Exhalation

 

The universe began as an enormous breath being held.

 

ExhalationExhalation by Ted Chiang is a collection of nine stories ranging from 4 pages in length to 111. Therefore, I would not consider this a short story collection. Simply a collection of stories. This is Chiang’s second collection with the first being The Story of Your Life and Others, where the title story was the basis for the film Arrival.

Several of these stories have been published previously but a few make their debut in this collection. The story I was most looking forward to reading was “The Lifecycle of Software Objects.” I remembered seeing it was published as a novella back when I looked into Chiang’s bibliography after reading his first collection. I can’t remember why I didn’t pick it up at the time, but it added to my desire to get my hands on this collection.

Though I will admit that my favorite story in this collection ended up being either the title story “Exhalation” or “The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate” with “Anxiety Is the Dizziness of Freedom” and “Omphalos” as close seconds, all of the stories in this collection are worth a read.

I feel compelled to compare Chiang’s work to Philip K. Dick’s. Not because they both write science fiction, but because both of them write stories that linger. Stories that keep you thinking after you have read them. I think this is because they frame a story around a larger question. A story that provides glimpses of the question as you read. Their writing encourages me to ponder questions I haven’t considered. They often make me see something in a new way. And best of all, they inspire me to write stories of my own that may tackle bigger questions and hopefully keep the reader thinking after they finish the last page.

I was pleasantly surprised to find out that “Exhalation” was partly inspired by Dick’s story “The Electric Ant,” which Chiang states he had read as a teenager. I am a big fan of Dick’s work and I have become a fan of Chiang’s. I very much look forward to following his career and reading everything he produces.

I couldn’t help but notice a theme to this collection though. One I can’t quite explain with accuracy. The best I can do is say that many of the stories include some form of fatalism. They either question free will or question the reasoning behind our choices. None of this is done directly, which may be the genius of Chiang’s writing, but these might hint at the larger questions I mentioned earlier. There are story notes in the back of this collection that give brief insights into what inspired each story. It’s fun to see where he got some of these ideas, especially since some of them came from unexpected sources.

I hope you read one or two of Chiang’s stories to see if they interest you. I was hooked after the first one.

Happy Reading.

10 Quick Reads

Today I’m talking about some of my favorite books that are less than 200 pages long. I am not including short stories, collections, or series and will be focusing on full-length, standalone books that tell a story in its entirety. These are not in any specific order. I hope you find something you like and pick one up for a leisurely weekend read. 

1. Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury

Fahrenheit-451

Coming in at 158 pages and first published in 1953, this dystopian novel has been a favorite of mine since I first read it in high school. I read it again recently and still love it. A world where books are considered contraband, “firemen” are dispatched to burn any books that are found. Everything is fireproof so the firemen in this book actually start fires instead of put them out. Bradbury was an excellent writer and this is a great introduction if you have yet to discover his work.

Stranger

2. The Stranger by Albert Camus

At 123 pages and published in 1942, The Stranger is the story of a man who seemingly commits murder for no reason whatsoever. The despondency of the main character, Meursault, is a mystery that pulls the reader in and his apathy is what makes the ending memorable.

3. The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

The-Little-PrincePublished in 1943 and 96 pages of pure innocence, The Little Prince is one of those stories that remind you that life is actually simple and magical when you remove all of unnecessary responsibilities we place on ourselves. It does so by reminding us of what the universe looks like through the eyes of a child. This short read is accompanied by several illustrations so it is an even quicker read than you might expect. Perfect to read during a morning coffee or to read aloud to a child before bed.

4. The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway

The Old Man and the SeaPublished in 1952, this novel comes in at 127 pages. It was also the last major work of fiction published during Hemingway’s life. The story follows an old Cuban fisherman as he spends roughly an entire day attempting to haul in the largest catch of his life. Kind of like a mini Moby Dick, this book gets to the point much faster and tells a more personal, introspective account.

5. Anthem by Ayn Rand

AnthemAnother dystopian story, but published in 1938, this book imagines a world “after World War III,” or effectively after humanity blows itself back to a stone age. The resulting society has eliminated the use of the word “I” or any other possessive term. People are simply known by a combination of a word and numbers and everyone practices the belief that they must only act in the interest of everyone else. At 104 pages, it is a very quick but thought-provoking story.

6. Art Matters by Neil Gaiman & Chris Riddell

Art MattersLess of a book and more of a speech/credo, this 112 page book doesn’t feature actual page numbers and is filled mostly by beautiful illustrations by Chris Riddell. I greatly enjoy this little title because of its brevity and reminder that life is a beautiful thing much simpler than we like to make it out to be. It released just last year in 2018.

7. A Slow Regard for Silent Things by Patrick Rothfuss

Slow RegardThis title comes with a caveat. At 159 pages and published in 2014, this book I consider as supplemental material to Pat’s popular series The Kingkiller Chronicles. I consider is supplemental because it is the week in the life of Auri, a minor but important and mysterious character from the series. You can definitely read this without reading the series first, but you may not fully appreciate Auri’s nature. It is not technically included in the series itself so I consider it standalone but with recommended a prerequisite.

Time Machine

8. The Time Machine by H. G. Wells

Published in 1895 and coming in at only 84 pages, this story contains and is itself a time traveling story. It reads like it was written recently save for a few dated word choices and a somewhat dated initial setting. I consider this an essential read for anyone interested in the history of science fiction.

9. The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman

Ocean2014 brought us this 178 page story about a man revisiting his childhood home after attending a funeral. He remembers the events that took place 40 years earlier, which include a young girl named Lettie Hempstock, an evil spirit, and the clash of supernatural forces. Another magical read by a master craftsman.

The Screwtape Letters10. The Screwtape Letters by C. S. Lewis

Formatted as a series of letters from the demon Screwtape to another demon by the name of Wormwood. This story shows a one-sided tale of an uncle attempting to guide his nephew in his task of securing a man’s soul for the devil. At 160 pages, and published in 1942, this book was dedicated to Lewis’s good friend J.R.R. Tolkien and provides plenty of laughs.

 

Happy Reading.

Angel Mage

I entered a giveaway for a chance to win an advanced copy of Angel Mage by Garth Nix. Well, I’m happy to say I won said copy and quickly read the book so I could write this post for you. This is the first book I’ve read by Garth Nix. I first heard of him through my wife, who had read his Old Kingdom series when she was younger and raved about it to me when we were first dating. Her copies sit on our bookshelves but remain on my TBR list (I will read them eventually, I promise). 

“More than a century has passed since Liliath crept into the empty sarcophagus of Saint Marguerite, fleeing the Fall of Ystara. But she emerges from her magical sleep still beautiful, looking no more than nineteen, and once again renews her single-minded quest to be united with her lover, Palleniel, the archangel of Ystara.Angel Mage

It’s a seemingly impossible quest, but Liliath is one of the greatest practitioners of angelic magic to have ever lived, summoning angels and forcing them to do her bidding. Four young people hold her interest: Simeon, a studious doctor-in-training; Henri, a dedicated fortune hunter; Agnez, a glory-seeking musketeer; and Dorotea, icon-maker and scholar of angelic magic.

The four feel a strange kinship from the moment they meet but do not suspect their importance. And none of them know just how Liliath plans to use them, as mere pawns in her plan, no matter the cost to everyone else . . .”

Angel Mage is a standalone novel and was a great introduction to his work. This book is a neatly wrapped, satisfying adventure. However, the world Nix created is rich and could potentially spawn future stories if he chooses to write more. I have always been interested in angels as supernatural/mythological figures. Nix takes the concept of angels and uses them in an interesting way by having their influence within reach of the characters in this world but they do not physically manifest in their own right. This allows a form of magic to be present, but the cost to call upon the angels also limits its use.

There are five main characters throughout this book. The first, Liliath, almost reads a villain from the start and this makes her interesting, but I quickly came to like the other four as they are introduced. There are not any clear lines between heroes and villains or good and bad in this story and I enjoyed being able to decide for myself how to connect everything together. I also enjoyed trying to figure out the motivations and intentions of each character as the story progressed.

Nix partly dedicates this book to Alexandres Dumas and states this story was influenced by Dumas’s The Three Musketeers. This influence can be seen throughout the swashbuckling adventure found within the pages of Angel Mage, but only as a fun allusion picked up by those familiar with the work of Dumas.

If you are fan of Garth Nix, like fantasy, or enjoy sword fights and monsters, you will like Angel Mage. The recommended age range is 14 and up, but I think this story would be okay for younger, ambitious readers. This book is expected to release on October 1st, 2019. Pick up a copy or check your local library.

Happy Reading.

As You Wish

Inego Montoya

As You WishAs You Wish: Inconceivable Tales from the Making of The Princess Bride by Cary Elwes and Joe Layden is the endearing memoir about the making of the beloved movie. I listened to the audiobook version as read by Cary Elwes with guest voices by costars Robin Wright, Wallace Shawn, Billy Crystal, Christopher Guest, and Mandy Patinkin, Norman Lear (producer), Rob Reiner (director), and author/screenwriter William Goldman. To put things simply, if you like the movie The Princess Bride, then you will enjoy this book. It is filled with fun stories about the making of the movie as well as anecdotes about the cast and crew. The production seemed to be a blast, though of course there were a few hiccups (and memories are often gilded with fondness).

I would recommend the audiobook specifically (I borrowed it from my local library), since it is read by Cary himself and everyone listed above chimes in to discuss their own little stories or point of view about a specific event. Cary does great voices when quoting his friends in the production (my favorites being Andre and Rob Reiner), and it is just an all-around great way to take in these stories. I learned a lot about different actors in the film, especially Andre the Giant who seemed like such a fun guy with an amazing take on life. I had no idea Robin Wright was so young while on the set (the mere age of 20), as well as Cary Elwes (who turned 24 while filming).

To show my age here, I wasn’t even alive when this movie was first released in 1987. So I don’t feel in the wrong here for not knowing much about the movie or its production. I was surprised to hear that it did not do well in theaters upon initial release. This is probably because by the time I watched it for the first time, it was already an internationally beloved film. How could it not be? With so many incredible moments and memorable lines, who wouldn’t love this quirky film? It’s…Inconceivable

Right? Well, it seems the marketing departments didn’t know quite how to tell the world about this satirical fairy tale that pokes fun while being its own kind of serious with sword fights and giants and the Pit of Despair and the rodents of unusual size. After all, it is all read from a grandfather to his grandson. How could they not adequately tell the world of a movie that doesn’t fit into any one genre or aimed at any particular demographic? Well, they struggled to say the least and the movies theatrical release suffered for it. But the world came to love it for what it was and it has become one of the best-known films on the planet. I was surprised to hear that the movie was considered impossible for the longest time in Hollywood. Either no one knew how to do it or it built a bad reputation of attempted productions that failed before they started. Rob Reiner took it up and just did it. From this book, he made it seem easy too. I’m sure much was glanced over or missed since this text takes place from primarily Cary’s point of view, but it turned out better than I think anyone could have hoped.

I must admit at this point that I have not read the book The Princess Bride by William Goldman. It remains in my to-be-read pile and I know I’ll get around to it eventually. I’ve heard people say not to bother since the movie is so good and considered better than the book. Goldman wrote the screenplay so of course I wouldn’t feel any guilt if I never got around to reading the book, but I enjoy seeing the differences between the books and the films. It is very rare for a film adaptation to be better than the book, but it does happen, and I think I’ll make my own opinion in this case.

I think anyone who has never seen the film would like this book, but of course knowing the film first makes it that much more enjoyable. I had a strong urge to watch the movie again upon finishing this book. I think I may have a deeper appreciation for the film now knowing what I have learned. I can better enjoy each character and actor performance. I can look at certain scenes differently such as the epic sword fighting scene, which takes place after the climb up the Cliffs of Insanity (actually filmed at the Cliffs of Moher in Ireland where I visited last year). I know exactly which scenes were filmed after Cary broke his big toe. There is so much more I can enjoy while watching the film now. So many little tidbits of information I can revel in knowing, but of course it is just as fun to sit back and enjoy the film for the masterpiece it is. As for this book, it is a glimpse behind the curtain. A glimpse filled with so many heartwarming tales it could even compare to the film it details, but let’s not get into the chicken or the egg argument.

Happy Reading.

The View from the Cheap Seats

neil-gaiman-the-view-from-the-cheap-seatsThe View from the Cheap Seats by Neil Gaiman is a book of selected nonfiction that is, simply, a delight. I picked this book up when it was first published. I’d come across one of Neil’s tweets that listed all the independent bookstores in America that would have signed copies of the book upon release. I scoured the list and found there was one bookshop in my state, the state of Missouri, that would have them, and to my outstanding luck it was just down the road from where I worked. The bookstore, Main Street Books located in St. Charles, would receive 10 copies. The day it came out, I took my lunch hour a bit earlier than usual, and went down to see if I could grab a copy. My luck held out and I nabbed one of the few. I was uncertain how many other fans may have been privy to the information of first edition signed copies of Neil’s new book. I wasn’t sure if many people in the area were Neil Gaiman fans. After purchasing my copy I remember wondering these things and, if my memory serves correctly, I spread the word so people knew. I brought the book home with me after work and subsequently read the first handful of pages, about 50, and for some reason did not pick it up again.

Until two weeks ago when I was about to catch a flight home from a vacation in the Dominican Republic. I had a paperback book I’d been reading on the vacation and on the first flight back, but the second flight would be dark and my eyes wanted a rest from the dry, circulated air of the airplane, so I downloaded the audiobook of The View from the Cheap Seats from my library back home through the convenient app. The audio-book version is read by Neil himself. This was my first audio-book experience and I’m glad to say it may have been the perfect introduction for me to this format. I listened to the book for the entirety of the flight home. I began listening to it on my commute and sometimes while at my desk working. I recently finished it, while doing yard work, which is why I am writing this recommendation. Or rather, I am recommending this book to you now not simply because I finished it, but because I think it is a great book and it is filled with fun and is extremely informative.

This book is filled with material that spans decades and talks about a great many things. It talks about writing, writers, music, books, people, the importance of art, the importance of genres and different types of storytelling including comic books and film. This book is filled with Neil’s experiences and his experience. There is a lot to be learned.  A section of this book contains a plethora of introductions. Introductions that were written by Neil for other books. Introductions that will inevitably provide you with a decent amount of books to add to your list to read, as I have added to mine.

Neil talks about a great many people in this book. Well, he had talked about them a long time ago originally and the pieces of writing were chosen to be included in this volume. If I had read this book back when it was first published, I would have known about Gene Wolfe long before I first discovered him. I have not read any of Gene Wolfe but his books are now on my list, and I am looking forward to reading them. I hate to say I first discovered Gene Wolfe when news of his passing was released a handful of weeks ago. Reading about who he was and what he wrote made me fond of this man I never knew and, now, will never know. I read an article that Neil retweeted claiming it was a good article about Gene. I wish I would have known about him earlier. He lived only a few hours drive from where I live now and I’ve already daydreamed my way into a world where I read his books long ago and fell in love with them and actually made a trip to meet him. Something I’ve never done. I’d be hesitant about doing so even in the dream, but he would be nice as so many have said he was.

One of the things I think I’ve learned from this book is to go out and make more connections with people. Neil tells stories of how he first met many authors who would become lifelong friends, and I am inspired to get out and make some friends of my own. I lack friends who write and I want to have more discussions about writing and I want to have even more discussions about life from the ever-observant type of person who is often a writer. Neil’s story of meeting Diana Wynne Jones seems to be mere happenstance, but what an incredible chance it was and even more incredible how quickly they became friends. I first discovered Diana Wynne Jones after finding out the Hayao Miyazaki film Howl’s Moving Castle was based on her book of the same name. I quickly read the book and loved it and added many more of Diana’s books on my list to read. Even so, Neil gave me another book of hers to add to my list. One I’d never heard about until he talked about it in this volume.

He talks about many people he has met throughout his life and he talks about books that inspired him and he really talks about the books that influenced him as a boy. He talks about his journey into becoming a writer of fiction that began in journalism. He talks about how he wrote Good Omens with Terry Pratchett by mailing each other floppy discs and calling each other over the phone. Much of what he talks about is nostalgic. Things he discusses have changed since he first wrote about them. The world is much different now that it had been back then. He talks about changes occurring in the comic industry well before comic-book movies became a worldwide phenomenon. The book is not outdated by any means. It is filled with life and love and stories.

There is much to learn from this selected nonfiction. There is much fun to be had. It is inspiring whether you read it in print or listen to Neil’s melodious voice read it to you. It doesn’t matter if you yourself are a writer or not. I dare say it is interesting even if you aren’t even interested in books. This volume is filled with experiences. Yes, many of which mention books and are related to story-telling, but he talks about music and people and things he believes in. These writings are themselves stories, and collected in a way to become something even more.

Happy Reading.