Best Reads of 2022, #1

Here are my best reads in English during January through April.

  • The Treasure Seekers. Edith Nesbit 1899.
  • Games of Venus: an anthology of Greek and Roman erotic verse from Sappho to Ovid. Transl. Bing & Cohen 1993.
  • Eminent Victorians. Lytton Strachey 1918.
  • Reassuring Tales: Expanded Edition. T.E.D. Klein.
  • Delta Green: A Night at the Opera. Detwiller et al.
  • Salmon of Doubt. Douglas Adams 2002.
  • Apple Children of Aeon #1. Ai Tanaka 2012. Transl. S.R Messner 2022.
  • The Mask of Dimitrios. Eric Ambler 1939.
  • About a Boy. Nick Hornby 1998.
  • The Phoenix and the Mirror. Avram Davidson 1969.
  • Adrift: The curious tale of the Lego lost at sea. Tracey Williams 2022.
  • Station Eleven. Emily St. John Mandel 2014.
  • How to Behave Badly in Elizabethan England: A Guide for Knaves, Fools, Harlots, Cuckolds, Drunkards, Liars, Thieves, and Braggarts. Ruth Goodman 2018.

Find me at Goodreads! Dear Reader, what have been your best reads of the past few months?

After Hours in the Nursing Home Library

A memory. A friend of mine was briefly involved with a woman who worked as a nurse at an old people’s home. My then wife A and I were invited to her place for dinner, probably one of the first social situations where this couple met the world as a unit.

Pretty soon A went to have a look at the bookshelves, which were large and well stocked. But she came back into the kitchen looking really confused. Could our hostess please explain why almost all of the books were in pristine library bindings? And why they were largely quite new titles? The woman was forthcoming and calmly unapologetic in her reply.

Turned out that there was a little library at the nursing home, and she’d been systematically looting it for a couple of years. She seemed honestly surprised that anyone who wasn’t a librarian would think that this was a big deal. “Nobody ever reads those books anyway”, she said. “WELL OBVIOUSLY THEY DON’T AFTER YOU STOLE THEM”, A shouted. “MARTIN, LET’S GET OUT OF HERE!” And we left.

The woman returned the books to the workplace library in the following days, quite a chore given how many they were. This earned her some curt praise from A when she called to tell us. For a while afterwards we made a running joke of using her surname as a synonym of the verb “to steal”.

Best Reads of 2021

Here are my best reads in English during 2021. The total was 69 books, which is a lot for me. This was mainly because in April I sorted my Goodreads reading queue on page count and then mostly read the shortest books on the list for the rest of the year. 67% of the total were e-books, an all-time high.

Find me at Goodreads! Dear Reader, what were your best reads of the year?

  • Castle Hangnail. Ursula Vernon 2015.
  • The Fall of the House of Cabal. Jonathan L. Howard 2016.
  • So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed. Jon Ronson 2015.
  • Doctor No (James Bond #6). Ian Fleming 1958.
  • First 1/5 of Arthur C. Clarke, Collected stories, 1937-50.
  • Collected Short Stories of W. Somerset Maugham #3.
  • The Wild Girls. Ursula K. Le Guin 2002-11.
  • Slaughterhouse Five. Kurt Vonnegut 1969.
  • The Stone Book Quartet. Alan Garner 1979.
  • The Justice Trade (Ashen Stars RPG). Leonard Balsera et al. 2013.
  • Swords of the Serpentine RPG. Kevin Kulp & Emily Dresner 2020.
  • Suppressed Transmission: The First Broadcast. Kenneth Hite 2000.
  • Nobody’s Fool. Richard Russo 1993.
  • Project Hail Mary. Andy Weir 2021.
  • Time and the Gods. Lord Dunsany 1906.
  • Spoon River Anthology. Edgar Lee Masters 1915.
  • The Palm-Wine Drinkard. Amos Tutuola 1952.
  • Switch Bitch. Roald Dahl 1974.
  • Bronze Age Lives. Anthony Harding 2021.
  • Deep Secret (Magids #1). Diana Wynne Jones 1997.
  • The Pirate. Frederick Maryatt 1836.
  • More Walls Broken. Tim Powers 2019.
  • Murder Me For Nickels. Peter Rabe 1960.
  • Revenge of the Lawn: Stories 1962-1970. Richard Brautigan.
  • Wylding Hall. Elizabeth Hand 2015.
  • Boy: Tales of Childhood. Roald Dahl 1984.
  • An African Millionaire. Grant Allen 1897.
  • The Seedling Stars. James Blish 1956.
  • The Erotic Traveller. R.F. Burton 1969.
  • Primal Sources: Essays on H. P. Lovecraft. S.T. Joshi 2003.
  • Emphyrio. Jack Vance 1969.
  • A Morbid Taste for Bones. Ellis Peters 1977.
  • A Scanner Darkly. P.K. Dick 1977.
  • Rogues and Rascals in English History. Neville Williams 1959.
  • My Planet: Finding Humor in the Oddest Places. Mary Roach 2013.
  • Changing Places. David Lodge 1975.
  • The Perfumed Garden. Umar Ibn Muhammed Al-Nefzawi, 15th c.
  • Werewolves in Their Youth. Michael Chabon 1999.
  • The House of the Seven Gables. Nathaniel Hawthorne 1851.
  • The Samurai. Stephen Turnbull 2016.
  • The Wild Shore. Kim Stanley Robinson 1984.
  • Ice Station Zebra. Alistair MacLean 1963.
  • Minnow on the Say. Philippa Pearce 1955.
  • 50 Years of Text Games. Aaron A. Reed 2021.

Here’s my list for 2020.

Best Reads of 2020

Here are my best reads in English during 2020. The total was 57 books of which 39% were e-books. Find me at Goodreads! Dear Reader, what were your best reads of the year?

  • The Essential Guide to Being Polish. Anna Spysz & Marta Turek 2013.
  • Going Postal. Terry Pratchett 2004.
  • Polish: the Ultimate Beginners Learning Guide. Piotr Młynarski 2019.
  • The Raven and the Reindeer. T. Kingfisher = Ursula Vernon 2016.
  • Viking-Age Transformations: Trade, Craft and Resources in Western Scandinavia. Eds Zanette T. Glørstad & Kjetil Loftsgarden 2017.
  • Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency. Douglas Adams 1987.
  • Mythago Wood. Robert Holdstock 1984.
  • Moonglow. Michael Chabon 2016.
  • Silver, Butter, Cloth: Monetary and Social Economies in the Viking Age. Eds Kershaw & Williams 2019. (My review in Antiquity here, paywalled.)
  • The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. Mark Twain 1875.
  • Johannes Cabal and the Blustery Day: And Other Tales of the Necromancer. Jonathan Howard. (The title actually refers to an audiobook. I bought each story as a separate little e-book.)
  • Lost At Sea. Jon Ronson 2012.
  • Theatre. W. Somerset Maugham 1937.
  • Jurgen. A Comedy of Justice. James Branch Cabell 1919.
  • Leviathan Wakes (The Expanse #1). James S.A. Corey 2011.
  • A Face Like Glass. Frances Hardinge 2012.
  • Lavinia. Ursula K. LeGuin 2008.
  • Cat’s Cradle. Kurt Vonnegut 1963.
  • Where Eagles Dare. Alistair MacLean 1967.
  • Spook: Science Tackles the Afterlife. Mary Roach 2005.
  • Tour de Lovecraft – The Destinations. Kenneth Hite 2020.
  • The Book of Koli. M.R. Carey 2020.
  • Shards of Honour. Lois McMaster Bujold 1986.
  • The Avram Davidson Science Fiction & Fantasy Megapack. (20 largely excellent stories, all except one from 1955-64.)
  • In Patagonia. Bruce Chatwin 1977.
  • Ring the Hill. Tom Cox 2019.
  • The Big Time. Fritz Leiber 1958.
  • First Footsteps in East Africa, or an Exploration of Harar. Richard Francis Burton 1856.
  • Rag and Bone: a Family History of What We’ve Thrown Away. Lisa Woollett 2020.
  • The Wee Free Men. Terry Pratchett 2003.
  • Dead Rock 7. Gareth Hanrahan 2011. (Four scenarios for the Ashen Stars space opera RPG.)

Here’s my list for 2019.

Novels In English Are A New Thing

The English-language novel is commonly held to have originated around 1700, with Aphra Behn’s Oroonoko (1688; at 31,000 words it’s a novella by current standards) or Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe (1719). It occurred to me that since it’s such a recent thing, I’ve lived through much of its history by now. I’ve been reading English-language novels for about 35 years, that is, 11% of the period.

Let’s say you and your grandma read a new novel that you both like in 2020 when you’re 15 and she is 75. And she shared a new novel with her grandma when she was 15, etc., etc. Then the book you two are sharing now is only the sixth in the chain back to Robinson Crusoe. And we know that the book they shared in 1720 was Robinson Crusoe, because there was no other original novel-length prose fiction in English to choose from then.

The first novella in Swedish is Urban Hiärne’s Stratonice from 1666-68. I discussed it here back in 2012.

Best Reads of 2019

189354Here are my best reads in English during 2019. The total was 41 books of which 44% were e-books. Find me at Goodreads! Dear Reader, what were your best reads of the year?

  • No Time to Spare: Thinking About What Matters. Ursula LeGuin 2017.
  • The Events at Poroth Farm. T.E.D. Klein 1975.
  • The Painted Veil. W. Somerset Maugham 1925.
  • Balanced on the Blade’s Edge. Lindsay Buroker 2014.
  • All Systems Red. Martha Wells 2017.
  • Tales from the Inner City. Shaun Tan 2018.
  • Code of the Woosters. P.G. Wodehouse 1938.
  • Gulp: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal. Mary Roach 2013.
  • Radiance (Wraith Kings #1). Grace Draven 2014.
  • Someone Like Me. M.R. Carey 2018.
  • Barrayar (Vorkosigan Saga #7). Lois McMaster Bujold 1991.
  • Adventures in Unhistory: Conjectures on the Factual Foundations of Several Ancient Legends. Avram Davidson 1981-90.
  • Sharpe’s Tiger. Bernard Cornwell 1997.
  • Imaginary Homelands: Essays and Criticism 1981-1991. Salman Rushdie.
  • Questioning the Millennium: A Rationalist’s Guide to a Precisely Arbitrary Countdown. Stephen Jay Gould 1997.
  • Exhalation: Stories. Ted Chiang 2019.
  • Judas Unchained (Commonwealth Saga #2). Peter F. Hamilton 2005.
  • Anatomy of Restlessness: Selected Writings, 1969-1989. Bruce Chatwin.
  • Spirits Abroad. Zen Cho 2014.
  • The Invention of Hugo Cabret. Brian Selznick 2007.
  • Swords Against Death. Fritz Leiber 1970, stories published in 1939-63.
  • The Unexpected Truth About Animals: A Menagerie of the Misunderstood. Lucy Cooke 2017.
  • A Short History of Nearly Everything. Bill Bryson 2003.

Here’s my list for 2018.

Norbert Jacques Honeymooning on the Yangtze River in 1912

Chinesischen Fluss
The first edition of Jacques’s Yangtze travelogue

I picked up a beautiful edition of an interesting book at the Alfa Antikvariat closure sale in early February. It’s the Swedish edition of Norbert Jacques’s 1921 travelogue Auf dem Chinesischen Fluss, “On the Chinese River”. The Swedish version is titled På långfärd och fest bland kineser, “Travelling far and feasting among the Chinese”. It has not been translated into English. Chinese, I don’t know.

Jacques (1880-1954) was a prolific writer, screenwriter and journalist from Luxemburg. He’s mainly known today for his creation Dr. Mabuse, the villain of three Fritz Lang movies. His legacy is tainted by propaganda that he wrote for the Nazis around age 65 toward the end of WW2, but he wasn’t sincerely invested in Nazism. In fact, his wife for 26 years was the Austrian Jewess Margerite Samuely, and they had two daughters. Jacques’ 1917 novel Piraths Insel features a love affair between a European man and a Pacific Islander woman. And as we shall see, Jacques appreciated Chinese women too. According to Volker Stotz, he managed to be “inconvenient” first to the Nazis, and then to the Anti-Nazi post-war world.

In 1911 the Chinese Empire came to an end in the Xinhai Revolution. The following year, Norbert and Margerite got married and went on a 16-month honeymoon to China, Peru and Australia. The book I’ve read details their trip up the Yangtze River from Shanghai to Chongqing in the autumn and winter of 1912-13. I don’t know why it took eight years for Jacques to publish his account. Of course WW1 must have played a part, but he did manage to publish eleven other books in the interim, including the first Dr. Mabuse novel!

Jacques’s attitude to the Chinese and their culture is complicated, both patronising and slightly awestruck, and certainly intensely curious. Occasionally he waxes lyrical over some vista or building, but he mainly sticks to describing interesting sites and social situations. Me and my wife laughed and cringed though at Jacques’s extremely exoticising and romantic 2½ page description of a young Chinese woman whom he stalked through the alleyways of an unnamed town on 7 December.

“The secret of the Oriental eyes conjured up the riddle of the Oriental Schoß to my imagination, and I followed the foreign one, bound by magic to this coral of the Sichuan town as if under a spell. … A single wish to see, to feel – and then suffer the pain of her insoluble ties to the land and people of the East – To be a melancholy, chaste knight, seeking the path to the Holy Land, pierced by manhood’s eternal never-satisfied longing. Body and soul crucified on the tree of racial separation.”

Jacques went through the Three Gorges, describing lots of places that are now under water. Identifying exactly where he stopped though is complicated. On the one hand it’s made easy by him travelling by river boat all the way to Chongqing. None of the places he visits is far from the river. But on the other hand the identification is made difficult by language. Jacques doesn’t speak or read much Chinese, and the locals don’t speak the national standard Beijing dialect, putonghua. So the names of villages and towns that he records are in local dialects, transcribed by ear by someone from Luxemburg, according to High German orthography. And in the past century, many of the names have changed. This would all have been impossible for me to understand without the aid of Google Earth and Wikipedia. And since there is no map in the Swedish edition I’m reading, I guess most readers at the time would simply have had no idea where in China the guy was.

For example, early in the book the honeymooners go up the “Jangtse” from “Hankau” (Hankou, a precinct in modern Wuhan) to “Jotschau” (modern Yueyang), where they take off up the major tributary “Siangkiang” (Xiangjiang) for an extended stay in “Tschangscha” (Changsha). Then they return downstream to Yuejang, but this time Jacques refers to it by the name of its harbour area “Tschenlingschi”, Chenglingji. There they turn left and continue up the Yangtze.

Here’s an interactive map of Jacques’s travels. Upstream from Fengxiang Gorge the stops become much more frequent. The book shifts from general description to diary form already at Yichang on 25 November, but only from 3 December, at Fengxiang, does Jacques acquire the habit of asking and recording what most places he visits are named. It’s clear that during final editing several years later in Germany, he can no longer identify small Chinese riverside towns whose names he may have heard only once and didn’t record.

I enjoyed the book, which offers a window into the astonishingly archaic China of 100 years ago. The Last Emperor has just been deposed and republican soldiers at city gates check to see that nobody who enters is still wearing the long braid of the former Manchu overlords. And in Changsha, perhaps Norbert Jacques bumps into a bookish teenager from the Fourth Normal School – a boy named Mao.

Best Reads of 2018

rtlHere are my best reads in English during 2018. The total was only 39 books (when 40-45 is my normal number), mainly because I slogged through a lot of borderline-bad Swedish paperback novels. They became my lot in life for months after the local historical society gave me a book token for a shop that hardly stocks any English titles. Even giving them each a 50-page chance was quite the chore.

Seven of the books I read were e-books. Find me at Goodreads! Dear Reader, what were your best reads of the year?

  • Personal Narrative of a Pilgrimage to Al Madinah and Meccah, Vol 2. Richard Francis Burton 1857.
  • The Case of Charles Dexter Ward. H.P. Lovecraft 1927.
  • Maskerade. Terry Pratchett 1995.
  • Guys and Dolls and Other Writings. Damon Runyon.
  • The Box: How the Shipping Container Made the World Smaller and the World Economy Bigger. Mark Levinson 2006.
  • Maps and Legends: Reading and Writing Along the Borderlands. Michael Chabon 2008.
  • The Brothers Cabal (Johannes Cabal #4). Jonathan L. Howard 2014.
  • The Men Who Stare at Goats. Jon Ronson 2004.
  • Salt. Adam Roberts 2000.
  • A Rage to Live: A Biography of Richard and Isabel Burton. Mary S. Lovell 1998.
  • Air. Geoff Ryman 2004.
  • A Meeting with Medusa (The Collected Stories of Arthur C. Clarke, #4). 1960s.
  • Diamonds Are Forever (James Bond #4). Ian Fleming 1956.
  • The Door into Summer. Robert A. Heinlein 1956.
  • The Innocents Abroad. Mark Twain 1869.
  • Pistols at Dawn: a History of Duelling. Richard Hopton 2007.
  • Spinning Silver. Naomi Novik 2018.

Here’s my list for 2017.

Nationalist Complains About Novik

36896898I’m reading Naomi Novik’s excellent recent novel Spinning Silver, which deals with Jews and Christians in a fantasy version of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, apparently in some equivalent of the 16th century.* Much of the plot and recurring themes in the book revolve around money lending and the re-payment of debts. There’s also evil ice faeries, fire demons and spell casting in it. I’ve never read any Jewish historical fantasy before, and I was curious to learn what Jewish readers think about it. So I googled “jewish news review novik spinning”.

The first surprise was pleasant: I had to scroll through lots of general secular news and reviews sites before I found one with a specifically Jewish perspective. This book enjoys wide exposure (including 22,000 ratings on The second surprise was less fun: when I finally found what I was looking for at the Jewish Review of Books, the reviewer Michael Weingrad turned out to be a nationalist grinding his historical axe.

This guy complains that the Christians in this fantasy novel aren’t mean enough to the Jews. He’s unhappy with the degree to which some families from either group are willing to co-exist in a friendly manner. He states incorrectly** that Novik’s fantasy Jews don’t speak Yiddish. “Novik has stocked her book not with anything resembling historical Jews and Christians but with 21st-century secular liberals who have no commitment to group identity in the first place. … none of Novik’s main characters, Jew or Christian, express any attachment to peoplehood, religion, or nation.”

Weingrad’s take on the book is exactly like complaining that since Tolkien’s hobbits are a fantasy version of Victorian Englishmen, The Lord of the Rings is crap because it doesn’t deal with the downsides of colonialism. Spinning Silver does refer repeatedly in passing to pogroms, but Weingrad apparently can’t enjoy (grimly) his Jewish historical fantasy unless it focuses on anti-Semitism in dirty detail, plus some faeries, demons and spells.

But then I’m a 21st-century secular liberal who has little commitment to group identity. I sincerely believe that the world needs a lot less less attachment to peoplehood, religion and nation. I should probably have googled “progressive jewish news novik spinning”. And I recommend the book.

* There’s tobacco, so after 1492, and Lithuania is still independent, so before 1570. But even impoverished peasants drink tea, which wasn’t available to the imperial Russian court until 1638.

** Chapter 18. Wanda, a poor Christian teen who probably speaks fantasy Polish: “I thought at first they were just talking so fast that I couldn’t understand, but then I realized they were saying words that I didn’t understand at all, mixed up with words that I did know.” And in chapter 21, “… I did not care anymore that I did not understand what they were saying.”