classes or sitting in a waiting room. Sometimes I think short stories must be harder to write than novels. Novels have all the time in the world for exposition and character development. Short stories have to show the reader exactly where they are, what's happening, and to whom right away. In short (haha) there's nothing like a good short story, and this anthology is full of them.
This isn't just any short story anthology. This is an anthology of Science Fiction short stories written by women, compiled by a woman who is very talented short story writer herself. Usually, when reviewing a book of short stories I would give a list of which ones were my favorites, but I can't do it this time. Every single story in this anthology was a gem. There wasn't a single story that played out a cliched plot or typical story. This is a book filled with originality, from strange worlds to surprising twist endings, but also with very believable characters and events. Though the genre may be Science Fiction, you won't find a single story here that isn't 100% convincing to the reader. My only qualm about this book was the story "The Vanillamint Tapestry," which had fine writing, but whose philosophy didn't necessarily sit well with me. Still, that is a matter of personal preference, and I can see how others would find the story perfectly enjoyable. Other than that, there isn't a single story in this anthology that I wouldn't recommend. If you can find a copy, I absolutely urge you to read this one right away. I promise you won't be disappointed.
These were very much Byatt, which is just what I was hoping for. The writing was always superb, and was never too long or too short for what needed to...moreThese were very much Byatt, which is just what I was hoping for. The writing was always superb, and was never too long or too short for what needed to be said. As for the individual stories, I didn't especially like 'Body Art', but I really enjoyed 'A Stone Woman' and 'Raw Material.' The other two were good, but not exemplary. Overall, I'd say it's a good collection. Rating: 3.5 stars(less)
The Bloody Chamber is a collection of short stories that are all takes and retellings of various fairy tales, ranging from the obscure to the fantasti...moreThe Bloody Chamber is a collection of short stories that are all takes and retellings of various fairy tales, ranging from the obscure to the fantastical, from the ordinary to the surreal. I knew from the very first page of this book that Carter was an incredibly talented author with a real command of the English language. No matter what's happening in the story, her language has a way of pulling you in and keeping you there until the story is done. Though the writing style changes a bit for every story, it's always rich, sensuous, beautiful language. After reading just the first paragraph, I was hooked. I checked out the book from the library, and sat down to read.
This book is, first and foremost, a collection of short stories. Each story is its own thing, not related to any other story in the book. I am going to review each tale separately, in the order in which they appear in the book. There will not be any spoilers.
The Bloody Chamber: As both the title story and the first story in the collection, this slightly gruesome tale definitely doesn't disappoint. I'm not sure what fairytale this one is based off of. A young girl marries a rich older man, three times a widower, who takes her back to his castle of an ancestral home. But why has he chosen her, and what fate awaits her in this sumptuous palace? Even if I could guess the secret before it happened, the ending was still good, and the writing was fabulous.
The Courtship of Mr. Lion: This is a retelling of Beauty and the Beast, one of two in the collection. This one is the more familiar of the two, sticking fairly closely to the original story, and making the beast a fairly sympathetic character. It's very sweet, which can be expected considering the source material.
The Tiger's Bride: This is the second Beauty and the Beast retelling in the collection and it is definitely the stranger of the two. It departs quite far from the original tale, and becomes something much more raw and surreal. In the end, I find that this is the better of the two stories. I would absolutely recommend it.
Puss-in-Boots: This is less a retelling and more a classic Puss-in-Boots tale, plus a few added (very mild) sexually explicit scenes . It's cheeky and adventurous, just like any cat hero should be.
The Erl-King: I'm not sure what fairy tale this is based on. It reminds me very much of the mystic tales of forest gods, strong beings with strange powers living out in the center of the woods. the writing only adds to this feeling. It is mystical and wild, with sentences that might be run-ons and the most perfect and old descriptions of the forest.
The Snow Child: This one is very short, only a few pages. I'm not really sure what to make of it. The writing style is also shorter and more to-the-point than in other stories. It reads more like a fable than the others.
Lady of the House of Love: This is a new take on the Vampire genre. It shows two different sides to the vampire life, almost as if contrasting the old legends with the new world. The writing and the story are both very melancholy and shadowy. Sometimes the main character's thoughts get mixed up in the dialogue, only to be sorted out int he next paragraph, as if she's so lonely that her thoughts are as real to her as real conversation. This is an excellent example of Carter using language to set the mood of a story.
The Werewolf: This is a retelling of Little Red Riding-Hood. It was short and shocking, with clipped brutal sentences and a harsh tone that somehow reminded me of The Lottery. It definitely surprised me.
The Company of Wolves: Another retelling of Little Red Riding-Hood, this one is much more strange. It does have some wonderful descriptions though, once calling wolf song "an aria of fear made audible." I'm not really sure what to think about this one.
Wolf Alice: This tale tells the story of a girl raised by wolves, rescued by people, and then sent ot be a maid for a vman who is either a werewolf, a vampire, or something else strange. It's part coming-of-age story for this young girl, and part meditation on what it's like to be in between worlds. Then again, maybe those two things aren't that far apart.
All together, this makes up an amazing collection of short stories that packs quite a punch in its mere 126 pages. I think my favorite stories in the collection were The Tiger's Bride, Puss-in-Boots, and The Erl-King, but really they were all captivating. In this collection, Angela Carter shows her true skill. She is able to do something that is, by the very nature of the genre, rather rare. With a book of fairy-tale retellings, Carter manages to create something completely and utterly original.
Bloodchild is a collection of short stories by the famous science-fiction writer Octavia Butler. The problem with most short story collections is that...moreBloodchild is a collection of short stories by the famous science-fiction writer Octavia Butler. The problem with most short story collections is that they are usually a mixed bag, populated with mostly mediocre stories speckled with a few stinkers and a few gems. Well, I am happy to report to you that Bloodchild is not like that at all. Every single story in this collection is captivating, intelligent, and written in a style that is clear and accessible without losing any of its sophistication.
What really struck me about Bloodchild was the sheer emotional impact of each story. Because each story is such a perfect little world, and because the characters are so well realized, every story really packs a punch. I put down the book between each story, incapable of doing any real thinking because I was so blown away by what I had just read. I think the effectiveness of the stories comes from a mix of excellent writing and characterization and the way Butler uses those characters to explore complex ideas. One of Butler's strengths is in never letting her work become preachy or one-sided. Butler's ideas are as complex as her characters, and that makes her stories resonate in a very real and powerful way.
Usually, this would be the part of the review where I would tell you which stories were my favorite and which ones to skip, but I can't really do that with this collection, because they are all absolutely worth reading. I believe that Butler's most famous stories are Bloodchild and Speech Sounds, both of which are in this collection and both of which are absolutely mind-blowing. Bloodchild actually left me speechless and shaking by the time I finished it. Her other stories are more subtle, but are still incredibly well-written. There are also two essays included in the book, my favorite of which was Positive Obsession. Since I bought the updated version of the book, I got an extra two stories on top of the original five stories and two essays. If you are going to get it, I recommend getting the updated version, because the two added stories are both very good, especially Amnesty. In all of the stories Butler's characters are absolutely convincing, and her story-telling is so smooth that you never need time to get adjusted to the story, even when you are dropped right in the middle of the action. That is, to me, a sign of a great writer.
I know this review is vague, but that is only because Butler's stories are so good. I don't feel like I need to speak for them, and I'm not sure that I could even if I wanted to. If you want intelligent stories with concise yet vivid writing and realistic characters, then Octavia Butler is absolutely the writer for you.
Rating: 5 stars Vivid writing, engaging plot, convincing characters, and intelligent world building. Highly recommended. (less)
If you read my recent review of Alice Walker's famous novel The Color Purple, then you'll know that I think she is an excellent novelist. Well, dear r...moreIf you read my recent review of Alice Walker's famous novel The Color Purple, then you'll know that I think she is an excellent novelist. Well, dear readers, the good news is that she is also an incredible essayist. I would encourage teachers everywhere to use her essays in their classrooms as an example of the perfect personal essay (especially Beauty: When the Other Dancer is the Self). If you know me or if you've read my blog, you know that I don't usually read non-fiction. It usually bores me, and takes me forever to read. I read this book in less than two days, and I actually stayed up late to read it because I could not put it down. It's that good. The writing is excellent, and I learned so much about the experiences of black women, especially in the South. It was eye-opening, engaging, and just generally awesome. I cannot recommend it enough.(less)