Read This: New Books by Iain (M.) Banks

Iain Banks Book Covers

Back in late October, just before Hurricane Sandy hit New York City and my cable/phone/internet service went out for nearly a week (although it’s unclear to me whether the one really brought about the other, but that’s another story), the Dallas Morning News ran my review of two new books by Iain Banks—or, rather, one new novel by Iain Banks and one new novel by Iain M. Banks. For 25 years, you see, Banks has used his middle initial to distinguish his explicit science fiction from his more “literary” efforts…which, in fact, often have genre elements of their own.

Stonemouth, for example, is a downbeat thriller about a young man returning to his Scottish hometown, five years after he’d fled to escape the wrath of a local crime lord whose daughter he’d just cheated on with another girl. An uneasy truce allows Stu to come back for a funeral, but you know how it is with uneasy truces… In the review, I compared Stu’s long weekend to the structure of a Raymond Chandler story, “like Philip Marlowe,” I said, “Stu pokes at unanswered questions about the past and stirs up hints of an even more disturbing family drama, provoking increasingly violent reactions as he goes.”

The Iain M. Banks novel, The Hydrogen Sonata, is pure space opera, the latest installment in a series of stories set in “the Culture,” a world where intelligent spaceships confer with each other to solve a disturbing intergalactic conundrum involving a 10,000-year-old mystery about an entire civilization’s origins, which may well have been the outcome of a practical joke. It’s the literary equivalent of a smart action film with a wicked sense of humor: I explicitly invoked Douglas Adams, while nothing that “Banks modulates the wry humor through a broader emotional palette that includes political intrigues and sweeping action sequences to rival James Cameron.”

There’s usually a significant gap between new Banks books, but it just happened to work out that two American publishers each had a novel of his lined up for this fall season. Stonemouth and The Hydrogen Sonata are quite different in scope, but there’s a common psychological ground that makes me feel very comfortable recommending them both—even to readers who “don’t like science fiction.” Banks’s most alien characters are still recognizably human in their behavior, and he has a knack for picking out the strangenesses of the contemporary world. As it happens, I’ve read more Iain Banks than Iain M. Banks to date, but I’m definitely looking to redress that imbalance in the future.

28 November 2012 | read this |

Life Stories #17: Susannah Cahalan

Life Stories: Susannah Cahalan
photo: Julie Stapen

In this episode of Life Stories, the podcast where I chat with memoir writers about their lives and about the art of writing memoir, my guest is Susannah Cahalan, and her book is Brain on Fire: My Month of Madness. I first met Susannah at BookExpo America, as part of a panel of buzz authors I moderated—right away, I knew I’d be getting into a fuller conversation as her memoir neared its publication date, and here we are.

I don’t think it’s giving too much away to tell you that Cahalan was afflicted by an extremely rare disease, anti-NMDA-receptor autoimmune encephalitis, in 2009—and that the outward symptoms of this autoimmune disorder were essentially indistinguishable from a mental breakdown, putting the young journalist in a life-threatening situation until one of the handful of doctors who even knew of this disorder’s existence came to evaluate her. Cahalan herself was out of it through the worst of her ordeal, so she went over her medical records, then interviewed her doctors, along with family and friends, to piece together, step by excruciating step, the story of how she nearly died, and then slowly began to make her way back to health.

Listen to Life Stories #17: Susannah Cahalan (MP3 file); or download the file by right-clicking (Mac users, option-click).

26 November 2012 | life stories |

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