Mono no Aware by Ken Liu (5 stars)
Mono no aware is a Japanese phrase meaning “the pathos of things”. It’s the bittersweet feeling of sadness at the impermanence of things, a careful blend of appreciation and sadness that nothing can last forever. It’s the phrase I didn’t know that I needed in my life – but I think I do, because I experience it fairly often.
I think it’s one of the reasons I love Haruki Murakami’s work so much. There is a delicate sadness at the transience of life from his narrators that always touches me.
This is the story of Hiroto, a young Japanese man aboard the solar sail powered Hope, which is home to the entirety of the human species (about a thousand people) after the Earth was destroyed by an asteroid.
I don’t want to go into too much detail – but this was an absolutely stunning short story. It was full of tragedy, but was ultimately affirmational. It had a big story, but it’s focus was absolutely narrowly focused. There is deep emotional and cultural resonance, but I think everyone can get something out of this.
This was a work of exquisite beauty.
Paper Menagerie by Ken Liu (5 stars)
Having just read the previously described short story by Ken Liu, I knew I was going to have to read another piece by him. And I don’t think I could’ve picked a more emotionally haunting tale. I read this at work, and cried on my lunch break.
Jack’s mother is a Chinese immigrant, ordered by his father and brought back to Connecticut, where she struggles to fit in. When Jack is a boy, he is oblivious to his mother’s difficulties, and his absolute favorite toys are origami animals that his mother folds and brings to life for him. They prance around the room and keep him entertained. One day, he gets into a fight with a classmate and is teased for his Chinese heritage. For the first time, he’s confronted with how different he is, and how different his mother is. As he grows older, he pulls away from his mothers, and rejects her origami creatures. Heartbroken, she tries to learn English – but her struggle isn’t recognized by Jack and he rejects her further. She continually tries to be more American, but her cooking, and her hair, and her eyes are a constant reminder that they are different. That they don’t fit in. And he pulls away from. But she never stops trying to reach out to him. She never stops trying to be what he wants her to be.
Jesus. This story. I’m not going to tell you where it goes, for I think it’s truly better appreciated when it’s experienced. But this story hit every note perfectly, and left me absolutely devastated – but in a good way. Devastated in a way that makes you appreciate life more.
After I read this, I told my mom that I loved her, and I gave my kids massive hugs.
No greater complement can be paid a story than to say it brought people together in love. And that’s what Ken Liu did, here, for me.
The Hofzinser Club by Michael Chabon (3 stars)
I read The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay some…fifteen years ago, I suppose. And I really liked it. It didn’t have the impact on my life I would expect from something that won a Pulitzer Prize, but it was a very good book. It is perhaps odd how much power I ascribe to prestigious awards given how seldom the “books I love” category on my bookcase overlaps with the “award winning” section. I think it may stem from my early adoration of the movie Braveheart. I fell in love with the movie in the theater, and it won the Academy Award for Best Picture at the first awards ceremony I watched. I think I have forever connected personal joy and critical acclaim – even though that instance was a bit of an anomaly.
Anyway. I digress.
This, “The Hofzinser Club” was published in 1999 in The New Yorker, and parts of it (apparently) were reprinted in The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay. I can’t vouch for this, but that’s what Lavar Burton said before he read this story on his podcast (seriously, check it out).
For me, it had the same feel as Kavlier and Clay, but I care a lot less about magic and escape artists than I do about art, comic books, and the era in which the novel took place. So though I vaguely remember escape artistry being a part of the novel, I don’t remember this story well.
If Michael Chabon is your thing, give it a listen (or you can read it on the New Yorker website). It’s not really my thing, though. I had zero emotional connection to this story.
The Baboon War by Nnedi Okorafor (3.5 stars)
A group of school girls are attacked by a troop of baboons every day on their way to school. They try running. They even try bargaining. Ultimately, they realize they can’t just let the baboons dominate them so completely and they fight back, only to discover that the baboons are protecting something.
I didn’t love this story, but I did enjoy it. And I liked seeing the girls struggle between running in terror and standing and fighting. The characters were believable, and Okorafor was able to cram a lot of growth into a small space.
Childfinder by Octavia Butler (4 stars)
I read Butler’s Kindred a couple years ago (oh God, it was four years ago!) and absolutely loved it. So I had high hopes for this story.
And I wasn’t let down.
Barbara, a black woman, is a “childfinder”. She finds children who are pre-telepathic and helps them unlock their potential. She used to work for “the organization”, a group run by white people who exploit telepaths, and has set up her own group (of telepathic black kids). The organization has recognized that she has grown powerful enough to threaten them.
I think Octavia Butler writes strong women of color (that’s a ground-breaking assessment, I know). That was certainly true in Kindred, and it’s also true here. I haven’t read another writer like her in speculative fiction. I would like to read more.
I think this story takes place in the Patternist world (the series of novels that Wild Seed is set). I haven’t read those books – but I really want to, now.
The Five-Forty-Eight by John Cheever (3 stars)
Blake is a narcissist. And an asshole, hyper-critical of everyone around him. He’s also controlling.
He slept with a secretary who had only worked for him for three weeks. The next day, while she was out to lunch, he had personnel fire her. This is the story of her confronting him, and getting revenge.
And it’s….okay, I guess. There is no one likable in this story. Blake, as has been said, is utterly unsympathetic, and Miss Dent (his forgotten one night stand) is sickly and miserable. Needy. Barely recognizable as a character. I didn’t hate the story, and I did appreciate the writing of Cheever, but I didn’t get anything out of it.