Stories Of Your Life and Others by Ted Chiang – A Book Review

As you know, I loved the film Arrival.  As is my habit after watching a great movie based on a book, I immediately acquired the source material.  It turns out that Stories Of Your Life and Others is actually a short story collection and “Story Of Your Life” is specifically the installment that served as Arrival’s source.  However, there are seven other shorts in this collection by Ted Chiang, and they are all imaginative and thought-provoking.

Chiang trained as a computer scientist, and it shows in his writing.  He is very precise, very analytical, and very scientific.  Yet he also has a great sense of character, pacing, and detail.  I especially appreciate that he seems to know the appropriate time to really delve deeply into scientific jargon, but he also knows the right time to pull back and simply let the story flow.

I would not say that all of his stories are purely science fiction, by the way.  “Tower Of Babylon,” for example, explains the science behind building a structure reaching to the heavens, but I would say it is more commentary about the human spirit than anything.  “Hell Is the Absence Of God,” a story about the physical, spiritual, and emotional consequences following sporadic visits by actual angels, is also far more about what it means to be human than anything else.

In fact, at their root, most of Chiang’s stories in this collection are investigating the plight of the human condition.  He tackles love, greed, beauty, sin, justice, obsession, honesty, and even eternal life, but he does so in extremely smart, original, and imaginative ways hidden within the genres of science fiction, steampunk, and fantasy.

If you enjoy innovative, thought-provoking stories, I highly recommend this collection.  They are all fairly complex reads, but well worth the effort.  You will like some more than others, but each is to be appreciated in its own way.

(Did you enjoy this review?  Check out Scott William Foley’s short stories HERE!)

Fine Just the Way It Is by Annie Proulx – A Book Review

Annie Proulx continues her mastery of the short story.

In Fine Just the Way It Is: Wyoming Stories 3, Proulx once again gives us stories primarily taking place in or associated with Wyoming.  Her characters are terribly human-warts and all-and her stories are typically blunt, to the point, and full of (sometimes brief) life.

But, as straightforward as her stories are with their plainspoken characters, Proulx also delivers stunningly beautiful narrative language when detailing landscapes, flora, and animal life.  Some of her imagery literally astounded me it was so well crafted and provocative.

However, unlike previous Wyoming volumes, this addition to the series is far more brutal to its characters.  Now Proulx has never occurred to me as a woman who gets overly sentimental about her creations, but I was surprised at the tragedies she forced her men and women to endure.  That being said, she certainly did not cross the line into sensationalism; everything she threw at her characters was well within reality’s parameters.

Well, for the most part.

I was especially happy that in three stories in particular, Proulx exits her normally grounded repertoire and gives us something bordering fantasy.  Now, because it’s Proulx, we’re not talking Tolkien here, but two of her stories hilariously focus on the devil and the other, well, I don’t want to spoil anything, but it features a sagebrush where mysterious disappearances persist.  I think that with her particular style and sensibilities, calling them tall tales may be more appropriate than fantasy.

Consequently, I sensed a real sense of dark humor in these stories, and I loved it!  While most of the stories were very serious in terms of subject matter, they all utilized a morose fun that-unless happening to us-demanded a chuckle or two.

All in all, this collection was a bit of a break from Proulx in terms of style, especially when read between the lines, but every bit as exquisitely written and enjoyable as past works. 

Proulx’s talent is unrelenting with each new work she releases.

Win a Free Book!

Enter to win a free copy of my short story collection, The Imagination’s Provocation: Volume II!  This collection has stories such as fantasy, realism, horror, science fiction, humor, inspirational, and historical fiction.  It literally has something for everyone!

All you have to do is email me at scottwilliamfoley@gmail.com with “I Want To Win!” in the subject line.  I’ll then drop your name into a hat, and on Halloween night I’ll randomly select FIVE winners!  I’ll personally email the winners to congratulate them and get their home address for free shipping.  First names of the winners will be posted on my website, so you can check back there next Saturday for the results.

As always, there are a few rules:

  • You must live within the United States to win (due to the free shipping).
  • If you win, you agree to write an objective review (at least ten words) of The Imagination’s Provocation: Volume II at Amazon.com and Barnesandnoble.com within six months. You also allow me the right to quote your review at my own website. What happens if you win and don’t write a review? I’ll chase you down with a wet noodle, that’s what happens!
  • If you participate in the contest, you will receive my monthly e-newsletter and sporadic updates which you are free to read or delete at your discretion.

I hope to hear from you soon, and good luck!

Regards,
Scott William Foley

Fragile Things by Neil Gaiman – A Book Review

In this short story collection, Neil Gaiman compiles various fast-paced stories (and a few poems) from over the decades.  Some of them are very good; others didn’t really work.  But that’s the beauty of a short story collection-if you don’t like one story, there’s a new one just a few pages ahead.  By and large, however, Gaiman’s stories were darkly imaginative, quirky, and-most importantly-fun.  Some weren’t up to his usual high standards, and he’s the first to admit as much in his “notes” section where he offers some insight into each tale.

If you’re a fan Gaiman and/or short fantasy, horror, and sci-fi, I think this collection will please.

homerville by Ken Bradbury – A Book Review

Ever since I was a wee little boy, I’ve been listening to the good people associated with Triopia School District go on and on about a man they seem to consider a demigod.  This man writes speeches performed by high school students all over the nation; he writes and directs the high school musicals yearly, which never fail to sell out and really are quite excellent, if you don’t mind me saying so; he writes a syndicated newspaper column; and he has even had a few books published.  Impressive, yes, but is he truly worthy of the numerous praise he routinely garners?     

Well, before I read his latest book, I honestly don’t know how I would have answered that having not been terribly familiar with his work myself.  However, having read his recently released collection of short stories, homerville, well, let’s just say I may be the new president of his fan club.

His name is Ken Bradbury, and I can’t recommend homerville highly enough.

Bradbury does everything with his writing that I only wish I could do.  He creates remarkably believable characters that are preternaturally quirky in ways that you can’t help but fall in love with, no matter how crude and unpleasant some of them may be.  His plots are not pretentiously complex, but I dare you to resist their charm and surprise.  Bradbury’s dialogue is spot on for his characters and he executes their speech patterns perfectly.

Now comes the inexplicable.  Bradbury is one of those rare authors that gives us just enough.  What I mean by that is, he gives just enough dialogue, just enough character background, just enough description, just enough asides, he gives us everything in just the right amount.  This is a terrible predicament for most authors, myself most definitely included.  We are so guilty of either giving too much of these things or not enough.  It is terribly unusual to have a writer who instinctually knows how to get it just right, who knows how to straddle that line flawlessly.  He also possesses a trait difficult to come by-he knows when to end the short story.  As simple as that may sound, it is easier said than done, and it is yet another aspect that he pulls off magnificently.

homerville is an interconnected collection of short stories about life in small town found in Central Illinois.  If you grew up in a small town, you will lavish in total understanding of the nuances of the simple life.  If you’ve never grown up in a little community, this book will prove remarkably accurate in what it’s like to know that everyone around you knows everything about you and you know everything about them.  The residents of Bradbury’s homerville are as varied and complex as they are familiar, and I challenge you to resist falling in love with each and every one of them.

My particular favorite from homerville is entitled “The Piano Teacher.”

In the Garden of the North American Martyrs by Tobias Wolff – A Book Review

This short story collection from Tobias Wolff is truly just that.  Each story gives you enough of the bare essentials to keep you informed and invested, but they never cross the line into anything remotely superfluous.  Each story feels very much like you’ve entered right into the middle of things and you are there for the climax, but not necessarily the introduction or the conclusion.

While I found this book to be an effective exercise in the art of the short story, I was even more moved by the flaws each character in every story displayed.  Wolff had grand success in getting down to the heart of who and what people are, and that is, in essence, good people that usually display less than admirable traits.  We all have those idiosyncrasies that make us unique and often troubling to our friends and family, and Wolff captures perfectly normal, though certainly troublesome, eccentricities amongst his characters that give us all we need to know about their particular story.

This is a very fast and interesting read, and if you ever wanted to engage in a deep character study in the genre of the short story, this is the collection for you.

The Night In Question by Tobias Wolff – A Book Review

Tobias Wolff has written yet another fantastic collection of short stories with The Night in Question.  Wolff has yet to disappointment me with any of his writings thus far, and since I believe I’ve read all of his works but for one or two, it does not seem as though that may be a possibility.  The Night in Question is a collection dealing with all too human aspects in a series of stories that are unlikely, but certainly not beyond the realm of possibility.  The peculiarity is not the focus in Wolff’s stories; rather, it’s the human reaction to the peculiarities that make his writing rich and enlightening. 

Once again, I recommend virtually any of Wolff’s work with supreme confidence, and The Night in Question is no exception.  My particular favorites in this work were “Flyboys,” “The Life of the Body,” and one that was very unusual for Wolff, “Bullet in the Brain.”

Close Range: Wyoming Stories by Annie Proulx – A Book Review

I decided to check out Close Range: Wyoming Stories on the recommendation from Stephen King in his memoir, On Writing.  Imagine my surprise when I saw that it included the (very) short story “Brokeback Mountain!”  You know, the source material for the 2006 Academy Award Best Picture nominee.  But, I’ll get more into that later.

 I’d heard good things about the author, Annie Proulx, and wanted to read her work in order to better myself as a writer.  I was totally unfamiliar with any of her writings, so I must say I was more than pleasantly surprised when I found myself absolutely riveted by her short stories.

I didn’t think I was a fan of stories about Wyoming and ranchers, but Proulx didn’t seem to care.  Each and every story in this collection drew me in and fascinated me.  As clichéd as it sounds, her characters are truly masterful.  Like in the land of the living, they are all flawed; they made terrible mistakes, and then they had to learn to live (and die) with the repercussions.  Her characters defy stereotyping, though they all had one thing in common-they were tough.  Each and every one of them was a product of the land they lived on, and so they had to be tough if they were to survive.  Some were tougher than others, and some survived better than others. 

Close Range worked for me because it disturbed me.  I don’t mean that in a negative way at all.  I mean that these stories stayed with me long after I read them.  They almost haunted me.  They reminded me just how glorious and monstrous it is to be human, especially when you have to work yourself to the bone in order to endure.

Though Proulx has an unorthodox writing style that can sometimes be a little difficult to read, I find her completely in touch with what it is to be a human being and her realistic depiction of such, especially of those living on the ranches of Wyoming, is the work of a person who truly has an adroit grasp on her craft.

So it’s hard to write this review without acknowledging the short story found in this collection, “Brokeback Mountain.”  I think it’s important to establish the fact that I am not an advocate of homosexuality; however, I also don’t believe homosexuality warrants discrimination and certainly not hate crimes.  That being said, the short story, “Brokeback Mountain,” like all the other stories in Close Range, is truly a heartbreaking account about two human beings told in such a manner that it will resonate with you no matter what your personal beliefs.  I’ll leave it up to you to determine if these men were in love with one another, but it is certainly a story of longing, confusion, denial, and terrible loss.  In other words, it captures aspects of the emotional essence of the human condition, albeit in a controversial and unsettling fashion.  That is the power of Proulx.

I look forward to reading more of her works.

A Model World by Michael Chabon – A Book Review

Michael Chabon once again proves why I believe he is America’s premier living author.  In this collection of short stories, he presents many normal circumstances, every day sorts of things, but he gives them to us with such captivating, realistic characters that you must turn the page to find out how everything ends.  Now, this is not the stuff of thrillers, mind you, but rather, his collection is the stuff of life.  These characters are your friends and family, and Chabon treats them with both reverence and brutality.  Such is life.

Chabon’s writing is unassuming and wildly intelligent.  There is much at the surface of his work, but it is also so pleasing to plunge into the depths of analysis if one feels so inclined.  Just as I always have, I highly recommend you read Chabon’s work.

Bad Dirt: Wyoming Stories 2 by Annie Proulx – A Book Review

Though this is only the second book I’ve read by Annie Proulx, I can tell that her style and voice will keep me coming back for more and more of her work.  Proulx blends the utterly fantastic with the totally mundane so seamlessly that she can pass virtually anything off in her writing and you’ll accept it as commonplace. 

Her characters seem completely well rounded in this collection, even when the stories are brief, and she compels you to care about them, though many of them are not what I would describe as “likable.” 

Just as she describes the state, her stories seem to be about nothing particularly special, yet you find yourself drawn into them and fascinated by their potential.  Proulx does not disappoint.