It turns out I’ve been blogging about reading for around 2/3 the age of supernaut. It still feels like something I’ve only recently begun. This year I’d taken a slight pause from my intense reading bouts, so in part this is a reminder of what I read in the last 12 months, that I was reading, and what I thought then and now.
Yes, I’ve read less than last year, 40-ish books compared to last year’s 54-ish. This has been obvious to me in recent months with my pile being added to but not depleted, not so much reading as chiseling away. Anyway, no more blathering. The books:
The non-fiction, serious stuff:
Half of what I read was superb. When I was performing in Parsifal, I got to read William Kinderman’s Wagner’s Parsifal, a glorious book, which made me love and appreciate the opera even more. I paired that with Dayal Patterson’s equally magnificent Black Metal: Evolution of the Cult, a must-read for anyone interested in the history of the genre, and it supplied me with a mass of new listening. It was on my Book of the Year list until shunted off by a couple of exceptional works. Michel Serres’s was not one of those, but Variations on the Body is a beautiful, poetic work by one of Europe’s most profound and little-read philosophers, who understands corporeality in a way largely lacking in western philosophy.
Adam Minter writing on the recycling business in Junkyard Planet: Travels in the Billion Dollar Trash Trade is a book I’d recommend to pretty much anyone (being aware that much of what I read falls into the WTF? category), and he’s a rare, smart writer on the subject, presenting it in a way non-specialists can understand and enjoy, also a needed critical voice in the global trash industry and China’s role in it.
Another from China: Frank Dikötter is one of my favourite writers on 20th century China, and I’d been waiting for The Tragedy of Liberation: A History of the Chinese Revolution 1945-1957. I’d been interested in this period because of stories a friend in Guangzhou would tell me about her Tujia grandparents holding out for years in the mountains against Communists. I’d also been waiting for Liao Yiwu’s prison years autobiography, available in German for a year, For a Song and a Hundred Songs: A Poet’s Journey through a Chinese Prison System. There is hype around post-’89 Chinese writers, particularly the Beijing and Shanghai urban youth genre. I’ve yet to find a writer of that generation as good as Liao, and as necessary to read. All of his works are unparalleled documentaries.
Finally, there was Julia Serano, her sequel to Whipping Girl: Excluded: Making Feminist and Queer Movements More Inclusive. It’s odd to leave this off the Book of the Year list, as it’s undeniably a critical work and Serano is up with bell hooks and Judith Butler (among others) for her writing on feminism, trans, and queer politics and culture. She needs to be read; buy it and read it.
The reason why Serano got bumped is Afsaneh Najmabadi, whose Women with Mustaches and Men without Beards: Gender and Sexual Anxieties of Iranian Modernity was one of my Books of the Year last year. I heard about Professing Selves: Transsexuality and Same-Sex Desire in Contemporary Iran late last year and waited months for it. Considering the amount of attention works on trans people (particularly trans women) received in the last year, it’s baffling that Najmabadi goes largely unmentioned. For those engaged in this subject with no interest in Iran specifically, her documenting of the influence in Iran of Euro-Anglo-American ebbs and flows of political, social, medical, legal thought and practice on trans issues and identities is sufficient to make this required reading. Iran though is the dog that’s beaten irrespective of context, and successive Ayatollahs since the ’70s issuing Fatawa recognising trans people as legitimate and in need of help is presented in the west rather as the despotic Islamic dictatorship forcing sex reassignment on unwilling gays and lesbians. As with Excluded, buy it and read it.
Then there was H. Jay Melosh’s Planetary Surface Processes, which Emily Lakdawalla wrote about on The Planetary Society. Along with last year’s Colliding Continents: A Geological Exploration of the Himalaya, Karakoram, & Tibet, this one fills my need to look at massive contusions of granite and other rock. There’s a moderate number of formulae, and regular plunges into elucidations of those, placing this somewhere in general university-level and reference book. It is specific and not a casual read, and it’s the one book you want on the subject. Sometime soon I’ll pair it with one on planetary chemistry.
And finally for the non-fiction is Caroline Walker Bynum’s Wonderful Blood: Theology and Practice in Late Medieval Northern Germany and Beyond, recommended by a friend, and just one of those delightful, dense, heavy, demanding works written by someone so phenomenally talented and capable, and who simply loves her work. Completely a joy!
The fiction, also serious stuff:
I read less fiction in the last year, and tried new authors, some of whom I absolutely loved and are firmly helping me get over the absence of Iain Banks. Others … others who everything indicates I should love instead leave me cold, or worse, finding them actually not very good.
Let’s dispense with The Water Margin first. The second volume of five of John Dent-Young and Alan Dent-Young’s translation of Shi Nai’an and Luo Guanzhong: The Tiger Killers: Part Two of the Marshes of Mount Liang. This has to go on my list similarly as I have to have breakfast. Even if I read a hundred superior books, it would still be here. Some books are like that, you may never read them but they’re always around. The Water Margin is—as I keep saying—China’s Chaucer and The Canterbury Tales, or Marlowe’s riotous plays. I’d compare it to Shakespeare but it’s not equivalent: it’s bawdy, rough, uncouth characters and stories, and the writing itself is nearer the former two. Given its miraculous ability for genius turns of phrase, it’s perhaps comparable to Shakespeare for his wordsmithery. The Dent-Young’s translation is my favourite of the lot also, though the price per volume certainly isn’t.
Then there’s Ysabeau S. Wilce, who I discovered mid-this year, ordered the first of the Flora Segunda trilogy, promptly ordered the other two when barely past the first chapter. Flora Segunda: Being the Magickal Mishaps of a Girl of Spirit, Her Glass-Gazing Sidekick, Two Ominous Butlers (One Blue), a House with Eleven Thousand Rooms, and a Red Dog. Yes, that’s the title. Children’s book indeed. Would that some of the adult authors I read be capable of imagining and telling a story as this. I loved all three, though the first the most. It seems to me in trilogies where the protagonist starts almost from nothing, that the first part establishes the significant growth, and the remaining two are more working with what they’ve already learnt (the Matrix and Star Wars trilogies, for example), and it may be unreasonable to be irritated by this, but it does—books two and three are still wonderful and had I only read either of them I’d be frothing as I do over book one. It’s not in the same league as the two big ones below, but I did love the world and characters.
Another new author was K. J. Parker, who has written quite a bit. It was The Folding Knife that piqued my interest, and I enjoyed it enough that it gets a second mention here.
I almost forgot Imogen Binnie’s Nevada, neither sci-fi nor fantasy, something of an autobiography, a little like reading my own life, rough, punk and trouble. The ending I hated, but the rest, she deserves awards for this and to be read a fuck-ton load.
The two big ones then, and colossal they are.
One the Skiffy side, channelling Iain M. Banks: Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice; and on the Mediæval Fiction side (I keep imagining her and Caroline Walker Bynum together in a bar): Nicola Griffith’s Hild.
Buy these books. Read these books. These are incomparably the best sci-fi/fantasy of 2014. If you’re swayed by other’s opinions, between them, they’ve won or been nominated for more awards than I have fingers and toes. Both of them have my favourite covers of the year. Honestly, if you don’t like either you should give up reading; books are wasted on you.
I cannot say enough good things about either of these two books and their authors. It’s an extraordinary time for sci-fi and fantasy with writers like Griffith and Leckie. It’s unlikely I’ll ever have an experience like my reintroduction to sci-fi via Iain Banks a few years ago, but to utterly give myself over to the author and story as with these two and to be rewarded for that is beyond compare.
An aside: you may notice that many of the writers are female. It’s intentional. A while ago, I decided to put my money where my feminist mouth is. This is easier in fiction because the two genres I read, sci-fi and fantasy have many talented female writers and the genres are going through a renaissance due to these and non-white, non-western, non-straight authors (and a definite shift by the publishing industry to promote them). It’s brilliant. In non-fiction, it’s not so easy. In part this is because I want to read particular authors; in part particular subjects that are dominated by white male authors in the english language sphere. I consciously balance these two biases by seeking out and selecting female authors, and when it comes to a choice I’ll put the female author first. The result of my extraordinary and hegemonic discrimination is that the first twenty books on my wish list are split almost 50/50 between male and female authors.
There follows two salient points: first, on any subject or genre, despite their being anywhere from an abundance of quality women writers all the way down to an equal number as there are men, by comparison it requires sustained effort to find them. Secondly, women writers—or at least the ones I read—tend to take for granted aspects of society that male writers mostly consider irrelevant. (This is my “Easy A vs. Superbad” theory.) Not only do women authors tend to not make assumptions based on contemporary, western ideas of gender, desire, ethnicity in society, they also regard these subjects as self-evidently present even if not immediately obvious and therefore critical to a proper understanding of the subject (or, as my wont, deserving of entire books on their own). Male writers on the other hand far too often see the world in terms of a narrow heterosexual and mono-cultural construction where men are doing all the important stuff.
This to me is the fundamental point in arguing for proper representation: it is simply not possible to otherwise understand a subject or imagine a world. And given that there has been prolonged underrepresentation, it follows that what is claimed to known on a subject can be reasonably said to be seriously lacking at best and likely suspect unless it can demonstrate adequate representation.
Another year done, then. More shelves filled. More new, superb authors whom I’m able to enjoy because of the fortunate combination of being able to read, living somewhere I can make time to read, and where books are affordable and commonplace. So (as I said last year) here’s to the writers, and their publishers and proofreaders and editors and typesetters and designers and artists and agents and friends and families who make it possible for them to write so that I may read.
Somehow I got from trying to find my way across Berlin to several hours traipsing up the Tanami Track and across the desert in South Australia and the Northern Territory. Along the way I found a couple of impact craters, marvelled at the astoundingly and diversely complex geological processes across central Australia, followed dry, braided rivers to their inland deltas, seasonal lakes and waterways, found airport runways, a scrawl of tracks, trails, roads, paths that faded in and out, cattle stations, groups of houses, mines, diggings, scratchings, was amazed at the quantity of signs of human existence in the blankness, more amazed still by the utter beauty of the land, realised it looked a lot like my favourite kind of art and some of the stuff I was doing a while ago, and I was better just to take screenshots than a paintbrush, also that I am unlikely to ever see this land from the ground, and to see it like this, from surveillance satellites mapping the planet down to metre-resolution is something I’ll never experience.
So far this year I’ve had a bit of a lapse in reading. There’s been a pile beside my bed that I haven’t made much progress on despite being writers and subjects I’m dead enthusiastic over. I decided to order a few extra to add to said pile, hoping they would get me back on the goat-pulled reading cart.
Planetary Surface Processes by Distinguished Professor of Earth and Atmospheric Science, H. Jay Melosh at Purdue University has been on my want list for at least a couple of years. It’s a university-level textbook, with accompanying price (even for Germany), suitably thuggish weight and page count, and gets straight into formulae on the second page of Chapter 1. My first encounter with it was a review by Emily Lakdawalla of The Planetary Society (which is one of the very best space science news sites around, and Emily one of my favourite writers), late-2012. She said, “I could tell from the first page that this book was going to become a primary resource for this blog.” and I thought, “Oooh, ok, off to the bookstore!” She does point out it’s heavy on the physics and light on the chemistry, for which a commenter suggests McSween & Huss’ Cosmochemistry, now also on my list … nonetheless, her recommendation is good enough for me.
It fits in on one side with Mike Searle’s Colliding Continents: A geological exploration of the Himalaya, Karakoram, and Tibet, which I found a fantastic read, and on the other with my daily reading of space science, of which extraterrestrial geology and planetary processes, specifically those within our solar system, is a longterm interest for me. I’ve been following Curiosity on Mars (even getting up early for the Seven Minutes of Terror), Cassini around Saturn, New Horizons on its way to Pluto, Dawn on its way to the asteroid Ceres, and having a book like this is something of a necessary addition for me. So, I will be taking this brick with me on my upcoming travels, unportable as it is.
Another Sunday and my first Berlin museum for the year. I’ve been remiss. Since before Bologna, I’d planned for my next museum visit to be the Museum für Naturkunde, or to give it its full title, Museum für Naturkunde — Leibniz-Institut für Evolutions- und Biodiversitätsforschung an der Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin, otherwise more succinctly known as the Naturkundemuseum. Sunday probably isn’t the most clever choice for a day to go there, packed to the atrium’s glass ceiling with kids going bonkers and their attendant families, causing the building to ring and vibrate in sympathy.
First stop once bag and impedimenta were dumped is the audio guide booth. Free! In English also! And a special version for kids 6 and older. I feel somewhat like a nouveau dilettante with my appreciation for audio guides, partly, “What use can this guide be? To me?” and quite a lot, “Excellent! Audio Guide!” The Naturkundemuseum falls so entirely into the latter it goes on to previously untravelled regions of brilliance, so much so that I had to dispense with it in some rooms if I wanted to leave the museum the same day — and that even before I pushed the ‘more info’ button, available in addition for around a third of the audio items. As an illustration, it took more than a hour to get around the first World of Dinosaurs room even missing a couple of the audio accompaniments.
Dinosaurs! The Giraffatitan brancai (which I have in my head from childhood undifferentiatedly for all such Sauropods as Brontosaurus) or Brachiosaurus brancai, is exactly Giraffe-ish, or Elephant with Giraffe neck stuck on each end, the forward one with the head about 13 meters above. The audio guide said there is some hypothesis based on the skull shape it may have also had an Elephant’s trunk. All that plus feathers sounds indeed preposterous, though it was only a couple of decades ago the entire skeleton was revised, giving it an entirely different appearance, so perhaps not.
Masses of fossils from the 150 million year old Tendaguru Formation in Tanzania surround these giants, acquired from when Tanzania was known as German East Africa, which is something that always taints museums for me, the circumstances under which such exhibits were obtained and the complete lack of acknowledgement of them. Nonetheless, Pterodactyls! Including the incredibly famous Archaeopteryx, which I forgot to photograph and like the Mona Lisa is far smaller than one would imagine.
Making it out of Dinosaur land (after the beautiful Kentrosaurus aethiopicus), I arrive in System Erde, great pieces of Gniess, Granite, and other high-pressure metamorphic rock, volcanoes, black smokers, plate tectonics, and Chicxulub, or more generally, Earth getting the buggery whacked out of it by cataclysmically huge meteorites. There are a couple of large shatter cones also, as well as a map of Germany showing the Nördlinger Ries impact crater.
From there, I wandered into the vast room of Evolution in Aktion, confronted first by the two-storey high and around ten metre wide Biodiversitätswand, around where I heard an innocent young thing ask, ”Daddy, where do they get all the animals?” and the panicked scramble for a reply that wouldn’t cause an Outside Context Problem, “Well … people … probably give them to the museum … when they’ve died …” It was beautiful and horrific. On the glass wall forward of a Black Panther that blended tail-wards into a Leopard spots (possibly a melaninistic Black Leopard) it said, “As an optically oriented species, humans are trained to recognise visual differences as edges. This is sometimes a trick of nature, since not everything that looks different really is something different.”
I paused on the audio guide around here, it was simply too full of people, and facing several more unknown rooms, I decided to accelerate. One of the grand stairwells has had its height made use of for the Kosmos und Sonnensystem exhibition, with a video of the formation of the universe playing far above for the lucky ones lying on the very comfortable looking circular sofa below. Planets, yes. Much better is a superb collection of meteorites. Part-way up the first flight of stairs is a display of Meteorite classification, Chondrites, iron meteorites; the next landing has a display of meteorites that have pockmarked Germany.
Here things got disorganised. Parts of the museum are closed for repairs and rebuilding. This breaks the circular progress through the museum, instead it becomes a retracing of one’s steps before continuing, then doubling back again. I doubled back and landed in the Mineraliensaal.
Oh, this is beautiful! It’s huge, vast high ceiling, scores of metres long and a dozen wide, full of vertical cabinets interspersed with display tables all, all of them stuffed to the gullets with mineral samples. It’s like an entire, living ecosystem in itself, representing some 75% of the world’s known minerals. I could have really remained in here for a whole day alone. Unlike the other exhibitions though, this one is decidedly 19th Century in form, simply those endless cases with tiny labels and no context, no audio guide. I do though prefer that in this instance, as the alternative would likely be a drastically reduced selection, rather than several rooms of this size each deliriously full and sumptuously arranged. I’m pretty sure I’ll be going back just to spend a day in this room.
On to the Wet Collections, the Alkohol-Forschungssammlungen, another two-storey high hall, this time full of eerily glowing glass receptacles fixing amphibians, fish, mammals, spiders … it’s the stuff of horrors for me. It’s also only viewable from the outside circuit, so I took off to the Einheimische Tiere exhibition, also dead animals, taxidermied, rather than preserved. I liked the Nebelkrähe — the Hooded Crow — because there is a large gang of them in Uferstr, and it looked a little sad, lost, and underdressed in the museum next to all the ~geiers, hawks and other splendid aviators.
I was getting tired by now, so the bird section was somewhat perfunctory. I stopped by the Museum shop on the way out. They had Jared Diamond’s The World Until Yesterday on the shelves, which caused me to doubt the seriousness of their (the Museum’s) engagement with its public; it’s almost like giving genuine consideration to Intelligent Design. They did have nice breakfast bowls with Archaeopteryx on them, and besides the bizarre inclusion of Diamond, quite a few books I’d throw Euros at.
So, Museum für Naturkunde! Go on a non-weekend day (though week days are probably rife with school groups); use the audio guide, I think it’s the best I’ve heard; take supplies (there is no café at present); go early and leave late; go again, it’s a little uneven with the renovations and it’s not the American Museum of Natural History, but it’s bloody good, especially the minerals.
Somewhere I’d read the desert of stone around Topographie des Terrors was composed of greywacke, one of my favourite rocks, but I think that was perhaps an inventive mistranslation. Still, the grounds of the museum are blanketed in it, when not forested.
Two weeks ago I went to the Jüdisches Museum and managed to formulate some thoughts on it while talking with Isabelle, who asked me if I’d been to Topographie des Terrors. Following my entirely indiscriminate approach to Museum Sundays, I couldn’t think of another that seemed more likely, so this afternoon, after lunch in with Dasniya and Florian in our kitchen (harhar if you know our kitchen), I was on my bike southwards.
I like the Bundesministerium der Finanzen, formerly the Reichsluftfahrtministerium, but then I’ve always had a fondness for that particular style of modernist architecture, despite its habitual association with fascism. Perhaps it’s just the time it emerged in, though I think equally there is a mentality in its aesthetics that corresponds with that period of industrialised, colonial nationalism. It’s just across the road from a stretch of the wall and Martin Gropius Bau, where I’ve been a couple of times, and juts oppressively over the remnant slabs of wall, windows all mean and small, hammered into battlement stone slabs like prison cells.
Unlike the utter absence of people in the reaches not around the wall, this section of the museum was heavily populated with people photographing themselves in front of the barrier. It’s somewhat bizarre a choice of holiday snaps.
I liked the barrenness of the grounds. It’s about as close as one can get to a fitting response to what happened in the buildings that were once here while remaining apprehensible by visitors. To salt and poison the earth and render it hostile to all who tread it, then wall it in, or gouge it out and blast the sandy Berlin geology until it melts would also be equivalent acts of memorial. It’s also good to arrive in winter, when the light is dim and listless, visibility is washed out by fog and mist, colour only comes from greyness, and cold and damp accompany.
Formerly this was a block containing the School of the Kunstgewerbemuseum, Prinz-Albrecht Palais and gardens, Europahaus, other buildings of Art Nouveau and the Kaiserreich along wealthy streets of the same. And now it is stripped bare. I followed the outside path first, short biographies of the buildings which once stood where nothing now remains, photographs of the edifices, dates when the Nazis moved in. It grew dark by the time I arrived at the air raid shelter dug by slave labour of political prisoners from Sachsenhausen concentration camp. Political prisoners meant largely communists, Die Rote Kapelle, liberals and intellectuals, artists, and either in combination or separately, homosexuals.
After and during Jüdisches Museum I was angry, enraged. Topologies des Terrors imparts a dull numbness. It is the lifeless grey stone of the Reichsluftfahrtministerium at dusk in winter, bereft of the living, of trees, greenness. It’s hollowed out and empty. There are many Nazis though, and they all are laughing.
I didn’t take many photos inside; it felt distasteful, like carrying the corpse of a rat out to the rubbish. What could I photograph anyway? The laughing Nazis? They were always smiling and full of life, especially when on holiday from murder. Their victims? Hanging broken-necked from trees and lampposts, starved to skeletons, kneeling or showing their back about to be shot, the moment of the shot, tumbled into graves. The numbers? Always numbers, columns, instructions, lists, documents, stamps, signatures, plans, orders. Does the number “11 million” mean something, signify something, declare something worse, more horrific than the 6 million the SS got away with? Jews that is. A document with a line-item: Jüden: 11.000.000. Or what of the plans for Lebensraum? More than double that figure. And the architecture. The Palais, the hotels, the studios of the Kunstgewerbemuseum the other edifices bounded by four streets, all turned from their original use to this.
Two photographs from inside. One is a map of the Reich in June, 1937. It documents those arrested in that month, stamped in red, ”Geheim!” The key: Communists, Social Democrats, Enemies of the State, Catholics … Jews … Homosexuals has small coloured circles next to each. Homosexuals get a circle with a black cross. 102 arrested in Berlin for the month of June. Gay, lesbian, trans, bisexual? It doesn’t indicate though other documents and photographs imply it was gay men; lesbians being more pliant and less of a threat to the state.
The other is titled ”Kennzeichen für Schutzhäftlinge in den Konz.-lagern” – “ID markers for Protective Custody Prisoners in Concentration Camps”. The top row lists: Political, Professional Criminal, Emigrant, Jehovah’s Witness, Homosexual, Work-shy (a catch-all for Roma, pacifists, lesbians, prostitutes, mentally ill, homeless, anarchists …); the left column indicates: Base Colour, Recidivists, Penal Labour, Markings for Jews.
A Jewish holocaust scholar said, in his criticism of the memorial to gay and lesbian victims of Nazis, among other things that it was only German homosexuals the Nazis persecuted; that it was political. He does not say there were no Jewish queers, though there is little need to as the manicuring of history which has placed Jewish identity at the centre of the holocaust has simultaneously diminished or denied their existence. So here we see a combination insignia: a yellow triangle overlaid with a pink triangle, for Homosexuelle Jüden.
Unlike the Jüdisches Museum, Topographie des Terrors does document the genocide against other groups and locate them within the overarching structure of Nazi racial purity. Perhaps what is critical here is the statelessness of the victims. Whether Jewish, Roma, Homosexual, Slavic, all are groups of significant number, and all had (or have) a lack of statehood. Statehood for queers sounds laughable, a logical fallacy, a misunderstanding of what a state is. Yet Jews were German, they were not a special case of German or some fiendish Other. To say otherwise is only possible if one declares exactly and precisely what constitutes a German, and adheres to a line of thinking that by elimination leads directly to the gas chamber. Through the removal of statehood from a person or group of people, committing acts of violence is no longer a question in the domain of philosophy or ethics; it is simply one of bureaucracy and accounting.
There were some Brazillian football players in town to play against Bayern Münich, they asked me to take a photo of them in front of the wall while holding up their team’s flag.
Another year of this, six now, since I decided to just post the covers of the books I was reading, with nothing more said, which then became a quick couple of lines – not a review! merely describing how I came to be reading the book – which then became … so now it’s verging on essays at times. Still not a review! Not a preview either. Somewhere between, usually once the first pages are passed, and also usually before or around the 1/3 mark, so at least I admit I am writing about what I am reading, and not only how I came to it.
This year then, at least 54 books dealt with (wow! one more than last year!), most cover to cover, a small few endured till the last page, and fewer still abandoned. Some still being read. A couple it seems I haven’t mentioned. Oops. Well, they can go onto next year’s list. Besides my semi-regular re-reading of Iain Banks, Charles Stross, Harry Potter (not in the last year for a change), I owe my gluttony to one person alone: Paul at St. George’s Bookshop. Yes, a couple were acquired in Vienna, but to clear, I have yet to find a better english-language bookshop in my Europe travels, and while I may be parochial compared to some people’s haunting of such shops, it’s the best I have been to in the ten countries where I have bookshopped.
It’s surprising that this is already the sixth year I’ve been blogging my reading, and that every year I’m made some sort of effort at encapsulating my reading experience of the previous twelve months. In the last year I found myself somewhat tired with the works coming out on China, Afghanistan, Central Asia, Trans/Queer/Feminism, as well as Skiffy (that’s sci-fi pronounced properly) … my usual reads; turning my attention to Iran and the Caucasus was partly an attempt to regain some enthusiasm – also to veer along reading paths I know less of – as was a notable uptick in reading Fantasy. I am still diligently, unashamedly in love with print, the weight and texture of the paper, the bindings glued or stitched, the cover art – embarrassing or magnificent, the width of the margins, the typography and typefaces, the smell – richest from the gutter when opening the book for the first time, the sound of the spine creaking and pages rustling, the need for a light to read at night. Yes, still spilling food, crumbs, stains of drinks, smudges from dirty fingers, corners folded to mark my place, thrown into bags and taken to the toilet; books are made to be read even by the meanest of hands. And still despising, utterly despising shoddy proofreading, especially in volumes from university presses, not infrequently combining that unique meeting of unremarkable paper stock, Helvetica, mediocre cover art and eye-gouging price.
On to the books then.
But firstly, I’ve been wondering about the purpose of anointing one or two books my Book of the Year, when the idea of such competition in dance makes me queasy, so why would I suffer another art form to this? It may be that this year no one work materialised I think of as sublimely beyond all others; it may be equally that there is a limit to ‘how good’ a book can be, based on whatever qualities and attributes I measure by, and simply the 6 non-fiction and 8 fiction are occupying that region in a way that comparisons of ‘which is better’ become meaningless. There’s definitely some that are ‘pretty good’ and others that are ‘fuck! wow!’ so perhaps I will yet convince myself that one or two are unquantifiably superior and deserve the crown.
Anyway, the books:
I re-read a lot of Skiffy and fantasy this year, mostly Iain M. Banks, then a stack of Terry Pratchett, and J. R. R. Tolkien’s usual ones. Mostly these don’t figure in this anniversary, because then every second year Feersum Endjinn would be my book of the year, so I try and concentrate on new stuff. A lot of fantasy then. This is because a) Iain Banks died, so there’s no impending Culture books in the immediate future; b) Charles Stross only published one new work; c) China Miéville didn’t publish any; and d) my other regular authors also were absent or discarded (William Gibson, Neal Stephenson in the latter camp) combined with vague miasma of boredom with the new ones I did try.
The non-fiction, serious stuff.
Well, Skiffy is often serious, or at least I think the stuff I try and read is. I felt a little disillusioned with my non-fiction reading this year, perhaps having been spoiled by some truly exceptional works in recent years, like … ah just look at my previous anniversaries. I was anticipating stuff of this quality, and found myself often veering too far in both directions: some academic texts were so specific and specialised I could only nod and smile and agree they knew what they were talking about and I was at most a distant observer of the intended audience. Others were populist masquerading as academic, or even convinced they were academic but really lacking in the kind of intellectual rigour I expect from such writing.
But on to the good stuff, because there were some and my upcoming reading is full of even more. A surprising absence of philosophy, which I’ve been thinking of returning to with Michel Serres; some works on China, Taiwan, Hong Kong, but notably less than other years, the same is true of Afghanistan and Central Asia. The Caucasus was new for me though, and Charles King’s The Ghost of Freedom: A History of the Caucasus was a significantly good introduction for me (and the way Russia lurks behind everything from Europe to Japan makes me think eventually I will have to tangle with that place). Iain Banks – who I re-read a lot of this year – delighted me with drinking and driving (possibly not intersecting sets) in Raw Spirit: In Search of the Perfect Dram. Jumping into some reading of 20th century classics, bell hooks’ Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center an unexpected addition a couple of months ago has been more than useful in thinking about feminism that doesn’t default to narrow Euro-American definitions and exclusions it seems to regularly fall to.
The good ones, the really good ones are three: Ruth Mandel’s Cosmopolitan Anxieties: Turkish Challenges to Citizenship and Belonging in Germany introduced me to the Alevi, and subsequently a profoundly more nuanced understanding of Turkish history in Germany, as well as prodding me to observe some of Ramadan this year. It compliments Katherine Pratt Ewing’s Stolen Honor: Stigmatizing Muslim Men in Berlin extremely well and anyone interested in a serious reading on these topics would do well to start with these two. Afsaneh Najmabadi’s Women with Mustaches and Men without Beards: Gender and Sexual Anxieties of Iranian Modernity (which I have only just finished reading) is similarly a profound work on the history of identity and sexuality in Iran (she also has a work to be published soon on transsexuality in contemporary Iran, which is already on my list), with much that is also very applicable to understanding this in euro-american feminism. The last of the three, Mike Searle’s Colliding Continents: A geological exploration of the Himalaya, Karakoram, and Tibet is a return to one of my long loves, geology, and is an excellent monologue on his love of the science, climbing, mountains, and the people who live in these regions. Not coincidently, it was geology and pouring over geological maps of the Karakoram, Pamirs, Kashmir, Pakistan and Afghanistan that was my introduction to these places, and to have a book such as this to enjoy was glorious.
The fiction, equally serious stuff:
I enjoyed a brief return to Terry Pratchett, consuming ten of his Discworld books, some re-reads, some new, in the course of a month or so. The Amazing Maurice and His Educated Rodents was one of my favourites, and seems to show that often childrens’ or teenage fiction can be far more apt in describing morality than unending tonnage of ‘serious’ literature. Hannu Rajaniemi had a sequel to The Quantum Thief, much awaited by me: The Fractal Prince. It was pretty good too, but perhaps I should read it again as it’s a little hazy in my head. I decided to embark on the six-volume version of The Water Margin, John and Alan Dent-Young’s translation of Shi Nai’an’s and Luo Guanzhong’s The Broken Seals: Part One of the Marshes of Mount Liang and yes, was not disappointed. This is a classic, not just of Chinese writing, it’s up there with Chaucer, Marlowe, Shakespeare, and drinking swearing fighting swearing drinking eating … brilliant!
A newcomer, Saladin Ahmed got me with Throne of the Crescent Moon, which I love not just because it’s a massive antidote to the insipid fantasy tropes built on western European monarchy and the age of chivalry; on its own it’s a rollicking tale which should have won the Hugo this year, and I will certainly be buying whatever he publishes next. Charles Stross published a somewhat-sequel to Saturn’s Children, – one of my favourites of his – Neptune’s Brood, which is a Skiffy meditation on interplanetary finance scams owing much to David Graeber’s Debt: The First 5000 Years, as well as reminding me of Stross’ earlier work, Iron Sky. It hasn’t had a re-read yet, but it just occurred to me I have a weekend staring at me and not much in my reading pile.
Finally, and finally. Iain M. Banks. Had The Hydrogen Sonata been his last work, his dying would be read into it in some manner as it was in The Quarry, obviously not as literally, but Subliming, departure, ending, loss, what remains after is the story here. Iain’s M. writing, the Skiffy stuff, Culture or non- since the mid-2000s had entered a new period beginning with The Algebraist, then Matter, Surface Detail, and lastly The Hydrogen Sonata, four only but what a foursome. OK, let’s make it five-ish, Transition fits into these also, and The Steep Approach to Garbadale and Stonemouth from his non-M. side I think show this clearly. It’s not simple or fluent for me to write about him, a lot of staring out the window pondering what an influence he has had on me, and this, his last Culture novel. Well, it’s a good one, not the untrammelled raucousness of Excession, but to be honest, the more accessible sci-fi novels are also for me not the most likely to cause introspection and critical thinking on the themes he builds his worlds upon. Against a Dark Background, which I also read this year is a good example of this, also Look to Windward. I’ve read The Hydrogen Sonata twice already and it feels fresh enough that I’ll probably make a third run of it soon.
Somehow I feel fortunate that I can read a book a week, and of those at least a fifth are bloody brilliant. So 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.
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.
The last of my current batch of reading … more soon to be procured. It’s a little gluttonous, no?
Heaven Cracks, Earth Shakes arrived shortly after I finished The Bloody White Baron, and it had been a book I’d heard about every so often, so I was hoping for something … well, earthquakes, the Great Helmsman; as a follow-up to the Baron I was hoping a for a lot.
I am supposed to write these things before I read, and any reviewing that may or may not be done, is done once a year in October; I’m getting sloppy here.
While my attention for all things Sinological is gradually drifting conspicuously south, and my personal feeling is that in another, slightly different outcome of history, China would be something between the idea of the EU and the reality of Confoederatio Helvetica; so it just helps to think of at least the provinces surrounding Han proper like a misshapen ‘C’ as individual countries (they are big enough, after all), and so while my interest is more towards Canton and the inner asian frontiers, I’m never too far away from picking up any book remotely Chinese.
The premise, that the Tangshan earthquake via invocation of the Mandate from Heaven was part of a series of events leading to not only the end of almost thirty years of Maoist destruction, but equally to the de facto abrogation of Maoism, for me was an attractive subject for a book. Much of this because there hasn’t been much written on one of the most devastating earthquakes in history, and how it affected a country, and I do also have a long-standing love affair with geology — my mental image of China and Central Asia is usually one overlaid with geologic and topographic maps.
I think the initial disappointment for me came around a third of the way in, when background events leading up to Mao’s death and the earthquake were still being worked through. It occurred to me that perhaps with all the reading I’ve done on China, I was not exactly the audience. I was wanting to get stuck in from the first page to some chunky primary source research from provincial and county archives along with fault plane solutions and other geological delights, as I have been in some other recent works, and instead found a summarising of the main events of Mao.
Which James does very well, and if I was coming to this stuff for the first time – when I tend to read a lot of works like this to get the broad idea plus some specifics – this would be a more suitable read for me. From my perspective though, I felt that the connection between earthquake and Mao, was not presented in a way where I was convinced of more than a tenuous, or generalist correlation.
Being more critical, there were a couple of things in James’ writing style that irritated me, being occasional slips into vernacular, and the use of various pop culture references as similes. Which makes me sound like a stuffy old toff decrying the loss of Queen’s English, but references to The Godfather and Dad’s Army while clever or apt have a tendency to limit the audience, and to render the both the simile and intent incomprehensible for anyone not familiar with the allusion.
As with the Baron, the concluding section summarised and put into context the aftermath of the events up to the current day (around early 2011), also drawing comparisons with the state of the Communist Party and the 2008 Wenchuan earthquake. Again, mirroring the lengthy lead up to the earthquake, I had this sense I was not really the intended audience, though equally, for a reader coming to this for the first time, he gets through many of the main points in an engagingly readable way.
As an aside, somehow I was expecting a mention of Ai Weiwei, considering the various artists, poets, writers who James mentions around the Tangshan era; for me Wenchuan is quite fixed in my mind with him.
Late in the book, there is a reference to the Republican era which is a common one, describing it as “the warlord era”, and by implication with “the Japanese invasion [and] Maoist insanities”, a very Bad Thing. This is also the Communist narrative and being an era I’ve been reading somewhat on lately-ish (Gourmets in the Land of Famine and The Age of Openness are two I’m thinking of) I would say even given that it was one very broad remark covering the entire Chinese 20th century in a score of words, it is a sloppy and poor choice of words. The mention of R. J. Rummel a couple of pages later, whom I’ve written about previously, also doesn’t help.
So now I feel like I’ve been rather harsh. I was wondering if I felt let down after the Baron, but contra that, if my knowledge of Mongolia and Siberia were commensurate with China, I would have found that work also lacking. I didn’t, because it was a new-ish topic for me — my reading for north of the Tian Shan tends more to the Xiongnu than anything as recent as the Russian Civil War.
Maybe to say that this is one of the better recent books on China you could read which covers both the Maoist era and the 35 years since, without missing many of the main points, and with enough to go on with further, more detailed reading if your attention is taken. I would though like to read the next book from him going to a similar level of research and detail as someone like Susan Mann, Gail Hershatter, or Paul A. van Dyke.