The Years, Months, Days – Yan Lianke

Ok, look:  Yan Lianke is Fan-fucking-tastic.  Explosion Chronicles?  Brilliant.  Lenin’s Kisses?  Double Brilliant.  Serve the People?  Maybe not quite as brilliant but still pretty good.  If you want to read good, modern Chinese fiction, Lianke is probably where you want to start.

Only, maybe don’t start with this book.  It consists of two novellas, the first one is almost wholly against type.  It concerns an old man and his dog struggling against starvation in an abandoned village.  The story’s not terrible, but what usually makes Lianke great is the interplay between strongly-drawn (sometimes cartoonishly so) characters.  So a story based entirely on interior monologue is, well, not very Lianke.

The other story, concerning a woman arguing with her dead husband’s ghost about how to care for their grown children with mental illnesses, on the other hand, is more textbook Lianke, but it’s minus a lot of the zany/madcap institutional stuff that makes so much of his other work exceptional.

To rcap: if you are a Lianke fan, by all means read this.  if you aren’t, start with Lenin’s Kisses and then maybe work your way back to this.



The Cold War: a World History – Odd Arne Westad

Boring.  Very little new here in terms of new insights, and too short (even at 600-odd pages) to bring many new interesting details to light on any specific facet or event within the cold war.  If you’re in need of a dull re-cap of events from 1945 to 1989, there are probably some Timelines of History that would do the same job much more concisely.  Avoid.

The Last Days of New Paris – China Miéville

Paris, the late 1940s.  A force-field covers occupied Paris, sealing it off from the outside world.  A terrible mishap has brought many surrealists paintings to life, and they roam the streets of Paris.  The Nazis have made an actual pact with hell to bring demons forth to fight the surrealist paintings.  What’s a resistance fighter to do?

It’s less interesting than it sounds despite a fairly imaginative ending, which involves a very different kind of painter wreaking havoc on the eternal city.

I like Miéville (Embassytown was great) but this one felt a little weak.  Maybe give it a miss.


The Fate of Rome – Kyle Harper

Every 18-24 months or so, the anglo publishing world gets a big new Rome book to feast on.  In 2016, it was Mary Beard’s SPQR (good, but ends just as things get interesting at the end of the Nervan-Antonine dynasty).  In 2018, it’s Kyle Harper’s The Fate of Rome, which look at the role of environment and pestilence in both Rome’s rise and it’s fall.

(To be clear, “Rome” here includes Byzantium – the last third or so of the book takes place after the actual sack of Rome in 410).

Tl:dr: Rome’s rise coincided with a period where the climate was very mild and beneficial to the mediterranean world.  It started to become a little more variable (and hence crops more unpredictable) right around the time smallpox beat the shit out of the Roman World in the latter half of the reign of Marcus Aurelius.  Pandemics were basically a by-product of Roman affluence: trade routes were great vectors for disease.  The fact that they started happening just as one of the other pillars of of roman affluence (climate) was being kicked away was just bad luck.  Bad harvests meant people were weak in the face of disease; pandemics meant it was sometimes hard to get the crops in.  This was a bad vicious circle.

From the Antonine plague in the mid-100s we go to the Cyprian plagues in the mid-200s and then a series of mini-plagues which persist for most of the next hundred or so years.  Harper really gets into the microbiology and epidemiology here – probably a bit too much for a mass-market book but whatever – and keeps going until we hit The Big One – the plague of Justinian in 541.

I had heard of this before but had never really clued into its significance.  In 540 Justinian is on the verge of making Byzantium the master of the mediterranean again, maybe even bringing Italy back into the fold.  But the plagues of the next few years (and Harper argues it actually was the first outbreak of Bubonic Plague, the disease that would come back with a vengeance and wipe out about a third of Europe in the 14th century) were such a demographic disaster – 30-40% of the population is believed to have died – that Byzantium was permanently weakened.  So were its neighbours, of course, so there was no immediate foreign policy crisis.  But soon enough afterwards, an obscure group of religious zealots from the west coast of Arabia came rampaging north and….well, Byzantium hung on for another nine centuries, but it was never again a power of much note.  And the middle east went from being a centre of Christianity to being what it is today, the homeland of Islam.

Anyways, entertaining.  If you like pop Roman history, this is a good one to buy.

Spoilt City/Friends and Heroes – Olivia Manning

I haven’t been writing for awhile (though I have been reading) so catching up and writing some things down quickly:

Spoilt City  and Friends and Heroes are the second and third parts of Olivia Manning’s Balkan Trilogy (I reviewed the first volume back here).  The second volume goes roughly from the fall of Paris to October 1940 when the Nazis entered Bucharest; the third sees our heroes heading south to Athens and staying there until the spring of 1941 when the Nazis catch up with them again.

What is great about these books I think is what was great about the movie Darkest Hour; we forget, nowadays, how close the Allies came to defeat, how close the Nazis came to winning – and indeed how inevitable that victory must have felt in 1940 and 1941.  What’s shot through these books is a sense of helplessness: what does an individual do in the face of that kind of calamity?  What is one’s duty?  And does duty even matter when it’s in a cause which is obviously lost?

Yakimov is still there – his mooching cluelessness reaching heroic and even comedic levels; and so too are a host of what are apparently thinly-veiled caricatures of actual British officials in the two cities (turns out a buddy of mine has a hobby of tracking down the actual biographies of the various characters in this book).  “Official” Britain – the world of embassies and the various outposts British Council – is skewered as being shot through with petty politics and puffery and an occasional shot of mad, ill-considered adventurism.  It’s certainly filled a post-war “how did we ever get an Empire being this dumb?” sensibility.

Being a Bucharest-o-phile, I found the second book more amusing than the third (the city is the Star!) though in some ways the panic and futility the series is meant to evoke gets a lot more serious in the final volume.  I’m not sure I would recommend this to many as a must-read piece of literature, but if you’re ever headed to Romania, it’s probably a good thing to have on your kindle.



Shogun: the Life of Tokugawa Ieyasu – A.L. Sadler

I am going to Japan in a couple of months and so I’m going all nippo-phile in my reading habits.  A lot of it is modern, but I’m also trying to get a grip on the end of the Sengoku Jidai (civil war) period (see my earlier review of Christ’s Samurai), and all the stories about the three great re-unifiers: Oda Nobunaga, Hiedyoshi and Tokugawa.  The last of these is maybe the most important – Tokugawa Ieyasu founded the dynasty of shoguns that remained in power until the mid-nineteenth century arrival.  Which is why it’s kind of crazy that there’s only one real biography of the man – this one – which is over seventy years old and frankly would never be published today.

It’s not just the occasionally weird language (when talking about the fact that such a well-known womanizer could avoid ever getting gonorrhea, he opines that “even the spirochete were on his side).  It’s the first 80 pages or so, in which he plunges into absurd detail, absent any real context, of the intricacies of Tokugawa’s hopping from one alliance to the next (the politics of Japanese warlords in the Sengoku Jidai makes Game of Thrones look like a game of Connect Four).  It’s the fact that he talks about the details of battle after battle, march after march without a Single. Fucking. Map.  It’s the near-complete absence of any comment at all about the restrictions on gun manufacturing which Ieyasu imposed on the country after his final victory in 1600, which had such enormous implications both domestically and in foreign policy over the next three centuries.

Completely maddening.  Did not enjoy.  Avoid.

Portrait of the Artist as a Young Ape – Michel Butor

So I mentioned back here that I was getting my foreign fiction reccos from M.A. Orthofer’s Complete Review Guide to Contemporary World Fiction.  What I didn’t mention was that I decided to focus on one country at a time, and for now that country is going to be France.  I’m basically going through post-war French fiction based on two criteria: 1) did it win the Prix Goncourt and/or 2) Does it have a cool/ridiculous name?  Michel Butor’s Portrait of the Artist as  Young Ape won on criteria 2.  But not on much else.

This is a piece of late-60s experimental fiction.  Young Parisian author just after WWII goes to live/work at a German chateau, looking at antiquarian books, getting involved in a vampire story, and some kind of Arabian/middle-eastern travel story which eventually involves him being turned into the ape.  All in about 130 pages of decreasingly legible text (lots of hopping back and forth line by line between different simultaneous narratives of varying degrees of reality, kind of like a Caryl Churchill script on meth).

Avoid, I think.  Unless you really like 60s-era experimental prose.