I loved this. A fat slab of a book with pages to keep me deep in the story for days. Enough of a story that me — being out of practice with reading lately — couldn’t keep straight all the characters and peoples and factions and histories. The last novel I read like this was Saladin Ahmed’s brilliant Throne of the Crescent Moon, which seems very unlikely to be getting a sequel, as he’s off doing mad words for comics these days — which, for anyone who remembers his long Twitter dives into Golden Age comics, is probably his true home anyway.
Cairo, Djinn, the Ottoman Empire, Iraq, Iran, Central Asia, the Amu Darya, Afghanistan, East Turkestan (yes, I know that last one is awkward), Islamicate worlds where Europe sits far on the fringe, barely mentioned beyond the first chapter where it is already an “away, over there”. This was one on my list, along with a number of other authors, as part of an irregular, waxing and waning effort to read science-fiction and fantasy by non-Anglo-American women and non-binary authors. As usual, no idea where I first saw it, possibly the monthly New Reading list on io9, or maybe on the Twit. Well, I failed with the non- bit, cos S.A. is a white cisgender USA-ian.
I read G. Willow Wilson’s Alif the Unseen a few years ago, and (from memory) thought it slipped into awkward orientalism, and there’s a tendency for white converts to Islam (I kinda prefer to say ‘returning to’, but for the Anglo-American lot ‘convert’ is more apt) to be hella strict in going for Arabic, Sunni derivatives, like that’s the only Islam there is, and wrapping themselves up in a holier-than-thou Hijab. Fam, Islam don’t gotta be like that. S.A. doesn’t rock a hijab. Truth, when I saw her name, I thought, Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, and I live for the day that one ever writes sci-fi or fantasy.
S.A. spent time in Cairo, has done the study, speaks clearly about understanding her place as a white American woman writing Islamic fantasy and history, and her acknowledgements were filled with names that would know what she’s writing about. All that, plus interviews I’ve read with her, plus just how she wrote this story before I knew all these details, I believed it. It brings me a small joy for a story to begin with such unremarkable inclusion of Adhan call to Fajr (that’s the call to dawn prayer, or Sabah namazı), to have Islam so fundamental to a story — not as signifier of whatever white culture wants to denigrate, but a mundane thing which is lived in the world daily. It’s her debut, and frankly a banger, so I’m going to refrain right here from the usual high-class and bourgie criticism-ing I do — except please print it on better paper stock, she deserves so much better. Oh! And it’s the first of a trilogy. I’ll probably have read this again before the second part comes out.
It’s that time of year again! Frances’ and supernaut’s Books of the Year for the 9th time. And some most excellent books were read indeed. This time last year, I realised I’d been struggling a bit with enjoying reading. I looked back over what I’d read in previous years, compared it with 2015’s crop, and noticed I’d dug myself into a bit of a hole with mediæval art and history.
What to do, Frances? I dunno, Other Frances, how about read about space travel and stuff? Good idea!
Unlike last year, my ninth iteration of looking back on a year’s reading — and it’s in October because that’s when I first started blogging about reading, almost a decade ago — has some absolute slammers on the fiction side. Last year I didn’t even name a fiction book of the year. This year, if it wasn’t for one in particular, there’s be 4 or 5 smashing at it for joint Book. And in non-fiction the situation’s pretty similar, or even better, cos there’s barely a single non-fiction work I’ve read in the past 12 months that was anything less than well awesome. It’s also one of my least-read years, only 29 that I read and blogged (possibly a couple of others I’ve forgotten); definitely plenty of internet — I mean Rainbow Autobahn distraction in the last year, exacerbating my inability to focus on pages. I blamed my poor reading last year on that distraction as well, probably time to harden the fuck up and put away the internet.
Of those 29, only 10 were non-fiction; the remaining 19 non-fiction skewed more to fantasy than sci-fi, with around 7 works explicitly skiffy, 9 explicitly fantasy, and a trio (maybe more depending on how dogmatically I apply those categories) deftly straddling both. I call those Speculative Fuckery, ’cos I love when the only two genres I read start boning each other.
On the non-fiction side, mediæval Northern European history continues filling my shelves, and there’s a bunch of “not easily categorised on their own” which nevertheless fit predictably into my decades-long interests.
Then there’s the new, or maybe to say newly clarified bunch that I kinda want to call Islamicate Studies, though that might miss something, so it encompasses that, human rights, identity, philosophy, feminism, and is primarily from women from and/or writing on Iran, Near/Middle East (I’m a bit iffy on this appellation right now, and have been trying out ‘West Asia’ also because it shifts the centre and subject of focus out of Europe, dunno though), and people from or descended from those regions in Europe, North America, Australia. I arrived at this field of interconnected subjects after increasing dissatisfaction with how feminist/queer/left-ist writing addressed brown and/or Muslim identities; regarded these people living in Europe, North America, Australia; and when I spent some time thinking about how the diverse subjects I was reading needed to come together. Also it’s a lot of living in Berlin/Germany/Europe and getting increasingly pissed at the racism against anyone not unequivocally ethnically correct, and the white feminist/queer/left-ist bullshit distractions, and my own personal, slow movement towards identifying if not myself as Turkish/brown/West Asian/Muslim, then definitely my family history (as you can see from all the slashes, I have no idea).
Books! I have read them!
Fiction first. This was a fine year. If I hadn’t read Sofia Samatar’s A Stranger in Olondria, she’d still be my Fiction Book of the Year with The Winged Histories, though sharing with a few others. I don’t actually know how I would pick a book of the year from a pile comprised of that plus Jo Walton’s Necessity and The Philosopher Kings; Jaymee Goh and Joyce Chng’s The Sea Is Ours; and Ann Leckie’s masterful finish to her debut Imperial Radch trilogy, Ancillary Mercy. Impossible. I would probably give it to the latter, but then … Necessity, a brilliant conclusion to another trilogy, and The Winged Histories: sublime. So I could possibly get it down to a trio of exceptional literature, but no further. Lucky then A Stranger in Orlondria saved me from that anguish.
I don’t want to say it’s ‘better’ any of those other three — though perhaps that’s the case when comparing it to The Winged Histories, which would lose its spot in the trio just as The Philosopher Kings does to Necessity. I think of the two Samatar has written it’s a more major work. If this is my final trio then, I’m not claiming one is better than another, simply A Stranger in Olondria has had a significant effect on me. Would that effect stand up under re-reading? How would that re-reading compare to one of Leckie’s trilogy? If I read them both back-to-back, what then would be my judgement? The best questions always involve more reading.
This is all anyway just writing from memory, how I remember a book made me feel. I’ve been thinking recently that eventually my memory of a book dissolves until it’s just feelings, colours, a glimpse of an image or two. It’s like sediment, like geology, layers upon layers of this.
Breed was a romp of Oglaf proportions and probably the most fun I had this year. I wish she’d write more of this. Reynolds’ Revelation Space I read because I needed some hard operatic space sci-fi, and his Slow Bullets novella was a favourite of mine last year. This one was good enough for me to slog through the whole, uneven trilogy. I like him, but there’s a hopelessness in his work, like the heat death of the universe.
As with Reynolds, Genevieve Cogman is another whose previous works got me to read her latest. The Invisible Library, which I also read last year was well tasty. I was super excited to find she had this sequel — and OMG! Just like last time when I discovered The Masked City, she has a sequel to that! Excellent! The immediate result of me writing about my favourite books is I’m ordering more.
Ada Palmer’s Too Like the Lightning. Yeah, loved a lot. Glorious cover art, almost almost one of my first choices, but a few flaws in it, and the cliffhanger “Will bad things happen? Stay tuned for Book 2!” guaranteed to piss me right off. Please, don’t do that to me. I’ve paid for a story, not half a story. If your story’s too big for one book, then at least divide it in a way that doesn’t leave me hanging.
All of these authors I’ll read again (along with a score of others on my Have You Written A New Book Yet? list). I might be a bit crabby here and there about the works, but I also possess a modicum of self-awareness that I’m a pretty fucking demanding reader. The authors and works above if you’re into sci-fi / fantasy (or if you’re not) are about as good as it gets. Not just for this year, but of everything I’ve read in the last 12 years or so. (And just wait for next year’s Books of the Decade! It’s gonna be hectic!)
I didn’t read much of this in the last year, but I lucked out here too, barely a dud among them (and that single one was an old book I realised I’d never finished), running out of superlatives here.
Svetlana Alexievich was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature last year, in no small part for her writing on the Soviet occupation and war in Afghanistan. Her writing is chilling. Heart-rending. I even said Zinky Boys would be my Book of the Year. Pretty sure I said the same thing about Seyla Benhabib’s The Rights of Others. In truth I shouldn’t pick one over the other, except that Babayan and Najmabadi’s Islamicate Sexualities somehow is tying all this together, mediæval history, human rights, feminism, identity, migration, religion, and it’s so urgently pertinent to the slow stumbling back to the abyss Europe is currently taking. Read them all, or at least familiarise yourself with the writers.
And that’s my reading for the last 12 months. As if I’m not sated and replete already, I’ve already got a pile of new stuff.
Reading is a great privilege. It’s not however, explicitly a human right. Article 26 i. and 27 i. of the UN Declaration of Human Rights either directly imply or by extrapolation intend reading as a human right, yet nowhere is it explicitly stated that reading comprehension or literacy, and the opportunity to gain this ability is a right. Perhaps I’m splitting hairs, yet I can interpret the UNDHR in a way that fulfils the letter of declaration while still populating my dictatorship with illiterate proles.
My ability to read, at the level I do, at the frequency, my ability to critically consider the works I read (with or without concomitant swearing), to write about them here, to discuss them with others, all this is a privilege. And I mean that in the sense of a special honour. And that necessitates obligation.
Buy books! Buy books for your friends! Encourage people to read. If you know someone who Can’t Read Good (And Wanna Learn To Do Other Stuff Good Too), help them, reading is only difficult if you’ve been told it is. Support your local libraries!
So here’s to the writers, and their publishers and proofreaders and editors and typesetters and designers and artists and agents and friends and families who make it possible for them to write so that I may read.
The Pergamonmuseum’s Wie die islamische Kunst nach Berlin kam (How Islamic art came to Berlin) was not one of their huge endeavours. Sprinkled through the permanent collection on the second floor to celebrate the 150th birthday of Friedrich Sarre were objects, photographs, and documentation he’d collected from across the Levant, Middle East, Iran, Afghanistan, Central Asia, with influences from even further east, Indian and Chinese aesthetics in Islamic, Arabian, and Persian art. Sarre was responsible for the Kaiser-Friedrich-Museum’s Islamic collection, the museum which became the Bode-Museum and part of Staatliche Museen zu Berlin. So, not a full exhibition; one of their many mini-exhibitions that rotate a small selection of their hundreds of thousands of objects through public display every year. And a good reason to buy a Jahreskarte.
I was there under the misguided belief there’d be plenty of Osman Hamdi Bey, one of my favourite artists of the late-19th century, who’d totally be filed under Orientalism if he was Christian European. He’s not, and there was only one work of his, Der persische Teppichhändler, which started the exhibition proper after the procession of Sarre’s photographs up both sides of the stairs. I would have bought the exhibition book for those alone if it was cheaper.
I’ve been through part of the Pergamonmuseum before, and I ended up photographing a lot of the same pieces. They appealed to me then, and they appeal now. Many of the bowls are profoundly beautiful; photographs can’t capture the deep lustre, the layers of glazing, the way the light moves through this. Also the turquoise prayer alcove (image numbers 34-39), which I discovered a way of convincing my camera to see somewhat as my eye does. Still nothing like seeing its massiveness before you, the colours shifting, it’s a lot less reflective than the photos imply, some of the closeups give a better sense of the intensity of the glaze. I also love that every time I’ve seen this piece, there’s a group of people sitting in awe before it. Perhaps it was only this visit, but there were a lot of Muslim people wandering through, which made me think the museum is doing something right.
There’s two rooms, about two-thirds of the way through which are devoted to works on paper. This time it was some of Sarre’s own collection, Persian and Indian miniatures, particularly ones which explored European influences in works from these regions, and in Mughal art. A couple of examples of this, (images 48 and 49) were on display, as well as beautiful calligraphy of Bismala in the form of a bird on gilt paper, and another calligraphy in the form of a Mevlevi Dervish.
All this sits on the unhappy mound of colonialism, despoiling of archaeology sites, quite a bit of European racism, of which Sarre and Bey were on both sides of. When I was in Dahlem Museum (before I got into my over-enthusiastic museum blogging), I was looking at all the works from Dunhuang Mogao Caves and elsewhere in what’s now Xinjiang and Gansu pilfered by Aurel Stein, Paul Pelliot, Albert von Le Coq and others. As much as the robbing of cultural history is unequivocally a crime, it’s certain little would have survived the 20th century of China’s Cultural Revolution. Of course some of that in turn got destroyed when Germany went all Nazi on Europe and Berlin got its teeth kicked in, so the argument goes back and forth. I’m not even sure how much value as works of art these things would have if it wasn’t for the idea of European archaeology and the monetary value that gives things lying buried for hundreds or thousands of years. We are however over a hundred years into museuming the fuck out of humanity’s history, so having these objects in museums is probably preferable, or at least inevitable, even if that means being buried once more, this time in the archives.
Later I discovered I’d never visited an entire wing or more of the Pergamonmuseum. I think I need to buy a Jahreskarte again. In the meantime, sixty images of works from Museum für Islamische Kunst or İslam Eserleri Müzesi or متحف الفن الإسلامي or موزه هنر اسلامی or Museum for Islamic Art.
Book of the year. Right here. There will be none better.
A few months ago, Svetlana Alexievich won the Nobel Prize in Literature. I’d never heard of her—not so unusual for me—saw her name in passing on the Russian, Central Asian, Afghanistan blogs I follow, thought, yeah, cool, woman winning for a change, didn’t really pause to read more until I saw Afghanistan mentioned, then found she’d written this: Zinky Boys: Soviet Voices from the Afghanistan War.
Most of my reading on Afghanistan has been either pre-1978 coup and Soviet occupation or post that plus Taliban thrills (who were real money makers for analysts and pundits for about ten years until Da’esh came along). The decade of the proxy war, from which Afghanistan and the Middle East are still suffering, has been only the subject of two books I’ve read: Rodric Braithwaite’s Afgantsy: The Russians in Afghanistan, 1979–89, and now Alexievich’s stunning Zinky Boys.
They’re called Zinky Boys because the teenage heroes come back from the land where the Soviet Union is certainly not waging a war in sealed zinc caskets to be buried at night without ceremony.
I can’t do justice to this work. A relentless, measured documentation of suffering, loss, lies, the devastation of a generation, of imperial arrogance and stupidity that brought about its own demise, that discarded used up and broken bodies barely older than children, and as those very same colonial nations now almost fifteen years into the most recent occupation and war in Afghanistan begin yet another barely disguised proxy war in Syria, after all the unending chaos Europe, the British, Americans and their fiefdoms have instigated from Hindu Kush to Maghreb, this is the history to read. This is what we have to look forward to, this is what we are complicit in. All of us. These are the same lies being told for a fifth decade. It’s all here. There’s nothing new to find in the current wars, there won’t be a different outcome this time.
The writing, voices of young soldiers, the wounded, mothers, nurses, officers, conscripted and volunteers, it’s a recital, a judgement. Through the pages of this slim book they become one, each story unique and individual, and each the same. I can’t praise the writing highly enough. It occurs to me the closest is one of Liao Yiwu’s works, maybe The Corpse Walker.
It was only because I saw Afghanistan mentioned that I paused. I’m not much of a Nobel Laureate fan, many of the awards are political choices, and of the authors I have read or have read about, very few are indeed of the brilliance the award is supposed to confer. Of the Chinese winners, Gao Xingjian has nothing on Liao Yiwu, and Mo Yan is rubbish, as a person and a writer. But occasionally—Samuel Beckett and Henri Bergson of the writers I know—politics or no, the author is that outstanding, their contributions unique. Svetlana Alexievich, who I so easily could have missed, is that, and is the equal of Beckett and Bergson. And if you’re not moved to anger and tears through these pages, if your dreams aren’t troubled, there’s no hope for you.
One of the first books I ever read on the Silk Road (Roads, Routes), was a biography of a wandering Buddhist, which I barely understood at the time, and forgot the title almost immediately. I’ve been hoping I’d find it again through a process of random elimination by reading all academic-ish books on Tang Dynasty Buddhist pilgrims in Central Asia. So far, my approach has failed.
Sally Hovey Wriggins’ Xuanzang: A Buddhist Pilgrim on the Silk Road at least indicates whoever it was, they weren’t Xuanzang. Also in one of those pleasant surprises I often get when a book arrives, it isn’t heavy academia. It’s larger, almost square, a quick read, and heavily illustrated.
Xuanzang stole out of China proper around the same time Hild (she of Nicole Griffith’s excellent novel) was caught up in the conversion of England to Christianity. I’ve only recently started reading European mediæval history (let’s say, 600-1400 CE), and this simultaneous reading alongside China and Central Asian history (I’ve yet to properly read on the Middle East in this era) is the most inspiring and fascinating I’ve had since my first filling in of that vast blankness between Japan and Europe. More popularly, Xuanzang became the character in Journey to the West, adapted in one version for television as Monkey Magic, beloved of crusty ravers the world over.
I’ve forgotten where I first saw Wriggins’ book mentioned, but I think it was on Tang Dynasty Times in 2009, when there was a piece on the Buddhist statues at Bamiyan which the Taliban blew up. (The 2013 post, how should we think about bamiyan? (巴米扬) has some of the original, and quite a bit more.) It’s been on my To Buy List for that long. (There’s usually about 100 books on that list. I periodically trim it to maintain the pretence of reasonableness.)
As much as I try for impartiality while atheistically regarding religions, when reading about Buddhism in Central Asia, I can’t help but wish the ebb and flow of religions in this period had been reversed, and it was to Buddhism that the Islamic and Semitic regions had converted to rather than the other way.
Here comes a deluge of serious reading. Well, another serious than the sci-fi I’ve been on of late (though with a new one from Charles Stross, and Iain Banks’ – sadly sans-M – last one in the next weeks, I’m well-stocked for that flavour of serious), or perhaps gratuitously indulgent, after all, what could be more appealing that bloody massive upheavals of granite which can be either climbed or geologised, or in the case of Mike Searle’s Colliding Continents, both at the same time?
This turned up in my feed from Oxford University Press’ blog, and I decided to dispense with the actual reading of their post for the important act of ordering the book. Which arrived on Saturday, and which, obviously, I’ve devoured a third of already.
This is one of those very nice, medium-large hardcovers with barely a page empty of maps, illustrations, diagrams, or more importantly utterly gorgeous photographs of mountains. It’s light on the technical side of geology, meaning someone with no prior knowledge of the subject would nonetheless not feel bewildered, yet equally there’s a lot of terms even I, who used to slip into the Geology department and temporarily purloin monographs of the Karakoram had to pause to visualise what was actually meant. Lucky there’s 30 pages of appendices covering all of this, and I think reading those first is probably a good idea.
Quite a bit of my interest in that region where Tibet becomes Central Asia becomes Indian subcontinent comes from geology. Also it comes from Deleuze and Guattari and reading of Steppe nomads, then looking at maps and trying to pin into that vast blankness between the Black Sea and the east coast of China names like Gobi, Taklamakan, Kashgar, Karakoram. Vast and blank indeed. So I set out to rectify my ignorance, becoming years – probably a lifetime as I’ve never been bored by this – of reading and reading and yes, still planning to go there.
A book like this is mainly a small moment of satisfying this love of mountains and this part of the world, and it does both superbly. Searle is one of those sensible geologists who realise early on it’s the obvious career choice for someone who thinks suffering their way up glaciers and cliffs is most excellent fun, and whose love of both subjects only adds to his abilities in each.
The only thing that’s missing for me is a map or maps of his annual-ish field trips. There are plenty of geological maps accompanying each chapter but either my map-reading skills have descended to bathic levels, I’m missing something fundamental, or there’s a lack of correlation between those maps and the paths of the journeys he undertook. Perhaps unnecessary, but for me this would be an essential inclusion.
So, 464 pages of mountains! The cover pretty much sums it up; it’s all just a lover’s ode to the most beautiful upthrusting of granite in the world.
The space between where China is squeezed out into the ocean between Japan and Philippines to the east and Europe to the west – particularly that mysterious place north of the Himalayas was once a blank for me on any map. I had no idea what countries were there, though had heard of the Gobi, and other seductive, beguiling, antique places of the Orient. Thanks to a chapter from Deleuze, I embarked on a reading spree of the history of the Steppe, Central Asia, China, the ~stans, all that, the geology of Baltistan, high-altitude farming in Wakhan, so so very much of China – more than a lifetime could be given to just one province (Guangdong, for example).
In these years since I first began reading, more than fifteen, though with a long pause after I graduated until I suppose around the time of that stale-smoke tainted copy of Louis Dupree’s Afghanistan in 2008, my reading has often been erratic over whatever topic has snagged me, countered by a ‘filling-in-the-gaps’ process of which I seem to be in at the moment.
First, Iran. Afsaneh Najmabadi’s Women with Mustaches and Men Without Beards, which is going to be one of my books of the year, that is introducing me to Iran, a country I know not so much about as most of my encounters are either mediated by Afghanistan or via millennia-old history. And from there, a chance remark by languagehat in the comments led me to Charles King’s The Ghost of Freedom: A History of the Caucasus. About which I can say not much except he speaks highly of the author. Elsewhere I’ve seen mixed opinions, so I am approaching this as a book that might inform me of the author as much as the subject.
Still, the Caucasus. Besides the strife of the last decades – much like Afghanistan in terms of the majority of what’s written on the region – I know very little about this mountainous finger of land splitting Black from Caspian Seas. I did once read a piece on enclaves and exclaves in the Caucasus … Consider this the beginning of a new education.
Yesterday I took myself off south-west on a journey I have had far too much time to do before now yet have never done so. Dahlem Museen has one of the wonders of Central Asia, depending on how one looks at it, pillaged from Xinjiang and other ~stans, or saved from the Cultural Revolution, or well, yes saved from that but even before destroyed in the Second World War. And even before all that, some time when Islamic zealots were being rigorous in raining righteous vengeance down on idolatry (i.e. around a millennium before the Taliban at Bamiyan), most of the faces of Buddha were methodically bashed out.
So of what’s left, besides what Auriel Stein picked up for the British Museum and other Great Game ethnologists in Paris and Beijing, the Grünwendel and LeCoq purloinments ending up in Berlin comprise one of the largest collections of Central Asian, Silk Route, and Buddhist art in the world. Mmm, yes, why I have waited four years to drag myself half and hour to Dahlem is a mystery.
Maybe because the exhibition halls are so vast and many. I spent five hours there yesterday and barely passed over the contents of two of the halls, of which there are around eighteen. I had to take a pause mid-way also, before climbing the stairs for the Chinese collections of red lacquer, ceramics, tea ceremony objects, purposefully avoiding anything not absolutely Central Asian or Chinese (besides some Japanese stuff), just to be able to be thrown out at closing having seen at least some of what I went there for.
And then to the Konzerthaus, picking up Dasniya fortuitously in the U-Bahn, to see the Kammerorchester Berlin and our friend and Contrabass player Jochen work their way through 90 minutes of Bach, Telemann, and Vivaldi.
And somehow this beautiful Bodhisattva Guanyin of all the masses of heartrendingly beautiful art quite grabbed me. And this tea ceremony water pot also.