Here’s the annual list of books I read this year. Fewer than I expected, to be sure, but… that’s life. A lot of these happened to be the hard copy books I brought with me, or mailed to myself, when we came to Vietnam in March… which is to say, I was reading them because I wanted to get ’em all out of the way before the end of our time here, so as to have no sent or brought them in vain. I’d hoped to read them all, but I’m a slower reader than I like, and it’s been a busy year, plus the Vollmann book (see below) took about a month to get through. At the moment, I’m steeling myself for a little marathon reading, though, since I plan to bring back a fair number of the books we have here to Seoul, to put into storage.
My top ten books for the last year are:
- You Bright and Risen Angels by William T. Vollmann. A challenging, iluminating epic fantasy of a book. It felt for me a bit like watching a smart, difficult European film: suddenly, mainstream fiction feels like it’s been coddling you all this time. Any more description than that will sound ridiculous, because on some levels, this book is ridiculous: it’s a ridiculous, glorious, brilliant mess of a novel.
- The Ways of White Folks by Langston Hughes. Another book that makes one feel like like maybe we’ve gone wrong somewhere in our literary culture, that we’re all playing softball or something. Hughes is unflinchingly honest, brutal, but also powerful and forceful, whether it’s an enraging tale, a heartbreaking one, or even something hilarious. I loved this book.
- The Cyberiad by Stanislaw Lem. Lem reminds one sometimes of Borges, sometimes of Grimm. He is unlike any other SF author, and I feel like too few people read him and include him in their imaginative foundations for what SF can be and can do, though I’d been heartened at seeing a few more authors do so lately. This book blew me away: it was a delight, basically a sort Grimm’s Fairy Tales for some deep-future, posthuman, spacefaring age.
- The Unexpected Universe by Loren Eiseley. Probably the most gorgeous science-/nature-writing I’ve ever come across. I must find more Eiseley at some point.
- The Conspiracy Against the Human Race by Thomas Ligotti. Very serious, very thoughtful pessimistic philosophy. Basically, what if the Ligottian mode were not just a fictional position, but the most realistic lens through which to see the world? This is sort of like a mix of Schopenhauer and Lovecraft, with some cognitive science and horror fiction mixed in. Ligotti makes the argument, basically, that life isn’t anything like what most of us convince one another to pretend it is; that having kids isn’t kindly, wise, or selfless; and why horror means so much to some of us.
- Gin: The Much Lamented Death of Madam Geneva–The Eighteenth Century Gin Craze by Patrick Dillon. A pretty deep account of the Gin Craze, covering not just the craze itself, but the social environment, the politics of the time, literary connections, and also connections to other prohibition movements, from the American “Prohibition” era banning of alcohol, to the more recent “War on Drugs.”
- From Hell by Alan Moore & Eddie Campbell. A graphic novel about Jack Ripper… er, well, and about Victorian occultism, and about misogyny in the Victorian psyche, and about history and historiography… it’s quite an achievement, really. I can’t believe I had this book sitting and waiting whole years for me to get around to it. The artwork, especially is just harrowing: ugly and black and pretty much perfect for the world, the society, and the minds it depicts.
- A Year in Marrakesh by Peter Mayne. Delightful expat memoir about a year spent in Marrakech by an Englishman, sometime in the 1950s I believe. Some wonderful stuff here, and Payne is surprisingly sympathetic and respectful, even while describing ridiculous hijinks.
- Zendegi by Greg Egan. Perhaps not one of Egan’s most crucial novels–I would steer people toward other books first–but it was great to visit a world made by Egan again… and to see him rather intelligently critical of the near-future transhumanist claptrap that was in part fueled by earlier novels by him. (He’s not necessarily critical of transhumanism, but of us getting too big for our britches too soon… and forgetting that more immediate problems exist in the present.) It was also fascinating to see Egan draw a character struggling with his own absolute, final, irremediable mortality, something that rarely came up in an Egan novel in the past. The book was painful, beautiful, and very much worth the price of admission.
- Habibi by Craig Thompson. This graphic novel isn’t perfect, but then, perfection is a ridiculous standard–especially when the perfection is mixed up with inoffensiveness. I don’t think the book is quite so orientalist as many critics argue, but to explain why would need a couple of long posts, so I’ll just say that I think the book is worth reading, and gorgeous on the page, and not without its issues… but in my opinion not quite so horribly problematic as some would argue.
Here are the covers of (almost) all the books I read this year:
(The only books that won’t show up here are those that don’t yet have covers, including a couple of not-yet-published novels I was reading for the purposes of giving feedback.)
As for a more detailed breakdown of books by type, here are some sub-lists.
Fiction, Long Form
- Titus Crow: In the Moons of Borea. Elysia : The Coming of Cthulhu: 3 Brian Lumley (1997)
- The Third Force: A Novel of Gadget Marc Laidlaw (1996)
- Kalifornia: A Novel Marc Laidlaw (1993)
- The Pullocho by Mark Russell (draft of a novel, for critique)
- Nabi by Chris Kammerud (draft of a novel, for critique)
- The Report to the Men’s Club by Carol Emshwiller
- The Nightinghouls of Paris by Robert McAlmon
- The Other City of Angels by S.P. Somtow
- Zendegi by Greg Egan
- The Day of the Jackal by Frederick Forsyth
- Slicky Boys by Martin Limón
- Wake Up and Dream by Ian R. MacLeod
- You Bright and Risen Angels by William T. Vollmann
- The Harp of Burma by Michio Takeyama
Fiction: Short Form/Collections
- Saint Vitus Dances Eternity–A Sarajevo Ghost Story by Stewart. von Allmen (1996)
- The Cyberiad, by Stanislaw Lem (XXXX)
- The Billion Shop by Stephanie Ye
- A Perfect Vacuum by Stanislaw Lem
- “The White People” by Arthur Machen
- Skinny Dipping in the Lake of the Dead by Alan DeNiro
- Magic for Beginners by Kelly Link (couldn’t finish)
- Three John Silence Stories by Algernon Blackwood
- What Gives Us Our Names by Alvin Pang
- The Ways of White Folks by Langston Hughes
- Reading the Cantos: The Study of Meaning in Ezra Pound by Noel Stock (1968)
- Pound in Purgatory: From Economic Radicalism to Anti-Semitism by Leon Surette (2003)
- Marching Powder: A True Story of Friendship, Cocaine, and South America’s Strangest Jail by Thomas McFadden (2004)
- The Unexpected Universe Loren Eiseley (1972) loaned to me by Justin Howe
- Gin: The Much Lamented Death of Madam Geneva the Eighteenth Century Gin Craze by Patrick Dillon (2004)
- A Year in Marrakesh by Peter Mayne
- The Conspiracy Against the Human Race by Thomas Ligotti
- Belgium From the Roman Invasion to the Present Day by Emile Cammaerts
- The Last Pagan: Julian the Apostate and the Death of the Ancient World by Adrian Murdoch.
- The Devil’s Doctor: Paracelsus and the World of Renaissance Magic and Science by Philip Ball
- Life of Henry Cornelius Agrippa: Doctor and Knight, Commonly known as a Magician by Henry Morley (couldn’t finish)
- From Hell by Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell
- Making Comics: Storytelling Secrets of Comics, Manga and Graphic Novels by Scott McCloud
- Tintin in America by Hergé
- Asterix the Gaul by Goscinny & Uderzo
- Habibi by Craig Thompson
All of this is not counting the books I’m still somewhere partway through, of course:
- The Chinese Cantos by Ezra Pound.
- The 37th Mandala by Marc Laidlaw
- Grimscribe: His Lives and His Works by Thomas Ligotti
- Orphic Politics by Tim Lilburn
- Moll Flanders by Daniel Defoe
- Swords and Deviltry by Fritz Leiber
- The Lives of the Necromancers by Thomas Godwin
- End to Torment: A Memoir of Ezra Pound by H.D.
All in all, it was a slow year for reading, and with some of the same problems as last year. Next year, I’d like a little more diversity, though of course at present it’s hard for me to control that, given that I’m working through a pile of dead-tree books I have on hand. But there are a few authors among them that could help me tip the scales reasonably well in the right direction:Maureen McHugh, Pat Cadigan, N.K. Jemisin, Molly Gloss, Patricia Anthony, Yamada Masaki, Pramoedya Ananta Toer, Yom Sang-Seop, Yi Mun-Yeol, and a couple of pretty diverse collections by Ellen Datlow.
I would like to read more poetry, as well. Wrestling with Tim Lilburn’s book, I stopped and started again from the beginning, but I also have a collection of Seamus Heaney’s and one of Denis Johnson’s waiting to be gotten to.
Most disappointing to me is how little headway I made with Pound’s Cantos. I didn’t even finish the Chinese Cantos, sadly, though I will try to finish them, and the Adams Cantos, by spring. This phase of the Cantos is not all that rewarding, I’m afraid, and I feel rather like I understand why Leon Surette had so little to say about these particular cantos in A Light From Eleusis.
In any case, I read less than I’d like this year, but a lot of good stuff. But there’s always more to read… and the stacks await!