A couple of weeks ago I asked the author about what she was reading. Warrington's reply:
For a fantasy writer, I don’t read much fantasy these days. I certainly don’t have the patience for multi-book volumes full of war, slaughter and sexual abuse (unless it’s by Jacqueline Carey!). That said, there’s a mountain of unread books beside my bed that I’m working my way through, according to what floats to the top and takes my fancy. Lately I’ve been reading some crime novels passed on by my thriller-devouring hubby. Then along came this one, recommended by a friend:Visit Freda Warrington's website, blog, and Facebook page.
Talking About Jane Austen in Baghdad by Bee Rowlatt and May Witwit (Penguin). This is a true story, in the form of a long exchange of emails between Bee, a journalist living in London, and May, an Iraqi university lecturer trying to carry on with her life in Baghdad while dodging bullets and bombs in the aftermath of Saddam Hussein’s downfall. It’s an extraordinary read and extremely hard to put down – being in email form, rather than chapters, you just keep reading one more, and one more… Bee is a mum of three who chats engagingly about the ups and downs of her everyday life, while May, in return, describes the difficulties of teaching English literature to female students who – however bright and eager to learn – struggle to grasp the concept of basic human rights.
That’s if her students turn up at all. That’s if May can even reach the university through hails of bullets, car bombs, or a maze of road blocks as different factions battle for control of the once “middle class” area she lives in. In between, she faces constant power cuts, and dangerous excursions to buy black market fuel – her only means of keeping her car running so she can get to work. Ironically, as a Shia, she’s relatively free to come and go – but her husband, a Sunni, literally dares not leave the house as he’d be killed on sight. So May also has to deal with his increasing depression as the situation steadily worsens. Sometimes the police burst in and ransack the house, searching for non-existent weapons. Sometimes she hears that another of her university colleagues has been assassinated – and then she discovers that she, too, is on the “hit-list”. At one stage, May takes refuge in Syria, describing (with painful irony – the book covers events between 2006 and 2008) how peaceful it is, but how much she hates it there because it isn’t home.
I can’t convey what an extraordinary book this is. It’s shocking, eye-opening. Trying to live in a war zone is everything you’d expect, but it’s everything you didn’t expect, too. A firm, loving friendship develops between the two women and a plot is hatched to get May and her husband out of Baghdad and to the safety of the UK. Yes, May would be safe here – but at the same time it would break her heart to leave Baghdad because, in spite of everything, it’s her home. I won’t give away the ending, just read it!
I’ve just reread The Crone by Barbara G Walker (HarperCollins), a book I first read in the 1990s and felt an urge to revisit. Ms Walker is a renowned writer on “women’s studies” – an unfortunate phrase, I feel, because why should this knowledge be pertinent only to women? Anyway, The Crone examines how older women have become virtually invisible in our society. And not only invisible but – not so very far in the past – reviled as evil, and even mass-murdered, hanged, burned at the stake. Her thought-provoking study examines how women were once attributed with supremacy over life and death – naturally so, since it’s women who give birth, and have always acted as midwives, healers, layers-out of the dead. Terrifying, dark goddesses such as Kali were believed to have the powers both of Creation and Destruction, the power to destroy all other gods and to consume everything into her black Abyss at the end of time.
Walker dissects how male religions arose and set about rejecting the dark goddess – far too terrifying! – by crushing all aspects of female wisdom, sacredness and autonomy. This was in a futile urge to deny Death itself. Female religion was circular, a churning cauldron of life, death and rebirth. Male religion was linear: one life, one God, one afterlife in eternal bliss or torment. In the process, the Crone figure of the older woman was demonized until she all but vanished.
Themes of paganism and ancient earth magic weave through most of my novels, sometimes blatantly so and sometimes more subtly. The Crone, and numerous other books on female spirituality, helped me understand how the idea that women are naturally secondary and subservient to men is a Great Big Lie. What a relief to know that! However, the idea is distressingly persistent. We seem to be taking backward steps, if anything, as young girls are treated as sex objects and women still fight to be taken seriously. The term “witch” is still used as an insult, and there are countries where “witches” are still persecuted and murdered. Sometimes you’d hardly know we were in the 21st century! Walker’s book is as relevant now as it was 30 years ago. And that’s shocking.
Next I’ve got A Glass of Shadow, a short story collection by the wonderful Liz Williams (NewCon Press), to enjoy. If I’m going to read genre it needs to be quirky and this seems to fit the bill, being mostly SF-based with a dash of dark fantasy. I’m only half way through the first story so far but it has a steam-punky, Victorian flavour that I love.
The Page 69 Test: Elfland.
The Page 69 Test: Midsummer Night.
My Book, The Movie: Midsummer Night.