Regarding the two-score books of the last year, it is surprising which of the non-fiction – a term I use somewhat lightly given the nature of the fiction I read – I think is the most important. Not to say best, because it is simply not possible to compare G. Whitney Azoy’s Buzkashi – Game and Power in Afghanistan with Hanna Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem or Katherine Pratt Ewing’s Stolen Honor – Stigmatizing Muslim Men in Berlin, besides perhaps to consider the strong anthropological authorship in each.
I think perhaps I’ve been reading more science-fiction than I should in the past few months though; somewhat akin to my previous chocolate indulgence, put paid to by immanent risk of gaping holes in teeth. Charles Stross is, as in the last year, well-represented, though slogging through all six volumes of The Family Trade series doesn’t exactly count. With three other books devoured this year, he nonetheless pads out the numbers.
Perhaps to start with disappointments. William Gibson and Zero History. It’s curious to find a writer of near-future speculative (science-)fiction (hence my remark about the ambiguity of a fiction/non-fiction division) feeling dated and behind the times even on the day of publication. I’m sure I’ll read him again, but this was unexceptional, in no way saved by the pseudo-MacGuffin. Charles Stross’ Family Trade series also wallowed adrift for the second trio, and many intriguing ideas hinted at in the earlier ones (and outlined on his blog) remained undeveloped or abandoned; instead veering off on an un-engaging Bush-era terrorist spiel.
On the non-fiction side, Christopher I. Beckwith, who is indisputably a formidable scholar on Central Asia and Tibet frustrated me in twice. First in Empires of the Silk Road for his ceaseless tirades agains post-modernism and other failings of scholarship, which is especially jarring when I’m trying to concentrate on the lineage of Mongolian barbarians. The second is for confusing said lineages with history. I was deeply thrilled to receive The Tibetan Empire in Central Asia, anticipating much excitement (and winter fashion) with the Goloks. Instead I was beaten into submission by the feudal slaughter equivalent of biblical begatting. History is not an ad nauseum which man with an army ground which other underfoot.
Lucky The Tibetans, while not so much an an in-depth academic text, manages to avoid this monotony and thus far is the best generalist volume I’ve read on the region. Still, I am searching for more substantial books, be it eastern Tibet, Amdo and the Goloks, or western and the mountain passes into the -stans. I haven’t really begun reading The Kirghiz and Wakhi of Afghanistan, which I hope might bring a little more enlightenment… I’ll have to wait for next year’s anniversary to discover that.
Many other books I’m very happy to have at least attempted this year. Edward Said’s Orientalism falls into this category. I expect I’ll slowly absorb it by sleeping near than by overthrowing it in a week-long siege. Some out of China also, Voices from the Whirlwind, Factory Girls: From Village to City in a Changing China and The Age of Openness: China Before Mao filling out my sino-reading – something I’ll need to do more of in the next year if I wish to get through even a portion of my reading list.
Surprisingly, the non-fiction book of the year isn’t some Sino-Tibetan / Central Asian monograph on horse sport, but one which many people I know have read: Jonathan Safran Foer’s Eating Animals. That it made me question and change my already infrequent meat-eating, as well as dispose of much dairy product consumption through reminding me why I became vegetarian and vegan in the first place is only part of the reason. That it is causing in my friends similar responses is perhaps the greatest achievement. And to think I read it out of boredom in an evening lying on a sofa in Vienna.
To say a little more. It is beholden upon us and our generation to instigate change. The governments, politicians and businesses who nominally are our seniors and act in our interests have categorically failed to act in any meaningful or decisive way on what is unequivocally a great catastrophe facing the planet. To reduce this catastrophe to the term, ‘global warming’, while certainly affording attention to one aspect, fails to include myriad interconnected impending disasters which are the singular result of our lifestyles. When confronted with the reality of the ecological vandalism and destruction eating meat involves – even before raising the issue of the suffering it causes and our complicity therein – it becomes unarguable that the single biggest, immediate difference a person – we – can make to bring about change, to attempt to avert or at least partially ameliorate this coming ruin, is to comprehensively and permanently change how we eat.
On, then, to science-fiction.
Charles Stross has provided many hours enjoyment this last year; The Fuller Memorandum was consumed twice in quick succession, but it was Saturn’s Children that came closest to fiction book of the year. He, like Iain Banks attracts my attention because he writes strong female characters (even if the females are sexbots from after the demise of humans) and like Banks and Miéville has an obvious social and political agenda in his work that I find an affinity for.
Iain (M.) Banks provided similar pleasure with re-readings of many old favourites and the new Transitions and (just finished) Surface Detail. Both are very good but don’t quite get up to the level of wild brilliance of earlier novels. Yet, they do seem to – along with The Algebraist and Matter – point to a new period in his writing and I’m already looking forward to his next.
Further on the unambiguously fiction side, by which I mean science-fiction or science-bloody-horror-no-near-future-speculative-fiction-here-fiction, the book of the year though is the quite brilliant, verging on genius for the two most terrifying thugs in London – far better than The City and The City which won a Hugo this year – China Miéville’s Kraken. If I’ve managed to persuade you to read Iain (M.) Banks, this isn’t quite Feersum Endjinn, my book to take if I can only take one book, but it’s close.
Finally adding a Reading category, almost all the books I’ve read in the last couple of years can be found there. Otherwise, some of the many books I’ve enjoyed this year…
(Oh, I started the ‘Reading … ” thing here in October, 2007 (with William Gibson’s Spook Country), which is why ‘Book of the Year’ arrives in October (the 16th or so) instead of on some other temporarily significant yet nonetheless arbitrary date such as the end of the year.)