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2022 in books -- an assortment

Weird year, I keep saying, and they just keep getting weirder. God damn Putin. Needless to say, I have reread a lot of Terry Pratchett, Dorothy L. Sayers, and Jane Austen as reliable staples when the world is too much with me. And Victoria Goddard, of course, but I will get back to that. As usual, here is a dip into the more salient reads of the year.

Ambiguity Machines and other stories -- Vandana Singh
Distances -- Vandana Singh
Vandana Singh is one of the finest living science fiction authors, as far as my knowledge stretches. The first of these is a short story collection, the other a novella. Each short story develops a universe of its own, and a new novum based in philosophy, maths, and identity. At times it reminded me of Borges, in the exploration of impossible machines, I like the recurring idea of humanity as one among animals, and the general suspicion of megacorps and geoengineering as a solution to climate change. The enemy is not the other, but the sociopatic capitalist structure, conformity and homogeneity.

The Motion of Light in Water: Sex and Science Fiction Writing in the East Village -- Samuel R. Delany
Samuel Delany is another of my favourite scifi authors. It is always interesting to read a literary biography, and to compare and contrast a bit with published works (the author not being quite so dead as previously reported), and Delany's autobiography is interesting both as an accompaniment to his works and as a cultural artefact in its own right. I am left with the overwhelming feeling that I could never be this blasé about letting people into my home, but that because of that my autobiography would be nowhere near as interesting.

Living a Feminist Life -- Sara Ahmed
It took me a while to get into this book, but my god how it resonates. It reflects and clarifies so much of the experience of diversity work: "the one who speaks as a feminist is usually heard as the cause of the argument. She stops the smooth flow of communication. It becomes tense. She makes things tense [37]. ... But a snap would only be the beginning insofar as we did not notice the pressure on the twig. If pressure is an action, snap is a reaction. [188]... The moment of not taking it is so often understood as losing it. When a snap is registered as the origin of violence, the one who snaps is deemed violent [189]". The book draws heavily on the poetic potential of language to clarify what can be deeply frustrating in the moment, but which you cannot quite articulate.

Death and the Penguin -- Andrey Kurkov
A novel with a plot structured around obituaries. I bought this ages ago, but it was moved up the list by Putin's criminal invasion of Ukraine and I read it in March. It was odd to read casual references to all the cities currently under bombardment. I loved Misha the penguin, and liked what I could make sense of of political commentary. Somewhat bleak, somewhat absurd. A touch of Kafka and post-Soviet humour.

The Gates of Europe: A History of Ukraine -- Serhii Plokhy
I picked this up for obvious reasons, and quickly realised that Ukraine was the missing piece that connected my scattered knowledge of European history. Herodotus meets Vikings, meet Byzantium and Muslim expansion, meets Mongols and post-medieval religious changes. This is my favourite kind of history. But it was also very interesting as background for the current conflict. I can trace the rhetoric (and ideas? who knows) of Catherine and Stalin in Putin, and the Cossack past of Ukraine coalesced as a factor. It is weird to move from Herodotus to my living memory in a single book, and to see disparate events I remember as isolated tied together into a continuity (the Cold War and its end, through to Maidan II and III, for example). Thoroughly recommended.

The Gollancz Book of South Asian Science Fiction -- Tarjun K. Saint (ed.)
Roh recommended it, and so I instantly ordered it, but I fell behind. It is so easy to do that with short story collections: all it takes is one blip that leaves you not wanting to read the next, and it lingers on the shelf for a while. This book is packed with goodness, though: Vandana Singh is always good; as is Premendra Mitra. I really liked "The Goddess Project" by Giti Chandra, "The Last Tiger" by Mohammad Salman, and "Looking Up" by S. B. Divya.

How Propaganda Works -- Jason Stanley
I may have a slight allergy to analytical philosophy, which is sad because the thesis of this book is among the most important for the current moment, and it is meticulously argued and supported. Unfortunately, none of those who need that meticulousness to believe it will ever read it, because the careful stating and restating of positions makes it all but inaccessible. And yet, everyone should read it. It undresses all the mechanisms it is so hard to talk about without sounding like a conspiracy nut (dogwhistles, assumed/hidden or "not-at-stake", as he calls it, content). My kingdom for a popular version of this book. It might change the world.

Kim Jiyoung, born 1982 -- Cho Nam-Joo
This book may be of particular interest to me as a woman born in 1982, as it is interesting to trace the differences and similarities between Norway and Korea (to some extent). I liked the style; Tor called it Brechtian, and I agree: the mixture of fiction and fact makes it didactic, but sometimes you really need a sledgehammer. I really liked the ending, showing the ease with which privilege ignores the knowledge not experienced in favour of expediency.

Mediocre: The Dangerous Legacy of White Male Power -- Ijeoma Oluo
This is an excellent book on the historical roots of white male supremacy, drawing lines from the more hellish current events to the racism of Woodrow Wilson, the extermination of the bison, and the general horridness of Theodore Roosevelt's muscular Christianity. So much of what I learnt in school (Woodrow Wilson = good guy, bison was an unfortunate mistake, and Teddy Roosevelt is all-round pleasant chap) is utterly demolished, for which I am very grateful.

Fabulosa! The Story of Polari, Britain's Secret Gay Language -- Paul Baker
Language history is always interesting, but when it ties in so clearly with political history, more so. I liked the history chapter on the cant and other language varieties that played into Polari (though it could have benefited from more Romance language history, I think), and I really liked seeing how language use I have come across in various contexts joined up and tied together. It is too easy to compartmentalise language and forget that it is a living thing of time and people, and people move through time. The book is equal parts lovely and horrifying in its history of bygone queens and oppressive society, and while I know the history, it is always made fresh when tied to new people or retold in new ways.

The Patient Assassin -- Anita Anand
The utter horror of the Jallianwala Bagh massacre and other British action in the Punjab (or elsewhere in India) made for hard reading. The title belies the book's description of Singh himself, which portrays his actions as more driven by failure and opportunism than a concerted effort to reach a goal, and suggests that narcissism and self-aggrandisement coupled with failure at other aspects in life is what made him take radical action. The book is at its most powerful in the display of the sheer dehumanising racism at the heart of the actions of O'Dwyer and Dyer. The total inability to see people as people rather than interchangeable blobs to be punished or humiliated at will is terrifying.

The Battle of the Sexes in Science Fiction -- Justine Larbalestier
I started this ages ago, then put it aside when I crashed into a wall a few years ago because my brain could not face all the misogynist drivel it highlights as part of the analysis of the early history of science fiction. This summer, with slightly more energy stored up, it was a delightful, thoroughly researched and well argued dismantling of the more toxic tendencies in the genre. In retrospect, I should have battled through to the triumphant feminist snark an bake sales in the later chapters.

Arsène Lupin contre Herlock Sholmes -- Maurice Leblanc
This second book of Lupin stories picked up on the meeting of the greatest detective in the world and the greatest thief. I waited impatiently for the Holmes connection, but when it arrived it was glorious. I say Holmes ... this being a pre/post-copyrtight edition, it is a story of Herlock Sholmes and his faithful Wilson, of course. I was a bit worried about the balance of Holmes/Lupin, who should of course both win, but I think it was worked well. I really like the little drips of backstory for Lupin, and the idea of the helpful thief is an appealing one. This Holmes is a little too much of a stickler, though. That said, someone will be missing a trick if they do not make a modern adaptation crossover between Sherlock and Lupin.

The Book of Disquiet -- Fernando Pessoa
I finally caved to pressure and bought this book after reading Alameddine's glorious An Unnecessary Woman, and all sorts of enthusiastic endorsements. Was instantly put off by the juvenile misogyny of the 1913 texts, much as I could see the appeal of the phrasing. I may just not be enough of a modernist by temperament: while I appreciate the language, and there are some excellent passages, and the introvert in me finds some of it resonant, I am philosophically incompatible with the solipsism of the book. It reads like depression wrapped in egotism.

Disoriental -- Négar Djavadi
I loved this novel about Iranian and expat life painted the family little by little and how it was interwoven with the history of Iran. While I have a general idea of Mossadegh and Pahlavi and the revolution, it is always nice to flesh that out, and I did not know, for example, that Pahlavi was considered an upstart. It tells the story of trauma and horror, but without being traumatic and horrifying. And I liked how it tied together in the end, what were at first odd combinations and mysteries. But most of all I loved this family of disparate oddities.

Villette -- Charlotte Brontë
Nineteen pages in I already hated all the characters, and there is a tendency to toxic, toxic shit throughout, most of it familiar from Jane Eyre. That said, I rather liked the book, though I cannot tell you why. I am a sucker for the idea of two people who consider themselves unlovable falling in love; and I quite like the self-assertion of the main character (which mingles oddly with the idea that if you submit to abuse it will stop, which runs throughout). It is, on the whole, worth the incessant protestantism. A cautious recommendation, this. If you liked Jane Eyre, as some of us do...

Give People Money: How a Universal Basic Income would End Poverty, Revolutionize Work, and Remake the World -- Annie Lowrey
I was looking for a setting out of the pros and cons of universal basic income (being already generally in favour, but trying to find out why it might be objected to), but this is more of a setting out of the case in favour. And to a large extent it is a wholesale indictment of the American system and the form international aid too often takes. The book seems to suggest that he main hurdle to universal basic income would be ... people not wanting other people to benefit. Which is all too believable.

My Year of Rest and Relaxation -- Ottessa Moshfegh
In retrospect I am sorry not to have read this book during lockdown. I imagine the isolation of it would have resonated more. It is an interesting idea, and I think it works: the lull and awakening, and then the event that has been hovering the future throughout. I got a little fed up with the character at the heart of it, which in context almost feels like a relevant effect. It is interesting as a description of depression, but also as an image of sleepwalking into the new millennium. I approve of the Whoopi Goldberg fandom.

On Earth We're Briefly Gorgeous -- Ocean Vuong
There is something terrible about reading a good book about trauma, where the reading itself becomes deeply painful. I can recognize this as a very good book, but I will never read it again. It is a perfect image of war and trauma and people being used up and broken for no good reason. I liked the tension it set up between love and violence, with serious trauma in the mix, without simplifying it. There is a scene which will haunt me forever. Read with caution.

Inventing the Victorians -- Matthew Sweet
I kept laughing out loud at this book, and reading snatches of it out loud to Tor -- particularly in the beginning. The descriptions of the tightrope-walking over the Niagara were horrifically fascinating in their sheer absurdity. Never mind the how of carrying a stove half-way and then cooking a breakfast -- I am left with a resounding why? Also, I would absolutely refuse to be on the boat directly beneath the stove as the omelet was lowered down. I like the angle of this book: the refusal to accept the given narrative each and every time, and the rejection of the right-wing take on the period.

Kulturkrig: Det ytre høyre og normaliseringen av det ekstreme -- Carline Tromp
I had to read this in tiny increments because I kept having flashbacks to being a woman on the internet in the early 2010s. There is something about getting a distilled synthesis of all the horrible people who have done horrible things over the last decade. But it is also deeply satisfying to see the lines it draws from Gamergate to QAnon, and her ability to explain the transition between extreme wingnuts and the mainstream. Should be read by everyone.

Babel: An Arcane History -- R. F. Kuang
Language is magical, and this book realises that magic in a fantastical 19th Century Britain and its colonies. The idea of this book is marvellous and I loved it. The way it tied knowledge of language to silver to empire was marvellous, and I loved the etymological asides that it kept returning to throughout. But the politics of this book is perhaps what I appreciate most. It is clearly written in the context of the last few years' decolonisation debates, and makes an excellent case. I really liked the interaction with 19th century British history, and how well the magical world worked as an explainer for real history.

The Quantum Astrologer's Handbook -- Michael Brooks
I am not a great fan of writers of biography and science who insist on inserting themselves needlessly into their books, and while I can see how the device has a purpose, it is still jarring. But I liked the way this book combined Renaissance biography with a short survey of quantum theory. It worked a little too hard on being pedagogical at times -- it became counterproductive to have to guess from weird imagery which theoretical concept he was refusing to name -- but on the whole this book works. I keep being amazed that something so ... esotheric and abstruse and weird can be tested by the most down-to-earth experiments. I learnt you can trace superpositions of viruses, and am now a little concerned about future cats being lobbed at double slits.

Carthage Must Be Destroyed: The Rise and Fall of an Ancient Civilization -- Richard Miles
A few months ago I learnt that the Phoenicians, who I associate with Carthage, were also the people living in Caanan in the older portions of the Bible. Hannibal's name includes that of the deity (or, as it turns out, one of the many deities named) Bal (which, it turns out, means "Lord"). I had to read up on Carthage, and providentially came upon this excellent book. I am going to have to pick up another on the Eastern segment of the culture and its mythology, but it is fascinating to be able to connect the Pelopponesian War of Thykydides and the Persian war of Herodots through something other than the Greeks, and to see how the narrative of barbaric "Orientals" developed. It is a little frustrating that all the Carthaginians are called Hannibal, Hanno, Hamlicar and Hasdrubal, but I loved the connections the book traced between Hannibal and Hercules, and showing the syncretism and cultural interchange in the whole Mediterranean.

Station Eleven -- Emily St. John Mandel
I loved this book, and I am a little sorry not to have read it before the pandemic (I bought it when it came out, but somehow it did not make it to the top of the pile until my friends became insistent). The different stories and strands of life and art tie together wonderfully, and I love how art and history weave through the apocalypse and what follows as what makes life worthwhile -- survival being insufficient. I really want to read the comic books at the heart of the book -- or at least see the art.

The Garden of Evening Mists -- Tan Twan Eng
If Arundhati Roy and Kazuo Ishiguro were to team up..., well. The political elegiac tone appeals to me. I also like the tension between the celebration and aura of Japanese art, and the acknowledgement of the deeply disturbing aspects of its history. I do not know enough about the war years in South-East Asia, though Grass gave me some inkling a few years ago -- I keep shying away from it. I really liked both the central characters at the heart of this story, the slow unravelling in its different layers, and its refusal to clearly delineate people as good or bad, pure or sinful -- an unusual way to deal with war crimes. Of course, the shades of grey go much darker for some. Felt a surprising urge to take up gardening and get tattoos.

Throughout this year, however, I have reached for Victoria Goddard to counter the absurdity of everyday life. I read The Hands of the Emperor for the first (and second) time last year, and four more times this year. But because I am sure it cannot be good for me to just read the same book over and over, I also read her other books whenever I could get a hold of them: the Red Company Reformed books, which follow on from events in The Hands of the Emperor (The Return of Fitzroy Angursell and The Redoubtable Pali Avramapul); the Greenwing and Dart series, which is set on another world, but ties in with the Red Company, eventually; a series of novellas that interact with and fill in alternate perspectives on the books; and finally, FINALLY, the true sequel to The Hands of the Emperor in At the Feet of the Sun. None of them quite live up to the glory that is Cliopher Mdang in his element (though some of the novellas come close), but I like how this universe keeps expanding and offering new delights. And how deeply, deeply relaxing it is. Which I need these days.