Category: Books (Page 1 of 5)

Not Ready For Player One

It can be difficult trying to decide what swords are worth falling on, what one’s ethics require of them in regards to the small things. Deciding one small thing might mean more than it seems, or that the small things add up.

I’ve been thinking about the film “Ready Player One” for a few weeks now, trying to decide if I’m going to see it or not. There’s an interesting article, “The Complexities of Supporting Art by Problematic Artists,” where the author discusses how and if we can, personally, support the work and art of people who have been uncovered to be terrible people. (Quick side note, my problems with Ready Player One are entirely with the writing and the content, and absolutely nothing to do with the author, Earnest Cline. I have met him, and have a couple degrees of separation from him by friends, and I’ve found him to be a spectacularly friendly and gregarious fellow, with no hint or allegation of himself being “a problem.” The above article, however, is a good essay on dealing with accepting problem-connected art.)

The author of the essay, in light of all the allegations coming out about terrible men in Hollywood, says:

Does this mean you should boycott all music created by these artists because you don’t agree with their personal lives?

I can’t answer that because that’s for you to decide.

Personally, I know I won’t be able to veto everything that’s problematic or created by problematic individuals… nor can I as a woman of colour. If I did, there would literally be a handful of music, shows, and movies I could consume without getting upset… which is both disappointing but true.

It’s true that many terrible people have been involved in some of the greatest or most popular works of art we know. We have to decide whether the work itself can stand alone from the creator. To this, she continues:

You have a bigger voice in society than you think and it’s your duty to be a vigilant consumer. Are you contributing to a society that values the output of art over moral integrity? Does this even matter to you?

Personally, I don’t believe art can be completely isolated and removed from the artist. Art embodies cultural footprints and implicit connotations that can either enrich or diminish its value. What might just be art to one person is a can of worms to another. Just because you can separate a piece of art from the artist doesn’t mean everybody else can.

And it’s with this in mind I’m having to make decisions about “Ready Player One.”

But why this film, this book? Why is this a problem, and I’ve not angst and blogged about anything else, like, maybe the latest Harry Potter-verse film with Johnny Depp?

This is problematic for me, and I feel my actions say something more significant in regards to what I do about this film, specifically because I am precisely its target audience. The film, well, most certainly the book, was written by and for white, middle-class, “x-gen” males. Almost to the exclusion of anyone else. The book was written for me, the film made for me. If I patronize it or not, I’m saying something about whether or not I accept and validate the problems inherent, or I refuse them.

What are the problems, precisely?

Well, let’s get the easiest one to deal with out of the way right off — it’s a poorly written novel. It’s a Mary Sue wish-fulfillment tale with no real peril or depth, no character arc of development, and as this article, puts it: “Ready Player One Is an Orgy of Nostalgia in All the Wrong Ways.” Or as one commentor online, who I can’t find to give credit to the quote, said: “*Ready Player One* is *Shrek* for nerds – a simple-ass story built out of soulless references to other pop cultural artifacts, constructed entirely to stimulate the pleasure of recognition.” At no point in the novel did I feel the hero was in any danger. In fact, pretty much a quarter of the way in I pretty much knew exactly how it was going to end, with, spoiler, him getting everything he wants, including the trophy girl. (More on the real problem of that in a second.)

Earnest Cline also wrote the 2009 film “Fanboys,” which has many of the same problems. Primarily, for me, was the climax of the film (as well as a demi-climax halfway through), was entirely a trivia contest. The protagonists had to prove they’re worthy by answering trivia questions, see how much esoterica they knew about Star Wars. That’s the “final battle” of the film. And Ready Player One is essentially that “soulless stimulation of pleasure of recognition” for an entire novel.

The problems I found with the writing are well-stated in the critique, “Why So Much Backlash? Ready Player One is Basically Twilight for Nerds” which I found myself nodding the entire way through:

The relentless references soon started wearing thin, and Wade’s ability to effortlessly conquer his challenges—like playing a perfect game of Pac-Man—started feeling empty and undeserved. By the time one of Wade’s obstacles for saving the world entails him and his friends reciting dialogue from Monty Python and the Holy Grail (a feat they accomplish with glee), I felt like a kid who thinks eating an entire cake by himself sounded fun—I was sick of it, and craving something of real substance. But the thing is, Cline really loves the ‘80s and expects the reader to feel the same. If he’s right to think that this affection is enough to carry the reader along on its own, then his deluge of pop culture references makes sense. If he’s wrong, the reader is left with references they either don’t know or don’t care about, an onslaught of nerdy nostalgia that often doesn’t advance the plot, and very simplistic writing. As in, even more basic than Twilight’s writing. In fact, film analyst Lindsay Ellis recently released a video apologizing to Meyer for getting caught up in the frenzy of bashing Twilight years ago, and acknowledging now that Meyer’s writing is really not as atrocious as everyone makes it out to be. A book Ellis mentions as having legitimately terrible writing, on the other hand? Ready Player One.

That said, I won’t not see a film because of that! One bit. I have a very low bar for quality when it comes to movies, so long as it’s audio-visually appealing. And, “Ready Player One” does promise to be that!

No, the real problems with the novel (and most likely the film), come from the toxic masculinity, the tokenism, casual racism, and misogynistic sexism deeply embedded in it.

Remember that trophy girlfriend mentioned? That’s essentially the only purpose the female character serves in the novel is to be something to be won by the hero. And to push the hero to winning his destined reward, herself getting nothing except, presumably, the pleasure of being his to own as well. On top of that, the novel falls deeply into the now-toxic trope considered a standard of so many “rom-coms,” of the guy not taking “no” for an answer. He continues to barrage and harangue her, stalking and badgering her, until she’s finally worn down and gives in — and this is considered “romantic”! Huge problem with that.

The article “The Trophy Woman of Ready Player One” does a good job focusing on that problem of the novel/film.

Then we have the tokenism and racism, addressed in this article, “We Need to Talk About Representation in ‘Ready Player One’.” This article does a far better job than I can at addressing the racism, and abelism, I felt reading it. More than implying that is you’re black, gay, disabled, disfigured, female, you better hide it… the crass patronizing only we privileged can commit by, “looking past those flaws, anyway.”

But finally, here is where it comes down to for me, where my patronage, my support or rejection, speaks directly to my experience: Ready Player One reinforces the misogynistic penis-measuring gatekeeping found rife throughout nerd culture.

I’m a nerd, been one all my life. Playing D&D since I was 10, read The Silmarillion at 12, spent every lunchtime in the school library writing programs in Apple Basic at 14, etc etc and all the stereotypes of being a geek and nerd since. And one thing nerds of all stripes do, is challenge each other to prove out worth in how much we know about something. Usually, among what has traditionally been a male-dominated culture, a newcomer says “I’m into X too!” and we fellow nerds might ask, “What’s your favorite Y from it?” and with even a vaguely acceptable answer, they’re in the club.

But to mansplain to people who are not female-identified for a second, this is not what happens to girls and women in nerd culture. If you’re female, and you dare to try to intrude into the community and say, “I like X, too,” you will be barraged with an endless challenge of questions going deeper and more minute than anything a guy would have to deal with, to prove yourself. And often times, the goalposts are moved to much and so often, there’s simply no winning, no acceptance. This kind of gatekeeping is used in such a vitriolic and cruel manner to “keep girls out!” I’ve seen it done, any woman vaguely interested in anything nerdy will likely tell you stories of it being done to her, and I thank my effing stars I never participated in it myself before I became aware of it.

Ready Player One is this gatekeeping, which the entire climax of “Fanboys” consists of, is a celebration of this, at best, pissing contest, at worst, weapon against interloping women upon the guy’s domain, purified and concentrated into the very core of what the story is.

Ultimately, I really can’t support this film, even if it improves upon the novel (which I seriously doubt it can), because of the very problems inherent in the story itself. As well as supporting the film is support of the source novel that spawned it. This is a film that if it came out some years ago, I would have raced to see, and probably see over and again as my dopamine receptors flooded with “the pleasure of (self-congratulatory) recognition” with each re-watch revealing new things I could elbow my friends with, “Didjya catch that?? Did you know what that was? Are you as knowledgeable as me??” But we don’t live in a world where we, and I’m no longer a guy who, can accept such thoughtlessly insensitive and even outright offensive representation simply for entertainment value.

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Walkaway and being rich

Early in my conversion to Marxist ideology, I would have “but what about…” discussions with the professor who guided me there. There was this one conversation we had where he had mentioned something about how the rich were always part of the problem, the capitalists. And I asked, well, what about rich philanthropists like Bill Gates and Richard Branson, who give millions to various charities and funds?

And Dr. Burling started to tell me about how that’s part of the problem as well, that that simply contributes to the wealth inequality and perpetuates the status quo . . . and wasn’t able to really explain before we got interrupted. We never did get back to that specific topic before he died, and while I could extrapolate an explanation from everything else I’ve learned from Marxist criticism, I’ve not seen much direct discussion on the exact issue.

Then, the other day, I read a passage in the new Cory Doctorow book, Walkaway. (See my last post, on seeing him talk recently) :

“What about being being richer than Scrooge McDuck and staging a Communist party?”

“Why shouldn’t I?”

“It’s not like you need to–”

“But I can. Remember, it’s not just ‘to each according to her need,’ it’s ‘from each according to her ability.’ I know how to find factories that are perfect for direct action. I know how to get into them. I know how to pwnify their machines. I know how to throw a hell of a party. I have all this unearned, undeserved privilege. Apart from killing myself as an enemy of the human species, can you think of anything better for me to do with it?”

“You could give money to–”

She froze him with a look. “Haven’t you figured it out? Giving money away doesn’t solve anything. Asking the zottarich to redeem themselves by giving money away acknowledges that they deserve it all, should be in charge of deciding where it goes. It’s pretending that you can get rich without being a bandit. Letting them decide what gets funded declares that the planet to be a giant corporation that the major shareholders get to direct. It says that government is just middle-management, hired or fired on the whim of the directors.”

I’m barely started in on the novel, but I know that much of the novel revolves around using the wealth of resources, knowledge, infrastructure, technology to step out of the current system: the wealth and money, the institutions and processes that justify the wealth inequality and exploitation, and creating a “utopian” society that isn’t perfect, but is just prepared for anything that can come, and can provide needs and wants better without wealth and scarcity markets.

So far, this novel feels a lot like the best of William Gibson during his post-cyberpunk stage of cultural criticism in his “Bridge trilogy,” except, with characters a little bit more relatable.

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Walking Away With Cory Doctorow

Cory on the right

Last week I saw Cory Doctorow, for my second time, at Powell’s City of Books. The first time was just about a month or two after moving to Oregon, not quite three years ago. (I write a bit about it in the blogpost Best Week Evar! On that tour, he was promoting his non-fiction work Information Doesn’t Want to Be Free.) This time, he’s touring his new adult fiction novel Walkaway. It’s a … well, he accepts that it’s a “utopian” novel. (And that sentence should prompt paragraphs of discussion because of everything “utopian novel” implied and leaves out. And I swear to god I wish I’d taken Professor Burling’s class on distopian/utopian fiction. In other classes I recall him discussing utopian fiction is usually ironic or is in opposition to the implied dis- or anti-utopian world that the work either is a reaction to or implies.)

I’ve not yet read far into Walkaway, but from what I gather at the talk, the book features a culture of people who have, in the near-future, walked away from the postmodern capitalist world. Have, instead of fought against the hegemony and the cultural logic, done the most efficient and effective thing and disengaged from it entirely to create a society that uses gift economy.

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Eat Local

So we moved to Portland, Oregon not long ago, but I still haven’t explored all the area has to offer yet. Sadly, independent bookstores have taken a back-burner until recently — I’ve spent my time at Powell’s which is sort of indie… in the sense that they’re locally owned and are amazing at bringing in speakers and hosting events. But they’re still pretty large and semi-corporate.

I started doing a search for local small bookstores and visiting them, hoping to find one half as good as BookMarx (formerly Book Castle), that I could claim as “mine” and visit an annoying amount. Among the candidates I found was Longfellows, which will be its own post one day. Not a place my lungs can spend too much time in, but man, that will be the first place I will go for anything leatherbound, hard to find, first edition…. Went to another couple nice, but bland places. Then came across Another Read Through.

image grabbed off their web site without permission. All rights theirs. (Old pic as they look better currently.)

(Old pic of theirs as they look better currently.)

First, it’s set back in a gentrified but fun area of Portland’s Mississippi Ave, and sadly I’ve missed discovering it every time I’ve been on that road! So when it came up on Google Maps, I did a double-take — there’s a bookstore there?! But as soon as I walked in, I fell in love.

It’s small, but it’s stocked full of bookshelves boasting all genre. New and used. And the setup, cleanliness, layout, is all very welcoming. They have an upstairs for their mystery books, but also a reading lounge and honor-bar coffee cart. Very comfy!

One of the things that jumped out at me is they have one of the best queer lit and non-fiction section I’ve seen of any small bookstore. I love that they have that. And also, a pretty large selection of local and independent authors. That certainly jumped out to me.

My biggest (unintentional) test of if I’d like the place came as I browsed for sci-fi/fantasy books. A very decent selection of used books… but, sadly, not much that I was looking for, a lot of the kinds of books you’d have gotten from a SF book club in the 80s or will find in yard sales, and that made me a little sad. But when I asked the proprietor for some authors, she recognized each and every one: Octavia Butler, Samuel Delaney, N.K. Jemisin, and a couple others…. Now, I know, to those of us who know SF as a field, will recognize those names, as well as many people who are interested in authors who inhabit places of non-privilege. Fortunately, I have my friends and peers who are familiar with both. but you’d be surprised how many booksellers have no idea who Octavia Butler or even Samuel Delaney are. So even though the store didn’t carry anything by them at that moment, the fact the proprietor knew them was a huge plus for me.

But not only that, she went out of her way and found and suggested a story anthology that included Butler and Nalo Hopkins and Ursula K. LeGuin and Vandana Singh and others, edited by favorite editors of mine (after Ellen Datlow), Ann and Jeff Vandermeer.

So, after another enjoyable visit, I went back recently and asked about carrying my books. Long story short, they’re sitting on their shelves now. And that makes me so happy! My new favorite bookstore has my books.

But that’s certainly not the reason to go visit them if you’re in the Portland area! (Although, you know, if you did want to go there to buy my book, who am I to stop you?) There big enough, friendly and helpful, and support local and indie authors… what could be better in a local bookstore?! http://www.anotherreadthrough.com

Their Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/AnotherReadThrough

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Reports of print’s death are exaggerated

Okay, I never actually said print was dead, did I? Well, I did clarify, at least, yeah? So, to cease to dissemble, the big news is this:

My books are not in actual dead tree paper print! I’ve been spending the last… goodly amount of time in editing, formatting, proofing, cover creation, and the end results can be sent to your grubby but discerning and generous hands!

Singularity_Deferred_Cover_for_KindleSingularity Deferred: Amazon and Barnes and Noble

First Hand of the Night: Amazon

I’ll soon be hawking my wares to local bookstores friendly to local independent authors.

This is the next big benchmark of both my career as an independent author and as a hopeful publisher. Some inside baseball: My goals have been to fully grok ebook creation and distribution. Then, research, understand, and delve into the vagaries of print publishing my own works. I feel I should do at least one, maybe two, more works of my own before I feel competent in that regard. The next stage from there is to publish another’s work.

Then I have some choices to make regarding where to go from there. Do I want to continue solely publishing my own work and the occasional compatriot? Or do I want to expand and actually become a publisher legit, and pay proper fees and royalties to authors to publish? It’s one of my dreams, but how much might that take from my greatest goal and dream of “simply” being a writer? I’ve said before how Jason Sizemore and his Apex Publishing is a model for me, and in many ways still is. But, how far do I want to go down that road? I still have a lot of thinking to do.

In the meantime, buy my stuff? *cheesy grin* Spread the word? Meantime, I’m still working on that novel sequel, quit bugging me!

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More stories made available

front-image-1cover-imagesword-remembers-cover

Just wanted to mention, I just added a few of the older stories on Smashwords (and, soon, all other ebook merchants like Kobo and Barnes and Noble). I’ve added new images and links over on the Fiction Page.

The ones I added were:

  • A Price in Every Box” — This story looks at what happens when Pandora finally finds what she released centuries ago, and locks him away in a suitcase. Can the world handle life without evil?
  • The End of the Beginning” — Where we’re taken along with the first human time traveler to the very end of the universe. Getting stuck there isn’t the only surprise he encounters. (This story was originally published in M-BRANE SF magazine.)
  • The Sword Remembers” — When a stranger from a modern land surprises Sarah and her adventuring companions mid-fight with a wizard, everyone gets more than they bargained for. Can he find his way back home? Can she find a way to deal with him?

These were stories that had been only available in the collection, First Hand of the Night. I’m working on an updated version of that, and formatting it as my first print book. It should end up around 40,000 words, which will make a nice, short novel-length book of stories. If that goes well, then Singularity Deferred goes to the print process!

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Print is still dead, sorta

Wow, has it really been nearly 3 years since I first wrote about Apex Publishing along with my opinion on consuming short fiction? In that post, Print is Dead, I opine that paper as the means of consuming short fiction was terminal, if not dead already. I still feel that way; nothing has changed on that front.

As I said then, there are still some holdouts in the magazine business, publications that have a name to bank on. Though, I do wonder if nostalgia, or even some ironic hipsterism, may lead to a rejuvenation of print anthologies of short stories and novellas….  I doubt it. Even if there is a small rise in print, it will be niche and short-lived.

But here is the point of my returning to the topic: 10 years ago Apex Publishing began as a small project by a guy with an idea and a dream. Well, so I assume — his memoir isn’t out yet. But in his latest blog post, Apex owner John Sizemore describes that modest beginning:

Although I started the publication for the simple goal of channeling my creativity, it didn’t take long for me to realize something else. I would rather be editing, publishing, and writing than doing software development.

Since my original blog post, Apex has significantly exploded their print business for long fiction, while still breaking waves and doing amazing with their e-magazine for short fiction. And really, that’s just incredible and, to be honest, quite envious. As it happens, Apex as a business, and Sizemore as a publisher and editor and entrepreneur, are my models. Now that I’m beginning to solidify vision for Tragic Sans Press, he’s done exactly what I want to be doing, but in our own genre niche.

I love Apex (I have the t-shirt!), and respect the heck out of Sizemore. I congratulate them on the last 10 years and wish them decades more success!

Now, back to work making my own dreams come true…

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Mark Z. Danielewski comes to visit

danielewski-1Just a couple days following the appearance of Neal Stephenson at Powell’s west, one of my favorite postmodern author’s, the risky and groundbreaking genius, Mark Z. Danielewski came to the main Powell’s to talk about his new book series, The Familiar. It’s a 27-volume series inspired by serial television, with many characters with intertwining lives, all written in each character’s unique typography.

Danielewski rocked my world around 2002 with his novel, House of Leaves. (Sadly, I can’t get this blog to properly color the word “house” in blue as it should be.) Every work of his, Danielewski deconstructs the idea of the “novel” as a form, and reinvents it. Using every trick of typography imaginable (and some unimaginable), he turns the act of reading a novel into a unique and active experience that derives from the story, but exists outside the story.

danielewski-3Reading a novel is a passive experience, for the most part. Sure, it’s far more active than sitting in front of a screen where nothing is expected from you except a working sensory system. A novel has you converting symbols on a page into meaning and engage your imagination to bring the narrative to life. But it’s still passive in the sense that the traditional novel is just a platform, a means of ingesting a story.

Danielewski’s works expect the reader to be more actively involved than to just look at words in a continuous line from one page through a serious of ordered pages til the end. His books demand for you to interact with it. To actually make choices with how you are going to ingest the narrative, and thus with how the narrative is revealed and understood. My reading of House of Leaves, or Only Revolutions, is going to differ from yours not just because we might be imagining the same story with differences, such as hair color or tone of voice. Our experience of the book will differ structurally, fundamentally.

danielewski-2Well, anyway, he read a relevant bit from House of Leaves, and an interesting chapter from his first volume of The Familiar. And his Q&A session was great! Man, I so wish I’d taken notes. Most people asked really thoughtful questions, and his answers were so well-said, so insightful, and inspiring. The only thing I can remember, and is probably the least interesting thing he said, was “The way you live your life will affect the kinds of things you create.”

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Neal Stephenson, Seveneves, and envy

Neal StephensonI didn’t get to ask the question I wanted to. A question I’ve wanted to ask him for years. Alas.

Continuing the amazing roll of meeting favorite authors since moving to Portland, tonight I saw Neal Stephenson at Powell’s for the release, on this day, of his new novel, Seveneves. He read a portion (very witty), and he spoke a bit about the inspiration of the novel,being 10 years in the making. He explained that part of what took so long is that in order to make a convincing “ark” story, you needed to have an apocalyptic event that’s urgent and soon enough that there’s no time to solve the cause of the doom, but not so impending that there’s no time to build a humanity-rescuing ark ship. And, a doom that’s absolutely certain and not deniable by some, “like… climate change.” *grin*

He took questions, and fortunately, no one in this store full of geeks and nerds, did anyone feel that now that they had a microphone, they needed to soliloquize for 10 minutes before, maybe, getting to a question. Everyone was succinct and interesting.

Yet, time ran out before I could ask mine.

So, here it is, and if anyone knows Neal Stephenson, maybe you can pass it along: “This is going back a bit, so my apologies if it’s a tired question, but, Cryptonomicon appears to be set in our, ordinary world. And yet, there’s clues* that it’s not quite the world we live in. How would you describe the world in which the story of Cryptonomicon is set?”

Like I do for Cory Doctorow as well, I harbor a great deal of envy for Neal Stephenson’s speaking ability. While Cory speaks fast and clipped, and Neal speaks in a measured and easy pace, both are so incredibly eloquent, well-spoken, clever, funny, and without an instant of affectation (“uhm,” “uh”) or stutter or hesitation. I so wish I had such presence and extemporaneous speaking skill. *sad pout*

As for my fandom of Neal, it started when I read Cryptonomicon back around when it first came out, around 2002. I knew of his most famous (post?)cyberpunk novel, Snow Crash, but had never gotten around to reading it until after I got past the mindnumbing haze of finishing the other brilliant and odd and educational and fascinating novel. Snow Crash is a bit weird, irreverent, quirky, and creates a near-future world that’s essentially a libertarian paradise — with all the problems that presents. Quicksilver soon followed, although I never picked up the sequels. I started reading the challenging and maybe too-clever? Anathem, but it’s a tough read, even for someone like me who loves when people play with language and linguistic development. It’s actually sitting on my desk right now; I do intend to finish it.

11262451_485174241632825_8738845372095469386_nNow, I’m going to dive right into Seveneves while the flame is burning bright!

*clues: Everyone at all times in the novel refers to Japan as Nippon, regardless of ethnicity or language, not just the native Japanese speakers. He created a British country off of England that spoke a consonant-heavy language that could have been Wales, or Isle of Man, but his own creation instead. Why, in an otherwise perfectly normal our world, would he do these things, unless he wanted a world that was only a couple degrees off? To what purpose?

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What a crazy happenstance at a SF book club

Attended the SF Book Club that meets monthly at Powell’s book store in Beaverton, OR, for the first time. The book for discussion was Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash. I liked it well enough when I read it the first time years ago, if a little disappointed in it. Liked it a lot better this time around. Anyway, it was an interesting experience. a lot of people, but the moderator did a great job being fair and pulling out discussion. Didn’t feel like we really got into any deep discussion, however. Seemed very brief and superficial.

Anyway, doing Scott Lynch’s The Lies of Locke Lamora next. That one I’d not read before, but I sure have wanted to. Especially after the Sword and Laser featured it.

Oh, the wild happenstance? Lauded fantasy author Terry Brooks just happened to stop by and say hi to the group! How wild is that? Portland, I love you! And thankfully, he cleared up and confirmed it’s pronounced SHA-nar-uh, not shuh-NAR-ruh. 🙂

(Honestly, I’ve not read much Brooks. I thought Sword of Shannara was embarrassingly horrible, but Elfstones and Wishsong were much better. I’d stopped reading him after that. But, there’s no denying his popularity and acclaim.)

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