Dec 8, 2016

Stories of Your Life and Others, by Ted Chiang

I received this collection of science fiction short stories through a Reddit gift exchange. Despite the fact that I adore sci fi short stories, the cover of a human head made out of mathematical equations intimidated me, and it sat on my shelf for four whole years. What changed? People started talking about a movie called Arrival, and a week or so later, I realized that the movie is based on a story in this collection. Intriguing! So I put it on my nightstand as my next read.

Whoever that anonymous Redditor was four years ago has impeccable taste. Ted Chiang's stories display an astounding intelligence and originality. The story on which Arrival is based - "The Story of Your Life" - marries physics and language in a stunningly brilliant manner, all while paying equally careful attention to character development. "Seventy-Two Letters" is another fine example of uniting two wholly different ideas into one consistent, unique worldview. In this case, it is the Jewish golem and Hebrew numerology added to an old explanation for how life forms, wherein each organism exists fully but in miniature until an impetus causes it to grow.

What's so impressive is how technically advanced these stories are while simultaneously being beautifully written. I almost want to hate Ted Chiang for being so damn smart and talented all at once; it's hardly fair to the rest of us that one person can be this gifted. I know that sales have picked up very nicely for this book after the movie's release, and I hope people enjoy it as much as they have the movie, and that Chiang gets the readership he deserves.

Nov 30, 2016

The Opposite of Loneliness, by Marina Keegan

Marina Keegan had recently graduated from Yale in 2014 when she was killed in a car crash. Only a week or so beforehand, she'd published the titular essay of this collection in which she exclaimed that she and her fellow graduates were "just so young," and that they had so much time in which to live their lives. I've read plenty of dead authors, and some of those works were written at the end of the authors' lives. The difference, of course, is that they generally knew it. They were dying of cancer, or heart disease, or old age. So when Keegan's essays and stories hint at or loudly proclaim their nervous excitement for the rest of her life, it catches at your heart. Keegan had already written for the New York Times, interned at The Paris Review, and had her plays performed. Her professors were astounded by her, her classmates looked up to her. So when her death occurred mere days after publishing "The Opposite of Loneliness," the essay went viral. This compilation of essays and short stories was put together by her family and professors as a testament to Keegan's youthful talent, so her name might be remembered.

Keegan's fiction is very slice-of-life, which I'll admit isn't quite my taste. The last story, however, is absolutely chilling and brilliant. "Challenger Deep" follows a deep sea submarine crew that is in crisis. Their ballast tanks blew, they've fallen to the bottom of an abyssal trench, and though their power is on, the lights don't work. They have been in complete darkness for days, then weeks. They have rations for six months, and only a slim chance of rescue. The story is incredibly emotional, and the imagination it took to write about what humans in complete darkness must feel is amazing.

The essays are well-formed, though like the stories, only one really stood out to me. "I Kill For Money," wherein Keegan profiles a cheerful exterminator, is emotionally illuminating and a pleasure to read. I hate to say that I liked it best because there's so little of her in it, but that is one of the biggest distinctions between it and the other essays. I think that getting out of her head allowed her creativity to flow more freely.

It truly is a shame that we won't get to watch Marina Keegan develop as a writer. Though I didn't love all her pieces, she was clearly very talented and by all accounts had the drive to really accomplish something with her writing. I'm glad this book at least will be her legacy.

Nov 22, 2016

The Queen of Blood, by Sarah Beth Durst

I'll say this much: despite an uneven tone and a bit too much of a reliance on cliches and pithy comebacks, Durst's fantasy novel reeled me in and genuinely surprised me with the ending. There's something about fantasy that keeps me reading long past when I should be asleep, and though I've certainly read better fantasy than The Queen of Blood, I was impressed by its original world-building.

Renthia depends on elemental spirits to keep its forests healthy, its crops growing, its people fed and industrious. But the spirits also hate humans, the only truly destructive force in nature. The queens of Renthia hold the spirits in check, controlling them so they work for the people. When they lose control, the spirits descend with teeth and claw and people die horribly. Only women hold this power, and only a select few have enough to be trained as heirs to the queen.

Our heroine is Daleina, whose diligence and dedication stem from being one of only a few people in a village to survive an inexplicable attack of the spirits. Against all odds (of course), Daleina is chosen to train for the crown. Meanwhile, Queen Fara is doing something very naughty up in her high tower, and people are dying.

Less than stellar writing and a derivative plot aside, the world of Renthia is fantastic and wonderfully imagined. I love the way the spirits are described, each unique and easily imagined. I love the tension that holds this world together, the destructive forces that must keep each other in check for all to prosper. I love the subtle environmental message, that humans depend on the natural world but also depend on controlling it. I love the political message that warns against thinking that harming some for the greater good is an ethical decision, that security is worth the price of freedom. I just wish the writing were a tad bit better...

Nov 18, 2016

Cannery Row, by John Steinbeck

Having read two long novels by Steinbeck, and , I was quite curious about his shorter fiction. Cannery Row doesn't pack the same emotional punch as either of those two masterpieces, but it is a fantastic read nonetheless. We read about the denizens of this certain industrious street, abutting the water and the myriad sardine canneries. We meet Lee Chong, canny proprietor of the general store; Doc, the kind bachelor who collects local fauna for his business, Western Biological Laboratory; Mack and the boys, drifters who've found a home together in a vacant building; Dora and her girls at the local gentleman's establishment; and several other outliers. The story hops, skips, and jumps from person to person, and sometimes not to a person at all, just a place or an animal, so that we begin to feel that Cannery Row is our home as well. Steinbeck's use of language is unparalleled; he's moving and funny and just has such a way with words that I seem to forget then become re-astonished by every time. He's a master of the craft, a literary giant, and I will never tire of his work.

Nov 14, 2016

Divergent, by Veronica Roth

I can see why this became so popular; it's a seriously fun ride! Roth helped make this genre - which I call Young Adult Dystopia and Apocalypse - popular. It's fast-paced and exciting, tapping into that desire we all have to be special in some way. Tris is special but, like Harry Potter, like Katniss Everdeen, she is unsure and unsteady. This is, of course, part and parcel of being a teenager. Everyone that age is unsure of who they are, confused about what they want and who they should become. These hero figures who keep popping up are the teenage condition writ large. Especially when written in the first person, like this one, the stories make you feel a part of something bigger and sweep you up in the grand emotions of adolescence, and apocalypse. Will I read the rest of the books? Maybe...if the mood strikes me.

Nov 12, 2016

pond, by Claire-Louise Bennett

Wow, twice in one month! This much-lauded debut novel-in-short-stories is described as "sensational," "luxurious," and "brilliant." I found it incredibly boring and opaque. It's really more a prose poem than a novel, and perhaps this is where it falls short for me. Despite a serious love of language, poetry remains inscrutable to me. I want to like it, so very much, but instead I struggle to find it anything other than dull. pond reads like poetry, and so I found it terribly dull. The character Bennett builds throughout the chapters-cum-stories is obviously interesting, but her stream of consciousness is difficult to penetrate. And while I hesitate to rebuke books that have no real plot, they do tend to be, well, boring. When absolutely all the action is internal, you've cut out a whole swathe of the reading population that just won't be able to get into it, myself included. So I will say only that this book is not for me, but will take it on faith that it surely is sensational and luxurious and brilliant for another type of reader.

Nov 7, 2016

Nose, by James Conaway

Jim (as I allow myself to call him, due to having met and chatted with him on a few occasions) is a luxurious writer. He loves language, revels in its richness, muddles it playfully and dollops it extravagantly onto the page. His writing is, fittingly, as complex as a fine wine, as adjective-laden as a fine wine review. His intimate knowledge of Napa Valley and its characters, painstakingly researched for his bombshell work, Napa, and its sequels, allows him an insider's look at the wine industry and to recreate it on the page. Having lived in Napa for several years, there is much in this novel that is familiar to me, despite the name changes.

This is a mystery, of a kind: Clyde Craven-Jones, king of wine critics, tastes his first perfect wine. But alas, the bottle is unlabeled, its provenance unknown, and no credible source steps up to claim it. CJ's wife hires recently fired journalist Les to do some digging, and Les finds a whole lot more in the valley than just the vineyard that birthed the perfect wine. It's a familiar story of greed, shone through the lens of the high stakes, small world of the wine industry. I can see this book appealing both to those already in the business (as a way to relax and laugh a bit at themselves) and to those who are completely removed from it (as a way to feel a part of this exclusive world, and to feel superior to those who sometimes snobbishly make it their lives). I enjoyed it as someone who's feet rest in both worlds, as the non-industry girlfriend of a winemaker. Plus Jim is just such a wonderful, playful writer to read. Always a pleasure, sir.