This year I haven’t had much enthusiasm to write about what I’m reading. Maybe that’s because I haven’t had much enthusiasm to write long blog posts in general, or because I’ve been a little too negative lately and tend to emphasise the things I haven’t enjoyed in a work over what I have. Some of these books I’ve enjoyed hugely, but can’t muster enough of a cheer to write a whole post about. Perhaps it’s habit. After years of writing about everything I read, my impulse is to say, nah fuck it, that’s enough. Who am I writing this for anyway, besides myself?
So, a small pile of books I read between February and April, alphabetically.
Two from Alastair Reynolds, he of the madness of Revenger, which I also read again during these months. He also of Slow Bullets. He’s best when he writes women as main characters. Chasm City is one of his Revelation Space novels, and I got a kick out of those. Elysium Fire is a sequel to The Prefect. I like Reynolds, in specific instances. Neither of these two really got me. See what I mean about negative?
Barbara Newman’s Sister of Wisdom: St. Hildegard’s Theology of the Feminine I’m still plodding through. (like I’m still plodding through Gayatri Chakravorti Spivak’s An Aesthetic Education in the Era of Capitalism, 18 months later). Good stuff here, of that dense, Germanic mediæval stuff. Not easy reading, hence the plod.
Bill Gammage’s The Biggest Estate in the World: How Aborigines Made Australia, and Bruce Pascoe’s Dark Emu: Black Seeds: Agriculture or Accident? I read immediately post-Naarm. They cover similar ground but are complimentary rather than duplicating. They should be compulsory reading for all Australians, and I felt fucking ashamed at my ignorance reading these. Fucking ashamed. Another reason why I haven’t been writing about reading is if I did on these two, it’d be a long piece of anger against white invasion and genocide and erasing history. And I feel like so much of my life and the lives of friends and acquaintances is full with anger and fear these last years, ’cos it’s far from being over.
Devdutt Pattanaik’s Shikhandi and Other Queer Tales They Don’t Tell You is a rather sweet short collection of reading Hindu mythology for queer and trans stories. I have absolutely no way to evaluate the scholarship of Pattanaik, but still, one of the barely begun tasks is re-finding the diversity of selfhoods in pre-colonised cultures; we’ve always been here.
Fred Grimm’s »Wir wollen eine andere Welt« Jugend in Deutschland 1900-2010: Eine private Geschichte aus Tagebüchern, Briefen, Dokumenten. Zusammengestellt. has been on my shelves for ages. Katrin gave it to me as a present, and I’ve read bits and pieces of it. I’ve a heap of books I’ve never blogged that I didn’t read in the conventional start-to-finish way like this.
JY Yang. I think I read about them on io9, or maybe on one of the Asia-Pacific blogs I read. It was definitely in the context of an article or two on Singapore sci-fi / fantasy / speculative fiction, and coming off reading The Sea Is Ours: Tales from Steampunk Southeast Asia (which was awesome) so I was vaguely paying attention. I read these in the wrong order, ’cos I liked the cover of The Red Threads of Fortune more than The Black Tides of Heaven. I also liked the former more than the latter, but that’s partly my particular preferences. I seriously love JY Yang and will read anything they write.
I’ve got a whole ’nother stack of books I’ve read since then and not blogged. Maybe doing it like this is the way for me to go for now.
I was cleaning out my browser bookmarks last night, first time in years, bookmarks going back to the early-’00s, thousands of them. I opened them in batches, every one, to see if I wanted to keep them. Hundreds, thousands of dead sites, no longer found, no longer existing. All that history and culture vanished as if it never was, only the link and title in my bookmarks proving they once existed, and once I deleted that …
The Cultural Revolution: A People’s History, 1962–1976 is Frank Dikötter’s final book in the trilogy covering China and Chairman Mao from 1945 until his death in 1976. An earlier, much shorter work covering the Republican era makes it something of a quartet. I haven’t read his work prior to these four — he’s been publishing on China for 25 years, and has been Chair Professor of Humanities at University of Hong Kong since 2006. He’s one of a handful of China historians who I will always read and look forward to whatever they write next.
It’s difficult to say this work has a weakness, when I think the previous two are some of the finest and most meticulously researched in any of the subjects I read (I’m holding the likes or Caroline Walker Bynum and Susan Mann as my exemplars), it might simply be my familiarity with the subject, both from reading and from friends in China. For most readers, especially if they slam the trilogy one after the other it’s a horrifying, relentless work of history, and that has no peer I can think of for 20th century Maoist China.
One thing I am unsure about though, and I’ve found this in other writers on Mao (like Jung Chang) and on the other singular figures of 20th century despotism (like Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot) is the ease with which so much power and capability is assigned to them. What I remain unsure on in all my reading on China under Mao is the complicity of others. It’s that question, if he was indeed an individual in all this why didn’t they stop him? If not, why, during those three decades of his rule, did they not see the repeating patterns of behaviour and rule, and not make the same bad decisions over and over. Were they fucking stupid? It’s not that there’s an absence of resistance in this book, in fact there’s plenty of it once we get down to the regional and village levels, but perhaps what I’d like to read is a history of Mao’s China without him in it.
What The Cultural Revolution illustrates, in a way I think no other work on the subject has done so clearly, is that this period was essentially a continuation, or a reinvigoration of the Great Leap Forward. Certainly it was a total war against culture and history, and it demonstrates just how rapidly a culture can be erased (a couple of weeks if you’re curious as to how fast your world can vanish), but the preparations for nuclear war, the inland industrialisation, the return of collectivisation and all that went with this, were all methods of that genocidal period a decade earlier.
Maybe I throw around the term genocide too freely. It seems to me it’s not used enough. I think with Mao and his mob it rests on whether the deaths of tens of millions and the destruction of culture were intentional. Is ‘I don’t care how many die as long as I achieve my goals’ intentional, or merely indifference? What about engineering chaos for the same ends which as a side-effect result in what we currently call collateral damage? What about if you say, “It is better to let half of the people die so that the other half can eat their fill.” If that half die because you ‘let’ them, is that genocide, or something else? If we have to ascribe intentionality to genocide, then the most recognition of culpability we can expect from a perpetrator is “Oops, my bad.” Which is approximately as much as the current ruling party of China says — the same party of all these three books, ruling in unbroken succession. Or maybe, “30% my bad.” Because the final ruling by the party on itself for all these atrocities was “70% good, 30% bad.”
I would like to think that in the next decade or so Dikötter’s works become less remarkable as more historians write ever more fine and detailed works on 20th century China. I do think some of the criticisms of his work are valid, in particular that it’s “more like a catalogue of anecdotes about atrocities than a sustained analytic argument”. But against that is the fact there are sod all historians writing on 20th century China compared to say 20th century Germany or Russia. Guangdong history alone could and should occupy entire departments, yet here we are, still treating China as a monolith. Worth reading all three at once, not just for history, but as a lesson in how easily a dictatorship can grow and devour continents.
I read these in the wrong order. Mainly because they arrived out of order. So I read Fair Rebel first, which is Steph Swainston’s most recent Castle novel, the first after her return to writing after a few years retirement, and then jumped back to her last before, Above the Snowline.
This is something of a minor work next to the gigantic, continent-shaping events of the original Castle trilogy and Fair Rebel. Her concern here is the life of Jant, the Messenger, also known as Comet. If we see anything of the world of the Castle through someone’s eyes, it’s through his, yet he is also deliberately reticent in sharing much of himself. It is up to the events of Above the Snowline to rectify that, but even here he — by which I mean Steph — does a fine job of keeping private private.
I’m not much of a reviewer. I’m not writing a carefully structured synopsis, methodical analysis and criticism; there’s a world where I do, but it’s not this one.
I spent the novel convinced the action took place over the peaks of the Darkling Mountains on the west coast, when it in fact took place barely on the shoulders of the eastern flanks. It’s nonetheless a pitiless world of vast glaciers, peaks, and alpine forests, where winter, snow and darkness collapse the action in on itself. Just as Steph writes warfare and battle with the dispassionate attention of a sniper at the side of a commander, so does she write mountains like a climber on the wrong end of a rope and a storm.
I’m curious why she writes hetero males (long-limbed, winged, and drug-addicted ones) as main characters, and the binary pairings that seem especially pronounced here. I think she can justify it to herself, the world of the Castle is her lifelong fantasy world, and probably as real and familiar as this world. Yet it always jars me when an author has such familiar and recognisable romantic or gendered relationships in a world so very much not ours, as though the base reality for the multiverse was a 20th century European historical revisionism of its imagined self. Not that I’d throw it down and refuse to read it. Swainston is currently very much on my Will Always Read list.
So, Above the Snowline, I probably wouldn’t read more of Swainston if I’d started with this, even though it chronologically precedes the first Castle novel, The Year of Our War, and would make an interesting order to read. It’s like a novella exploring the main character of her other novels, yet somehow he remains elusive, as though she doesn’t really want to share him with us. As for Shira Dellin, the Rhydanne who sets off the novel when her partner is murdered by colonialists, she is and remains an enigmatic Noble Savage, the object of Jant’s immature infatuation, too blinded by his imagined superiority to see she is fighting for her and her people’s lives. I’d like to think the current world of fantasy and sci-fi is grown up enough to not actually be seriously writing this, but then I remember Avatar is getting four sequels. I’m a little iffy about some of this.
Worth reading? If you’re like me and get a kick out of reading everything from an author, then sure. Otherwise the Castle trilogy followed by Fair Rebel is a hugely accomplished quartet, starting with The Year of Our War. If that one doesn’t do it the rest probably won’t.
Late-2015, for vague reasons I couldn’t plumb, I threw myself into Steph Swainston’s massive The Castle Omnibus. Three books in one. Was most impressive. One of those rare stories and worlds which keep churning in the background of my thoughts, like you know a second reading will be rich with detail you’d forgotten or not even noticed the first time.
And at that time she’d retired from writing to be a chemistry teacher, so besides Above the Snowline (which I’m currently reading), that was to be the entirety of her literary brilliance. Lucky for me she found an arrangement between the demands of publishers and fans, and her need to write, and returned with an absolute slammer of a novel.
Or maybe she just wanted to smash down the world she’d created. Or maybe she needed to do that to open it to the possibilities of these worlds. For whatever reason, she annihilates people and buildings with methodical, dispassionate relentlessness throughout the Fourlands and not stopping at the Castle itself. Immortals are sloughed off; art, industry, culture, history burned and razed; and not the minor cast either. She goes straight for the leads who have filled her previous four novels. It’s gloriously brutal and tragic.
I’ve been quietly raving about Swainston to my friends, but don’t really know how to describe her. Sometimes it’s like William Burroughs’ The Naked Lunch; other times like ancient Greek literature. There’s a logic in the many worlds like some science-fiction yet there’s obviously a lineage with Western European fantasy, but to say, “If you liked Lord of the Rings, you’ll love this” is entirely what it isn’t. Sometimes it’s like a deranged and drug-addled version of Poldark. I was looking through writers to go, “It’s like them,” and usually I can get close, but with Swainston … maybe a bit of Sophie Samatar or Jo Walton’s The Just City trilogy, but really all three are so different.
I’m not sure if reading Fair Rebel without The Castle Omnibus would be so satisfying — or such a punch in the face — but this is the kind of series you’re either all in for or don’t make it through the first chapter. Obviously I’m all in.
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.
Obligatory exhibition for me to see: Wie die islamische Kunst nach Berlin kam at the Pergamonmuseum. Blogging all that has to wait until I’ve finished the Louvre behemoth (on the last score of images now), but there was this beautiful piece by one of my favourite artists, Osman Hamdi Bey: Der persische Teppichhändler (1888).