And … here we go again. Another year finishing arbitrarily in mid-ish-October marking approximately an anniversary of when I first decided to blab about whatever I happened to be reading, with the caveat that no, no writing about what I was reading would take place as that would subtract from my personal enjoyment. Naturally that led to me writing on everything I read, and it seems reading more.
A grand total (of which I shall claim no accuracy) of 53 books variously inhaled, ingested, munched on, fallen asleep under, split food and drink upon, folded corners of, stuffed in bags, avoided doing proper (or any) work in preference for, broken the spines of, laughed at (a lot), left unfinished (only the worst or most difficult; the latter inevitably to be advanced into the finished pile because they look at me so mournfully from my shelves), caught myself daydreaming about, raced home with extra speed just because I knew they were waiting, cursed for unforgivably shoddy proofreading, read again, daydreamed about reading again again, smiled at fondly when they catch my eye each spine as distinctive as a friend, sat on my window ledge warmed by both book and sun, breathed the scent of their pages new and old along with the feel and weight of each, cringed with embarrassment at the worst covers and for the best, they lie in my mind inextricable from the words contained, filled one and an half more shelves with, oh yes, a year of books.
So, to the books:
Hmm, oh! wow, oh yeah …, haha, wow, again wow, mhmm, yup, oh yes that was good, uh that one was tough, eeerrrr …yes, oh god no, bloody indeed, eeeee!, meh, hmm was ok, uuh another tough one, Shanghai!, hmmm…, good title but, … oh god awful, oh god! amazing!, ja not quite his best, ah train ride from Brussels, well that was a book, hmm ok, hmm not so ok, ja pretty good, wow! just utterly wow! oh droll, yes, uhhh no.
There were a few horrible experiences in there, and a few more perturbing because ah, well, I got to the end and felt nothing, but I’d rather dwell this year on the ones, those ones, above, with the exclamation marks after (not you, H.P., that eeeee! is for you, and you gave me nightmares), those sublime moments that … well, maybe to say I know of some books which have made readers of my friends in the past, and there are a couple in the last year — I’m not including re-reads, because that would be cheating, but even were I to do so, well considering one of the new ones got itself re-read almost immediately — oh but they are brilliant. Beautiful, entrancing, good covers too, and one of them even is almost as perfect as Feersum Endjinn which for me is irrationally my favourite book.
So, there are three, but one extra must be mentioned even though I find it problematic in parts and feel that my dim-wittedness has been overwhelmed by its oratory, that quite possibly it contains work of sophistry, even though, even though I think equally it’s absolutely critical reading, and it reminded me clearly why, if I must subscribe to a system or label it would be and has long been, ‘anarchist’, and as we are dragged ever further into a totalitarianism by politicians willingly in the thrall of bankers and corporations given the status of personhood, while we, goaded with barbs of austerity, entirely without a meaningful social, economic, or political alternative and losing incrementally our human rights as a person, we would do bloody well to read David Graeber’s Debt: The First 5000 Years, and start behaving as is appropriate for one whose neck is fast in the noose.
I’m not sure how I can go from that to writing about science-fiction, though perhaps that one of the authors is a Marxist soothes the transition somewhat. I’ll stick with non-fiction first though.
And my non-fiction book of the year is Annemarie Schwarzenbach – All the Roads are Open: The Afghan Journey (trans. Isabel Fargo Cole), which I read earlier this year and so my memory of it is one of cumulative memories, but still, Schwarzenbach has only now been translated into english and she is a very important addition to writing on Central Asia during the late-interwar years. I’ve read a small bit of her in German, and even from that felt this translation was faithful to the feeling of the text as well as the content, and given that the cover art, binding and general presentation is all-round very attractive (and yes, these things matter), well what more do you want?.
I’ve also has the misfortune to read the work of her English travel companion, and other English language writers both female and male from this period, and she puts them to shame. Even with a drug addiction she has an empathy and awareness for the land and people through which she moves which I’ve seldom found in other writers (Vita Sackville-West and Ella Maillart I’m definitely looking at you).
Yes, so, unlike Debt, the audience for 1930s Central Asian and Afghanistan reportage is quite slim, but, ah Annemarie, she deserves to be read. And the story of how she came to be translated from German to English by way of India is one that also deserves to be told.
And the fiction.
China Miéville! Bloody hell! What an absolute stunner of a book. I mean, come on, I’ve read everything he’s written (fiction-wise, with the exception of some short stories), and Un Lun Dun was my book of the year last year, Kraken the year before, while Embassytown came pretty close also and he just gets better and better. Railsea was so good, so caught me in its beautiful story that I read it again two months after the first whizz through.
And yes, it’s the slightly odd pre-ending with the devolved bureaucrats that stuck in my maw both times, and I somehow understand in the context of what is nominally a children’s book (or ‘young adult’s’ whatever the fuck that is), that perhaps if this was of the epic scale of either Embassytown or The Scar this scene likely wouldn’t be there … and doesn’t he have a train fixation?
Really, this is the first book that’s even come more than passingly close to Iain M. Banks’ Feersum Endjinn, which for some reason I adore on a cellular level, and above all others I’ve read, which may be in all this writing on books I’ve read the one I compare each new one to and find even at the most sublime, wanting. Yes, Railsea is also wanting, but only by a tiny, tiny, thin sliver of a degree.
And so on to the surprise of the year, the one that oh so nearly toppled Railsea.
Strange to think that while it so nearly accomplished this, I can’t really place it beside Feersum Endjinn and make a comparison (and so I hull my above comparison theory quite entirely). Jo Walton’s Among Others. It’s more of a love letter to every public library, every second-hand bookshop, every book club that really cared about books and reading, and yes, science-fiction, a series of one-liner remarks of ’60s and ’70s sci-fi (and I, Claudius), and then some magic.
Ah, that last word. Tricky. Me and fantasy (which I find myself inadvertently reading a little too often), is like me and crappy science-fiction. And yet here, for once thankfully no castles and monarchies (though some eccentric wealthy British types), and the elves or fairies often resemble animated forest mulch, and spoke like it too.
It sounds like I’m not doing it justice next to Railsea, but to say it’s been in my head just as much, it’s also a beautiful, funny, dark story, completely different from the other, I’ll surely read it again, and the two are just not possible to compare, yet I do, and I can’t think about one without thinking about the other.
That’s it. Books finished (a couple unfinished). Many deserving a mention (some deserving ignominious burial). More books already begun, more still waiting to be collected. More reading.