Well, 2017 was a crap year in reading terms. I managed only 123 books, my worst showing since 2005’s 110 books read. I’d expected 2017 to be lower than the previous year, and had even reduced by Goodreads Reading Challenge target from 150 to 140… And still failed to achieve it. Oh well.
If 2017 failed in terms of quantity, it certainly didn’t for quality. I read a number of excellent books – and was hard-pressed to pick my favourites for the year (see here). I think I’m better at choosing what to read now than I used to be, and it’s not always turning to the same favourite authors. I have them, of course; who doesn’t. And I plan to read all they’ve written… but I also like to read stuff that’s unlike my usual reading material – and I’ve found some new favourites by doing that.
I’ve made an effort in the past few years to balance my reading between male and female writers of fiction. Men just pipped women this year. I suspect that’s because I read a bunch of novellas and I just happen to own more novellas by male writers than female writers. “A”, incidentally, stands for anthologies, “NF” for non-fiction, and “GN” for graphic novels (although, to be honest, they were pretty much all bandes dessinées).
I’ve yet to work out if I’m still a science fiction fan – I mean, I write it, and I still read it, but I have a low opinion of much of the genre’s output. And then I tot up the books read by genre at the end of the year, and it seems science fiction forms almost half of my reading. So I guess I must still be a sf fan. My mainstream reading is down too – even if you add in “world” (which would be translated non-genre fiction), it’s still less than last year’s 27%. Checking back, my sf reading was 40% last year… but I’ve no idea why I read so much more sf in 2017. Was it a good year for science fiction? Not that I read novels as soon as they’re published all that often – sometimes it can take me up to a decade to get around to reading a book I bought when it was first published. I don’t know. There were several sf novellas published in 2017 by writers whose fiction I like. Perhaps that accounts for it.
Despite my comment above – and yes, there are books that have sat on my shelves for more than a decade before I finally got around to reading them – it always surprises me to learn the bulk of my reading is from the current decade. I don’t actively seek out the New Shiny – often, I avoid it. So that’s a bit weird. The 1920s and 1930s are probably due to some DH Lawrence I read. The 1870s was, I think, a couple of Jules Verne books.
In 2016, I started to track the country of origin of the writers I read, and was surprised how much of my reading is by UK writers. That apparently hasn’t changed – although it has risen from 39% to 49% (and the US has dropped from 35% to 24%). But in 2017, I read further afield – twenty countries compared to seventeen. And some of 2017’s countries were new to me: Albania, Belarus, Bangladesh, Estonia and Norway. Several years ago, I challenged myself to read a book each month from a different country, but I got bogged down in an Orhan Pamuk novel and never finished it. I might have another go at the challenge in 2018.
In 2017, I watched 532 films – well, some were seasons of television series, which, thinking about it, I don’t know why I track as I only do so for those I watched on DVD or Blu-ray. Anyway, I watched 532 “films”, some of them more than once. Some I’d seen before, in previous years. In fact…
… over three-quarters of what I watched I saw for the first time in 2017. Some of them I rewatched a second, or even third, time during the year (SY). Others I had seen once previously in an earlier year (1P) and some I’d seen several times in previous years (MP).
Nearly half of the films I watched were ones I owned. LoveFilm, which closed at the end of September, was the next biggest source; followed by Cinema Paradiso, another DVD rental service (and the only one left, I think). The only streaming service I have is Amazon Prime, which throws up the occasional good film. I might subscribe to MUBI or Curzon in 2018. I haven’t decided yet. There are a couple of Netflix TV series I’d like to see but I’m not sure if they’re worth paying the subscription. Annoyingly, Amazon are apparently dropping the Youtube app from their service – too much of a competitor for out-of-copyright material, I guess. Monoplistic bastards.
During 2017, I decided to track the gender of the directors of the films I was watching. The film industry is even more of a sausage-fest than book publishing. I made an effort to seek out films by female directors – and even found some I intend to follow, like Claudia Llosa and Lucía Puenzo (both South American) – but I did stick to the sort of films I like, and while women do make them, they’re a small percentage of the total. I hope that changes. In the chart above, “P” means two or more directors, which can be anything from a pair, like the Archers, Powell and Pressburger, to an anthology film by half a dozen directors. And “S” is TV series.
I’m not very good with film genres. I tend to classify most films as “drama”. I’m not convinced there’s a good way to categorise film genres. Okay, so SF, horror, fantasy… those are quite obvious. But what’s the difference between a thriller movie and an action movie? When is a drama a rom com? What the fuck is “action comedy”? I cheated a bit – I’m not sure if the 007 films are thrillers or action films, so I made them their own genre, “Bond”. Chiefly because I bought the complete films box set on Blu-ray on Black Friday. And “Disney” is its own genre, irrespective of whether the films were cartoon or live action. I watched a bunch of Elvis Presely films, so he got his own genre too.
I like to think I watch a wide spread of films, so it always comes as a surprise at the end of the year to discover that the most popular decade among the films I watched was… the current one. Oh well.
In 2017, I made an effort to seek otu films from countries I’d not seen films from before, and managed to add another 14 to the list: Thailand, Kazakhstan, Lithuania, Venezuela, Mongolia, Georgia, Vietnam, Peru, Singapore, Jordan, Jamaica, Estonia, Cuba and Romania. I also managed to keep the US films I watched to around a quarter of my total viewing. As a result of expanding the countries from which I watch films, I’ve become a fan of China’s Sixth Generation directors, and am keen to watch more movies from Cuba, Peru, Chile and the Baltic states. In total, I watched films in 2017 from the countries in the map below.
I only purchased three albums and one EP during 2017. Admittedly, they’re extremely good ones, and by favourite bands – but that’s it. that’s my top five for this year. And it’s only four. I also went to only three gigs during the year – to see Magenta, Anathema and Akercocke – and I didn’t go to Bloodstock, after a six-year run, because it clashed with the Worldcon in Helsinki. And it looks increasingly likely I won’t be making Bloodstock in 2018 either. Ah well. I’m not entirely sure why I’ve been consuming less music with each passing year. But I have a few theories. Partly, it’s economic – as the Tories have run down this country, first with their useless Austerity and now with their criminal Brexit, so fewer bands I like have toured the UK, and of those that do tour here, most stick to the major cities – some don’t even bother playing anywhere but London. Things changed at work too. I used to wear headphones when I was working, but I’ve been so busy these last couple of years I got out of the habit. And at home these days, I’m more likely to be in the living-room with a DVD on while I’m working on the laptop, than I am at the desk and listening to music.
Having said that, I’ve alwasy chased new music, rather than sit back and wait for the bands I like to release new albums. A lot of the metal bands I listen too aren’t professional, they have day jobs, and they have neither the time nor the money to put out a new album every year. But there were always new bands to find. But that requires time and effort from me, and I’ve just not been up to it this last year or two. Which means that for 2017’s best of, it was pretty much me sitting back and waiting for the bands I like to release new albums. Which, fortunately, some did. One band even reformed and released new album!
albums 1Aathma, Persefone (2017, Andorra). I’ve been a fan of Persefone’s complex progressive death metal since first hearing their album Core back in 2008. I’ve seen them live once, when they toured as support for Obituary in 2010. They were excellent. During the interval between their set and Obituary’s I wandered across to the merchandise table. One of Persefone’s guitarists was behind it. When I admitted I’d come to see them and not Obituary, he came round the table and hugged me. Persefone have not released many albums, but each one has been better than the last.
2Renaissance in Extremis, Akercocke (2017, UK). I first saw Akercocke back in 2005, when they supported Opeth at the Forum in London. Back then, they wore suits and had long hair, and had been nicknamed “Satan’s bankers”. I’ve seen them several times since – the most recently only a couple of months ago – and they always put on an excellent show, even if the suits and long hair are long gone. I was disappointed when they split u p – although that did give us Voices, an excellent band – but very happy indeed when they decided to reform. And Renaissance in Extremis is pretty much Akercocke on top form – it’s new, but it couldn’t be anybody but Akercocke. The editoin I bought came in a fancy hardback book, with three CDs.
3Beyond the Gate, Within the Fall (2017, Sweden). I came across this band a couple of years ago, and I’ve followed them ever since on bandcamp. They produce solid Scandinavian progressive death metal, and, okay, some times the clean vocals are a bit dodgy, but their guitar work is excellent. The title track to this four-track EP is especially good. The band is also surprisingly productive, althuogh they tend to release EPs rather than albums – but as a writer of novellas I can hardly complain.
4Farmakologinen, Oranssi Pazuzu (2017, Finland). I came across Oranssi Pazuz several years ago, chiefly because their music was described as a mixture of black metal and psychadelic space rock. And it actually was that. I loved their album Valonielu, and kept an eye open for new material. But they’re not very prolific, and while I missed 2016’s Värähtelijä, I didn’t miss this year’s Farmakologinen. And it’s just like the cover art suggests – a wall of black metal guitars with spacey psychadelic organ and bleeps and bloops. It shouldn’t work. But it does, it really does.
A couple of years ago, I thought it might be a good idea to try and watch all the films on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list (the 2013 edition). This year I also decided to try and watch a film from as many countries as I could. Both challenges have been going quite well: I’ve watched 897 of the 1001 so far, 56 of them seen for the first time this year; and I’ve watched movies from 53 countries… although only Thailand, Kazakhstan, Lithuania, Venezuela, Mongolia, Georgia, Vietnam, Peru, Singapore, Jordan, Jamaica, Estonia, Cuba and Romania were new to me in 2017.
It also occurred to me in 2017 that most of the films I watched were directed by men. So I started to track the genders of the directors whose films I watch in an effort to see more films by female directors. Unfortunately, female directors are hugely outnumbered by men, especially in Hollywood, and I managed only 43 films by women during the year. Having said that, a couple of those female directors became names I plan to keep an eye on, such as Claudia Llosa and Lucía Puenzo.
I watched 602 films in 2017, although only 532 were new to me this year. I also decided in 2017 to watch more documentaries, and ended up watching so many that I thought it best to split my film best of the year lists into two, one for documentaries and one for “fictional” films… except I’m not sure what to call the latter, but I think “narrative cinema” is the preferred term.
documentary 1I am Cuba, Mikhail Kalatozov (1964, Cuba) . I loved Humberto Solás’s Lucía after watching it, and I wanted to see Tomáz Guttiérez Alea’s Memories of Underdevelopment a second time, and there was this box set from Mr Bongo that included both, as well as I am Cuba and Strawberry and Chocolate. So I bought the box set… and was blown away when I watched I am Cuba, a documentary commissioned by the Soviets to promote Cuba, but which was so innovative it was never actually released. Kalatozov reportedly strung cameras on wires, but even knowing that it’s hard to work out how he achieved some of his shots. And this was in 1964, when there was no CGI. I am Cuba also presents the island as a near-utopia, and while the USSR and its satellite nations were never that, they at least aspired to it – which is more than can be said of the West. The American Dream isn’t utopia, it’s a deeply mendacious justification for the success of the few at the expense of the many. Even now, 53 years after I am Cuba was made, Cuba remains poor, but has one of the best free healthcare systems on the planet, and the US is rich and its healthcare system is unaffordable by the bulk of its population. Some things are more important than giving a handful of people the wherewithal to buy their own Caribbean island.
2The Pearl Button, Patricio Guzmán (2015, Chile). If you’ve not watched a film by Guzmán, why not? The Pearl Button is a meditation on the universe, water, the history of Chile, especially the Pinochet dictatorship, and the genocide of the country’s indigenous people. It’s a mix of stock footage and gorgeously-shot film, all tied together by the calm voice of Guzmán. He describes how Pinochet’s goons would torture people and then dump their bodies offshore from helicopters. He interviews supporters of Salazar, president before Pinochet’s coup, who were put in concentration camps. He speaks to the handful of survivors of the Alacalufe and Yaghan tribes of Patagonia, which in the late 1880s were infected with Western diseases, and the survivors hunted for bounty, by settlers. He discusses Jeremy Button, a a Yaghan tribesman taken back to Britain on the HMS Beagle in 1830 (it was when returning Jeremy Button to Patagonia a year later that Darwin first travelled aboard the HMS Beagle). The Pearl Button is not only an important film because of what it covers, but a beautifully-shot one too. You should watch it.
3Behemoth, Zhao Liang (2015, China) . This year I went on something of a China/Taiwan cinema kick. I forget what started it off, but I discovered lots of new names to watch and lots of excellent films. Zhao Liang I had, I think, put on my rental list because his films sounded like Jia Zhangke’s , who was already a favourite. But Zhao makes documentaries, and Behemoth is about coal in China, the mines and those who live on their periphery and survive by gleaning. Zhao’s earlier work has been very critical of the Chinese authorities – meaning his films are not wholly official – but they are also beautifully framed. And in Behemoth, he goes one further and uses split-screen, but also arranging his screens in such a way they’re not initially obvious as split-screen and then suddenly turn kaleidoscopic. It’s not a technique I’ve seen before, and it probably wouldn’t work in most situations, but it’s absolutely brilliant here. Zhao Liang is a name to watch.
4Francofonia, Aleksandr Sokurov (2015, France) . I’ve been a fan of Sokurov’s films for many years and own copies of much of what he’s directed during his long career. I’d heard about Francofonia some time in 2014, but it wasn’t until 2015 it appeared, and not until 2017 it was released in the UK – and only at Curzon cinemas, but, annoyingly, only the Curzon cinemas in London. FFS. I’d liked to have seen it on a big screen. But I had to console myself with the Blu-ray. Which was pretty much as I expected – a typical Sokurovian mix of documentary, meditation, narrative cinema and autobiography – although the production values were a distinct cut above his previous work. It’s a good entry in Sokurov’s oeuvre, if not one of his best ones, but even merely good Sokurov is still so much better than most film-makers can manage. It’s also been heartening seeing how well it has been received… because that means we might see more films from Sokurov. Because I want more, lots more.
5Samsara, Ron Fricke (2011, USA). I loved Koyaanisqatsi when I watched it last year, and I later learned that its director of photography, Ron Fricke, had made a pair of similar non-narrative films himself: Baraka and Samsara. They’re basically footage of various parts of the planet, with only the most tenuous of links and no over-arching story. The emphasis is entirely on the imagery, which is uniformly gorgeous. Of the two, I thought the second, Samsara, much the better one.The footage is beautiful, the parts of the world it covers fascinating, and it’s one of the few films out there which gives you faith in humanity. I quite fancy having my own copy of this.
Honourable mentions:The Epic of Everest, JBL Noel (1924, UK) astonishing silent documentary of an early attempt to climb Everest; Baraka, Ron Fricke (1992, USA) gorgeous non-narrative cinema from around the world; Festival Express, Bob Smeaton (2003, UK) 1970 tour across Canada aboard a train featuring Janis Joplin, the Grateful Dead and others; Cameraperson, Kirsten Johnson (2016, USA) Johnson’s life stitched together from outtakes from her documentaries and privately-shot footage; Sofia’s Last Ambulance, Ilian Metev (2012, Bulgaria) affecting fly-on-the-wall film of an ambulance crew in Sofia’s beleagured healthcare system; Petition: The Court of Appeals, Zhao Liang (2009, China) filmed in the shanty town outside Beijing where petitioners lived while waiting the years it took for their appeals to be heard, if ever.
narrative 1The Sky Trembles and the Earth is Afraid and the Two Eyes Are Not Brothers, Ben Rivers (2015, UK). I loved this film – it’s perhaps a stretch to call it narrative cinema as it’s also partly a documentary. Anyway, I loved this film… so much I went and bought everything by Ben Rivers that was available (no surprise, then, that his two other feature-length films get honourable mentions below). The Sky Trembles and the Earth is Afraid and the Two Eyes Are Not Brothers – the title is taken from a Paul Bowles story, which partly inspires it – opens as a documentary of Olivier Laxe filming Mimosas. But then Bowles’s story intrudes, and Laxe, a real person, and his film is indeed real and has been released… Laxe’s story morphs into the plot of Bowles’s short story. This is brilliant cinema, an unholy mix of documentary, fiction, literary reference, art installation and narrative cinema.
2Privilege, Peter Watkins (1967, UK). I knew Watkins from The War Game and Punishment Park, both mock documentaries about very real horrors; so when I watched Privilege it came as something of a surprise. True, it’s similar, in as much as it’s a mock documentary, set a few years ahead of when it was made; but it also seems a more tongue-in-cheek film, and plays up the ridiculousness of its premise. The segment where the star is filming a government commercial for apples, for example, is hilarious. In the movie, Watkins posits a fascist UK in which a pop star is used as a symbol to make unpleasant government policies more palatable. We’ve yet to see that happen here, if only because politicians foolishly believe they have media presence. They don’t. They’re as personable as a block of rancid butter. And often as intelligent (BoJo, I’m looking at you; but also Gove, Hammond, Davies, Rudd…) We should be thankful, I suppose, because if they ever did decide to use a media star with actual charisma, we’d be totally lost. On the other hand, satire apparently died sometime around 2015, so perhaps Watkins may prove more prophetic than he knew…
3Embrace of the Serpent, Ciro Guerra (2015, Colombia) . I stumbled across this on Amazon Prime and stuck it on my watch list. It was later recommended to me, so I sat down and watched it, and… it was excellent. It’s set in the Amazonian jungle, and covers a pair of expeditions for a legendary plant, one in 1909 and the other in 1940. There’s a bit of Herzog in it, and probably some Rocha too, and the cinematography is often amazing. I wrote about it here.
4Arabian Nights, Pier Paolo Pasolini (1974, Italy). 2017 was a bit of a Pasolini year for me. I bought a boxed set of his films on Blu-ray, and worked my way through them – although a number I’d seen before. Arabian Nights feels like an ur-Pasolini film, in that it does so well some of the things some of his films were notable for – a non-professional cast acting out elements of a story cycle in remote locations. The title gives the source material, but the look of the movie is pure Pasolini – although much of it comes down to his choice of locations in North Africa. Of all the Pasolini films I’ve seen, this is by far the prettiest; and if its treatment of its material is somewhat idiosyncratic, 1001 Nights is far too complex a source for honest adaptation.
5The World, Jia Zhangke (2004, China) . I “discovered” Jia in 2016, but it was obvious he was a director to keep on eye on, and so I sought out his other works. Including this one. Which I thought worked especially well – not that this other films are bad, on the contrary they’re excellent. But something about this one especially appealed to me. It’s set at a theme park containing famous buildings from around the world. The movie follows two workers there, one a dancer and the other a security guard. The film is a sort of laid-back thriller, in which the cast move around the artificial world of the theme park, trying to make ends meet, and trying to keep their relationship together. The World has a documentary feel to it, and often seems more fly-on-the-wall than narrative drama. But I think it’s its literalisation of the term “microcosm” that really makes the film.
Honourable mentions:Marketa Lazarová, František Vlačíl (1967, Czech Republic) grim mediaeval drama, something the Czechs seem to do well; Elena, Andrey Zvyagintsev (2011, Russia) languidly-paced character study of a rich man’s wife as she attempts to provide for her son from an earlier marriage, beautifully shot; Reason, Debate and a Story, Ritwik Ghatak (1974, India) more ethnographical film-making and political debate from a favourite director; Shanghai Dreams, Wang Xiaoshuai (2005, China) grim semi-autobiographical drama from a Sixth Generation director; Suzhou River, Lou Ye (2000, China) cleverly-structured mystery from another Sixth Generation director; Madeinusa, Claudia Llosa (2006, Peru) affecting story of a young woman in a remote village in the Andes; The Case of Hana and Alice, Shunji Iwai (2015, Japan) a lovely piece of Japanese animation; Je vous salue, Marie, Jean-Luc Godard (1985, France) a thinly-veiled retelling of the Virgin Mary Godard turns into a compelling drama; Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, Apichatpong Weerasethakul (2010, Thailand) the best of Weerasethakul’s atypical fractured-narrative films I’ve seen so far, mysterious and beautifully shot; O Pagador de Promessas, Anselmo Duarte (1962, Brazil) the only Brazilian film to win the Palme d’or, an excellent piece of Cinema Novo; Muriel, Alain Resnais (1963, France) enigmatic meditation on memory presented as a laid-back domestic drama; The Love Witch, Anna Biller (2016, USA) pitch-perfect spoof of a 1970s B-movie supernatural thriller that also manages to be feminist; Two Years at Sea, Ben Rivers (2011, UK) and A Spell to Ward off the Darkness, Ben Rivers & Ben Russell (2013, UK) see above.
2017 has been a bit of a parson’s nose of a year – or do I mean a curate’s egg? One or the other. Both the UK and the US continued their downward spiral into fascism and economic ruin, and as a result social media became really quite depressing at times. But it’s not like I have alternative sources to find out what’s going on – I gave up on newspapers years ago, and I’ve not knowingly watched a news broadcast since the 1990s.
I made a few attempts at starting writing again, but they came to nothing. I stopped reviewing too – so SF Mistressworks went on hiatus; and I’ve not had a review in Interzone since early 2016. That was down to the day job. Things have improved there over the last few months, so I hope to start reviewing again in 2018.
On the other hand, during 2017 I attended three Nordic conventions – in Uppsala, Helsinki and Copenhagen. One of them was even a Worldcon. I had a great time at all three. I plan to attend more next year.
One area in which 2017 was much like 2016 was in the culture I consumed. More films, but less books – in fact, this blog pretty much turned into a series of Moving picture film posts during the year (68 of them to date). As in previous years, I signed up to the Goodreads challenge, but I lowered my target by ten books to 140… and it looks unlikely I’ll make it. Ah well. However, I did read some very good books and watched some very good films, and discovered a few excellent writers and directors new to me.
This year I’ve decided to split my best of the year into three parts: books first, then films, and finally music. So, moving on…
As of the time of writing, I’ve read 123 books, down on last year’s 149. I’ll blog the actual stats on the books I read in a later post, as this post is about the best books I read during the year. Two are science fiction, and four are by female writers. There are also five nations represented – I think that might be a first for me. The figure in square brackets is the book’s position in my best of the half-year post here.
1Chernobyl Prayer, Svetlana Alexievich (1997, Belarus) . During a discussion on Twitter early this year about female literature Nobel laureates, I realised I’d read very few. So I decided to pick up books by a couple. Alexievich, who was awarded the Nobel in 2015, writes non-fiction composed from interviews with those affected by the topic she is writing about. As the title indicates, in this book it’s the Chernobyl disaster. Alexievich spoke to those who lived in the area, and those who stayed, as well as people who worked at the power station, or were involved in fighting the disaster or cleaning up afterwards. Despite its subject, Chernobyl Prayer is a very poetic book. It’s also frightening, heart-breaking and affirming. It”s not without its detractors, people who claim Alexievich has not been entirely accurate in representing her interviewees, although I have to wonder how many of those critics only spoke up after she was awarded the Nobel. I’ve since picked up a copy of Alexievich’s Second-Hand Time, but I’ve yet to read it; and I certainly plan to read more by her.
2Go, Went, Gone, Jenny Erpenbeck (2015, Germany) [-]. Erpenbeck has been a favourite since I read her The End of Days last year (and that book took my number one spot in 2016’s best of the year). Go, Went, Gone is not genre, as that one was, but straight-up mainstream (or literary fiction, whatever label you prefer). It’s about a retired professor in Berlin, who decides to interview some refugees being housed near him and so gets dragged into their lives and stories. It’s a subject important to our time – there are refugees flooding into Europe from the Middle East and Africa, many from situations in their homelands we Western nations have created with our warmongering and economic plundering, and the least we can do is treat them like human beings, with dignity and compassion, and show that we have built societies that welcome all. While Go, Went, Gone documents Berlin’s failings in this regard, Germany still manages a fuck load better than the UK, which puts immigrants in detention centres and treats them worse than criminals. What I love about Erpenbeck’s fiction is her distant and yet clinically sharp prose, and it’s on fine form here. An important topic, beautifully written.
3A River Called Titash, Adwaita Mallabarman (1956, Bangladesh) . Ritwak Ghatak’s A River Called Titas is one of my favourite films, so I was keen to read the novel from which it was adapted. And it’s every bit as good. However, unlike the film, it tells several stories about the Malo fisher folk of the Titas river (in what is now Bangladesh). The movie follows one particular story, that of Kishore, whose young bride is kidnapped the day after their wedding. She washes ashore at another village, but cannot remember the name of her husband’s village. Many years later, with son in tow, she tracks down her husband – only to discover he had gone mad as a result of her kidnap. The novel weaves this story in and around many others, from several villages along the Titas, a tributary of the Meghna River, one of the three rivers which forms the Ganges delta. A River Called Titash is also an ethnographic document – Mallabarman was born on the Titas, although he worked as a literary editor in Kolkata, so he knew what he was writing about. The book is as good as the film – and that’s high praise from me.
4Dreams Before the Start of Time, Anne Charnock (2017, UK) [-]. I’ve been impressed by what I’ve read by Charnock, but this one, despite its unwieldy title (yes, I know), I thought especially good. It follows a family through the next century or so as they each decide how to have children and treat their offspring. It’s not the most dramatic of plots, but I’m frankly fucked off with science fiction insisting brutality, genocide and mega-violence are necessary in every story. It’s possible to write dramatic genre fiction that doesn’t have a high body-count, or normalise fascism or villanise certain ethnic groups… And this novel is the perfect example of how to do it. It’s not even as if it’s optimistic, although I’m not sure such an adjective applies. It just is. It’s not only that I thought Dreams Before the Start of Time a very good book, but also that it’s a type of science fiction I think we need more of. Why not tell stories that do not create false enemies of the Other, or slaughter the Other, or in any way demonise the Other? Instead, let’s have stories like Dreams Before the Start of Time. Oh, and make them as well-written as it too.
5Necessary Ill, Deb Taber (2013, USA) . Friends had recommended this a couple of years previously, and I’d added it to an order from publisher Aqueduct Press not too long afterward. But it took me until 2017 to get around to reading it, and then when I opened it I was hooked. Okay, it posits a post-catastrophe world and it advocates genocide – per se – for certain groups, which does seem to contradict my comments above. But in Necessary Ill, Taber creates a group of villains – the neuts – who are way more sympathetic than the people they target – ie, American men prone to, or capable of, violence. On the other hand. the novel is clear that the plan is flawed and that those who prosecute it are also flawed. The society of the neuts is really well drawn, and while the prose in Necessary Ill is no more than slightly above average for genre fiction, the world-building is cleverly done. Despite its premise it proved to be one of the most optimistic sf novels I read in 2017. More, please.
Honourable mentions:The Opportune Moment, 1855, Patrik Ouředník (2006, Czech Republic)  off-kilter story of an anarachist utopia founded in Brazil, and its failure; Europe in Winter, Dave Hutchinson (2016, UK) , third book in the sf/spy thriller trilogy that isn’t a trilogy anymore, won the BSFA Award this year; Proof of Concept, Gwyneth Jones (2017, UK) a piece of characteristically smart but grim sf from a favourite author; The Possibility of Life’s Survival on the Planet, Patrick Keiller (2012, UK) an accompanying text for an exhibition related to Keiller’s documentary, Robinson in Ruins; Lila, Marilynne Robinson (2014, USA) the third of Robinson’s Gilead novels, following the wife of the narrator of Gilead; Party Going, Henry Green (1939, UK) a party heading for the South of France are trapped in a London railway hotel by the weather, characteristically sharp prose from Green; Angel, Elizabeth Taylor (1957, UK) the story of a young woman who becomes a best-selling romantic novelist but never manages to live in the real world; This Brutal World, Peter Chadwick (2016, UK) excellent book of photographs of Brutalist buildings; The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, Michael Chabon (2000, USA) epic history of comics told through the lives of a US Jew and a Czech Jew who escapes to the US prior to WWII; Nocilla Experience, Agustín Fernández Mallo (2008, Spain), the second book in Mallo’s trilogy of fiction cleverly mixed with fact.
I’ve already posted my best for for the first six months of 2017 (well, obviously, not really six months – more like, “up to June”), and you can find it here. But what I usually do is also is work out what I’ve been reading and watching in terms of gender, genre and nationality.
Since 1 January, I’ve read forty-nine books, which is down on previous years. In fact, I’m running aroundna dozen books behind on reading challenge this year, and I set my target at 140 books despite managing 150 books last year.
In terms of gender, I’ve done quite well, as male and female authors are running neck-and-neck. I’ve not always alternated, which is what I try to do, but if I read a run of books by male authors, then I follow it with a run of female authors. I only track this for fiction, incidentally.
Genre-wise, I self-identify as a science fiction fan, but in recent years I’ve found myself reading less sf… Or so I thought. As you can see from the chart above, science fiction has accounted for 59% of my reading in 2017 so far, and mainstream only 13% (although if you add in the world fiction, a new category, it rises to 19% – and yes, I dislike the term “world cinema” but I wanted to track the books I’d read my non-Anglophone writers and “world fiction” seemed the easiest way to do it).
And speaking of “world fiction”, this year I’ve been tracking the nation of origin of the authors whose books I read. I’d imagined that since I read a lot of sf, most of my reading would compromise US authors, but it seems I actually read more UK sf than US. Quite a bit more, in fact. I’ve also made an effort this year to read fiction from other countries – hence the presence of Albania, Belarus, and Estonia. The Norwegian book was one I’d had my shelves for several years, the Bangladeshi one was the novel from which a favourite film was adapted, the Czech was an author whose books I like and have read previously, and the French ones are all bandes dessinées.
Finally, the decades in which the books I’ve read were published… I never think of myself as someone who always go for the new shiny, so it came as a surprise to see how much books of the last seven years dominate my reading. The 1990s was the decade in which I first became active in sf, so perhaps that accounts for its high showing.
I started recording the films I watched back in 2001, although I didn’t bother tracking rewatches of films I’d already seen until a year or two later. And it wasn’t until 2010 that I began noting down the country of origin of the movies. In the last few years, I’ve made an effort to watch more films from non-Anglophone countries – or, at the very least, to reduce the percentage of films I watch that are from the US.
Overall, counting all the films I’ve seen since 2001, US films account for 52% of my viewing. Happily, so far this year, that’s down to 23%. China is next at 13%, and then the UK at 10%. In 2017, I have to date watched movies from thirty-eight different countries: Argentina, Australia, Austria, Belgium, Canada, Chile, China, Colombia, Cuba, Czech Republic, Denmark,Estonia, Finland, France, Georgia, Germany, Greece, India, Iran, Italy, Jamaica, Japan, Mexico, Netherlands, Peru, Poland, Romania, Russia, Senegal, South Africa, South Korea, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, Taiwan, UK, USA and Vietnam.
If I exclude rewatches, the total drops from 266 to 215 movies watched, the US rises to 25%, China drops to 12% and the UK to 9%. So I guess it wasn’t US films I mostly rewatched.
I also prefer to spread my viewing across the decades, and not just watch the latest films. But then, I do like me some 1950s cinema… although this year I seem to have watched more 1960s movies. And it’s weird that both the current decade and the last decade score exactly the same at 51 films each.
This year, I’ve also started tracking the gender of the directors of the films I watch. I know that most of the films I watch are made by men, but I was a little dismayed at how low the percentage of women director was, even though this year I’ve discovered some new female directors whose oeuvres I’d like to explore, such as Claudia Llosa and Lucía Puenzo. (Incidentally, “pair” means two or more directors, and “series” means television programmes.) Discounting rewatches and other films by the same director, I’ve actually watched films by 176 directors, but only a dozen of them were women. I need to improve that.
The genre of the films I watch: I tend to think of most films as “drama”, which is why that category is so big. And “animated” includes anime films, but not Disney ones, which, for some reason I decided to split out into a category of its own. Also, “wu xia” is a bit of a cheat, as not all of the films I classified as that are actually fantasy – some were big Chinese historial epic films. Oh, and I watched a few Elvis movies, so I felt he deserved his own genre too. But only 5% of the movies I’ve watched so far in 2017 were science fiction films… but then I’ve never been that big a fan of sf cinema, although I do rate a handful of sf films pretty highly.
Finally, I’ve been working my way through the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list (the 2013 edition) for a couple of years, and so far in 2017, I’ve watched twenty-six films new to me from that list. The results have been… mixed. Some were good, some were merely okay, but none turned me into a fan of the director, as has happened in previous years. To date, I’ve watched 867 films on the list (some of them before I even started recording my film-watching), so that’s 33 to go… I’m unlikely to complete the list this year – I may never complete it, as some of the films are near-impossible to find. But we’ll see.
It’s that time of year again, ie, halfway through the twelve months, when I look back over the books I’ve read, the films I’ve watched and the music I’ve listened to, and try to work out which was the best so far. I do this at the end of every year as well, of course, but I like seeing what has lasted the course, or if the back half of the year has proven better than the front half.
The last couple of years it’s been quite difficult to put together these lists, chiefly because I’ve watched so many films, sometimes more than a dozen a week. And I choose films to watch that I think might be good, which they generally are… and that makes picking the best of them even harder. On the other hand, I’ve not read as much so far this year as I have in previous years, but my selection of books is just as random…
books 1Chernobyl Prayer, Svetlana Alexievich (1997, Belarus). I was chatting with friends on Twitter one night earlier this year, and the conversation drifted onto Nobel Prize laureates, especially female ones, and I realised I’d read very few female winners of the Nobel. So I went onto Amazon and ordered some books. Herta Müller’s The Appointment was a good read but not so good I wanted to read more by her. But Alexievitch’s Chernobyl Prayer was brilliant, a fantastic revoicing of the people Alexievich had interviewed about Chernobyl and its after-effects. I have since bought a copy of Alexievich’s most recent book, Second-Hand Time, and I may well pick up more books by her. I wrote about Chernobyl Prayerhere.
2A River Called Titash, Adwaita Mallabarman (1956, Bangladesh). This is the novel from which one of my favourite films was adapted, so I was keen to read it to see how the book and film compared. And the answer is: pretty well. The film simplifies the novel’s plot, which is pretty much a series of vignettes anyway, but both suceed admirably as ethnological documents depicting a lost way of life. Mallabarman was brought up on the Titas river, but he later moved to Kolkata and became a journalist and writer. A River Called Titash is partly based on his own childhood, so it’s a first-hand depiction of a now-lost culture. I wrote about the book here.
3Necessary Ill, Deb Taber (2013, USA). I bought this a couple of years ago from Aqueduct Press after hearing many good things about it. But it took me a while to get around to reading it, which was a shame – as I really really liked it. It’s by no means perfect, and a on a prose level is probably the weakest of the five books listed here. But I loved the premise, and fund the cast completely fascinating. Other than half a dozen short stories, this is the only fiction Taber has so far had published. But I hoping there’ll be another novel from her soon. I wrote about Necessary Illhere.
5Europe in Winter, Dave Hutchinson (2016, UK). This is the third book in the trilogy-that-is-no-longer-a-trilogy about a fractured near-future Europe in which an alternate universe, where the entire European continent has been populated by the British, is now linked to our universe – or rather, the universe of the main narrative. These books have drifted from sf-meets-spy-fiction to something much more sf-nal. In a good way. Happily, there is at least one more book due in thrilogy series. I wrote about Europe in Winterhere.
films 1I Am Cuba, Mikhail Kalatozov (1964, Cuba). I bought the 50 Years of the Cuban Revolution box set because I wanted a copy of Memories of Underdevelopment – and yes, it had Lucía, a favourite film, in the set, which I already owned, but I could pass the copy I had onto a friend… But I was surprised to discover that I Am Cuba, a film about which I knew nothing, proved so good. It’s an astonishing piece of work, Soviet propaganda, that the authorities deemed a failure, but which is technically decades ahead of its time. I wrote about it here.
2Behemoth, Zhao Liang (2015, China). I went on a bit of a Chinese film kick earlier this year, after watching a couple of films by Sixth Generation directors such as Jia Zhangke and Zhang Yuan, and I’d thought Zhao Liang was one such. But he’s not. And he makes documentaries, not feature films. Zhao’s films are deeply critical of the Chinese regime, which makes you wonder how he manages to get them made, but Behemoth is also beautifully shot, with quite arresting split-screen sections at intervals. I wrote about it here.
3Embrace of the Serpent, Ciro Guerra (2015, Colombia). I found this on Amazon Prime, and then David Tallerman recommended it, so I moved it up the to-be-watched queue… and was very pleased I had done so. It’s set in the Amazonian jungle, and covers a pair of expeditions for a legendary plant, one in 1909 and the other in 1940. There’s a bit of Herzog in it, and probably some Rocha too, and the cinematorgaphy is often amazing. I wrote about it here.
4Francofonia, Aleksandr Sokurov (2015, France). I’ve made no secret of the fact Sokurov is my favourite director, so anything by him is almost certain to make my top five. The only reason Francofonia isn’t higher in this list is because I expected it to be excellent. And so it was. It reminds me more of Sokurov’s “elegy” films than it does Russian Ark, although comparisons with the latter will likely be inevitable for most. The production values are also probably the highest I’ve seen in a Sokurov film, and I hope Francofonia‘s international success gives his career the sort of boost it has long deserved. I wrote about Francofoniahere.
5The World, Jia Zhangke (2004, China). The first film by Jia I saw A Touch of Sin, and I thought it excellent. So I added more of his films to my wishlist, and ended up buying the dual edition of The World because its premise intrigued me – it’s set in a theme park comprised of small-scale copies of famous buildings from around the world. It immediately became my favourite Jia film, and possibly one of my all-time top ten films. Despite having little or no plot, it feels more of a piece than A Touch of Sin. Jia is now one of my favourite directors. I wrote about The Worldhere.
Honourable mentionsThe Epic of Everest, JBL Noel (1924, UK), astonishing silent documentary of an early attempt to climb Everest; Marketa Lazarová, František Vlačíl (1967, Czech Republic), grim mediaeval drama, something the Czechs seem to do well; Elena, Andrey Zvyagintsev (2011, Russia), languidly-paced character study of a rich man’s wife as she attempts to provide for her son from an earlier marriage, beautifully shot; Reason, Debate and a Story, Ritwik Ghatak (1974, India), more ethnographical film-making and political debate from a favourite director; Shanghai Dreams, Wang Xiaoshuai (2005, China), grim semi-autobiographical drama from a Sixth Generation director; Suzhou River, Lou Ye (2000, China), cleverly-structured mystery from another Sixth Generation director; Madeinusa, Claudia Llosa (2006, Peru), affecting story of a young woman in a remote village in the Andes; The Case of Hana and Alice, Shunji Iwai (2015, Japan), a lovely piece of animation.
Um, well, embarrassingly, I don’t seem to have bought any new music so far this year. I used to listen to music a lot at work, but I’ve not been able to do that for over a year. Some of my favuorite bands have released albums in 2017, such as Persefone, but I’ve not yet got around to buying them. And, in fact, I’ve only been to one gig in the past six months, and that was to see Magenta, a band I last saw live over five years ago. It was a good gig. But it’s been a quiet year musically, so to speak, this year…