Saturday, September 20, 2014

Book Review: Stories of Your Life and Others

This is another book I've read as the result of a Sword and Laser book club pick.  It is the first time they've chosen a collection of short stories, so it was a nice change of pace from the more typical tomes that can double as bug-crushers.



The tales in Stories of Your Life and Others by Ted Chiang cover an interesting range of ideas, but the topics of math, genetics, language, and religion are fairly strong throughout.  I had a wide range of reactions to each of the stories in this collection, so I think it would be most fair for me to review each one individually.

Tower of Babylon

The Tower of Babylon follows the journey of two miners as they ascend the Tower of Babylon in the hopes of finding their way into the vault of heaven.  Much of the story is concerned with the practical issues of having a tower that is so tall, which I found mildly interesting.  The ending of the story is perhaps what ruins it for me - the realization of the main character and how he comes to his conclusion feel a bit forced, especially from a character that has felt a little flat the whole time.  Overall the story felt a bit long and drawn out, without an entirely satisfying conclusion.  Probably my least favorite in the entire collection.

Understand

Understand follows the story of a brain-damaged man who, upon receiving experimental medication, becomes a super genius.  I rather liked seeing how his mental state changed throughout the story; his progression felt like a natural path and didn't seem awkward or forced.  The story felt like it built to a natural conclusion, albeit an interesting one.  I did feel that there was a bit too much explanation in this story, but then it was dealing with the academic thoughts of a hyper-intelligent being, so I'm not sure there would have been an easy way around that.  I liked this story quite a bit when I read it, but I am wondering if that is only because I found it much more enjoyable than the first story in the collection.  After some time away from it, I have to admit I wasn't blown away by it.  I think the execution of the writing wasn't quite up to the ideas contained within the story.  Because so much of this story takes place in one man's head, I don't know how you could get away from the fact that much of this story feels like you are being given an inadequate description of a mathematical process.  Also, although the tone of the writing changes slightly as the main character gains intelligence, I don't know if the tone of the writing changes enough to really emphasize how drastic it is.  Although many of his behaviors are different, the character at the end still feels very much like the same person that existed on the first page, and I think someone experiencing the sorts of changes he is would have a more drastic change in personality.  I liked this story, but I think more could have been done with it.  It was interesting, but it hasn't really stuck with me in the way that some of the other stories have.

Division by Zero

Division by Zero is the story of a woman who is driven to depression by her proof of the inconsistency of mathematics, and her husband, who is trying to understand her changing demeanor.  First of all, I have to say I really enjoyed this story.  It was one of the shorter stories in the collection, and it felt very concise, tight, and focused.  I enjoyed how the elements of the story were revealed, and how the segments added up to a complete view of the situation.  I always find it interesting to see what breaks people in a story, and I really enjoyed seeing the process from two perspectives.  Of course, it probably helped that I am something of a math person - the main character's surly behavior during her research and extreme reaction to her changing world view wasn't as incomprehensible to me as it was to the other characters in the story.  I sort of felt as though the reader was supposed to identify with the husband, but I found myself identifying more with the mathematician.  Perhaps not unexpected from spending too much time in higher education.  Anyway, I really liked this story, and I think it is one of the more enjoyable and accessible in the collection.

Story of Your Life

Story of Your Life is the story of a linguist who has recently lost her daughter, and is recalling moments from her daughter's childhood, how she met her husband, and her work translating the language of a visiting alien species.  This was definitely one of the more successful stories in the collection.  Like Division by Zero, it focuses more on the people in the story, and allows the mathematical and scientific concepts to be interesting without taking precedence over the story itself.  I actually rather liked the way this story was structured and composed as well.  It had an appropriately somber tone, without being melodramatic or dull.  It felt like someone was wistfully remembering happier times from their past in the context of a recent tragedy.  For me this story was a highlight of the collection.

Seventy-Two Letters

Seventy-Two Letters is the story of a man who is working to create a dexterous automaton, and then gets involved in a project to create a way to propagate human life when it is discovered that the fertility of the human race is coming to an end.  In my opinion, this was one of the less successful stories in the book.  It wasn't so much that the ideas of the story were bad (actually, I found the premise rather interesting), but I wasn't very excited by the way the story progressed.  Too much time was spent discussing, explaining, or hypothesizing about the fictitious nomenclature system that would bring the automata to life.  The characters were rather dull, and the social and political implications of the research that were discussed in the story have been more successfully examined in other works of fiction.  It was a bit of a slog for me to get through this short story, and just when I was starting to get excited by the action, the main character "figured it out" and the story was over.  I thought the solution was sort of obvious, so the conclusion in itself wasn't really enough to win me over, and the journey to the ending wasn't all that enjoyable.  This story felt rushed in parts, and sluggish in others.  It either needed to be a much longer story (to give us more insight to the characters and make their journey as individuals more interesting), or it needed to be a much shorter one that didn't spend so much time redundantly discussing ideas of the nomenclature system.  This is close to Tower of Babylon for me; I was only slightly more excited by this one because of the action sequence at the end.

The Evolution of Human Science

This story was originally published as a short piece in Nature under a different title ("Catching Crumbs from the Table").  [Side note: Dear Nature editors, um, what?]  It is told as a futuristic journal article, discussing how regular humans need not worry about lacking the capabilities of the new metahumans, who can digitally download and share information.  Although short, I actually rather liked this piece - it felt like a futuristic op-ed column.  It was also sort of interesting putting it into perspective with today's world, where the technology gap can be rather wide in some places.  I didn't think this story was as strong as some of the others, but, for what it was, I did enjoy it.

Hell is the Absence of God

This is the story of how Neil Fisk lost his wife and found God.  It takes place in a world where angelic visitations are regular events, and hell is occasionally on display.  I'm not entirely sure how I feel about this story.  I found it compelling to read, and got through it quite quickly, but I still feel conflicted now that I've finished.  The funny thing is, I actually liked the ending.  It seemed fitting, and appropriate if you accepted the world that Chiang created.  Problem is, I don't know if I fully accepted it.  I mean, I found the idea that angelic visitations would be something akin to natural disasters rather interesting, and the idea that they would bring a balance of creative and destructive forces made sense to me.  I also liked how Chiang sort of implied that these things could happen because heaven, mortality, and hell were intersecting planes of existence.  So I suppose I enjoyed the more scientific side of things.  The religious descriptions... made me oddly uncomfortable.  Which, I suppose, is good in a way.  I do think it is important to push yourself out of a comfort zone, at least occasionally.  I just don't know if I like the direction this pushed me.  I don't know.  I think if it was making me question my own beliefs or examine how I treat the beliefs of others I would feel differently about it, but I really just left the story thinking that I'd been preached at a bit too much, and that everyone got their just desserts at the end.  I think this story was successful in what it was trying to accomplish, I'm just not sure if I liked it.

Liking What You See: A Documentary

This was a documentary-style story about "lookisim" - judging people based on their looks - and finding ways to remove it from society.  Although I think Story of Your Life was probably the best executed story in this collection, Liking What You See was definitely my favorite.  It was the one story in the collection where I just sat, read, and enjoyed.  The concept was interesting (if we could turn off a portion of our brain that makes us consider people differently, would we?  Should we?), and the format was equally so.  Apparently this story was nominated for a Hugo, but Chiang refused the nomination because he felt the story was rushed by his publishers and not quite what he had envisioned.  Which is too bad, because I thought it was great.  The conversation within the story is exactly the sort of conversation people would be having if this were a possibility, and the emotions and actions of the characters are exactly how people would feel and behave.  As with so many scientific discoveries, the debate would soon turn to one that was much more political.  It felt very plausible to me, and the format of the story only elevated that believability.  Of all the stories, this one was probably the lightest in terms of scientific technicalities, but had the most depth when it came to how the characters were dealing with them.

Conclusions

I liked this story collection, but I did feel that some of the stories were not as enjoyable as others.  I feel that Chiang's most successful stories focus on the people dealing with science/technology/math/religion, as opposed to the ones where the ideas take center stage.  Which is a bit funny, because I think his strong suit as a writer is examining interesting topics.  I suppose it comes down to one's opinion on what constitutes good writing.  I've read enough science fiction and fantasy to be able to say that for me, a cool idea isn't enough.  The way that idea is explored and presented matter a great in how receptive I am to the story as a whole.  Here, I thought the stories that allowed me to connect with the characters while discovering the concepts worked very well, and were actually quite enjoyable.  In other stories I felt that the information would have almost been more interesting if I were sitting in a lecture hall, rather than reading about characters that served little purpose other than as a means of expressing the idea behind the story.

I also had issues with the lengths of some (ok, many) of the stories.  Some felt too long, like they were dragged out to fulfill some arbitrary word count, or so he could reiterate the main scientific idea behind the story a few too many times.  Other stories felt too short, and I wish that either the characters or the idea had been developed into something longer and more substantial.  Perhaps because of this, the endings of many of these stories felt a bit rushed, as though the character made a huge discovery just so the story could end.  I found that I wasn't entirely satisfied with many of the endings, not because of what happened, but because of the abruptness of how and when it happened.

Also, I realize that the stories were printed in chronological order, but I don't know if that best-served the book as a whole.  I wasn't very motivated by the first story; perhaps I would have been a bit more receptive to the work as a whole if it had been one of the others (actually, switching the first two would have probably made me much more excited for the rest of the book).  Similarly, it was rather disappointing to have one of what I consider the weaker stories (Seventy-Two Letters) following one of the strongest (Story of Your Life).  Perhaps using The Evolution of Human Science as a breather between those two stories might have helped it not feel like so much of a let down.  The placement of the other stories felt appropriate, and I suppose it would have been silly to rearrange only a few out of chronological order, but I can't help but think that it might have given me a more favorable overall impression of the book.  I know one shouldn't judge a book by its cover (though this cover is actually really cool), or in this case a collection by its first story, but humans are sort of hard-wired to do that.  I don't think the order necessarily ruined my enjoyment of the following stories, but I do think it set me up to look for issues of story construction that I otherwise might have ignored.

In the end, I'm glad I read this story collection.  Being something of a math and science geek, I found a lot of the topics in the stories really interesting, and despite my complaints, I actually really enjoyed a few of these stories.  I don't know if I would recommend this collection of stories to everyone - I think you have to be able to nerd-out on some of the concepts when the storytelling gets a bit weak.  I would definitely recommend this book to fans of hard-core science fiction though, as it does examine topics of math and science in interesting ways.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Newsflash: Burda Easy Fall/Winter Full Preview Posted

The full preview of the Fall/Winter 2014 Burda Easy Magazine has been posted on the Russian website.  I was obsessed with several designs in the early preview, and although I think Burda pretty much used the preview to show us the good stuff, overall I have to say this is a pretty awesome issue, especially for the Easy magazine, which basically gives you variations on 4-5 different patterns, so there aren't really as many options as come in a regular monthly issue.  I have to say, there are at least 3 items I really want to sew up, possibly more.  Not that I've been doing a lot (read: any) sewing for myself since... well, it's been a long time.  But I can still think about it!  In any case, let's take a look:


In this issue we get variations on four basic patterns (a jacket/coat, a skirt, a sweater, and a dress/top).  First, let's look at the jacket variations:
I've got peplum fever, it's burning in my brain!
I've got peplum fever, it's driving me insane!
(Also, how gorgeous is that fabric?  So awesome.)

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Not a Pattern Review: Vogue 8727 - The Red Red Wine Dress

My original plan to get back into sewing was to make stuff for me.  Well, that hasn't happened.  At all.  I'm knee deep in Project Dirndl, I've had at least 8 skating costume orders already, and the project that got me back in the sewing room was making a dress for my sister.  Yes, even the first thing I sewed after my post-nationals melt-down wasn't for me.  My sister is required to attend many art gallery openings as part of her job, and she was getting a bit bored wearing the same black dress.  However, it seems that artists who've had a bit too much red wine are not exactly the crowd in which you want to be wearing pastels.  She was actually wishing she could wear the brown and white floral dress I'd made for her several years ago, but really, really didn't want to get stains on it.  So I agreed to wrestle with 8 more yards of fabric to make her another version.


8 yards of fabric... doesn't look too bad all cut up, right?

My original pattern review can be read here.

I used the same pattern as before, without any changes.  I think I will need to reduce the size of the shoulder seams by a bit for future variations, as the top was a bit larger than I remember.  Of course, this fabric seemed to stretch out of shape like there was no tomorrow.  The dress was constructed from a poly suede on the outside and poly lining on the inside.  I, of course, used the "wrong" side of the suede to make the dress.  My sister fell in love with the color, and we couldn't find anything else of a suitable weight and drape, so we decided to go with it.

Her: "But isn't this supposed to be the inside?"

Me: "Yeah.  So?  I'll just make it the outside."

Her: "You can do that?"

Me: "I does wha' I wants."

And I wants to use the wrong side of this poly suede.

Well, turns out this fabric does what it wants too.  Especially on the bias.  I don't think I've ever had a hem stretch out quite this much on the bias before.  Like, ever.  Like, never ever.  In fact, I think it is still stretching out.  I might consider re-hemming it someday if it looks like it has stopped growing.  But, then again, considering that hemming the dress and the lining took me over two hours, maybe I won't.  Also, because I made the dress in one night was somewhat rushed during the construction phase, the lining is something of a mess.  Which I'm not showing you.  Because, as I've told my sister, looking too closely at the lining is punishable by death.  Just, you know, FYI.

I was being a terrible tease before delivering the dress to my sister.
Also - look at that neck opening!  Perfectly pointed.
(Thanks to a few tips I've picked up reading Adele P. Margolis.)

Ta-da!  It's a dress with pockets!
(Also, this is probably the closest to the actual real life color,
which is a deep burgundy.)

Here you can see the incredible growing hem.
Luckily, it's still on trend, so it almost looks intentional.
But it's not.

I'm aware all the fit issues are showing in the upper back -
they have since been remedied by adjusting the shoulders.
I'm going to blame this on the crazy growing fabric as well.

A red dress to wear to an event full of red wine!

Is this my proudest make ever?  No.  Was it as good as the original?  Probably not.  Will either of us cry if when red wine gets all over it?  Maybe a little, but not nearly so much as we would have if it had gotten onto the original brown and white version.  But it got the job done so I'm going to call it mission accomplished.  Oh, and it got compliments up the whazoo, or so I'm told.  So, um, there's that.  But, anyway, yay, sewing!

Friday, September 12, 2014

Newsflash: October Burda Preview Posted

The full preview of the October edition of BurdaStyle Magazine has been posted over on the Russian website.  Based on the early previews I had already decided I was pretty excited for this issue, and while I'm still firmly rooted in the excitement camp, there are a few more "BWTF" nominees for this month than their have been in quite some time.  Which, honestly, is better than a lot of boring.  Especially if it is mixed with good stuff, because then I don't really mind the crazy all that much.  Anyway, let's take a look:

First up, the awesome jackets.

This traditional looking pea coat has been on the "covet" list
since the early preview came out.

Sunday, September 7, 2014

Exciting News!

First things first - I sewed!  A dress!  But it is not for me.  It was for my sister, so I didn't really get paid for it, technically, though she awesomely circled the smallest Whole Foods parking lot in the world so I could run in and get the really good fish sauce.  The barter system, it works.  Pictures have been taken, but I'm always lazy about transferring them to my computer.  But someday I'll actually post it to show it off.

Second bit of news - my sewing space has been re-arranged and is (mostly) clean and ready to use!  I'm still sorting some stuff, and I've got overly large piles of upcoming project fabrics, and there are a few boxes that desperately need organizing still, BUT it is mostly functional-ish.  Which means I can get back to work after a month of missing mojo and chaotically unusable sewing space.  It also means I might be able to start playing with my new toy, which I bough many months ago but haven't shared on the blog because I had neither the time, energy, nor inclination to do so.  I took her out of the box for a test run, saw that everything worked, and put her back in the box for temporary-tunred-long-term-ish storage.  But upcoming projects may make use of her, so I will probably be showing off happy pictures soon.

Thirdly - I got a new commission, but it is NOT for a skating dress.  It is for... wait for it... a DIRNDL COSTUME!  That is going to make a trip to be worn at Oktoberfest in Germany!  You guys - I'm sending Burda back to the Motherland.  To paraphrase Stephen Colbert - it's like I've been training my whole life for a race I didn't know was coming.  Except the timeframe is really more like only the past 3-4 years, but whatever.  The good news - Burda has TONS of dirndl patterns.

So...

...many...

...dirndls!

The bad news - I skipped out on the September 2011 issue, which has the best selection of more traditional looking dirndls in recent memory.  In fact, I skipped out on it because of the dirndl pattern.  Sewing karma coming to bite me in the butt much?  I feel like whenever I mock a Burda pattern somehow it ends up being way more awesome than I expected six months down the road.  At this rate I'm going to be living in harem pants, rompers, and sack dresses by the time I'm 30.

I'm going to dress like a space waitress aren't I?

Anyway, back to the problem at hand, namely, that I don't have the awesomeness that is the 2011 dirndl selection (and, yes, I know, I could just download it from the BurdaStyle website, but, ugh, downloaded patterns.  Tracing doesn't bother me a bit - I find it oddly cathartic - but printing and taping all those pages?  Ick.)  Luckily, I am in possession of the 2006 issue, which has some awesome selections.  (And, unlike September 2011, despite the dirndls, September 2006 is one of my favorite Burda issues, ever.)




Not to mention the skirt and apron mash up we got in the recent September 2014 issue:


Of course, none of these seem quite right to me, so I may have to break down and buy some of the envelope patterns...



So, anyway, suffice it to say, I've got dirndls on the brain.  And, since I am a self-proclaimed Burda fan-girl, this was a sewing opportunity I was just too excited to pass up.  Also, being a Burda fan-girl, I am heavily considering waving my self-imposed rule of not posting commissioned projects to the blog.  Especially since this isn't a skating competition dress, which people can be... rather funny... about "revealing to their competitors" before the appropriate time.  Something to ponder while the project takes shape.  In the meantime, I'm going to look at some inspiration...

Anyway, the mojo is finally starting to come back!  Hopefully this means I will be posting soon with finished projects, room organization, or Project Dirndl updates!