bell hooks has been around since my early- / mid-teens first contact with feminism. I didn't pay much attention to her at first, not seeing how she was relevant. That's the smallness and limits of my upbringing showing there. A while later, in the noise of Paris is Burning touring the world's film festivals while the stars struggled to make rent, hooks had opinions on Venus Extravaganza that were disappointingly and unsurprisingly 2nd Wave. There was a long gap before I read her again, though she was always around. In 2013, a few months after I re-read Feminist Theory: from margin to center she hung out with Janet Mock and read her autobiography; in 2014 she had a dialogue with Laverne Cox at The New School. I felt she was someone from that generation who'd put it together a little better, and if Janet and Laverne and all the other Black trans femmes could be in the same room as her and share their love for her, I could move on from her remarks 20 years previously. We all gotta be allowed to grow a little. (But that doesn't give her a pass to come for Beyoncé.)
bell hooks passed over to Ancestor space earlier today.
The first thing I thought of was her writing on domestic work in Feminist Theory. I've quoted her (and often Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak on the same subject at the same time) to probably everyone I know if we ever had a conversation about housework. The quote continues after this, and like a lot of her writing I thought it became dogmatic and made some improbable conjectures. But that's bell hooks. She was this brilliant, Black feminist theorist who understood why housework was so important, who was loved by Janet and Laverne and Raquel Wells and so many Black trans femmes and mascs, and in turn worked to earn their respect and love, and whose opinions over the years, from Paris is Burning to Beyoncé were occasionally of a different era and different feminism and occasionally shite.
I love doing housework, cooking and cleaning, and while I'm on my knees mopping the floor feeling like it's not at all demeaning or degrading or drudgery, I'm thinking, "Yeah, doing aesthetics here, care for self and the world, it's beauty and it's got value," and bell hooks is nodding going, "Yes, child, affirmation of your identity coming through strong."
There was a big gap this year when I had a little money for and no way of getting books. All that talk on social media of supporting artists during pandemic quarantine by buying their books hit up against furloughed supply chains.
Completely off topic here, I discovered yesterday I’d been using the entirely wrong word, furlong instead of furlough (and lifetime usage of either is in the single digits). And then I discovered furlong is 1/8th of a mile, so now I have Vin Diesel, or rather Dominic Toretto in my head going, “I live my life two furlongs at a time.”
Back to buying books. And no, e-books are not an option. I like paper, I like the feel and smell and aesthetics of books, I like how line lengths, page size, fonts, typography, layout, margins, the density of ink on paper, all that, I like how it creates a specific way of reading. So, no new books for some months and a rapidly dwindling pile of that variety which take months or years to read (Spivak, I’m looking at you.)
And then my favourite bookshop let me know books were available again and damn did I go hard. First, the Jhalak Prize announced its 2020 long and short lists and the winner, and I’m doing that thing again where I’ll end up throwing cash at about half the long list.
What is the Jhalak Prize (’cos clicking links scares me or something)? It was started in 2017 by Sunny Singh, Nikesh Shukla, and the sadly defunct Media Diversified and is an annual award for British and British resident writers of colour in any genre. And it’s consistently a banger. If I had the cash, I would without question by everything on the long list as soon as it’s announced.
And second, a bunch of weird old books I’ve been hitting my bookshop up for availability and prices for absolutely years turned up. A couple I’ve been asking about for five years. No, I cannot say no.
Some of these books have been sitting on my reading shelf since last year; some of them I finished months ago. I’m not doing that way too intense essay per book and annual Book(s) of The Year thing anymore, pumped the brakes on that. I still want to remind myself and celebrate a pile of authors who, all of whom did that indescribable magic a book can do. Some of these (’cos that’s my tendency) are hard, painful reads. Even these have beauty and joy and hope in them, and I reach for that. All these authors are my teachers and I’m grateful beyond words to have enough space in my life that I can read and appreciate and celebrate them.
Excluding re-readings of Iain (without the M.) Banks, Steph Swainston, Charles Stross, Alastair Reynolds, and a few others I’ve forgotten because a) too poor for new books, b) too sooky to want to read new books, and c) very much wanting the comfort food of old books, even when I discovered I was hate-reading. Turns out I hate-read. I’m surprised and shamed at my pettiness, but here we are.
New books I did read though:
Built: The Hidden Stories Behind Our Structures, by Roma Agrawal, one on the shortlist for the 2019 Jhalak Prize, which in itself is guaranteed dead solid reading every year. And Roma has a podcast now. Buildings and engineering. Nice!
Bullets and Opium: Real-Life Stories of China After the Tiananmen Square Massacre, by Liao Yiwu, who is the one Chinese political writer everyone should read, up there with Svetlana Alexievich.
Edges, by Linda Nagata, someone I’ve heard about for years and had never read. Strong reminders of Alastair Reynolds’ Revelation Space trilogy, high probability I’ll keep reading the series.
Fast Ladies: Female Racing Drivers, 1888-1970, by Jean Francois Bouzanquet. Large-format coffee-table-ish book of women hooning the shit out of fast cars. Obviously 10/10.
Geochemistry, by William M. White, which I picked up yesterday and haven’t actually started. One of my periodical forays into geology fun. This one’s packed with formula and equations, which is slightly intimidating.
The Gilded Wolves, by Roshani Chokshi, which I don’t remember much of, except it reminded me a lot of Genevieve Cogman’s Invisible Library series, whose The Mortal Word I also read. Chokshi though, didn’t work for me, despite wanting to like it.
Growing Up African in Australia, by Maxine Beneba Clarke, along with Charlie Brinkhurst-Cuff’s (of the awesome gal-dem) Mother Country: Real Stories of the Windrush Children, both collections of autobiographical essays and both critical reading.
Last Days of the Mighty Mekong, by Brian Eyler, which I was expecting a lot more of, and got instead a weirdly messy history of the river like ’90s white Euro-American journalism.
The October Man: A Rivers of London Novella, by Ben Aaronovitch, this one set in Germany (or Germland as I’ve been calling it recently), and a very German take on “What if, Harry Potter, but he’s a black cop in London?” I also re-binged his entire series while in Spain at the rate of a book a day, “Yeah, seven books will be enough for 12 days …” (runs out of books.)
Our Band Could Be Your Life: Scenes from the American Indie Underground: Scenes from the American Indie Underground 1981-1991, by Michael Azerrad, which I somehow decided was all about US hardcore. It’s not. A few bands I’ve never listened to, several bands I used to love, revisited while reading and was sad at how they didn’t touch me at all when they used to define the movement of my life. Very worth reading for a particular moment in time and place.
Permafrost. Hello, Alastair Reynolds. Not a novel, sadly, but we had the sequel to Revenger, this year, Shadow Captain, so, can’t be greedy. Basically he’s my Iain M. Banks replacement, and I love his terrifyingly dark Space Opera.
The Raven Tower, by another solid fave and Iain M. Banks replacement, Ann Leckie — probably neither would like being called ‘replacement’, but fuck it, me doing high, awkward praise. This is her venturing out of Space Opera into not-really-fantasy but no obvious spacecraft, and it’s both the best thing she’s written since the Imperial Radch trilogy, and her best stand-alone novel since her first. Very, very, very good.
The Rise of IO, by Wesley Chu, which I have almost no memory of, vague nudgings of recognition when I read the plot, but … nope, not much beyond that.
To Exist is to Resist: Black Feminism in Europe, edited by Akwugo Emejulu and Francesca Sobande, which I’m randomly picking at. Some essays, like dealing with being a black woman academic in Germany, are very head-nodding, yup, it’s all that, uh-huh, others are … Black, cisgender heterosexual (whether middle-class, academic or not) feminism that operates as though trans and queer are things that don’t need to be at all considered, are ancillary, not relevant — like white feminism of the same type — is a thing. Fucked if I know why, either. Especially because my experience of Black feminism / activism in north-west Europe is that it’s hella trans and queer. But maybe they’re not the ones in academia, getting to publish essays.
And that’s it. Potentially acquiring a stack of new books soon, potentially reading them, vague possibility I’ll blog them. It’s all a balance for me between enjoyable focus and going too far with it, pleasure becoming obligation, and all.
This year I haven’t had much enthusiasm to write about what I’m reading. Maybe that’s because I haven’t had much enthusiasm to write long blog posts in general, or because I’ve been a little too negative lately and tend to emphasise the things I haven’t enjoyed in a work over what I have. Some of these books I’ve enjoyed hugely, but can’t muster enough of a cheer to write a whole post about. Perhaps it’s habit. After years of writing about everything I read, my impulse is to say, nah fuck it, that’s enough. Who am I writing this for anyway, besides myself?
So, a small pile of books I read between February and April, alphabetically.
Two from Alastair Reynolds, he of the madness of Revenger, which I also read again during these months. He also of Slow Bullets. He’s best when he writes women as main characters. Chasm City is one of his Revelation Space novels, and I got a kick out of those. Elysium Fire is a sequel to The Prefect. I like Reynolds, in specific instances. Neither of these two really got me. See what I mean about negative?
Barbara Newman’s Sister of Wisdom: St. Hildegard’s Theology of the Feminine I’m still plodding through. (like I’m still plodding through Gayatri Chakravorti Spivak’s An Aesthetic Education in the Era of Capitalism, 18 months later). Good stuff here, of that dense, Germanic mediæval stuff. Not easy reading, hence the plod.
Bill Gammage’s The Biggest Estate in the World: How Aborigines Made Australia, and Bruce Pascoe’s Dark Emu: Black Seeds: Agriculture or Accident? I read immediately post-Naarm. They cover similar ground but are complimentary rather than duplicating. They should be compulsory reading for all Australians, and I felt fucking ashamed at my ignorance reading these. Fucking ashamed. Another reason why I haven’t been writing about reading is if I did on these two, it’d be a long piece of anger against white invasion and genocide and erasing history. And I feel like so much of my life and the lives of friends and acquaintances is full with anger and fear these last years, ’cos it’s far from being over.
Devdutt Pattanaik’s Shikhandi and Other Queer Tales They Don’t Tell You is a rather sweet short collection of reading Hindu mythology for queer and trans stories. I have absolutely no way to evaluate the scholarship of Pattanaik, but still, one of the barely begun tasks is re-finding the diversity of selfhoods in pre-colonised cultures; we’ve always been here.
Fred Grimm’s »Wir wollen eine andere Welt« Jugend in Deutschland 1900-2010: Eine private Geschichte aus Tagebüchern, Briefen, Dokumenten. Zusammengestellt. has been on my shelves for ages. Katrin gave it to me as a present, and I’ve read bits and pieces of it. I’ve a heap of books I’ve never blogged that I didn’t read in the conventional start-to-finish way like this.
JY Yang. I think I read about them on io9, or maybe on one of the Asia-Pacific blogs I read. It was definitely in the context of an article or two on Singapore sci-fi / fantasy / speculative fiction, and coming off reading The Sea Is Ours: Tales from Steampunk Southeast Asia (which was awesome) so I was vaguely paying attention. I read these in the wrong order, ’cos I liked the cover of The Red Threads of Fortune more than The Black Tides of Heaven. I also liked the former more than the latter, but that’s partly my particular preferences. I seriously love JY Yang and will read anything they write.
I’ve got a whole ’nother stack of books I’ve read since then and not blogged. Maybe doing it like this is the way for me to go for now.
The Cultural Revolution: A People’s History, 1962–1976 is Frank Dikötter’s final book in the trilogy covering China and Chairman Mao from 1945 until his death in 1976. An earlier, much shorter work covering the Republican era makes it something of a quartet. I haven’t read his work prior to these four — he’s been publishing on China for 25 years, and has been Chair Professor of Humanities at University of Hong Kong since 2006. He’s one of a handful of China historians who I will always read and look forward to whatever they write next.
It’s difficult to say this work has a weakness, when I think the previous two are some of the finest and most meticulously researched in any of the subjects I read (I’m holding the likes or Caroline Walker Bynum and Susan Mann as my exemplars), it might simply be my familiarity with the subject, both from reading and from friends in China. For most readers, especially if they slam the trilogy one after the other it’s a horrifying, relentless work of history, and that has no peer I can think of for 20th century Maoist China.
One thing I am unsure about though, and I’ve found this in other writers on Mao (like Jung Chang) and on the other singular figures of 20th century despotism (like Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot) is the ease with which so much power and capability is assigned to them. What I remain unsure on in all my reading on China under Mao is the complicity of others. It’s that question, if he was indeed an individual in all this why didn’t they stop him? If not, why, during those three decades of his rule, did they not see the repeating patterns of behaviour and rule, and not make the same bad decisions over and over. Were they fucking stupid? It’s not that there’s an absence of resistance in this book, in fact there’s plenty of it once we get down to the regional and village levels, but perhaps what I’d like to read is a history of Mao’s China without him in it.
What The Cultural Revolution illustrates, in a way I think no other work on the subject has done so clearly, is that this period was essentially a continuation, or a reinvigoration of the Great Leap Forward. Certainly it was a total war against culture and history, and it demonstrates just how rapidly a culture can be erased (a couple of weeks if you’re curious as to how fast your world can vanish), but the preparations for nuclear war, the inland industrialisation, the return of collectivisation and all that went with this, were all methods of that genocidal period a decade earlier.
Maybe I throw around the term genocide too freely. It seems to me it’s not used enough. I think with Mao and his mob it rests on whether the deaths of tens of millions and the destruction of culture were intentional. Is ‘I don’t care how many die as long as I achieve my goals’ intentional, or merely indifference? What about engineering chaos for the same ends which as a side-effect result in what we currently call collateral damage? What about if you say, “It is better to let half of the people die so that the other half can eat their fill.” If that half die because you ‘let’ them, is that genocide, or something else? If we have to ascribe intentionality to genocide, then the most recognition of culpability we can expect from a perpetrator is “Oops, my bad.” Which is approximately as much as the current ruling party of China says — the same party of all these three books, ruling in unbroken succession. Or maybe, “30% my bad.” Because the final ruling by the party on itself for all these atrocities was “70% good, 30% bad.”
I would like to think that in the next decade or so Dikötter’s works become less remarkable as more historians write ever more fine and detailed works on 20th century China. I do think some of the criticisms of his work are valid, in particular that it’s “more like a catalogue of anecdotes about atrocities than a sustained analytic argument”. But against that is the fact there are sod all historians writing on 20th century China compared to say 20th century Germany or Russia. Guangdong history alone could and should occupy entire departments, yet here we are, still treating China as a monolith. Worth reading all three at once, not just for history, but as a lesson in how easily a dictatorship can grow and devour continents.
A couple of years ago, I discovered this amazing website called io9, full of sci-fi and weirdness, great writers, actually pretty good commenter community, and one day I clicked on the link at the top called Jalopnik and my love of hooning was reborn. This isn’t about hoonage though, it’s about sci-fi, and Charlie Jane Anders, one of the founders and former co-editor of io9, and her novel (which I thought was her debut, but it’s not) All the Birds in the Sky.
I’d been avoiding reading this for a while. Maybe because I like her a lot as an io9 writer, so heavy expectations here for a skiffy/fantasy novel. Maybe because I read the first pages and it didn’t really click with me. But I needed some fiction to read, so it landed in my backpack as part of a quartet on Friday. And now I’ve finished it. Bunked off ballet training this morning for that.
I’m sticking with my “like her a lot”/“didn’t really click” vacillating. If someone asked me if they’d like it, I’d say, “If Jo Walton’s Among Others, Charles Stross’ The Laundry Files series and/or Iain Banks’ The Wasp Factory did it for you, and you’re fine with deeply San Francisco-centric story-telling — and I mean deeply, I can taste the locally sourced artisanal — you’ll probably get a kick out of it.” Or, “It’s a whiter, hipsterer, startup-er, unthreatening middle-class version of Ayize Jama-Everett’s The Liminal People trilogy.” You can “To tha Googz” if what you’re looking for is a two-sentence synopsis, I’m kinda crap at those; my reading for pleasure concerns are more like chewing on bones.
Chewing on bones, then. I liked much of this. Charlie Jane is a smart writer and knows how to weave a story like tapestry over hundreds of pages. For me it’s a little too influenced by American-centric pop culture and the rather (also pop culture) Hegelian dialectic binarism that it views the world through. I’d like to read a novel from her where she forgoes these devices. I’d also like to read one without a whiny, verging on skeevy hetero manchild as one of the main protagonists. I know he spent a lot of his teens getting a kicking, but fuck me, he needed another and in the words of the great poet Chopper Read, harden the fuck up.
I was thinking about ballet choreographers, and the tendency for the gay male ones to make quintessentially heterosexual pieces, in fact to perpetuate that as the only possibility for ballet, and I was wondering why Charlie Jane, who’s hella queer, would go for such a white bread hetero pairing of the two main characters. It might be she was mocking/satirising/ironically depicting these binaries as a story structure, somewhat in parallel to the material activities of the two. If so, I’m not sure it worked or was necessary, and me being the bolshie one think ditching this conceit would have made a far less pedestrian narrative.
I often worry when I write like this that it reads as “Hostile to Everything”, when in fact I enjoyed quite a bit — enough to bunk off training this morning to finish it. Maybe to say this isn’t a review, it’s me trying to elucidate what didn’t work for me, to describe that in more considered terms than a string of obscenities. So, will I read her next novel? If it’s sci-fi, yes, yes I will.
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!
The title’s sensationalist. The cover I quite like; it looks better somehow attached to a book than on a screen. Black for Africa and red for China is crude when I think about it; does fit the title though. The paper is atrocious, not much better than newsprint, grey, joyless, and floppy.
Howard French I’ve been reading as a blogger for nearly ten years (bloody hell how did that happen), since he was based in Shanghai as the New York Times bureau chief. He doesn’t blog so much anymore, and hasn’t been based in China for most of the time since I added him to my feed reader. I seem to be reading more Africa stuff lately, possibly arriving at that from one side via mediæval art and my interest in representation in the artworks, and from the other via China. Gordon Matthew’s Ghetto at the Center of the World, exploring the Chungking Mansions in Hong Kong and the international trade with Africa by Africans run through there, as well as the large African community in Guangzhou are probably the most significant prior connections. Germany’s colonial history would be a third.
I was hoping for a substantial book, along the lines of Frank Dikotter say, rather than Susan Mann, and it is investigative journalism of a type. French spent a lot of time travelling back and forth across Africa, met and talked with a lot of people, both African and Chinese, but it’s more like a very long piece of journalism than a book, each chapter and section repeating the same structure, the same meetings of individuals, the same driving, the same observations. It tends towards a homogeneous and not so meaningful view of Chinese presence in Africa, despite that being not French’s aim.
Anyone who follows China or Africa even in passing in the usual sources like the NY Times will have their opinions and prejudices confirmed: corruption all over, racism, colonialism, environmental destruction, lack of legal transparency, fragile democracies or crypto-oligarchies, war and horror never too far. Even with the occasional positive or bright moments, the implicit future for most of sub-saharan Africa with China moving in isn’t a hopeful one. His discussion of China using migration to Africa and elsewhere as a means of dealing with its own population explosion and accompanying social and environmental issues is the one thing I’d read more of.
Ah, I’m not supposed to be reviewing here: why I’m reading it rather than what I thought afterwards. Maybe to say the subject of China in Africa—if it is indeed substantial—is one deserving solid works. This book is ok for a light Saturday afternoon read after finishing the weekend paper, but like newspapers it carries implicit bias, and whether it was in French’s preparation or writing it is limited in the diversity of subjects—either interviewed or discussed—the story builds itself on.