My amount of reading took a jump in 2017 with what I read to vote for the Hugo awards, and it stayed jumped this year. I finished the Discworld novels in early September, a couple of months sooner than I had expected. I had somehow missed reading them in the 1980s and 1990s, and only started picking them up when a business trip to Basel took me past a spinner rack full of Pratchett in the airport. Four years later, I’ve made it through all 41 the first time, and am much richer for the experience. I’m sure I will go back to some, particularly the Lancre witches and Tiffany Aching.
In 2018, I also finished my little Schiller project, which I thought would go more quickly than it did. Apparently my appetite for eighteenth-century drama is easily sated in a given year. On the other hand, several of the plays are great works of the imagination, worth reading all these years later and not merely of historical interest. The Maid of Orleans is definitely the best of the four I read this year. Love and Intrigue, Schiller’s last prose play, was terrific too, in a completely different register. It’s a brilliantly engineered train wreck, filled with characters who could avoid their fates if they would just step back and consider for a moment. It must be exquisitely excruciating in the theater.
I finished some series, started others, and chugged along in still others. I finished Cherie Priest’s Clockwork Century set, and read all of Greg van Eekhout’s darkly magical California. I’ve read all three of Yoon Ha Lee’s calendrical warfare novels that he has published to date; if there’s another, I hope it has less Jedao. I read just one of the Ladies’ No 1 Detective Agency books, so I am two or possibly three behind the author at this point. One Witcher book, three more to go. Happily, Boris Akunin’s Fandorin series has found an English-language publisher again; or more precisely, the previous publisher has decided to continue translating and releasing the series. I am in the middle of All the World’s a Stage, though I will probably not finish it by the end of the year, and I have Black City to look forward to.
Russia turned out to be a theme of the year, too. The two largest books I read — Life and Fate by Vasily Grossman and The House of Government by Yuri Slezkine — were both about Russia. Another eight or so of this year’s books were set in or otherwise concerned Russia, from Julian Barnes’ short novel about Shostakovich’s encounters with Soviet power to Wladimir Kamier’s mostly lighthearted reckoning with the disappearance of same, and from more bus stops to a powerful work about death in Russia.
Overall, I read five books in German, seven graphic works, eleven Discworld books, and ten works in translation, thanks to the middle child sharing some manga with me. (One was translated from Russian, one from Polish, two from Turkish, one from Chinese, one from German, and four from Japanese.) I re-read one book this year, Ellen Kushner’s perfect Swordspoint. I read fourteen books written by women.
I started to tally up the books written by persons of color, but soon ran into some difficulty. Who counts? Black authors in the United States, sure; I read three works from two authors. American authors of Asian descent? Ok, one. What about Asia Minor? If the author still lives there and is a member of the dominant ethnic group? Hm. Asian authors living in Asia? Again with the Hm. Russians? Jewish Russians? Yeah, it’s complicated. Then there are people like Wladimir Kaminer, a Jewish Russian immigrant to Germany writing in German about his experiences before and after relocating, or Steffen Möller writing in German and publishing in Germany about his experiences as a non-native resident in Poland. At least I didn’t read anything by Elias Canetti this year.
One thing I haven’t looked at before in these lists is when the books that I read in the course of the year were first published. The interplay between publishing and reviewing is tricky enough, and then economics and timing get added in, and it gets trickier still. Back when I was a bookseller and part of a large independent store’s advertising and promotions staff, I got to see publishers’ efforts to make a splash with a book when it first hit the market. That was more than 20 years ago, and even then people were talking about the Hollywoodification (horrible word for a horrible practice) of book publishing, sales, and promotion. From what I can tell, the trends have only intensified, with a lot of the effort transferred into pre-publication publicity and pre-orders.
Here on the other side of the desk, I’m not completely immune to the rush either. Wholly new books are exciting! The Frumious Consortium pushes out notices of what we write on social media; we wouldn’t be doing that if we didn’t want people to notice what we’re up to. Sometimes authors and publishers will notice what we’ve written and either briefly reply or pass the link along to their social media networks. It’s neat when that happens! It’s fun to feel a part of a larger conversations about books that I’ve cared enough about to read and write about. I sometimes feel a pull to go after more of that.
So how close to publication are the things I read this year? I mostly read books that are recent, but not brand new. (At the other extreme, I read four that premiered in the 1700s.) I read five that were published in 2018, 20 from the two years preceding, and another 20 from the rest of the 2010s. The only other decade to hit double digits is the 2000s, with 13; 1990s, two; 1980s, three; 1970s, also three; 1960s, zilch; and 1950s, two. I would not have pegged either of those as 1950s books — I would have placed Mani later and The 13 Clocks earlier. Shows what I know about the 1950s.
Translations jumble the publication dates a little bit. All four of the manga collections I read were published in the 2010s, so there is not a great gap even if the English translation appeared in the last two years but the original work came out earlier this decade. The greatest gap is for A Hero Born, which was published in Chinese in 1957 and in English in 2018. The fastest non-manga translation was for an unabashedly academic work, Soviet Mass Festivals. Others saw twenty-year gaps. Life and Fate had an even longer road. The author submitted it for publication in the Soviet Union in 1960. The censors rejected it and promptly confiscated not only all the manuscript copies they could find but also the very typewriter ribbons Grossman had used. He had managed to hide two copies, and these led to a Russian-language edition appearing in the West in 1980. Glasnost allowed its publication in the USSR in 1988. The English translation that I read was published in 2006. A translation of the prequel to Life and Fate, first published in 1956, will appear in 2019; I’m looking forward to it.
The best recollection of the 1980s was War for the Oaks by Emma Bull, the best Eurovision in space was Space Opera by Catherynne M. Valente, and the best riff on old pulp was Lovecraft Country by Matt Ruff. The best set of late Discworld books are the ones featuring Tiffany Aching, and I think I Shall Wear Midnight is the best of those, with Wintersmith a close second. Best nonfiction not otherwise mentioned was Words Are My Matter by Ursula K. Le Guin, and best reminder of working in Washington was The Gatekeepers by Chris Whipple.
Full list, roughly in order read, is under the fold with links to my reviews and other writing about the authors here at Frumious.