Message in a Bottle
Iain [M.] Banks, 1954-2013: An Appreciation

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I am moved to put pen to paper to celebrate the peerless work and mourn the untimely death of my favorite author, Scottish novelist Iain Banks, who died on June 9th, two months after being diagnosed with cancer, and two weeks before the publication of what will now be his last novel, The Quarry.

imageIn an ironic twist that Banks himself would and did appreciate, The Quarry concerns events surrounding a middle-aged man dying of cancer. Banks had almost completed the book when he himself was diagnosed, and one has to assume that some of his own experience will be reflected in the completed manuscript. That, and the events which now surround its publication lend a grim poignancy to The Quarry for those of us who loved Iain Banks’ work. In a recent interview his own reaction, typically, was more sardonic: “I’ve really got to stop doing my research too late. This is really such a bad idea.”

imageBanks was a prolific writer, publishing an average of a book every year since his first, The Wasp Factory, arrived bathed in controversy in 1984 (the Irish Times melodramatically declared it “a work of unparalleled depravity”). I discovered him early and the arrival of each new novel has become a highlight of every year for most of my adult life. Until recently his books were published in the UK months earlier than the USA. Of course, I had them shipped.

Unusually, he enjoyed two separate, albeit occasionally overlapping, literary careers. The first, as Iain Banks, was in wildly original, mainstream, non-genre fiction and the second, as Iain M. Banks, was in science fiction. Both oeuvres are characterized by gleefully mordant wit, with a strong whiff of politics and a prose style which is almost conversational at times, but otherwise they are very different.

imageHis “mainstream” fiction encompasses a breathtaking variety of subject matter and extremes of human behavior: a family of psychopaths on a Scottish island (The Wasp Factory), a man in a coma dreaming of life on a giant city-bridge (The Bridge), a fake ‘70s rock ’n’ roll biography (Espedair Street), a Scottish family melodrama-mystery (The Crow Road). My personal favorite is Complicity, the bleak story of a drug-addled journalist investigating a series of bizarre and gruesome murders which seem linked to his exposés on politicians, businessmen, and arms dealers. Banks frequently wore his politics on his sleeve. At the same time there are similar themes woven into many of the books: outsiders, prodigal sons, human cruelty, Scotland and its landscapes, families and their secrets, and an affection for people and their foibles.

But Banks’ greatest creation lies in his science fiction books: The Culture. A galaxy-spanning utopian society, managed (not “ruled”) by astonishingly powerful sentient machines called “Minds,” who, despite their virtual omnipotence and desire to do the right thing, manage by turns to be smug, bickering, vain, and neurotic, and see many of their carefully planned interventions into other societies misfire. This is of course how excitement is built into the stories, but the whole enterprise is permeated with a profound sense of optimism. Despite all the failures and compromises, The Culture remains (almost uniquely) a utopia you ache to be a part of.

Banks was also fond of playing tricks with narrative structures. Complicity is written from two narrative viewpoints in the first and second person (the second person narrative being the voice of the murderer). Feersum Endjinn employs four narrators, one of whom is apparently dyslexic: “…we decided we otter go 2 c Mr Zoliparia in thi I-ball ov thi gargoyle Rosbrith.” Use Of Weapons is told as two interwoven narratives, one running forwards through time, the other backwards. Almost the entirety of Consider Phlebas, which introduces The Culture, is told from the point of view of their enemies.

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I am somewhat taken aback at the depth of emotion Banks’ death has stirred within me. But I am an inveterate reader, and when I recall the thrill of anticipation I felt every time the publication date of his next novel was announced, it isn’t so surprising after all. His books are so very good, and their arrival each year has been part of the rhythm of my life for so long. Two weeks from now I will buy a copy of The Quarry, and once I finish reading it, there will never, never be another. I feel as if I have lost a friend, a companion.

And I am not alone. Banks’ death has prompted an astonishing outpouring of grief from all over the world. A website set up by one of Banks’ friends when he announced his diagnosis in April now runs to almost 250 pages of comments left by well-wishers, which have now given way to thousands of messages of mourning and condolence.

imageI can do nothing better than conclude by urging you to find some Iain Banks and embark on one of the great joyrides in modern literature, led by one of its most distinctive and irreplaceable voices. The Crow Road is a good place to start on the mainstream fiction, or Complicity or The Wasp Factory for those with a stronger constitution. For science fiction devotees, I recommend any of the Culture novels, but especially The Player of Games, Use of Weapons, and Consider Phlebas.

imageIn 2003 Iain Banks wrote his only non-fiction book, Raw Spirit, which chronicles a road trip around Scotland to discover the “perfect dram” of Scotch single malt whisky (and typically finds time to excoriate Tony Blair and various other politicians along the way). If you spot someone in the Roanoke Inn this summer, hunched over a book and looking a bit lost, clutching a tumbler of Lagavulin, that’ll be me…

—Anthony Pooley is a British engineer and musician who has lived on Mercer Island since 2005. Iain Banks’ final novel, The Quarry, will be released in the US on June 25th.

Welcome Guest Star Mary Jane Beaufrand

Mary Jane Beaufrand’s is a name many of you will recall fondly. She’s the author of the young adult novel Primavera, among other work, and a teacher of writing, but we know her best for her years behind the counter here at Island Books. We checked in with her just recently and asked her to share some memories and tell us what’s new.

—Miriam Landis

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Maybe it’s not fair, but the part that stands out most in my mind from my time on the staff at Island Books was the outbreak of the swine flu.

I used to go around the store, armed with a can of Orange Antibiotic Wipes and use them on every surface, until the place reeked and my coworkers complained, pretending to gag and demanding, “Somebody please! Open a window! MJ’s at it again!”

During that time, I finished working on my novel for young adults, Dark River. Which is ironic because I don’t recall the time as being dark at all. I remember the staff and customers as being the charming, welcoming types, with a wonderful sense of community.

Since then I’ve continued to write and teach writing to middle-school aged children. I love working with the age group because they have no shortage of imagination. They want to write about ninja academies. They want to write about being stranded in the wilderness with a hatchet and a pet wolf. They want to write about being a young but plucky heroine in a future where teens are forced to battle each other to the death.

I love being able to provide—in a classroom—what Island Books does in a store: a safe place to express yourself. Granted, at Island Books there was more talk about where to get a good cheeseburger and microbrew, but the principle applies. No one has to move it along. There’s no drive through.

The main difference between being a teacher and a children’s book specialist is that, as a teacher, I have a captive audience. And the first thing I always tell my students is this:

Before you can be a great writer, you have to be a great reader.

If you’re a parent and you’re reading this blog, you’ve already got your kids on the right path, not just to writing itself, but to finding a career that they’re passionate about.

The staff at IB can help your kids find books they need to get through the summer, but here are three I wanted to mention, two for kids, one for you, that you might not necessarily look for because there are no vampires or zombies. (Not that there’s anything wrong with those guys. Just wouldn’t wanna kiss ‘em):

The One and Only Ivan1) The One and Only Ivan by Katherine Applegate. A book for ages 8-12. Does anyone remember the real Ivan the Gorilla? The one kept in a 14x14 habitat in the BI Shopping Center in Tacoma? I picked this book up for my children thinking that it might have had something to do with the real Ivan, and it does. And, like with the story of the real Ivan, there are difficult spots, but it works out fine in the end. By far the best novel for middle grades this year.

2) Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein. For teens. A historical novel about two girls in World War II, one of whom is a spy being forced to collaborate with the Nazis. The other? Let’s leave some mystery intact, shall we? It’s an especially good read if anyone in your family—you or your child—has been watching Downton Abbey.

Beautiful Ruins3) Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter. For all ages. This is the first novel I’ve read in years that has truly blown me away. And how exciting is it that it’s by Washington State’s own Jess Walter? The novel begins the early 1960s with its hero, Pasquale, trying to “build a beach” in a small rocky fishing village to the south of Cinque Terre in Italy. Against this lush backdrop, and the filming of the movie Cleopatra, characters come together and break apart, make bad decisions (a tennis court on a rocky coast? What happens when the ball goes out?), but by the end, the very best manage to redeem themselves in unexpected ways. For a total hoot, check out the dialogue in the scene between Pasquale and Richard Burton, the actor, as they are driving up the Italian coast.

Hope you all have a good summer of reading and thanks for taking your business to such a great independent bookstore!

—Mary Jane Beaufrand

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