Books I Read in 2013

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.”
  7. 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.
  8. 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.
  9. 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.
  10. 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

Nonfiction:

  • 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)

Graphic Novels/Comics:

  • 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!

13 thoughts on “Books I Read in 2013

  1. I’ve read some short stories from the collection Mortal Engines, and I can say it… sparkles. Like the gaseous gems in “The Three Electroknights.” Yes, I know that could be said in a more erudite way. :)

    1. I’ve long been curious about that series, actually… nice to know it’s worth the effort to track down… Thanks! As for me, I finished my first book of 2014 just today: Swords and Deviltry by Fritz Leiber. (The first of the Fafhrd and Gray Mouser books.) Really fun stuff, and it makes me wish I’d read the books when I was young. (My whole approach to D&D would have been different, to be sure.)

      If I didn’t have a pile of dead-tree books that I paid to send to myself down here–and which I want to tear through as many of as I can before March–then I would be diving straight into Swords Against Death (the second book) tonight.

      As it is, next up is Yi Munyol’s The Poet. Which I suspect to be quite bleak, because heaven forbid a Korean character ever exert agency in the face of injustice being visited upon him. (The introduction by Brother Anthony of Taizé was pretty offputting, both in his ridiculous comments like qualifying fiction and fictional characters with the adjective “mere,” and in his insistence that the character is special basically because, when he is treated like crap because an ancestor of his did something that got his whole family screwed over, being young, he resists at first… and then is crushed and recedes into butterness and regret. But, what can I say, I’m trying to read more fiction where characters don’t just “win” in some uncomplicated, “easy” way at the end, or behave in North-American-heroic ways.

      Which makes me realize, suddenly: maybe Lovecraftian fiction (ie. cosmic horror) and the Korean approach to character agency/autonomy have more in common than I thought. Hm.

      1. Hmm. Makes me wonder, all of a sudden, if you’ve ever read that Korean short story “A Lucky Day”? Basically about a rickshaw driver in occupied Korea whose day is anything but lucky. It’s such a classic (and SO parodied), but yeah, crushed in the face of misery seems about right.

        1. I have read it, though I’d picked up the story (and the hopelessness of it) long before I ever read it. It’s kind of a go-to choice for students who need to come up with a Korean story… I think especially because they think it’s such a perfect expression of han.

          (My view of the story is… well, I’m not crazy about it, let’s say.)

          1. To be fair, the guy has a pretty miserable life. And it probably wasn’t that far-fetched a story either, in terms of representing the lives of lower-class Koreans at the time. To be honest, I didn’t read the whole thing, as short as it is. Got bored halfway through and skipped to the ending.

            I’m aiming to read “Inventing Temperature”, myself. And get around to (finally!) finishing “Ada”.

          2. Ha, Oprah sticker. :)

            The guy does have a miserable life, but he’s also pretty selfish too… to a degree that I just couldn’t sympathize with him. Maybe I just had, “I don’t care how hard your life is, it doesn’t justify…” pummeled into my head a lot as a kid. *shrug* Either way, it is a boring story… and enough of a poster-child for 한 that I can’t help but be antipathetic toward it.

            And I’m puzzling at why, in The Poet, the translators (Brother Anthony of Taizé and Chong-Wha Chung) chose to translate “slave” (presumably 노예) as “serf” throughout the text, then highlight in the footnotes that basically, serf really means slave in multiple ways because the conditions of serfdom resemble a form of slavery much more than serfdom. There probably is a reason for it–I imagine, mainly the assumption that Korean slavery must be distinguished from American enslavement of Africans. I’m not sure I;m convinced, though.

          3. Hah. Well then you might get a kick out of knowing Mujeok Pink made a parody at one point. She took the synopsis of “a man suffering under Japanese rule” and tweaked one hanja to change it to “a man suffering under Japanese-made [goods]”, so Kim’s dead wife becomes an inflatable sex doll.

          4. And about the slave / serf distinction… it does hold some water, for example, Korean 노예 could marry by their own choice, to mates of their own choosing, and there WERE laws in place (if not always followed) that forbade the separation of families. I still think it’s silly to insist that the Korean brand of slavery/serfdom was any better than its counterpart practices in any other part of the world, or that that makes Korea morally superior in any way, but it’s true it wasn’t nearly as brutal as American slavery.

          5. Yeah, and I was aware of most of that, actually. Personally, I feel like, once a human being is property–however legally enfranchised, on the books–we’re talking about some form of slavery. (I’m less clear about what the commercial industry involving these “slaves” looked like, ie. whether markets operated or it was usually just individual transactions, and so on. Nobody seems to want to write about it in English all that much.)

            Really, it’s obvious that the word isn’t going to mean exactly slave or exactly serf… a judgment call needs to be made. But what’s weird is how it’s explained in the book: the footnote that unpacks the translation is really weird in that it doesn’t really bother to explain that side. It just basically says, “The word translated as serf throughout is very often translated as slave, because [list of very good reasons for doing so].” And then it ends. You’d think that it’s obvious the translator might go on ahead and explain why they chose not to use that word, but they don’t. Even “Catholicism” gets a more detailed and lucid historical gloss, which seems absurd, given the number of “노야” who appear in the first third of the book… and I can’t help but suspect it’s the background noise of those arguments you mention about the “distinctness” and “betterness” and “moral superiority” of Korean hereditary slavery that dictated the decision… and the widespread, er, “historiographic resistance” to even considering the word slave, on the basis that it’s not like American slavery. What can I say? This post rings true for me.

            I also am wondering now, given how comfortable so many modern (South) Koreans today are with family separations–ranging from (usually) dad living elsewhere for work and visiting on weekends, all the way to the “goose dad” phenomenon–just what legal forbidding of “separation of families” actually meant back in the old days…

            As for the distinction: well, yes, if one assumes one’s audience only knows about slavery in the American context–which seems to be the context most Koreans privilege when talking about the “uniqueness” or “distinctness” of Korean slavery. I suppose it becomes crucial to note that Korean slavery wasn’t identical to the American form. It’s a bit insulting, though, and anyway it’s not like we have another special word for other forms of slavery distinct from the American one, either: not the Roman form, not the Egyptian, not the Aztec one… well, and not the hundreds of other forms. We don’t use “partnership agreement” or “mate bond” for forms of marriage that are culturally different or distinct from the mainstream American one, for example, and it’s rare we use any term but “King” or “Emperor” for a male monarch–usually, only as a form of orientalist color (like “Sultan” or “Pharaoh”).

            And for the mind-blowing quote of the day (from here): “Slaves and serfs made up around three-quarters of the world’s population at the beginning of the 19th century.” I’d imagined it was a lot of the Earth, but I hadn’t realized it was that prevalent.

  2. Whoops. Formatting error. Please feel free to delete my original post

    It’s a bit insulting, though, and anyway it’s not like we have another special word for other forms of slavery distinct from the American one, either: not the Roman form, not the Egyptian, not the Aztec one… well, and not the hundreds of other forms.

    That’s the one main problem I have with the usage of the word “serf” in this context too. Like you say, choosing special treatment in that one case does lead to arguments of moral superiority and such, even if that’s not what’s stated up front.

    Mujeok Pink is a popular webtoon-artist. That parody came from a series of hers that ran for a few years, consisting mainly of retelling “classic” stories in new ways… she’s side-splittingly funny.

    1. Hey,

      I deleted the earlier post.

      Yeah. Though, nitpickily, I think the choosing special treatment proceeds from (rather than leading to) the desire to be able to claim moral superiority and such, and the common practice of doing so through that argument: I think it’s consciously strategic, rather than unconsciously fraught. And not an isolated example, by any means.

      When I had a course titled “Business Across Cultures” thrown into my lap at the last minute, and asked, “Are you SURE you want me to teach this subject?” It was really a “Business Communication” course but I felt the course didn’t belong in our department’s portfolio and had no interest in teaching it, and anyway I was told to do whatever I liked with it. Here’s the syllabus: I bet you can imagine the kinds of reactions (and spirited defenses of Korea as deserving special treatment) that these topics brought about.

      (It was a great class, one of my favorites. Of course, I never got to teach it again. Hell, the administration would have seen me as working against the school’s interests: the more chaebolbots we generated, the happier the admin was!)

      It’s pretty conventional: nationalists usually use special pleading to argue for moral superiority and special treatment. It’s just that nationalism is so rampant in Korea, that after my time there, I’ve come to expect most conventional arguments to incorporate some element of special pleading, spurious claims of distinctness, and so on, even among academics. I’m usually more surprised (pleasantly) when they don’t.

      Ha, funny I’ve never heard of Mujeok Pink, but then, the only webtoon artist I really know much about is Kangfull. My wife reads a number of webtoons, but I only heard scattered bits about how there’s so many more interesting ones now…

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