Review: Ancient, Ancient

This is another book club selection, this time for the feminist science fiction book club based out of Austin. (I guess I’m now an honorary satellite member?)

The cover of Kiini Ibura Salaam's Ancient, Ancient
Image courtesy Aqueduct Press

Author: Kiini Ibura Salaam

My GoodReads rating: 3 stars

Average GoodReads rating:  3.89 stars

Language scaling: C2+

Summary: A collection of short stories in the speculative fiction genre

Content warning: “Rosamojo” includes some scenes of child abuse; the rest of the stories aren’t necessarily traumatic but involve a great deal of sexuality

Recommended audience: Readers looking for #ownvoices works

In-depth thoughts: There were a lot of cool ideas in this book that ended up suffering from overly workshopped, possibly way too abstract writing. (Hence the C2+ language rating.) In a lot of ways it reminds me of Freshwater, but where Emezi takes that abstraction and works with it until you get it, grounding it with concrete language and imagery and deliberate call backs to specific mythology, Salaam just leaves it all out there, confusing and weird in a world that seems to be entirely of her own creation but without any rules or explanation.

The stories are the strongest when Salaam remains more or less in this world: “Marie,” “Rosamojo,” and “Ferret” were probably my favorites, as well as a very short piece about ants whose title I can no longer remember and that no one else seems to mention in their reviews so there it is. A trilogy of short stories focus on moth-like aliens who can take a human form and who harvest nectar from humans, most often by seducing them. The premise is unique enough that it really deserved to be its own book rather than a handful of short stories. And unlike almost everyone else, I didn’t care much for the first story (“Desire”) or the last one (“Pod Rendezvous”). “Desire” is just too distracting, caught up as it is in what is (as far as my Googling can find) a fictional mythology and an unusual-and-completely-unnecessary narrative structure. The same can be said for “K-USH” and “Battle Royale,” though people tend to rave less about those two. (I wonder if people pick up the book, read the first and last story, and then declare that they’ve read the whole book?) “Pod Rendezvous,” like the nectar-gathering moth aliens, had so much in there that it should have been a proper novel rather than an overly long short story. A story should be as long as it needs to be, and “Pod Rendezvous” was definitely the wrong length.

Overall, a disappointing collection. It wasn’t bad, but I made the mistake of going in with impossibly high expectations.

Review: Stories of Your Life and Others

It’s October and somehow I’m still not finished writing up all of the reading I did on my summer vacation (as well as what I did besides read on my summer vacation). This was a book I started and finished during my long weekend in Austin.

Image courtesy Small Beer Press.

Author: Ted Chiang

My GoodReads rating: 4 stars

Average GoodReads rating: 4.27 stars

Language scaling: B2+

Plot summary: A short story collection including “Story of Your Life,” which was the basis for the movie Arrival

Recommended audience: Science fiction fans; anyone who enjoyed Arrival

In-depth thoughts: The problem with reviewing short story collections so long (months) after you’ve read them is that it’s harder to keep all of the stories in mind. I know that I liked what I read a lot, but I struggle to remember exactly what it was that I read — except the titular story, “Story of Your Life,” which is definitely the strongest of them all.

After a quick refresher (as in, reading someone else’s review on GoodReads), my memory came back to me. The other stories I remembered enjoying were “Hell is the Absence of God,” “Liking What You See: A Documentary,” and “Division by Zero.” Despite winning a Sideways award (whatever that is?), “Seventy-Two Letters” didn’t really appeal to me. Neither did “Tower of Babylon.” “Understand” was mildly interesting, in that it was probably the most “traditional” science fiction of the lot (what happens when people give themselves supergenius intellects?), but it didn’t have the same existentialist concerns or the same experimentation with form that characterized what I thought were the best stories. And, finally, “The Evolution of Human Science” is a clever and pithy little work and I enjoyed it in the moment I read it, but by the time I sat down to write this review I’d completely forgotten it.

“Seventy-Two Letters” and “Tower of Babylon” are steeped in Jewish lore (Kabbalah, golems) and Old Testament mythology, respectively, which might confuse readers coming from a different cultural milieu.

What I appreciate about this collection is one of the same things I appreciated about The Three-Body Problem: author commentary is included at the end. It’s interesting to take a peak behind the curtain and see the germ of an idea for a story (if I can mix my metaphors a little). Chiang has yet to produce a novel-length work, but I think many of the ideas in here have enough meat to become novels on their own. I look forward to any future work from Chiang, and I hope he tackles more long-form work in the future.

Friday 5: Off-Balance

I’m a little annoyed that the post I had scheduled about being unavailable due to vacation somehow never went through, but on the other hand everything else I had prepared in advance did! Fortunately everything remained under control while I was away—I don’t need a vacation from my vacation or anything like that. On to this week’s Friday 5!

 

What most recently made you giddy?

Two things: dancing at a really good wedding, and watching the bats emerge at Natural Bridge Caverns. Those two memories alone are worth every penny I spent for this trip.

 

What most recently left you agog?

Sometimes the Friday 5 teaches me new words. I always took “agog” to mean “shocked” or “surprised”; I double-checked just now and instead it’s “full of intense interest or excitement.”

Pretty much my whole trip to the US had most recently left me agog, I suppose. I packed a lot into just three weeks of visiting!

 

What most recently left you aghast?

Despite all of the good vibes and good friends in my trip, there’s no denying I picked a tumultuous time to visit (which, welcome to the next three years). Neo-nazis demonstrating publicly, counter-protesters being injured or even murdered . . . and the worst part is I’m not even surprised.

A close friend of mine and his girlfriend are great admirers of James Tiptree, Jr. They saw me off from Boston with a copy of Her Smoke Rises Up Forever (though I think I left it in Albany, or possibly Old Orchard Beach), and one of the stories in there seemed all the creepier in light of contemporary goings-on: “The Screwfly Solution.”

 

What in your life is the most higgledy-piggledy?

Landing the next student or project is always higgledy-piggledy. Freelance life!

 

 What was your week a mish-mash of?

Maine, Massachusetts, Copenhagen, Stockholm. I was all over the place this week!

Short Stories for EFL: 5 Online Resources

What do you do when newspaper articles are too short, but whole novels are too intimidating? Pick up a short story! And now, thanks to the Internet, there are plenty that you can find for free.

At least in the anglophone world, short stories aren’t quite as popular today as their longer counterparts. Not counting back issues of magazines like Analog or Asimov, I’ve read exactly one short story collection in the past three years and counting. I suspect this is a trend in most languages today: people are more interested in long-form novels rather than short fiction collections.

Image courtesy semiphoto on MorgueFiles
Image courtesy semiphoto on MorgueFiles.

But while they might not be your usual cup of tea in your mother tongue, short stories are perfect for reading practice in a new language. The language isn’t scaled down like in typical journalism, so it’s a great place to find higher level or more niche vocabulary (useful if you’re studying for something like IELTS) and to grapple with the more complicated aspects of English grammar (again, useful if you’re studying for something like IELTS).

The Internet is absolutely full of free short stories. What follows here are the sites that I think are the best for EFL students, whether because they include audio files, simplified language, or just a large variety of writers and genres.

1. ManyThings.org
ManyThings.org takes a lot of its material from the Voice of America, which means that it’s inherently very America-centric. This is no less true for their selection of short stories, which are all also public domain. It would normally be a challenge to study such (relatively) old stories, but these are all presented in VOA’s “special English,” which is to say that they’ve been adapted (somewhat) into simpler, more modern English. This resource is especially useful for beginner and lower intermediate students. Advanced students might not find it particularly challenging, in which case they might want to find the original versions of the stories listed, or move on to one of the other sites on the list.

2. StoryNory.com
While the stories at ManyThings are adapted from literary short stories for adults, StoryNory features folk and fairy tales aimed at children. That doesn’t mean they’re not interesting, however! Their stories come from all over the world, from Ghana to Russia to China to the Philippines. Like ManyThings, StoryNory also includes an audio file with each story.

3. ESLbits.net
ESLbits is a really fantastic resource. The short story collection is extensive and comes with sound files, and if you run out of those you can move on to novellas (longer than a short story, shorter than a novel) or even full-length novels. None of the English in these has been adapted (as far as I can tell), so I would recommend this for the upper intermediate and advanced learners. Both British and American writers are represented, and the selection is a little more modern than on ManyThings.

4. ClassicShorts.com
ClassicShorts is a site targeted to native language readers rather than EFL readers, so they haven’t been adapted and also don’t include any sound files. You can search their library by story title or by author name. They have a lot of goodies that are somewhere between ManyThings and ESLbits in terms of age.

5. EServer.org
Eserver is a project of Iowa State University; their goal is to create an accessible online compendium of writing in a variety of topics. This includes a host of short stories, but they also have novels and poetry. Like ClassicShorts, this resource isn’t aimed exclusively at EFL learners, so you’ll find the pieces in their original English and without any sound files. This one and ClassicShorts.com are best saved for upper-intermediate and advanced learners.

So there you have it: more than enough short stories to round out your reading practice! Let me know which ones are your favorite! (My own favorite short stories are, of course, fodder for another post.)