It turns out I’ve been blogging about reading for around 2/3 the age of supernaut. It still feels like something I’ve only recently begun. This year I’d taken a slight pause from my intense reading bouts, so in part this is a reminder of what I read in the last 12 months, that I was reading, and what I thought then and now.
Yes, I’ve read less than last year, 40-ish books compared to last year’s 54-ish. This has been obvious to me in recent months with my pile being added to but not depleted, not so much reading as chiseling away. Anyway, no more blathering. The books:
The non-fiction, serious stuff:
Half of what I read was superb. When I was performing in Parsifal, I got to read William Kinderman’s Wagner’s Parsifal, a glorious book, which made me love and appreciate the opera even more. I paired that with Dayal Patterson’s equally magnificent Black Metal: Evolution of the Cult, a must-read for anyone interested in the history of the genre, and it supplied me with a mass of new listening. It was on my Book of the Year list until shunted off by a couple of exceptional works. Michel Serres’s was not one of those, but Variations on the Body is a beautiful, poetic work by one of Europe’s most profound and little-read philosophers, who understands corporeality in a way largely lacking in western philosophy.
Adam Minter writing on the recycling business in Junkyard Planet: Travels in the Billion Dollar Trash Trade is a book I’d recommend to pretty much anyone (being aware that much of what I read falls into the WTF? category), and he’s a rare, smart writer on the subject, presenting it in a way non-specialists can understand and enjoy, also a needed critical voice in the global trash industry and China’s role in it.
Another from China: Frank Dikötter is one of my favourite writers on 20th century China, and I’d been waiting for The Tragedy of Liberation: A History of the Chinese Revolution 1945-1957. I’d been interested in this period because of stories a friend in Guangzhou would tell me about her Tujia grandparents holding out for years in the mountains against Communists. I’d also been waiting for Liao Yiwu’s prison years autobiography, available in German for a year, For a Song and a Hundred Songs: A Poet’s Journey through a Chinese Prison System. There is hype around post-’89 Chinese writers, particularly the Beijing and Shanghai urban youth genre. I’ve yet to find a writer of that generation as good as Liao, and as necessary to read. All of his works are unparalleled documentaries.
Finally, there was Julia Serano, her sequel to Whipping Girl: Excluded: Making Feminist and Queer Movements More Inclusive. It’s odd to leave this off the Book of the Year list, as it’s undeniably a critical work and Serano is up with bell hooks and Judith Butler (among others) for her writing on feminism, trans, and queer politics and culture. She needs to be read; buy it and read it.
The reason why Serano got bumped is Afsaneh Najmabadi, whose Women with Mustaches and Men without Beards: Gender and Sexual Anxieties of Iranian Modernity was one of my Books of the Year last year. I heard about Professing Selves: Transsexuality and Same-Sex Desire in Contemporary Iran late last year and waited months for it. Considering the amount of attention works on trans people (particularly trans women) received in the last year, it’s baffling that Najmabadi goes largely unmentioned. For those engaged in this subject with no interest in Iran specifically, her documenting of the influence in Iran of Euro-Anglo-American ebbs and flows of political, social, medical, legal thought and practice on trans issues and identities is sufficient to make this required reading. Iran though is the dog that’s beaten irrespective of context, and successive Ayatollahs since the ’70s issuing Fatawa recognising trans people as legitimate and in need of help is presented in the west rather as the despotic Islamic dictatorship forcing sex reassignment on unwilling gays and lesbians. As with Excluded, buy it and read it.
Then there was H. Jay Melosh’s Planetary Surface Processes, which Emily Lakdawalla wrote about on The Planetary Society. Along with last year’s Colliding Continents: A Geological Exploration of the Himalaya, Karakoram, & Tibet, this one fills my need to look at massive contusions of granite and other rock. There’s a moderate number of formulae, and regular plunges into elucidations of those, placing this somewhere in general university-level and reference book. It is specific and not a casual read, and it’s the one book you want on the subject. Sometime soon I’ll pair it with one on planetary chemistry.
And finally for the non-fiction is Caroline Walker Bynum’s Wonderful Blood: Theology and Practice in Late Medieval Northern Germany and Beyond, recommended by a friend, and just one of those delightful, dense, heavy, demanding works written by someone so phenomenally talented and capable, and who simply loves her work. Completely a joy!
The fiction, also serious stuff:
I read less fiction in the last year, and tried new authors, some of whom I absolutely loved and are firmly helping me get over the absence of Iain Banks. Others … others who everything indicates I should love instead leave me cold, or worse, finding them actually not very good.
Let’s dispense with The Water Margin first. The second volume of five of John Dent-Young and Alan Dent-Young’s translation of Shi Nai’an and Luo Guanzhong: The Tiger Killers: Part Two of the Marshes of Mount Liang. This has to go on my list similarly as I have to have breakfast. Even if I read a hundred superior books, it would still be here. Some books are like that, you may never read them but they’re always around. The Water Margin is—as I keep saying—China’s Chaucer and The Canterbury Tales, or Marlowe’s riotous plays. I’d compare it to Shakespeare but it’s not equivalent: it’s bawdy, rough, uncouth characters and stories, and the writing itself is nearer the former two. Given its miraculous ability for genius turns of phrase, it’s perhaps comparable to Shakespeare for his wordsmithery. The Dent-Young’s translation is my favourite of the lot also, though the price per volume certainly isn’t.
Then there’s Ysabeau S. Wilce, who I discovered mid-this year, ordered the first of the Flora Segunda trilogy, promptly ordered the other two when barely past the first chapter. Flora Segunda: Being the Magickal Mishaps of a Girl of Spirit, Her Glass-Gazing Sidekick, Two Ominous Butlers (One Blue), a House with Eleven Thousand Rooms, and a Red Dog. Yes, that’s the title. Children’s book indeed. Would that some of the adult authors I read be capable of imagining and telling a story as this. I loved all three, though the first the most. It seems to me in trilogies where the protagonist starts almost from nothing, that the first part establishes the significant growth, and the remaining two are more working with what they’ve already learnt (the Matrix and Star Wars trilogies, for example), and it may be unreasonable to be irritated by this, but it does—books two and three are still wonderful and had I only read either of them I’d be frothing as I do over book one. It’s not in the same league as the two big ones below, but I did love the world and characters.
Another new author was K. J. Parker, who has written quite a bit. It was The Folding Knife that piqued my interest, and I enjoyed it enough that it gets a second mention here.
I almost forgot Imogen Binnie’s Nevada, neither sci-fi nor fantasy, something of an autobiography, a little like reading my own life, rough, punk and trouble. The ending I hated, but the rest, she deserves awards for this and to be read a fuck-ton load.
The two big ones then, and colossal they are.
One the Skiffy side, channelling Iain M. Banks: Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice; and on the Mediæval Fiction side (I keep imagining her and Caroline Walker Bynum together in a bar): Nicola Griffith’s Hild.
Buy these books. Read these books. These are incomparably the best sci-fi/fantasy of 2014. If you’re swayed by other’s opinions, between them, they’ve won or been nominated for more awards than I have fingers and toes. Both of them have my favourite covers of the year. Honestly, if you don’t like either you should give up reading; books are wasted on you.
I cannot say enough good things about either of these two books and their authors. It’s an extraordinary time for sci-fi and fantasy with writers like Griffith and Leckie. It’s unlikely I’ll ever have an experience like my reintroduction to sci-fi via Iain Banks a few years ago, but to utterly give myself over to the author and story as with these two and to be rewarded for that is beyond compare.
An aside: you may notice that many of the writers are female. It’s intentional. A while ago, I decided to put my money where my feminist mouth is. This is easier in fiction because the two genres I read, sci-fi and fantasy have many talented female writers and the genres are going through a renaissance due to these and non-white, non-western, non-straight authors (and a definite shift by the publishing industry to promote them). It’s brilliant. In non-fiction, it’s not so easy. In part this is because I want to read particular authors; in part particular subjects that are dominated by white male authors in the english language sphere. I consciously balance these two biases by seeking out and selecting female authors, and when it comes to a choice I’ll put the female author first. The result of my extraordinary and hegemonic discrimination is that the first twenty books on my wish list are split almost 50/50 between male and female authors.
There follows two salient points: first, on any subject or genre, despite their being anywhere from an abundance of quality women writers all the way down to an equal number as there are men, by comparison it requires sustained effort to find them. Secondly, women writers—or at least the ones I read—tend to take for granted aspects of society that male writers mostly consider irrelevant. (This is my “Easy A vs. Superbad” theory.) Not only do women authors tend to not make assumptions based on contemporary, western ideas of gender, desire, ethnicity in society, they also regard these subjects as self-evidently present even if not immediately obvious and therefore critical to a proper understanding of the subject (or, as my wont, deserving of entire books on their own). Male writers on the other hand far too often see the world in terms of a narrow heterosexual and mono-cultural construction where men are doing all the important stuff.
This to me is the fundamental point in arguing for proper representation: it is simply not possible to otherwise understand a subject or imagine a world. And given that there has been prolonged underrepresentation, it follows that what is claimed to known on a subject can be reasonably said to be seriously lacking at best and likely suspect unless it can demonstrate adequate representation.
Another year done, then. More shelves filled. More new, superb authors whom I’m able to enjoy because of the fortunate combination of being able to read, living somewhere I can make time to read, and where books are affordable and commonplace. So (as I said last year) here’s to the writers, and their publishers and proofreaders and editors and typesetters and designers and artists and agents and friends and families who make it possible for them to write so that I may read.
I was very excited when Liao Yiwu’s For a Song and a Hundred Songs: A Poet’s Journey through a Chinese Prison System was published last year, then it turned out it was in German, and I had to wait until a couple of weeks ago for the translation to arrive. It was naturally completely worth the wait.
Liao Yiwu became for me the most important biographer and writer on China – Chinese or otherwise – when I read The Corpse Walker: Real Life Stories: China from the Bottom Up in 2008. His next, God is Red: The Secret Story of how Christianity Survived and Flourished in Communist China, I ordered as soon as I heard about it, despite the theme being something I’m not so interested in. Not quite as brilliant as the former, but there is no one writing on China like him.
And finally this one, an auto-biography. In 1989 Liao was a poet in Sichuan, doing what so many heterosexual male writers and artists have done: drinking, fucking, writing, not especially political nor especially self-reflected. Then June 4th happened. Whatever change that caused for him, politicising him, or at least causing an inarticulate anger which poured out in his poetry, it was the Chinese government that created Liao as the writer he now is.
The former two works, writings of his wanderings post-prison years touch upon those four years; it is this, written in prison, confiscated, rewritten, confiscated again, pieced together from memory in the years after that documents that time in its entirety. It’s brutal.
The first part, Liao before prison in the weeks leading up to his arrest, the Tiananmen Massacre, the poem he wrote in response, also his life is of a person who interests me not so much. Married and careless in his relationship, probably not a little misogynist even, Liao’s writing on himself from the distance separated by his prison years also seems to suggest he finds his former self not as admirable, important, honourable as he presumed himself to be in 1989.
And then prison. When I lived in Guangzhou, there was a prison around the corner, perhaps an investigation or detention centre like he spent two years in. One day a bus pulled out, bars on the windows, full of prisoners. I saw a man sitting towards the back who somehow had obtained a syringe and was openly preparing to shoot up. Whatever this place was like inside in my imagination or from what I’ve read elsewhere, I can now only imagine it as like the places Liao was consigned to.
A menu of famous Chinese dishes and delicacies run for four pages. These are not to be eaten as such, more handed out as beatings, humiliations, torture. Liao as a poet, intellectual, counterrevolutionary often escapes the worst, sometimes receives even heavier punishment, nonetheless is neither lower class nor upper class in the prisoner hierarchy. After four years he is released. Little is said here on the years after, so reading this first then The Corpse Walker would probably be a good combination.
Liao escaped China in 2011 via Vietnam and through his publisher’s help came to live in Berlin. Returning is for the moment not a possibility, which also means these three works are something of a trilogy, unless he has a pile of notes from his wanderings that can be turned into subsequent books. So, read it. There is no other writer I know of who writes on China as Liao Yiwu does – poetry and documentary – the real China, the one that is a dictatorship built on the corpses of tens of millions.
The last rehearsal last year of abjection then, with the thought of a Sichuan food frenzy with Dasniya at Peking Ente (or 太和饭殿 as it’s also known) afterwards distracting me, I managed nonetheless some usefulness. Possibly the ten minutes where I worked out what I was doing, which curiously has thrown the rest of the piece into doubt.
Back to rehearsing next week.
Cosmin, who was one of the mob of Guangzhou climbers that descended on Jiulong every weekend while I was in G-town emailed me with his winter playtime stories, the best being the first ascent of Banji North – North Face, Transylvania Avenue in Sichuan with Bob Keaty. It makes me want to get back there and do some climbing…
Reading the Green Guide at Orange yesterday, the last name I expected to see getting airtime on SBS this week was Joseph Rock. I wrote about him at the start of the year when I stumbled across one of the most strange and poignant endeavours I’ve read that got committed to a blog.
Sydney multi-blogger and photographer In the footsteps of Joseph Rock has been slowly building up a photo-documentary of his own journey through Sichuan province which began as an attempt to follow Joseph Rock’s travels through the mountainous Tibetan borderlands in 1929. From the first retracings of Rock’s steps came other journeys in the 1990s and accompanying photographs. It’s the photographs that make this blog uniquely strange and bring Rock’s expeditions and his obsessions to life.
Over the past months In the footsteps of Joseph Rock has amassed a huge collection of his own photographs from his travels, some that as close as possible are the contemporary equivalents of Joseph Rock’s. In some cases the modern photos have been taken from exactly the same vantage point and besides the difference in quality and colour are identical. Other times, the photos serve to show the change, decay or destruction. Even more poignant are portraits where time seems to have stopped, the monks, villagers, farmers almost unchanged in eighty years.
Read In the footsteps of Joseph Rock and watch The Adventurous Travels of Joseph Rock, Saturday on SBS.
AS IT HAPPENED – THE ADVENTUROUS TRAVELS OF JOSEPH FRANCIS ROCK
A fascinating portrait of Austrian explorer Joseph Rock and his adventures in the south-west of China from 1922 to 1949, with extraordinary footage. Joseph Francis Rock (1884-1962) arrived in China in 1922 and spent the best part of 30 years collecting plants, hunting birds, taking photographs, shooting films and exploring the mountainous regions of the south-west of China for various prestigious American institutions including the Department of Agriculture, the National Geographic society and Harvard University. When Rock first arrived in China, he made his headquarters in a small Naxi village near Lijiang in south-west China. There Rock discovered the Naxi priests, the Dongbas, and their religious pictographic script. Rock was fascinated and over the years he compiled a dictionary of the pictographic script. When the Second World War broke out, Rock refused to leave China, spending most of the war in Lijiang writing. Eventually Rock left Lijiang in 1944. On 5 December 1962, a month before the dictionary was published, Rock died of a heart attack in Honolulu surrounded by his beloved Naxi pictograms. (In English, Mandarin, Naxi and German, English subtitles)
There are a whole pageload of new blogs over at sinosplice china blog list, but only in only one is there insanity and genius in such monstrous proportions. In the footsteps of joseph rock is the journey of Sydney blogger Michael, following the footsteps of ‘bad-tempered and imperious’ Joseph Rock, who travelled through western Sichuan and the Tibet borderlands in the 1920s to reach Minya Konka, once thought to be the world’s highest mountain.
The writing is superb but the genius is in the photography, placing side-by-side Rock’s photos with Michael’s own equivalents taken 70 years later. It’s especially poignant for me as one of the (still unfulfilled) reasons I went to China was to travel to Minya Konka and climb the peaks of west Sichuan.
It’s really cool to have a hurricane with your name on it, even if it has been ‘down-graded’ to a tropical storm. But while Florida is whining about being ‘almost shut-down’ by a bit of a shower and stiff breeze, and we get to see beautiful saturated colour satellite photos of Hurricane Frances swinging over Miami, the big floods and storms in Sichuan show that if you don’t have a catchy name, you don’t get the column inches. A quick search on Google shows 90 deaths and 77 missing from a no-name storm gives 192 news items, but two deaths and many squashed oranges from a hurricane with a name as good as mine gives… oh… i lost count after 4185.
Reuters has this to say about Hurricane Frances:
The hurricane virtually shut down the fourth-largest U.S. state, home to 16 million people, for two days and promised damage not only to buildings but to the state’s economy on the usually busy Labor Day weekend, normally an end-of-summer bonanza for Florida’s $53 billion tourism industry.
The state’s largest population center and big Latin American business hub, Miami, escaped the worst of the storm but the impact on Orlando, the main tourist playground, was uncertain as massive Frances lumbered across central Florida.
The $9.1 billion citrus industry, badly damaged by Hurricane Charley three weeks ago, was likely to take another hard blow as the storm moved across the state’s best growing regions.
And this to say about the storm and floods in Sichuan:
Floods and landslides have killed 76 people in southwest China in the past four days and washed away homes and roads, knocked down power lines and cut off at least one city, state media said on Monday.
“We’ve never seen such heavy flooding,” a government official said.
Heavy rain sparked flash floods and mud and rock flows in the southwest province of Sichuan, destroying crops and severing transport links, Xinhua news agency said, citing provincial disaster relief officials.
At least 55 people were killed in Sichuan, with 52 missing, and at least 21 people were killed in the city of Chongqing, to the east of Sichuan and 900 miles south of Beijing.
No immediate respite was in sight with rain expected through Tuesday, provincial officials said.
The most destructive storms this year had battered Dazhou, Nanchong and Bazhong cities since Thursday, Xinhua said.
Thousands of farmers watched with a mixture of curiosity and disbelief as the 38-year-old bride and her groom Yang Qizheng celebrated their wedding in Fenghuang village, Chongzhou city, in the suburbs of Chengdu, southwest China’s Sichuan Province.
“No, I don’t think she’s a weirdo. How can I? She’s a woman just like myself,” said an old lady who gave her family name as Pan.
Unlike most other countries, China allows for marriage, and treats transsexuals as members of their chosen gender. Professor He Qinglian, who has treated thousands of transsexuals and operated on over 60 believes “This shows the Chinese society has adopted a more tolerant attitude towards transsexuals.”
Sources with the Ministry of Civil Affairs have also expressed sympathy to transsexuals, saying they should enjoy the rights and freedom to get married like all other citizens.
While this seems to be incredibly enlightened, it would be great if things were as peachy for gays, who are still getting a shit ride. All this new found enthusiasm for sex-changes could be ther perfect solution to this (Chairman Mao induced) “major threat to the healthy, harmonious and sustainable growth of the nation’s population”.