Reading … An 8th Anniversary

Let’s get it over with right away: there’s gonna be no Fiction Book of the Year this year. Even Non-fiction is sketchy. Last year was a scorcher: Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice, Nicola Griffith’s Hild, Afsaneh Najmabadi’s Professing Selves: Transsexuality and Same-Sex Desire in Contemporary Iran, Caroline Walker Bynum’s Wonderful Blood: Theology and Practice in Late Medieval Northern Germany and Beyond, and H. Jay Melosh’ Planetary Surface Processes. Just typing those, far out last year blazed! What’s gone wrong Frances?

I think it’s mediæval art. Well, not the art itself, but the people writing on it. They are quite frankly a little … boring … need laxatives (less charitable Frances says: elitist wankers actively excluding anyone who doesn’t fit their clique-ish posing). I mean, come on, mediæval northern European history is mad crazy. I know this cos I’ve read heaps, and know most people think it’s all peasants pushing muddy sticks in muddy fields, falling over with the plague, waiting for the Renaissance to kick off—that’s the look people give me when I say “mediæval” I see it behind their glassy eyes, “…muddy sticks…” But it’s fucking not. It’s shitloads more progressive, analytic, philosophical, creative, than much of the following hundreds of years. Seriously, have you read Descartes? Set Europe back about 1500 years.

Also I did not read so much this year. A mere 36 books, of which 22 were fiction and 14 non-fiction. I blame my slightly out-of-control internet addiction (now under control courtesy System-level blocking of a chunk of the internet Sunday through Friday night), for the decrease, as well as not so much science-fiction being published that tripped me out—I do read a lot of fantasy, and some of it was pretty good, but honestly if there was say twenty writers of the Banks/Leckie/Miéville/Stross level splurting out skiffy, I’d either be hoovering a book a week of the stuff, or more likely dispensing with it altogether for the high fibre stuff. As for non-fiction, preceding paragraph.

I was going through supernaut a fortnight ago, finishing cleaning all the old images, which meant also looking at what I’d been reading, which in turn reminded me of being in China and the difficult relationship that place has to its history (mostly conversations like “…5000 years of history!”), which I then thought about specifically in Germany and its relationship to history (older history, let’s say pre- arbitrary mid-point of the reign of the Fredericks, like the Great, mid-1700s), and while everyone goes bonkers for Tang and Song Dynasties (618-907 and 960-1279 respectively) you’d be really hard-pushed to get an equivalent or comparable “Woo! Fukkin yeah!” reaction about Regnum Teutonicum, early Hanseatic League, Mechtild of Magdeburg, Hildegard of Bingen. I’m all enthusiastic about it, but the writing, so so many wrist-slitting pages of tedium.

There’s less resistance to change in Chinese studies, given that substantial archives are still being opened—and moreover simply it’s not Europe, so for Euro-Anglo-American-based scholarship, there isn’t that subjective rewriting of identity which I think is deeply tied into writing on European history. Just to witness the concerted and heavy resistance in both academia and broadly across culture to the presence of Islam and brown people (North African, Arabian, Persian, Central Asian) as part of northern European history demonstrates the inflexibility of European historical narrative. And on that, of course we’ve always been here: the trade routes along rivers, across the Baltic, Black, and Caspian seas make any other history patently false.

Yar, so. The books:

Fiction first. A couple of late arrivals—K T Davies’ Breed (haven’t written about yet) and Steph Swainston’s The Castle Omnibus (three books in one and pushing 900 pages)—saved the year from being a total washout. Breed was a sweary anti-hero loser sucker for punishment (Davies liked pushing him off a cliff every few pages for shits and giggles), who turned out to be Saviour of Everyone, who then tells everyone Thanks But No Thanks, Also Fuck Off because that’s what you do when people treat you like shit ’til you’ve got something they want. Mad Staunch is our Breed. It’s definitely in standard fantasy land, but the swearing and horribleness takes it almost into Oglaf.

The Castle Omnibus, on the other hand, is dead serious reading. There’s a scene in Charles Stross’ Merchant Princes series where they land on a parallel world full of things which eat anything living. The insects here, the Shift (both a place between worlds and the fabric in which all worlds are held), even the feudal mediæval island (let’s call it Great Britain) could easily be the Stross’ universe from a different perspective. It almost, almost convinced me to be Book of the Year, but … Look, I’m totally down with a first person narrative who’s a fiend for the needle and spends the first part of every book smug in a “kicked my habit for good this time” state and fifty pages later is blasting three times a day, and who has wings, and who’s punk/goth/streetkid/bitter/sexy/unreliable narrator, but a few of the important female characters were iffy, kinda “Wow, the guys are wankers, but the women … fukkin’ bitches.” That and the unsatisfactory post-climax resolutions which are a structural function of how Swainston tells a story. Probably will read subsequent Castle novels in the absence of skiffy.

Also three from Ayize Jama-Everett, his Liminal series (The Liminal People, The Liminal War, The Entropy of Bones). Best writer you’ve never heard of. A little too calculated and superficial—his ability to write is more impressive than the scenes and characters, which often shrink into the panoply of heterofanboy fantasy (like the tough martial arts chick of Entropy). But still I devoured all three, ’cos I’m desperate for good sci-fi/fantasy that isn’t white people. Best read smoking weed and listening to Asian Dub Foundation.

William Gibson made a fucking spectacular return to Neuromancer levels of Fuck Me This Is Good in The Peripheral, then blew it equally spectacularly with bullshit bandwagon du jour for sci-fi and fantasy writers who wanna be cool: trannys! Yes, Gibson has a tranny. So does Rachel Hartmann in Shadow Scale. A tranny is a particular stereotrope cisgender writers love. They’re defined by metonymy: big hands, secrets, crying, physical stature, striking appearance. They occur in two places throughout the story: once in the past in male form, again in the present as female, but we’re not told this person is one and the same except for via these metonymic ‘hints’. The reveal is a plot device which comes with all manner of ‘trapped in the wrong body’ exegesis, more tears, more big hands flapping, while fulfilling some surprise plot twist the author evidently felt only a chick with a dick could accomplish. Yeah, Gibson, Hartmann, Tricia Sullivan, I’m giving you the side-eye (and all you cis writers who suddenly have always been all about Teh Tranz). Please, just stop, you’re fucking embarrassing.

Ysabeau S. Wilce drip-fed me a tiny bit of joy from her Flora Segunda world in Prophecies, Libels & Dreams: Stories of Califa, as did China Miéville in his collection, Three Moments of an Explosion: Stories. Nicole Kornher-Stace’s Archivist Wasp was another rare gem, so much of a world barely explored, as with Alastair Reynolds’ Slow Bullets, which would be my Book of the Year if I was going to give it to any.

I noticed as I was writing this that I find it difficult to remember one fantasy work from another. It’s all the same, magic and dragons and shit, and curiously white-ish generic western European ‘mediæval’. Even Breed, The Castle Omnibus, Shadow Scale, Archivist Wasp rely heavily on this for some aspect of the world, and as much as they surmount this narrow world in other aspects, it’s tiresome. Being heavily critical here, I’m not sure many Euro-Anglo-American writers can write outside this. It’s not enough to shift the setting to Generic Africa or Generic Asia, or have characters who are otherwise indistinguishable from inner city heteroboys be muslim or have a checklist of exotic defining attributes. This is where I think authors like Saladin Ahmed and Ayize Jama-Everett get it right (and conversely G. Willow Wilson doesn’t). To be clear, it’s not about the ‘authenticity’ or not of the writer. I think it’s more of a question of misjudgement, that the author thinks it’s sufficient to attach a set of attributes to a character or location, and fails to realise that each attribute is an entire world. To be a muslim or a transsexual person (I’m currently using that latter word because trans, trans*, transgender are all seriously shitting me) is to experience the world in a fundamentally different way; for all the quantitative differences there might be, these do not in themselves add up to the qualitative difference I’m talking about.

Moving on, non-fiction:

I’m still on my Caroline Walker Bynum bender, though close to finishing her œvre. I threw Jesus as Mother: Studies in the Spirituality of the High Middle Ages across the room once. I forget why. It’s not often that happens, and I’m pretty sure it wasn’t something she said, but a quote which made me want to burn a thousand years of Europe to ashes and salt the ruins. Holy Feast and Holy Fast: The Religious Significance of Food to Medieval Women escaped damage, as did Mechthild Of Magdeburg’s The Flowing Light of the Godhead. Mischa Honeck, Martin Klimke, and Anna Kuhlmann’s (eds.) Germany and the Black Diaspora: Points of Contact, 1250-1914 deserved such a beating, but at 60€ I couldn’t bring myself to do it. There’s definitely an inverse ration between scholarship and price in academic publishing, and sure, there were a few bits and pieces I’m glad I read, but nothing was substantially above the extended inquiry into the subject I’ve read around the internet, and quite a bit I would fail if I was marking undergraduate-level essays. The other stuff though, I think part of the difficulty in reading is extricating the valid ideas from the misogynistic, religious, social structures and limitations of the time. It’s not always pleasant work. Conversely, persuading contemporaries of its value butts up against equally frustrating limitations. It’s safe to say that the Renaissance, Reformation, Enlightenment ages all did a hatchet job on the mediæval era which remains to this day.

Aloïs Riegl’s Historical Grammar of the Visual Arts is useful in exhuming this, coming as it does from the peak of continental superiority (geographic and temporal), and I am enjoying it, paragraphical asides on Dürer and the Reformation lead to hours following the migration of ideas across Europe, getting lost in the Beeldenstorm iconoclasm, following the Hanseatic League (again). I wonder to myself, for what? At times I feel on the edge of understanding—broadly, generally, continent- and era-sized brush stroke kinds of understanding—What Happened and What It Means, and then … nope, gone.

And on that, non-fiction book of the year does exist: David Bindman, Henry Louis Gates, and Karen C. C. Dalton’s massive and glorious Image of the Black in Western Art, Volume II: From the Early Christian Era to the “Age of Discovery”, Part 1: From the Demonic Threat to the Incarnation of Sainthood. It’s an odd choice for me, being in the coffee-table realm of printed matter, but the essays are significant and valuable; as is the project in itself, beginning in the ’70s, to document the history of people of colour in European art. Look, you can gawk at art from the past millennia in these ten volumes and see not only changing attitudes to people outside and on the margins of Europe—and those people within the many Europes that we somehow continue to convince ourselves is and has always been homogeneous—changing ideas of representation, for religion, for gender, for social status, for ethnicity; you can also see the change in what constitutes European self or subjecthood, and following from that what is Other. The history of European art documents extraordinarily clearly over hundreds of years the emergence and ascendency of colonialism, racism, ideas of superiority—of ethnicity, gender, class—as well as resistance to this, all inextricably interwoven with religion. And for all our pretence that things are different now, what’s remarkable is how familiar a thousand years ago is.

Ok, there’s a few fiction and non-fiction I have to mention: Michael Dante DiMartino, Bryan Konietzko, Joaquim Dos Santos’ The Legend of Korra: The Art of the Animated Series, Book 1: Air because fukkin’ #korrasami and being one of the best series animated or otherwise this millennia. Howard W. French’s China’s Second Continent: How a Million Migrants Are Building a New Empire in Africa, which really deserved better paper stock, and despite its shortcomings is one of the current required texts on the very-much hot subject. Udo Kittelmann and Britta Schmitz’s (eds.) Gottfried Lindauer: Die Māori-Portraits, from the exhibition at the Alte-Nationalgalerie, made me miss Aotearoa something fierce. Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Sword, not as good as the first one, but having just finished the third, and planning a binge of the trilogy, can say it’s crucial reading. Hannu Rajaniemi’s Collected Fiction, who occasionally shows the brilliance of his first novel, and worth it just for that. Charles Stross’ The Annihilation Score, a dependable early-summer arrival, didn’t enjoy it nearly as much as some of his other stuff though. Jo Walton’s The Just City, the first of a trilogy, I think. Not sure if it’s excellent (compared to say, her Among Others), but enjoyed very much. And I cannot not mention Iain Banks and Ken MacLeod Poems, as it’s the last thing Banks will publish and that guts me beyond words.

Maybe I’m just a grumpy, entitled cunt, cos from right here that looks like a pretty fucking sweet year of reading.


Books! Just like vinyl, they’ll never die. I unashamedly love books and reading. I love the weight of them, the resistance in their spines, the smell and feel of the paper and ink. I adore when the typeface and setting has been done with love, and adore also the works of art that are the covers. I love seeing a pile or stack or shelf of read books (as much as I cringe with embarrassment at the spilt and splashed food, drink, dirty fingers, smudges, I inflict—seem to have retired from marking pages by folding the corner though, so some progress made). A book is as much a work of art for how it is made as for what it contains; and for what it signifies and stands for, fiction or non-fiction: literacy, ideas, the love of knowledge, philosophy, these things that cannot be reduced to an economic sum. To read—to be able to read—is one of the greatest luxuries and privileges.

And that necessitates obligation. Reading in itself is not a human right. 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!

Reading: Justin Tiwald, Bryan W. Van Norden (eds.) — Readings in Later Chinese Philosophy: Han to the 20th Century

A much easier one to trace why I’m reading it. Published in September, Readings in Later Chinese Philosophy: Han to the 20th Century edited by Justin Tiwald, Bryan W. Van Norden was on Warp, Weft, and Way: Chinese and Comparative Philosophy 中國哲學與比較哲學, and looked like the kind of thing that would nicely summarise a couple of millennia of Chinese thought, philosophy, and religion.

Besides some Chuang Tzu—I mean Zhuangzi, (and some decidedly awkward teenage messing around with the I Ching) my exposure to Chinese philosophy has been by osmosis. Even communist China in any of its forms is unavoidably aligned with some form of Confucianism. To read the the sources, for all my China reading is something I haven’t done.

I do dislike Confucianism, and everything in the translated selections here only confirms that. The Cosmology section (coming chronologically before Buddhism) alone for me is worth the “Oh why am I paying so much again for a book?” price. Not the least for the notes on that favourite pop-spiritual object of Western culture: Yin and Yang, which can only be understood as unmistakably misogynist and generally hegemonically normative.

For me, the dogmatic aspects of Confucianism in Chinese history and culture seem to be balanced—or at least resisted from achieving complete dominance—by Daoism, Buddhism, and Mohism (this latter I’ve read effectively nothing on). Perhaps experiencing confirmation bias while reading.

It could do with a couple more female translators, especially as it suffers from that “women in the kitchen” problem of them represented in the Women and Gender section but a distinct minority elsewhere. Anyway, it’s my go-to book for the subject.

Reading: Justin Tiwald & Bryan W. Van Norden (eds.) — Readings in Later Chinese Philosophy: Han Dynasty to the 20th Century

I saw Justin Tiwald & Bryan W. Van Norden’s Readings in Later Chinese Philosophy: Han Dynasty to the 20th Century on Warp, Weft, and Way: Chinese and Comparative Philosophy 中國哲學與比較哲學 a month ago, and my interest was piqued by “Within those topics, issues of contemporary interest, such as Chinese ideas about gender and the experiences of women, are brought to light.” I’m also in something of a philosophical reading frame, specifically Chinese and Japanese (to be honest, I find I just can’t focus on European philosophy lately). I was troubled at seeing a couple of pieces by Liu Shaoqi, one of the instigators of the Great Leap Forward and well, perhaps I tend to absolutism on the one hand and recognise on the other it’s necessary to read people such as he because of his influence on the country, but it still feels unpleasant.

I haven’t read much yet, still pushing through the Confucianism stuff, which I find horrible in the way having to endure Descartes or Marxism is. The cover is beautiful, as are the illustrations throughout, and yes, it does really cover everything from the Han Dynasty onwards. One (perhaps misplaced) criticism is that I would have liked to have seen both more female translators and female philosophers, and not just where they are present writing on women and gender.

Reading … A 7th Anniversary

It turns out I’ve been blogging about reading for around 2/3 the age of supernaut. It still feels like something I’ve only recently begun. This year I’d taken a slight pause from my intense reading bouts, so in part this is a reminder of what I read in the last 12 months, that I was reading, and what I thought then and now.

Yes, I’ve read less than last year, 40-ish books compared to last year’s 54-ish. This has been obvious to me in recent months with my pile being added to but not depleted, not so much reading as chiseling away. Anyway, no more blathering. The books:

The non-fiction, serious stuff:

Half of what I read was superb. When I was performing in Parsifal, I got to read William Kinderman’s Wagner’s Parsifal, a glorious book, which made me love and appreciate the opera even more. I paired that with Dayal Patterson’s equally magnificent Black Metal: Evolution of the Cult, a must-read for anyone interested in the history of the genre, and it supplied me with a mass of new listening. It was on my Book of the Year list until shunted off by a couple of exceptional works. Michel Serres’s was not one of those, but Variations on the Body is a beautiful, poetic work by one of Europe’s most profound and little-read philosophers, who understands corporeality in a way largely lacking in western philosophy.

Adam Minter writing on the recycling business in Junkyard Planet: Travels in the Billion Dollar Trash Trade is a book I’d recommend to pretty much anyone (being aware that much of what I read falls into the WTF? category), and he’s a rare, smart writer on the subject, presenting it in a way non-specialists can understand and enjoy, also a needed critical voice in the global trash industry and China’s role in it.

Another from China: Frank Dikötter is one of my favourite writers on 20th century China, and I’d been waiting for The Tragedy of Liberation: A History of the Chinese Revolution 1945-1957. I’d been interested in this period because of stories a friend in Guangzhou would tell me about her Tujia grandparents holding out for years in the mountains against Communists. I’d also been waiting for Liao Yiwu’s prison years autobiography, available in German for a year, For a Song and a Hundred Songs: A Poet’s Journey through a Chinese Prison System. There is hype around post-’89 Chinese writers, particularly the Beijing and Shanghai urban youth genre. I’ve yet to find a writer of that generation as good as Liao, and as necessary to read. All of his works are unparalleled documentaries.

Finally, there was Julia Serano, her sequel to Whipping Girl: Excluded: Making Feminist and Queer Movements More Inclusive. It’s odd to leave this off the Book of the Year list, as it’s undeniably a critical work and Serano is up with bell hooks and Judith Butler (among others) for her writing on feminism, trans, and queer politics and culture. She needs to be read; buy it and read it.

The reason why Serano got bumped is Afsaneh Najmabadi, whose Women with Mustaches and Men without Beards: Gender and Sexual Anxieties of Iranian Modernity was one of my Books of the Year last year. I heard about Professing Selves: Transsexuality and Same-Sex Desire in Contemporary Iran late last year and waited months for it. Considering the amount of attention works on trans people (particularly trans women) received in the last year, it’s baffling that Najmabadi goes largely unmentioned. For those engaged in this subject with no interest in Iran specifically, her documenting of the influence in Iran of Euro-Anglo-American ebbs and flows of political, social, medical, legal thought and practice on trans issues and identities is sufficient to make this required reading. Iran though is the dog that’s beaten irrespective of context, and successive Ayatollahs since the ’70s issuing Fatawa recognising trans people as legitimate and in need of help is presented in the west rather as the despotic Islamic dictatorship forcing sex reassignment on unwilling gays and lesbians. As with Excluded, buy it and read it.

Then there was H. Jay Melosh’s Planetary Surface Processes, which Emily Lakdawalla wrote about on The Planetary Society. Along with last year’s Colliding Continents: A Geological Exploration of the Himalaya, Karakoram, & Tibet, this one fills my need to look at massive contusions of granite and other rock. There’s a moderate number of formulae, and regular plunges into elucidations of those, placing this somewhere in general university-level and reference book. It is specific and not a casual read, and it’s the one book you want on the subject. Sometime soon I’ll pair it with one on planetary chemistry.

And finally for the non-fiction is Caroline Walker Bynum’s Wonderful Blood: Theology and Practice in Late Medieval Northern Germany and Beyond, recommended by a friend, and just one of those delightful, dense, heavy, demanding works written by someone so phenomenally talented and capable, and who simply loves her work. Completely a joy!

The fiction, also serious stuff:

I read less fiction in the last year, and tried new authors, some of whom I absolutely loved and are firmly helping me get over the absence of Iain Banks. Others … others who everything indicates I should love instead leave me cold, or worse, finding them actually not very good.

Let’s dispense with The Water Margin first. The second volume of five of John Dent-Young and Alan Dent-Young’s translation of Shi Nai’an and Luo Guanzhong: The Tiger Killers: Part Two of the Marshes of Mount Liang. This has to go on my list similarly as I have to have breakfast. Even if I read a hundred superior books, it would still be here. Some books are like that, you may never read them but they’re always around. The Water Margin is—as I keep saying—China’s Chaucer and The Canterbury Tales, or Marlowe’s riotous plays. I’d compare it to Shakespeare but it’s not equivalent: it’s bawdy, rough, uncouth characters and stories, and the writing itself is nearer the former two. Given its miraculous ability for genius turns of phrase, it’s perhaps comparable to Shakespeare for his wordsmithery. The Dent-Young’s translation is my favourite of the lot also, though the price per volume certainly isn’t.

Then there’s Ysabeau S. Wilce, who I discovered mid-this year, ordered the first of the Flora Segunda trilogy, promptly ordered the other two when barely past the first chapter. Flora Segunda: Being the Magickal Mishaps of a Girl of Spirit, Her Glass-Gazing Sidekick, Two Ominous Butlers (One Blue), a House with Eleven Thousand Rooms, and a Red Dog. Yes, that’s the title. Children’s book indeed. Would that some of the adult authors I read be capable of imagining and telling a story as this. I loved all three, though the first the most. It seems to me in trilogies where the protagonist starts almost from nothing, that the first part establishes the significant growth, and the remaining two are more working with what they’ve already learnt (the Matrix and Star Wars trilogies, for example), and it may be unreasonable to be irritated by this, but it does—books two and three are still wonderful and had I only read either of them I’d be frothing as I do over book one. It’s not in the same league as the two big ones below, but I did love the world and characters.

Another new author was K. J. Parker, who has written quite a bit. It was The Folding Knife that piqued my interest, and I enjoyed it enough that it gets a second mention here.

I almost forgot Imogen Binnie’s Nevada, neither sci-fi nor fantasy, something of an autobiography, a little like reading my own life, rough, punk and trouble. The ending I hated, but the rest, she deserves awards for this and to be read a fuck-ton load.

The two big ones then, and colossal they are.

One the Skiffy side, channelling Iain M. Banks: Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice; and on the Mediæval Fiction side (I keep imagining her and Caroline Walker Bynum together in a bar): Nicola Griffith’s Hild.

Buy these books. Read these books. These are incomparably the best sci-fi/fantasy of 2014. If you’re swayed by other’s opinions, between them, they’ve won or been nominated for more awards than I have fingers and toes. Both of them have my favourite covers of the year. Honestly, if you don’t like either you should give up reading; books are wasted on you.

I cannot say enough good things about either of these two books and their authors. It’s an extraordinary time for sci-fi and fantasy with writers like Griffith and Leckie. It’s unlikely I’ll ever have an experience like my reintroduction to sci-fi via Iain Banks a few years ago, but to utterly give myself over to the author and story as with these two and to be rewarded for that is beyond compare.

An aside: you may notice that many of the writers are female. It’s intentional. A while ago, I decided to put my money where my feminist mouth is. This is easier in fiction because the two genres I read, sci-fi and fantasy have many talented female writers and the genres are going through a renaissance due to these and non-white, non-western, non-straight authors (and a definite shift by the publishing industry to promote them). It’s brilliant. In non-fiction, it’s not so easy. In part this is because I want to read particular authors; in part particular subjects that are dominated by white male authors in the english language sphere. I consciously balance these two biases by seeking out and selecting female authors, and when it comes to a choice I’ll put the female author first. The result of my extraordinary and hegemonic discrimination is that the first twenty books on my wish list are split almost 50/50 between male and female authors.

There follows two salient points: first, on any subject or genre, despite their being anywhere from an abundance of quality women writers all the way down to an equal number as there are men, by comparison it requires sustained effort to find them. Secondly, women writers—or at least the ones I read—tend to take for granted aspects of society that male writers mostly consider irrelevant. (This is my “Easy A vs. Superbad” theory.) Not only do women authors tend to not make assumptions based on contemporary, western ideas of gender, desire, ethnicity in society, they also regard these subjects as self-evidently present even if not immediately obvious and therefore critical to a proper understanding of the subject (or, as my wont, deserving of entire books on their own). Male writers on the other hand far too often see the world in terms of a narrow heterosexual and mono-cultural construction where men are doing all the important stuff.

This to me is the fundamental point in arguing for proper representation: it is simply not possible to otherwise understand a subject or imagine a world. And given that there has been prolonged underrepresentation, it follows that what is claimed to known on a subject can be reasonably said to be seriously lacking at best and likely suspect unless it can demonstrate adequate representation.

Another year done, then. More shelves filled. More new, superb authors whom I’m able to enjoy because of the fortunate combination of being able to read, living somewhere I can make time to read, and where books are affordable and commonplace. So (as I said last year) 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.

Reading: Shi Nai’an, Luo Guanzhong — The Tiger Killers: Part Two of the Marshes of Mount Liang (trans. John Dent-Young, Alan Dent-Young)

Over a year since I began the first part of The Marshes of Mount Liang, which I always think of as The Water Margin, or 水滸傳 and finally I decide to get book two. It’s taking me a while because John and Alex Dent-Young’s translation is very good (I think the best, and seeing it’s a massive 120 chapters, unlikely to be translated again any time soon), and for all five volumes very expensive, so I try and hold back my compulsion to buy them all now. Ah, books.

Part Two opens with Wu Song’s hilarious and brilliant post-roadside banquet drunken battering to death of a mountain tiger. It’s full of such language as, “Now, what Wu Song on the mountain provided for that savage tiger, in less time than it takes to eat a simple meal, was a surfeit of blows and kicks.” It sounds strange almost to be Pidgin English, ‘providing’ a beating, and to use slurping down a quick bowl of noodles as a simile for the time that beating takes, for me puts Shi Nia’an and Luo Guanzhong up there with Chaucer.

I’ve been pestering people I know with some success to watch Avatar: Legend of Kora, Orphan Black, Blake’s 7, so now I shall pester them this: The Water Margin: like Game of Thrones but better.

Reading: Margaret B. Wan — Green Peony and the Rise of the Chinese Martial Arts Novel

It’s seldom this happens, but I have no idea where I first came across Margaret B. Wan’s Green Peony and the Rise of the Chinese Martial Arts Novel. I’m fairly sure it was either during my first reading of The Water Margin, or during the second, Dent-Young translation (still working on this one as it’s six volumes). There’s nothing in my reading archives which mentions it, nor anywhere on supernaut, nor even do any of the searches for her and this book bring up anything familiar. I’m fairly sure though it arrived on my reading list over a year ago. Wait! No! Found it! Paper Republic mentioned her some undated time in the past, and they’ve been in my Feed for ages. They linked to SUNY Press, and that was probably enough for me.

So it was on my reading list for quite some time until I bought it, and then more time until I began reading. Then it was put aside during my recent fantasy fiction binge, and currently is my Brussels book, beginning from the start. This is good, because I have no distractions to cause me to put it down in favour of something easier, and so, page by page I’m getting through it. As almost a quarter of the work is notes, there’s a lot of flipping back and forth.

I haven’t read Green Peony, nor was I familiar with it, though I have a passing vagueness for some of the other classics, Honglou Meng, Xiyou Ji, and have been fairly drenched in Hong Kong and Chinese martial arts movies, so the general tropes of the genre were not unfamiliar. Reading this was an attempt to put it in some kind of context, with The Water Margin being like a barbaric, drunken, brawling, feasting epic equal to The Canterbury Tales (I have no idea why I compare the two other than an approximate correlation of writing).

It’s often pretty dry, though by the fourth chapter had picked up, or perhaps I’d trained myself to focus on the page, not to say it’s not fascinating; Wan definitely knows what she’s writing about very well. Curiously, having read Susan Mann not so long ago, I find there’s something of an absence of feminist scholarship in this; two examples I can think of: The first being a detailed description of role and character reversals in Green Peony, and how this undermines and parodies these forms. What I thought was missing here was to continue this line of reading to how the form of the role reversal parody in turn reifies the original form itself. Perhaps to say, the parody laughs at the artifice of the form, but does not the social philosophy on which the form rests.

The other example, I read while on the tram in Brussels, Wan refers to the reader of Green Peony as ‘he’. Perhaps the intended audience in the Qing Dynasty was male, but if so this was not made explicit, and so felt like a strange throwback to the days when masculine gender denoted the entirety, something I’ve not seen in recent writing. And even if the audience was largely male, there were plenty of literate women at the time who would have read it, which thus far leaves unanswered and unasked the nature of the parodies in Green Peony if the intended audience was male. Or perhaps I see everything currently through a myopic feminist perspective, having been spoilt by a deluge of excellent writers.

Reading: Shi Nai’an, Luo Guanzhong — The Broken Seals: Part One of the Marshes of Mount Liang (trans. John Dent-Young, Alan Dent-Young)

And back to Taoist drinking, fighting, drinking and fighting, eating, eating drinking and fighting!

One of my favourites from last year, which I was reluctant to start because a) it’s large enough to stun farm animals with, and b) I was afraid it’d be rubbish, and then it turns out to be one of the best things I’ve ever read. Or rather, it was brilliant but really deserved a translation just as good.

So I periodically looked around at the translations and their shortcomings, and decided to try the first volume by father and son John and Alan Dent-Young. A few unfortunately – and unnecessarily – contradictory choices led to this. The Water Margin exists in anywhere from 70 to 120 chapters, depending on the version: Shi Nai’an is supposedly responsible for the 70 chapter version, which was the previous version I read, translated by J.H. Jackson; Luo Guanzhong for the 120 chapter version; then there exists other versions going up to 164 chapters. Then there’s the translations themselves, which go from the usual ‘accurate but pedestrian’ to just inaccurate, or avoiding the more bawdy elements (which must mean a heavily abridged version because there is drinking, fighting, etc and general mayhem on every page and language to match), to missing things for editorial reasons, or just dated.

So I settled on the Dent-Young trilogy, which seems to be the most faithful in both language, and structure. Wait, no! Not three, five! Turns out their translation is around 20 chapters per book (and 450 pages) and at €25 each … well, if it ends up being not so good at least I can stop after the first.

This version then is the 120 chapter version and where the chapter breaks lie is different from the Jackson version. There is also a substantial amount of additional detail in every line and scene, and the breaking of scenes with poetry, which was entirely absent from Jackson, and which to me feel as musical interludes in an oral storytelling.

108 outlaw heroes then, who variously drink, eat, and fight their way until meeting at the Marshes of Mount Liang.

More of Zürich and The Water Margin

A semi-holiday. Oh Zürich, when did you get so expensive? 4Fr. for a ‘cheap’ coffee? I used to defend you to friends you said, “Zürich is really expensive,” but since I last lived here, wow, I pity anyone trying to live here on less than 6000Fr. a month.

Lucky I’m semi-working so won’t experience the distractions of the outside, and also have a door-stop of a book to keep me entertained (plus conveniently acquired cold) and can pretend I’m in some Suisse mountain village with no nearby amenities.

And on the book, digging a trench through The Water Margin still. I gave up shortly after beginning because in all truth the translation and edition have a lot of “weaknesses”. Spelling, punctuation, grammar, and continuity errors abound (and I have an irrational disposition when encountering an obvious error that any half-arsed text editing app would automatically find), and the writing style is stilted in the way that only a semi-literal translation from Chinese can be.

Then, having finished almost everything on my shelves and knowing I’d be on a train for an entire day on my way to Bregenz, and having re-begun it a week or so ago, decided I’d kick my way through it somehow. Let’s pretend for a minute the translation was superb, and that it kept the original ribaldry.

In this case The Water Margin is a hilariously violent, morally depraved, drunken brawl masquerading as Confucian morality tales of honest and upstanding scholars who have, through their commitment to said Confucian morality have been disadvantaged with no recourse other than to become violent, morally depraved, drunken but nonetheless upright bandits and brigands.

Recurring themes include: bribing of all and sundry with between 5 and 15 taels of silver as a starting amount, which is seen as a signal act of uprightness; on meeting, going between 20 and 50 rounds against each other with cudgels before recognising each other as honourable and then; drinking minimum of three cups of wine, and upwards of 30 in an evening; accompanied by at least a few kilos of beef, and other meat, vegetables and fruit; subsequently leading to the slaughter of a pig, sheep, or less frequently larger ruminant which is then consumed with buckets instead of cups of wine; at some point in this declaring each other “older brother” and “younger brother”, and the former bestowing small fortunes on the latter, who initially must refuse and then says they would dare not refuse; all of these characters either over 6 foot tall, or broad as an ox, or both, and tattooed, explosively red of face or otherwise garrulously marked when not obviously upright and noble; more bribery, coercion, standovers, dishonesty, covering up of murders, adultery, cannibalism, beatings, beheadings and other violent crime, all of which is revealed to be the necessary acts of an honest Confucian displaying the correct piety; punching to death of large wild animals such as man-eating tigers while very, very drunk; being beaten with bamboo staves, tortured by rope suspension, branded on the face, shackled in cangue and exiled to the far outposts for their crimes which can’t be covered up with aforementioned stacks of silver and gold (but nonetheless all the punishments are performed with requisite leniency as befits their correct moral standing); righteously joining bands of outlaws; repeating all of this for 800 pages with the “108 heroes of Liangshan Marsh” and another 28 or so who don’t join the marsh heroes.

It’s also full of hilarious lines like, “… his heart was beating like fifteen buckets being hurriedly lowered into a well for water — eight going down while seven were coming up.” and “Last year I was very ill with fever for three months, but when passing Jingyang Ridge I being somewhat tipsy killed a tiger with only three blows of my fist and a couple of kicks.”

It makes Game of Thrones look cheerful and delicate.

Reading: Shi Naian — The Water Margin: The Outlaws of the Marsh, Trans: J. H. Jackson

This is one of the classics of Chinese literature, and me being the philistine could only gawp over how thick it was when I picked it up yesterday — and this is the translation with only 70 of a possible 120 chapters. I keep thinking a useful comparison would be Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, which was written around the same time, as while Chaucer’s work has several possible orders it can be read in and its completeness is uncertain, The Water Margin has had a number of additions, annotations, commentaries, re-assemblings in that distinctive Chinese approach to writing.

So I, without knowing all this until I read the introduction, have found myself landed with Jin Shengtan’s 1641 version, with his commentary and missing the final 30-50 chapters (depending on which previous version one might refer to), by way of J. H. Jackson in the ’30s, who prudishly omitted some of the more creative language, which was then re-edited by Edwin Lowe. This translation though isn’t as well-regarded as the Sidney Shapiro one (something I wish I’d bothered to find out before carting it home).