The Cultural Revolution: A People’s History, 1962–1976 is Frank Dikötter’s final book in the trilogy covering China and Chairman Mao from 1945 until his death in 1976. An earlier, much shorter work covering the Republican era makes it something of a quartet. I haven’t read his work prior to these four — he’s been publishing on China for 25 years, and has been Chair Professor of Humanities at University of Hong Kong since 2006. He’s one of a handful of China historians who I will always read and look forward to whatever they write next.
It’s difficult to say this work has a weakness, when I think the previous two are some of the finest and most meticulously researched in any of the subjects I read (I’m holding the likes or Caroline Walker Bynum and Susan Mann as my exemplars), it might simply be my familiarity with the subject, both from reading and from friends in China. For most readers, especially if they slam the trilogy one after the other it’s a horrifying, relentless work of history, and that has no peer I can think of for 20th century Maoist China.
One thing I am unsure about though, and I’ve found this in other writers on Mao (like Jung Chang) and on the other singular figures of 20th century despotism (like Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot) is the ease with which so much power and capability is assigned to them. What I remain unsure on in all my reading on China under Mao is the complicity of others. It’s that question, if he was indeed an individual in all this why didn’t they stop him? If not, why, during those three decades of his rule, did they not see the repeating patterns of behaviour and rule, and not make the same bad decisions over and over. Were they fucking stupid? It’s not that there’s an absence of resistance in this book, in fact there’s plenty of it once we get down to the regional and village levels, but perhaps what I’d like to read is a history of Mao’s China without him in it.
What The Cultural Revolution illustrates, in a way I think no other work on the subject has done so clearly, is that this period was essentially a continuation, or a reinvigoration of the Great Leap Forward. Certainly it was a total war against culture and history, and it demonstrates just how rapidly a culture can be erased (a couple of weeks if you’re curious as to how fast your world can vanish), but the preparations for nuclear war, the inland industrialisation, the return of collectivisation and all that went with this, were all methods of that genocidal period a decade earlier.
Maybe I throw around the term genocide too freely. It seems to me it’s not used enough. I think with Mao and his mob it rests on whether the deaths of tens of millions and the destruction of culture were intentional. Is ‘I don’t care how many die as long as I achieve my goals’ intentional, or merely indifference? What about engineering chaos for the same ends which as a side-effect result in what we currently call collateral damage? What about if you say, “It is better to let half of the people die so that the other half can eat their fill.” If that half die because you ‘let’ them, is that genocide, or something else? If we have to ascribe intentionality to genocide, then the most recognition of culpability we can expect from a perpetrator is “Oops, my bad.” Which is approximately as much as the current ruling party of China says — the same party of all these three books, ruling in unbroken succession. Or maybe, “30% my bad.” Because the final ruling by the party on itself for all these atrocities was “70% good, 30% bad.”
I would like to think that in the next decade or so Dikötter’s works become less remarkable as more historians write ever more fine and detailed works on 20th century China. I do think some of the criticisms of his work are valid, in particular that it’s “more like a catalogue of anecdotes about atrocities than a sustained analytic argument”. But against that is the fact there are sod all historians writing on 20th century China compared to say 20th century Germany or Russia. Guangdong history alone could and should occupy entire departments, yet here we are, still treating China as a monolith. Worth reading all three at once, not just for history, but as a lesson in how easily a dictatorship can grow and devour continents.
I think it’s mediæval art. Well, not the art itself, but the people writing on it. They are quite frankly a little … boring … need laxatives (less charitable Frances says: elitist wankers actively excluding anyone who doesn’t fit their clique-ish posing). I mean, come on, mediæval northern European history is mad crazy. I know this cos I’ve read heaps, and know most people think it’s all peasants pushing muddy sticks in muddy fields, falling over with the plague, waiting for the Renaissance to kick off—that’s the look people give me when I say “mediæval” I see it behind their glassy eyes, “…muddy sticks…” But it’s fucking not. It’s shitloads more progressive, analytic, philosophical, creative, than much of the following hundreds of years. Seriously, have you read Descartes? Set Europe back about 1500 years.
Also I did not read so much this year. A mere 36 books, of which 22 were fiction and 14 non-fiction. I blame my slightly out-of-control internet addiction (now under control courtesy System-level blocking of a chunk of the internet Sunday through Friday night), for the decrease, as well as not so much science-fiction being published that tripped me out—I do read a lot of fantasy, and some of it was pretty good, but honestly if there was say twenty writers of the Banks/Leckie/Miéville/Stross level splurting out skiffy, I’d either be hoovering a book a week of the stuff, or more likely dispensing with it altogether for the high fibre stuff. As for non-fiction, preceding paragraph.
I was going through supernaut a fortnight ago, finishing cleaning all the old images, which meant also looking at what I’d been reading, which in turn reminded me of being in China and the difficult relationship that place has to its history (mostly conversations like “…5000 years of history!”), which I then thought about specifically in Germany and its relationship to history (older history, let’s say pre- arbitrary mid-point of the reign of the Fredericks, like the Great, mid-1700s), and while everyone goes bonkers for Tang and Song Dynasties (618-907 and 960-1279 respectively) you’d be really hard-pushed to get an equivalent or comparable “Woo! Fukkin yeah!” reaction about Regnum Teutonicum, early Hanseatic League, Mechtild of Magdeburg, Hildegard of Bingen. I’m all enthusiastic about it, but the writing, so so many wrist-slitting pages of tedium.
There’s less resistance to change in Chinese studies, given that substantial archives are still being opened—and moreover simply it’s not Europe, so for Euro-Anglo-American-based scholarship, there isn’t that subjective rewriting of identity which I think is deeply tied into writing on European history. Just to witness the concerted and heavy resistance in both academia and broadly across culture to the presence of Islam and brown people (North African, Arabian, Persian, Central Asian) as part of northern European history demonstrates the inflexibility of European historical narrative. And on that, of course we’ve always been here: the trade routes along rivers, across the Baltic, Black, and Caspian seas make any other history patently false.
Yar, so. The books:
Fiction first. A couple of late arrivals—K T Davies’ Breed (haven’t written about yet) and Steph Swainston’s The Castle Omnibus (three books in one and pushing 900 pages)—saved the year from being a total washout. Breed was a sweary anti-hero loser sucker for punishment (Davies liked pushing him off a cliff every few pages for shits and giggles), who turned out to be Saviour of Everyone, who then tells everyone Thanks But No Thanks, Also Fuck Off because that’s what you do when people treat you like shit ’til you’ve got something they want. Mad Staunch is our Breed. It’s definitely in standard fantasy land, but the swearing and horribleness takes it almost into Oglaf.
The Castle Omnibus, on the other hand, is dead serious reading. There’s a scene in Charles Stross’ Merchant Princes series where they land on a parallel world full of things which eat anything living. The insects here, the Shift (both a place between worlds and the fabric in which all worlds are held), even the feudal mediæval island (let’s call it Great Britain) could easily be the Stross’ universe from a different perspective. It almost, almost convinced me to be Book of the Year, but … Look, I’m totally down with a first person narrative who’s a fiend for the needle and spends the first part of every book smug in a “kicked my habit for good this time” state and fifty pages later is blasting three times a day, and who has wings, and who’s punk/goth/streetkid/bitter/sexy/unreliable narrator, but a few of the important female characters were iffy, kinda “Wow, the guys are wankers, but the women … fukkin’ bitches.” That and the unsatisfactory post-climax resolutions which are a structural function of how Swainston tells a story. Probably will read subsequent Castle novels in the absence of skiffy.
Also three from Ayize Jama-Everett, his Liminal series (The Liminal People, The Liminal War, The Entropy of Bones). Best writer you’ve never heard of. A little too calculated and superficial—his ability to write is more impressive than the scenes and characters, which often shrink into the panoply of heterofanboy fantasy (like the tough martial arts chick of Entropy). But still I devoured all three, ’cos I’m desperate for good sci-fi/fantasy that isn’t white people. Best read smoking weed and listening to Asian Dub Foundation.
William Gibson made a fucking spectacular return to Neuromancer levels of Fuck Me This Is Good in The Peripheral, then blew it equally spectacularly with bullshit bandwagon du jour for sci-fi and fantasy writers who wanna be cool: trannys! Yes, Gibson has a tranny. So does Rachel Hartmann in Shadow Scale. A tranny is a particular stereotrope cisgender writers love. They’re defined by metonymy: big hands, secrets, crying, physical stature, striking appearance. They occur in two places throughout the story: once in the past in male form, again in the present as female, but we’re not told this person is one and the same except for via these metonymic ‘hints’. The reveal is a plot device which comes with all manner of ‘trapped in the wrong body’ exegesis, more tears, more big hands flapping, while fulfilling some surprise plot twist the author evidently felt only a chick with a dick could accomplish. Yeah, Gibson, Hartmann, Tricia Sullivan, I’m giving you the side-eye (and all you cis writers who suddenly have always been all about Teh Tranz). Please, just stop, you’re fucking embarrassing.
I noticed as I was writing this that I find it difficult to remember one fantasy work from another. It’s all the same, magic and dragons and shit, and curiously white-ish generic western European ‘mediæval’. Even Breed, The Castle Omnibus, Shadow Scale, Archivist Wasp rely heavily on this for some aspect of the world, and as much as they surmount this narrow world in other aspects, it’s tiresome. Being heavily critical here, I’m not sure many Euro-Anglo-American writers can write outside this. It’s not enough to shift the setting to Generic Africa or Generic Asia, or have characters who are otherwise indistinguishable from inner city heteroboys be muslim or have a checklist of exotic defining attributes. This is where I think authors like Saladin Ahmed and Ayize Jama-Everett get it right (and conversely G. Willow Wilson doesn’t). To be clear, it’s not about the ‘authenticity’ or not of the writer. I think it’s more of a question of misjudgement, that the author thinks it’s sufficient to attach a set of attributes to a character or location, and fails to realise that each attribute is an entire world. To be a muslim or a transsexual person (I’m currently using that latter word because trans, trans*, transgender are all seriously shitting me) is to experience the world in a fundamentally different way; for all the quantitative differences there might be, these do not in themselves add up to the qualitative difference I’m talking about.
Moving on, non-fiction:
I’m still on my Caroline Walker Bynum bender, though close to finishing her œvre. I threw Jesus as Mother: Studies in the Spirituality of the High Middle Ages across the room once. I forget why. It’s not often that happens, and I’m pretty sure it wasn’t something she said, but a quote which made me want to burn a thousand years of Europe to ashes and salt the ruins. Holy Feast and Holy Fast: The Religious Significance of Food to Medieval Women escaped damage, as did Mechthild Of Magdeburg’s The Flowing Light of the Godhead. Mischa Honeck, Martin Klimke, and Anna Kuhlmann’s (eds.) Germany and the Black Diaspora: Points of Contact, 1250-1914 deserved such a beating, but at 60€ I couldn’t bring myself to do it. There’s definitely an inverse ration between scholarship and price in academic publishing, and sure, there were a few bits and pieces I’m glad I read, but nothing was substantially above the extended inquiry into the subject I’ve read around the internet, and quite a bit I would fail if I was marking undergraduate-level essays. The other stuff though, I think part of the difficulty in reading is extricating the valid ideas from the misogynistic, religious, social structures and limitations of the time. It’s not always pleasant work. Conversely, persuading contemporaries of its value butts up against equally frustrating limitations. It’s safe to say that the Renaissance, Reformation, Enlightenment ages all did a hatchet job on the mediæval era which remains to this day.
Aloïs Riegl’s Historical Grammar of the Visual Arts is useful in exhuming this, coming as it does from the peak of continental superiority (geographic and temporal), and I am enjoying it, paragraphical asides on Dürer and the Reformation lead to hours following the migration of ideas across Europe, getting lost in the Beeldenstorm iconoclasm, following the Hanseatic League (again). I wonder to myself, for what? At times I feel on the edge of understanding—broadly, generally, continent- and era-sized brush stroke kinds of understanding—What Happened and What It Means, and then … nope, gone.
And on that, non-fiction book of the year does exist: David Bindman, Henry Louis Gates, and Karen C. C. Dalton’s massive and glorious Image of the Black in Western Art, Volume II: From the Early Christian Era to the “Age of Discovery”, Part 1: From the Demonic Threat to the Incarnation of Sainthood. It’s an odd choice for me, being in the coffee-table realm of printed matter, but the essays are significant and valuable; as is the project in itself, beginning in the ’70s, to document the history of people of colour in European art. Look, you can gawk at art from the past millennia in these ten volumes and see not only changing attitudes to people outside and on the margins of Europe—and those people within the many Europes that we somehow continue to convince ourselves is and has always been homogeneous—changing ideas of representation, for religion, for gender, for social status, for ethnicity; you can also see the change in what constitutes European self or subjecthood, and following from that what is Other. The history of European art documents extraordinarily clearly over hundreds of years the emergence and ascendency of colonialism, racism, ideas of superiority—of ethnicity, gender, class—as well as resistance to this, all inextricably interwoven with religion. And for all our pretence that things are different now, what’s remarkable is how familiar a thousand years ago is.
Ok, there’s a few fiction and non-fiction I have to mention: Michael Dante DiMartino, Bryan Konietzko, Joaquim Dos Santos’ The Legend of Korra: The Art of the Animated Series, Book 1: Air because fukkin’ #korrasami and being one of the best series animated or otherwise this millennia. Howard W. French’s China’s Second Continent: How a Million Migrants Are Building a New Empire in Africa, which really deserved better paper stock, and despite its shortcomings is one of the current required texts on the very-much hot subject. Udo Kittelmann and Britta Schmitz’s (eds.) Gottfried Lindauer: Die Māori-Portraits, from the exhibition at the Alte-Nationalgalerie, made me miss Aotearoa something fierce. Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Sword, not as good as the first one, but having just finished the third, and planning a binge of the trilogy, can say it’s crucial reading. Hannu Rajaniemi’s Collected Fiction, who occasionally shows the brilliance of his first novel, and worth it just for that. Charles Stross’ The Annihilation Score, a dependable early-summer arrival, didn’t enjoy it nearly as much as some of his other stuff though. Jo Walton’s The Just City, the first of a trilogy, I think. Not sure if it’s excellent (compared to say, her Among Others), but enjoyed very much. And I cannot not mention Iain Banks and Ken MacLeod Poems, as it’s the last thing Banks will publish and that guts me beyond words.
Maybe I’m just a grumpy, entitled cunt, cos from right here that looks like a pretty fucking sweet year of reading.
Books! Just like vinyl, they’ll never die. I unashamedly love books and reading. I love the weight of them, the resistance in their spines, the smell and feel of the paper and ink. I adore when the typeface and setting has been done with love, and adore also the works of art that are the covers. I love seeing a pile or stack or shelf of read books (as much as I cringe with embarrassment at the spilt and splashed food, drink, dirty fingers, smudges, I inflict—seem to have retired from marking pages by folding the corner though, so some progress made). A book is as much a work of art for how it is made as for what it contains; and for what it signifies and stands for, fiction or non-fiction: literacy, ideas, the love of knowledge, philosophy, these things that cannot be reduced to an economic sum. To read—to be able to read—is one of the greatest luxuries and privileges.
And that necessitates obligation. Reading in itself is not a human right. 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!
Had planned to go to Historiska Museet and look at mediæval stuff. Made it as far as Skeppsholmen and going to the Östasiatiskamuseet. “We close in an hour. But an hour is usually enough. For most people.” Even for me. Small and average. The collection of Chinese (and pre-China) pottery and ceramics was the best part. Also the stone sculptures of various Buddhist, Daoist (I know!) deities. The Japan collection was mediocre. I wanted to steal quite a bit of the Tang and Song dynasty. And use it. The Ming stuff looked like Lack of Subtlety by comparison. Even cheap tea would taste better in a Song Dynasty bowl.
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.
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.
Like Japan in the ’90s or Afghanistan until Bush Jr. was ousted and the ‘current affairs’ readers stopped caring, China has been for at least the last decade the subject of endless mountains of books, each anticipated, packed, and sold as the last word, the real truth on the Middle Kingdom, most heading quickly for the forgotten bargain bins and pulping. It’s really difficult to find better-publicised works that are of substance, that aren’t simply a rehashing of secondary sources, that are written by people who fundamentally know what they’re talking about and have devoted their lives to their field.
I’ve already finished Frank Dikötter’s The Tragedy of Liberation: A History of the Chinese Revolution 1945-1957, a work I’d been waiting for, and I could probably dispense with the post-reading praise as it’s not really possible at the moment for him to write something not worth reading. I’d previously read The Age of Openness: China Before Mao – the only disappointment there being lack of pages – and Mao’s Great Famine: The History of China’s Most Devastating Catastrophe, written before this one but chronologically coming directly after. There is one more to complete this trilogy, covering the Cultural Revolution, which will probably arrive in three years.
Both of the first two in this trilogy are masterworks, drawing on recently opened Communist Party archives across China, and pieced together from the often partial and incomplete information available. That this is even possible at all is remarkable, as it is the same party that committed these crimes which remains in power, and it is the descendants of those criminals who sit as rulers.
I find it strange and disturbing when I walk into my favourite bookshop and there’s a copy of Mao’s Little Red Book, or for example the Elizabeth Bear collection I’m now reading she whimsically names a synthetic cat Chairman Miaow. It feels to me as if there’s a disjuncture in understanding Mao’s place in the pantheon of 20th Century despots, an understanding that for most Europeans, Anglo-Americans and the general English-speaking part of the world would be self-evident if they walked into said bookshop and it was Hitler’s Mein Kampf, or the cat was named Führer Adolph. Even Stalin suffers (or perhaps gains) from an ambivalence or even disinterest in recognising his place in the history of terror, possibly because however close to Europe Russia is, there is a sense it is still Other and so the suffering he inflicted upon the Soviet Union was not necessarily part of the history of Europe and not quite as worthy.
Mao then – and the Chinese Communists – being even further east and perceived as entirely un-European (despite whatever basis his brand of Year Zero communism had in Marx, or that China had been a quasi-colony of Britain for quite some time) seems to be more a subject of patronising carelessness than a person and political party that did to China – and Tibet, and the other peripheral countries that became provinces after Liberation – ten times over what Hitler and the Nazis did in Europe, as well being directly responsible for what happened in Cambodia, Vietnam, much of South-East Asia, and North Korea. Unsurprisingly, it was Euro-American racism and post-colonial political meddling that in no small way abetted his rise to power.
The Tragedy of Liberation fills in the ten-year period from Liberation in 1949 to the end of the Hundred Flowers Campaign and the start of the Great Leap Forward, additionally covering the period of the Japanese occupation, and civil war. It is entirely grim, horrific reading. There is no pleasure to be found in the documenting of a country being ransacked and ground into the dirt, its people destroyed by the tens of millions, especially that this decade was just the beginning of a horror that did not begin to abate until the end of the ’70s. Even today the political decision-making and ruling frame remains substantially unchanged, merely a policy that resulted in the country being driven into the dark ages has been replaced by unmitigated capitalism. A history of China post-Mao I suspect will eventually show these most recent three decades to have been as destructive in their own way as the previous three.
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.
Here comes a deluge of serious reading. Well, another serious than the sci-fi I’ve been on of late (though with a new one from Charles Stross, and Iain Banks’ – sadly sans-M – last one in the next weeks, I’m well-stocked for that flavour of serious), or perhaps gratuitously indulgent, after all, what could be more appealing that bloody massive upheavals of granite which can be either climbed or geologised, or in the case of Mike Searle’s Colliding Continents, both at the same time?
This turned up in my feed from Oxford University Press’ blog, and I decided to dispense with the actual reading of their post for the important act of ordering the book. Which arrived on Saturday, and which, obviously, I’ve devoured a third of already.
This is one of those very nice, medium-large hardcovers with barely a page empty of maps, illustrations, diagrams, or more importantly utterly gorgeous photographs of mountains. It’s light on the technical side of geology, meaning someone with no prior knowledge of the subject would nonetheless not feel bewildered, yet equally there’s a lot of terms even I, who used to slip into the Geology department and temporarily purloin monographs of the Karakoram had to pause to visualise what was actually meant. Lucky there’s 30 pages of appendices covering all of this, and I think reading those first is probably a good idea.
Quite a bit of my interest in that region where Tibet becomes Central Asia becomes Indian subcontinent comes from geology. Also it comes from Deleuze and Guattari and reading of Steppe nomads, then looking at maps and trying to pin into that vast blankness between the Black Sea and the east coast of China names like Gobi, Taklamakan, Kashgar, Karakoram. Vast and blank indeed. So I set out to rectify my ignorance, becoming years – probably a lifetime as I’ve never been bored by this – of reading and reading and yes, still planning to go there.
A book like this is mainly a small moment of satisfying this love of mountains and this part of the world, and it does both superbly. Searle is one of those sensible geologists who realise early on it’s the obvious career choice for someone who thinks suffering their way up glaciers and cliffs is most excellent fun, and whose love of both subjects only adds to his abilities in each.
The only thing that’s missing for me is a map or maps of his annual-ish field trips. There are plenty of geological maps accompanying each chapter but either my map-reading skills have descended to bathic levels, I’m missing something fundamental, or there’s a lack of correlation between those maps and the paths of the journeys he undertook. Perhaps unnecessary, but for me this would be an essential inclusion.
So, 464 pages of mountains! The cover pretty much sums it up; it’s all just a lover’s ode to the most beautiful upthrusting of granite in the world.