Cuisine des Mémoires by N.K. Jemisin (5 stars)
This little experiment of a short story read every day (which I’ve already failed at) has led to some wonderful discoveries. Along with Ken Liu, N.K. Jemsisin (who I’ve long wanted to read) are definitely at the top of the list, though.
A man is taken to the restaurant Maison Laveau by a friend of his. This restaurant purports to be able to cook any meal from history – famous or not. He chooses a meal that has significant personal meaning to him – and when the restaurant delivers on its promise, he becomes obsessed with finding out the secret.
Ultimately, this story isn’t about the fantastic elements of the story, but about the importance of allowing memories to be what they are without taking the place of a life well lived. I found her writing something to salivate over, and this story was a treasure.
Valedictorian by N.K. Jemisin (4 stars)
This story didn’t grab me like Cuisine des Memoires did, but it was still impactful and engaging.
Zinhle is a smart over-achiever who refuses to do less than she’s able despite the warnings from her friends, family, and classmates. Valedictorian takes place in a post-apocalyptic world that is broadly sketched, but seems to have been ravaged by a human-AI war. The implication throughout Zinhle’s life is that every year, the best student in the graduating class will be chosen as a sacrifice to protect the rest of the small community walled off from the outside world by “the Firewall.”
I love post-apocalyptic fiction, even if it has been diluted by years of popularity. and N.K. Jemisin is a brilliant writer. This story just didn’t go quite deep enough into the world, for me.
I read a review (which I can’t find, now) where the reviewer was talking about the excellence of black Americans, generally, and N.K. Jemisin, specifically, not being about natural gifts, but instead being about scraping and clawing their way to success. They excel by not simply being “good enough”, but by being better than anyone else. By being smarter. By working harder. Now, I’m not really interested in debating the merits of this argument – but it’s one I’ve seen before. And – right or not – I like the argument. It feels very empowering to me. I don’t know if Jemisin was going for this mentality with her story, or if the reviewer just kind of inserted their belief into the story – but it fits well with the narrative.
And the book in which the story was compiled is called How Long ’til Black Future Month?. So. I don’t know. Maybe that’s a deeper meaning to this than I ever would’ve pulled out of it (being white).
Blur by Carmen Maria Machado (3.5 stars)
Like Valedictorian by N.K. Jemisin, this short story is available on-line.
Told in the first person, an unnamed woman is driving to Indiana to visit her girlfriend. She stops at a rest stop to wash up, and removes her glasses. When she’s done, she moves to put her glasses back on – but they’ve disappeared. She is nearly blind without them. She then has to find her way out of the bathroom and to her car, where she then needs to find a way back home. She feels a great deal of anxiety about how she’s going to do this, because she’s in an abusive relationship. She ends up getting help from a strange man, and that the person helping her is a man gives her temporary comfort, because her girlfriend won’t accuse her of sleeping around.
I’ve given a largely sterile plot synopsis, but the story has more magical realism than I’ve made it seem. It’s pretty simple, though. There isn’t a lot here, on its face – but I still found the story rewarding. There’s a quiet horror, here. Every blurry face is a potential threat, and anyone she enlists for help is a danger because of how her girlfriend would react. And there’s just enough weirdness to keep it interesting.
Staying Behind by Ken Liu (4 stars)
Ken Liu is a beautifully talented writer. His Mono no aware and The Paper Menagerie absolutely blew me away when I read them earlier in the year. And like many of these stories, it’s available on line for free.
This story isn’t quite at that level, but I still enjoyed it immensely.
It’s a prequel to Altogether Elsewhere, Vast Herds of Reindeer, which I haven’t read, and tells the story of world edging closer to the singularity. As people begin uploading themselves to a data center, some are choosing to stay behind. This story follows one man and his family as the world is slowly emptied of humanity. As they stay behind, human progress is halted, and they begin relying more and more on ancient technology. This drives his family away from him, which in turns makes him more and more resistant to change.
I found this story more frustrating than Mono no aware or The Paper Menagerie. I didn’t identify with the main character as much, and the story didn’t haunt me quite as much. It’s still very well written, though, and I want to track down the follow-up story.
Recitatif by Toni Morrison (5 stars)
When I was younger, I dreamed of being a writer. Well, I dreamed of many things – but I writer occupied most of my aspiration. One of the stories I played around with had a protagonist whose gender and ethnicity were left deliberately open-ended, so that anyone reading the story could see themselves in the character. Now, I never did anything with this very basic idea – just as I never did anything with any of my very basic ideas – but I thought it would’ve been an interesting experiment.
In Recitatif, Toni Morrison writes about two women who share a moment in time and then go on to live very different lives. One of them is black, and the other is white. We never find out which woman is which ethnicity. It’s a wonderful experiment, and it’s handled beautifully.
Twyla (who narrates) and Roberta meet in an orphanage where they were “dumped” by their mothers. Twyla’s mother “likes to dance all night” and Roberta’s mother is ill. Initially hostile towards one another, they soon find out that they are more alike than not. After several months together, Roberta leaves the orphanage. The rest of the story is made up of change meetings over the following two decades. Their meetings are never satisfying, and have a level of discomfort and frustration that I found remarkably true to life.
This story of these two women is never resolved. They had this moment of great import in their youth, before their lives diverged completely from one another. Along with the racial differences, they also belong to different classes: Roberta is wealthy, Twyla is not. Though they are indelibly tied together by their youth, almost nothing about their lives since overlaps. They are strangers, and neither really seems capable of dealing with this fact.
I’ve never read Toni Morrison before – but I loved this story. If the rest of her stuff is as good as this (or, as good as everyone has always said it is), then I’m thankful for the brilliance I’ve yet to encounter.
The Foster Portfolio by Kurt Vonnegut (4 stars)
Once again (I say this a lot), I’ve never read Kurt Vonnegut. I’ve tried Slaughterhouse-Five a few times, but never got into it.
Originally published in Collier’s Magazine in 1951, this story was republished in Welcome to the Monkey House. There’s also a short film adaptation of this story that is available on Youtube. I haven’t watched it, yet. The story, itself, is also available to read online.
A successful investment advisor has an appointment with an impoverished new client. He goes into the meeting utterly devoid of any interest in working with the guy, and is prepared to give him some basic information without wasting too much of his time. Shockingly, he finds out that the guy, Herbert Foster, is actually incredibly wealthy – far more than any other client he’s dealt with. But Foster wants absolutely nothing to do with the money – he wants the investor to handle everything. Foster is basically a millionaire, but lives in poverty and works multiple jobs just to pay the bills. The investor becomes obsessed with learning his story.
And I was right there with him. What could drive a man to basically turn his back on a million dollars (in the 1950s) and work multiple jobs just to put food on the table?
I found the reasoning to be both believable, surprising, and beautiful.
I’m counting The Foster Portfolio as my Adaptation Bingo square.