Stories of Your Life and Others, by Ted Chiang

Arrival (Stories of Your Life and Others)My husband and I went to see Arrival a few months back, and it was so much more awesome than we had anticipated it would be that we started telling all our friends to go see it so we could talk about how awesome it is. Have you seen it? GO SEE IT.

So when, shortly thereafter, it was my turn to pick a book for my online book club, a little lightbulb went off over my head and I picked the short story collection that contains the story that inspired Arrival, “Story of Your Life”. Now I could have some guaranteed people to talk about the story with!

What I didn’t expect was how fascinating the whole collection would be, and how full of science! So much science. And math. And more science. And a little bit of philosophy. And then more science.

So let’s take these stories one at a time. Warning: Ridiculously long post ahead! It’s so long, in fact that I’m going to put my usual end-of-post recommendation up here: READ THIS BOOK. Do it.

Now, the stories!

“Tower of Babylon”
I wasn’t super sure about this story, or the whole book, when I started it. People climbing a tower to get to heaven? Pretty sure I’ve heard that one before. (Note this sentence, as it is a refrain throughout the collection.) But the description of the tower, the journey upward, the idea of people living miles up in the air their entire lives and never knowing the ground… wow. And then when our party reaches the top, and we find out just what is waiting for them at the edge of heaven… totally not what I was expecting. I was way more excited for the rest of the collection after finishing this first story.

“Understand”
Remember that sentence I told you to note? Yep, here it is again. As I started this story, of a man who takes some pills as part of a medical experiment and becomes very very smart very very quickly, I was like, all right, Flowers for Algernon. Let me go get some tissues for the inevitable… wait. Where is this going? Is this a thriller now? How the hell smart can one dude get? IS THERE ANOTHER DUDE OMG. Again, not what I was expecting, and again, super interesting.

“Division By Zero”
This story was a bit harder to read, as it is a little more experimental and abstract in its narrative, but the core concept is still brain-breaking. In this one, a mathematician discovers the terrifying fact that mathematics might not actually work, while meanwhile her husband discovers the terrifying fact that their marriage might not actually work. Sad on multiple levels, this one, if you like yourself some math.

“Story of Your Life”
The big story! The reason for reading this book! And it is just as good as the movie, if you’re of a scientific bent. The movie is definitely more exciting and fast-paced and has higher stakes, but the story, as quiet as it is, explores the same themes of SPOILER FOR THE MOVIE OH NO. I found the story more interesting in that what the movie turns into a twist is made obvious from the beginning of the story, which, when you read the story and see some fancy diagrams, is a weirdly totally meta way of doing the movie, brain explosion! Aah! I don’t want to spoil the story or the movie for you, whichever you happen to consume first, but know that I’m here for you to discuss all the feels you might have about either.

“Seventy-Two Letters”
This was a friend’s favorite story of the collection, due to its lesser focus on math and physics and greater emphasis on the philosophical. Here we have a world where people build golems to take on menial tasks, and a bright young man with aspirations for the lower classes seeks to find just the right word to make golems that will automate enough slightly-less-menial tasks to improve the lives of everyone. Of course, some see his ideas as Taking Our Jobs (TM) and others see them as a way to improve the lives of only the rich, and our fellow gets caught up in politics instead of science, which is never fun.

“The Evolution of Human Science”
A story so short that my book club mates forgot its existence! This three-page story is very short but it still posits a fascinating future world where humans don’t really do science anymore, which, sad face. And, read in the context of this collection, it harkens back, intentionally or not, to “Understand”, which fills in some blanks quite nicely.

“Hell is the Absence of God”
I think this was my favorite story of the collection — it might be tied with “Story of Your Life” but it’s hard to say, since I sort of already knew the latter story. But as a brand-new story, this one was sooooo good. In the world of this story, everyone knows that God is real because His angels show up every once in a while to… I don’t know what their actual purpose is, but the result is that they wreak havoc and kill some people and the remaining living can see whether those souls go up to Heaven or down to Hell. It is also known that Hell is simply, as the title says, the absence of God, as sometimes portals open up and people can see into Hell and it’s just basically like living on Earth except you’re dead. This story covers the lives of a few different people, but the main character is a fellow who loses his wife to Heaven during one of these visitations and is faced with a serious quandary. He wants to be with his wife, but he’s not devout, and only the devout go to heaven. He has the rest of his life to become devout, but are you really devout if you only become so to fulfill a selfish need? Bonus: Try reading this story while also watching The Good Place. You’re welcome.

“Liking What You See: A Documentary”
This is another story with an offbeat narrative, this time in the form of the narrative of a documentary film. Said film follows the story of a college campus that wants to make required the process of calliagnosia, a sort of induced beauty-blindness in the brain. People with “calli” see faces just fine but couldn’t tell you if they’re beautiful or ugly or anywhere in between. The documentary crew talks primarily to a woman who has had calli all her life and who is against its requirement so much that she has it turned off and starts to experience the world in an interesting new way. Between this woman and the other characters, the story explores the implications of beauty and a lack of beauty and how people are perceived, and also the concept of what happens when we let people define other people’s behavior, even when it seems to be in everyone’s best interest. The story was written a little earlier than the trigger warning zeitgeist, but it could easily have been written during it. This piece is interesting in itself, but what I find most intriguing is that Chiang turned down a Hugo nomination for it, saying that it hadn’t turned out the way he wanted it to. I want to know how it might have turned out had he had more time!

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The Boy Next Door, by Meg Cabot

The Boy Next DoorStop number two on my quest to find an adorable Attachments-like romance novel! This one was recommended by a friend based on the fact that it is told entirely in emails, which make up a large portion of Attachments as well, and probably also based on the fact that it’s super sarcastic. I gave it a shot on a lazy mid-week day off, and ended up devouring it in one sitting.

This is one of those perfect, brain-candy, let’s-not-think-too-hard-today books, which I highly recommend for a lazy mid-week day off. It is highly implausible and ridiculous, but in a delightful way.

Here’s the story: our protagonist, Mel, is a gossip columnist for a New York City newspaper (think Post rather than Times) who is late to work one day because she finds her next-door neighbor nearly dead in her apartment. Mel is primarily concerned with making sure her neighbor’s pets are taken care of, so she shoots off an email to her neighbor’s only known relative, a nephew called Max Friedlander who is a quasi-famous photographer. Said photographer, however, is in the midst of an eyebrow-waggling vacation with a super-hot model, so he enlists his favor-owing friend John to go watch the pets, and more importantly pretend to be Max so that when Aunt Helen wakes up she won’t disinherit her nephew for being the ass that he actually is.

But I said this is a romance novel, right, so of course as soon as John arrives on the scene he knows that Mel is the girl for him and can’t hold off until the charade is over to begin wooing her. He’s not sure how long he can keep up the deception, since not only is he, you know, not Max Friedlander, he’s also a journalist for Mel’s paper’s biggest competitor and also also a member of the Trent family, who are big enough in society that a gossip columnist just might run into them…

Crazy, right? And super snark-tastic, since it is told in emails largely sent between friends and relatives who all have a similar dry sense of humor. But it’s also super adorable, as John and Mel are in fact perfect for each other (they love blues music and natural disasters alike) and they are sooooo cute and you know the whole thing’s going to come crashing down but you’re pretty sure it’s going to be okay but you don’t know how. Ahem.

I only had one problem with this book, and I know I said it’s a don’t-think-too-hard book and I know I was totally willing to go with the identity-switching and I understand that the book was written in 2002, but seriously, these people are terrible at email! They are constantly signing off emails abruptly as though they were telephone calls, as though they couldn’t leave their AOL open for just a few extra minutes to go answer the door or whatever when other emails to them indicate that they are happy to tie up the phone line for ages otherwise. And, worse, they are sending all of their ridiculousness through their work emails (well, John partially excepted) like people who want to get fired. At one point a police officer sends John totally confidential files and warns John not to tell anyone he sent them. SO WHY DID YOU SEND A WRITTEN RECORD OMGWTF. I don’t know, maybe all this made sense in 2002 when I was mostly using my email to send out surveys to my high-school friends, but now that my own work emails are public record I am hyperventilating over here.

Right, so, anyway, other than that longer-than-expected rant, I super duper enjoyed this book. And it’s the start of a series full of snarky email exchanges! Huzzah!

Recommendation: For fans of epistolary novels, wacky misunderstandings, and relationships based entirely on lies.

Rating: 9/10

Agatha Heterodyne and the Beetleburg Clank (Girl Genius, Vol. 1), by Kaja and Phil Foglio

Agatha Heterodyne and the Beetleburg ClankI’ve been meaning to read the Girl Genius series for probably a long while now. It keeps popping up in my real and internet lives as a Thing That People Love, but for some reason the series has kept itself on the “…but what if I don’t like it?” side rather than the “…so I should go read it right now!” side of that line. But when I went to pick up a recent book club selection at the library, this first volume was just sitting right there, out in the open, on my way to the shelf, so it was obviously fate.

Except that if it were really fate, the first two volumes would have been waiting for me, because I’m really not sure what to make of this one! (I could just go read it online, but then it’s not quite so shiny and pretty!)

The problem is that, like in a few other comic collections that I’ve read, this whole first volume is just a prelude to the actual story and action and whatnot. So even though this volume is called Agatha Heterodyne etc., our protagonist is called Agatha Clay and all the questions surrounding her are obviously going to be answered by this upcoming name change. So the fact that this volume doesn’t actually get that far in the story is disappointing.

Bu-ut, I think I’m willing to give the second volume a go, because the story so far is at least interesting. Our hero, Agatha, is a mousy little lab assistant in a steampunk world where magic is apparently real, though I’m not sure yet in what form. And Agatha is having a really bad day — early on in this volume she loses a locket necklace that is apparently of the utmost importance to everyone except her, then she goes to work and someone there gets exploded, and then at the end a “clank” (some sort of mechanical golum-type thing, maybe?) starts wandering her town and gets her in a bit of trouble.

After the story proper, I was like, okay, I guess I’ll have to go find the next volume to find out what happens, but then it turned out there was a sort of bonus issue like in my beloved The Unwritten (when oh when is that next trade coming out?). And in this tiny story, a name-changed Agatha who is apparently now well-known goes grave-digging and makes friends with some people who are apparently not people? This story is so much more intriguing than what came before it, and I am really hoping that Agatha’s future escapades are more like it! (If they’re not, please tell me so that I am not incredibly disappointed!)

Recommendation: For the steampunks and the magic lovers and the people who like drawings in their stories?

Rating: 7/10
(RIP VII)

Castle, by J. Robert Lennon (28 July)

This. Book. Was. Awful. Do not read this book. Do not pick up this book, because you will think that maybe it can redeem itself and you will be wrong but you will finish the book and then your brain will hurt and you will have nothing to say except that this book is awful.

I have no idea where I heard about this book. I searched my Google Reader archives — nothing. I checked a couple of non-RSS book review sites I read. Nothing. But somehow, sometime, I thought this book would be good. In fact, there are lots of glowing reviews of this book around the internets. They are wrong. I will now spoil the whole book for you so that you will not be tempted to read it.

From the beginning, this book was iffy for me. Lennon writes such sentences as, “It would please me to be able to say that I felt, upon my return to the house, a reprise of the confidence and enthusiasm that had braced me the previous day, when I announced to Jennifer that I wished to buy it.” And he writes such sentences with alarming frequency. The narrator is basically that jerk in your freshman comp class who wanted to prove that he knew big words and as such threw them into his speech and papers all willy-nilly. But Lennon, a writing instructor himself (really), at least uses the big words correctly.

But I was at the beach, and it was the only book I had, and I knew that for whatever reason I had wanted to read the book, so I continued.

The premise is, at first, possibly interesting. Jerk-face Eric Loesch comes back to his childhood hometown and buys some land and a house. Yay. He then smugly fixes it up with his apparent expertise in all areas. Whatever. But then he’s looking at the history of the house and notices that the previous owner’s name is blacked out and also that there’s a bit of land in the middle of his still owned by Redacted Man. He’s curious. He bitches at some people to find out who this owner is, and eventually someone comes through for him with a name; Avery Stiles.

Loesch goes to the library (yay!) to find out more about Stiles; he finds out that Stiles’s family is dead and that he used to work at a nearby university. Loesch then, for whatever reason, goes to the university to talk to a woman who wrote an article that mentioned Stiles to find out more about the man. He leaves. Also, he explores his giant 612-acre property to get to some giant rock formation in the middle but gets lost, which is an affront to his spectacular directional skillz. I hate Loesch.

Then some stupid stuff happens, and Loesch ends up back in the woods, searching for Stiles at Stiles’s castle in his property in the middle of Loesch’s property, and finds him, and gets all tied up by him, and then we find out that Loesch totally knows Stiles (uh, okay) because Stiles trained (read: tortured) Loesch for many years when Loesch was a kid, teaching him to only do what he was told and no more and leaving him naked in the same forest, at the same castle, and why on earth did Loesch ever act like he didn’t know who owned this property???

And then Loesch escapes, sort of, and climbs the giant rock from before and Stiles is up there and then there’s some sort of message passed between them that I don’t understand, and then Stiles jumps off the rock but also Loesch looses an arrow at him that goes through his heart, so Stiles is totally dead. And then Loesch is suddenly terrified of the woods for whatever reason and tries to run back to his house but falls in a giant pit and then sees himself leaning over the rim and then flashes back to the time he was an officer at Abu Ghraib (well, not really, but a similar place) and he killed a kid prisoner and then he was indefinitely furloughed and then he came back to his childhood hometown.

And then we’re back in the present, and Loesch is rescued from the woods and goes to the hospital and gets all fixed up and then he packs his duffel and then is picked up by someone who’s probably a soldier and is off on a mission and then the book is done. The end.

If you can explain this book to me, please do. But I don’t care enough to figure it out for myself.

Rating: 1/10

Coraline, by Neil Gaiman (12 February)

Like you haven’t heard about this book already, what with the movie being out and all. The movie is actually the reason I picked up the book, much like Stardust before it, but this time I’d definitely say I prefer the book to the movie. And I rather liked the movie.

Coraline Jones is your average kid: curious, adventurous, and mostly ignored by her parents. On a rainy day when she’d like to be outside but is told to stay inside, her father suggests she get out of his hair and explore their new house. One of the things she finds is a bricked-off door separating her flat from another in the same house. A couple days later, bored and curious, Coraline unlocks the door to find not a wall of bricks, but a hallway that leads right back to her flat. Well, her other flat. In this flat she finds her other mother, who’d really like to be her only mother and also sew buttons into Coraline’s eyes.

Et cetera. It’s a short book, just go read it already!

Why I like the book better: It’s a short book. The movie, at 100 minutes or so, was much longer than it needed to be, and filled that space with extra characters (what useful purpose did Wybie serve?) and and way too much build-up to the button problem, at the expense of its solution. The movie is still cute, though I wish I had seen it in 3-D!

Rating: 8/10
(Countdown Challenge: 2002, Support Your Local Library Challenge)

Lost in a Good Book, by Jasper Fforde (8 November)

This is the second in the Thursday Next series of awesomeness, and I must say this one is even better than the first.

After sending away a Goliath Corporation employee to live in a copy of The Raven, the company is understandably upset and asks Thursday to go back and get him out, please. She refuses, and Goliath goes back in time to kill off her new husband before he can become three years old. If Thursday will go get their employee, they’ll bring back her husband. She’s sold. Unfortunately, her uncle Mycroft has conveniently retired away with his Prose Portal and Thursday has to figure out how to get into the book herself and also figure out why a bunch of weird coincidences keep cropping up at inconvenient moments.

The book was great and mostly easy to understand in spite of all the weird time-travelling and odd coincidences. I really love how everything ties in with books, even when the books in question are ones I haven’t read yet (but should! I’ll get to it!). Definitely a must-read if you’re into befuddling plots and funny talks with Great Expectations characters.

Rating: 8.5/10
(Countdown Challenge: 2002)