Some really popular retellings of myths are going around now: The Song of Achilles, Circe, and The Women of Troy, to name a few. But all three have one thing in common: they center Greek and Roman mythology. The world of myth is much more vast than Greek and Roman mythology, and Bolu Babalola weaves her magic around folktales from West Africa, the Middle East, and even China, alongside Greek and Roman myths that she writes through a more diverse slant. She brings these often untold tales to the forefront with her compilation of short stories, Love in Color: Mythical Tales from Around the World, Retold.
More than just retellings of these myths, however, Babalola brings each story fully into the modern world. Instead of Scheherazade being a trapped princess, she’s a journalist managing some dangerous new sources. Psyche works for Eros’s mother in a fiercely corporate world that she wants to break free from. This, too, is a break from tradition among popular retellings today, and it adds to the timeless nature of the stories by showing just how universal each love story really is.
The stories are not too long, with just enough context and world building in each to make readers fall firmly in love with the world, to build a new universe around these characters, and make them fall in love with each other. These stories don’t necessarily keep all the magic and mythic details consistent, but the essence of the myth, what it would mean in the modern context, remains the same. Instead of magic crocodile skins that cause them strife in their personal lives, for example, characters have vitiligo, a skin condition that they have to learn to love about themselves.
Personally, Nefertiti’s story, Zhinu’s, and Thisbe’s have been at the forefront of my mind since reading, each taking the original myth and twisting it into something lovely and appropriate for a modern age, while retaining a timeless quality. The stories revolve around love; love and POC joy are centered with every character. In the ordinarily Eurocentric realm of mythology, Love in Color is the best of romance: poignant, beautiful, complex in plot but simple enough to convey its message.
I would lean towards reading up about each myth before reading the stories, however. The myths that I had context for, I enjoyed more upon a first read than the others, but after doing some research on the other stories, I went back and enjoyed the less familiar stories just as much on a reread.
The publisher review for the anthology notes the diversity of the source material, saying, “Focusing on the magical folktales of West Africa, Babalola also reimagines Greek myths, ancient legends from the Middle East, and stories from long-erased places. With an eye towards decolonizing tropes inherent in our favorite tales of love, Babalola has created captivating stories that traverse across perspectives, continents, and genres.”
Love in Color: Mythical Tales from Around the World, Retold by Bolu Babalola is available in print.
Sahana is an Instructor and Research Specialist at the Savage Branch. She enjoys adding books to her “want to read” list despite having a mountain of books waiting for her already.
I’ve been reading a lot of short stories lately. I’d contend the short story is really its own art form, of which I’m a big fan. In fact, in my book discussion group, Read. Think. Talk., we’ve spent the past quarter reading exclusively short story collections. It makes for a different sort of discussion, and in some ways the long form – a novel or novella – lends itself a bit better to a book discussion. Personally, I like to discuss the characters and situations that change throughout a novel. However, as a group we’ve done short stories plenty of times, and it’s a great opportunity to discuss which ones you like, which ones you didn’t like, and generally how the stories worked, or didn’t, in a short number of pages.
I’ve always enjoyed short stories for their brevity. They are especially well-suited for the time-challenged, modern world we live in. You can just jump into a story when you have a brief period of time, or perhaps need a short respite from whatever else you’re reading (e.g., maybe you’re a student reading textbooks and academic periodicals and would like some fiction in your life). I’ve read some great collections lately.
George Saunders, who mainly writes short stories, is remarkable in the field. His collection Tenth of December is by no means a feel-good read, but the stories are an abstract satirical take on modern-day America. They are collected from The New Yorker, where Saunders contributes stories regularly and where I read a great interview with the author to prepare for our book group discussion. Most of the stories concern disastrous situations and terrible characters that frankly scare you a bit, but somehow they don’t end catastrophically. I would even describe the stories as ending on an optimistic note, which seems like the opposite of how they’re presented on the surface. They’re definitely worth a read, or two.
The Refugees by Viet Thanh Nguyen is a companion to his excellent book The Sympathizer. Although I’d recommend the latter over the former, I don’t want to denigrate the story collection; it’s just a tall order to compete with that great book about the Vietnamese immigrant experience in America after the Vietnam war. (Please read my review of The Sympathizer here.)
The stories are all colored by Nguyen’s personal experience of being a refugee as a child. Dedicated to “refugees everywhere,” I think the book speaks to the importance of expanding our understanding of what it means to be a refugee. In my mind’s eye, I see people walking with their few possessions without a land or place. While a physical journey of this sort sometimes happens, the next step deals with the ongoing psychological effects of living in a foreign land. Particularly, one that is politically and culturally controlled by people different than you. Nguyen deftly tells stories from the perspective of a man, a child, a younger woman, and an older woman. There is even an interesting commentary about how some refugees perceive others as having it better when one character laments the fact that they’re not Korean.
In February, the book group is considering Welcome to the Monkey House by Kurt Vonnegut, one of my favorite writers, and the library just procured some fresh copies. I’ve always loved his wit, humanism, and the cynical optimism that flavors his satire. Vonnegut began his career and was able to support himself and his family as a writer by selling stories. I learned this recently by watching the documentary Kurt Vonnegut: Unstuck in Time. The collection is worth checking out if only for the great tale “Harrison Bergeron.” I first read this in a freshman college English class (even a slacker like me was game for this short story). Vonnegut tells the story of a futuristic society that has attempted to forcibly make itself completely equitable via technology. For example, if you’re intelligent your brain is zapped when you start to think too much; if you’re physically gifted, you’re saddled with weights; if you’re attractive, you wear a mask, etc. It’s a complicated message that I think I get, or at least I have my own interpretation. However, I don’t want to influence yours. I enjoy art like this, though, and I’d describe it as open-ended and open to interpretation.
Although I could go on about all the great short story collections I’ve read, I won’t. However, I’d like to mention one final great one. Stone Mattress: Nine Wicked Talesis by Margaret Atwood, another author I love for her wit and great social commentary. These tales are sort of “light horror” stories, which is how I would describe much of Atwood’s writing. I hope it’s not heresy to state here that I think the collection is better than The Testaments. The stories should be read in order, as some are connected. The overarching theme throughout is the experience of being a woman and aging, and they’re all wondrously done.
I have always marveled at those who do the short story well. To tell a story in just a few pages takes craft, specifically, to get people to invest in the plot, scene, and characters. Try it, sometime. It’s not easy.
As a medium, science fiction has been a way to ask larger questions about what it means to live since Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Questions that are a bit too uncomfortable to ask in the context of real life without the buffer of aliens or mind-bending time travel, such as: who are we if we’re taken off of Earth? What does humanity look like broken down to our bare essentials and out of context?
I’m Waiting for You and Other Storiesby Kim Bo-Young follows the precedent set centuries ago, asking readers to consider what love looks like outside the bonds of time, where we can learn about free will, and how hope can manage to exist in the most devastating of circumstances.
Originally published as three separate novellas, there is still so much overlap as the stories ask you to consider your own humanity. The first story, the eponymous “I’m Waiting for You,” is epistolary, told through letters from the point of view of a man writing to his fiancée as he tries to time his interstellar journey just right so that he will meet her at the church they decided upon in time for their wedding day. The unnamed main characters, through a comedy of errors and well-meaning but decidedly bad decisions, are left trying to catch up with one another as they fast-forward through time. He is increasingly isolated as he travels through time and space, but all the while it is his love of his fiancée that keeps him human.
The second and third story are connected, “The Prophet of Corruption” with a soft multiverse-centric epilogue in “That One Life.” The two stories follow god-like beings who experience a sort of reincarnation in order to learn more about their nature and the nature of the world, and who think of corruption as what happens when they are disconnected from the whole. The story reminded me at times of the short story “The Egg” by Andy Weir (who also wrote The Martian) with the ideas of reincarnation but made wholly new for the universe Kim Bo-Young manages to create. There were moments where I felt like I was floating outside of the narrative, but I was never far enough away to escape orbit – existential but not just for the sake of an “I’m-smarter-than-you, let’s see an audience try to puzzle this out” existentialism. It’s hard but worth it, thinking about our place in the world and what we mean to one another.
The final story, “On My Way,” brings us full circle back to the couple from “I’m Waiting for You” and returns to the epistolary format established in the first story. We see the letters that the woman sent her fiancé this time around, and her interstellar travels have been completely different from his. The two are juxtaposed, not only by being from the perspective of a man versus a woman, but by the circumstances surrounding each protagonist. The former deals with the impact of isolation in times of despair while the latter considers group dynamics in times of disaster.
The first and last story are about love beyond the bounds of time; what is it about us that makes us human? How far can we go before we lose our humanity? They consider the everlasting nature of hope, but manage to stay honest while avoiding any sort of cheesiness. They discuss what love looks like, with both protagonists making promises they aren’t sure the other person will ever get to hear, promising I will love you if we are the last people on Earth and out of all the people in the world, I chose you, over and over again.
The first story, as Kim Bo-Young explains in the author’s notes at the end, was written as part of a proposal. It took me a while to understand how something that appeared so tragic would be the best way to propose marriage to a loved one; it feels so unanchored and dire at moments, but it is the fact that through it all, the protagonist is still there, persevering, forcing himself to survive, that shows the romance.
It’s a translated work, which reinforces the idea that translation is an art form and a version of composition in and of itself – there are no stuttering moments that remind you that it is not originally written in English. In fact, I forgot until I read the end notes, emails between the author and the translator, context for the short stories, and the author’s motivations and original audiences. I might even recommend reading the notes before the stories themselves; I wish I had.
I’m Waiting for You and Other Stories by Bo-Young Kim is available in print.
Sahana is an Instructor and Research Specialist at the Savage Branch. She enjoys adding books to her “want to read” list despite having a mountain of books waiting for her already.
Climate change is scary, and cli-fi short stories are here to help.
“Right here, right now is where we draw the line. The world is waking up. And change is coming whether you like it or not.” – Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg, age 18
Change is coming, both in the climate, and with luck, in human behavior. Reading about climate change is frightening, and sometimes shuts people down. But as many climate activists have explained, there is hope.
Environmental and animal activist Jane Goodall said it well: “I do have reasons for hope: our clever brains, the resilience of nature, the indomitable human spirit, and above all, the commitment of young people when they’re empowered to take action.”
But reading alarmist nonfiction doesn’t always reach the heart. Story, however, seems to sneak through our defenses and climb straight into our souls. Climate fiction, a genre of literature sometimes shortened to “cli-fi,” pioneered with J. G. Ballard’s novels of climate change (especially the 1962 classic The Drowned World) and Frank Herbert’s 1965 novel Dune (see the review).
Since March 2019, HoCoPoLitSo recording secretary Susan Thornton Hobby and climate educator Julie Dunlap have led a climate fiction book club at Howard County Library System. Attendees are interested in literature that explores the facts and mysteries of Earth’s changing climate, and we have read and discussed eight incredible novels to date.
We’re mixing things up in January, and have chosen to read the award winners of a climate fiction short story contest sponsored by Grist Magazine’s Fix Solutions Lab. Organizers of the contest, Imagine 2200: Climate Fiction for Future Ancestors, urged writers to envision the next 180 years of equitable climate progress.
Sponsored by the National Resources Defense Council, the contest is “an uprising of imagination,” as Fix describes it. The winning stories, a dozen pieces of short fiction by authors including Black, Indigenous, disabled, and queer authors, conjure hope, anger, frustration, joy, and contemplation about the future of our planet in the impending climate crisis.
“Whether built on abundance or adaptation, reform or a new understanding of survival, these stories provide flickers of hope, even joy, and serve as a springboard for exploring how fiction can help create a better reality,” writes Tory Stephens, who works at Fix and spearheaded the contest. Join us in reading and discussing these stories on Thursday, Jan. 6, from 7 to 8 pm, at HCLS Miller Branch. Register here. The stories, and a terrific glossary of cli-fi terms, including afrofuturism (looking at you Octavia Butler), solar punk, and ecotopia, are available here.
Susan Thornton Hobby is the HoCoPoLitSo recording secretary as well as co-leader of the Inconvenient Book Club at HCLS Miller Branch.
For the past 50 years, June has been celebrated as LGBTQ+ Pride Month. The celebrations began with the first Pride march in New York City, on June 28, 1970. That date celebrated the one-year anniversary of the Stonewall Uprising, a six-day period of unrest, sparked by a police raid of a gay bar. Though not an uncommon occurrence, this particular raid did not go as planned and led the queer community to fight back against the targeting and tactics being used against them. As queer communities around the world continue to seek recognition, respect, and equal rights, we invite you to explore the books suggested below – and on our social media – for all ages. You can also learn more about the history of Pride Month on the Library of Congress website.
In this beautifully illustrated modern LGBTQ+ fairy tale, a Prince Charming and a Knight in Shining Armor find true love in each other. The young men are celebrated as heroes for saving the kingdom from a dragon together, and their love is affirmed and embraced with a royal wedding in a delightful happily-ever-after. Be sure to also check out Daniel Haack’s Maiden & Princess!
Celebrate Pride Month with your little one by enjoying this photographic concept book filled with the colors of the Pride flag. Artist & activist Gilbert Baker created the original Pride flag and each color in the flag has a special meaning, so be sure to turn to the end of the book to find out what each one represents!
Nate Foster has always dreamed of starring in a Broadway show, but he worries about how he’ll ever reach his dream while living in a small town in Pennsylvania. With the help of his best friend, Libby, Nate plans a daring escape to New York City when he hears of an open casting call for E.T.: The Musical. Nate knows this could be his big break, and he won’t let this chance at stardom slip away.
Aster’s family is magic: boys grow up to be shapeshifters, and girls grow up to be witches. But at age 13, Aster still hasn’t shifted, and he is captivated by the witchery that his family members who are girls get to learn. This beautiful graphic novel follows Aster as he makes a new friend, works to protect his family from a mysterious threat, and finds the courage to be true to himself.
From the heartfelt introduction by the author to the inclusive glossary at the end, this diverse collection of biographical snapshots is a great starting place to learn about real-life LGBTQ+ heroes from around the world. Vibrantly colorful portraits illustrate the incredible life stories and contributions of LGBTQ+ artists, athletes, inventors, activists, and more.
This comprehensive guide supports teens who are – or think they might be – queer, as they navigate everything from coming out to standing up for their rights. Background about queer figures throughout history and personal stories from the authors’ lives are interspersed with guidance throughout. While the information included is general enough to cover a broad range of topics within the single volume, a list of resources can direct readers to more details about specific areas of interest.
Miel and Sam live in a small town where magic isn’t so out of the ordinary. But when the Bonner Girls decide they want the roses that grow from Miel’s wrist, and they threaten to tell the secret they know about Sam to get her to cooperate, Miel has to face her past and try to find the path forward. The lush, evocative language in this novel brings a lyrical beauty to this story of friendship, family, love, magic, and finding your true self.
Rahul Kapoor is an Indian American boy just entering seventh grade in a small town in Indiana. To help soothe his worries, his grandfather gives Rahul the advice to find one thing he does well and become the BEST at it! As Rahul searches for the special thing he can be the best at, he also confronts his anxieties and finds that he can count on his friends and family for the support he needs.
“Sometimes, when things were going well, I think my father actually enjoyed having a family.” As you might guess, Alison Bechdel had a fraught relationship with her father, a high school English teacher who ran their small town’s funeral home out of their Victorian-era home that he restored himself. During college, when Alison came out as a lesbian, she learned that her own father was a closeted gay man, but his death soon after left her searching for answers that he could not provide. Check out this critically-acclaimed graphic memoir that has also been adapted into a Tony-award-winning musical!
In a 2017 New York Times opinion column on rescue animals, Jennifer Finney Boylan wrote: “When you lose a dog, you not only lose the animal that has been your friend, you also lose a connection to the person you have been.” Here Boylan uses the memories of her beloved dogs to reconnect with, or at least fondly remember the many people she has been- a son, a father, a mother, a wife. Good Boy is at once a deeply personal reflection on Boylan’s unique journey as a trans woman and a celebration of the changes in identity we all experience as we grow up and grow older and the animals who we love along the way.
Lot: Stories by Bryan Washington affords readers a front row seat to several aspects of life in a Houston, Texas neighborhood. The burdens and exhilarations of family dynamics, race, sexuality, economics, friendships, and societal influence all feature prominently in short stories connected through common characters.
The Elkridge Branch + DIY Education Center opened the doors of its new building in March 2018. Our staff are always happy to help you with your questions about books, tools, technology, and more!
Ted Chiang is not only a writer, he’s a computer scientist who is employed as a technical writer, as far as I know. This is Chiang’s second short story collection (a story from his previous collection, Stories of Your Life and Others, was adapted into the movie Arrival).
Frankly, I was rather surprised that Exhalationwas selected by The New York Times Book Review as one of the best fictional books of 2019, but it’s well deserved. That said, I’d implore you to give this collection a read even you’re not into sci-fi. These stories, like all great science fiction, are only superficially about science and the future.
Although Chiang alludes to the technical aspects of whatever he’s describing, it’s all just the backdrop. Like all the great sci-fi writers, he uses imagined technological advancements of the future as the setting to tell beautiful existential tales. His stories concern how societies employ technology and, subsequently, how it changes individuals in profound ways.
There is a story about “raising” a computer program/avatar that not only interacts in virtual reality, but also actual reality. One story concerns a rigid time travel portal; another is about the perils of a robot nanny; an interesting one is about a mechanism attached to the eye that can record every moment (you can share the footage with your friends). My favorite features a machine that gives users the ability to communicate with a version of themselves that has made different life choices.
I hope these descriptions will not scare readers away. It seems odd to even contemplate how rapid technological advancement could not change us. Some of the stories are better than others but they’re all worth a read, and I don’t think they’re overly melancholy. Recurring themes include acceptance, free will, masculinity, and control.
I find Chiang’s work similar to that of Philip K. Dick. Chiang even describes how one of the stories included was inspired by an old Dick short story. Although I wanted to interpret the stories myself, I couldn’t resist reading the story notes at the end of the collection.
Special thanks to my book discussion group for helping me think through some of these ideas through a conversation over the internet.