On Tobias Wolff

Tobias Wolff AuthorTobias Wolff is one of my favorite writers. Specifically, he is one of my favorite short story writers. I consider him one of the greatest American short story writers of all time. I of course would be more than happy to hear who your favorite shorty story writers are since I love discovering new writers. If this post is the first time you’ve heard of Tobias Wolff, then I hope you read some of his work and come to enjoy it as I do.

I first discovered Tobias Wolff in a college course. If I remember correctly, the first story I read of his was “Bullet in the Brain.” I recently discovered that this story was made into a short film, and there is a recording online of it being read by Tobias himself. This story remains one of my favorites and it is a great introduction to his work. It may also be the best known of his short stories because it is often used in classrooms alongside several others he has written such as “Powder,” “Say Yes,” or “In the Garden of the North American Martyrs.” There is something about Wolff’s stories that capture what I like to refer to as human moments. He is able to weave a story together that could seemingly be about nothing in particular, but then can also be read as a revelation about a core element of human nature. Enveloping an entire species and capturing it within a single moment. His stories often linger with you afterwards and prompt an introspection of our own lives. He often pinpoints moments that define, in a that single moment, the entirety of a character. It is this aspect that I admire to great degree, and I aspire to write stories that have similar moments the readers keep with them. I think any fellow writers can learn a lot about the craft from reading his work as well.

Wolff’s works include several collections of short stories, a novel (Old School), a novella (The Barracks Thief), and two memoirs. I’ve written book recommendations about several of these. His memoir, This Boy’s Life, reveals much about himself through the lens of his childhood. It was made into a movie not long after it was first published. His second memoir, In Pharaoh’s Army, provides a description of his time in Vietnam during his military service. I found the man himself as interesting as his writing. I even built up enough courage to write to him. It was my first and only time (as of this writing) that I’ve written to a writer who I admire. This was about three years ago now. I wasn’t sure what to say, so all I ended up saying was a general thank you for his work and an offer to buy him a drink if was ever in my area. To my surprise, he responded with equally kind words.

There are several interviews with Wolff that you can find online. I recently found one by The Creative Process that I found really interesting. They have interviews with other artists as well. I learned a few things on this site as well, like Tobias Wolff taught George Saunders and was rewarded the National Medal of the Arts from President Obama.

I don’t have any fun stories about gong to see him or things that have happened to me while reading his works. I haven’t really found many people who have read his works or at least have talked to me about them. I know short stories aren’t everyone’s cup of tea, but every so often I can convince someone to try one and I usually recommend one by Tobias Wolff. I do remember one occasion where I did have a coworker/friend read “Bullet in the Brain.” The story itself is quite short but has incredible impact. He loved it and agreed with my initial comments I used to try and “sell” the story to him. Those comments being that Wolff’s stories have an unclear but substantial human moment. It’s hard to describe but easy to understand once you’ve read the story. If you want ever want to pick up a collection of his, I definitely recommend Our Story Begins. It has 31 short stories including several I have mentioned above.

I would love for the chance to meet Tobias Wolff one day. But if that never comes around, I know I can always pick up a collection of his stories, flip to any title, and be reminded once again what any amazing, intricate, and simple thing it is to be human.

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.

Amazing Fantastic Incredible

Stan LeeToday I am recommending Amazing Fantastic Incredible: A Marvelous Memoir by Stan Lee and Peter David and Colleen Doran. This memoir is a brief overview of Stan Lee’s life and his work in comics. I say brief because it touches on key moments without delving into anything beyond a the surface. The book is actually a graphic novel which adds a nice touch considering the topic of the memoir. The pages are beautifully illustrated and the setting of Stan on stage delving into his story really makes you feel like you could be in an audience experiencing it alongside other fans.

When I said this was a brief memoir, I meant two things: you can read it easily in one sitting (due to the graphic novel format), and you only get the basic information without too much detail (probably also due to the format). It’s great if you don’t know much about Stan Lee (real name Stanley Lieber), but if you are looking for an in-depth look into his life, I suggest waiting for a full-on biography that will surely come out within the next few years. There are other biographies already out there if you don’t want to wait.

This book/graphic novel is a great introduction to Stan and how he came to be the icon he was. It also provides a great “history of comics” and details about how certain characters were created and interesting tidbits about certain processes and others who were in the field. If all you’re looking for is a little more information about the man himself since maybe you only know him by his many cameo’s in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), then this is the one for you. I’m certain several events mentioned in this memoir are shaded with a little bias. This is both a good and bad thing. The good being there is no negative views of any events mentioned though I’m sure there were some interesting discussions regarding business deals. This I view as good because it makes the memoir available to even kids. The bad I think would be the overall removal of any negative experiences. Something that is far from real life. The few mentioned are quickly passed over.

Since the MCU has been blown into epic proportions that have reached millions of people worldwide and brought superheroes once again into mainstream pop-culture, I wanted to learn more about the iconic man who spent his life laying the groundwork for this incredible adventure.

Overall, I enjoyed this memoir because it has a lot of information and I learned several things, but I will probably be looking forward to an in-depth biography when I want to know more about Stan the Man.

Happy Reading.

Memoirs of a Geisha

Memoirs of a GeishaThis week’s book recommendation is Memoirs of a Geisha by Arthur Golden. This book is extremely well written and gives a glimpse into a way of life that I think was obscure even when Geisha were common in Japan. This book is a complete fiction as Mr. Golden overtly informs us, but it is written to be almost a believable and enticing memoir. The story is enthralling in its simplicity and accuracy, which was honed by the significant research done by the author.

I remember when this book became a huge hit. It was originally published in 1997, but became a movie in 2005. I was probably too young to appreciate the story and again too young to appreciate the movie when it originally released. Though I do recall overhearing that the soundtrack for the movie was exceptional. I have always been a fan of John Williams work, so this one aspect kept me intrigued. However, I didn’t read the book until just a few weeks ago, and I still have yet to see the movie.

I can’t say what prompted me to read this book when I did. I had bought it a few years prior at a used book sale put on by my local library. There were plenty of copies because, as stated earlier, it had become a huge hit over a decade ago. I knew it had to be good since it made a stir not only in America, but across the globe. I had just finished a science fiction book I greatly enjoyed and was piddling around for a day or two trying to decide what to read next when I happened to pick this one up seemingly at random. I was quickly drawn in and enjoyed it immensely.

This is the only book Arthur Golden has written (so far) and I am not sure if he plans to write any more. It’s been over twenty years since this book came out, but I’m always one to never say never.

You may have already read this book or have at least heard of it already. If you haven’t read it, give it a try. If you think it is something beyond your area of interest, you may be surprised as I was (though I do read biographies and memoirs from time to time). It is never a bad thing to open your mind to new ideas or broaden your horizons. Having a better understanding of other cultures and other people makes us more empathetic. This book is a work of fiction, yes, but it is based in history and facts from the time.

After all, books are meant to show us things we’ve never seen before. To transport us places we may never go (even if it is somewhere we are capable of going). Through them we can experience impossible things like going into the past or completely different worlds. We can learn so much within the pages of a book. Even if the contents are completely fabricated. We may learn even more because they are.

Happy Reading.