Reading started ten years ago with just the covers of whatever I was reading — or about to read, blogged at the start. Then I added a paragraph or two about why I was reading whatever. Definitely not a review, I kept on repeating. More or less they’ve become reviews which I write either some way into the reading or at the end. Sometimes still at the beginning. Reviews, not reviews, whatever, reasons for reading. This last year at least, that’s turned into multi-thousand word essays on some books.
Fark! But wot about the cover art, Frances?
Reading is about the object, its materiality. The weight of the paper, the typography, the width of the margins, the smell of the ink and binding, the texture of the cover, the volume it occupies. The cover art.
A good cover thrills me. A bad one makes me cringe. Cover art is bound as much to genre constraints as it is to budget — and every class and decimal of Dewey is a genre. A good cover on a mass market paperback is not diminished by the crappiness of the print (cos the paper will yellow and grow brittle in the space of years), but no amount of expensive binding or price makes up for shiteful cover art and typography. So here are my favourite covers from 2017.
I love thematic consistency, editions or series by the same designer with a common style. I know it’s been done for decades, but it still seems new to me, maybe because I enjoy seeing the idea developed across multiple books. I especially love it when there’s a consonance between cover and story, like Steph Swainston’s Castle series, of which I read Fair Rebel this year (no idea who did the cover art, but it reprises the original trilogy). Totally fits the world. I see these covers and I immediately have images of the Fourlands, the Circle, of Jant fill my head.
Becky Chambers, whose The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet and A Closed and Common Orbit I read this year do attractive simplicity — lowercase typeface in shifting colour over astrophotography and silhouette of small figures on a hill in the lowest fifth. Again, I see these covers and know the world and characters. At the opposite end, full design, where typography and art are one, there’s Ben Aaronovitch’s Moon Over Soho and Rivers of London (cover art by Stephen Walter, and cheers again to Gala for introducing me to his brilliant series). Aesthetically, they’re not really my thing, but they suit the novels in a way (or you could go the whole Ayize Jama-Everett direction, or South London Grime, which might be more congruent, though scare off the nice readers).
I have Iain M. Banks covers. Not published any time recently but just as he’ll never not be my favourite author (“On what timescale, Frances?” “Oh, you know, heat death of the universe?”) the unified cover art of his various editions I love. The original editions are by Mark Salwowski (and I just discovered I can buy prints!), then the 2005 imprint was done by blacksheep, some of which I like more than the originals, but some, like Feersum Endjinn are iconic. No matter what edition or genre, these covers do solid typography and art. The post-2005 novels retain the 2005 style, but — for The Hydrogen Sonata at least — Lauren Panepinto is the artist. I could easily throw in any of these late-Banks covers here, but this is his last Culture novel and I have a deep fondness for it. The colour of the cover is that of the story.
11 covers then, in my first — and perhaps last — dance with cover art. Slightly less than a third of the books I read have covers (or complete design and binding, which is an even smaller subset) I think really gives the author and writing their due — and the reader, ’cos there’s nothing I love more than a beautiful book. So cheers to all you designers and artists and typographers, and cheers to the publishers who represent their authors with such art, you make the world a better place.
(Full Disclosure: Kerber Verlag wanted me so much to review this, they chased me down and sent one boxed up via registered post. I also pestered them via email, which is the real truth.)
Wedding. Repping the best Ortsteil and Kiez in Berlin. My home for most of the time I’ve lived here, where I first landed, where I got my mobile phone number, where I made art (when I was disposed to do that), where I still call home, even as I live in the beating heart of gentrification, between Graefe Kiez and Südstern. I will fight anyone who says Wedding isn’t echt Berlin, who says, “Oh, but you must go to Charlottenburg for the real Berlin”, like Wedding isn’t — we all know what you really mean. Marzahn-Hellersdorf might be on the up, but Wedding bleibt. If only it could ditch its uncool neighbour Mitte.
I see a book on Twitter (via Weddingweiser) called Berlin-Wedding: Das Fotobuch — The Photobook and I know it will be mine, and I know I can’t be throwing down mad Euros on every book I see when my reading list is … even Paul in my favourite bookshop won’t touch its full extent without bribes. It’s got Helvetica Neue for the title and Communist Red endsheets, ’cos Volksrepublik Roter Wedding also bleibt — or at least that’s what the best pub in Germany tells me. I haven’t read it; I’m reading it. I read it. One of those usual non-review reviews.
A story of Wedding: When I first was living in Berlin, and I’d answer the question, “Where are you living?” the regular reply to that, by locals who’d been in the city for years, would be, “Oh Wedding. Be careful. It’s rough.” or other variations on the Wrong Side of the Tracks line — it’s outside the Ring, so yeah, wrong side. So I believed them, and exited U-Pankestraße with some apprehension, ’cos it was like being up Sydney Rd in Melbourne on a Friday night before that got gentrified. But then I noticed no one stared or got in my face or even gave a shit I was walking up Badstraße, and that ‘rough’ and ‘be careful’ and ‘not really Berlin’ meant Turkish and immigrant and working class, and about as much home in a city as I’ll ever find.
Another Wedding story: There’s a street off Badstr. called Buttmannstraße. Yes, really, Buttmann. I laughed. We all laugh, we of the former Empire’s colonies, ’cos we all have toilets for brains. I have a dear friend who lives for many years in Buttmannstr. The best pub in the world used to be on Buttmannstr. There should be a superhero called Superbuttmann. Obviously it’d be a porno, like Flesh Gordon, or Sex Trek, or Buttman vs. Superbuttmann. Buttmannstr. is the street that ‘brings down the neighbourhood’, where you see the hard fist of gentrification, forced evictions, police doing high-rotation patrols, rents doubling, locals with nowhere to go, who’ve called Wedding their home from the time it was the arse-end of Berlin, getting the boot.
Buttmannstr. officially isn’t in Wedding. The 2001 Bezirksgebietsreform hewed off the eastern half and renamed it Gesundbrunnen. Everyone still calls it Wedding; it’s going to take more than an administrative ‘reform’ to change that. Berlin-Wedding: Das Fotobuch properly takes Wedding in its former fullness, from Bornholmer Brücke (otherwise known as Böse Brücke) — where East and West Berlin first opened on November 9th, 1989 — all the way west to the edge of Flughafen Tegel. Wedding, where Marlene Dietrich performed when Buttmannstr. was the Queen of north Berlin.
I turn through the pages and sections, portraits of retired workers propping up their local bar, of parents and their children, portraits of Wedding-ers at home, and there’s Anna and Wolfgang Dumkow, in their beautiful Wiesenburg apartment, surrounded by art, looking unfathomably stylish. Each of the eighteen chapters or parts is by a different photographer from Ostkreuz-Agentur (skewed about 2:1 men:women ratio, yes, youse all know me, I count), so each chapter is a story, separate from the others, telling a particular theme without being beholden to an overarching narrative or curatorial aesthetic. Yes, it’s about Wedding, but it is not attempting a comprehensive or definitive appraisal; it is a moment shaped by the suburb’s past and its impending future.
And Wedding is a strange, unremarkable suburb, there’s scant imposing or singular architecture, the streets are a mix of congested thoroughfares banked by post-war Neubau — like all of Berlin, it’s missing teeth, more so than other districts, having been one of the main industry districts, and on the receiving end of heavy bombardment — of Kiez and Viertel with names like Afrikanisches Viertel (memorialising Germany’s colonial history), Brüsseler Kiez, tree-lined residential side-streets broken by old factories, and on two sides bounded by massive railway lines and the Westhafen canal port. There’s history here that’s uniquely Berlin and Wedding, but little of this remains immediately evident. In its absence, it’s one of the quieter parts of Berlin, where people carry on ordinary lives — even if they are artists.
So I’m reading this book and part of me is delighted to see my home represented like this, and part of me wonders why this book exists at all. Perhaps because Julia Boek and Axel Völcker also delight in this rather mundane cul-de-sac. But who’s it for, then? Wedding doesn’t have the punk and techno history of Kreuzberg, certainly not the cataclysmic history of Potsdamer Platz, Bowie and Iggy Pop didn’t live in Wedding, if there’s a suburb of Berlin which history seemed to have passed by, it’s Wedding.
It’s a suburb worth considering though. Barely 50% are of German origin — I have no idea what that means, I suppose germano-German, white German, though these kind of demographic descriptors slide into insalubrious fantasies of nationhood and ethnicity — almost 1 in 5 are Turkish German, and more than 1 in 20 Afro-German. It’s been a suburb of migration for its entire history, and only in the last few years has it been the site of the gentrification-type migration. One of the photo essays is called Black Wedding, a group of Cameroon-Germans who export cars, church on Sunday, family portraits at home and in the park. Another is of empty mosques. The introduction tells us Wedding has the greatest number of Mosques of any district in Berlin.
I’m going to jump into criticism here, all staccato like. My first criticism comes back to the imbalanced ratio of men to women photographers. I think here of Susan Sontag’s On Photography, where she says, “Taking photographs has set up a chronic voyeuristic relation to the world which levels the meaning of all events.” She also talks about — and I can’t find the quote here — the artlessness and naïvety of the amateur as more natural, more real, and therefore an essentialist resistance to the artificiality of the professional photographer. I was thinking of this looking at some of the essays, street photography shot without looking through the lens, as though this method in itself conferred a higher value to the work. I just thought they looked kinda crap, and had images in my head of tourist bros one-hand running and gunning their multi-thousand euro DSLRs, taking without asking. I contrast this with the family portraits, where the photographer set up an impromptu studio in a paediatric clinic, and asked her subjects, “What is your greatest wish?” And the answer so often was, “A better life for my children.” Asking and receiving. This is the Wedding I recognise, and when Mutti Merkel and other lost white Germans clamour multiculturalism and integration have failed, I say, this is Germany, and these are Germans.
There’s a photo in one of the empty mosques series where you can see a sliver of curtain. These spaces are absent of people, but were they not, then the absence would be women. Behind that curtain, that’s where the women go. An absence doubled. There are portraits of the Imam at the end, all male, by the photographer, also male. How a man can move through these spaces and streets — if they can at all — is very different from a woman. It’s like the reportage on Afghanistan I’ve been reading for years, only half told because of this absence. I feel tired and embarrassed to endlessly, year after year, book after book, movie, TV show, exhibition, cycling, motorsport, always, always hammering and banging on about representation. Fucking women. Where the fuck are we? Is one woman for every two men equality? Does 30% somehow read as half? And what does it mean that in a suburb where half the locals aren’t “of German origin” that almost all the photographers have hella German names? If I ask myself, “Do I spend too much time thinking about and asking these questions,” is it because they don’t?
Is this book harmless?
Sandwiched in-between Black Wedding, Artists, and In the Mecca of Berlin, is Gentrification of Wedding. Rent has more than doubled since I first arrived, pushing tripled. People let out rooms for a week what I would pay for a whole apartment for a month. And it’s on their coffee tables this book is more properly at home, irrespective of how the artists involved might want to hold a middle finger at them. As artists, we serve as the shock troops of gentrification, softening up the area before the front arrives. And when it does — which for Wedding is now — we’re pushed out and on to the next place. When I lived in Uferhallen, I photographed it constantly. I loved that I could be there, a former tram and bus depot in the middle of the city, now half turning to fields every summer, foxes and wildlife moving in. So I understand how Julia Bock and Axel Völcker could also feel the same about their Wedding, and want to share this. Yet once shared, it becomes commodity, serves interests other than, and in the present climate opposed to, the Wedding they call home.
Moving abruptly onto my other criticism, then. The English translations are a little shaky, a little word-for-word literal from German.
Like an anthology of short stories, some photographers I like, others I don’t, others leave me indifferent. This is both an affinity with a visual aesthetic as well as with what this makes explicit about how they see the world. If I flick through the pages, does it give me a feeling for Wedding? There are a number of photographers who remove entirely people from the milieu. Is this an intentional theme, or a habit of the photographers of the agency? A lot of them work for press, and there’s a strong thread of reportage in their work. I recognise people and places, and recognise Wedding, yet simultaneously, I see very little of Wedding here. I see photographers who use Wedding as an abrasive to rub up against, but it could be anywhere, Kreuzberg, Hamburg, Düsseldorf — the architecture often gives it away as German, but it could easily be Footscray or any of the other poor suburbs I’ve seen go through what Wedding presently is. They photograph Wedding but do not see it, they level it out, and some of the work is frankly lazy and pedestrian. Others, like Dorothee Deiss — I keep coming back to her photographs in the paediatric clinic — could go anywhere, her studio portraits against a plain background would always look like the place they came from. I would be far less critical were all the photographers to have her sensitivity and skill.
I show it to my Wedding friends though, “Hey, look at what I got, it’s our Kiez!” strange book for an odd ’burb.
Jüterbog has been on my list of German towns with a connection to Saint Mauritius to visit. It’s approximately spring, which means time for weekend bike trips with David, and as we haven’t gone south, and the Berlin-Leipzig bicycle Autobahn goes through Jüterbog, it seemed like a good combination of for a Saturday.
So, the bike path. It’s an Autobahn. For the most part. Sometimes it’s like Paris-Roubaix, but mostly it’s gloriously hoonable, with twists and hairpins as it weaves between farmers’ fields and forests, those pretty but somehow disturbing towns by lakes where Baroque and Gründerzeit mansions and estates gradually return to earth, drivers that are embarrassingly polite when they need to overtake you on the occasional stretches of road, utterly, utterly flat except for one long, low hill we passed by that might have been a mirage or a crop of taller than usual trees, a couple of downhill stretches into Jüterbog that make me yearn for a UCI Tour von Deutschlands Osten — it’d be like Ronden van Vlaanderen.
We ended up in Jüterbog’s town square looking for coffee after not that many hours pedalling. Jüterbog is one of those walled villages on the borders of the Holy Roman Empire a thousand years ago, then called Jutriboc. It fell under the rule of the Archbishopric of Magdeburg, and as Magdeburg is where the earliest extant representations of Saint Mauritius as a black knight are found, he turns up regularly in churches and towns of the diocese. I knew he was in Jüterbog, I just wasn’t expecting to see him — and his impressive codpiece — on the north-west corner of the mediæval Gothic brick Rathaus, watching over us in the café.
Translated from the plaque:
The statue of Saint Maurice points to the town’s incorporation within the Magdeburg diocese (1157-1635). In 1507, the lord and Archbishop of Magdeburg Ernst von Sachsen, donated the sandstone figure in the form of a contemporary knight. After damage, the canopy was restored in 1935, and the statue itself in 1958-1960, courtesy Karl-Heinz Sachamal. The original is in Mönchenkloster.
As usual, he’s missing his lance, but the stonework of his gauntlets and shield are some of the best I’ve seen. We didn’t hang around long, so I saw neither the 12th century Liebfrauenkirche nor Mönchenkirche, which is now a museum, though did make it to the top of Stadtkirche St. Nikolai, via a claustrophobic and murderously easy to defend stairwell, whose massively thick walls reminded me of Torri Asinelli in Bologna. Along with a dozen other towns nearby, I have idle plans to return for the unseen museums and churches.
I’m doing this as a memory. I went to LADA, spent the afternoon in their Study Room, trawled hundreds of books and pulled out a few, spent minutes or tens of looking and reading. Also a memory. I am reminded of my own history in biographies or documents of people and groups I think of only infrequently, which at one time were all I thought of. Or others I know about and have never read, or have circulated around me, or are entirely new. The books are arranged chronologically, in the order they were purchased in. Of all the possible arrangements, this is my favourite. It tells you something about the book that it doesn’t and can’t tell you itself.
These are the books I looked at and read a little of. In chronological order — mine going from first to last, and LADA’s going backwards in time from most recently acquired to about halfway through their collection. Some I like; others I don’t. I am still wondering what they tell me about me.
Pina Bausch — The Biography, Marion Meyer (trans: Penny Black)
my body, the buddhist, Deborah Hay
Precarious Lives — Waiting and Hope in Iran, Shahram Khosravi
A Field Guide for Female Interrogators, Coco Fusco
Integration Impossible? The Politics of Migration in the Artwork of Tanja Ostojić, Pamela Allara and Manuela Bojadzijev
Guerilla Aspies — A Neurotypical Society Infiltration Manual, Paul Wady
Leigh Bowery — The Life And Times Of An Icon, Sue Tilley
Black Artists In British Art, A History Since The 1950s, Eddie Chambers
Test Dept: Total State Machine, eds. Alexei Monroe and Peter Webb
Tania Bruguera: On the Political Imaginary, Carrie Lambert-Beatty, Gerardo Mosquera, Helaine Posner
Thee Psychick Bible : Thee Apocryphal Scriptures ov Genesis Breyer P-Orrige and Thee Third Mind ov Thee Temple ov Psychick Youth, Genesis Breyer P-Orridge
Jan Fabre: Stigmata. Actions & Performances 1976-2013, Germano Celant
Feminist and Queer Information Studies Reader, eds. Patrick Keilty and Rebecca Dean
Femininity, Time and Feminist Art, Clare Johnson
The Reckoning: Women Artists of the New Millennium, Eleanor Heartney, Helaine Posner, Nancy Princenthal, Sue Scott
The Shit of God: Diamanda Galás, Diamanda Galás and Clive Barker
Jan Fabre: I Am A Mistake. seven works for the theatre, ed. Frank Hentschker
Female Masculinity, Jack Halberstam
Trans(per)forming Nina Arsenault: An Unreasonable Body of Work, ed. Judith Rudakoff
I went to LADA today, Live Art Development Agency over in Hackney Wick beside a canal, all factories going down and gentrification going up. I had lunch with Meghan, @churlishmeg that is. We talked art and performance and London and stuff, she showed me around LADA, and it was brilliant. I spent the afternoon in the Study Room, making it about halfway through their glorious collection of live art. I didn’t even get to the performance documentation stuff. Totally worth being in London for this.
Two and an half years ago, I asked a historian friend for recommendations on northern European mediæval history, preferably written by a women. He replied that last qualifier was going to thin the herd considerably. Shortly after he emailed me a list, the last name on that list being Caroline Walker Bynum and her Wonderful Blood: Theology and Practice in Late Medieval Northern Germany and Beyond. He said, “Definite thematic focus, but it is an interesting focus, and one that is helpful in explaining much of late medieval (and modern Western) society; also more limited chronological range. That notwithstanding, the best book on this list, plus: written by a woman.”
Caroline Walker Bynum is always a tough read, dense, like tapestry, ideas and themes threaded together over hundreds of pages; footnotes often consume a third of the book and often impart critical additional elaboration. Hers are slow works to read, contemplative and demanding. I suppose it’s an uncommon approach to introduce myself to northern European mediæval history by going for the least forgiving of the lot, but there’s something glorious in drowning in such writing.
I started Christian Materiality: An Essay on Religion in Late Medieval Europe a few weeks ago, it’s been in my reading pile since late-July, and I’ve been reading it around a rapidly circulating mob of new arrivals. Of all her works, this is the most accessible, also the broadest in subject. And like all her works, almost a third is devoted to extensive notes. It’s beautifully bound, plenty of margin space, many illustrations of works she discusses, one of those books that’s a pleasure to be holding. I love it. I love her writing.
I’m reading Michael Dante DiMartino’s Rebel Genius entirely because he was — along with Bryan Konietzko — the creator of The Legend of Korra, which two years after it finished still ranks as my favourite animated series. So I’ll check out that comes from either of them (eagerly waiting for Bryan Konietzko’s Threadworlds next year).
Rebel Genius is a children’s / Young Adult novel. I’m pretty shoddy at telling the difference between those two categories and ‘Adult’ novels in general, I guess the audience is probably for 10–14 year olds, given the main character is 12. But seeing the audience of DiMartino and Konietzko grew up with Avatar: The Last Airbender from 2005–2008 and Korra from 2012–2014, that would put their devoted fans — of which there are many — in their late-teens to early-twenties.
The story is of a young orphan, Giacomo who may or may not be an archetypal Chosen One. I’m about half-way through and so far the story is sitting in this narrative. Anyone who reads my blog knows I largely read women authors and fiction stories (by which I mean sci-fi and fantasy) with women and girls at the centre. This is obviously neither of those, and it’s entirely because of Korra that I’m reading it. And to be honest, it’s making me miss Korra. A brown, bisexual woman growing up through four seasons of traumatic events, ending with her finding love with her best friend Asami, remains a profound work of art in film and television. Rebel Genius feels a little pedestrian and unimaginative coming after that.
Sure, it’s an unfair criticism from me to expect Michael to forever make stories of Korra and the Avatar world. That’s not what I’m saying here — as much as I’d love a whole series of The Adventures of Korrasami. What I feel is missing in Rebel Genius is the self-evident propositions around identity, desire, representation that were made in Korra and are so far absent here. Having a young, headstrong, cisgender, hetero (presuming these last two because unless a character is explicitly marked, the default is implied) boy walk into his ‘natural talent’, where the majority of supporting characters are also male, and the two significant female characters serve largely to support him and his journey … I’ve had enough of these stories for a lifetime. I look for stories that directly or indirectly propose ways of thinking about the world that might lead us to a much more egalitarian future, like Ann Leckie’s Imperial Radch trilogy, or Ysabeau S. Wilce’ Flora Segunda series, or Korra. And being explicit here, I think science-fiction and fantasy have the potential for sophisticated understandings of the world up there with philosophy.
So, I think kids who are currently getting a kick out of Avatar would probably also enjoy Rebel Genius — there’s a lot of similarities between Giacomo and Aang. The other lot, who find themselves in Korra, not so much.