I’ve been pronouncing his name, Me-eh-ville. Rolled into one. Meyeahville. Paul in St. George’s—who is a Brit—says, Maiville. Either way, one of my books of the year.
This is lazy-quick blogging. Fuck I love China Miéville. Even when I only read his books once—most of them at any rate. Short stories, I’m not such a fan of. Most of these though are subperb, and some are brilliant, horrible genius. I’ve had a selfish want for him to write proper hard sci-fi space opera skiffy, to dispense with his grime fantasy, and he does! And it’s glorious. Should be a whole book, not just six pages. (That’d be The Rope is the World.) Finished the whole thing over a week of breakfasts.
Caveats first: stupidly forgot to charge camera battery, so I missed the last two or three scenes. Camera also suffers in low or high-contrast theatre light situations, so these are mostly ones with without either, without fast movement, mainly still-ish scenes, occasionally where camera made the unexpected most of it, in a couple of moments catching the stillness in frenzy. And then there were a whole bunch that were just framed shitely. The remaining ones here are not exactly representative of the whole piece is what I’m saying.
Second seeing for me of Das Helmi’s Große Vögel, kleine Vögel, a fucking brilliant staging of Pasolini’s Uccellacci e uccellini. I was thinking of Castorf’s Kaputt after, which I saw at the Volksbühne in December, 5 hours of monolithic, unrelenting, angry Berlin theatre, not a shred of irony or entertainment, I left that piece at midnight, utterly exhilarated and ready to see the whole thing again and after this one I thought, between the ’bühne and the Helmis, Berlin has theatre nailed.
Große Vögel, kleine Vögel is much closer to entertainment, though kinda like Jim Carrey playing Andy Kaufmann in Man on the Moon, where he does the Carnegie Hall gigs, or when he says of entertaining the audience, “short of faking my own death or setting the theater on fire, I don’t know what else to do.”
Also was thinking of Castorf-Brecht Baal legal drama (the latter’s estate trying to shut down the production; the former calling the latter, “passé and absurd.”), and what the Helmis did to Pasolini’s film, and with both of them—I mean, what do you expect? I also thought, God (yeah, I actually asked God), why is Berlin dance so dreary and complete soul-sucking joyless bilge, why can’t it be like Castorf or the Helmis, why can’t it leave you feeling like you’ve totalled your car and you’re all laughing and feeling more alive than ever and invincible ’cos you walked out of certain death? (Even though you’re bleeding a little from your scalp.)
It’s fucking brilliant. Did I say that? Yup, I said that. Not long enough. It’s around 80 minutes and doesn’t feel it at all. There’s singing and dancing and songs and St Francis and talking birds, talking rabbits, talking other animals, gay love, more gay love, Pasolini looking sharp in a suit and Pasolini with a monster beer gut, guns, money, fucking, running, spitting, football (soccer, you know, the other football), a whole scene of Jesus coming down off the cross done as a film shoot, the Red Detachment of Women with fouettés! (I went off and watched some to remind myself of how gloriously Mao Tse-tung Thought Cultural Revolution it was. Glorious.) More songs, more St Francis, more birds, killing and eating the crow (probably had it coming), more Marxism, some whipping and bondage also, and a really unexpectedly calm, contemplative ending. Probably worth seeing a third time, says I who’ve seen now seven of their works. And! And! An ensemble who crush it! They sing (yeah probably worked that out), they dance, they play multiple roles, they play multiple instruments, they play with puppets, they make puppets, they are puppets, they go from dirty, spitting street toughs to Descent from the Cross and you believe it all. And they do it in that delightful Helmi way where it’s on the sharp edge of chaos, like they’re gonna catastrophically derail and take the audience out with them. It’s a fucking masterpiece.
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.
Normally something by China Miéville will be ingested by me in a matter of a couple of evenings. This one however, I’ve started three or four times, before putting it aside for more pleasurable books. So I begin again. Between Equal Rights – A Marxist Theory of International Law is exactly what the title says. No Bas-Lag here.
Why would I read such a thing? International law isn’t exactly an obvious fit with my other non-fiction reading, and as for Marx … he’s as wrong as Freud. A statement which I wanted to be able to elaborate on a little more, hence reading this. As for the international law, I think to some degree this underlies all my interest in China, East Asia and Central Asia; the history of how these places became countries with defined borders is one of imperialism then (messily) transitioning to a kind of jurisprudence.
But Marx. I’m finding Emma Goldman’s Anarchism useful for pointing out succinctly some of my problems with the bearded man. I tend to think that Marxism always devolves to some form of revolutionary dictatorship, with the commensurate suffering that goes with both revolutions and dictatorships. And even if this were not the case, as a system based on dialectical materialism, it is wrong from its very foundations.
As for that last thing, dialectical materialism, Miéville starts in the introduction by declaring unambiguously that this is the correct model, and this entire work of critiquing international law is done through this framework. In my currently anarchist-ascendent tendencies (I’m not really, but I do prefer it over any other socio-political philosophy), wherein I think quite seriously and neither idealistically or utopian that the end of the nation-state is highly desirable for the vast majority of humanity and all that isn’t human, reading Marx is an exercise in patience.
Luckily, Miéville is an excellent writer of both fiction and international law, and despite my snail-like pace, I’m finding it a very worthwhile and enjoyable read.