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.
That’s what one of the pair of old, white-haired German women said across the gallery to the other while standing before the pink and blue scribbling of Zwei Badende. Shortly after, she snorted at Max Liebermann in seinem Atelier, offered the faintest of praise for Sängerin am Piano, and as we tacked our separate ways through the exhibition continued her derision, as if she was a good jury member for Entartete Kunst. I’d like to think she was unaware of the irony, but this is Germany at the end of 2016 and even in the heart of Berlin there are Nazis who tell themselves and each other they’re not Nazis.
So, me at Neuen Galerie im Hamburger Bahnhof seeing Ernst Ludwig Kirchner: Hieroglyphen, and also my first museum visit where I arranged to bring my camera. Most of the special exhibitions in the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin are No Cameras Allowed. Without photographing plus subsequent blogging there isn’t much point to my museum trips, thanks then to the Kommunikation department for making it easy (even though it turned out cameras were anyway allowed).
Ernst Ludwig Kirchner: Hieroglyphen presents the 17 works in Berlin’s currently closed for renovations Neue Nationalgalerie collection, plus works from Kirchner Museum Davos, Brücke Museum, and private collections. Besides the core paintings, there are sketches and works on paper, wood sculptures, photographs from Kirchner’s various ateliers, books, and some dancing. It’s not a huge exhibition, if you were slamming Hamburger Bahnhof you could whip through in 15 minutes. I spent an hour there and could have easily used up another. These works and the accompanying text deserve contemplation.
Kirchner used the word Hieroglyph himself in articles published under the pseudonym Louis de Marsalle, to describe how he worked with a symbolic language in his work as part of “the radical abbreviation and reduction of his imagery.” The exhibition starts with this text, and an essay in a book, accompanied by the sketch Tanzduo. Which I thought looks exactly like Dasniya, down to the face and bloomers under tutu.
In this first section are works I’m most familiar with of his, Haus unter Bäumen, Badende am Strand, both from Fehmarn, up on the Ostsee north-east of Hamburg. It then returns to dance. He, like many artists then, frequently painted dancers, possibly the influence of Ballets Russes who blew away the ballet world in 1909.
Opposite the dance section is Davos, where he moved after having a breakdown and while dealing with drug addition and alcoholism. There was a beautiful, huge tapestry hanging on the wall, unfortunately under perspex and unphotographable — the only work to suffer this, all the other artworks were under that magical unreflective glass — and probably the pick of the exhibition. His style changes here too, the late-’20s, early-’30s of Wiesenblumen und Katze or Sängerin am Piano flatter and with Cubist elements, almost alien to his earlier frenzy.
Berlin forms its own section, with some of my favourite pieces I would love to steal. The incredible Potsdamer Platz is here, as is Rheinbrücke in Köln and Der Belle-Alliance-Platz in Berlin. These form yet another distinct style, at first glance not different from the Fehmarn works, but they’re far lighter, faster, almost like watercolour on paper. Erna Schilling also arrives, his life partner from then on. These aren’t easy works. Kirchner populates the cityscape with what he called ‘Kokotte’, coquettes, sex workers, and the men, always diminished figures on the sides carry an anonymous menace.
Around the next corner, and one of the contextually most interesting for me. But first, Sitzender Akt mit erhobenen Armen, which I cannot help look at and see a nice plate of two fried eggs, sunny side up beside the naked woman. I know they’re supposed to be flowers in vases, but it’s all eggs to me. What’s more pertinent here is his use of colour on the shadows outlining her body. They’re a turquoise that contrasts the apricots and light salmon colours of her skin. When I look at this and compare it to Zwei weibliche Akte in Landschaft, with the hallucinogenic greens, yellows, pinks, blues of their bodies, it becomes clear how the latter in no way denotes a non-natural skin colour, nor do the greens and yellows of the Potsdamer Platz women or other portraits.
This painting was in the section called “Signs of Other Worlds” and discusses the influence of non-European art and culture on his and other Brücke artists’ work and life. Both African and Oceania form influences, and both were sites of German Colonialism until the end of World War I. It’s difficult for me to know where Kirchner sits in this. On one side he was horrified by the treatment of Jewish Germans even in the early-’30s, and was expelled by the Nazis from the Prussian Academy of Arts when they came to power in 1933, yet he also saw what he and the Brücke artists were doing as encouraging “truly German art, made in Germany”. So there’s this tension between radical aspirations and uncritical nationalism and colonialism.
Carl Einstein’s (a German Jewish writer, art historian, anarchist and critic) book Negerplastik is described as an important influence, and two copies are presented alongside Kirchner’s work. This influence is immediately apparent in his sculpture, even without prompting, but I like that this connection was explicitly made.
There’s also one photo that achieved the glorious down-the-rabbit-hole I love about museums. All the photos are postcard-sized, and being a hundred years old, not sharp or clean at all. This one, from Kirchner Museum Davos was captioned “Die Artisten Milly und Sam in Kirchners Atelier, Berliner Straße 80, Dresden” from circa 1910/11. It’s set in a chaotic room, artworks, hangings, and sculpture propped up against walls, littering the floor. There are two naked figures, Milly, in the bottom-left corner, and Sam, standing, one arm on his hip, the other stretched along the top of a painting. Both of them are black. They have names, are called ‘artists’ (Artisten), so what were they doing in Berlin in 1910?
For a start, this isn’t the only work they appear in. Milly is the subject of Kirchner’s Schlafende Milly in Kunsthalle Bremen, both were the subjects of numerous sketches by Kirchner, and Milly probably appears in more than one work without being named. Both of them are said to have also modelled for Erich Heckel. An alternate title for the photo is “Sam und Millie vom ‘Zirkus Schumann’”, and they are variously described as ‘circus’, ‘jazz dancer’, and ‘Black American’ artistes in sources cited in Face to Face? An Ethical Encounter with Germany’s Dark Strangers in August Sander’s People of the Twentieth Century. So there’s this whole history of early-20th century Afro-Germans, colonialism, immigration in this one small, easily missed photo, which is a lot to put on a naked man and woman, about whom not much is known. It’s these traces though that history is all about. A single photo, a name, and a world opens up.
A little note on the nudity: Kirchner and friends were all down with getting naked and running around. Freikörperkultur (Free Body Culture) was and is a deeply German thing. There were several photos of “naked but for a cigarette” in the exhibition. It might be this one was only one of a series, though how comfortable they were with nudity, whether they felt objectified, how Kirchner and the other artists regarded them, I can’t speculate.
A final note: Shortly after Nazi Germany annexed Austria in the Anschluss, Kirchner, living in Switzerland and fearing a similar invasion, killed himself.
I’m writing this thrashing Against Me!‘s 2014 album Transgender Dysphoria Blues and all fucking sweaty excited cos they’re playing SO36 on December 22nd cos I thought I’d have to Leipzig to see them. (I like Leipzig, would totes go there to see them.)
Laura Jane Grace. Tranny. Best fucking title ever.
This is the second book in my trio of trans women* autobiographies I picked up on the weekend. Two down, one to go. Janet Mock’s Redefining Realness barely lasted the weekend; Tranny got me till Tuesday afternoon; Julia Serano’s Outspoken (not strictly autobiography, more of a reader) might take a bit longer cos it’s doing tag team with a couple of other books, but unlikely to make it beyond next week.
I came straight off Redefining Realness and into Tranny. In so many ways they’re completely different stories and lives of growing up and living as a trans woman. Janet, a multiethnic woman of colour living in Hawai’i transitioning in her teens, going to university and getting an MA in journalism from New York University; Laura a white punk from Florida touring the world, drinking and drugging, transitioning in her thirties. Both of them though were in the public eye before publicly talking about being trans, Janet as an editor for People magazine, Laura as the lead singer of Against Me! and being public figures is what both their autobiographies and audience interest turns on.
When I was reading Redefining Realness, I was reminded of similarities in my life in New Zealand, something I wasn’t at all expecting to find. In Tranny, well, I was a teenage punk and getting smashed at gigs, squats, anarchist politics, wasted sex, not showering, all that, of course it was familiar. The year Laura started Against Me! I started full-time training as a dancer and had moved from punk into Warp records experimental electronic territory, only coming back to punk in the mid-’00s for a bit before going Very Metal since then. I’ve listened to Against Me! before, but it’s only since reading Laura’s autobiography that I’m actually listening to them.
Tranny: Confessions Of Punk Rock’s Most Infamous Anarchist Sellout is a band memoir — the second part of the title gives that detail away — one in which the protagonist struggles for decades between living a white, hetero bro punk life and being a woman. Take away that and it’s still a solid, funny, harrowing story of an intense life lived in vans, busses, hotels, touring the world, pubs, venues, stadiums, and getting way too fucked up far too often to not expect horrible crashes. Laura kept journals since her teens, and these entries intersperse her narrative, co-written with Dan Ozzi. Without those journals, both as excerpts and informing her writing it would be a much thinner story, not the least because the incessant touring, drinking, drugging over years would blur into an undistinguishable mass more fictional musing on imagined past than lived, personal history.
There’s a scene where she’s on a tour bus somewhere, the other guys doing tour bus stuff, and she’s hiding in her bunk reading Julia Serano’s Whipping Girl, afraid of getting sprung. This scene points to something Laura does a pretty good job of obscuring: she’s smart, intelligent, thoughtful, more than capable of stepping outside the intense world of bands and touring that forms much of her story and would otherwise make it a kinda generic ’00s punk band memoir — generic any era band memoir. Maybe that obscuring goes with her isolated, high school dropout, Crass punk history, a lot of believing you’re gutter even while revelling in it. Listening to her lyrics and Against Me!’s music it’s obvious she’s crazy talented and always was. It’s these nuances that make what she’s doing, and her herself qualitatively different, especially since she came out as a trans woman.
At the end of writing about Redefining Realness, I wrote, “I was reading another trans woman last night, on Twitter, who said, “Transition memoirs sell b/c their audience is curious cis ppl. They satisfy cis curiosity/voyuerism.” I think the difference between Redefining Realness and Tranny is one of audience. The former is for a mainstream audience; it was a New York Times bestseller. Tranny is for the weirdos, or whatever still isn’t or imagines itself isn’t mainstream.
As well, Janet is astute at media and is explicit in using her position to educate and effect change. This almost requires that transition memoir storyline, if for nothing else than to combat misrepresentation, to tell her own truth. Laura, there’s a lot more “Fuck you” in Tranny.
I’m also not sure Laura’s is a transition memoir in the way Janet’s is. Yeah, there’s that, struggling with arsehole doctors and taking hormones, bouts of guilty buying of clothes then trashing them, but these moments are not especially prominent amidst all the other chaos and drugs in her life. It lies over her life like smog, an unabating grinding out of her life over decades. She’s barely able to articulate it even to herself in her journals. Whereas for Janet it was a desperate flight always forward.
Just to be clear, I’m not saying one or the other was the right way to be trans, nor did I want to write this as a comparison of Janet’s and Laura’s stories, just that reading them back to back emphasises the stark differences in their lives and their experiences, and I’ve been thinking constantly about this. Particularly because I see pieces of my history in both and what reads as hopeless, profound misery, fear, deeply internalised transphobia is so familiar to me as to be unremarkable.
There’s an episode of Orphan Black where Cosima is challenged with, “So, you’re gay?” and responds, “My sexuality is not the most interesting thing about me.” For both Janet and Laura it’s evident this is also the case, for their gender, identity, selfhood. Yet it’s at the same time critical to who they are. By talking about this, they become and participate in representation for all trans women. We see something of ourselves in them, we’re no longer invisible, we exist. Without this, Against Me! would be just another white boy punk band I vaguely recalled the name of, no idea who the lead singer was. Instead, I’ve spent money on Laura’s book, been listening to her music and am gonna get my sorry arse to SO36 on December 22nd to see them play.
*A bit of a postscript on words: More or less I’m dodgy on terms like trans, trans woman, coming out, transitioning, etc. They play into and reinforce an idea of identity that I think is fundamentally bullshit. I’m using them here cos sometimes I simply can’t be fucked; I’ve only got so much capacity to resist. Tranny, though, totes fucking ok with that one**.
I’ve had Janet Mock’s Redefining Realness on my To Buy List since before it was published, the start of last year. I reckon Janet would read my tardiness and why in a second. Cos she’s wicked smart like that.
I’ve been following Janet on Twitter for I dunno how long, she turned up multiple times from various sources at least four years ago, around the time of CeCe McDonald, Isis King, and others being in the news. She also appealed to me because she writes about being women who are trans and multiethnic, women of colour. And quite frankly she’s amazing.
As for trans women autobiographies though, I read any and all I could get my hands on in my teens and twenties and since then have little interest in the narrative conventions. If you think of sci-fi or romance novels having stereotypical storylines, the same applies here. I have a lot of “blaaah why do you expect me to care?”. So I’m reading Redefining Realness and it’s right in that storyline, but here I am, slammed it in an afternoon and an evening.
I was writing at 3am this morning about being in the Grassi Ethnological Museum and going through the collections from Australia, Aotearoa and Polynesia, North America, having this strange disconnect between being in Leipzig, Germany and seeing this art and culture and going, “Yup, I know this … I know this too … and this,” remembering people and places. My history is so different from Janet’s, yet there were these moments reading where mine and hers were the same.
As a teenager, writing to my father whom I’d not seen for years, telling him what I was up to and if he didn’t accept it that was his problem, not mine. Him writing back, a multiethnic, working class South African living in Toronto, saying, “You sound angry. You don’t need to be angry with me. Whatever you do, I’ll always love you.” I don’t have that letter, or anything from him anymore, but amidst all the abuse, violence, the loss and rejection of family and friends, the world I was living in on an island far from North America, his unconditional acceptance in the face of my ultimatum shamed me. Shamed me because I expected rejection from him, and however much it hurt the one powerful thing I could always do was walk away from everyone.
Still as a teenager, in poverty, often homeless — homeless of the kind where you sleep on friend’s couches or floors — on the edges of street sex with the trans women on K’ Road in Auckland, though unlike Janet, loaded on drugs. Also Dutchess, the tough dyke former street kid in Wellington who loved Michael Jackson, not Janet’s Wendi to me but I thought of her while reading Janet. She was staunch, she knew what I was about even if I couldn’t say it, and “Fuck them all, let’s go rob a chemist,” remains the unequaled statement of friendship to me in the face of rejection.
I didn’t know Janet had survived her teens and paid for her life with sex work. Sometimes I’m kinda vague, pretty sure I must have read that, but yeah, vague; I know I’ve admired her all along for her uncompromising advocacy for and representation of trans women of colour, and that for many, being a trans woman — even more so if you’re not white — means sex work is not merely the only option, it’s expected of you. But I still didn’t connect her with this until I read her working the streets in Hawai’i. And then I remembered the women working K’ Road who were just like the women on Merchant St.
The similarity of our lives diverges here. Though we did both go to university. What I see and read with Janet is that she had just enough support to make it through. Not perfect, ideal support, but enough that it didn’t hinder or destroy her. The Janet who did not have family who accepted her from a young age would be a very different Janet to the one who wrote Redefining Realness, if she was even alive now. The Janet who didn’t have Wendi likewise. A liveable life turns on these not insignificant things. One person is enough to make that difference, in either direction.
I was reading another trans woman last night, on Twitter, who said, “Transition memoirs sell b/c their audience is curious cis ppl. They satisfy cis curiosity/voyuerism.” Redefining Realness is a transition memoir, its audience is curious cis people, and it satisfies their voyeurism. It does more than that though. Janet uses her position as a high profile, conventionally attractive, heterosexual trans woman who works in media and has an MA in Journalism to educate this part of her audience, to make them see us as human. So there’s another audience her book is for: #girlslikeus. Trans women, especially trans women who are multiethnic, who see in her something of themselves. Janet writes to represent us.
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.
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!
I don’t even know why I’m reading this, so … off to Teh Internetz & search my hard drive. Charles Stross in 2011 had a post called, “What do you think is the most important novel of the past 10-and-a-bit years (published since January 1st 2000)?” After some 280 comments in which 5-10% of the authors mentioned were female, he started a new post called, “More on books” where he qualifies that with “All male authors are disqualified.” First comment is “This is going to be brief, and interesting…” Fifth is “I’ve just come to a shocked realisation that I haven’t read any female authors in the last 10 years.” Which is why, barring occasional exceptions—and in my mind I am making exceptions—I don’t read male fiction authors.
(For those who give a fuck about exceptions: 1. currently alive writers whom I’ve been reading for years: Charles Stross, China Miéville, plus an occasional couple of others; 2. new writers who are not white, like Saladin Ahmed or Ayize Jama-Everett, and come highly recommended by people who know what they’re talking about.)
Steph Swainston got mentioned a few times, both for and against ‘important’ so let’s presume this is one of the places I picked her up from. Possibly io9 … yeah maybe slash not really, I dunno. What does Wikipedia say? Trained archaeologist, gave up full-time writing to teach chemistry, dislikes much traditional fantasy for its inherent conservatism, likes writing about drug use and heavy sex—on the former, Jant, the main character in The Castle Omnibus, a winged immortal, is introduced by hanging out and searching for his stash to hit up—China Miéville raves about her (apparently, can’t find where, do assume he did based off the first score of pages).
I’m pretty sure previous me put various bits of all that together and went, “Fuck Jaaa!” Also pretty sure previous me did that some years ago, ’cos I have this feeling it’s been on my Want List for years. Ordered months ago, picked up on Thursday, began this morning. Drugs! War! In-fighting! Insects! Insect War! (Starship Troopers?!?!) 867 pages of not-large typeface and thin margins and “Of God that’s fucking heavy” when I tried to one-hand heft it. You could throw it at someone and do serious damage.
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.
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.
Wednesday is not Museum Sunday. Nonetheless, having spent Sunday with Daniel and David, avoiding all museum visits (though plenty of talking thereof), today was the first day I had time, and having been entirely absent from museums since before Zürich, today it was. The Pergamonmuseum is one of the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, so I got to use my Classic Plus Jahreskarte for the first time. Sadly no queues to jump, but the attendants seem more than usually smiley when I waved it in their presence.
I’ve been to a couple of museums with Dasniya; mostly though I go alone. Today was an exception being accompanied by David and his very own Jahreskarte. We met at the Ishtar Gate of Babylon, which is a perfect précis of this museum: colossal archaeological ruins dissected and transported to Berlin during the golden age of colonial pilfering. It’s magnificent, as are many of the pieces in the museum, not a few wouldn’t have survived the 20th century were it not for that museum-establishing period when they were acquired — some didn’t anyway, destroyed or looted at the end of World War 2 — either way, a museum visit for me is often coloured by this unease and tension surrounding the origins of the exhibits, and the Pergamonmuseum more so than most.
No plans to see the whole museum though; this is one of those behemoths like Gemaldegalerie which butchers the viewer with size and quantity. I was here for the special exhibition of Indian miniatures, Genuss und Rausch. Wein, Tabak und Drogen in indischen Malereien. Eine Ausstellung im Buchkunstkabinett, and imagined if I had enough time, I’d see the Museum für Islamische Kunst. The miniatures appropriately took up two small rooms, with around thirty works from the 16th to 19th centuries, all of men and women drinking and smoking, wine and other alcohol, tobaco, hashish, opium. They are uniformly beautiful, and one of my favourite art forms (how could I resist the group high on opium and hunting rats?). Sadly they suffered from two museum-wide annoyances.
The audio guide, while comprehensive for the works that did have an accompaniment, was sparse to the point where whole series of rooms were absent and none for the miniatures (or did I miss something obvious?). Most of the works had no more than a description and date, with no way of locating the item meaningfully within a temporal, geographic, or cultural context, and with the preponderance of archaeological megafauna getting the audio attention, virtually all the small works, ceramics, jewellery, artefacts of daily life went past in silence.
Then there was the light. Works behind glass lost in a glare of reflection; glazed ceramics with harsh top-lighting blowing out the details in more reflected glare; other works completely unlit or dim to the point of obscurity, or in the case of a beautiful shadow puppet a hideous combination of the two. The Gemaldegalerie also suffered from this but here it reached a new level of horribleness.
Finished with the miniatures then, it was back through the carpets rooms, around the corner, past the Astrolabe, and back to the 7th century city of Samarra. Many rooms later, I fell into the small part of the wall of Qasr Mshatta, massive, more than 30 metres long and 5 high, it’s only a very small part of the original which formed a square 144 metres a side and reached more than 20 metres high in places. Each section is a repeating pattern of a zig-zag line with a rosette in each triangle, and each section is uniquely carved with vines, leaves, flowers, animals. Preceding this in other rooms, exquisite and delicate glassware that somehow managed to survive centuries unharmed, plates and bowls glazed with arabic calligraphy like abstract, minimal line work, vast prayer alcoves, everywhere the words, “lā ʾilāha ʾil ʾāllāh, muḥammadun rasūlu-llāh.” Past the Mshatta and back through the miniatures (as usual, not performing correct museum wandering), and arriving at carpets. From kilim prayer rugs to massive, wall-covering tapestry-resembling works of geometric and botanic repetition. More ceramics also. I realised I photograph the objects I intent to steal. The carpets especially; I’ve wanted to have one of those huge ones composed of large blocks of colour like the prayer rugs for my room, but suspect I’ll only ever enjoy them in a museum. Finally to the Aleppo-Zimmer, too big for me to purloin, but to spend a night there at the start of the 17th century …
All of which is a single floor of the Pergamonmuseum, and but one of the several on Museuminsel. I’m not sure whether to see the last third of Gemaldegalerie next or continue here, or perhaps suffer paralysis at the vastness of museums in Berlin.