Reading: China Miéville — October: The Story of the Russian Revolution

I was not expecting a new China Miéville book, nor was I expecting — if one existed — it would be non-fiction. That the subject is the Russian Revolution, however, doesn’t surprise me at all.

This is one of those books that went from “I do not know this book,” to “This book is ready to be picked up from your favourite bookstore,” in about a week. Doesn’t matter that Russian history is not really my thing (exceptions for Russia and the Soviet Union in Central Asia and the Caucasus, or interacting with communist China), nor that communism in general leaves a bad taste in my mouth, it’s China Miéville, and I will always read him — yes, even his Between Equal Rights – A Marxist Theory of International Law, which gave me none of the pleasure his fiction does, even if I do read the latter for the politics.

October: The Story of the Russian Revolution has a super fine cover, very Russian Constructivism (shoutout to brilliant artist Andrea Guinn for this). I said to Paul in St George’s, “Nice cover!” ’cos it’s true, and I do rate books by their covers. And it’s hardback, so it’s an all-round fine reading experience on the corporeal level. I should probably start a Cover of the Year thing too, to go with my fiction and non-fiction books of the year. I think I shall. Come October (heh) when I do my yearly round-up, I’m gonna enthuse wildly over cover art. There’s been some bangers this year, but October might be the one.

Not all about cover art though, Frances, what’d you read? A book marking 100 years since the Russian Revolution covering the year of 1917 from January to October, one chapter per month, the initial chapter a succinct history of Russia and St. Petersberg leading into that first month, and finishing on a short, critical epilogue. Additionally, a Glossary of Personal Names (so many names; so many acronyms), and a Further Reading section, plus an Index, some maps of St. Petersburg — at the time called Petrograd, and a central sheaf of photos. It is a story. Miéville says so himself in his introduction, he is telling the story of historical events as a story-teller, and not so much as a historian or academic. Nonetheless, because he is a formidable story-teller, erudite, and indeed a specialist on Marxism and history, he writes a captivating and lucid narration of those months.

He says also, in the introduction, “… I am partisan. In the story that follows, I have my villains and my heroes. But, while I do not pretend to be neutral, I have striven to be fair, and I hope readers of various political hues will find value in this telling.” Being partisan then, I have little interest in Marxism as a political philosophy, nor Marx the man, nor do I have much beyond scorn for Lenin and the Revolution, all of which are the habitat of loud, white, European men telling the rest of us how we need to listen to them, and that none of their failures fall on Marxism because hand-waving reasons. Miéville skates along the edge of this in his epilogue, giving some legitimate reasons for why things went the way they did in concise and graspable sentences, yet I still feel Marxists protest too much. “If only ‘x’ hadn’t happened, or ‘y’ had done ‘z’, we’d all be living in communist paradise,” is what my acutely cynical and partisan sensibility takes away from this. Which is to say, that I read October at all is because I think Miéville is a fine writer, a favourite for over a decade, with a sharp political mind, even if he is some kind of Marxist.

There are a lot of men in this history. Lenin, Trotsky, Stalin, Bolsheviks, Monarchists, the Whites, others, it’s the easiest thing to write entire histories of the Revolution and never venture outside men. I appreciate that Miéville makes explicit effort to include the women and women’s organisations who were critical, women like Angelica Balabanoff, Maria Bochkareva, Catherine Breshko-Breshkovskaya, Alexandra Kollontai, Nadezhda Krupskaya, Maria Spiridonova , Ludmila Stahl, Vera Zasulich, all of whom get a mention in the Glossary. He also devotes pages to the All-Russian Muslim Women’s Congress (which I quoted here, and is probably worth buying the book for this alone), the Jadadist movement, the Muslim National Committee, the Union of Soviet Muslims.

A quick aside here about the All-Russian Muslim Women’s Congress, which I ended up tweeting about. The primary source for this, which Miéville includes in the Further Reading section (and I didn’t see at the time, so went off on my own fun research wandering, leading me to the same place), is Marianne Kamp’s paper Debating Sharia: the 1917 Muslim Women’s Congress in Russia, published in Journal of Women’s History, Vol. 27, No. 4, Winter 2015, available to read online.

Over the ten months and chapters of October, the story moves from the lightless and frozen days of deep winter to the heat and endless sun of summer back into grey and dim rain and snow. Time condenses. The first chapter covers centuries then decades, then years and months, then January; October reduces that to hours and parts of nights on single days. History rushes, then rushes again, finishing at 5am on the 26th, as dawn touches the night. We are left with an epilogue that stretches time back out, years and decades, as the Revolution grinds itself and the continent into autocracy.

I was wondering how to finish this. I wanted to say something like, “If you love China Miéville’s fiction, you’ll love this,” ’cos in many ways his novels are explorations of revolution, but that feels kinda glib. It’s more like this: If you love his novels like Embassytown, Kraken, or his Bas-Lag stories, Between Equal Rights will make you cry — unless you’re already partial to reading International Law, and you may or may not get a kick out of October, ’cos it’s non-fiction and non-fiction Miéville is a different writer from fiction Miéville however much he is telling a story here. But if Iron Council or Railsea are up in your Miéville faves, October will fit right in: It’s all about trains.

China Miéville — October: The Story of the Russian Revolution
China Miéville — October: The Story of the Russian Revolution

Quote

The All-Russian meeting of Muslims, called for by …

The All-Russian meeting of Muslims, called for by Muslim Duma deputies immediately after the February revolution, was fast approaching — but before this, on 23 April, delegates gathered in Kazan in Tatarstan for the All-Russian Muslim Women’s Congress. There, fifty-nine women delegates met before an audience 300 strong, overwhelmingly female, to debate issues including the status of Sharia law, plural marriage, women’s rights and the hijab. Contributions came from a range of political and religious positions, from socialists like Zulaykha Rahmanqulova and the twenty-two-year-old poet Zahida Burnasheva, as well as from the religious scholars Fatima Latifiya and Labiba Huseynova, an expert on Islamic law.

Delegates debated whether Quranic injunctions were historically specific. Even many proponents of trans-historical orthodoxy interpreted the texts to insist, against conservative voices, that women had the right to attend mosque, or that polygyny was only permitted — a crucial caveat — if it was “just”; that is, with the permission of the first wife. Unsatisfied when the gathering approved that progressive–traditionalist position on plural marriage, the feminists and socialists mandated three of their number, including Burnasheva, to attend the All-Russian Muslim Conference in Moscow the next month, to put their alternative case against polygyny.

The conference passed ten principles, including women’s right to vote, the equality of the sexes, and the non-compulsory nature of the hijab. The centre of gravity of the discussions was clearly Jadidist, or further left. A symptom of tremulous times.

October: the story of the Russian Revolution, China Miéville

Quote

The scale of the Third Front was staggering, as ab…

The scale of the Third Front was staggering, as about 1,800 factories were set up in the hinterland to prepare for war. As one scholar has noted, since about two-thirds of the state’s industrial investment went to the project between 1964 and 1971, it constituted the main economic policy of the Cultural Revolution. […] It is probably the biggest example of wasteful capital allocation made by a one-party state in the twentieth century. In terms of economic development, it was a disaster second only to the Great Leap Forward.

The Cultural Revolution: A People's History, 1962–1976, Frank Dikötter

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.

Isabelle Schad’s Collective Jumps at GarageMCA in Moscow

Isabelle’s astonishing Collective Jumps, which premiered at HAU end-2014 (really?! So long ago!) and has since been restaged multiple times on variously sized groups elsewhere in Germany, in Poland, France, pretty sure other places too, is right now getting its legs up in Moscow at GarageMCA. So, you’re in Moscow on Friday evening, June 3rd, obviously you’re going to go and see it.

The SOTA@GARAGE performance festival opens with a performance-installation by German choreographer Isabelle Schad and artist Laurent Goldring.

In their performance Collective Jumps—which first took place on November 28, 2014 at the HAU Hebbel am Ufer theater center in Berlin—Schad and Goldring explore the phenomenon of collective actions. Turning to unifying contemporary dance practices that reject representation, they explore the relationship between freedom and form, and examine the actions of a collective body as a form of resistance.

Together with SOTA@GARAGE students, Schad and Goldring will create a two-hour-long performance-installation in Garage’s space.

The SOTA@GARAGE performance festival will take place at Garage and on Garage Square from June 3 to June 5.

SOTA@GARAGE Performance Festival

Isabelle Schad: Collective Jumps — 2
Isabelle Schad: Collective Jumps — 2
Isabelle Schad: Collective Jumps — 4
Isabelle Schad: Collective Jumps — 4
Isabelle Schad: Collective Jumps — 5
Isabelle Schad: Collective Jumps — 5
Isabelle Schad: Collective Jumps — 8
Isabelle Schad: Collective Jumps — 8
Isabelle Schad: Collective Jumps — 10
Isabelle Schad: Collective Jumps — 10

Reading: Svetlana Alexievich — Zinky Boys: Soviet Voices from the Afghanistan War

Book of the year. Right here. There will be none better.

A few months ago, Svetlana Alexievich won the Nobel Prize in Literature. I’d never heard of her—not so unusual for me—saw her name in passing on the Russian, Central Asian, Afghanistan blogs I follow, thought, yeah, cool, woman winning for a change, didn’t really pause to read more until I saw Afghanistan mentioned, then found she’d written this: Zinky Boys: Soviet Voices from the Afghanistan War.

Most of my reading on Afghanistan has been either pre-1978 coup and Soviet occupation or post that plus Taliban thrills (who were real money makers for analysts and pundits for about ten years until Da’esh came along). The decade of the proxy war, from which Afghanistan and the Middle East are still suffering, has been only the subject of two books I’ve read: Rodric Braithwaite’s Afgantsy: The Russians in Afghanistan, 1979–89, and now Alexievich’s stunning Zinky Boys.

They’re called Zinky Boys because the teenage heroes come back from the land where the Soviet Union is certainly not waging a war in sealed zinc caskets to be buried at night without ceremony.

I can’t do justice to this work. A relentless, measured documentation of suffering, loss, lies, the devastation of a generation, of imperial arrogance and stupidity that brought about its own demise, that discarded used up and broken bodies barely older than children, and as those very same colonial nations now almost fifteen years into the most recent occupation and war in Afghanistan begin yet another barely disguised proxy war in Syria, after all the unending chaos Europe, the British, Americans and their fiefdoms have instigated from Hindu Kush to Maghreb, this is the history to read. This is what we have to look forward to, this is what we are complicit in. All of us. These are the same lies being told for a fifth decade. It’s all here. There’s nothing new to find in the current wars, there won’t be a different outcome this time.

The writing, voices of young soldiers, the wounded, mothers, nurses, officers, conscripted and volunteers, it’s a recital, a judgement. Through the pages of this slim book they become one, each story unique and individual, and each the same. I can’t praise the writing highly enough. It occurs to me the closest is one of Liao Yiwu’s works, maybe The Corpse Walker.

It was only because I saw Afghanistan mentioned that I paused. I’m not much of a Nobel Laureate fan, many of the awards are political choices, and of the authors I have read or have read about, very few are indeed of the brilliance the award is supposed to confer. Of the Chinese winners, Gao Xingjian has nothing on Liao Yiwu, and Mo Yan is rubbish, as a person and a writer. But occasionally—Samuel Beckett and Henri Bergson of the writers I know—politics or no, the author is that outstanding, their contributions unique. Svetlana Alexievich, who I so easily could have missed, is that, and is the equal of Beckett and Bergson. And if you’re not moved to anger and tears through these pages, if your dreams aren’t troubled, there’s no hope for you.

Svetlana Alexievich — Zinky Boys: Soviet Voices from the Afghanistan War
Svetlana Alexievich — Zinky Boys: Soviet Voices from the Afghanistan War

Gallery

Jekaterina Sadur “Insel der Glückseligen oder Berlin für die Russen” Roter Salon Volksbühne

Thursday night in Roter Salon, Volksbühne. Next door on the main stage, Castorf is running through his usual multiple hours of dress rehearsal for Die Brüder Karamasow, something to see next week. In the salon, a trio of actors and a pair of musicians performing Jekaterina Sadur’s Insel der Glückseligen oder Berlin für die Russen. There’s a hidden Das Helmi crossover here: the artwork hanging from Felix Loycke, the actors Ludmila Skripkina and Dasniya Sommer, all have performed with the Helmis.

I’m there to stick a video camera at everything, and to photograph—very out of practice with photographing theatre right now—and obviously because I’m a fangirl of both Dasniya and the Helmis, and schlep myself to pretty much everything the do.

Reading … A 6th Anniversary

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.

Charles King – The Ghost of Freedom: A History of the Caucasus
Charles King – The Ghost of Freedom: A History of the Caucasus
Iain Banks — Raw Spirit
Iain Banks — Raw Spirit
bell hooks — Feminist Theory From Margin to Center
bell hooks — Feminist Theory From Margin to Center
Ruth Mandel – Cosmopolitan Anxieties: Turkish Challenges to Citizenship and Belonging in Germany
Ruth Mandel – Cosmopolitan Anxieties
Afsaneh Najmabadi — Women with Mustaches and Men without Beards
Afsaneh Najmabadi — Women with Mustaches and Men without Beards
Mike Searle — Colliding Continents
Mike Searle — Colliding Continents
Iain M. Banks — Feersum Endjinn
Iain M. Banks — Feersum Endjinn
Terry Pratchett – The Amazing Maurice and His Educated Rodents
Terry Pratchett – The Amazing Maurice and His Educated Rodents
Hannu Rajaniemi — The Fractal Prince
Hannu Rajaniemi — The Fractal Prince
The Broken Seals: The Marshes of Mount Liang Part 1
The Broken Seals: The Marshes of Mount Liang Part 1
Saladin Ahmed – Throne of the Crescent Moon
Saladin Ahmed – Throne of the Crescent Moon
Charles Stross — Neptune's Brood
Charles Stross — Neptune’s Brood
Iain M. Banks — The Hydrogen Sonata
Iain M. Banks — The Hydrogen Sonata

Reading: Charles King – The Ghost of Freedom: A History of the Caucasus

The space between where China is squeezed out into the ocean between Japan and Philippines to the east and Europe to the west – particularly that mysterious place north of the Himalayas was once a blank for me on any map. I had no idea what countries were there, though had heard of the Gobi, and other seductive, beguiling, antique places of the Orient. Thanks to a chapter from Deleuze, I embarked on a reading spree of the history of the Steppe, Central Asia, China, the ~stans, all that, the geology of Baltistan, high-altitude farming in Wakhan, so so very much of China – more than a lifetime could be given to just one province (Guangdong, for example).

In these years since I first began reading, more than fifteen, though with a long pause after I graduated until I suppose around the time of that stale-smoke tainted copy of Louis Dupree’s Afghanistan in 2008, my reading has often been erratic over whatever topic has snagged me, countered by a ‘filling-in-the-gaps’ process of which I seem to be in at the moment.

First, Iran. Afsaneh Najmabadi’s Women with Mustaches and Men Without Beards, which is going to be one of my books of the year, that is introducing me to Iran, a country I know not so much about as most of my encounters are either mediated by Afghanistan or via millennia-old history. And from there, a chance remark by languagehat in the comments led me to Charles King’s The Ghost of Freedom: A History of the Caucasus. About which I can say not much except he speaks highly of the author. Elsewhere I’ve seen mixed opinions, so I am approaching this as a book that might inform me of the author as much as the subject.

Still, the Caucasus. Besides the strife of the last decades – much like Afghanistan in terms of the majority of what’s written on the region – I know very little about this mountainous finger of land splitting Black from Caspian Seas. I did once read a piece on enclaves and exclaves in the Caucasus … Consider this the beginning of a new education.

Charles King – The Ghost of Freedom: A History of the Caucasus
Charles King – The Ghost of Freedom: A History of the Caucasus

Reading: James Palmer — The Bloody White Baron

This is one that fell into my reading list in a couple of disparate but connected ways. The first, or rather more direct, being the author James Palmer, is also responsible for Heaven Cracks, Earth Shakes: The Tangshan Earthquake and the Death of Mao’s China, which is on my upcoming reading list. The second, but chronologically earlier (as in read before, though published after The Baron) is Charles Stross.

Science-fiction to insane White Russian nobility seeped in revolution-era apocalyptic Buddhism? Well, it all started in the Laundry, and to paraphrase somewhat, … Eldritch Abominations, the Wall of Pain on the dead plateau wherein the Sleeper lies imprisoned in the pyramid, CASE NIGHTMARE GREEN, the Eater of Souls, “Stop Teapot … Before he makes tea.”

(I have a feeling I’ll be reading The Fuller Memorandum again shortly.)

And we do meet Teapot. And he is making tea.

Back in the slightly more real world, The Bloody White Baron is the biography of one Freiherr Roman Nikolai Maximillian Ungern von Sternberg, of Baltic-German noble descent who found his way through life with such an unfailing fondness for brutality (he would take walks in the fields around his battles, littered with bones and butchered corpses fed upon by wolves and carrion birds, because he found it peaceful and calming), and ripened with a demented, anti-Semitic, Buddhist shamanism, that the character Charlie grows from the real Ungern and places in a Lovecraftian universe of horror from other dimensions doesn’t seem so unlikely at all.

The actual book is more in the line of Peter Hopkirk, slightly sensationalist but rollicking-good story of Central Asian and far-East Orientalism adventurism in the last days of Empire, which is to say despite the endnotes, this is more a generalist work than my usual tendencies towards academic-ish texts.

Not to imply this isn’t well-researched (as far as I can tell; Russia and north of Tien Shan not being a region I know much about) and James does a commendable job of balancing the hysterical complexity of multiple falling empires, revolutionary nationalists, upstart imperialists, straggling enclaves and exclaves of the former, and various Mongolian and Steppe groups and religious powers all variously forming shifting alliances and slaughtering each other.

I was often reminded, during reading this (yes, I’ve already finished, so this is a quasi-/crypto-review) the similarities between eastern Europe and eastern Siberia, Mongolia and the Steppe; both being ground underfoot repeatedly by advancing and routed ideologies, and both to this day having their histories unwritten, commensurate to say, Germany or China. As he points out in the epilogue, exactly what happened to Mongolian Buddhism in the ’20s and ’30s under Soviet-led or -inspired communism happened in Tibet under Mao. The difference being the latter is something Brad Pitt gets banned permanently from China for (I watched Seven Years in Tibet last night as a distraction), whereas the former is a footnote.

James Palmer — The Bloody White Baron
James Palmer — The Bloody White Baron