May. 18th, 2014

opusculasedfera: stack of books, with a mug of tea on top (Default)
Absolutely loved Nicola Griffith's Hild. The beginning of a set of novels about the Abbess Hilda of Whitby, what we get here is Hild as a child who is supposed to be a seer, knows she is not, and nevertheless learns to give useful political advice to her uncle, one of many infighting kings in 7th century England. The politics are impressively drawn, as is the point of view, which remains firmly planted in space and time. Even when she's observing nature with pin-point accuracy and coming to conclusions that feel scientific, her frame of reference is still limited. She's not stupid, she never seems stupid, but she's working things out from first principles, it's not a surprise she only gets so far. Griffith is also very good at making sure that Hild isn't uniquely special in her ability to observe. She sees a little more than many because she has the time and inclination, but a large part of her skill is gathering information and putting it together: it's not that other people can't see, it's that they don't have the larger picture.

The thing I loved most was how much work we get to see everyone do. Women spin and weave constantly because it takes a long damn time to make anything. Hild is a seer and this means she has some different duties, but she also does all of the chores that women did in her period because royalty here still doesn't mean rich enough to do no work, it just means you don't have to do the very worst work. Designing your own weaving patterns is the fun part, and Hild knows that, even though she's also allowed to have moments when she's bored by textiles or doesn't feel like it right then. The other people around her are also allowed to have complicated feelings about work, while still knowing that work is important to keep everything from falling down! Gosh!

It's a fun read too, not just a Worthy Tome of historical accuracy about medieval work practice. Politics are going DOWN and because this is the 7th century, they're going down with some violence, and also some rapidly shifting allegiances. In some ways, I kept thinking that this is the kind of book GRRM thinks he's writing, with the complicated politics and the refusal to make a ballad out of the unpleasant task of cutting someone's throat, except that Hild doesn't just make the most unpleasant thing happen every single time there's a choice to be made, because people are assholes, but they aren't actually mustache-twirlingly evil. Also Hild knows she has no magical powers and is sighingly resigned to turning political philosophy into prophecy in a deeply endearing way. I'm looking forward to the next book tremendously.

I've also been enjoying the hell out of Allan Berubé's sadly small amount of historical writing (Coming Out Under Fire, which is USian queer people in WWII, and My Desire for History, which is collected essays) though he may have ruined me for more academic queer history. He has so many feelings! Which seems like a rude thing to say because his intellectual rigour is fantastic, and his research is thorough! But he's not trying to be the kind of formal writer who hides their perspective and it's really nice to hear about how much he cares about queer and labour history! It's not even that he talks a lot about his feelings on a personal level, but it's so obvious, even when he is writing about military policy, that he has an emotional attachment to the idea of queer communities, that it makes history written by people who are at pains to hide that attachment feel lacking.

I don't precisely mean to criticise people who are presumably attempting to get their work taken seriously by editors and academics who don't feel as I do, and it's not that they're being at all offensive, or that their rigour is substandard. These are not bad books. But Berubé did such a fantastic job of centering people in his analysis that it no longer seems adequate to begin with medicalised discussion of homophobia disassociated from even the people who propagated it. It just seems depressing to read now because I've had such a clear and well-presented example of how it could be done differently. Historians don't have to have affection for their subjects in all cases, but damnit, if we're going to get so many awkward biographers crushes on the deeply unappealing, then I want a whole team of Berubés with their affection and charm, and am terribly sad that he's dead and we will have no more of his incredibly compelling work.


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September 2016


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