Friday, January 8, 2016

Books read 2015

The third annual look at what I read in the past year. First a list — with links if I've written about the book, whether here, on my tumblr (if I wrote at least a little more than just "good!" or "terrible!"), or as part of the Strange Horizons book club — and afterward some commentary.

1. Rachel Pollack, Unquenchable Fire (re-read)
2. Rachel Pollack, Temporary Agency (re-read)
3. L. Timmel Duchamp, Alanya to Alanya (Marq'ssan cycle 1)
4. Anne Carson, Red Doc>
5. Lady Churchill's Rosebud Wristlet, issue 31
6. Clare Winger Harris, Away from the Here and Now: Stories in Pseudo-Science
7. Helen DeWitt, Lightning Rods
8. Interzone 255 (November-December 2014)
9. Asimov's Science Fiction (February 2015)
10. Galaxy Science Fiction (October 1950)
11. Marcel Proust, The Fugitive (trans. C.K. Scott Moncrieff, Terence Kilmartin, and D.J. Enright)
12. Gertrude Stein, Geography and Plays
13. Jennifer Marie Brissett, Elysium Or, The World After
14. Stanisław Lem, Microworlds (ed. Franz Rottensteiner, trans. various)
15. The Mammoth Book of SF Stories by Women, ed. Alex Dally MacFarlane
16. Ellen Cushman, The Cherokee Syllabary: Writing the People's Perseverance
17. Valeria Luiselli, Sidewalks (trans. Christina MacSweeney)
18. Octavia E. Butler, Patternmaster
19. Lynn Margulis, Symbiotic Planet: A New Look at Evolution
20. Vine Deloria, Jr., Custer Died for Your Sins: An Indian Manifesto
21. Alan Garner, Red Shift
22. Alan Garner, The Owl Service
23. Nisi Shawl, Filter House
24. Asimov's Science Fiction (March 2015)
25. Interzone 256 (January-February 2015)
26. Marcel Proust, Time Regained (trans. Andreas Mayor, Terence Kilmartin, and D.J. Enright)
27. Isaac Asimov, Second Foundation (re-read)
28. Nina Allan, Spin
29. Nina Allan, The Race (re-read)
30. Soviet Science Fiction (ed. uncredited, trans. Violet L. Dutt)
31. Hilton Als, White Girls
32. Plato, Parmenides (trans. Benjamin Jowett)
33. Galaxy Science Fiction (November 1950)
34. Doris Vallejo, The Boy Who Saved the Stars (illustrated by Boris Vallejo)
35. R.K. Narayan's rendering of The Ramayana
36. Dung Kai-cheung, Atlas: The Archaeology of an Imaginary City (trans. Dung, Anders Hansson, and Bonnie S. McDougall)
37. Arthur C. Clarke, Rendezvous with Rama (re-read)
38. Arthur C. Clarke and Gentry Lee, Rama II
39. Genesis (KJV)
40. Interzone 257 (March-April 2015)
41. Eric Williams, Capitalism and Slavery
42. Gay American History: Lesbians and Gay Men in the U.S.A. - A Documentary History, ed. Jonathan Ned Katz
43. Rachel Pollack and David Vine, Tyrant Oidipous: A New Translation of Sophocles's Oedipus Tyrannus
44. Domenico Losurdo, Liberalism: A Counter-History
45. Asimov's Science Fiction (April/May 2015)
46. Kuzhali Manickavel, Things We Found During the Autopsy
47. Frederik Pohl, The Case Against Tomorrow
48. Julie Phillips, James Tiptree, Jr.: The Double Life of Alice B. Sheldon
49. Asimov's Science Fiction (June 2015)
50. Craig Strete, The Bleeding Man and Other Science Fiction Stories
51. Marilynne Robinson, Gilead
52. Andrea Hairston, Lonely Stardust: Two Plays, a Speech, and Eight Essays
53. Georges Bataille, Prehistoric Painting: Lascaux or The Birth of Art (trans. Austryn Wainhouse)
54. Pier Paolo Pasolini, Heretical Empiricism (trans. Ben Lawton and Louise K. Barnett)
55. Edward E. Baptist, The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism
56. Asimov's Science Fiction (July 2015)
57. Interzone 258 (May-June 2015)
58. Marilynne Robinson, Absence of Mind: The Dispelling of Inwardness from the Modern Myth of the Self
59. Octavia E. Butler, Mind of My Mind
60. Fantasy & Science Fiction (July-August 2015)
61. Exodus (KJV)
62. Asimov's Science Fiction (August 2015)
63. Miguel de Beistegui, Proust as Philosopher: The Art of Metaphor (trans. Dorothée Bonnigal Katz, with Simon Sparks and Beistegui)
64. Samuel Beckett, Molloy (trans. Patrick Bowles and Beckett)
65. Samuel R. Delany, Equinox
66. Asimov's Science Fiction (September 2015)
67. Galaxy Science Fiction (December 1950)
68. Henry Dumas, Ark of Bones and Other Stories
69. Kiini Ibura Salaam, Ancient, Ancient (re-read)
70. Nancy Jane Moore, The Weave
71. Walter Benjamin, Illuminations (trans. Harry Zohn) (re-read)
72. Leviticus (KJV)
73. Interzone 259 (July-August 2015)
74. Fantasy & Science Fiction (September-October 2015)
75. Samuel Beckett, Malone Dies (trans. Beckett)
76. Gabriel Josipovici, Hotel Andromeda (re-read)
77. Octavia E. Butler, Survivor
78. Fantasy & Science Fiction (November-December 2015)
79. Asimov's Science Fiction (October-November 2015)

And commentary.

From the perspective of today at least, I want to say it felt like a scattered, vague, often routine year of reading. I suspect this has a lot to do with the massive quantities of new short science fiction I was reading, only a fraction of which shows up on this list because I arbitrarily and somewhat old-fashionedly only included the paper magazines I read as "books" here. (On the other hand it's not like I'm going to call an issue of, say, GigaNotoSaurus — i.e., one story, most of the time not one I read all the way through — "a book.") I plan to say more about My Year Of At Least Trying To Read All The Damn Stories in a forthcoming post (after I manage to write about the one 2015 story I have left to write about, which is beautiful and wonderful and hard to write about), but for now I'll just say that by the end of the year it was exhausting and felt obligatory and mechanical and awful, the occasional good (and much rarer great) story notwithstanding. In fact by the end of the year I was kind of feeling like reading itself was obligatory and mechanical, just something I did because what else was I going to do and at the same time something I had to force myself to do rather than the much more appealing options of sitting vacantly in front of the television or the computer. All those damn stories — and even just looking at this list, my god I read so many magazines — took their toll, I guess. Part of the end of the year too was taken up with reading for pre-arranged critical projects, one in particular (tba) deeply unpleasant; I don't want to stop participating in criticism beyond the self-directed, typically serendipitous rather than planned, bounds of this blog, but I think I need to reorient my approach to it.

Despite all that this list is full of books that moved and changed me. I finished Proust's great novel, delighted among other things to find that its final volume is full of pre-emptive demolitions of superficial takes on Proust, then later read Miguel de Beistegui's extraordinary (albeit poorly translated) book about it — though calling it "a book about Proust" is misleading, especially in a climate which tends to think of literary criticism as secondary to the "real" work. Beistegui's book is a thrilling work of philosophy in its own right: it is both, as Steve Mitchelmore once put it, "a stunning study of what fiction might be other than representational" and an attack-from-within on Western concepts of rationality and linear time that have reigned supreme since at least Kant. Reading it was one of those wonderful experiences where you recognize, intimately, what you've felt all along without being able to articulate (or sometimes just plain without knowing it) while simultaneously being forced to reconsider everything you thought you knew, everything you thought you thought. A year that had Proust and Beistegui in it and nothing else would be a great year.

And Beckett! My god!

And Helen DeWitt!

I've begun reading the Bible, slooooowly, in the King James Version; I will admit I sometimes (often) find myself glazing over, but at other times it's a remarkable experience — the sort of expanding narrative of the books of the Torah, or the Pentateuch if you prefer (I have neither a traditional allegiance nor a firm knowledge) — the way it practically gallops through these grand events, slowly beginning to look more and more closely until we reach what strikes me as the central event, the giving of the law (which is still narrative: it is not merely a list of laws, it is the narration of the event that is God giving the law to Moses and through him the people), which takes up as much or more space than everything that has come before it combined — it's like nothing else I've read, though at times I find myself thinking of Beckett, or Bernhard ("And the LORD spake unto Moses, saying, Speak unto Aaron and unto his sons, saying, On this wise ye shall bless the children of Israel, saying unto them, The LORD bless thee, and keep thee," he said, I thought).

As with Beistegui, it was a post of Steve's that brought me, unexpected, to Georges Bataille's "highbrow coffee table book" on the paintings at Lascaux, which, shaped though it often is by his more, uh, questionable tendencies, is nonetheless beautiful and provocative, with a great deal to say about art, time, and wonder (and the photographs are why words like "exquisite" exist). Valeria Luiselli and Hilton Als, vastly different as they are, both demonstrate, in their affinity with and vast distance from the typical New Yorker-style, MFA-taught, read-aloud-on-NPR kind of "personal writing," what such writing could be if freed from these institutional requirements (and, admittedly, if written by people as brilliant as Als and Luiselli). As for Marilynne Robinson, after having read Gilead with a deep sense of gratitude, Absence of Mind was fascinating and troubling for the way its subtle and often necessary attack on scientism and related sins was yoked to, again, the politically and artistically compromised MFA world that she is, after all, as an instructor at Iowa, at the heart of; her horrifying two-part interview with Obama (the second part of which I managed to restrain myself from reading) was almost like the punchline to the joke that was my strange relationship with her work last year. For all that, though, I'm still glad of Gilead more than not, and am undecided whether I wish to explore further.

Politics! If I thought my departure from and disgust with liberalism was complete and total before I read Losurdo's book on the subject, well, it's damn well complete and total now. Speaking of that monstrous ideology, I read a pair of important books on its close relative (Losurdo calls it a "twin birth"), slavery: Eric Williams' study of Capitalism and Slavery, whose often dry (though just as often cutting) take on the subject is nonetheless vital in showing how slavery shaped just about every aspect of the world that we live in to this very day — which is also a focus of Edward E. Baptist's much more....intimate? (sometimes in my opinion irresponsibly so) book, intertwining as it does a visceral accounting of the experience of slavery (so often missing from our received histories — one hears so often of things like "slave auctions" in contexts which encourage us not to think about what this might entail) with an in-depth economic analysis of just how it all worked, how it developed (and how very modern and dynamic it was, putting the lie to the "antiquated institution on its way out anyway" notion), and how it created, well, the modern world.

In science fiction (aside from all the new stories) I started but never returned to L. Timmel Duchamp's Marq'ssan Cycle, which I would like to get back to soon if I can; I began Octavia E. Butler's Patternist series, which so far I have vaguely mixed feelings about but am excited to continue; Jennifer Marie Brissett enraptured me with her richly disjunctive book; I renewed my love affair with Rachel Pollack; Nina Allan impressed me with her elusive, fragmentary glimpses of not-quite-future, not-quite-alternate worlds; I returned with joy and gratitude to Arthur C. Clarke's Rendezvous with Rama, perhaps the single most important novel in my life, lurking behind everything I ever write in any capacity (and discussing it with a group of brilliant people at Strange Horizons was sheer pleasure); and in their extremely different ways Clare Winger Harris, Craig Strete, Nisi Shawl, Kiini Ibura Salaam, and the wonderful old 1950's issues of Galaxy available at the Internet Archive all reminded me of why I'd wanted to be reading short science fiction in the first place.

Hopes for the year to come? As ever I'd like to read more poetry (Rankine, Rilke, and Ashbery come to mind as people I'm interested in exploring, and I've recently picked up the new Pasolini collection). I want to continue with Beckett. I'm tempted to re-read Proust already. More perversely, I'm also tempted to try to reacquire my Italian (never fluent to begin with, and never faced with dense intellectual work) with Losurdo's as yet untranslated (into English, that is) book on Stalin. More non-fiction: criticism, philosophy, politics, science, history, maybe even "theory". I'd like to give less of a shit about science fiction, though that's probably a vain hope, dammit. If I must keep up with "new" writing I want to read the books that don't get corporate attention; Jamie Berrout, for one, looks exciting, and I have some Metropolarity books to finish and begin. Older works — I've heard a rumor that people have been writing for millennia — and more in translation. Fewer books, proportionally, by damned white people (by the most generous possible accounting a little less than a third of the books I read in 2015 that can be so counted were by writers of color, which when you factor back in the unbearable whiteness of contemporary short science fiction makes for an even sorrier state of affairs). And only, only things I fucking care about.


William Squirrell said...

I started following you last spring precisely because you were reading all those Damn Stories. I'm sad the project is over, it was a wonderful screen with which to winnow out the chaff. Hard to find critics one trusts. Thanks for all the free labour.

Ethan Robinson said...

Thanks for reading! (and commenting, my god!) And thank you for "Götterdämmerung," too. (Assuming you wrote it and you're not some other person coincidentally also named William Squirrell and interested in short science fiction). Despite any ambivalence in what I wrote about it at the time, it's one of the ones that's stuck in my mind the most.

I'm not sure the project is over per se. I won't be looking at the field in anything approaching the comprehensive (and punctual) way I tried to last year, but I don't plan on ignoring it either. (On the other hand, one of my New Year's resolutions was to try not to care about sf so damn much...but that, alas, is unlikely.) Also, I thought I just had one more 2015 story to write about but it turns out I have at least two, maybe three, so if nothing else those should be forthcoming, if I can wrap my head around them.

William Squirrell said...

Yup, same guy. And your critique of "Götterdämmerung" was acute.