This list is a little incomplete: there’s some more game stuff I read, some of it in part and some in full. But it’s close enough to a list of all the books I finished, so I’ll go with this.
It’s hard to pick standouts, because there were a lot of great books. Having so little time to read, I focused on things I felt I’d really enjoy.
Still, if I were to recommend a few books, I guess I’d go with these, in no specific order:
- Stanislaw Lem’s The Futurological Congress: From the Memoirs of Ijon Tichy. It’s a real trip. Feels like a cross between Borges and PKD, with a ton of academic humor. The more Lem I read, the more I feel he’s underappreciated.
- The Dutch Come to Korea: An Account of the Life of the First Westerners in Korea (1653-1666) by Gari Ledyard. An eye opening account of how the first Westerners to arrive in Korea (well, almost the first) were captured, immediately enslaved, and held captive until they could sneak off, steal a boat, and flee to Japan. All this, in the mid-1600s, like, not long after the failed Japanse invasion known as the Imjin War.
- Helen Marshall’s creepy collection of body/text horror short stories Hair Side, Flesh Side. It was brilliant stuff, and very impressive for a first collection of stories, though it came out a while ago. I think she has a novel out now, and I’ll be looking for it (and whatever else she publishes, including the poetry) when I have time. I will be keeping my eyes open for more.
- Peter H. Lee’s translation of the Record of the Black Dragon Year, which is basically folk legend about the Imjin War, and is absolutely crazy. Warriors in thousand-pound suits of armor with swords twenty feet long; Yi Sunshin as a submarine warrior; Buddhas descending from the heavens. Crazy stuff.
- Dogs With Their Eyes Shut by Paul Meloy, a short book but a welcome return to the bizarre, creepy-fantastic world of his earlier stories collected in Islington Crocodiles, which was one of my favorite reads of 2014. I think he has a novel out now set in the same world… so I’ll have to order a copy soon!
- Drifting House by Krys Lee, a book of stories about perversion and identities that straddle various flavors of Koreanness and Korean-Americanness.
- Jonathan D. Spence ‘s Return to Dragon Mountain: Memories of a Late Ming Man, which is par for the course for a Spence book: the fascinating story of a person from Chinese history about whom most of us have never heard a single thing.
- Phantasm Japan: Fantasies Light and Dark, From and About Japan edited by Nick Mamatas and Masumi Washington. I loved it. My review was in Kyoto Journal last month.
- The Speckled Monster: a Historical Tale of Battling Smallpox by Jennifer Lee Carrell is as much ammunition as you could ever need to overcome those people who criticize vaccines without a shred of scientific proof to their claims… yeah, they also have no idea wha a hellscape history was without widespread vaccinations. The book is also a wonderful introduction to a couple of historical figures we all should have heard of by now, Mary Wortley Montagu and Zabdiel Boylston. I especially found the former’s life story fascinating.
- The Lais of Marie de France. Some are better than others, but personally I fell hard for the tale of Bisclavret, Lamarckian heredity and all.
I guess those were my favorite books of the year. But almost everything was good.
And now, one book I didn’t mention in any of my previous “Books Read 2015”-tagged posts, because it annoyed me profoundly:
Clive James’ Cultural Amnesia is a truly frustrating book. The introduction is so promising, as is the chapter on turn of the century Vienna. But, being a jazz lover, I went ahead and looked at the chapters James wrote on various jazz musicians, and, well… they don’t put the book in a good light, as far as I’m concerned. When he’s discussing Anna Akhmatova, or Peter Altenberg, he discusses their lives and work. But somehow jazzmusicians aren’t afforded the same consideration.
The first example is the most horrifying: Louis Armstrong’s chapter is about… how awesome Bix Biederbecke was. James’ excuse is that Armstrong once said something nice about Bix’s playing, which… well, it’s well-known Louis respected Bix and his playing, but that’s hardly an excuse to make the chapter all about Bix and only about Louis in passing. If Bix deserved a chapter, why not give him one of his own? Because, you see, the real point James wants to address is one the rest of the world has left in the ditch: “Can white cats play jazz?”
Next is the Miles Davis chapter, which is basically about how money ruined Miles Davis. No kidding. And it’s based on a quotation James didn’t even bother to verify or track down, because hey, it rings true in James’ head.
Finally, the chapter on Duke Ellington, in which he sneers about how Coltrane sucked (because he’s not melodic like Duke) for a sizeable chunk of a short chapter. Again, no kidding.
There’s room for all those discussions, mind: the legacy of racism in jazz and how it’s skewed jazz folk mythology about race; the question of whether economic success impacted certain major figures in the jazz world, and whether it did so negatively; the question of whether the increasing abandonment of easily-digested melody in jazz is the main reason for its decline in popularity, and what to do about it… these are all grist for the mill on good jazz blogs like Do the Math. But James’ choice to grind his assorted snarky old white man axes at those particular points in the book just turned me off, to the point where I finally distrust him as a commentator on cultural and artistic history. As with any author, if I can detect massive problems—and problems the author seems not to realize exist—in the sections of a book covering the stuff I know about, then it just makes me trust the author much less when it comes to the areas I don’t know much about.
I may still come back to Cultural Amnesia to see what James has to say about people like Borges and Kafka and Keats and Proust, since he is mostly a lit guy… but the bad taste in my mouth is likely to remain, just the same.