Books! Yes! Panda acquired quite some for me — and snuck a head into shot looking well smug. “Pands, how did you afford so many new books?” “Well, Xiao Fang, I sold 50 of your old ones.” Dead clever is Panda.
Wotchagot then? From left to right:
What Makes This Book So Great: Re-Reading the Classics of Fantasy and SF by Jo Walton
The Sea Is Ours: Tales from Steampunk Southeast Asia edited by Jaymee Goh, Joyce Chng
Emotion and Devotion: The Meaning of Mary in Medieval Religious Cultures by Miri Rubin
Christian Materiality: An Essay on Religion in Late Medieval Europe by Caroline Walker Bynum
Islamicate Sexualities: Translations Across Temporal Geographies of Desire edited by Kathryn Babayan and Afsaneh Najmabadi
The Public in the Picture: Involving the Beholder in Antique, Islamic, Byzantine and Western Medieval and Renaissance Art edited by Beate Fricke and Urte Krass
Mauritius: Der heilige Mohr / The Black Saint Maurice by Gude Suckale-Redlefsen
And not making it in cos I forgot cos I’ve already read them:
Too Like the Lightning by Ada Palmer
The Fifth Season by N. K. Jemisin
The Winged Histories by Sofia Samatar
Fifty out for ten in. Plus a few extra euros. Bargain! And how good is that list? Jo Walton again! Caroline Walker Bynum again! Afsahneh Najmabadi again! Saint Mauritius! Mediæval Art! Science-Fiction! It’s a pity that my remaining books, now filling three entire bookshelves, are entirely too good to sell, otherwise I’d be repeating this and polishing off my wish list (it’s been sitting at around 110 books for a couple of years). It’s a fukken library in here.
Another Bynum! This from about a month ago when I wandered into St. George’s to pick up a couple of books and exited with a quartet. I was waiting for my pickup and doing a usual round of browsing the shelves when I saw Caroline Walker Bynum’s Holy Feast and Holy Fast: The Religious Significance of Food to Medieval Women nonchalently wedged between a couple of unremarkable mediæval books. I’m sure it was a trap just for me. And of course I couldn’t say no as it was cheap, on my reading list, and I seem to be determined to read everything Bynum published.
This is another early-ish one from that period in the early ’90s when she was prolific. Unlike Fragmentation and Redemption and Jesus as Mother, this isn’t a group of essays, but what she does best: establish deeply involved analysis over hundreds of pages. A quarter in, I still think Wonderful Blood is her best work, though even Jesus as Mother which I don’t think is especially memorable makes most other stuff I read look half-arsed and pedestrian.
As with all her books, I’ll be reading this for a couple of months. It’s slow, dense, opaque work, and I enjoy every sentence in a sufferingly intense kind of way.
… and Panda’s efforts yesterday were not limited to The Image of the Black in Western Art, Volume II, Part 2. The quartet comprises Jacqueline E. Jung’s translation of Aloïs Riegl’s Historical Grammar of the Visual Arts; Caroline Walker Bynum’s Holy Feast and Holy Fast: The Religious Significance of Food to Medieval Women; and Ayize Jama-Everett’s The Liminal War. Bloody hell.
Not content with last month’s effort, Panda was at it again yesterday. Here, Panda poses with The Image of the Black in Western Art, Volume II, Part 2, part of a quartet of works Panda somehow acquired from Paul at St. George’s Bookshop entirely without my knowledge. Entirely.
I’m in St. George’s as usual, picking up some books. Once in a while I ask if one of the traumatically expensive books on my list might be got for a less harrowing price. I ask Jamie if she might have a good price for—I point at the cover art on my phone. “Image of the Black in Western Art,” she says … a pause … “We have it!” “You have it?” “We have it. Paul can bring it in on Monday.” I curse in astonishment. “And we can give you it cheaper than the listed price.” More cursing.
Monday. Paul says, “We have eight of them. I can bring them in if you like.” “Yes!—Argh! My bank account—shut up! Yes!” And the story:
An artist in Berlin used to buy masses of expensive fine art books like this from Paul. He’d order piles and dutifully shuffle it off to his studio. Where it remained unopened. Recently, he sold it all back to Paul. This one he had opened, but barely turned the pages; the others were—are effectively new, their spines yet to do that first opening creak and pop. New, they sell for 100€ each (or 60€ if you want to buy all ten at once). This one cost a mere 50€. Paul said some of the others are even cheaper. I know he’s trying to sell me the whole lot, an attentive dealer supplying a diligent junkie, and like one on the run with their habit, I grin and nod yes.
Not that I need to justify it, but if you put legs on it, it’d be a chair. It’s massive, heavy, beautifully photographed—and more importantly, the quality of the essays is exceptional. Really, really exceptional, Caroline Walker Bynum levels of awesome. And honestly, if Paul didn’t have them, if they weren’t so cheap, I wouldn’t have done this, so going all mystical signs and portents and omens here, that’s not what happened. And it’s got Saint Mauritius of Magdeburger Dom fame on the cover looking well splendid.
It was all Panda’s doing, I swear! I knew nothing of Panda’s visit to St. George’s Bookshop, where unbelievably strangely Paul has the entire set of The Image of the Black in Western Art, which he acquired from an artist who bought books and never unpacked them, so it’s secondhand but not really, but secondhand price, which because of internet/exchange rate/shipping/bookshop things I don’t understand did not even cost what I’d—I mean Panda’d—spend on food in a week. Cheap as (fine, bespoke, hand-bevelled) chips! (& Panda is looking well fit on a Walter van Beirendonck scarf.)
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.
My sofa has a variously shaded crocheted lilac blanket I like to lie on, or curl up under, wrap around myself while I work. Today I mostly slept surrounded by it. A day off of sorts. Ballet in the morning, late morning really, and late rising so a little of my recently too present stressed and snappy demeanour reappeared, then home and tend to my wounds, blue sky and an easter weekend I hadn’t been aware of until I arrived a work yesterday, Berlin eerily quiet and discovered the door locked. So a Friday with Daniel and Matthias in Torstr, chocolate and coffee on the balcony as spring kisses the tips of the trees.
Today I rode to Mitte, a storm of tourists and others, inverse to yesterday’s peace. I like Berlin in the winter for this driven-indoors humanity, dark and grey and yes, a weight on my psyche, but still, Berlin in winter is a city that wears its season well.
A couple of sketch books so I can start drawing again, and the other for German notes. H&M, equally turbulent; I haven’t bought clothes since late last year and I do love clothes, even when they are this cheap. Mostly it was getting tiresome wearing the same trousers every day. Then to St Georges, I visited long ago, when I last was disimpoverished, and was one of my favourites in my early Berlin days of buchhandlung discovery. That it is near me, some streets north is a small joy.
I prepared with a list. I shall admit an improbable, unlikely and mostly ensuring disappointment. A long list at that, one of volumes better suited to the cornucopia of AbeBooks, which I reacquainted myself with also this evening. But a visit not of the nature that I left empty-handed. As you can see from the four new books below I departed with drunken smile and veering wildly towards my bicycle, a greedy junkie of words.
Borges was the first I laid my fingers on, or no rather, Adorno but I was unsure whether to covet him so early. Later and intoxicated with ink I could have probably collected the entire shelf of him, next to Arendt, above Benjamin. Borges for A Universal History of Iniquity, which I found in Collected Fictions, mainly for the Cantonese pirate queen Jihng Yat Sou. Then browsing up the ladder in the back, Mortenson’s Three Cps of Tea, I’ve been wanting to read for a long time. And further back, utter joy with Stross’ Halting State, and of course Adorno’s Aesthetic Theory, reminding me of my delightful Hobo who introduced me properly to him.
On my sofa, then. A bottle of cheap Bordeaux wine, some bread and cheese, snoozing the afternoon away and occasionally remembering to read. That I can afford books reminds me of the comfort my life has attained in the last month with a full-time job. Yes, I only get to dance on the weekend, and must push myself through yoga in the evenings and come perilously close to exhaustion trying also to freelance, but…
Here in my hobo piratenluder attic with the sun warming the morning, and to spend an afternoon diligently applying myself to nothing is a comfort I have missed.