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Reading … Book Covers of the Year 2017

Reading started ten years ago with just the covers of whatever I was reading — or about to read, blogged at the start. Then I added a paragraph or two about why I was reading whatever. Definitely not a review, I kept on repeating. More or less they’ve become reviews which I write either some way into the reading or at the end. Sometimes still at the beginning. Reviews, not reviews, whatever, reasons for reading. This last year at least, that’s turned into multi-thousand word essays on some books.

Fark! But wot about the cover art, Frances?

Reading is about the object, its materiality. The weight of the paper, the typography, the width of the margins, the smell of the ink and binding, the texture of the cover, the volume it occupies. The cover art.

A good cover thrills me. A bad one makes me cringe. Cover art is bound as much to genre constraints as it is to budget — and every class and decimal of Dewey is a genre. A good cover on a mass market paperback is not diminished by the crappiness of the print (cos the paper will yellow and grow brittle in the space of years), but no amount of expensive binding or price makes up for shiteful cover art and typography. So here are my favourite covers from 2017.

I love thematic consistency, editions or series by the same designer with a common style. I know it’s been done for decades, but it still seems new to me, maybe because I enjoy seeing the idea developed across multiple books. I especially love it when there’s a consonance between cover and story, like Steph Swainston’s Castle series, of which I read Fair Rebel this year (no idea who did the cover art, but it reprises the original trilogy). Totally fits the world. I see these covers and I immediately have images of the Fourlands, the Circle, of Jant fill my head.

Becky Chambers, whose The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet and A Closed and Common Orbit I read this year do attractive simplicity — lowercase typeface in shifting colour over astrophotography and silhouette of small figures on a hill in the lowest fifth. Again, I see these covers and know the world and characters. At the opposite end, full design, where typography and art are one, there’s Ben Aaronovitch’s Moon Over Soho and Rivers of London (cover art by Stephen Walter, and cheers again to Gala for introducing me to his brilliant series). Aesthetically, they’re not really my thing, but they suit the novels in a way (or you could go the whole Ayize Jama-Everett direction, or South London Grime, which might be more congruent, though scare off the nice readers).

I have Iain M. Banks covers. Not published any time recently but just as he’ll never not be my favourite author (“On what timescale, Frances?” “Oh, you know, heat death of the universe?”) the unified cover art of his various editions I love. The original editions are by Mark Salwowski (and I just discovered I can buy prints!), then the 2005 imprint was done by blacksheep, some of which I like more than the originals, but some, like Feersum Endjinn are iconic. No matter what edition or genre, these covers do solid typography and art. The post-2005 novels retain the 2005 style, but — for The Hydrogen Sonata at least — Lauren Panepinto is the artist. I could easily throw in any of these late-Banks covers here, but this is his last Culture novel and I have a deep fondness for it. The colour of the cover is that of the story.

Returning to Gesamtkunstwerk territory, China Miéville’s October: The Story of the Russian Revolution is a glorious piece of art. Andrea Guinn’s responsible for that slab of Russian Constructivism. If I was going to go all Cover of the Year, this would be one of them. Caroline Walker Bynum’s are around half the time understatedly gorgeous — academic publications act like they don’t have much to prove with their covers, but Christian Materiality: An Essay on Religion in Late Medieval Europe is a pleasure to hold. I’d love to see her work redone entirely by someone like Andrea Guinn. Another Cover of the Year would be Laura Jane Grace’s Tranny: Confessions Of Punk Rock’s Most Infamous Anarchist Sellout, by Christopher Norris, also gets best fucking title of the year, along with being my non-fiction Book of the Year. Which leaves Alastair Reynolds’ Revenger, which I have got more than a couple of friends to read, and is my fiction Book of the Year. The image here does it poor service, in the real world, the almost matt black is a light-deadening rectangle that looks larger than it is, it’s a suitably unfriendly cover to go with a disturbing story that I’ll be reading again and again.

11 covers then, in my first — and perhaps last — dance with cover art. Slightly less than a third of the books I read have covers (or complete design and binding, which is an even smaller subset) I think really gives the author and writing their due — and the reader, ’cos there’s nothing I love more than a beautiful book. So cheers to all you designers and artists and typographers, and cheers to the publishers who represent their authors with such art, you make the world a better place.

And my full list of what I read in the last year: Reading … A 10th Anniversary.

Reading … A 10th Anniversary

Another year of reading. Ten years I’ve been at this, blogging every book I read (almost every, a few slipped by over the years). Going from just blogging the book covers, to a few lines on why I was reading, to my recent frankly absurd multi-thousand word essays on some of Iain (M. or not) Banks novels. Trying to rein in that latter particular excess.

Usually at this point, I look at what I wrote a year ago, so I can aim for some sort of consistency.

A lot of fiction this year, almost twice as much as non-fiction, for a total of 34 books read — or attempted, I gave up on a few, and there’s a couple that I’ve already started but won’t make this list, ’cos I haven’t blogged them yet. Blogging is reading, just like rubbing is racing.

The year got off to a brilliant start with three biographies by trans women: Janet Mock’s Redefining Realness: My Path to Womanhood, Identity, Love & So Much More, Laura Jane Grace’s Tranny: Confessions Of Punk Rock’s Most Infamous Anarchist Sellout, and more a collection of essays over decades that becomes biographical, Julia Serano’s Outspoken: A Decade of Transgender Activism and Trans Feminism. And Tranny is my Book of the Year. There’s a couple of others equally or maybe more deserving — thinking of recent reads Peter Fryer’s Black People in the British Empire: An Introduction and China Miéville’s October: The Story of the Russian Revolution — but Miéville’s had a couple of Books of the Year already, so that’s him out. Tranny just spoke to me on a very personal level (as did Redefining Realness, different but no less personal), and Laura Jane Grace has been making miles in my head all year, I’m listening to her now. I’d marry her, it’s that kind of thing.

Following that trio, I went straight into Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak’s An Aesthetic Education in the Era of Globalization. Still in it. Not an easy read, needs the kind of mental preparation and focus I’ve been lacking the last some years, though strangely not for Caroline Walker Bynum, who I’ve been reading for three years now, one of my absolute loves, and Christian Materiality: An Essay on Religion in Late Medieval Europe is also deserving of being a Book of the Year.

A couple of others on the non-fiction side: May Opitz, Katharina Oguntoye, Dagmar Schultz (eds.) Showing Our Colors: Afro-German Women Speak Out, I read after seeing it at Deutsches Historisches Museum’s Deutscher Kolonialismus: Fragmente Seiner Geschichte Und Gegenwart exhibition. I’m didactic and prescriptive, and just like Peter Fryer, this (or whatever more recent work) should be compulsory reading in Germany, along with Ruth Mandel’s Cosmopolitan Anxieties and Katherine Pratt Ewing’s Stolen Honor — and a bunch of other stuff. But the last year’s European, American, and Australian politics makes me think we haven’t got a chance, walking with their eyes open while we shout and plead with them against where they’re going, where they’re dragging us.

I haven’t been reading much on China lately (or Afghanistan for that matter, but remedying that at the mo), but did read Frank Dikötter’s The Cultural Revolution: A People’s History, 1962–1976, the final work in his China under Mao Zedong trilogy (preceded by The Tragedy of Liberation and Mao’s Great Famine). He’s one of the few historians writing on China I’ll always read, who’s also in the fortunate position to be able to publish semi-regularly (and for academic publications, not horrifically over-priced).

There were a few other non-fiction works, but let’s get onto the fiction, or science-fiction and fantasy, ’cos I still don’t read anything else. I went on a lengthy Iain M. (plus a couple of non-M.) Banks binge earlier this year. I needed to just read, eyes rush over the pages, know before I started I’d love the story, sink back into familiar worlds and lives. Obviously that mean starting with my favourite book ever, Feersum Endjinn, and this being my first Banks re-read in some years, I came to him with a tonne of new reading behind me, and wow did I ever write about all my new thoughts. I followed that up with Whit, which has never been one of my favourites, nor did I think of it as one of his best. Wrong again, Frances. Back to The Business after that, definitely one I adore, and have read at least 6 times, then back into his skiffy with the late / last trio: Surface Detail, The Hydrogen Sonata, and Matter. I feel a little unsure putting these in my year’s reading here, as though there’s nothing remarkable about reading him multiple times, or that this is supposed to be about new books I’ve read. On the other hand, fuck it, it’s my blog and my reading and I can fuck off if that’s the attitude I’m going to bring.

There was a sizeable dip early- to mid-year, disappointment in fiction, feeling apathetic about the heaviness of non-fiction (thanks, Twitter), and also perhaps just steamrolling through scores of books year after year is an unrealistic monotone that I’m not. I did have a thrill with one more of Steph Swainston’s Castle novels, Fair Rebel, followed almost immediately by Above the Snowline, and love that she decided to return to writing, ’cos she’s one of the best. Not easy, these are large, demanding works that don’t mainline narrative reward, but she’s got one of the most captivating and extensive fantasy worlds I’ve read.

At the same time as Swainston, I got my grubby mitts on Alastair Reynolds’ Revenger. Something of marketed as Young Adult (is not), and not especially long (longer though than his novella Slow Bullets), and it feels like a Girl’s Own bit of romp, then he massacres an entire ship’s crew and continues in his very, very dark and existentially terrifying way right up till the end. Book of the Year for me, right there. Then there was the aforementioned Banks tour, and not until I was in Brussels did I get mad thrilled about fiction again. Cheers, once again, Gala. Ben Aaronovitch’s PC Grant series, A young Idris Elba / Stormzy cop with Harry Potter powers. A more cheerful Liminal People series. I started with number 2, Moon Over Soho, which meant reading the first in the series, Rivers of London had both plenty of, “I know who these people are,” and “Oh shit, her face is gonna fall off, isn’t it?” I’ve got the other 5 in the series on order.

I get to this point of writing, and I’ve added the covers of all these books, so I’ve got a nice visual treat in front of my mug, and I scroll through them … smiles all the way. And a little shiver of goosebumps. I’m lucky as all shit to be able to buy new books almost every week even when I’m on the verge of poverty (cheers, Germany and your incomprehensible to Australia attitude to cheap books), and lucky as all shit to have the time and education and all the rest to be able to read them. It’s a human right and every day I give thanks to the people (shout out to Eleanor Roosevelt here!) who fought and continue to fight for our inalienable rights.

Maybe I’m going to make this a thing (which always feels contrived), but I’ll finish quoting myself again, first from 2013 and then from 2015:

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!

And:

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.

And speaking of designers and artists, I decided to do a Book Covers of the Year thing, dunno why I haven’t before now. Mainly because both Revenger and October have covers that smash it. Also the original Feersum Endjinn, class late-20th century sci-fi cover art there.

Thrilled and awed by all this reading? Here’s the last years’ anniversary lists:

Reading: Simone Caroti — The Culture Series of Iain M. Banks: A Critical Introduction

I put off buying Simone Caroti’s The Culture Series of Iain M. Banks: A Critical Introduction for a long time because it’s ridiculously expensive. And because the last ridiculously expensive volume on Banks, Martyn Colebrook’s and Katharine Cox’s The Transgressive Iain Banks: Essays on a Writer Beyond Borders was kinda unimpressive. I’m getting this bit out the way first: The Culture Series is one of those academic publications that’s needlessly expensive}. Chumps like me, living in a country with relatively cheap access to books, buy them anyway. I’m in a continual internal debate whether to scan them and upload to an audience that is denied access.

Caroti’s book-length essay reminded me why I love Banks, with or without an M., Culture or not, and reminded me I’ve not had a full Banks binge for a couple of years. Breaking the flow here, I feel I always need to point out here me writing on books I’m reading, am about to read, have read, is not a review. Sometimes it becomes that, but if you’re looking for a review of The Culture Series or a coherent set of thoughts, this isn’t the place. Unlike The Transgressive Iain Banks, which was frankly disappointing, Caroti did the research, brings together almost forty years of a writer spanning thirty works, comes up with a bunch of interesting analysis and criticism, and competently keeps it all rolling for almost 300 pages.

Much of how Caroti interprets Banks is through the lens of John Clute’s term Fantastika. While working on the Tiptree website, amid conversations around categorising works from a more technical perspective, Debbie Notkin said they (the Motherboard) preferred the term Speculative Fiction over Sci-Fi/Fantasy or other terms which delineated between the sometimes disparate and sometimes analogous twins of the genre. Caroti’s choice of the term might represent the (Eastern) European traditions of Skiffy he’s engaging in, contra Speculative Fictions very Anglo-American leanings. Still, I don’t recall him addressing Banks on the the latter terms, even as a comparison with Fantastika. Perhaps I’m missing something that Caroti’s erudition makes clear to himself, but I didn’t find the argument for calling Banks’ work — or even reading it as — Fantastika particularly compelling.

As a needlessly picky aside, I’ve long had a thing for Derrida, and make no claims to understanding more than the mere shallows fringing his vast oceans of incomprehensibility, but any form of “deconstruction then reconstruction” is not a thing. I know it’s a lost battle, but words and meaning matter. Whatever process a writer means by preparing the scene for ‘reconstruction’, it isn’t deconstruction, indeed is a fundamental misunderstanding of what deconstruction is and can do, which even Derrida was gloriously gnomic on. I think at times Caroti is engaging with Banks’ work consciously in a kind of deconstructive process, which makes it all the more annoying for me to have him undermine the rich possibilities in such a reading by pairing those two words.

Which leads me off into a couple general ramblings and criticisms of Caroti’s work — some of which he addresses himself.

I’ve been reading Banks since 2004 when a friend gave me the Culture novels Consider Phlebas, Use of Weapons, Excession, and the non-Culture Against a Dark Background, and Feersum Endjinn. Anyone who’s persevered with me blabbing here for the last almost 13 years knows I think Feersum Endjinn is Banks’ best work; I’m also well fond of The Algebraist (Archimandrite Luseferous of the Starveling Cult is his superior villain), Transition, and The Business. Another aside: while in Leipzig working with Melanie Lane, I met her partner, Chris Clark (the musician). Opening night drinking led to a long Banks conversation in which we got onto what an excellent book The Bridge is, and him saying obviously I’d read Alasdair Gray’s Lanark: A Life in Four Books, to which I replied I’d not even heard of it. Much incredulity and astonishment! It’s now on the top of my To Read list. I mention this in part to underline my often egregious gaps in ‘self-evident’ knowledge, and to point out that just because a connection may seem self-evident, doesn’t presuppose a clear path from one to another. Also to point out that reading an author’s influences doesn’t necessarily add anything to the experience. With the exception of Jo Walton, who writes her influences into profound and clever stories, I’m more likely to be bemused, like say, Iain Banks being influenced by Jane Austin.

The received separation of Banks’ works lies on either side of the M. Sci-fi with, and proper literature without. Caroti elaborates on this throughout his work, making it clear how poorly Banks’ genre work is critically regarded. Caroti though makes another division: Culture and non-Culture. If he hadn’t his book would be several hundred pages and unaffordable. But still, it’s an arbitrary division that obscures the singular thematic structure of Banks’ work. This is one of the points Caroti makes at the end, and in Banks fandom is a ripe subject for contentious debate.

Caroti describes some of Banks’ works as the Scottish series (The Crow Road, The Steep Approach to Garbadale, among others). Excluding the space opera component, there’s little that separates these from Against a Dark Background or Use of Weapons, particularly in setting. Equally the railway of The Bridge returns in a form in Feersum Endjinn; the levels of the Shellworld in Matter in the Dweller wormhole network in The Algebraist; The Concern of Transition in The Business in the eponymous novel; the politics in Complicity return throughout the Culture’s Special Circumstances and disaffected individuals who populate main character roles; not even including the hints and mentions of the Culture in supposedly non-Culture and non-genre works. My reading of Banks has always seen all his works as variations on the same story. It’s not so much that the Culture appears as say, a variation on The Business, or that characters in Transition could be read as Use of Weapons’ Cheradenine Zakalwe, Complicity’s Andy, or from The Business or Walking on Glass, rather that Banks had a comprehensive, unified framework upon which he built his novels out, and from which major ideas like the Culture emerged. Repetition and variation of these thematic constants occur in almost all his novels. Whether his novels were space opera or Scottish landscape is integral to this, but not primary, like scenery being changed on stage. Which is to say, by concentrating on the differences, be they M. or no-M. Banks, Culture or non-Culture, we’re missing reading Banks as a forty-year, philosophical, political project.

One idea he worked with from first to almost last novel, which is very much part of that framework, and for which he seems to get little credit, is identity. His opinion on identity and gender was well-formed even before his first novel, The Wasp Factory. Caroti discusses this, specifically the Culture understanding of sex, gender, identity through going back and forth between male and female as a normal, indeed expected part of life. It’s maybe here that the rupture between Banks as one of the queerest authors I’ve read and his pretty heteronormative audience crops up. Banks was a hoon, totally enjoyed booze and drugs, was publicly hetero, a bit of a lad, all of which appeals to a cisgender, hetero male demographic, be they reader or critic. And yet, unlike other cis-male writers of what we currently call trans and/or intersex characters (Jeffrey Eugenides’ Middlesex is a good example here), Banks wasn’t writing these characters to represent say, ‘the alienation we all feel’ or ‘so sad, how tragic’.

A diversion on The Wasp Factory and the protagonist with whom I share a name. I think trans/intersex criticism of the novel is valid, though less so than Middlesex or a lot of that ’70s / ’80s feminist-ish stuff like Angela Carter’s The Passion of New Eve. Maybe I’m biased, but it sits for me more in the camp of say Laura Jane Grace calling her biography Tranny. It comments in an excessive way on the ideology of gender as it was at the time, of which Dr John Money’s beliefs and experiments serve as a real-life mirror. The horror and disgust at what is done to Frank as a work of fiction might be better read as an allegory on real life and be directed into the real world at doctors and theorists who still carry out violence on trans and intersex bodies little different from what Frank’s father did.

Nonetheless it makes a reading of Banks’ understanding of gender less than simplistically utopian. What Banks proposes isn’t a ’70s/’80s radical feminist destroying of gender and androgynous utopia, much like his Culture utopia isn’t a Communist one. I still find this surprising since there was little outside these dominant and ubiquitous theories at the time to provide alternatives, and Banks’ thinking on gender and identity still reads as contemporary and relevant. A way of illustrating this is in the ending of Excession, where Genar-Hofoen, as a condition for having provided services, is given the body of an Affront, the buffoonish and sadistic alien tentacle monsters. If transposing yourself into an alien species is both possible and unremarkable, how mundane must identity of self bound to gender and sex be? Banks proposes both a kind of Butlerian ‘gender as a useful generalisation’ and Deleuzean ‘as many genders as there are identities’ while on one side resisting collapsing identity to compulsory androgyny and the other validating and celebrating difference. It’s dead fucking sexy.

As I was reading The Culture Series, the chapter on The Player of Games, I remembered reading somewhere that the main character, Jernau Morat Gurgeh, was written as brown or black — which flies in the face of the mid-’90s Orbit print with Mark Salwowski cover where he’s so white he’s pink. I had to reread to confirm, but there it is. Early in the novel he’s described as having a “dark-curled head”, “black locks of hair”, “dark beard”; compared to the Culture ambassador, “Shohobohaum Za was a little lighter in colour than Gurgeh, but still much darker than the average Azadian”, and his partner, Yay having “gold-dark skin”. So with Player of Games, we have a novel where the main character is a person of colour, and it’s indicated the Culture is a whole lot more brown than might be expected in the history of Anglo-American Sci-Fi and space opera, and a whole lot more than it’s still discussed as. And as with gender, reading ethnicity in Banks is critical to understanding if not his entire body of work, then certainly the Culture.

One final thing to finish with, Caroti mentions a few times the work on Banks’ opus by Moira Martingale, Gothic Dimensions: Iain Banks, Timelord, which I’d (naturally) never heard of, and is now obviously on my list.

Simone Caroti — The Culture Series of Iain M. Banks: A Critical Introduction
Simone Caroti — The Culture Series of Iain M. Banks: A Critical Introduction

Reading: Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak — An Aesthetic Education in the Era of Globalization

Around the time I started dancing, living in Auckland, shortly before moving to Australia, I fell in with a rough crowd of philosophers and academics. Or rather, I skirted the edges of their world in Auckland and then in Melbourne as they en masse crossed the ditch; and then they were students, working their way through Masters and Phds. As with almost everyone, I lost contact, lives diverging, names hazily remembered.

Perhaps I’m inventing a fictional history, perhaps also the bright memories I have are of the enthusiasm of first discoveries rather than any significant shift in paradigms, nonetheless there was a raw thrill for new philosophy and theory. There were names that have stuck with me: Deleuze, Butler. I tried on Serres, Derrida, Kristeva, Iragaray; newer names still, like offspring of those first names, Rosi Braidotti, Keith Ansell-Pearson, Slavoj Žižek; felt like a fifth columnist going to lectures on Habermas and Lyotard. Perhaps it was because Deleuze and Guattari’s 1000 Plateaus had only recently been translated into English — by recently I mean this mob were the first generation of university students to be exposed to it, and it was certainly far outside the mainstream of university curricula; and Butler’s Gender Trouble was similarly new and far out.

Anyway, I found myself in Sydney one summer, in Gleebooks, and there on the shelves were both 1000 Plateaus and Gender Trouble. I bought both without a second thought. I read them over and over. (There was another book there, I forget the name, but it was about trans identities, I remember the rush of finding that, reading possibilities for living. I mention that so as not to compartmentalise these interwoven moments, one side joy, the other, shame.)

As with seeing Frankfurt Ballet and knowing my life belonged in dance (I still trust that decision however precarious my life has been because of it), Bridget telling me to read Deleuze and Butler is one of those monumental instances in my life. I’d call it an epiphany, but like the word ‘genius’ she’d probably hate it. Sitting in Black Cat Café in Fitzroy one day she also said, “You’re lucky. You get to live what we only theorise about.” So now I’m doubly lucky ’cos I live and theorise this shit.

Which brings me in a roundabout way to other words and names from then: Subaltern, Gayatri Chakravorti Spivak. Perhaps it was only these couple of people from this small group who were really into all this, and a proper history of ’90s New Zealand and Australian academic life would barely rate them a footnote. For me though, I got booted onto a course I’m still riding the momentum of. Curiously, I never read Spivak then, or never the way I did Butler and Deleuze. Spivak seemed and seems to be everywhere, when I see her name it’s like an old friend, or a friend of a friend I’ve heard so much about.

I wonder how common this is, to be able to trace vast paths and directions through a life back to single moments. Seeing Frankfurt Ballet, Bridget telling me to read Butler and Deleuze; more recently maybe, Erik telling me to read Caroline Walker Bynum. I’m sure there are others, though those moments on the cusp of teens and twenties have determined much of my life.

So I’ve returned to that name: Gayatri Chakravorti Spivak. I’ve been reading around migration, human rights, Islam, colonialism, these subjects in Europe, Seyla BenhabibKathryn Babayan, Afsaneh NajmabadiRuth MandelKatherine Pratt Ewing, and more recently with the current precarious state of democracy and human rights in Europe having a need to focus on this. I’m not sure why Spivak’s name occurred to me, maybe I read about her somewhere, or just decided she was the right choice for now.

I went through all her published works before deciding on An Aesthetic Education in the Era of Globalization. There’s other works that are probably more essential Spivak, ones that I remember from student days, but this was published in 2012 and I thought reading her newer stuff would be a pertinent choice.

What’s it like then? It’s a well proper slab of a book. Almost 600 pages (about 100 of which are notes) with wide spaces for marginalia, and a small typeface that’s making my eyes apprehensive. I started reading it a week ago, then went off to read some fiction, so I might have to start it again. I’ve read the preface, where she describes each essay in the collection as “looking for a distracted theory of the double bind.” She finishes with, “Gender is the last word. Figure out the double binds there, simple and forbidding.”

I think it’s common when reading philosophy or critical theory to read people without having actually read them. Quotes, lengthy discussions, analyses, criticisms, notes, all these over time can result in a feeling for an author, a familiarity, at the very least enough to know if I actually want to read them or not. I can’t think of another writer who’s been as large in my consciousness as Spivak without me actually reading them. I’m also desperate for direction at the moment. Spivak, writing on post-colonialism, globalisation, and most importantly aesthetics (I’m reminded of Adorno’s Aesthetic Theory here), somehow it feels right to be reading Spivak now. As an artist making political work (like there’s any art possible without being political?) maybe to quote the back cover: “aesthetic education is the last available instrument for implementing global justice.”

Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak — An Aesthetic Education in the Era of Globalization
Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak — An Aesthetic Education in the Era of Globalization

Reading … Book of the Year 2016 (Non-Fiction): Kathryn Babayan, Afsaneh Najmabadi (Eds.) — Islamicate Sexualities: Translations Across Temporal Geographies of Desire

My non-fiction Book of the Year for 2016: Kathryn Babayan’s and Afsaneh Najmabadi’s (Eds.) Islamicate Sexualities: Translations Across Temporal Geographies of Desire.

And my full list of what I read in the last year: Reading … A 9th Anniversary.

Kathryn Babayan, Afsaneh Najmabadi (Eds.) — Islamicate Sexualities: Translations Across Temporal Geographies of Desire
Kathryn Babayan, Afsaneh Najmabadi (Eds.) — Islamicate Sexualities: Translations Across Temporal Geographies of Desire

Reading … Book of the Year 2016 (Fiction): Sofia Samatar — A Stranger in Olondria

My fiction Book of the Year for 2016: Sofia Samatar’s brilliant and entrancing A Stranger in Olondria.

And my full list of what I read in the last year: Reading … A 9th Anniversary.

Sofia Samatar — A Stranger in Olondria
Sofia Samatar — A Stranger in Olondria

Reading … A 9th Anniversary

It’s that time of year again! Frances’ and supernaut’s Books of the Year for the 9th time. And some most excellent books were read indeed. This time last year, I realised I’d been struggling a bit with enjoying reading. I looked back over what I’d read in previous years, compared it with 2015’s crop, and noticed I’d dug myself into a bit of a hole with mediæval art and history.

What to do, Frances? I dunno, Other Frances, how about read about space travel and stuff? Good idea!

Unlike last year, my ninth iteration of looking back on a year’s reading — and it’s in October because that’s when I first started blogging about reading, almost a decade ago — has some absolute slammers on the fiction side. Last year I didn’t even name a fiction book of the year. This year, if it wasn’t for one in particular, there’s be 4 or 5 smashing at it for joint Book. And in non-fiction the situation’s pretty similar, or even better, cos there’s barely a single non-fiction work I’ve read in the past 12 months that was anything less than well awesome. It’s also one of my least-read years, only 29 that I read and blogged (possibly a couple of others I’ve forgotten); definitely plenty of internet — I mean Rainbow Autobahn distraction in the last year, exacerbating my inability to focus on pages. I blamed my poor reading last year on that distraction as well, probably time to harden the fuck up and put away the internet.

Of those 29, only 10 were non-fiction; the remaining 19 non-fiction skewed more to fantasy than sci-fi, with around 7 works explicitly skiffy, 9 explicitly fantasy, and a trio (maybe more depending on how dogmatically I apply those categories) deftly straddling both. I call those Speculative Fuckery, ’cos I love when the only two genres I read start boning each other.

On the non-fiction side, mediæval Northern European history continues filling my shelves, and there’s a bunch of “not easily categorised on their own” which nevertheless fit predictably into my decades-long interests.

Then there’s the new, or maybe to say newly clarified bunch that I kinda want to call Islamicate Studies, though that might miss something, so it encompasses that, human rights, identity, philosophy, feminism, and is primarily from women from and/or writing on Iran, Near/Middle East (I’m a bit iffy on this appellation right now, and have been trying out ‘West Asia’ also because it shifts the centre and subject of focus out of Europe, dunno though), and people from or descended from those regions in Europe, North America, Australia. I arrived at this field of interconnected subjects after increasing dissatisfaction with how feminist/queer/left-ist writing addressed brown and/or Muslim identities; regarded these people living in Europe, North America, Australia; and when I spent some time thinking about how the diverse subjects I was reading needed to come together. Also it’s a lot of living in Berlin/Germany/Europe and getting increasingly pissed at the racism against anyone not unequivocally ethnically correct, and the white feminist/queer/left-ist bullshit distractions, and my own personal, slow movement towards identifying if not myself as Turkish/brown/West Asian/Muslim, then definitely my family history (as you can see from all the slashes, I have no idea).

Books! I have read them!

Fiction first. This was a fine year. If I hadn’t read Sofia Samatar’s A Stranger in Olondria, she’d still be my Fiction Book of the Year with The Winged Histories, though sharing with a few others. I don’t actually know how I would pick a book of the year from a pile comprised of that plus Jo Walton’s Necessity and The Philosopher Kings;  Jaymee Goh and Joyce Chng’s The Sea Is Ours; and Ann Leckie’s masterful finish to her debut Imperial Radch trilogy, Ancillary Mercy. Impossible. I would probably give it to the latter, but then … Necessity, a brilliant conclusion to another trilogy, and The Winged Histories: sublime. So I could possibly get it down to a trio of exceptional literature, but no further. Lucky then A Stranger in Orlondria saved me from that anguish.

I don’t want to say it’s ‘better’ any of those other three — though perhaps that’s the case when comparing it to The Winged Histories, which would lose its spot in the trio just as The Philosopher Kings does to Necessity. I think of the two Samatar has written it’s a more major work. If this is my final trio then, I’m not claiming one is better than another, simply A Stranger in Olondria has had a significant effect on me. Would that effect stand up under re-reading? How would that re-reading compare to one of Leckie’s trilogy? If I read them both back-to-back, what then would be my judgement? The best questions always involve more reading.

This is all anyway just writing from memory, how I remember a book made me feel. I’ve been thinking recently that eventually my memory of a book dissolves until it’s just feelings, colours, a glimpse of an image or two. It’s like sediment, like geology, layers upon layers of this.

A quartet of other books I liked a lot: Ada Palmer’s Too Like the Lightning, Genevieve Cogman’s The Masked City, K. T. Davies’ Breed, and Alastair Reynolds’ Revelation Space.

Breed was a romp of Oglaf proportions and probably the most fun I had this year. I wish she’d write more of this. Reynolds’ Revelation Space I read because I needed some hard operatic space sci-fi, and his Slow Bullets novella was a favourite of mine last year. This one was good enough for me to slog through the whole, uneven trilogy. I like him, but there’s a hopelessness in his work, like the heat death of the universe.

As with Reynolds, Genevieve Cogman is another whose previous works got me to read her latest. The Invisible Library, which I also read last year was well tasty. I was super excited to find she had this sequel — and OMG! Just like last time when I discovered The Masked City, she has a sequel to that! Excellent! The immediate result of me writing about my favourite books is I’m ordering more.

Ada Palmer’s Too Like the Lightning. Yeah, loved a lot. Glorious cover art, almost almost one of my first choices, but a few flaws in it, and the cliffhanger “Will bad things happen? Stay tuned for Book 2!” guaranteed to piss me right off. Please, don’t do that to me. I’ve paid for a story, not half a story. If your story’s too big for one book, then at least divide it in a way that doesn’t leave me hanging.

All of these authors I’ll read again (along with a score of others on my Have You Written A New Book Yet? list). I might be a bit crabby here and there about the works, but I also possess a modicum of self-awareness that I’m a pretty fucking demanding reader. The authors and works above if you’re into sci-fi / fantasy (or if you’re not) are about as good as it gets. Not just for this year, but of everything I’ve read in the last 12 years or so. (And just wait for next year’s Books of the Decade! It’s gonna be hectic!)

Non-fiction!

I didn’t read much of this in the last year, but I lucked out here too, barely a dud among them (and that single one was an old book I realised I’d never finished), running out of superlatives here.

I tried to broaden my non-fiction reading a little again, move outside the clag of mediæval history. So I read Amy Shira Teitel’s Breaking the Chains of Gravity: The Story of Spaceflight before NASA, Julie Phillips’ James Tiptree, Jr.: The Double Life of Alice B. Sheldon, and Jo Walton’ What Makes This Book So Great. All excellent works in completely different ways, and which remind me I need to read more astronomy, astrophysics, and geology this year.

The Book of the Year though — and I’m forcing myself to pick only one — comes from another trio: Kathryn Babayan and  Afsaneh Najmabadi’s Islamicate Sexualities: Translations Across Temporal Geographies of Desire; Seyla Benhabib’s The Rights of Others: Aliens, Residents, and Citizens; and Svetlana Alexievich’s Zinky Boys: Soviet Voices from the Afghanistan War.

Svetlana Alexievich was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature last year, in no small part for her writing on the Soviet occupation and war in Afghanistan. Her writing is chilling. Heart-rending. I even said Zinky Boys would be my Book of the Year. Pretty sure I said the same thing about Seyla Benhabib’s The Rights of Others. In truth I shouldn’t pick one over the other, except that Babayan and Najmabadi’s Islamicate Sexualities somehow is tying all this together, mediæval history, human rights, feminism, identity, migration, religion, and it’s so urgently pertinent to the slow stumbling back to the abyss Europe is currently taking. Read them all, or at least familiarise yourself with the writers.

Other books well worth reading: Kecia Ali’s Sexual Ethics in Islam: Feminist Reflections on Qur’an, Hadith, and Jurisprudence. Mediæval of course: Miri Rubin’s Emotion and Devotion: The Meaning of Mary in Medieval Religious Cultures, and Gude Suckale-Redlefsen’s Mauritius Der heilige Mohr / The Black Saint Maurice.

And that’s my reading for the last 12 months. As if I’m not sated and replete already, I’ve already got a pile of new stuff.

Reading is a great privilege. It’s not however, explicitly a human right. Article 26 i. and 27 i. of the UN Declaration of Human Rights either directly imply or by extrapolation intend reading as a human right, yet nowhere is it explicitly stated that reading comprehension or literacy, and the opportunity to gain this ability is a right. Perhaps I’m splitting hairs, yet I can interpret the UNDHR in a way that fulfils the letter of declaration while still populating my dictatorship with illiterate proles.

My ability to read, at the level I do, at the frequency, my ability to critically consider the works I read (with or without concomitant swearing), to write about them here, to discuss them with others, all this is a privilege. And I mean that in the sense of a special honour. And that necessitates obligation.

Rather than continuing blabbing, I’ll quote myself, first from 2013 and then from last year:

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!

And:

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.

Reading: Sofia Samatar — A Stranger in Olondria

How do you write to an author? To an artist? A fan letter? How do you say, “Your writing or music or dance or theatre has such a profound effect on me, I must put it in words to you”? And here they are, those words. And if you wait too long, the moment passes — or they die (Lemmy, Iain Banks, I’m looking at you). And if the moment hasn’t passed, what do you say? Do they need to read another more-of-the-same? Does a letter create an obligation? They’ve already written a book and now, what? They have to write a reply?

Fan letters. Frances overthinks them.

Here’s a fan letter:

Dear Sofia Samatar,

A Stranger in Olondria. I can’t find words to describe it. I liked it — I loved it so much I drunk words and pages until nothing was left. I saw its cover on my shelf last night and was so excited to continue reading, then remembered I’d already finished. I can see the story like a memory. I’ve already read The Winged Histories. I read it before this. Please don’t stop writing. No one writes like you. No one I’ve read, anyway. Maybe you’ve read writers who bring worlds to you like this, and maybe your writing carries traces of them. Maybe you write for them also. I feel like I’m eavesdropping on a conversation.

And then I run out of things to say, feel I haven’t said anything except on my own illiteracy, wish I could just write something like, “Yeah, Sofia, mate! Awesome book!” in a way that was neither inane nor self-consciously bogan.

I probably wouldn’t say:

Yeah, I was a little iffy on the cover—

Why were you iffy about the cover, Frances? Well, cos it’s a guy and as well it looked kinda a bit Young Adult, neither of which are grounds for me not reading, just wasn’t quite convinced I’d be into it. Plus I quite like the cover now.

So, yeah, a little unfairly iffy on the cover, and the effusive praise all over the place, cos usually that doesn’t pan out. I know, right? How wrong was I! The cover of The Winged Histories though, same artist, same style, but a woman, riding on a fucking gigantic bird! 100% would buy, totes dug that, hence read it first, only a couple of months ago. Loved Tav, and something in it caught and kept pulling at me, my day dreams wandered to the dry ground of Kestenya. I can’t describe it. It’s like a story I believe.

It’s like a story I know. I don’t know this story. I feel like now I know this story, I’ve always known part of it.

Not sure I’m anywhere near fan letter mode anymore.

I wasn’t so keen on the main character being a guy at first. Just not so into reading bro’s right now. Turns out it’s the story of a young woman, he’s just there to tell her story. Plus he’s not bad, I kinda like him, especially how cashed up and DTF he is with the Bain locals. He’s there so we can travel from his homeland to Olondria and see the land, we see through him, and if there’s a memory of anything, it’s of the land, of warm island villages, then ocean, then a city like a colossus like paradise, of the roughness of travelling, of climates shifting northwards, cooler, losing their heat and bright intensity, of forests, hills becoming mountains, closing in, and coming to a standstill at the edge of desert, land flat and empty, dressed in winter, drained of colour and light. And then to return, one full circle.

Let’s try fan letter mode again, to finish up:

Dear Sofia,

I loved A Stranger in Orlondria so much I’m embarrassing myself here.

Sofia Samatar — A Stranger in Olondria
Sofia Samatar — A Stranger in Olondria

Reading: Kathryn Babayan, Afsaneh Najmabadi (Eds.) — Islamicate Sexualities: Translations Across Temporal Geographies of Desire

Afsaneh Najmabadi is one of my favourite writers. My first encounter with her was two years ago with Women with Mustaches and Men without Beards: Gender and Sexual Anxieties of Iranian Modernity. 2013 Book of the Year for me. That same year, she published Professing Selves: Transsexuality and Same-Sex Desire in Contemporary Iran, which I read last year. Book of the Year again. Obviously I’d have Islamicate Sexualities: Translations Across Temporal Geographies of Desire, edited by her and Kathryn Babayan, at the top of my reading list. It’s been on my shelf a few weeks now, one of that pile I collected when I sold off the bollocks. I started it a couple of times, got diverted into other books, made a diligent foray into the first part over breakfast and you wanna talk about books you can’t put down? This is it.

I was rewriting my biography last week, amazing how many hours can be spent on 240 words. I realised that it’s been a while since Central Asia, specifically Afghanistan, has been one of the foci of my studies. China’s still there, mediæval northern European / germanic history has sprung from nowhere to rout swathes of interests, as has Islamic history.

A big one right there, “Islamic History”. What does that even mean? Well, my interests in China did and do have a component that’s concerned with the borders, not China proper, occupied China, whatever we might agree in the future is the term for Tibet, Xinjiang, even the provinces like Guangdong and others, which could be regarded as discrete countries, and in that Islam plays a role, either in Xinjiang as the eastern-most region of Central Asia, or in Guangdong as the port on trade routes that saw significant Muslim presence. Then there’s my Central Asian / Afghanistan interest, obviously Islamic (as well as Buddhist and others), which in the past few years has slid more consciously over into an interest in Iran, thanks in no small amount to Najmabadi. And then there’s whatever is in Berlin, which reaches out to Germany, and across Europe. A history of any of these is inextricable from a history of people who also happened to be Muslim, whether immigrants, descendants of immigrants, or locals (not sure how long you have to be a descendant for before you’re a local; that’s the conversation we’re having right now).

So I’m vaguely defining my current interests and studies as Northern European & Germanic mediæval, Islamic, and Chinese history, with an emphasis on women’s roles and representation. Which sounds like a whole tanker of “What the Fuck?” but if there’s one thing I do even if I don’t consciously trust my doing, it’s have seemingly wildly divergent interests that are in actual fact deeply intertwined. (And yes, my love of hoonage is not incommensurable with this.) And it’s people like Najmabadi and books like Islamicate Sexualities that help me understand this.

And what a book. If the quality of a book can be measured by the number of works mentioned which go onto my Must Buy! Ned Cash 4 Bookz list, this one will bankrupt me.

I was watching the première of Pitch on the weekend. It’s a Fox TV series about a young black woman who becomes the first woman to play for a Major League baseball team; a serious drama marketing campaign equivalent of the “You Never Lamb Alone” ad (“What’s the best thing about diversity? Everything!”). I have zero interest in baseball, but there I was watching it when for a split second the camera cuts to close-up pan the grandstands and it’s totally “What’s the best thing about diversity? Everything!” cos there’s a woman standing wearing a long white hijab in a crowd that’s multicultural as fuck. I don’t know if this is representative of an average baseball crowd, my feeling (informed only by unintentional slopping around the edges of US sports culture)  is that American baseball has one of the whiter sports audiences, not NASCAR, but over that end of the spectrum. What that image is about is desire — even if it’s primarily driven by marketing and money. In combination with casting a black woman as a rookie Major League player, it says, “We see you and we want you here.” And again, even if this is cravenly driven by money, we see ourselves in this and once we are visible, we can decide how to interpret our image. And if we don’t see ourselves, we’re nothing.

And how, Frances, does this relate to Islamicate Sexualities? Same weekend, watching the second episode of High Maintenance where the first story is about a young South Asian student living in Brooklyn with her religious aunt and uncle, negotiating that while wanting to get blazed on the roof. The first essay, also the introduction goes between Orientalism, homo-nationalism, queer colonialism, mediæval history, post-colonial theory, to sketch out a broad proposal for how we might talk about sexualities, and by extension identities, for people living in and coming from Islamicate regions, cultures, and/or backgrounds. And talking about ourselves, not being talked about.

Somewhere recently I said I was only interested in reading works coming from this perspective, that the issues and questions around desire, identity, self and community would only find partial, incomplete answers in feminism/queer/whatever we’re currently calling it that was located within an Anglo-Euro-American (throw in Australasian) historical frame of reference, a reference that’s inherently white. Or to put it another way, we’re not going to find an answer to colonialism from colonialists. This is something I think has become unambiguous from living in Europe and Germany, where not only is there an unwillingness to regard immigrants of how ever many generations distant as ‘German’, we’re not even at the point of admitting this a fundamental problem. My reading of works like Katherine Pratt Ewing’s Stolen Honor: Stigmatizing Muslim Men in Berlin, and Ruth Mandel’s Cosmopolitan Anxieties: Turkish Challenges to Citizenship and Belonging in Germany played a big part in beginning to understand this and formulate my thinking, as did more recently Seyla Benhabib’s The Rights of Others: Aliens, Residents, and Citizens. I’m reading writers like these substantially because they’re the only ones prepared to address these issues.

Islamicate Sexualities was published in 2008, emerging from a seminar held in 2003. That’s a generation, a lifetime ago, the seminar a few months older than 4Chan; the book barely younger than tumblr. Yeah, I’m talking about 4Chan and tumblr. If you want to understand how transgender/transsexual/trans people (I mean trans women here) and identities came over the last few years (call it a decade) to where they are now, places like these (along with LiveJournal, and probably MySpace, but that’s all been lost) are critical. And how fast this is moving means a book like this is going to miss a huge part of the conversation as much as it retroactively informs and predicts. (And as for why our part of the conversation is only recently tipped the queer/cool meter, that’s the history of Anglo-Euro-American feminism/queer right there.) I’ve barely read the first part, so I’m not pre-emptively criticising it here, just pointing out its age, how things have changed in eight years, and what that might mean for a prospective reader.

Kathryn Babayan, Afsaneh Najmabadi (Eds.) — Islamicate Sexualities: Translations Across Temporal Geographies of Desire
Kathryn Babayan, Afsaneh Najmabadi (Eds.) — Islamicate Sexualities: Translations Across Temporal Geographies of Desire

Reading: Jo Walton — Necessity

Necessity, the final part of Jo Walton’s superb The Just City, trilogy about which I’ve already dealt to part one, The Just City and part two, The Philosopher Kings, and I stand by whatever bollocks I wrote then: finest fucking trilogy out, right here.

Part three: The Just City in spaaaace! On a planet called Plato. Why yes, Jo Walton is still trolling magnificently. I have only read the first pages, Apollo is dead, returned to immortality, and so does the Olympian deity equivalent of an evening binge-watching for a few million years by hanging out in stellar nurseries as they go thermonuclear.

There’s very, very little Jo Walton could do to have me come out the other end of 331 pages and not be calling this Book of the Year, and one of the best series I’ve ever read, fighting Ann Leckie’s Imperial Radch for trilogy I can’t enthuse over enough. Excitement beyond excellence! I want to gorge on its entirety now.

Jo Walton — Necessity
Jo Walton — Necessity