Gallery

Reading … Book Covers of the Year 2017

Reading started ten years ago with just the covers of whatever I was reading — or about to read, blogged at the start. Then I added a paragraph or two about why I was reading whatever. Definitely not a review, I kept on repeating. More or less they’ve become reviews which I write either some way into the reading or at the end. Sometimes still at the beginning. Reviews, not reviews, whatever, reasons for reading. This last year at least, that’s turned into multi-thousand word essays on some books.

Fark! But wot about the cover art, Frances?

Reading is about the object, its materiality. The weight of the paper, the typography, the width of the margins, the smell of the ink and binding, the texture of the cover, the volume it occupies. The cover art.

A good cover thrills me. A bad one makes me cringe. Cover art is bound as much to genre constraints as it is to budget — and every class and decimal of Dewey is a genre. A good cover on a mass market paperback is not diminished by the crappiness of the print (cos the paper will yellow and grow brittle in the space of years), but no amount of expensive binding or price makes up for shiteful cover art and typography. So here are my favourite covers from 2017.

I love thematic consistency, editions or series by the same designer with a common style. I know it’s been done for decades, but it still seems new to me, maybe because I enjoy seeing the idea developed across multiple books. I especially love it when there’s a consonance between cover and story, like Steph Swainston’s Castle series, of which I read Fair Rebel this year (no idea who did the cover art, but it reprises the original trilogy). Totally fits the world. I see these covers and I immediately have images of the Fourlands, the Circle, of Jant fill my head.

Becky Chambers, whose The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet and A Closed and Common Orbit I read this year do attractive simplicity — lowercase typeface in shifting colour over astrophotography and silhouette of small figures on a hill in the lowest fifth. Again, I see these covers and know the world and characters. At the opposite end, full design, where typography and art are one, there’s Ben Aaronovitch’s Moon Over Soho and Rivers of London (cover art by Stephen Walter, and cheers again to Gala for introducing me to his brilliant series). Aesthetically, they’re not really my thing, but they suit the novels in a way (or you could go the whole Ayize Jama-Everett direction, or South London Grime, which might be more congruent, though scare off the nice readers).

I have Iain M. Banks covers. Not published any time recently but just as he’ll never not be my favourite author (“On what timescale, Frances?” “Oh, you know, heat death of the universe?”) the unified cover art of his various editions I love. The original editions are by Mark Salwowski (and I just discovered I can buy prints!), then the 2005 imprint was done by blacksheep, some of which I like more than the originals, but some, like Feersum Endjinn are iconic. No matter what edition or genre, these covers do solid typography and art. The post-2005 novels retain the 2005 style, but — for The Hydrogen Sonata at least — Lauren Panepinto is the artist. I could easily throw in any of these late-Banks covers here, but this is his last Culture novel and I have a deep fondness for it. The colour of the cover is that of the story.

Returning to Gesamtkunstwerk territory, China Miéville’s October: The Story of the Russian Revolution is a glorious piece of art. Andrea Guinn’s responsible for that slab of Russian Constructivism. If I was going to go all Cover of the Year, this would be one of them. Caroline Walker Bynum’s are around half the time understatedly gorgeous — academic publications act like they don’t have much to prove with their covers, but Christian Materiality: An Essay on Religion in Late Medieval Europe is a pleasure to hold. I’d love to see her work redone entirely by someone like Andrea Guinn. Another Cover of the Year would be Laura Jane Grace’s Tranny: Confessions Of Punk Rock’s Most Infamous Anarchist Sellout, by Christopher Norris, also gets best fucking title of the year, along with being my non-fiction Book of the Year. Which leaves Alastair Reynolds’ Revenger, which I have got more than a couple of friends to read, and is my fiction Book of the Year. The image here does it poor service, in the real world, the almost matt black is a light-deadening rectangle that looks larger than it is, it’s a suitably unfriendly cover to go with a disturbing story that I’ll be reading again and again.

11 covers then, in my first — and perhaps last — dance with cover art. Slightly less than a third of the books I read have covers (or complete design and binding, which is an even smaller subset) I think really gives the author and writing their due — and the reader, ’cos there’s nothing I love more than a beautiful book. So cheers to all you designers and artists and typographers, and cheers to the publishers who represent their authors with such art, you make the world a better place.

And my full list of what I read in the last year: Reading … A 10th Anniversary.

Reading … A 10th Anniversary

Another year of reading. Ten years I’ve been at this, blogging every book I read (almost every, a few slipped by over the years). Going from just blogging the book covers, to a few lines on why I was reading, to my recent frankly absurd multi-thousand word essays on some of Iain (M. or not) Banks novels. Trying to rein in that latter particular excess.

Usually at this point, I look at what I wrote a year ago, so I can aim for some sort of consistency.

A lot of fiction this year, almost twice as much as non-fiction, for a total of 34 books read — or attempted, I gave up on a few, and there’s a couple that I’ve already started but won’t make this list, ’cos I haven’t blogged them yet. Blogging is reading, just like rubbing is racing.

The year got off to a brilliant start with three biographies by trans women: Janet Mock’s Redefining Realness: My Path to Womanhood, Identity, Love & So Much More, Laura Jane Grace’s Tranny: Confessions Of Punk Rock’s Most Infamous Anarchist Sellout, and more a collection of essays over decades that becomes biographical, Julia Serano’s Outspoken: A Decade of Transgender Activism and Trans Feminism. And Tranny is my Book of the Year. There’s a couple of others equally or maybe more deserving — thinking of recent reads Peter Fryer’s Black People in the British Empire: An Introduction and China Miéville’s October: The Story of the Russian Revolution — but Miéville’s had a couple of Books of the Year already, so that’s him out. Tranny just spoke to me on a very personal level (as did Redefining Realness, different but no less personal), and Laura Jane Grace has been making miles in my head all year, I’m listening to her now. I’d marry her, it’s that kind of thing.

Following that trio, I went straight into Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak’s An Aesthetic Education in the Era of Globalization. Still in it. Not an easy read, needs the kind of mental preparation and focus I’ve been lacking the last some years, though strangely not for Caroline Walker Bynum, who I’ve been reading for three years now, one of my absolute loves, and Christian Materiality: An Essay on Religion in Late Medieval Europe is also deserving of being a Book of the Year.

A couple of others on the non-fiction side: May Opitz, Katharina Oguntoye, Dagmar Schultz (eds.) Showing Our Colors: Afro-German Women Speak Out, I read after seeing it at Deutsches Historisches Museum’s Deutscher Kolonialismus: Fragmente Seiner Geschichte Und Gegenwart exhibition. I’m didactic and prescriptive, and just like Peter Fryer, this (or whatever more recent work) should be compulsory reading in Germany, along with Ruth Mandel’s Cosmopolitan Anxieties and Katherine Pratt Ewing’s Stolen Honor — and a bunch of other stuff. But the last year’s European, American, and Australian politics makes me think we haven’t got a chance, walking with their eyes open while we shout and plead with them against where they’re going, where they’re dragging us.

I haven’t been reading much on China lately (or Afghanistan for that matter, but remedying that at the mo), but did read Frank Dikötter’s The Cultural Revolution: A People’s History, 1962–1976, the final work in his China under Mao Zedong trilogy (preceded by The Tragedy of Liberation and Mao’s Great Famine). He’s one of the few historians writing on China I’ll always read, who’s also in the fortunate position to be able to publish semi-regularly (and for academic publications, not horrifically over-priced).

There were a few other non-fiction works, but let’s get onto the fiction, or science-fiction and fantasy, ’cos I still don’t read anything else. I went on a lengthy Iain M. (plus a couple of non-M.) Banks binge earlier this year. I needed to just read, eyes rush over the pages, know before I started I’d love the story, sink back into familiar worlds and lives. Obviously that mean starting with my favourite book ever, Feersum Endjinn, and this being my first Banks re-read in some years, I came to him with a tonne of new reading behind me, and wow did I ever write about all my new thoughts. I followed that up with Whit, which has never been one of my favourites, nor did I think of it as one of his best. Wrong again, Frances. Back to The Business after that, definitely one I adore, and have read at least 6 times, then back into his skiffy with the late / last trio: Surface Detail, The Hydrogen Sonata, and Matter. I feel a little unsure putting these in my year’s reading here, as though there’s nothing remarkable about reading him multiple times, or that this is supposed to be about new books I’ve read. On the other hand, fuck it, it’s my blog and my reading and I can fuck off if that’s the attitude I’m going to bring.

There was a sizeable dip early- to mid-year, disappointment in fiction, feeling apathetic about the heaviness of non-fiction (thanks, Twitter), and also perhaps just steamrolling through scores of books year after year is an unrealistic monotone that I’m not. I did have a thrill with one more of Steph Swainston’s Castle novels, Fair Rebel, followed almost immediately by Above the Snowline, and love that she decided to return to writing, ’cos she’s one of the best. Not easy, these are large, demanding works that don’t mainline narrative reward, but she’s got one of the most captivating and extensive fantasy worlds I’ve read.

At the same time as Swainston, I got my grubby mitts on Alastair Reynolds’ Revenger. Something of marketed as Young Adult (is not), and not especially long (longer though than his novella Slow Bullets), and it feels like a Girl’s Own bit of romp, then he massacres an entire ship’s crew and continues in his very, very dark and existentially terrifying way right up till the end. Book of the Year for me, right there. Then there was the aforementioned Banks tour, and not until I was in Brussels did I get mad thrilled about fiction again. Cheers, once again, Gala. Ben Aaronovitch’s PC Grant series, A young Idris Elba / Stormzy cop with Harry Potter powers. A more cheerful Liminal People series. I started with number 2, Moon Over Soho, which meant reading the first in the series, Rivers of London had both plenty of, “I know who these people are,” and “Oh shit, her face is gonna fall off, isn’t it?” I’ve got the other 5 in the series on order.

I get to this point of writing, and I’ve added the covers of all these books, so I’ve got a nice visual treat in front of my mug, and I scroll through them … smiles all the way. And a little shiver of goosebumps. I’m lucky as all shit to be able to buy new books almost every week even when I’m on the verge of poverty (cheers, Germany and your incomprehensible to Australia attitude to cheap books), and lucky as all shit to have the time and education and all the rest to be able to read them. It’s a human right and every day I give thanks to the people (shout out to Eleanor Roosevelt here!) who fought and continue to fight for our inalienable rights.

Maybe I’m going to make this a thing (which always feels contrived), but I’ll finish quoting myself again, first from 2013 and then from 2015:

Buy books! Buy books for your friends! Encourage people to read. If you know someone who Can’t Read Good (And Wanna Learn To Do Other Stuff Good Too), help them, reading is only difficult if you’ve been told it is. Support your local libraries!

And:

So here’s to the writers, and their publishers and proofreaders and editors and typesetters and designers and artists and agents and friends and families who make it possible for them to write so that I may read.

And speaking of designers and artists, I decided to do a Book Covers of the Year thing, dunno why I haven’t before now. Mainly because both Revenger and October have covers that smash it. Also the original Feersum Endjinn, class late-20th century sci-fi cover art there.

Thrilled and awed by all this reading? Here’s the last years’ anniversary lists:

Quote

I was flying into Chicago at night Watching the l…

I was flying into Chicago at night
Watching the lake turn the sky into blue-green smoke
The sun was setting to the left of the plane
And the cabin was filled with an unearthly glow
In 27-D, I was behind the wing
Watching landscape roll out like credits on a screen

The earth looked like it was lit from within
Like a poorly assembled electrical ball
As we moved out of the farmlands into the grid
The plan of a city was all that you saw
And all of these people sitting totally still
As the ground raced beneath them, thirty-thousand feet down

It took an hour, maybe a day
But once I really listened the noise just fell away

Stratford-On-Guy, Exile in Guyville, Liz Phair
Flying into Tegel from Brussels yesterday evening, north of Berlin. I sat in 20-F, the sun coming in over my right shoulder, as we cut a giant curve from the Berliner Ring to turn back west, I sang, “… As we moved out of the farmlands into the grid …”.

These lyrics. How she sings them. Just my regular reminder to self that after 24 years Liz Phair's Exile in Guyville is still one of the best albums ever.

The National Gallery

All the art I saw in The National Gallery.

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The National Gallery — Level 0, Gallery A

Level 0 is in the basement of The National Gallery. Or feels like it after the airy heights of Level 2 and the Sainsbury Wing. It contains a cruciform quintet of rooms, with a couple more off one side I blasted through. This was “Running out of time!” territory and “Really need to get to airport, Frances.” Gallery A, though, how could I not?

Honoré-Victorin Daumier’s Don Quixote and Sancho Panza was before all that, but appears at the end here, as chronologically it makes more sense, and was in one of those other small rooms. It’s a bit of an orphan. I would gladly steal it and have it break me into a smile every morning.

So much good art here! Gallery A is a rotating exhibition of the Gallery’s collection, and spans much of the last seven hundred years. On its own it could be a small town museum, like Musée des Beaux-Arts de Valenciennes with its walls of Rubens. And there’s a Rubens here: A Roman Triumph, which is frankly bonkers, more or less in keeping with him. A lot of mediæval and Renaissance Italian art, the dominant region for these periods in the gallery. It speaks of how vast and strong the collection is that some of these are only worthy of being in Gallery A and not upstairs.

Amidst all the mediæval art, Agnolo Gaddi’s The Coronation of the Virgin caught me for the delicate colour that needs to be seen up close, as does Benozzo Gozzoli’s The Virgin and Child Enthroned among Angels and Saints, almost sculptural in its flatness, like a bas relief. Yes, Rubens, elephants and a huge, thronging crowd of musicians, dancers, animals probably going to be slaughtered, fire, smoke, noise, they’re all well amped for a party, definitely one of my favourites of his.

Giovanni Domenico Tiepolo’s The Lamentation at the Foot of the Cross reminds me of Master of the Saint Bartholomew’s The Deposition though each such different works in style and technique. It’s the grotesque, visceral movement in both, frozen and posed, like a scene in a film. And I felt like I’d already written this exact sentence before realising there is an almost identical one by him in the Level 2, 1700–1930 collection, from a slightly different angle, like two moments in time by photographers standing side by side.

I was by then running late for the airport and now have been writing all day, so in both instances this where I stop. Abruptly.

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The National Gallery — Level 2, 1700-1930: Post-Impressionism

I did not spend much time on 19th century art. I was running out of time, my camera battery was looking shaky, and I’d already gorged myself on mediæval art. But I have a soft spot for Cézanne and Gauguin. And lately one for Toulouse-Lautrec, cos he made a habit of painting queer women.

So we have the beautiful Faa Iheihe by Paul Gauguin, from his time in Tahiti. And paraphrasing The National Gallery here (cos all their works are online, so why I spent so much time photographing and editing, I’ll never know), the title is his translation of the Tahitian “‘fa`ai`ei`e’ which means “to beautify, adorn, embellish”, in the sense of making oneself beautiful for a special occasion” and uses “a horizontal format inspired by Javanese sculptured friezes.”

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec’s The Two Friends is one of his paintings from his Paris brothel visits. The National Gallery says it “belongs to a series of paintings focusing on the friendships between the women which often, as here, portrayed intimate moments or gestures of companionship or sympathy”, but having seen some other of his paintings and drawings, I think it’s quite explicit this work and many others are of queer women, and he identified with this milieu. There’s a tendency, or rather a compulsion, in art history to refuse to see what’s there, or — being charitable here — to be ignorant of signifiers. The rest of us know when we’re being spoken to. There are works of his with two women that are clearly not queer, that are, as the Gallery says, friendships between women. And there are others, some which are so similar as raise the challenge, “How can you claim this and not that?” which are obviously more. We read the signifiers, we know what we’re seeing, even while art history erases them — and there’s at least one photograph of Henri dressed in the same clothes the women he drew wore, so there’s that to read too.

Lastly, there’s a Degas. He’s the opposite of everything Toulouse-Lautrec lived for, and today would vote to the right of Le Pen, as well as being well suss around all those young, female ballet dancers. I can be a bit of an apologist for Wagner, who I think gets a harsher rap than he earned (largely though not entirely because of his family), but Degas gets far, far less of a thrashing than he deserves. He’s well dodgy. But his art can be sublime. Plus it’s ballett, and I’m a sucker for seeing what I’ve lived for in art.

I didn’t mention the Cézanne. As with Gauguin, I just like Cézanne. I think it’s because they’re all Post-Impressionists, and whereas Impressionism leaves me cold (there were walls of Monet and Manet, plus rooms of 19th century stuff I did not touch) Expressionism reliably does it for me, and I see plenty of what moves me in that in artists like Toulouse-Lautrec, Gauguin, and Cézanne, so enjoy Bathers, cos it’s beautiful. (There were stacks of van Gogh too, including Sunflowers. The crowd though, like getting the Metro at rush hour.)

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The National Gallery — Level 2, 1700-1930: J. M. W. Turner

There are two museums here. The first painting, Life-Boat and Manby Apparatus Going Off to a Stranded Vessel Making Signal (Blue Lights) of Distress, is from the Victoria & Albert Museum which I’d visited a couple of days prior to my National Gallery jaunt. The blogging of my V&A trip was solid Mediæval and Renaissance, and along with everything non-North-East Eurasian European peninsula, there was no place for Joseph Mallord William Turner. The National Gallery put on a Turner trio for me, so I’ve rolled the V&A one in here.

Michel Serres loves Turner. I’m sure he resonated with me as well prior to my student years introduction to Serres, but I forever associate Turner with that time when my university philosophy friends, having already blown my mind on Butler and Deleuze said, “Well if you like them, you’re gonna love Serres.” It was probably Hermes: Literature, Science, Philosophy, and the chapter Turner Translates Carnot, seducing me with the interplay of these three subjects, with thermodynamics and art. It occurs to me now that the scene in Feersum Endjinn, where Count Sessine is in the bowels of a steam train with a younger, forked version of himself is a work of Turner.

It may be unremarkable to love both The Fighting Temeraire tugged to her Last Berth to be broken up and — especially — Rain, Steam and Speed — The Great Western Railway, but perhaps it is having seen them so often they serve as a mnemonic for Serres, who in turn leads me through the art of Turner, through science and aesthetics and ethics, and makes it so much more than just singular, remarkable paintings.

As with Joseph Wright of Derby’s An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump, I found myself in Room 34 faced with works I’ve seen for years in print unexpectedly there before me. I made some noise. The school kids were all, “What the fuck, tall old weird person?” They were being forced to stand before it and experience Art. I wonder if they could sense how remarkable these works are, or if that was drowned beneath the imperative to concur, that yes, like the Mona Lisa and Shakespeare these are masterpieces. The Mona Lisa is unremarkable, mediocre, forgettable. Turner, particularly in his 1830s and ’40s period, is a monster. You can see him moving toward the intensity of Rain, Steam, and Speed in much earlier works, in the cloud and circulating light, and you can see traces of where he came from in the Temeraire itself, sliding between Baroque, Romanticism, and Realism, going somewhere that superficially resembles Impressionism, but there’s no way to get to that from where Turner ended up.

To see these close up, shoving in a crowd to get close enough to marvel at the detail, to wait for that break in the throng to be able to photograph them, all while rushing to make the airport. The hare running before the train is a long diagonal blob, and the detailed photo misses it entirely, but look at the train, a black maw around a white-hot inferno, and on the shore between the bridges’ arcs, a group of dancers; like the wheels on the train precise in the raw chaos of brush strokes. Look at the sky in the rectangle of paddle-wheel tug, funnel, smoke and the Temeraire’s pale bow. It shimmers and burns in the heat, convection rising and falling, peeling off, dirtying and hazing the air. The slender black upright of the funnel links both these paintings; as Serres says, “the entire world becomes a steam engine … Turner entered into the boiler … the painting is inside”.

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The National Gallery — Level 2, 1700-1930: Joseph Wright of Derby: An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump

I know this painting from when I was a kid. I think it was in one of those Time Life books, of which we has piles, rescued from pulping at some point along the paper recycling process. There were a lot of good books coming from that way. It might have been in Life Science Library, or maybe Life Nature Library, but either way I stared at it often, and it’s engraved in my memory.

It’s a beautiful painting, An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump, and harrowing. Even more so stumbling on it in The National Gallery. There’s nothing better than turning a corner and bumping into paintings you’ve know your whole life but this time they’re real. The light is sublime, one of Joseph Wright of Derby’s greatest strengths, and I love how my eyes circulate around the composition, from the moon to the boy’s face, clockwise past the girl covering her eyes in horror, past the glowing glass bowl obscuring the light source behind, up the faces in profile, over the scientist — or charlatan — who stares directly at me, and finally back to the young girl. She’s comforting the older girl, or maybe also on the verge of looking away, but for the moment, she’s riveted. She sees death, science, technology, and she’s all there. She’s the only person we see actually looking at the glass air pump, paying unqualified attention to it and the white cockatoo suffocating inside. There are others who are looking, the trio on the lower left, but we see them only from behind, or in profile, and none of their attention is as sharp as hers. Her face though, it’s front on, closest to the light, the brightest and most central. I look at this painting and think, “There’s a scientist,” even as she is before vivisection. It’s the emotion on her face that balances this horror at power and death with dispassionate curiosity. She’s taking it all in, and of all those present around this table, she’s the only one thinking.

The bird though. This painting was done in 1768, the British Empire was about to get booted from the Americas and just before invading Australasia. It looks like a cockatoo, whose habitat is Australia and north through Indonesia and Philippines. A lot of the art from this period features wildlife brought back from expeditions, more frequently used as exotic signifiers (like the Dinglinger Werkstatt in Dresden) of dominion, but this work is naturalistic, yet has this rare and exotic bird from a distant land being snuffed out. Exotic signifiers, eh.

As for the girl, I hope shortly after the moment in the painting, she smashed the glass, grabbed the cockatoo, kicked the ‘scientist’ in the nuts, ran off with the boy in the background — cos he looks like he’s handy with equipment and would make a good lab assistant — and did mad science and invention, changing the world.

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The National Gallery — Level 2, 1700-1930

The last of The National Gallery‘s Level 2 collections, starting with Elisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun’s Self Portrait in a Straw Hat. I took far too many photos and edited far too many and trying to write about the art at a commensurate level of ill-discipline is — probably for the best — not happening, so I’m just making quick notes on some I liked. This one because it’s a woman artist, and museums do such a weak job of representing us on either side of the canvas, particularly once we get to the 1700s, plus she was talented as her self-portrait evinces, and looks like fun.

Giovanni Domenico Tiepolo’s The Lamentation at the Foot of the Cross reminds me of Master of the Saint Bartholomew’s The Deposition, also brutal and moves the setting back to the Middle East. His father, Giovanni Battista Tiepolo, has The Banquet of Cleopatra nearby. As with many of the Italian artists doing large works, it owes a heavy debt to Veronese, including having a little person in the scene.

William Hogarth’s Marriage A-la-Mode: 4. The Toilette is kinda grotesque and mainly I included it for that, and not in a praiseworthy way.

Giovanni Antonio Canal, or Canaletto as he’s better known, makes a solid appearance. I first saw him in the Gemäldegalerie and sometimes I feel a little ashamed for liking him so much, but I like Fast & Furious, so what do I know? There’s several of his, Venice: The Upper Reaches of the Grand Canal with S. Simeone Piccolo, The Feast Day of Saint Roch, and Campo S. Vidal and Santa Maria della Carità (‘The Stonemason’s Yard’) with a woman working stone in the sun. Following him is Pietro Longhi, who I thought was Canaletto at first — same time and place. Exhibition of a Rhinoceros at Venice for the strange masks, and the Rhino.

The National Gallery has all these works online, and Wikipedia has most of the artists, so I’ve been repeatedly wondering why I committed to so many photos and words. I think it’s because this is my experience of a museum or gallery I visit, and blogging serves as a kind of external memory. As well, in editing the photos I spend a long time looking at them all, revisiting my trip, looking at details, reading about the artists. So what was a short afternoon in the Gallery while heading airport-wards becomes days of looking at art as I do the editing and writing. This is for me what visiting a museum or gallery is, what being an audience in these places is, how I experience art. Perhaps too, long periods of unemployment combined with a tendency to get very involved in a task lead me to currently enjoy visual art like this. To be clear: it’s work. It’s not always fun, sometimes it’s to be endured, or I get through by persevering. I don’t know ‘what it’s for’ except for itself.