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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How to survive that book-to-movie matinee

Every time a big book becomes a big movie (see recently: Divergent, Catching Fire, and The Hobbit), my library’s holds list becomes full of people who want to read the book, and my library becomes full of people upset that we don’t have the book because they have to read it before they can go see the movie. But I have a secret that I share with them, and now with you, that helps make them happier in the short- and long-term:

You should watch the movie first.

I know, I know, it seems like blasphemy, especially coming from a librarian, but I have seen a lot of movies based on books, and 95 percent of the time? The book is better. (The other 5 percent? Movies like the amazing Stardust.) Why rush to read a book so good they made a movie out of it just to get to the theater and be disappointed? Watch the movie, be entertained, and then grab the book later, after the library’s holds list is shorter and you’ve probably forgotten most of the movie, and enjoy it at your own pace.

“But I have to read the book first because I won’t know what’s going on!” Movies are, generally speaking, made to appeal to the widest possible audience. Movie studios know that there are going to be people in the theater who have read the book seventeen times since breakfast and are dressed up in custom-made costumes, and also people who got to the theater at 7:45 and this was the only movie playing and they said, eh, okay, why not? You are probably somewhere in between these extremes, and so you should be fine. There are notable exceptions (e.g. all of the Harry Potter movies except Prisoner of Azkaban), but even those are going to at least be fun to watch, and hey, you’ll pick up the rest of the story when you read the book later!

“But I know they’re going to change a lot to make this 800-page book into a three-hour movie and I want to know the right story going in!” Do you? Do you really? The movie studio is going to cut out or change or add characters and plotlines and change people’s eye colors or skin colors and you’re going to know each and every time what they’ve done “wrong”. Would you rather come out of the movie thinking, “Man, that would have been great if only they hadn’t CUT OUT MY FAVORITE TERTIARY CHARACTER, those jerks”, or finish the book thinking, “Man, that tertiary character was really awesome, I hope she comes back in the sequel!”?

“But what about that crazy twist? You’ll ruin the crazy twist if you see the movie first!” Well, sure, but you’ll ruin it for the movie if you read the book first, so. There’s no getting away from the book-to-movie with the crazy twist. But personally, when I read a book with a crazy twist, I have a hankering to go back and read the book again later to see if the twist was really crazy, or if I should have seen it coming the whole time. If you already know that the twist is coming, you can save yourself that second set of reading hours for another book!

“But I already read the book when it came out five years ago! I can’t unread it now!” An unfortunate truth. You can’t go around not reading books because they might someday be made into movies or you’re just never going to read any books. But you also don’t want to be the girl watching Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince in the theater and staring baffledly at your best friend who is loving the movie while you’re thinking, “Wait, did that even happen in the book? I don’t remember that happening. And why are we leaving this scene, we can’t be done yet, I don’t understand what’s going on!” (Not that I speak from experience.) You’re going to have to exercise judgment, here — if you think it’s going to be one of those blockbuster movies that hits the high points at the expense of explaining what’s going on, it might be best to re-read it before going (see: HBP) and just remember that the movie is not going to be as good. Otherwise, I recommend attempting to forget the story entirely so that you can watch the movie as a movie, whether by hypnosis or by waiting for the movie to show up on Netflix in a few months.

If you find yourself consistently disappointed with film adaptations after you’ve gone to all the trouble of reading the book, try the Watch It First technique for a few movies and see how quickly your movie-going life changes!

The Neverending Story, by Michael Ende

The Neverending StoryOh, The Neverending Story. I watched the movie version probably several times as a short person (read: child), but it’s one of those movies that I’m incapable of remembering, so mostly what I knew going into this book was that there was a kid and a dragon thing and Atreyu and something about the kid going into the book?

At first it was kind of cool, knowing just a tiny bit about the book. I was having fun listening to basically a brand-new story, but I also had an idea of where things would go and I could look forward to dragons! I like dragons.

I also like the way Ende writes this story. I am a sucker for a frame story, which is what we’ve got here: our hero, Bastian Balthazar Bux (pronounced like “books” by the audio narrator), steals a book from a similarly alliterative bookshop owner and hides in his school’s attic to read it. Go with it. He starts reading the book, and we are treated to a story about a Childlike Empress and kid hero called Atreyu who goes off on a dangerous quest to save said Empress and also the whole of Fantastica. Frame story? Quest? You know I’m in.

Then the story gets even more interesting, with characters in Bastian’s book seeming to react to things that Bastian says, or seeming to see him via magics, and soon Bastian finds himself written right into the book he’s reading, and then finds himself writing the book, which is absolutely insane and I like it a lot.

Except… once my vague recollection of the movie had been fulfilled by the book, I was basically done, but it turns out that there’s a whole second half to the novel that got made into another movie that I didn’t see. So for those six or seven hours of audio, I was like, seriously, this book isn’t done yet? Is this book done yet? This really is a neverending story, isn’t it?

That’s entirely on me, though, and it’s not to say that the second half of the book isn’t interesting, but it basically repeats Atreyu’s quest plot of the first half with Bastian in the lead role and with more melodrama and self-absorption. From a literary standpoint, this seems really cool. From a listening-at-work standpoint, this seems really boring.

I may try this again at some future date after I have completely forgotten the story again, but in print form this time, because I feel like I missed out on a lot of cool things in the story. The audio was rough for me not just because I got bored halfway through, but because the narration and sound mixing is such that some characters are super loud and some are practically silent, and for the parts I listened to while on a road trip it was basically impossible to hear both sets without causing some sort of accident. If you’ve eyes-read this, what do you think? Is it worth another shot?

Recommendation: For lovers of quests and fairy tales.

Rating: 6/10

Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, by Jonathan Safran Foer

Extremely Loud and Incredibly CloseI think my in-person book club has contracted “Annoying Child Narrator” disease. Before this book we read The Elegance of the Hedgehog, which had an overly precocious child narrator, and before that we read Room, which has a very young narrator who mostly acts his age and is therefore, to me, annoying. The narrator of this book is not really precocious so much as very self-important, and he actually reminded me of Ignatius from A Confederacy of Dunces, which you may recognize as a bad thing.

Soooooooo this was a bit of a long read. I had a feeling it would be, so I read it primarily on a plane, where I would have nothing better to do. On the plus side, it’s not very long page-wise — there are 326 pages, but there are also pictures and weird parts with no actual story on them, so it’s probably more like a 275-page book. On the minus side, I probably understood about half of those pages.

I should probably note that this is sort of kind of a September 11 novel, and my book club did discuss this on said date, and that I have a very limited connection to the events of That Tuesday. I was in high school in Ohio, I didn’t know anyone who knew anyone in New York at the time, and so I didn’t come into this novel with any sort of pre-conceived emotions. I imagine if I had, this might have resonated better. Please tell me if that’s the case!

Okay, so, anyway. This book is about a kid, Oskar, whose dad died at the World Trade Center. His dad was also very into puzzles and setting puzzles for Oskar, and so when Oskar finds a mysterious envelope with a key and a last name on it, he sets off to find the person the key belongs to and solve this final puzzle from his dad. His search takes him alphabetically to all of the households Black in the NYC area, and he meets new and interesting people along the way.

And you know, if this had been the whole novel, I think I would have liked it a lot. I like a good quest, and I like also a probably doomed quest, and for all that I found him a bit pompous, I could empathize a little bit with Oskar and his search for truth.

But there’s also this other part of the novel, which consists of, I think, a letter to Oskar from his grandmother and a diary of some sort written by Oskar’s grandfather. Both of these recount how the two met and married and unmarried in a very very weird set of circumstances, and they’re both really strange in different ways. The letter is written a very straightforward way, with an… explicitness that I would not put to paper for anyone, probably not even in my own personal diary, and especially not in a letter to my grandchild. The diary, on the other hand, is baffling in that it is the notebook of a person who does not talk and so it gets interrupted by pages with just a few words on them (used to ask questions and answer them) and it’s also maybe got some pictures in it, though they’re not clearly part of the diary, and it’s just… it’s weird. Very weird.

Sometimes I don’t mind working for my novels; there are a few books out there that I know I’ll read again just to figure out what the heck was going on (right, Mr. Peanut?). But I am also interested and invested in those novels, and I just don’t feel that way about this one.

However, a lot of my book club people quite enjoyed this book and/or its movie adaptation, so if you’re thinking about reading it, give it a try!

Rating: 6/10

A Princess of Mars, by Edgar Rice Burroughs

A Princess of MarsLike Three Cups of Tea, this is a book I was never going to read. I hadn’t heard of it until John Carter, the movie based on it, came out and my interweb neighborhood was all, “Seriously, do you know what the name of this book is?” And I was like, “Seriously, I do not care about this book or this movie.” But then the book was offered free on the Kindle app, and I apparently cared enough to download it just in case, and then my place of employment gave me a first-gen iPad to play with for some reason so I decided to give it a shot as my first e-reader larger than my phone, using this nice short book that I could stop reading if the experience was terrible.

So first, the reading experience: not nearly as bad as I expected. I couldn’t read for more than maybe 20 minutes at a time, but that was perfect for those “got a few minutes before I have to go somewhere” times. I also couldn’t read in the dark for more than maybe two minutes, because dang that screen is bright even on its dimmest setting and with a black background, but hey, that’s why they invented lamps, yes? I would probably not read a long book or one that requires a lot of focus, but it will probably be useful for catching up with my short stories and classic sci-fi and all that.

Second, the book: also better than I expected! A win! It reminds me of the only other sci-fi book I’ve read from that general time period, The Time Machine, in that it goes real fast and doesn’t spend a lot of time on pesky characterization.

I can definitely see why they made an action movie out of this book, as I would say that the best-described scenes are the ones in which John Carter, with his Superman-like jumping abilities, beats the crap out of various Martian dudes. There’s also a Gladiator-like scene, and a fight with an aircraft, and basically there’s lots of fighting and that’s pretty cool.

The parts that aren’t fighting are much much less exciting. There’s, like, John Carter learning how to speak Martian in an absurdly small amount of time, and JC and the Martians (the name of my next band) wandering around Mars a while. And for all that those people were like, “Dudes, it’s called A Princess of Mars, let’s deal with that,” the very few scenes involving said princess are the boringest. She’s all, I’m a princess! He’s all, I like you but don’t understand Martian customs enough to tell you appropriately! She’s all, I can’t believe you just made that huge faux pas that I know you didn’t understand but I’m going to give you the silent treatment anyway! He’s all, fine, whatever, I didn’t want to talk to you anyway! I’m all, let’s get back to the beating of people!

There’s also vaguely political statements that may have been more sensational in 1917, I don’t know, and the usual amount of casual sexism and racism for the time, and a really really dumb ending that would have resulted in flying paper if I had been reading a print copy of this book. I just don’t even.

So baaaasically, this is the perfect kind of book to read when you don’t want to think too much and you’d like to imagine people getting hit and sworded and shot and all that. Just don’t tell me if that’s your default setting. 🙂

Rating: 6/10

The Fault in Our Stars, by John Green

The Fault in Our StarsOh, this book. I’ve had it since January, when I drove out to the beach to retrieve my J-scribbled pre-order, but I put off the actual reading part forever because a) once I read it it was going to have been read, and b) I needed to find a time to read it in which I would be willing to cry all the tears.

Spoiler: I cried all the tears.

Scott asked me what this book is about, and I was like, um, cancer? Kids with cancer? Kids dying of cancer and omg it’s so depressing and can you get me some tissues? It’s a hard book to summarize, because, well, there are kids with cancer in it and the cancer part sort of drives the story but it’s not really about kids with cancer so much as it is about kids who are trying to figure out life and failing as all humans do. There’s a lot about cancer and dying and how everything, including life, is just a side effect of dying, which, depressing, but there’s also friendship, waning friendship, young love, appreciation of literature and a whimsical journey to Amsterdam (where I will be in a month woo!).

And goodness, I loved the whole thing. There were a few things that were sort of obviously going to happen from the start, but the path to those things happening was not at all predictable and I was completely moved and engrossed. The characters, as John Green’s characters are wont to be, are fantastic and totally real, and totally how I remember existing as a teenager — overly self-aware and almost embarrassingly (to current me) pretentious. The story is real, too, even in the midst of the whimsical journey — the circumstances surrounding that journey require a bit of suspension of disbelief, but the interactions that occur make sense and it is nice to have a bit of a humorous reprieve from the cancer, which I think is the point.

I want to say so many more things about this book, but I don’t want to spoil it for you — not because there are any crucial twists or plot points that would be ruined if I told you about them, but because I spent every minute away from this book wanting to grab it and find out what happened next. If I had been anticipating this thing or that thing happening, I think I would have missed out on a lot of what happens in between. (If you’ve already read the book, let’s go have a party in the comments!)

Recommendation: For lovers of John Green and literature, and owners of many tissues.

Rating: 9.5/10

Death Note Vol. 6, by Tsugumi Ohba

Oh. Em. Gee.

This is another of the books I’ve read recently only because they were due back at the library. After things got very wonky in the last book, I was not sure I was going to like this next one.

But I did.

Things? Still wonky. L still doesn’t trust Light, which is as it should be, but now also he’s decided to go after Kira whatever the costs while the ex-police guys are like, um, shouldn’t we try to stop him killing people even if we can’t catch him? So there is a split, and Light gets caught on L’s side even though he doesn’t like it on account of the handcuffs that keep him attached to L at all times. Oh, and also on account of his girl-thing Misa being really excited about being used as bait to find Kira.

But! While Misa is doing the bait thing, she discovers that in fact she used to be a Kira and that Light was also one (they had made themselves forget this previously), so now she has even more leverage with the new Kira, provided she doesn’t slip up in front of the people who want to capture her. Who are also the people she is acting as bait for. And it’s all crazy and stuff.

But but! It gets even crazier when the plans start to come together and the new Kira is being chased and herded and almost caught… but then the book ends in a bit of a cliffhanger. And to make things worse, my husband says that what happens next is EVEN MORE INSANE. I am going to have to go track down book 7, like, yesterday. Sigh.

Recommendation: This stuff is insane, yo. Read it if you don’t mind your brains EXPLODING EVERYWHERE.

Rating: 8/10
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Rhinoa’s Ramblings

Pass me yours, if you’ve got ’em.