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The colder weather seems to have done wonders for my writing productivity: I've finished my Yuletide assignment, and made a good start on a second treat. That wasn't all the writing I got done over the weekend — I also found the time to write a longish review on two Iliad retellings and Emily Wilson's Odyssey translation. You can find the review here on Wordpress, but here's a brief excerpt:

I never had much interest in the long recitations of characters’ ancestry, names of warriors killed on the battlefield, wooden horses or lucky arrows shot through vulnerable heels. Instead, I focused on the story that whispered in the margins: the calamity of war to the women and children it made most vulnerable, the ways such women coped with the ever-present threat of male violence, and the simmering presence of this violence even in ostensible peacetime, in spaces where women were surrounded by their own families. I sought out retellings of the Iliad that brought this story to the fore.

I should note that because the two retellings focus on the character of Briseis, the review involves discussion of rape and slavery, so consider this a content warning. I also get pretty ranty about The Song of Achilles, so if anyone feels like venting with me about that book, feel free to join in in the comments (and if you like it ... I'm sorry).

Also over on Wordpress, I reviewed Aliette de Bodard's In the Vanishers' Palace, a Beauty and the Beast story where both characters are female and the Beast is a dragon. You can read that review here.

This being an Aliette de Bodard story, there are all the familiar and fabulous features that I’ve come to expect in her work: loving and mouth-watering descriptions of food and cooking, a refusal to flinch away from the devastating effects of empire and colonialism, and an intricate exploration of the different ways survival can look. This last is crucial, and resonates deeply with me. De Bodard rejects an individualistic interpretation of heroism, where a lone, special individual bravely solves the world’s problems alone. Instead, courage in her writing is all about (inter)dependence and community building — the little acts that forge and strengthen networks, reinforce familial and non-familial bonds, and the way that sometimes merely surviving and helping others survive is its own victory.

I'm now taking a break from all that writing with a bit of reading. I've just finished Leah Cypress's 'Timshala', the last in the Book Smugglers' 2018 series of short stories on the theme of 'awakenings', and I definitely think it was the best of the bunch. Their short story series tend to be pretty hit and miss with me, but this one — part Ancient Egypt-inspired death cult with religious controversies and political intrigue, part exploration of determinism and free will — was excellent. It's available to read for free online here.

Having finished 'Timshala', I've now moved on to Girls of Paper and Fire, a novel by Natasha Ngan which I've wanted to read since I first saw Samantha Shannon posting on Instagram about reading an ARC of the book. This was months and months ago, and I'm glad to finally have a copy in my hands. I think I'll curl up in my wing chair and read it, watching the sun go down and the darkness fall through the garden window.
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I made a whirlwind trip to London on Friday, as I was attending a course on book conservation at this library. I really enjoyed it as it was hands-on, practical training. The organisers had damaged some books beforehand (all the librarians attending winced at this) and then taught us how to repair the various torn pages, broken spines and peeling covers. My favourite aspect of library work is the sense of making order out of chaos, of tidying things up into organised categories, so I think that book repair is going to suit me very well.

It was an interesting bunch of people attending - I'm used to courses at Cambridge, where everyone works in academic libraries, but everyone on this course worked at museums, cathedral libraries, stately homes and so on. I was the only one who didn't manage a special collection in some way, although one of the three libraries in which I work does have a large number of rare books.

I'd never been to Middle Temple before, but it's a pretty cool part of London, filled with odd little winding passageways and hidden old buildings. The library itself was very interesting, although there wasn't much time to explore it.

On Saturday morning I actually managed to have a Skype session with all of my four sisters. Mim, the oldest, was visiting our father, stepmother and other three sisters, and we had set up the session so that I could see Maud, the newest sister, in person. As it turned out, our other two sisters, Kitty and Nell, popped in and out of the conversation as well. Maud herself is super cute (although she looks disturbingly like a shrunken version of my dad), and it's a real shame that I'm not going to be able to see her in person until at least September next year. That Skype conversation was the first time all of my sisters and I have been 'in the same place' since Nell's baptism in 2008. This is, I suppose, one of the unavoidable side effects of being an immigrant.

There are a few fanworks and other pieces of writing making me very happy at the moment.

This short story by Rachel Swirsky retells the early parts of the Iliad from Iphigenia's point of view. This is exactly the kind of Iliad I like - one that's all about the women and their relationships, is filled with anger at what the men around them do to them, and doesn't paint Achilles in a good light. You should definitely read it, although be aware that it includes depictions of violence, murder and an extremely misogynistic society.

This story by [ profile] notbecauseofvictories is basically the story I'm searching for every time I read: the interaction between human and non-human characters, in which each is overwhelmed and slightly unable to comprehend the other's nature. It's called 'Ten Things Gabriel Finds Fascinating About Humanity' and I highly recommend it.

There are some great Vividcon vids starting to emerge. My favourites so far are 'Bones' (Luther) by [personal profile] gwyn and 'Fembots' (multifandom) by [ profile] Grammarwoman.

Also, I just noticed that someone finally wrote Romanitas fanfic, which makes me so unbelievably happy. It's by [ profile] a_la_greque, and is Marcus-centric.

I hope you are all having marvellous weekends.
dolorosa_12: by ginnystar on lj (robin marian)
My department is on Tumblr. If you like medieval geekery, and are on Tumblr, you should check it out! In related news, my boyfriend and a friend of ours have started up a blog where they translate Old English riddles and write commentary about them. (For those of you so inclined, Tolkien probably had these kinds of riddles in mind when writing the famous scene in The Hobbit.)

I'm reading The Iliad. I thought it was about time, considering how many adaptations and reworkings I've read (let us not speak of That Travesty of a Movie), including studying a course call The Literature of Troy as a undergrad (which looked at the medieval and Shakespearean versions of the story of Troilus and Cressida). I knew the basic shape of the story, I knew what happened, and yet I still found it extremely confronting to read. The problem was, I inevitably latched onto Briseis. That got me thinking about my whole way of reading/interacting with texts these days. I'm much more alert to issues of agency and voice, which characters are given words and which remain silent. So while I wasn't surprised by the presentation of Briseis, I feel very protective of her as a character, and I want very much to read adaptations of the Iliad that give her a voice. (My first port of call was fanfiction, but I found nothing, other than some stuff based on That Travesty of a Movie. Inevitably, Iliad fandom is all about the Achilles/Patroclus slash, and even more inevitably, Hector/Paris.) In any case, I need to think more about these things, and possibly write something more than these rambly musings.

Horrible Histories author Terry Deary wrote a diatribe against libraries. Foz Meadows wrote a powerful response:

And then, of course, there’s the moral/historical angle: “Because it’s been 150 years, we’ve got this idea that we’ve got an entitlement to read books for free, at the expense of authors, publishers and council tax payers,” Deary moans. “This is not the Victorian age, when we wanted to allow the impoverished access to literature. We pay for compulsory schooling to do that.”

The bolding above is my own, and it’s there for a reason. Take a good, long look at that sentence – specifically, at the crucial use and placement of the word wanted, whose past tense indicates that allowing the impoverished access to literature is something we don’t want to do any longer; or rather, that Deary believes we shouldn’t. There’s so much wrong with this statement that I hardly know where to begin. With the fact that, under Deary’s ideal system, the poor are only entitled to literature while they’re of school age, perhaps? With the fact that most of the literary benefit one experiences while a student comes, not from English class, but the school library? Or how about the novel idea that treating support of literacy in poverty as a quirky Victorian prerogative rather than an ongoing social necessity is not only morally repugnant, but incredibly shortsighted when one depends for one’s living on the existence of a literate, interested populace?

John Scalzi also responded:

I don’t use my local library like I used libraries when I was younger. But I want my local library, in no small part because I recognize that I am fortunate not to need my local library — but others do, and my connection with humanity extends beyond the front door of my house. My life was indisputably improved because those before me decided to put those libraries there. It would be stupid and selfish and shortsighted of me to declare, after having wrung all I could from them, that they serve no further purpose, or that the times have changed so much that they are obsolete. My library is used every single day that it is open, by the people who live here, children to senior citizens. They use the building, they use the Internet, they use the books. This is, as it happens, the exact opposite of what “obsolete” means. I am glad my library is here and I am glad to support it.

Every time I publish a new book — every time — the first hardcover copy goes to my wife and the second goes to the Bradford library. First because it makes me happy to do it: I love the idea of my book being in my library. Second because that means the library doesn’t have to spend money to buy my book, and can then use it to buy the book of another author — a small but nice way of paying it forward. Third because I wouldn’t be a writer without libraries, hard stop, end of story. Which means I wouldn’t have the life I have without libraries, hard stop, end of story.

I am, in no small part, the sum of what all those libraries I have listed above have made me. When I give my books to my local library, it’s my way of saying: Thank you. For all of it.

My own library story is similar, but different. What I will say is this: libraries gave me words. They gave me the words to understand myself, my space in the world, the people around me. They opened doors, they opened my mind, but it all comes back to the words. They gave me my voice.


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