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.

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.

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.

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Reading … a 4th anniversary

Another year of books. Not as many as last year; I took a pause for some time, unable to find a rhythm with all that I had to read, and at other times I was too impoverished to acquire even the most insignificant on my want-list.

There are familiar names again — thinking here of science-fiction, ones I know I will buy whenever a new something arrives from them, whose publication dates I note down and await with increasing excitement. New names also, whose discovery has caused much pleasure.

Changes also. When I first began this documenting of whatever I’d opened to the first page, I explicitly chose not to say anything, not to review or write any words — except in very rare cases when moved to do so. I didn’t and don’t want to be in the thrall of feeling obliged to write a review or criticism. What did change though, was to write some paragraphs about how a particular book came to be discovered or acquired; why I was reading, or about to read it.

For me, this seems to give a slight sense of completeness that just posting the title and author, along with the cover didn’t quite manage. Especially also as there have been some books this year which I’ve felt very happy to have begun.

As with last year, I’ll start with the disappointments. Last year it was William Gibson; this year, Neal Stephenson. Reamde could have been exquisite, if it had been anything comparable to the Baroque Trilogy. Instead it was tired, riddled with clichés, endless hyperventilating over gun-tech and battles … It’s the kind of book that would appeal to a specific North American white hetero male type, who is still angry at the (perceived or real) slaps in the face from Islamic terrorists, Russian Mafia, United States government, Chinese in general … In the same way the content and premise of the book read as though it should have been published six years ago, this type fails to realise the rest of the world doesn’t really care about him or find much interesting in his self-absorbed world-view. A pity, because Stephenson’s writing can be beautiful, yet there was scant substance here; nothing that inspired me to turn over new thoughts.

Last year said much the same about William Gibson, with the caveat that I would nonetheless likely read him again. This year, when there are so many truly brilliant science-fiction writers I have yet to read, I don’t see the point, especially for some long-past fondness. To be plain, I’m not wasting my time on white, North American hetero male writers whose vision has become increasingly small, when there’s the whole rest of the world.

Contra that, Charles Stross’ Rule 34, which covered similar territory to Reamde, is close to being re-read. The difference perhaps is that Stross, along with China Miéville, and unlike Gibson or Stephenson understands the point of shifting the attention and point-of-view away from the above-mentioned, and when he does so, it reads believably.

Along with Rule 34, Miéville’s Un Lun Dun and Joan Slonczewski’s The Highest Frontier both remain in my mind. All three have females in the leading roles, or are written from their perspective, and all of them have this believability that is necessary for me to say, “Oh, you should read that”. Miéville also published Embassytown, which also has remained swirling in my head; thoughts of language and meaning; science-fiction as written by Derrida.

A critical thing for me in books — fiction and non-fiction — that transcend being just a good read, is that I can see the world imagined or written about through the words. It is visible in my mind’s eye as clearly as any other imagination. Without this, it’s rare that I can finish a book. Perhaps it is something of a representation of the writer’s empathy for their subjects; for the people who populate and live their written words.

I’ve been fortunate to have read several science-fiction works this year that have had something of this; Hannu Rajaniemi’s The Quantum Thief, Reza Negarestani’s Cryptonomicon, and (still reading) Chingiz Aitmatov’s poignant The Day Lasts More Than One Hundred Years, as well as the others I’ve mentioned. What separates the books of the year from these — all of which I’ll probably re-read at some time — is a specific imagination they instil.

I remember these as I do a colour or feeling or texture. The thoughts and ideas they generate seem to recur over time, as a spring or well. China Miéville’s Un Lun Dun and Joan Slonczewski’s The Highest Frontier both have these things in abundance. I can’t really separate them even though they are completely different works, one set a hundred years from now on a space-hab at the end of an anthrax tether hooked to Ohio, the other a parallel world of objects beside/between/against London; one speculative sci-fi written by a professor of biology and Quaker, the other speculative horror written by a Phd in Marxism and international law.

What is perhaps curious, Miéville’s is probably aimed at readers around 12 years old, and Slonczewski’s late-teens to early-twenties. Perhaps to say, given the minds behind both it’s no surprise they are deceptively subtle and thoughtful. And they are both superb.

Away from science-fiction.

As usual, my non-fiction reading has been China, Central Asia, Afghanistan, with some theatre and ‘other’ thrown in.

The biggest disappointment, given it was based on the monumental research of Joseph Needham and his Science and Civilisation in China, was Robert Temple’s The Genius of China: 3,000 Years of Science, Discovery, and Invention. Without wishing to say too much, the sycophancy in this book (notably towards the Chinese Government) makes for difficult and biased reading, and while China does have a long history of invention, the scope covered by this book is only possible and true if the border of China was to extend to the farthest cumulative reach of all dynasties across the entire 3,000 year duration.

Thankfully, I have read some very strong scholarship on China in the last year: Vera Schwarcz’ The Chinese Enlightenment: Intellectuals and the Legacy of the May Fourth Movement of 1919, Frank Dikötter’s Mao’s Great Famine, Julia Lovell’s The Opium War. Richard Wolin’s The Wind From The East stands out for the analysis of Maoism and the Cultural Revolution and their influence on the ’68 movement. It’s a compelling and conflicting read, for the disgraceful romance of some European philosophers with Mao who should and did know what was really going on in China under the communists, and for the unequivocally positive influence the idea of a ‘cultural revolution’ transposed to Europe had post-’68.

A book I started before last year’s anniversary, Nazif Shahrani The Kirghiz and Wakhi of Afghanistan, is another superb work, and has really been responsible for pushing my interest into a very specific region where Afghanistan, Pakistan, Kashmir, Tibet, and Tajikstan all meet. A conflicted area certainly; one also replete with mountains, and for a long time the passes of which formed nodes of long-lived trade routes. I expect to be reading a lot more on this region in the coming years.

Liao Yiwu’s God is Red – The secret story of how Christianity survived and flourished in Communist China, despite the religious focus of which I have a visceral aversion to, is as profound as The Corpse-Walker, and there is little I can say other than he is the most important writer I know of in China. Or rather, now in exile in Berlin. Had I been making a book of the year when I read The Corpse Walker, I’m fairly sure it would have been that. As it is, God is Red is very near.

Returning to Afghanistan, I’ve just finished Rodric Braithwaite’s Afghansty: The Russians in Afghanistan 1979-89. Perhaps the timing of its release, when the United States and allies have reached their own ten-year anniversary of war in Afghanistan is not coincidental. I wonder if it will be in twenty years from now a similar work will be written on this war, with a similar epilogue. The feeling for me throughout, deeply unsettling at the parallels, one which I suspect was intentional on the part of Braithwaite. is there is little doubt the shape of the coming years for Afghanistan will be found as a repeat of the years after the Russians had left.

And so, how do I choose? Different works, different fields of study; no work alone or springing fully-formed from nothing. Paul Hockenos’s Joschka Fischer and the Making of the Berlin should also be mentioned, as with others … is this book of the year making a competition out of my wandering reading? Maybe to say that what this is, is an attempt at a description of the works that have lingered in my thoughts. To that then, Nazif Shahrani’s The Kirghiz and Wakhi of Afghanistan is a fitting examples.

Reading: Rodric Braithwaite – Afghansty: The Russians in Afghanistan 1979-89

This year I’ve been attempting to fill in an embarrassing omission in my Central Asian studies. Mainly because my interest is on the borders of the ~stans with what is now called China, my attention to the history of this region has been directed from the east rather than north-west.

Not to say I’ve been explicitly ignoring the history and role of Russia, which would be a perverse accomplishment (and I do have a fondness for Peter Hopkirk’s questionable Great Game romps), but specifically focussing on this subject is something that has filled me with trepidation. After all, Russia is huge, keeping up with the reading on China and Central Asia alone is a pitiful undertaking, and I’m really not ready to find myself digested by another geographic locale.

Still … In Moscow’s Shadows – about the only Russian blog I read – gave a favourable short review of Braithwaite’s Afghansty, and having become more curious about this period (Louis Dupree’s brilliant Afghanistan, even in later editions doesn’t cover the Russian era so thoroughly, and much published since has a distinct American-Taliban emphasis), thought this would be a good place to start.

sakhalin arctic pirate lighthouse

In my long search for the perfect lighthouse to wage piracy from, I’ve stumbled across a chain of Soviet era nuclear-powered lighthouses running up the coast of Sakhalin, and others dotting the Polar regions of Barents, Kara and Laptev seas. Mys Aniva, in La Pérouse Straight, with seven levels of crew quarters and accessible only through treacherous seas is now utterly my favourite. Shame it’s radioactive. Which didn’t stop someone at English Russia from taking a tour, and led me, in a search to find out where tower was firstly to the remarkable Lighthouse Directory, and then to Sakhalin Lighthouses. One more excuse to venture north-east, as if volcanoes and Kamchatka Peninsula weren’t enough.