20th of December: Special Christmas Edition

Man of my word, innit. Despite being physically exhausted just looking at this week’s list of bookmarks, I told you I’d cover all your reading needs through the New Year, and I’ve delivered. Let’s get right to it.

Last year I think I shared a whole load of Christmas music with you but, tbh, if you’ve reached the last Sunday before Christmas without hearing Wham! and Mariah Carey without my help, I don’t really want you reading this list. However, you may not know about Kanye West’s Christmas song, so have that. The Marvin Gaye sample is perfect.

With a view to making 2016 the year this blog takes off, please do share it with your friends and family to give them some lovely Christmas cheer and me some lovely Christmas clicks. It’s available as a blog and newsletter.

  • About that Christmas cheer thing… this piece about three Syrian women in Raqqa and how they were variously involved with ISIS is very interesting and emphasises their voices and stories. This piece on the Syrian Kurds is, I think, overly optimistic on how far they can extend their successes, but worthwhile. On the other hand, the aftermath of one of the highest-profile victories in the war on ISIS, the battle for Kobane, left it an uninhabitable ruin – this account of a visit is a good reminder of the long-term consequences. I hate video #content and documentaries but this Vice embed with the Kurds as they re-entered Sinjar was decent.
  • A lot was made of the UK’s very good missiles being the reason we could make a difference in Syria*, and I don’t know what validity that has or ever had but this RUSI primer on the different military technologies the UK brings to the table is interesting (if you’re a very specific kind of nerd, admittedly). Also on a similar note, the arms manufacturers that make all the bombs being chucked around the Middle East literally can’t build them fast enough.
  • Which suggests we should maybe not start chucking bombs at space, but look! That’s the plan!
  • Interesting interview with a Belgian counter-terrorist officer
  • I like this piece from an actual historian on how sloppy narratives about French Algerians and the legacy of the war are used, mostly in the Anglophone media, to substitute for any sort of analysis
  • Yes, pieces about other people’s sobriety are well boring, but this one is good, so.
  • Two lovely, personal pieces on love and mental health – one, based on You’re the Worst’s stunning, affecting depression story this season (well good show that, watch it) and one on how bipolar disorder affects relationships
  • Super robot brains! Artificial intelligence! Literal immortality! Lot to get your head round in this two-parter on the road to superintelligence, and part of me suspects it’s all bollocks but.
  • Less exciting – a critique of lots of the assumptions in space travel and colonization narratives
  • This really long essay on The Selfie is incredible and almost makes all the tedious sneering at young people with their snapchats and their instagrams worthwhile if it led to it
  • This is an old recording of an old poem so not sure why it’s here but Jeremy Irons reading Eliot’s The Waste Land is beautiful and chilling and just about makes final year English Lit
  • As a classic Nice Guy tm ,  I liked this on the fading appeal of the ‘bad boy’**
  • Always a good sign of how hip you are when a hip music outlet does their “best of 2015” list and you don’t even recognise 75% of the artists. Good little source if you want more songs though, mostly leaning hip-hop
  • Fascinating on The Knowledge and the cabbie school on Cally Road
  • On drunk texting and why we’re so embarrassed by it
  • Profile of the lovely and very good Carly Rae Jepsen
  • Having played computer games since I was a wee lad, I’ve never really stopped to question the amount of prior assumptions and experience that go into it, but this piece by an older person (50 year old bloke, I think) who decides to start gaming for the first time is really interesting
  • The new Star Wars is, in fact, very good so this piece on how Disney are planning to perpetuate the franchise for all eternity in a cynical corporate master plan is Well Exciting.
  • Great little look at the furniture in the background of video games.
  • Five year anniversary of My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, so Noisey did a whole load of articles about it. This one was good. Secret confession time: I didn’t listen to MBDTF till first year of university and didn’t really Get it for another year, so I can’t do the whole “first time I heard Nicki’s verse on Monster it changed my life” act. Shameful.

*basically gave up on ever writing up my thoughts about this tbh

**largely kidding

13th of December: Look, I know

yes, it’s been a while. Tell me something I don’t know. I’ve been busy, alright? So we’re going to proceed as follows – I’m going to post reviews this week just to tide you over, and then, weekend before Christmas, I’ll put out a bumper reading list for you to take onto the trains and buses and planes home, and to read on the sofa, etc. etc., because I’m well thoughtful (and also I’m off work from the 18th)

State of the Art – Iain M. Banks

This, Iain M. Banks’ only short story collection, was a bit of a miss for me. Even in my recent string of underwhelming Banks books, they’ve been generally enjoyable until the end.

I don’t like to leave books unfinished, but I didn’t bother getting to the end of the centrepiece novella of this one, and I wasn’t overly impressed with the rest of the short stories it contained. Most leaned a bit too heavily on a gotcha twist ending, and many of them had a very transparent political subtext. The novella was given over to characters exchanging thudding monologues about progress and religion and the Holocaust and I eventually chucked it on the floor. Strong pass on this one, imo.

The Wizard of Earthsea – Ursula Le Guin

Gave up on this one when I was a lad, and having finally gotten back to it, can’t really figure out why. I think it was something to do with the general bleakness of the middle sections, but I think it was mostly that I was a fool.

Ursula Le Guin’s The Wizard of Earthsea sketches what seems like a fully-realised fantasy world with laws of magic and different kingdoms and customs and languages, while telling a pretty compelling coming-of-age wizard-y tale. It’s enjoyable, but it’s probably telling that I had to go up to the children’s section of the library to find it. It tends to blast along quite quickly, which is admittedly preferable to the last fantasy novel I read, Dance of Dragons, which really… doesn’t. But yeah, it’s as good as everyone says it is I guess.

Inversions – Iain M. Banks

Actually enjoyed this one, which is a relief, as I think it’s the last Iain M. Banks I hadn’t read. Interestingly, it’s not exactly a Culture novel so much as a sort of medieval fantasy*, so it moves along quite quickly without so much dawdling on the details of different future technology and AI societies. The writing doesn’t have as much of Banks’ wit as usual, possibly because the two narrators tend, a doctor’s assistant and a ruler’s bodyguard, are by design, less interesting than the characters they follow.

It’s decent.

*although this isn’t as clear-cut as it seems

The Innocent – Iain McEwan

Good, this. Somewhere in between a Cold War spy story and a romance novel, it follows its slightly bumbling English protagonist in very close detail, which I really like. It makes the unfolding of the plot more plausible and more exciting, as you can see the internal logic and impact of events (god this is reading like a school book report). This detailed narration extends to the romance side of things, which is by turns very explicit and beautifully elliptical. The two ‘genres’ clash and intertwine and it all unfolds a bit grimly, but the final chapters are rather beautiful things.

The Tank War – Mark Urban

Couple of weeks ago, I went to take books back to the library, intending to not get anymore and catch up on the Pocket queue. But when I saw this on the shelf, I did a little squeal, immediately ran to the checkout and withdrew it and sent a picture of the cover to my girlfriend. The Tank War!*

I’m not 100% where the tank-specific obsession started – think I got Niall Barr’s Pendulum of War, about El Alamein from a charity shop a while back and that book was just chat about tanks and tank armour and tank strategy for pages and pages and it became one of those ironic things that I loved tanks that actually became self-fulfilling.

Anyway, I mention Barr’s book because it’s a lot better, really, than Urban’s. The Tank War is structured around one regiment, which it follows from Dunkirk to Hamburg, 1940-1945, and it’s quite a clever idea. In some ways, however, it falls flat – for one thing, officers are promoted out and transferred in and out of the regiment, meaning you don’t really get quite the consistency of characters you’d need. Urban also cheats a bit – sometimes the 5th Tank Regiment wasn’t the most interesting one in a battle so he’ll talk about the 6th for a bit.

It’s a lot more popular history than some, so there’s limited discussion of strategy and that, which may be appealing to non-weirdos, I guess, but it felt quite shallow, and a lot of the tactical improvements that Barr identifies as crucial to the success in North Africa go unmentioned.

Still, the tight focus does give a sense of how the men involved handled war, and you do develop some attachment to specific individuals which can be quite affecting.

S’alright. Some decent photos of tanks and that.