Tournament of Books discussion

2020 Short Story Tourney > Championship Match Commentary

Comments Showing 1-26 of 26 (26 new)    post a comment »
dateDown arrow    newest »

message 1: by Lauren (last edited May 15, 2020 08:47AM) (new)

Lauren Oertel | 886 comments Paper Menagerie vs. The Story of Your Life

Winner: Paper Menagerie by Ken Liu

message 2: by Amy (new)

Amy (asawatzky) | 1691 comments very exciting! thanks for doing this folks, turns out short stories were about what I could manage right now and they were a delight!

message 3: by Lauren (last edited May 15, 2020 06:22AM) (new)

Lauren Oertel | 886 comments Lauren: Welcome to the day of the big reveal! I could post a ton of random text below so you have to scroll to see the result, as we normally do with the Rooster decision (by a show of “hands” - who here scrolls to the bottom before reading each judge’s vote?), but I won’t. Paper Menagerie is our official Tournament of Books Goodreads Group Short Story Tournament Champion! Now I see why they just call it the Rooster. ;)

Two great stories, one victor, and a bunch of readers who have recently enjoyed some delicious snippets of literature. I think our reading muscles are now properly warmed up for Camp.

I’m grateful for everyone taking a chance on this new experiment and especially everyone who volunteered in the booth. It has been better than I ever could have expected.

Here’s my plan for the winner: I’ll reach out to Ken Liu and let him know he won this very important contest, including a summary of some of our commentary in the message. And Amy suggested we see if he’s up for a Zoom call to discuss this story (and his new ones). That would be fun! I’ll see if the ToB folks at The Morning News can share this win on their social media pages. I also hope that this group can join me in promoting his short story collection that includes this one, as well as the books he’s published since then (I didn’t realize he had something new come out this February!). We can make a group effort to add reviews and high ratings for him on Goodreads as well. If he actually sees a slight boost in sales this weekend, our group might be taken more seriously in the future. ;) Any other ideas here? Does someone want to make a certificate for him?

Amy sent me some notes to get our commentary started since I had completely forgotten that I asked her to join me again for this final day. Thanks Amy - take it away!

Amy: Here it is, sci-fi mother-daughter w/loss of daughter vs. magical-realism mother-son with loss of mother. Both pass through the entire time-span of child to adulthood through mini episodes and yet they manage to build such a complete picture of, if not each person, at least each relationship.

Lauren: Yes, this is quite a pair. I honestly didn’t make those connections for this matchup right off the bat. I think I was just so excited about the idea of having two Chinese-American science fiction writers as our finalists (especially during this time of heightened racism against Asian Americans). I’m picky when it comes to science fiction, but I love when authors can break that racial barrier, and both of these stories now have a place in my heart. How did you decide between these?

Amy: If I have to parse it, my pro-con list won't hold up for my vote of "Story of Your Life." Paper Menagerie has more heart and gets me closer to crying and it never seems to waste a moment, while I questioned the lengthy explanations of linguistics in Story. Yet Story's slow build got to me, and it hits so many things at once; how language reveals our cultural philosophies, is reinforced by our biology and physiology, how understanding someone else psychically(psychicly?) and physically changes a person. In telling a story about an alien visitation, Chiang really tells us about who we are. And then layered on that is a story about fulfilling one's future and how much control we have (or don't).

When Gwen and I were discussing, I asked her the following:
Did you find the pace lagging at any points? What did you think of the author speaking to her (dead, not really a spoiler) daughter in the 'flashback' scenes, speaking of their events as if relaying them TO her? It made me wonder about possible ramifications of the ending - she's not going to change the past/future, but perhaps she can change her daughter's experience of them?

And she responded:
As for the passages addressed to the daughter, those held all the “heart” of this story for me. As a mother myself, I can’t imagine the pain of losing a child at such a young age. The way the passages were interspersed throughout the story gave the feeling that this mother is constantly thinking about her daughter and communicating with her while doing everything else in her life, even if the dialogues were only in the mother’s head. That seemed very real to me, and I imagine I’d do the same if one of my children died. I also think the interspersed episodes made it feel like everything was happening all at once in the narrative, which goes back to that idea of simultaneity.

Lauren: Yes, even though I’m not a parent, the ending pulled everything together so well that I was floored. I also thought it was an effective way to “show” us what it’s like if we don’t assume time is linear. I also voted for Story, since it grabbed my heart and mind, even though Paper caused more crying (in a good way). What stood out for you with Paper Menagerie?

Amy: I think a lot of people assume that loss of a parent is perhaps less tragic than loss of a child. And our narrator sure seems to imply as much even as we realize he's looking back from her death in telling the story. But the end also implies that he realizes the tragedy of a childhood cut short by himself in not desiring to know his mother until it is too late. It's an old story that children don't appreciate their childhood until it's gone, that they cannot wait to be grown up and taken seriously and fit in. And here we have a literally magical childhood that is abandoned for the illusion of fitting in and being American (ugh). As an adult I can look back and feel mystified that the magical paper animals could be viewed as 'trash.' But as a former child, I can understand the agony of wanting to outgrow your parents. And 2nd generation children have additional layers of assimilation pressure. There's a fantastic graphic novel that uses the story of the Monkey King as a metaphor for the author's own fight to leave behind his Chineseness as a youngster: "American Born Chinese." I'd highly recommend it. It lacks the tragedy of a lost mother but it shares the sense of shame and loss of Paper.

Lauren: Yes, I felt the same way. Since I don’t have kids, my biggest fear is losing my parents (or my partner) so I appreciated that theme here. And thanks for the book recommendation, that sounds great!

Amy: Do you think magic is prevalent in the world of Paper Menagerie? Even when delighted, the narrator and other characters never act as if his mother's ability is especially unique. But maybe only the boy can see it as something inherent to his childhood?

Lauren: Good question. This makes me think of a conversation one of my book groups had with local (Austin) author Natalia Sylvester. We were discussing her book Everyone Knows You Go Home and someone asked her about the bits of magical realism that she included in the story (the presence of a dead father’s ghost). She pushed back on the term and explained that in her culture (Peruvian-born with South Texas/Mexican roots), some of these things are accepted as part of life, and they don’t need to be separated out with the “magic” label. I thought that was interesting and it reminded me of the beauty of Dia de Muertos celebrations and how that belief system and those practices are so much more beautiful and connected than how families like mine treat death. So I think with Paper Menagerie, we can accept that the boy’s mother has a special ability, but we don’t need to worry ourselves about labeling. We can just appreciate how it enhances the boy’s childhood (and our reading experience). I’d be interested in hearing Liu’s answer to this, though. Any other thoughts on this, or the matchup in general? Let’s hear from everyone in the Commentariat.

message 4: by Bretnie (new)

Bretnie | 481 comments I haven't read anything else by Ken Liu, so I'm excited to pick up more by him.

THANK YOU LAUREN for organizing this fun tournament! It got me reading authors that had been on my "to read" list for quite a while and reminded me why I love short stories so much.

And thank you everyone who participated in the commentary. Excellent discussions!

message 5: by Kip (new)

Kip Kyburz (kybrz) | 212 comments Yeah thanks for organizing and setting this all up. Has been so wonderful to have this every day.

message 6: by Lauren (new)

Lauren Oertel | 886 comments Check out my conversation with the author - yay!

Dear Mr. Liu,

I hope this finds you well. I am the organizer of a short story tournament that we just completed for our Goodreads group that follows the Tournament of Books. Our group of avid readers nominated our favorite short stories of all time and put them through a March Madness-style bracket competition over the last few weeks. Your story Paper Menagerie made it into the bracket and was up against stories by Alice Munro, Zadie Smith, Vladimir Nabokov, Carmen Maria Machado, Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah, Rebecca Roanhorse, George Saunders, and more. The final match was between Paper Menagerie and Story of Your Life by Ted Chiang. This group typically focuses on literary fiction, so your story clearly has universal appeal. Congratulations and thank you for sharing this wonderful story with the world!

Here are some of the things we said about you story throughout the tournament:

"I cried on and off for an hour after reading Paper Menagerie, and still want to cry when I think about it, it touches so many raw nerves in me."

"Paper Menagerie has such a bittersweet mix of whimsy and pain; I think I’ll remember it and feel it for a long time."

"Paper Menagerie has so much heart, gets me close to crying, and it never seems to waste a moment."

"As an adult I can look back and feel mystified that the magical paper animals could be viewed as 'trash.' But as a former child, I can understand the agony of wanting to outgrow your parents. And 2nd generation children have additional layers of assimilation pressure."

"This story gave me watery eyes throughout the entire reading experience. The dynamic of the son’s relationship with his mother was heartbreaking and of course the letter was just the icing on the tear-filled cake. I loved the paper animals in this story and how they provided a bridge between the characters."

"This poignant story of family rejection, of immigrant assimilation, and of deep regret was a heart-breaking revelation. My grandfather was a Chinese immigrant whose true story I don't think anyone in the family really knew. Most immigrant stories are lost forever in a sea of rapid generational assimilation. Liu takes us on a journey from childhood love for his mother's magical paper folding to that too-real moment of deep embarrassment in your family and finally to her reaching back from the grave to tell her story to her estranged adult son. This is an immigrant story, but it's a very universal story of kids rejecting their parents only to gain appreciation when it's too late."

In celebration of this win, we will be promoting your story, the collection, and the other works you have published. I'll also be asking The Morning News (creator of The Tournament of Books) to share this result on their social media platforms. Are the book links on your website affiliated, or do you get more of a cut if we purchase them from your site rather than going to another bookstore website and searching for them? If so, we can encourage people to buy directly from your site.

Would you happen to be interested in doing a virtual discussion of your story with the tournament followers (and anyone else who's interested) so we can learn more about Paper Menagerie as well as the other books/stories you've written?

Thanks and congrats!

Lauren Oertel


Hi Lauren,

Well, that's a really wonderful bit of news in the middle of all that's happening. I'm really honored and delighted to hear the comments. Thank you for letting me know.

The links on my site are not affiliate links, so I don't get anything extra for folks using them. So if you want to use the links to my publishers (see my signature), which are retailer-neutral, or links to any book store of your choice, they're equally good. I just want more people to read, as book stores and authors can all use some support in the current pandemic.

I'd also be delighted to do a virtual discussion with group members — though I'm not familiar with what tools Goodreads offers for this kind of thing. I'm happy to participate as long as the platform is usable.

Thank you again, and my best wishes to you!


The Grace of Kings (2015) and The Wall of Storms (2016) — a silkpunk epic fantasy series
The Paper Menagerie and Other Stories (2016) — my debut collection
The Legends of Luke Skywalker (2017) — part of the Star Wars: Journey to The Last Jedi project

The Three-Body Problem (2014) and Death's End (2016) — Volumes 1 & 3 of Liu Cixin’s hard SF trilogy
Invisible Planets (2016) and Broken Stars (2019) — anthologies of contemporary Chinese SF in translation
Waste Tide (2019) — Chen Qiufan's debut SF novel
The Redemption of Time (2019) — Baoshu's continuation of Liu Cixin's saga

Twitter: @kyliu99

message 7: by Elizabeth (new)

Elizabeth Arnold | 830 comments I didn't vote last night, I just couldn't decide, and didn't want to give a thumbs down to one by voting for the other. I would have been happy (and sad) either way. Both these stories had a profound effect on me, more so than the vast majority of novels I read.

And every set of comments I've read on every story has added a deeper layer onto my understanding and appreciation. (Kind of like regular TOB, except even more so, since with a short we have more room to expand, and each section is so important in developing a nuanced whole.)

I have loved sharing this with all of you brilliant readers! I like short stories, but usually read them in a collection so look at the collection as a whole rather than pondering each story. It was so nice to absorb them fully, and I'll be doing that in the future with shorts...reading and, if I love the story, sitting on it for a couple of days before picking up anything else, rereading and getting an even better appreciation. (Here I reread Bear, Professor, Largesse, Story and PM, and each reading grew on the last.) It's making me a better reader, and a better writer.

Gosh Lauren, I can't thank you enough for coming up with this idea and for all your hard work! I'm sad it's over. What a great distraction it's been. You've made these dark days so much brighter, I think for all of us. <3

message 8: by Elizabeth (new)

Elizabeth Arnold | 830 comments Lauren wrote: "Check out my conversation with the author - yay!

Dear Mr. Liu,

I hope this finds you well. I am the organizer of a short story tournament that we just completed for our Goodreads group that foll..."

Your update just entered my (apparently clunky) Inbox. Oh wow, and yay!!!

message 9: by Bretnie (new)

Bretnie | 481 comments Lauren, that's amazing! I love the snippets of people's comments on the story! What a quick and heartfelt response. :)

Now to think of some intelligent-sounding questions for a possible virtual discussion! Are you picturing a live event like on zoom or something, or a specific thread for people to write questions and he posts responses?

Also, I just realized that he was the translator for Cixin Liu's Three Body Problem trilogy! How interesting!

message 10: by lark (new)

lark benobi (larkbenobi) | 116 comments Lauren, thanks for everything. This has been a blast, and the letter you wrote is so lovely! Thanks for representing us so well.

message 11: by Lauren (new)

Lauren Oertel | 886 comments I'm thinking this will be a live Zoom meeting with Ken Liu where anyone can speak up with questions/comments, or you can write them in the chat and I can ask them. We can have registration and password protection so we don't get hacked.

I'll be reading some more of his work before then so I can be more familiar with what he's done outside of Paper Menagerie. We're tentatively looking at June 14th at 2pm Eastern (he's in Boston) but I'm waiting to confirm with Amy and we have some ToB folks in an email.

In the meantime, we can start buying more of his books! :)

message 12: by Gwendolyn (new)

Gwendolyn | 175 comments What a great ending to a fantastic event. Thanks, Lauren!

message 13: by Elizabeth (new)

Elizabeth Arnold | 830 comments I just bought The Paper Menagerie and Other Stories, and I'm going to try to read one or two more of his stories before the meeting! Reviews make it sound fantastic.

Lauren, do you want to let people in the main group know about the meeting in case they're not following along but would want to join in?

message 14: by Lauren (last edited May 16, 2020 03:53PM) (new)

Lauren Oertel | 886 comments Elizabeth wrote: "I just bought The Paper Menagerie and Other Stories, and I'm going to try to read one or two more of his stories before the meeting! Reviews make it sound fantastic.

Lauren, do you..."

Yes, good idea!

And we're set for June 14th at 2pm Eastern. The ToB folks will be promoting it and possibly joining us. It will be "meeting" style where any participants can ask questions, either by turning on their video to speak or posting in the chat for me to ask them. We'll post the link to register soon.

I just purchased the full collection as well, and am also looking to get his newest collection The Hidden Girl and Other Stories sometime soon so I can get a better feel for his writing in general. Looking forward to it!

message 15: by Bretnie (new)

Bretnie | 481 comments Cool, thanks Lauren, that's amazing!

message 16: by Elizabeth (new)

Elizabeth Arnold | 830 comments Lauren wrote: "Elizabeth wrote: "I just bought The Paper Menagerie and Other Stories, and I'm going to try to read one or two more of his stories before the meeting! Reviews make it sound fantasti..."

I love that TOB will also be promoting this. You're amazing, Lauren. I can't wait!

message 17: by Natalie (new)

Natalie | 51 comments Thank you so much for all your efforts organizing, Lauren--and for organizing the conversation with Ken Liu! This has been an amazing experience, and I've loved being a part of it.

I'm unfortunately not able to join on June 14 (I'll be in a theater zoom call all day), but would it be okay if I emailed you a question to ask on my behalf?

message 18: by Lauren (new)

Lauren Oertel | 886 comments Natalie wrote: "Thank you so much for all your efforts organizing, Lauren--and for organizing the conversation with Ken Liu! This has been an amazing experience, and I've loved being a part of it.

I'm unfortunat..."

Of course! You can send it over whenever. Thanks for joining us for the tournament and I'm sorry you'll miss the discussion with the author.

message 19: by Kip (new)

Kip Kyburz (kybrz) | 212 comments So excited to join in on this discussion, we are expecting our second child on June 7, but thats during our toddler's nap time so I should be able to make it. Might try to zip through some short stories and Vagabonds, his most recently translated book that was having a sale on.

message 20: by Lauren (new)

Lauren Oertel | 886 comments You can now register for the virtual discussion with Ken Liu!

Start thinking about a question you might want to ask him and feel free to spread the word.


message 21: by Bretnie (new)

Bretnie | 481 comments Nice!

I've been listening to the full collection of stories in The Paper Menagerie and there are so many good stories in there.

I'll try to start thinking of smart questions!

message 22: by Elizabeth (new)

Elizabeth Arnold | 830 comments I just noticed that Levar Burton recently recorded Staying Behind, by Ken Liu, on his podcast. ❤️

message 23: by Bretnie (new)

Bretnie | 481 comments A reminder tomorrow is the event with Ken Liu! Maybe we should share on one of the main TOB pages also?

message 24: by Lauren (new)

Lauren Oertel | 886 comments Yes - thank you! People can register here to join us tomorrow at 11am PT/2pm ET. Thanks!

message 25: by Elizabeth (new)

Elizabeth Arnold | 830 comments Lauren, thanks so much for hosting the meet yesterday, and for all your work on this! You did a fantastic job facilitating. Ken was such a wonderful, thoughtful, insightful speaker, and hearing his thoughts was so much fun.

message 26: by Lauren (new)

Lauren Oertel | 886 comments Thanks - so glad you could join us. I definitely enjoyed it. :)

back to top