Poems That Make Grown Men Cry

Poems That Make Grown Men Cry: 100 Men on the Words That Move ThemPoems That Make Grown Men Cry: 100 Men on the Words That Move Them by Anthony Holden
Published: 2014
Length: 336 pages

This hyperbolic title reads a bit like Internet clickbait, but Anthony Holden explains in the introduction that the idea grew from discussions with his male friends of poems they couldn’t recite without choking up. Whether all of the men in this book wept at their choices, I cannot say, but I feel like some of them may have just chosen their favourite sentimental poem. Poems That Grown Men Quite Like doesn’t have that same punch, however.

It’s an interesting project, with the taboo of men showing emotion tackled head-on. I’m not a very emotive person in public. Leave me with sad film or song (though rarely books oddly) when I’m on my own, and I’ll whimper all night, but if there is anyone near me I will toss myself out the nearest window before they see the slightest quiver from my bottom lip. I’m not sure why I’m like this. I don’t look down on any other male for being emotional, and I wasn’t raised in a household that discouraged such things, but there you have it.

They choose 100 well-known men from around the world, though mostly British and white, to provide a poem that moves them to tears and a short explanation behind their choice. Some of the contributors include John le Carr√©, Sebastian Faulks, Stephen Fry, James Earl Jones, Kenneth Branagh, Christopher Hitchens, Patrick Stewart, Jeremy Irons, Salmon Rushdie, Daniel Radcliffe, Nick Cave, Colin Firth, Mark Haddon, and Ian McEwan. It’s an interesting mix of people, and after each entry it provides a small biographical paragraph in case you’re unfamiliar with the celebrity, which I needed quite a few times.

I’m not well-versed in poetry. Since starting this weblog five years ago, I think I’ve only read a few poetry collections, two of which were Bukowski. I love his poems, but he feels a bit Poetry 101, so I’ve been meaning to start reading more and branching out a bit. This felt like a perfect launching pad for that, with a good mix of poets and styles to try. Having the introductions made each poem feel like a personal recommendation.

I’ve marked my favourites from this collection, which I’ll return to, and I’ll maybe post some of them here in the next couple of months. Three poets I’ll definitely be reading more from are W.H. Auden, Tony Harrison, and Billy Collins, and I’ll be keeping an eye out for some poetry when we’re at Powell’s Books at the beginning of September. Recommendations are welcome!

I really enjoyed this collection. I just read a poem or two each night for a few months before reading my regular book, and I felt like that was a great way to consume poetry. It let me mull over what I’d read before moving on, whereas in the past I would occasionally fly through a collection without considering each poem. Some of these poems I loved, while others I couldn’t really connect with, but overall I really liked the format of the book.

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The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy (Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, #1)The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams
Published: 1979
Narrated by: Stephen Fry
Length: 05:51 (216 pages)

It’s been two decades since I first read this, and I think I enjoyed it even more the second time. I thought I’d listen to the audiobook despite having the hard copy on my shelf, just because it was narrated by Stephen Fry. Anything Fry narrates is fantastic, and since he was such good friends with Adams, you can feel a little of the love in his performance. The Random House production does have some quirks, with weirdly abrupt chapter transitions, but I still really enjoyed listening to this.

Space is big. You just won’t believe how vastly, hugely, mind-bogglingly big it is. I mean, you may think it’s a long way down the road to the chemist’s, but that’s just peanuts to space.

This is a story where the humour and ideas are king rather than the overall plot, which is serviceable but really just there to get to the next joke or satirical situation. The characters are also quite static throughout the novel, with very little development. I can’t remember if that changes in the later books, I actually think I only ever read the first two, but they still serve their purpose just fine. His humour completely overshadows any weaknesses that might come up.

Douglas Adams was an environmentalist, dedicating much of his time towards campaigning for endangered species, and this is apparent even in his first novel. It begins with essentially an entire species being wiped out as an afterthought of a more advanced species’ expansion. He also turned the tables on our superiority over the animal kingdom by giving lab-tested animals power. It’s nice to see his success as a writer let him pursue that cause, although his case for the Black rhinoceros seemed to go largely unheard.

Marvin was humming ironically because he hated humans so much

This novel permeated popular culture like few things ever do. I knew what a Babel fish was before I knew of the Tower of Babel. This has to be one of the most reference novels ever written, at least in geek culture. I’d forgotten how many classics came from this first book of the series, and it’s still just as clever and funny now, even after years of people constantly making Thursday and towel jokes. I’d forgotten a lot of the details, and even some of the major scenes – the sperm whale had completely slipped my mind, for example – so it was a real pleasure to return to this after so many years.

If you haven’t read this, obviously read it. If you haven’t read it in a while, trying picking it up again. It won’t be another 20 years before I come back to this.

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Quiet

Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop TalkingQuiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking by Susan Cain
Published: 2012
Narrated by: Kathe Mazur
Length: 10:39 (352 pages)

A lot of people seem to assume that introversion is a synonym for shyness and extroversion for sociability, which is an oversimplification. It’s more about how sensitive they are to being overstimulated by their environment. Introverts are easily overstimulated, by socializing and noise and light, and extroverts are less sensitive to that. As a result, introverts tend to withdraw from that stimulation. Extroverts, on the other hand, can easily become bored without it.

Someone can be introverted and still enjoy speaking publicly or having a night out, but they may find a high level of social interaction will eventually leave them drained of energy. They may do fine in large groups but prefer to be alone or spend time with one or two close friends. They may want to talk for hours on topics that interest them but cower in fear at the thought of small talk.

Don’t think of introversion as something that needs to be cured.

Most people fall somewhere between the two extremes. I consider myself to be quite introverted. I can have a great night out, but I am not leaving my condo the next night and you can’t make me. When I am out with friends I tend to always have a blast, but I have to admit I’m much more a fan of a quiet night in. When I was younger, I was constantly out and would feel terrible guilt if I declined an invitation without having a valid excuse, like I was doing something wrong. That’s silly, obviously, but we do live in a society that tends to value extroversion and look down on introversion, and it’s easy to let that sink into your psyche.

You would never write that you work better alone than in groups on a job application. If a child is shy at school or doesn’t thrive in groups, it’s not that the method of teaching isn’t conductive to their personality, it’s that there’s something wrong with them and they need to ‘come out of their shell’. Harvard Business School, a school that produces U.S. presidents and Fortune 500 CEOs, prizes sociability and confidence over academic achievements when accepting students, and gives advice such as “Speak with conviction. Even if you believe something only 55 percent, say it as if you believe it 100 percent”. In those classrooms, the most important lesson is to participate in class discussions, even if your contribution is incorrect or adds nothing of value.

Extroversion is often synonymous with strong leadership and success, but Cain reminds us, through examples, that introverts can and do make great leaders, that their passion and focus often makes them natural leaders when they find themselves in that position.

There’s zero correlation between being the best talker and having the best ideas.

Workplaces are becoming much more team-focused as well, tossing offices or even cubicles aside for open-floor plans. Sticking groups of people in a room together to brainstorm on a whiteboard instead of allowing them to work on their own ideas is a very common practice, even though research has shown at many points that this isn’t necessarily the more productive approach. In a study Cain quotes, employees of a company were placed into random groups and asked to brainstorm ideas. They also asked the same number of people to brainstorm alone. In 23 out of 24 cases, the ideas people came up individually were more numerous and of a higher quality.

It’s not that these approaches are wrong. The problem is that we treat everyone the same – either you’re extroverted or you need to fake it – rather than acknowledging that different conditions suite different people. Cain provides recommendations for how to get the most of introverted employees, how to support your introverted child as they go through school, and how to deal with relationships between introverts and extroverts. My girlfriend really gets it, despite being fairly extroverted herself, so I thankfully don’t have to deal with the pitfalls Cain describes in the book.

Spend your free time the way you like, not the way you think you’re supposed to.

If nothing else, this book is a big ego boost for introverts, which is nice for a group that maybe grew up feeling a bit weird. John Cleese recommended it in a couple of interviews I listened to, so I eventually broke down and read it. Recommended for both introverts and those wanting to understand them, although she is such a cheerleader for introversion that extroverts may start to feel a bit picked on by the end.

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Delilah Dirk and the Turkish Lieutenant

Delilah Dirk and the Turkish Lieutenant (Delilah Dirk, #1)Delilah Dirk and the Turkish Lieutenant by Tony Cliff
Format: Original Graphic Novel
Illustrated by: Tony Cliff
Series: Delilah Dirk #1
Publisher: First Second
Published: 2013
Length: 169 pages

I was in the mood for some good old-fashioned adventuring after playing Uncharted 4, and I had heard this graphic novel described as a mix of Indiana Jones and Tintin, which seemed to fit the bill perfectly. It certainly did, and I’ve already picked up the sequel.

This is a breezy and fun adventure story set in the early nineteenth century Ottoman Empire. The title character, Delilah Dirk (great name), is a badass woman of Greek and English descent who has spent years honing her skills around the world – marksmanship in France, survival skills in India, acrobatics in Indonesia, martial arts in a Japanese monastery. She also has a flying sailboat. She’s the wise-cracking superhero of the tale.

The character that we follow is actually the Turkish lieutenant, Selim. He acts as the Watson to her Holmes, giving us a more believable character to inhabit while we’re spellbound by Delilah’s super-human prowess. They meet after she’s been detained by the Turkish Janissary Corps and Selim is tasked with interrogating her. Before long, they are both on the run, and they work well together until their differences start to become more apparent. Delilah can’t stay still for long, always looking for her next adventure, and Selim is a reluctant traveler at best. He’d rather take root in one place, connect with the people around him, and have a nice cup of tea.

I really enjoyed this. It scratched that pulp adventure itch, and the art was great, with a cartoon style that did an excellent job of conveying the characters’ expressions and the fast-paced action. I loved how Tony Cliff didn’t try to throw in a cheap love story and instead opted for the characters to bond in a platonic way, and I also loved how Selim’s character arc felt meaningful without becoming too sappy. It’s high adventure with humour and well-written dialogue.

dirk

This is probably considered an young adult comic, as there is some violence and murder, but it’s not graphic. It’s nice to see a story where neither of the main characters are the stereotypical white male adventurer. Don’t get me wrong, I love those characters and spent most of my youth imagining I was them, but it’s always great to see heroes that reflect a wider range of people.

The second volume, Delilah Dirk and the King’s Shilling, was released earlier this year.

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July in Review

Books Acquired:
Delilah Dirk and the King’s Shilling by Tony Cliff

Books Read:
The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams
Poems That Make Grown Men Cry by Anthony Holden, Ben Holden
The Lost City of Z: A Tale of Deadly Obsession in the Amazon by David Grann
We Stand On Guard by Brian K. Vaughan

My plan for this upcoming month is to write more than one post. An achievable goal, you would think, but after this last month who knows. What a naughty blogger I’ve been. As an apology, here’s a video of my dog’s beard in the wind.

A video posted by Rob McMillan (@mcmillan) on

It was a relaxing month, although not a great reading month. The couple of books I got through were in audio. I have been reading A Prayer for Owen Meany at night, which I am actually really enjoying, but I’ve only been getting through 10 – 20 pages a day. It’s a bit of a chunker, so that’s been slow going. Sometimes it’s nice to slowly plod through a long novel, though. I don’t often spend that much time with the same characters, and it feels like a different experience in a way.

The book buying ban continues, to prepare for our Seattle/Portland trip, but I decided last month that comics don’t count. Audiobooks also do not count (yay, loopholes), so I was thinking of maybe picking up a novel set in one of those cities. Suggestions are welcome! I was considering Geek Love, or maybe Boneshaker, which I think is set in dystopian Seattle.

Hiking last week in East Sooke.

A photo posted by Rob McMillan (@mcmillan) on

Movies watched:
The Resurrection of Jake the Snake (2015) – I’m not a wrestling fan, and I’m not sure why I turned this on, but I actually really enjoyed it. It’s like one of those supposedly-reality-but-quite-obviously-scripted intervention television shows, but it seems to actually be a sincere documentary. It’s spread over a few years, so it doesn’t feel like they had to add extra drama to fill the time.

TV watched:
Outlander (2016) – After the end of the last season, I really wasn’t interested in continuing with this. My girlfriend is a huge fan, though, so we carried on. It really did pick up, and this season had some great moments.

W1A: Season 1 & 2 (2014-2015) – I watched Twenty Twelve a few years back and enjoyed it, so when we came across this follow-up on Netflix we decided to give it a try. It’s quite funny, but something about it is incredibly addicting. We burned through the short episodes pretty quickly this month.

A Cook Abroad (2015) – Great food travel show. Each episode follows a different celebrity chef in a country of their choosing. Some episodes are much better than others, but the best ones really are excellent.

Games played:
Overwatch (2016) (PC) – Still playing a match of this here and there and really enjoying it. There’s a lot of depth to this game, and they added their first new character to the roster, so that brought me back after not playing for a while.

What have you been reading/watching/playing this month?

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Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus

FrankensteinFrankenstein by Mary Shelley
Published: 1818
Narrated by: Dan Stevens
Length: 08:35 (280 pages)

It’s been about fifteen years since I first read this. It was required for a first-year English course at university, and I rushed through it rather quickly, as one sometimes does for assigned reading. During my final exam for that course, which involved an impromptu essay on the book, I managed to include an event from Kenneth Branagh’s 1994 adaptation that did not occur in the novel itself, despite having finished the book, having discussed the event at length in class, and having not seen the movie for half a decade.

I remember burning with shame at the thought of my instructor reading that essay. It wasn’t until later in my university career that I started taking pride in my grades, so I was more embarrassed as a reader than I was as a student. Over the years I even began to doubt whether or not I had finished the entire novel. Having read it again now, I’m fairly sure I did and just had a minor breakdown in that exam.

A sea captain comes across Victor Frankenstein freezing to death while travelling in the arctic. Once recovered, Victor tells the man his entire story, and this novel is in the form of letters from the sea captain to his sister back home, recounting that tale. It’s an epistolary novel only in the sense that the story is framed by the idea of writing these letters, but once the true plot begins it’s as if you’re just listening to Victor speak. I feel sorry for the poor traveler who agreed to deliver the captain’s letter to his sister, not knowing at the time that it was hundreds upon hundreds of handwritten pages.

I forgot how quickly the creation of the monster takes place. Every film adaptation has such a build up, with lightning rods and cackling into the darkness and ‘It’s alive!’, but it happens so quickly in the novel. It’s quite a slow-paced read, in a way that I enjoy, but this scene is really only a few paragraphs. He toils for 2 years at the university, focusing all of his energy on this one event, and as soon as the monster twitches with life, Victor’s suddenly overcome with what he’s done. Blinded with his ambition and thirst for knowledge, he didn’t stop to consider the horror of an animated corpse. He ran out the door before he could see how extraordinary the creature really was.

“Life, although it may only be an accumulation of anguish, is dear to me, and I will defend it.”

This leaves the monster bewildered, obviously, and he escapes into the wild. When Victor next encounters him, he’s learned to speak and has become angry with his abandonment. He offers Victor an ultimatum – create another monster, a female with whom he can find the companionship he so desperately seeks, or have his life ruined.

I mentioned above that this is a slowly paced novel, but I don’t personally find that to be a negative. I love the time we spend in these character’s heads. The monster proves himself to have humanity while still living up to his title, and Victor proves himself to be every bit the monster as the one he created. It’s easier to have compassion for the monster, considering what he’d been through, and also because Victor Frankenstein is just the worst, but they’re both incredibly flawed and interesting characters to follow.

Victor gives an inspirational speech to a ship crew near the end of the novel, a crew that is ready to turn back and give up on their expedition, and it’s the first time in quite a while he isn’t crumbling with self hate and pity. He can be so determined, as we see here and at the beginning of the novel, and it’s such a stark contrast to the sniveling pity party he turns into at the flick of a switch. He’s a self-destructive but gifted man.

“Did you not call this a glorious expedition? And wherefore was it glorious? Not because the way was smooth and placid as a southern sea, but because it was full of dangers and terror, because at every new incident your fortitude was to be called forth and your courage exhibited, because danger and death surrounded it, and these you were to brave and overcome. For this was it a glorious, for this was it an honourable undertaking. You were hereafter to be hailed as the benefactors of your species, your names adored as belonging to brave men who encountered death for honour and the benefit of mankind. And now, behold, with the first imagination of danger, or, if you will, the first mighty and terrific trial of your courage, you shrink away and are content to be handed down as men who had not strength enough to endure cold and peril; and so, poor souls, they were chilly and returned to their warm firesides. Why, that requires not this preparation; ye need not have come thus far and dragged your captain to the shame of a defeat merely to prove yourselves cowards. Oh! Be men, or be more than men. Be steady to your purposes and firm as a rock. This ice is not made of such stuff as your hearts may be; it is mutable and cannot withstand you if you say that it shall not. Do not return to your families with the stigma of disgrace marked on your brows. Return as heroes who have fought and conquered and who know not what it is to turn their backs on the foe.”

I thought for my re-read this time I’d listen to it in audiobook format. Dan Stevens, from Downton Abbey, is the narrator of the latest Audible version, and while I didn’t mind him on that show, I wasn’t really excited to listen to him. I put trust in the reviews, however, and I’m so glad I picked this version. It was a fantastic reading of a thought-provoking and eerie novel.

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June in Review

Books Acquired:
The Ode Less Travelled by Stephen Fry
We Stand On Guard by Brian K. Vaughan
I Shall Wear Midnight by Terry Pratchett
Wintersmith by Terry Pratchett

Books Read:
Gentlemen of the Road by Michael Chabon
Ship Breaker by Paolo Bacigalupi
Frankenstein by Mary Shelley
Delilah Dirk and the Turkish Lieutenant by Tony Cliff
Quiet by Susan Cain

How is it the 7th already? I haven’t even done my wrap-up for the last month.

We’ve just confirmed that we’ll be in Portland at the beginning of September, so I’m putting myself on a book-buying ban until then to save myself for Powell’s Books. We’ll see how that pans out. As for June, my girlfriend read the first two Tiffany Aching novels recently and wanted to continue on, so I figured I had to pick up the next couple of books. For her, obviously. I couldn’t find the editions I wanted in town here, so I had to order them online. It was only logical to throw in the Brian K. Vaughan comic while I was at it.

I’ve been looking for Stephen’s Fry’s The Ode Less Travelled here in town for a while now, but I haven’t seen it anywhere. Just a used paperback once, but it was in quite bad shape. I was grocery shopping a couple of weeks ago and noticed that a local thrift shop had a book sale, so I popped in there and found a nice hardback copy for only a couple of dollars. It was a very nice surprise.

Movies watched:
The Fundamentals of Caring (2016) – I liked this. It’s a dark comedy road trip movie that manages to deal with some heavy subjects in a light-hearted way.

TV watched:
Chef’s Table: Season 2 (2016) – If you’re at all interested in food television, this is a must watch, but the cinematography and music is so perfectly done that you might even like it if you couldn’t care less about food.

Restaurant Australia: Season 1 (2015) – This was good too, but not on the level of Chef’s Table obviously. It’s a three-episode miniseries about the preparation of a massive dinner event, and it follows the chefs as they build a menu that showcases Australia’s local produce.

Games played:
A Golden Wake (2014) (PC) – I loved this. The music and story were both fantastic, and it had an interesting mix of puzzles to solve. It’s an adventure game set in 1920’s Miami during the real estate boom, and it’s based around actual events and locations in Coral Gables.

Uncharted 4 (2016) (PS4) – I actually finished this in July, but most if it was played in June. It’s a beautiful game with fantastic writing. I’m very sad to see the series end, but I couldn’t ask for a better finale.

What have you been reading/watching/playing this month?

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Ship Breaker

Ship Breaker (Ship Breaker, #1)Ship Breaker by Paolo Bacigalupi
Published: 2010
Series: Ship Breaker, #1
Length: 326 pages

I hadn’t realised that this was a young adult novel when I picked it up. I read The Windup Girl a couple of years back, and that is very much not a young adult book, so it was interesting to see the difference in tone between the two. In a way, it felt like the confines of young adult fiction, whatever those may be, may have been good for him.

I’ve only read two of his books, but from that sample it seems like Paolo Bacigalupi’s bread and butter is richly-imagined dystopian futures caused by environmental disasters. In Ship Breaker, the polar ice caps have melted, drowning coastal cities around with world, and fossil fuels have run dry. An industry based around scavenging resources from beached old-world oil tankers has grown out of the demand for recycled materials.

We follow Nailer, a young teenager on one of the light oil tanker crews, tasked with collecting copper wiring by crawling through ship ventilation. He lives a miserable life with his drug-abusing thug of a dad and really has no options for his future. Soon he will be too large to continue working in light crew, but he is unlikely to ever be large enough for heavy crew, so he’ll be left with no way to support himself. He just continues working while he can, constantly daydreaming of finding a lucky break. That lucky break appears in the form of a clipper wreck, a solar-powered luxury ship from the new world that crashed in a storm. What they find inside will change everything.

The first half of this was interesting but a bit slow to develop. I loved the creative world, but I couldn’t really connect with any of the characters. Once the group splits up a bit, and the story focuses on just a few of the characters, I found myself much more engaged. I couldn’t put down the book for the last half of the story.

There are a lot of fascinating themes in this book, but most are really only touched upon – the divide between the rich and poor, the meaning of family, free will and slavery, to name but a few. The idea of nature vs nurture is probably the most developed of them all. Nailer’s father is an awful man, and he struggles throughout the novel with how much of his father may or may not be part of his own personality and impulses. Bacigalupi does any excellent job of bringing all of this up while keeping the novel light, but I would have liked to delve in a bit deeper with these ideas. He created such a great world, and it felt like a lost opportunity to not take the time to explore these themes a bit more in that setting.

One of the characters is a half-man, which is a genetically engineered man who is a mix of human, dog, and tiger. They are essentially slaves who are bred to have unbreakable loyalty towards their masters, and this character is one of the only half-men to circumvent that training and live his own life. He was, by far, the most intriguing character, but his story was only teased in this. It does look like the second Ship Breaker novel, The Drowned Cities, is the story of his origin. I would have liked to see him more involved in this particular story, but I’m definitely interested to read more about him.

I found Bacigalupi’s last book to be quite confusing, actually, with the character viewpoints not feeling distinct enough, so in a way this simpler story, with one viewpoint character, was a nice change. That was his first novel, to be fair, but I had a tough time keeping everything straight in my head. In both novels it took me nearly half the book to feel any attachment to the characters, but I’m always immediately in love with the worlds he imagines. That really seems to be his strength as a writer, but I hope characterization catches up with his worldbuilding. This was certainly a step in the right direction, at least.

This was a fun novel. If I come across the next in the series, I’ll be sure to pick it up. I’m also interested in reading his latest adult novel, The Water Knife. Paolo Bacigalupi seems like an author to keep an eye on.

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Gentlemen of the Road

Gentlemen of the RoadGentlemen of the Road by Michael Chabon
Published: 2007
Length: 204 pages

I’ve been wanting to read a Michael Chabon novel for quite a while now, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay in particular, and just haven’t gotten to it. At the book sale last month, I found this and thought it might be a good introduction to him, mainly because it’s nice and short.

Those were the longest 200 pages of my life. My god. The concept was great. The cover promises an adventurous tale of Jews with swords, and I’m always up for some swashbuckling. The two main characters are a giant man with an ax and a quick wit and a skinny physician with a rapier and an equally dark mood and sense of humor. They are ‘gentlemen of the road’, and at the beginning of the novel we find them faking a brawl outside of a tavern to scam some bet winnings. Great so far. They are hired, with promise of a reward, to deliver a young man to his relatives, and they set off on their journey.

To be fair, it was obvious from fairly early on that this novel wasn’t working out for me, and I really should have just dropped it. I keep telling myself I’m going to get better at giving up on books, but I was about halfway through when I came out of denial, and I seemed so close to the end. The last hundred pages of this felt like a sprint through molasses.

His writing was so convoluted that it was just a pain to read. The occasional passage would jump out at me as actually being beautifully written, and there were some great bits of humour throughout, but it was all drowning in self-conscious, overwrought prose. I had to keep re-reading paragraphs to try to piece together what he was actually trying to say. It read like he was on a misguided mission to elevate genre fiction, and decided to do this by making liberal use of a thesaurus and the Wikipedia entry on the Khazars (which he cited, along with a Geocities page, under his research) while completely forgetting that a compelling plot might help as well.

The problem seems to be that he is deeply embarrassed to be writing genre fiction. He included an afterword, and it only confirmed any suspicion I had. It’s an essay that is, partly, how it may seem unusual for someone of his “literary training, generation and pretensions to be writing stories featuring anybody with swords”, and while he writes this in a way that suggests he just wants a little more adventure in his life and isn’t personally disparaging genre fiction, I still couldn’t help think that he really needs to get over himself.

Finally, at the very end of this book, he takes a couple of pages to explain the elaborate research that went into this. Normally I would welcome a list of further reading, but with the aftertaste of his apology essay still lingering, it just felt like more posturing. Fantasy writers have been researching their stories since the genre began. It’s not uncommon, and they actually manage to turn that research into a readable story with substance.

I finished the novel disappointed, but I finished the afterword actually a little annoyed. It’s possible that I’ve gotten a completely wrong impression of him from this novel, as this is really the only exposure I’ve had to him, so I’ll try to keep an open mind. People do seem to love him, so there must be something there I haven’t seen yet, and this particular novel was obviously an experiment. I can’t say I’m excited to pick up another of his books after this, though. Never say never, but it’ll take some convincing.

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The Player of Games

The Player of Games (Culture, #2)The Player of Games by Iain M. Banks
Published: 1988
Series: The Culture #2
Narrated by: Peter Kenny
Length: 11:26 (288 pages)

This is the second novel in Iain M. Banks’ Culture series. They apparently don’t need to be read in order, and everyone who has read them seems to have their suggested reading order to follow, but I like rules, okay? I’m following the publication order on these.

I knew this wouldn’t be related to the first book, but it’s not just a new set of characters, it’s a complete departure. In Consider Phlebas, it was a story taking place in the war between the hedonistic Culture and the war-minded Idirans. I had assumed each book would be stories taking place within that war, but this novel really had very little to do with it. It did involve the Culture expanding its influence to other worlds, which I supposed could be loosely related, but it really took me by surprise.

This follows a citizen of the Culture, Jernau Morat Gurgeh, who is one of the best board game players in the society. It’s a utopian civilization, where all labour is automated and people are free to pursue their passions. Gurgeh’s passion is board games. He plays them all very well, not focusing on just a single game, and teaches others on game strategy, writing academic papers and giving lectures. He’s successful and well known, but has lately grown bored with his life.

Gurgeh is convinced, with the help of some subtle manipulation, to travel on behalf of the Culture to another civilization’s home planet to participate in an incredibly complex game called Azad, as a way of relating the two societies. The game is very important to these people, as their leaders and high-ranking officers are determined by Azad tournaments. They learn the game from a very young age, and it’s not expected that Gurgeh will do well. It’s more a show of good faith.

It’s an interesting way to explain more of how the Culture works without pages of exposition. In having Gurgeh travel to a new world, we’re able to learn about the Culture by how it’s contrasted with this other society. They are a barbaric race in comparison to the Culture, much more like our current world in real life actually, so he’s able to show us the differences between the two, while also at times using it to reflect our own culture, and it never feels like preaching or a Wikipedia entry.

Banks is a brilliant world-builder and he comes up with such imaginative ideas. Just the simple fact that he based a space opera, of sorts, around a board game, shows he was someone who enjoyed the unique and unexpected. Even the small touches he throws in throughout the story. When they first arrive on the new planet, it’s mentioned that their prison is actually a labyrinth from which it is, in theory, possible to escape. The worse the crime, the further in you begin, and it’s been known for criminals with money to bribe their way out. I feel like a whole story could take place just in that prison (which he did, partly, with Walking on Glass), and it’s just a paragraph on the side.

This book, written nearly thirty years ago now, clearly had an impact on people. After Banks’ death in 2013, Elon Musk of the SpaceX program named two autonomous spaceport drone ships, Just Read the Instructions and Of Course I Still Love You, after ships from this book. The story still holds up today. If I didn’t know the publication date going in, I’d have thought it was written recently.

I look forward to reading some more of this series, as well as more of his literary fiction.

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