Reading: Frank Dikötter — The Cultural Revolution: A People’s History, 1962–1976

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.

I started with him in 2010 with The Age of Openness: China Before Mao, followed that up a few months later with the first proper of the trilogy, Mao’s Great Famine: The History of China’s Most Devastating Catastrophe, 1958–62, then The Tragedy of Liberation: A History of the Chinese Revolution 1945-1957 in 2013, and finally this. Unlike Mao’s Great Famine, or The Tragedy of Liberation, the Cultural Revolution has been covered by far more historians, and sits fresh in the memories of people in their forties. Writers like Liao Yiwu (The Corpse Walker, God Is Red, For a Song and a Hundred Songs) and others of the large crop of early-’00s writers covering Tiananmen Square and post-Tiananmen politics if not explicitly writing about this period nonetheless reference it. And if anything this is its weakness.

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.

Frank Dikötter — The Cultural Revolution: A People's History, 1962–1976
Frank Dikötter — The Cultural Revolution: A People's History, 1962–1976

Reading: David Nicholas — The Northern Lands: Germanic Europe, c.1270-c.1500

My combination book unpacking / book selling (fuck yes, I sell books sometimes too!) led to the discovery of a few books I’d never blogged – or for that matter finished reading. David Nicholas’ The Northern Lands: Germanic Europe, c.1270-c.1500 is one of those, unfinished because it’s kinda boring; rereading cos it’s informative and enlightening in a broad, generalist, undergrad way, heavy on the facts and light on poetry, a bit like reading contract law or  health insurance.

Who is David Nicholas and why does start sentences with ‘but’ so much? Professor Emeritus at Clemson University until he retired a decade ago, and yes, if there’s a distinct style of, white, anglo-euro-american male academic writing (and have I read a trunkload of them), he’s it (reminds me of Central Asian scholar Christopher I. Beckwith, or Aloïs Riegl). Around once every sentence I notice I’ve vagued out into mediæval fantasy land (me in central role saviour-ing or slaughtering, either/or), before returning to one of his regular and unintentionally hilarious sentences or clauses. (Such as – paraphrasing here: “Austrians always regarded the Swabians as aliens.”)

Yes. I have been learning things. No. Not quite sure what. Ignoring entirely the awkward-ish ‘Germanic’ in the title, no, he’s not tromping down the well-worn racist path of pure German identity, in fact he makes it quite clear without making it the central thesis that whatever constitutes ‘Germanic’ was throughout the period he covers conditional and contextual, and often incomprehensible: Swabians, Slavs, Wends, Frisians, Flems, Danish, Scandinavians all at various times and places both were and were not Germanic, even moving back and forth depending on where they were, whom they were speaking to or who was speaking of them. It’s the -ic in Germanic that’s important, an attribute of language, thinking, culture that moved back and forth between lands and regions, rather than an identity or nation that existed as a fixed object. But it’s the German that’s at issue, and while Nicholas broadly divides regions into England, Flanders, Netherlands, Denmark and Scandinavia, and Germanic regions (contemporary Germany, Austria), along with forays into Poland, Czech and those parts of the Holy Roman Empire, he nonetheless prioritises ‘German’. Probably would have been better to leave the title at “The Northern Lands” and move his focus to the interactions between these regions. Professor Len Scales’ review is far more eloquent on this than I can be.

My criticism is predominately on the boringness of the writing (ok, and on the substantial absence of women, art, culture, Jewish communities …). Dry, dry, dry enumeration of facts and names, which I can stodge through if it weren’t for baffling jumps back and forth across hundreds of years, frequently in the same paragraph. I’m sure for Nicholas this makes sense, but fuck me sometimes I’m at a loss to understand his line of reasoning or his point. If I was twenty, considering a life in mediæval history and was assigned this for coursework, I’d probably go off and become a tradie, spending the rest of my life thinking it was because I was stupid, and not that for all its density of information this work fundamentally uninterested in communicating – and I’m saying this as someone who reads Caroline Walker Bynum for pleasure (repeatedly).

For a more realistic comparison, trundling through Wikipedia pages on the Hanseatic League, Magdeburg, Sachsenspiegel, (all of which he’s written about), and various other labyrinths of mediæval gloriousness (plus following links out into the wilds of the internet) is far more informative, rewarding, and enjoyable. Weirdly, I keep hoping the next page he’ll break from his interminable introduction style and get down to some substantial writing. Not bloody likely.

If you’re at university and being made to read this, go somewhere else. Mediæval northern european history is mad fun, alternate history levels of science-fiction strangeness, it’s addictive as all shit, and it’s a living thing you can walk into any old church and see, it has philosophical debates and ideas as wonderful as Deleuze or Serres or Butler, art that thrashes contemporary stuff for levels of intensity (imagine walking into church and it was 5 hours of Volksbühne: that’s mediæval art), in all seriousness whatever workable future Europe has – politically, socially, culturally – it’s going to find more possibilities 800 years ago than in the last couple of hundred years of contagious bollocks, and if you’re reading The Northern Lands you’re going to experience approximately none of this. Fuck’s sake, go and read Bynum.

David Nicholas — The Northern Lands: Germanic Europe, c.1270-c.1500
David Nicholas — The Northern Lands: Germanic Europe, c.1270-c.1500

Reading … An 8th Anniversary

Let’s get it over with right away: there’s gonna be no Fiction Book of the Year this year. Even Non-fiction is sketchy. Last year was a scorcher: Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice, Nicola Griffith’s HildAfsaneh Najmabadi’s Professing Selves: Transsexuality and Same-Sex Desire in Contemporary IranCaroline Walker Bynum’s Wonderful Blood: Theology and Practice in Late Medieval Northern Germany and Beyond, and H. Jay Melosh’ Planetary Surface Processes. Just typing those, far out last year blazed! What’s gone wrong Frances?

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 PeopleThe Liminal WarThe 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.

Ysabeau S. Wilce drip-fed me a tiny bit of joy from her Flora Segunda world in Prophecies, Libels & Dreams: Stories of Califa, as did China Miéville in his collection, Three Moments of an Explosion: Stories. Nicole Kornher-Stace’s Archivist Wasp was another rare gem, so much of a world barely explored, as with Alastair Reynolds’ Slow Bullets, which would be my Book of the Year if I was going to give it to any.

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 BreedThe Castle Omnibus, Shadow ScaleArchivist 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.

Enough.

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!

Steph Swainston — The Castle Omnibus
Steph Swainston — The Castle Omnibus
Ayize Jama-Everett — The Entropy of Bones
Ayize Jama-Everett — The Entropy of Bones
Ayize Jama-Everett — The Liminal War
Ayize Jama-Everett — The Liminal War
Aloïs Riegl — Historical Grammar of the Visual Arts
Aloïs Riegl — Historical Grammar of the Visual Arts
Caroline Walker Bynum — Holy Feast and Holy Fast: The Religious Significance of Food to Medieval Women
Caroline Walker Bynum — Holy Feast and Holy Fast: The Religious Significance of Food to Medieval Women
Jo Walton — The Just City
Jo Walton — The Just City
David Bindman, Henry Louis Gates, Karen C. C. Dalton — 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
David Bindman, Henry Louis Gates, Karen C. C. Dalton — 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
Mechthild Of Magdeburg — The Flowing Light of the Godhead
Mechthild Of Magdeburg — The Flowing Light of the Godhead
China Miéville — Three Moments of an Explosion: Stories
China Miéville — Three Moments of an Explosion: Stories
Ayize Jama-Everett — The Liminal People
Ayize Jama-Everett — The Liminal People
Reading: Charles Stross — The Annihilation Score
Reading: Charles Stross — The Annihilation Score
Nicole Kornher-Stace — Archivist Wasp
Nicole Kornher-Stace — Archivist Wasp
Alastair Reynolds — Slow bullets
Alastair Reynolds — Slow bullets
Caroline Walker Bynum — Jesus as Mother: Studies in the Spirituality of the High Middle Ages
Caroline Walker Bynum — Jesus as Mother: Studies in the Spirituality of the High Middle Ages
Hannu Rajaniemi — Collected Fiction
Hannu Rajaniemi — Collected Fiction
Alte Nationalgalerie: Gottfried Lindauer — Die Māori-Portraits: Tamati Pirimona Marino (catalogue cover), undated
Alte Nationalgalerie: Gottfried Lindauer — Die Māori-Portraits: Tamati Pirimona Marino (catalogue cover), undated
Rachel Hartmann — Shadow Scale
Rachel Hartmann — Shadow Scale
Iain Banks, Ken MacLeod — Poems
Iain Banks, Ken MacLeod — Poems
Genevieve Cogman — The Invisible Library
Genevieve Cogman — The Invisible Library
Mischa Honeck, Martin Klimke, Anna Kuhlmann (eds.) — Germany and the Black Diaspora: Points of Contact, 1250-1914
Mischa Honeck, Martin Klimke, Anna Kuhlmann (eds.) — Germany and the Black Diaspora: Points of Contact, 1250-1914
Howard W. French — China's Second Continent: How a Million Migrants Are Building a New Empire in Africa
Howard W. French — China’s Second Continent: How a Million Migrants Are Building a New Empire in Africa
Michael Dante DiMartino, Bryan Konietzko, Joaquim Dos Santos — The Legend of Korra: The Art of the Animated Series, Book 1: Air
Michael Dante DiMartino, Bryan Konietzko, Joaquim Dos Santos — The Legend of Korra: The Art of the Animated Series, Book 1: Air
Ysabeau S. Wilce — Prophecies, Libels & Dreams: Stories of Califa
Ysabeau S. Wilce — Prophecies, Libels & Dreams: Stories of Califa
William Gibson — The Peripheral
William Gibson — The Peripheral

Reading … A 7th Anniversary

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 GirlExcluded: Making Feminist and Queer Movements More Inclusive. It’s odd to leave this off the Book of the Year list, as it’s undeniably a critical work and Serano is up with bell hooks and Judith Butler (among others) for her writing on feminism, trans, and queer politics and culture. She needs to be read; buy it and read it.

The reason why Serano got bumped is Afsaneh Najmabadi, whose Women with Mustaches and Men without Beards: Gender and Sexual Anxieties of Iranian Modernity was one of my Books of the Year last year. I heard about Professing Selves: Transsexuality and Same-Sex Desire in Contemporary Iran late last year and waited months for it. Considering the amount of attention works on trans people (particularly trans women) received in the last year, it’s baffling that Najmabadi goes largely unmentioned. For those engaged in this subject with no interest in Iran specifically, her documenting of the influence in Iran of Euro-Anglo-American ebbs and flows of political, social, medical, legal thought and practice on trans issues and identities is sufficient to make this required reading. Iran though is the dog that’s beaten irrespective of context, and successive Ayatollahs since the ’70s issuing Fatawa recognising trans people as legitimate and in need of help is presented in the west rather as the despotic Islamic dictatorship forcing sex reassignment on unwilling gays and lesbians. As with Excluded, buy it and read it.

Then there was H. Jay Melosh’s Planetary Surface Processes, which Emily Lakdawalla wrote about on The Planetary Society. Along with last year’s Colliding Continents: A Geological Exploration of the Himalaya, Karakoram, & Tibet, this one fills my need to look at massive contusions of granite and other rock. There’s a moderate number of formulae, and regular plunges into elucidations of those, placing this somewhere in general university-level and reference book. It is specific and not a casual read, and it’s the one book you want on the subject. Sometime soon I’ll pair it with one on planetary chemistry.

And finally for the non-fiction is Caroline Walker Bynum’s Wonderful Blood: Theology and Practice in Late Medieval Northern Germany and Beyond, recommended by a friend, and just one of those delightful, dense, heavy, demanding works written by someone so phenomenally talented and capable, and who simply loves her work. Completely a joy!

The fiction, also serious stuff:

I read less fiction in the last year, and tried new authors, some of whom I absolutely loved and are firmly helping me get over the absence of Iain Banks. Others … others who everything indicates I should love instead leave me cold, or worse, finding them actually not very good.

Let’s dispense with The Water Margin first. The second volume of five of John Dent-Young and Alan Dent-Young’s translation of Shi Nai’an and Luo Guanzhong: The Tiger Killers: Part Two of the Marshes of Mount Liang. This has to go on my list similarly as I have to have breakfast. Even if I read a hundred superior books, it would still be here. Some books are like that, you may never read them but they’re always around. The Water Margin is—as I keep saying—China’s Chaucer and The Canterbury Tales, or Marlowe’s riotous plays. I’d compare it to Shakespeare but it’s not equivalent: it’s bawdy, rough, uncouth characters and stories, and the writing itself is nearer the former two. Given its miraculous ability for genius turns of phrase, it’s perhaps comparable to Shakespeare for his wordsmithery. The Dent-Young’s translation is my favourite of the lot also, though the price per volume certainly isn’t.

Then there’s Ysabeau S. Wilce, who I discovered mid-this year, ordered the first of the Flora Segunda trilogy, promptly ordered the other two when barely past the first chapter. Flora Segunda: Being the Magickal Mishaps of a Girl of Spirit, Her Glass-Gazing Sidekick, Two Ominous Butlers (One Blue), a House with Eleven Thousand Rooms, and a Red Dog. Yes, that’s the title. Children’s book indeed. Would that some of the adult authors I read be capable of imagining and telling a story as this. I loved all three, though the first the most. It seems to me in trilogies where the protagonist starts almost from nothing, that the first part establishes the significant growth, and the remaining two are more working with what they’ve already learnt (the Matrix and Star Wars trilogies, for example), and it may be unreasonable to be irritated by this, but it does—books two and three are still wonderful and had I only read either of them I’d be frothing as I do over book one. It’s not in the same league as the two big ones below, but I did love the world and characters.

Another new author was K. J. Parker, who has written quite a bit. It was The Folding Knife that piqued my interest, and I enjoyed it enough that it gets a second mention here.

I almost forgot Imogen Binnie’s Nevada, neither sci-fi nor fantasy, something of an autobiography, a little like reading my own life, rough, punk and trouble. The ending I hated, but the rest, she deserves awards for this and to be read a fuck-ton load.

The two big ones then, and colossal they are.

One the Skiffy side, channelling Iain M. Banks: Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice; and on the Mediæval Fiction side (I keep imagining her and Caroline Walker Bynum together in a bar): Nicola Griffith’s Hild.

Buy these books. Read these books. These are incomparably the best sci-fi/fantasy of 2014. If you’re swayed by other’s opinions, between them, they’ve won or been nominated for more awards than I have fingers and toes. Both of them have my favourite covers of the year. Honestly, if you don’t like either you should give up reading; books are wasted on you.

I cannot say enough good things about either of these two books and their authors. It’s an extraordinary time for sci-fi and fantasy with writers like Griffith and Leckie. It’s unlikely I’ll ever have an experience like my reintroduction to sci-fi via Iain Banks a few years ago, but to utterly give myself over to the author and story as with these two and to be rewarded for that is beyond compare.

An aside: you may notice that many of the writers are female. It’s intentional. A while ago, I decided to put my money where my feminist mouth is. This is easier in fiction because the two genres I read, sci-fi and fantasy have many talented female writers and the genres are going through a renaissance due to these and non-white, non-western, non-straight authors (and a definite shift by the publishing industry to promote them). It’s brilliant. In non-fiction, it’s not so easy. In part this is because I want to read particular authors; in part particular subjects that are dominated by white male authors in the english language sphere. I consciously balance these two biases by seeking out and selecting female authors, and when it comes to a choice I’ll put the female author first. The result of my extraordinary and hegemonic discrimination is that the first twenty books on my wish list are split almost 50/50 between male and female authors.

There follows two salient points: first, on any subject or genre, despite their being anywhere from an abundance of quality women writers all the way down to an equal number as there are men, by comparison it requires sustained effort to find them. Secondly, women writers—or at least the ones I read—tend to take for granted aspects of society that male writers mostly consider irrelevant. (This is my “Easy A vs. Superbad” theory.) Not only do women authors tend to not make assumptions based on contemporary, western ideas of gender, desire, ethnicity in society, they also regard these subjects as self-evidently present even if not immediately obvious and therefore critical to a proper understanding of the subject (or, as my wont, deserving of entire books on their own). Male writers on the other hand far too often see the world in terms of a narrow heterosexual and mono-cultural construction where men are doing all the important stuff.

This to me is the fundamental point in arguing for proper representation: it is simply not possible to otherwise understand a subject or imagine a world. And given that there has been prolonged underrepresentation, it follows that what is claimed to known on a subject can be reasonably said to be seriously lacking at best and likely suspect unless it can demonstrate adequate representation.

Another year done, then. More shelves filled. More new, superb authors whom I’m able to enjoy because of the fortunate combination of being able to read, living somewhere I can make time to read, and where books are affordable and commonplace. So (as I said last year) here’s to the writers, and their publishers and proofreaders and editors and typesetters and designers and artists and agents and friends and families who make it possible for them to write so that I may read.

William Kinderman — Wagner's Parsifal
William Kinderman — Wagner’s Parsifal
Dayal Patterson — Black Metal: Evolution of the Cult
Dayal Patterson — Black Metal: Evolution of the Cult
Michel Serres — Variations on the Body (trans. Randolph Burks)
Michel Serres — Variations on the Body (trans. Randolph Burks)
Adam Minter — Junkyard Planet: Travels in the Billion Dollar Trash Trade
Adam Minter — Junkyard Planet: Travels in the Billion Dollar Trash Trade
Frank Dikötter — The Tragedy of Liberation
Frank Dikötter — The Tragedy of Liberation
Liao Yiwu — For a Song and a Hundred Songs
Liao Yiwu — For a Song and a Hundred Songs
Julia Serano — Excluded: Making Feminist and Queer Movements More Inclusive
Julia Serano — Excluded: Making Feminist and Queer Movements More Inclusive
Professing Selves: Transsexuality and Same-Sex Desire in Contemporary Iran
Professing Selves: Transsexuality and Same-Sex Desire in Contemporary Iran
H. Jay Melosh — Planetary Surface Processes
H. Jay Melosh — Planetary Surface Processes
Caroline Walker Bynum — Wonderful Blood: Theology and Practice in Late Medieval Northern Germany and Beyond
Caroline Walker Bynum — Wonderful Blood: Theology and Practice in Late Medieval Northern Germany and Beyond
Shi Nai'an, Luo Guanzhong — The Tiger Killers: Part Two of the Marshes of Mount Liang (trans. John Dent-Young, Alan Dent-Young)
Shi Nai’an, Luo Guanzhong — The Tiger Killers: Part Two of the Marshes of Mount Liang (trans. John Dent-Young, Alan Dent-Young)
Ysabeau S. Wilce — 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
Ysabeau S. Wilce — 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
Ysabeau S. Wilce — Flora's Dare: How a Girl of Spirit Gambles All to Expand Her Vocabulary, Confront a Bouncing Boy Terror, and Try to Save Califa from a Shaky Doom (Despite Being Confined to Her Room)
Ysabeau S. Wilce — Flora’s Dare: How a Girl of Spirit Gambles All to Expand Her Vocabulary, Confront a Bouncing Boy Terror, and Try to Save Califa from a Shaky Doom (Despite Being Confined to Her Room)
Ysabeau S. Wilce – Flora's Fury: How a Girl of Spirit and a Red Dog Confound Their Friends, Astound Their Enemies, and Learn the Importance of Packing Light
Ysabeau S. Wilce – Flora’s Fury: How a Girl of Spirit and a Red Dog Confound Their Friends, Astound Their Enemies, and Learn the Importance of Packing Light
K. J. Parker – The folding Knife
K. J. Parker – The folding Knife
Imogen Binnie — Nevada
Imogen Binnie — Nevada
Ann Leckie — Ancillary Justice
Ann Leckie — Ancillary Justice
Nicola Griffith — Hild
Nicola Griffith — Hild

Gallery

Museo della Storia di Bologna

The day after opening Parsifal, and I couldn’t even persuade myself to sleep in, so … To the Museums!

Unlike Berlin, where I live and know a reasonable amount about the city, Bologna is entirely new to me (ok, besides spaghetti bolognese). Indeed, this is my first time in Italy. I suppose this means I experience a museum in this city more as it is intended: an educational summary of a specific topic. Dasniya and I decided to go to the Museo Civico Archeologico di Bologna, but it seemed it would close not long after we got there. Across from Piazza del Francia we passed the Palazzo Pepoli, containing the Museo della Storia di Bologna, one of several museums that are part of Genus Bologniae. Open until 7pm and barely 2pm, we decided it would be a perfect choice for an hour or two. It was nearly closing by the time we left. I think the sheer number of photos I took and the number that ended up here illustrate what a fine time both Dasniya and I had.

This is the museum of the history of Bologna, and it goes back to the Etruscans, around 700BCE, when it was known as Felsina. It was also the city of Cassini, the Cassini, a satellite bearing his name orbiting now around Mars, who was a remarkable astronomer at a time of revolution in the field. This, and the art of building time-pieces (along with mercantile families and their ventures, and the famous university) is what the museum is built around. The Palazzo Pepoli of the family Pepoli dates back around 800 years, and while the museum doesn’t cover them as much as I’d have liked, it did devote the last exhibit in the formal dining hall to a series of 11 busts made in the 17th century of generations of women from the family, each of them spectacular in their own right.

I took an audio guide again, after my very good experience with one at the Musikinstrumenten-Museum a couple of weeks ago. It was a good decision, as all the exhibits are in Italian, though they also have information sheets in several languages in every room; the audio guide really adds a fantastic amount. It’s tempting to go through each room as a recollection here, but I think the photos capture something of that, and it’s sufficient to say I understand the city I’m working in far better than I did a few hours ago and have fallen into something of a love affair with the place, and Italy.

So, some flat notes amidst what is one of the most splendid museums set in one of the most beautiful city palaces I’ve ever been in. Despite the Pepoli women mentioned above, it’s unavoidable the museum gives a wide berth to the role of women in the history of the city. Even in the contemporary section, where 48 Bolognese are interviewed, only 5 of them are women; barely clearing 10%. Otherwise, it’s a sausage-fest, which is a pity, as the Pepoli women prove, the city has a history at least as long their family in which women play a central role.

The other, which coming from Berlin could never have been gotten away with in that city, was the exhibit (about a fifth of one of the 35 rooms) covering the Second World War. Or rather, “Liberata. Risorgere! Ai vittoriosi” “Liberation. Rise again! For the victorious”. No mention of Italian collaboration, fascism, Jews sent to concentration camps, just, “April 1945! Yay! … Oh, and the city was heavily bombed … Sad city is sad …” In Germany a museum would probably end up in prison for historical revisionism.

Besides that, this is a brilliant museum, varied and stimulating, beautifully laid out, so much attention to detail and the creative display of exhibits (a red Ducati next to a Roman chariot in the exhibit on the Roman Via Emilia trunk road!). I feel delightfully spoilt, and a little worried; if all museums here are so good going back to Berlin is going to be a torment.

Reading: Adam Minter — Junkyard Planet: Travels in the Billion Dollar Trash Trade

Because I’d never seen a photo of him, I imagined Shanghai-based scrap blogger Adam Minter was one of those gruff, 40- or 50-something American expats who manages to keep a blog of his life in China, like not a few others I’ve read over the years. How I came to be reading him … I have no idea, though possibly a connection to Shanghai Street Stories – in a different, older incarnation. Anyway, writing about trash, recycling, junk, waste, rubbish, the burning pits of Mordor, occasionally venturing to Guangdong and the cities I’d been through, of course I’d be reading him.

I’d been waiting for this book for quite some time, one of the many such that have coincidently all been published in the same couple of months. Partly because I have a curiosity for those desolate factories I sped past on the train from Hong Kong to Guangzhou, or the ones I drove through or spent time in, Qingyuan, Shaoguan, Dongguan, anonymous cities of millions that sprouted from nothing in the space of a pair of decades.

Also it occurred to me as Adam described his own family history of the junkyard that I seem to have one somewhat similar. My father, mechanic until it ruined his back (or at least, that’s the limit of what I know of him), had a factory in Scarborough dealing in waste paper. Not recycling it, just that intermediate step of gathering together all the sources and compressing it into massive bales. The old compactor was like a wire-frame elevator, going only down one floor. Paper went in and down; compressed and wrapped bales came up and out. There was also a freshly-concreted long pit, where the new, automated compactor was to go. And a forklift, which he tried to teach me how to drive at age 4. Almost ended in the pit. Though I did get enough of a hang of it for him to slap a pallet on the forks and me to take him all the way up so he could work on the roller door. Perhaps then a more accurate description of him is former mechanic in the scrap trade.

Minter’s book is a surprisingly light and fast read compared to his blog; it’s a different audience of course. A blog assumes a readership which allows for a shorthand when discussing its topics, giving more space for detailed remarks. A book on the other hand, especially one with a particular readership in mind, one that is unlikely to consistently enjoy reading about the Chinese recycling trade for years on end, keeps things much simpler and moving along. And he does move. Across the United States, across China, back to America, back to China, all the time meeting people from across the Americas, Asia, Middle East, Africa, pretty much anywhere people throw stuff out and other people see a way to make a living from that.

When I was in China, it because swiftly apparent to me the dominant narrative on many issues circulating around consumerism were highly problematic. To be stridently against sweatshops while living a first-world life, for example entirely misses the reality that doesn’t fit neatly into a slogan. Even the next level of narrative, that people in Guangdong, the manufacturing capital of the world, would choose to work in such factories simply because it was better than any other available option is an oversimplification. While it’s not David Graeber’s Debt, Adam Minter’s Junkyard Planet: Travels in the Billion Dollar Trash Trade does go a long way beyond these simplifications, showing how recycling actually works on a global scale, and for anyone with only a passing familiarity of the topic it’s definitely worth a read. Oh, and Adam is actually a cherub-faced young one.

Adam Minter — Junkyard Planet: Travels in the Billion Dollar Trash Trade
Adam Minter — Junkyard Planet: Travels in the Billion Dollar Trash Trade

Gallery

Mitte Museum Berlin

It’s Sunday, so Frances is going to museums! This time with a companion, Dasniya, and to the museum closest to my bed that I know of: Mitte Museum Berlin. The Mitte Museum is one of twelve of the Berliner Regionalmuseen, each covering one of the city’s Verwaltungsbezirk – administrative districts – its history, culture, people, and is just around the corner in Pankstr. I’ve biked past it for years and now that I have my regular weekend museum visit project it was obvious to be one of the first.

I don’t have any plan of which museum I’ll go to next; it sort of emerges in the course of the week, random passings-by spurring my interest or random remark from someone. Today was a very lazy start to the day so it befitted the tempo that I would choose not one of the imperial monsters, rather try something quotidian.

The museum itself is spread over three floors and several rooms. It would be possible to whirl through it in 20 minutes but the reading is as important as the looking and a leisurely 3-4 hours is worth it. The ground floor contains the Mitte-Tiergarten-Wedding timeline going from 12th Century ’til today, and the Alltag, daily life in Wedding around 100 years ago for a working class family living in a Hinterhof, following the work of the mother. They sleep seven to a small room, she is up first, cooking, then once the father is off to work and children departed does the clothes washing (by hand, boiling the water with a fire), cleaning, then off to the market to buy potatoes and bread, returning home to earn some extra income sewing for the garment industry, then cooking dinner – those potatoes, before more cleaning while husband sods off to down some Schnapps at the Kneipe. Sleep and repeat. This leads off to the pre- and post-war housing reform, renovation of Altbau and the building of the Neubau. One of my favourite housing projects in Berlin, the Afrikanische Str Viertel which I thought was ’40s early high modernism but turns out was built in the ’20s.

The first floor contains the various histories of the land and its use, from the days of Gesundbrunnen being just that, a health spa, to the height of the industrial age when it was wall-to-wall factories and squalid apartments, the post-war demolition and rebuilding, and the post-boom years dwindling of the same factories, putting thousands out of work and preparing those factories for occupation by artists such as we in the Uferhallen.

One room was devoted to the culture of the district, especially that of the revue theatres, from Friedrichstadt-Palast to the sadly destroyed Lichtburg, the vast 2000-seat theatre where Marlene Dietrich once played, now replaced by the equally vast yet wholly mediocre Gesundbrunnen mall at the Bahnhof. I thought this could be an exhibition in itself: the history of Berlin’s theatres, which then made me wonder just how many theatres are there in Berlin? Proper theatres, that is; not converted factories or other repurposed sites, but ones that were built for stage and live productions.

Amongst this all were maps, photographs, documents, dioramas (I especially liked the one of Barricade Wedding, a pitched gun battle in the 19th century between army and revolutionaries); the history of Red Wedding is another that deserves its own exhibition. Also quite surprised to find that Luisenbad and its gardens were right around the corner, more-or-less where the Library is today. And there was a massive immigration of Huguenots in the 16th century during their religious persecution. Perhaps not quite enough on the Turkish history here, considering they make up close to 1 in 5 of the population of Wedding and Gesundbrunnen. Oh, and a lot of breweries.

Lastly there are books, various histories of Wedding, which like all books in this city are improbably cheap and simply encourages profligacy. Also there is a donation box, because the Mitte Museum Berlin is entirely free.