Reading: Mike Searle — Colliding Continents: A geological exploration of the Himalaya, Karakoram, and Tibet

Here comes a deluge of serious reading. Well, another serious than the sci-fi I’ve been on of late (though with a new one from Charles Stross, and Iain Banks’ – sadly sans-M – last one in the next weeks, I’m well-stocked for that flavour of serious), or perhaps gratuitously indulgent, after all, what could be more appealing that bloody massive upheavals of granite which can be either climbed or geologised, or in the case of Mike Searle’s Colliding Continents, both at the same time?

This turned up in my feed from Oxford University Press’ blog, and I decided to dispense with the actual reading of their post for the important act of ordering the book. Which arrived on Saturday, and which, obviously, I’ve devoured a third of already.

This is one of those very nice, medium-large hardcovers with barely a page empty of maps, illustrations, diagrams, or more importantly utterly gorgeous photographs of mountains. It’s light on the technical side of geology, meaning someone with no prior knowledge of the subject would nonetheless not feel bewildered, yet equally there’s a lot of terms even I, who used to slip into the Geology department and temporarily purloin monographs of the Karakoram had to pause to visualise what was actually meant. Lucky there’s 30 pages of appendices covering all of this, and I think reading those first is probably a good idea.

Quite a bit of my interest in that region where Tibet becomes Central Asia becomes Indian subcontinent comes from geology. Also it comes from Deleuze and Guattari and reading of Steppe nomads, then looking at maps and trying to pin into that vast blankness between the Black Sea and the east coast of China names like Gobi, Taklamakan, Kashgar, Karakoram. Vast and blank indeed. So I set out to rectify my ignorance, becoming years – probably a lifetime as I’ve never been bored by this – of reading and reading and yes, still planning to go there.

A book like this is mainly a small moment of satisfying this love of mountains and this part of the world, and it does both superbly. Searle is one of those sensible geologists who realise early on it’s the obvious career choice for someone who thinks suffering their way up glaciers and cliffs is most excellent fun, and whose love of both subjects only adds to his abilities in each.

The only thing that’s missing for me is a map or maps of his annual-ish field trips. There are plenty of geological maps accompanying each chapter but either my map-reading skills have descended to bathic levels, I’m missing something fundamental, or there’s a lack of correlation between those maps and the paths of the journeys he undertook. Perhaps unnecessary, but for me this would be an essential inclusion.

So, 464 pages of mountains! The cover pretty much sums it up; it’s all just a lover’s ode to the most beautiful upthrusting of granite in the world.

Reading: David Graeber — Debt: The First 5000 Years

This is one I haven’t been able to pretend I wouldn’t eventually get hold of, having been greatly discussed on quite a few blogs I read. From anthropology to science-fiction, David Graeber’s Debt: The First 5000 Years has been peculiarly unavoidable in a way that’s usually not seen outside book launches in specific fields that gets everyone in that field excited, and elsewhere no one’s heard of it.

Crooked Timber even devoted a substantial online seminar to it, in addition to the many posts and vast comment threads, and Charles Stross said he rewrote much of his upcoming Neptune’s Brood because of it. This in addition to seeing it mentioned across feminist blogs, language blogs, and even astrophysics blogs.

Graeber is an anthropologist, who incidentally (according to Wikipedia) is an anarchist (yay!) and was involved in the beginnings of the Occupy movement. Three good reasons alone to consider reading him, even if I hadn’t seen a blog onslaught of him in the past several months.

I’d planned to grab a copy for the train back from Brussels, but was thwarted by Belgium’s national day holiday, and had been pretending St. George’s didn’t exist out of a combination of 30º days and a large pile of books waiting for me (Books! Buy all the books!), so yesterday I finally split open the red cover.

This isn’t a review; I feel compelled to say this often when I write about what I read. The original idea was just to document what I read with no remarks, and then it became a few sentences on how I came to be reading whatever, before I started it. Now it’s often part-way in before I write a contorted mess of that into a crypto-non-review/unreview; I can’t not write on what I’ve read because I can’t unread it.

So. It’s very easy to read. Which is good because I have now three exceedingly dense anthropological works on China I’m suffering under at the rate of single pages per day, and wouldn’t want to add more anguish. There are a lot of endnotes, which are worth reading, even though they inevitably break the flow of the argument. 1/5th of the way in, perhaps the most concise thing I can say is that it’s made me reevaluate my entire political outlook as completely too narrow (which in light of the 1% having been found to have stashed $21 trillion in tax havens is probably self-evident for all of us).

I could probably stop there, but I do have some criticisms thus far. The generalist nature of the work given the scope of the subject — 5000 years and most civilisations getting at least a mention — means there is some oversimplification of either arguments or the examples cited. While this is understandable, and necessary if the book is to remain readable, I sometimes have the sense that this oversimplification misses some crucial points. I notice this sometimes when the discussion turns China-ward, particularly in combination with the next criticism.

There are some assumptions in the language Graeber uses (which perhaps reflect the habits of the intended audience), which for me imply a slightly more serious problem: There is something of a lack of women.

Possibly this will change in the remaining 4/5ths, however, both the example Graeber continually refers to (Henry and Joshua), and the use of ‘he’, ‘him’, ‘his’ in the universal sense (cf. ‘mankind’), is oddly old-fashioned. When the appearance of women tends towards as chattel objects for exchange (marriage, alliance etc), and seemingly without agency or subjecthood, I wonder perhaps if something has been missed.

Certainly my recent reading, Susan Mann, Gail Hershatter, Rosemary Joyce, all working somewhat in anthropology, shows unequivocally that any argument which fails to consider women (explicitly, not merely as an aside) is at best only part of the story, more than likely to have missed something crucial, and should be treated as potentially misleading at best if not outright suspect.

Joyce herself shows that it is the inherent bias in researchers which results in the apparent lack of evidence for women and their contribution, rather than any real absence, and Mann also, specifically in the heretofore ostensibly male-dominated and -centred world of Qing Dynasty.

There is a tendency to think, “Oh well, it’s a big topic, debt, and he can’t cover everything,” which is obviously true. However, to say that advancing a discourse which is significantly absent of women is missing something fundamental is also obviously true.

Hopefully this is something of an artifact of the first fifth of Graber’s argument, and not a general theme, as I would hope a book like this does more than merely stir some conversation, because if we — collective we, all of humanity — don’t do something, it’s plain we’re fucked.

Reading: Joan Slonczewski – The Children Star

Finishing my triumvirate of Elysium Cycle novels, Joan Slonczewski’s The Children Star is the last but two of her books I’ve yet to read, though of those two, one is Microbiology – An Evolving Science for university students and I suspect I would enjoy it in the way a Magpie enjoys shiny things, if I could even afford it.

After Daughter of Elysium, I was desperately hoping for something substantial and compelling in this novel, as the former unfortunately is one of the least memorable science-fiction works I’ve read. As usual, my intent to write this before I begin reading has been thwarted, so I shall reveal that firstly, it’s pretty good, and (without having read The Wall Around Eden to be sure) it marks the beginning of Joan’s delicious weirdness in imagining alien microbial sentience, and secondly, I think I’ve met these microbes before.

Reading: Joan Slonczewski – Daughter of Elysium

The second of the three I acquired of Joan Slonczewski last Friday, Daughter of Elysium follows on from A Door into Ocean, but some thousand years or more later. Why am I reading it? Because it’s Joan of course.

And yes, these aren’t reviews, but I’m around half-way through, and somewhat disappointed. There is a particular quality in her writing that even in her best works feels somewhat unclear, as though she knows the story she is telling perfectly, but it doesn’t quite make it to the page. In her works that succeed, this is merely a background hint, but in Daughter of Elysium, it’s unfortunately very clear.

Perhaps it’s a mix of characters being too archetypal, and so failing to act outside these roles; at other times it’s their behaviour, for which I feel strangely excluded from their motivation. Also too, despite drawing elegantly from microbiology and genetics, the gap of nearly twenty years shows. Perhaps this is an unfair criticism, as writing genuine science-fiction – that is, fiction which bases itself on plausible science – is the hardest genre to not become hopelessly, laughably old-fashioned or completely wrong in. Altogether this creates the uncanny air of reading something that doesn’t seem all that creative or inspired.

Not to worry, still only half-way, with another one yet unread, and it’s always worthwhile reading an author’s problem children. (And I still have a daunting pile of Cantonese and Chinese history to get through …)

“Reading: … ” Book of the Year (Non-Fiction): Jonathan Safran Foer – Eating Animals

reading: jonathan safran foer – eating animals

architecture for dictators

Periodically Domus deals with architecture in Asia that goes beyond the mind-numbing childishness of Shanghai=good!!! and manages to make the art of buildings relevant, which is why I’ve been on their mailing list.

Back in June, there was an article on Pyongyang, and also a call for ideas for the reconstruction of the Ryugyong Hotel. Architect Jan Kaplicky wrote a letter in response saying the article and call were North Korean Propaganda. All this culminated on September 30th in an open debate at the Serpentine Gallery.

Kaplicky and Boeri on Pyongyang: open debate at the Serpentine

The article on Pyongyang, published in Domus in June, examined the city’s involuntary status as a test-bed of the modernist dream, exposed as a totalitarian nightmare. They found a city conceived with breathtakingly literal references to the Western paradigms of the early 20th century, obsessively referential to the visionary architecture and town planning of Corbusier, Hilberseimer, Melnikov and Rudolph. A city “delineated by oversized, shopless roads in which citizens take on the appearance of extras on a movie set.”

In the same issue Domus launched a “call for ideas”for the reconstruction of the Ryugyong Hotel, a monolithic concrete pyramid that dominates Pyongyang’s skyline, as a way of opening up a crack in North Korea’s numbing isolation. It remains, however, a delicate topic, and not all interpreted Boeri’s article in the same way.

In September Domus saw the publication of an open letter from architect Jan Kaplicky of Future Sytems: “I always thought that your magazine was about architecture, design, beauty and people…I was shocked, horrified, angry and sad when Domus 882 June 2005 arrived. 22 pages and 3 covers full of North Korean propaganda.”

Should a dictator’s perversely visionary masterplan be examined and discussed in the pages of an international architecture magazine? Can an understanding of architecture’s most nightmarish distorsions, as well as its most beautiful incarnations, be of any use to us today?

On the 30th September (7 pm), Jan Kaplicky and Stefano Boeri meet for an open debate in the Serpentine Pavilion.
Invited speakers include: Amos Gitai, Scott Lash, Armin Linke, Deyan Sudjic, Brett Steele, Eyal Weizman, Julia Peyton-Jones.

London – Great Britain
Jan Kaplicky and Stefano Boeri debate Domus magazine initiative on North Korea
30.9.2005, h. 19
Serpentine Gallery Pavilion

— Domus