Thursday, December 14, 2017

The Pleasures of Reading, Viewing, and Listening in 2017, pt. 9: Cheryl Morgan

The Pleasures of Reading, Viewing, and Listening 2017
by Cheryl Morgan

This year I have the enormous honor of being on the jury for the Tiptree Award. I’m getting lots of great reading done, but I have promised my fellow jurors that I won’t review any of the recommended works publicly, and I don’t have time to read any other fiction, so this year’s post will be a bit thin in that regard.

To make up for the lack of fiction I’m going to talk a lot more about nonfiction. I tend not to read such books cover-to-cover, but dip in and out of them when I can, or when I need to for research, so I can’t say that I have read all of each of these, but I do own them and have been reading.

Top of the list (which I did read cover-to-cover) has to be The Amazons by Adrienne Mayor. As well as being fascinating from a general history point of view, it has provided me with some great ideas for my 2018 LGBT History Month talk. Were Amazons real? Certainly. Were they lesbians? Oh, things were much more complicatedly queer than that.

Of course I also went to see Wonder Woman, and I loved the Amazons in that film. I confess to getting a bit bored after the action moved away from Paradise Island. However, the BluRay disc has some fabulous extras in which Patty Jenkins and her team talk about how the film was made. Some of the material is very feminist, and much of it is subtly critical of the child currently occupying the White House. I certainly didn’t expect something put together by Hollywood feminists to start using terms like “gender identity” and “non-binary.” I have not been to see Justice League.

Back with the reading, I was delighted to go to an event featuring Indian journalist, Angela Saini, talking about her new book, Inferior. This is all about how men doing science have managed to get an awful lot wrong when they look at women, and how new research is starting to fight back against this. Still on the science, the inimitable Cordelia Fine has a new book out. Testosterone Rex is all about the wrong-headed ideas that people have about sex hormones, and the unconscious bias that this causes. Fine is brilliantly incisive and funny; you can’t ask for much more.

If political journalism is more of your thing you might try Attack of the 50ft. Women in which Catherine Mayer attempts to set out how women can change the world for the better. She’s one of the founders of the UK Women’s Equality Party and has a lot of great policy ideas. Non-UK readers may not be familiar with the phenomenon that is Mary Beard but, in our typically eccentric British manner, one of our favorite feminists is a grey-haired lady famous primarily for studying Roman history. Beard has a string of successful history books and documentaries to her name, but has recently put out a little book called Women & Power: A Manifesto. It is full of Classical allusions, so of course I love it, even if Mary is wrong about Amazons.

Some more traditional Classical history is provided by Catherine Nixey in The Darkening Age. This book is all about the violent, ruthless and intolerant behavior of early Christian zealots. The statistic that leaps out at me is that only 1% of Roman literature has survived be to be studied. Vast amounts of it were destroyed, or let perish, because it was deemed un-Christian.

Moving forward through a thousand years, the UK’s leading authority on the history of paganism, Ronald Hutton, has produced The Witch, subtitled “A history of fear from ancient times to the present.” Hutton is very smart and I’m looking forward to spending more time with this one.

China Miéville’s fiction output has slowed of late, but has written a new book. October is a history of the Russian revolution that has received some excellent reviews. I caught up with China when he came to Bristol on tour. Apparently the Russian book took him two years to write, but he does have a new novel in progress and hopes to be getting back to fiction soon.

Also working on a new novel is M. John Harrison, but in the meantime he has a new collection out called You Should Come With Me Now. The various bits I heard him read are fabulous, but I confess that I’m holding out for something longer. He has promised me fish people.

The UK publishing industry has suddenly got a taste for books by trans people. Not the sort of history I write, of course. They are still very much looking for personal testimony. To My Trans Sisters, edited by Charlie Craggs, is just the sort of thing they want. It is a collection of letters from trans women (many of them well known, at least to us) to the rest of the community. The multi-talented C.N. Lester has managed to sneak something more sophisticated under the radar with Trans Like Me, which seeks to debunk many of the media myths about trans folk.

While Wonder Woman might have been a bit disappointing, I absolutely loved Thor: Ragnarok. I love it even more now that I have had all of the Maori in-jokes explained to me. Tessa Thompson as Valkyrie was magnificent.

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 was mostly about father-son relationships, but it did manage to do some good development work on the sisterly rivalry between Gamora and Nebula. Karen Gillan turns in an excellent performance.

I enjoyed Rogue One and Spiderman: Homecoming, but it is possible that my favorite film of the year is Moana. It is certainly one I’m likely to watch again when I need something light and comforting.

TV is just full of great science fiction at the moment. I loved season 2 of Supergirl. For it while it looked like the studio had decided that season 3 needed to ramp up the romance-based soap opera and tone down the superhero stuff, presumably because they think, “that’s what women want.” However, a recent episode has introduced the Legion of Superheroes, and the Crisis on Earth-X cross-over event that includes episodes of Arrow, The Flash and Legends of Tomorrow is just brilliant. Nazi punching and hot lesbian sex; what’s not to like?

Agents of SHIELD season 4 was also brilliant, and possibly even more politically subversive than Supergirl. I’m looking forward to season 5, and of course to Black Panther and Infinity War.

I devoured American Gods very rapidly but then ran into busy times and am still working my way through season 2 of both Sense8 and The Expanse. Part of the delay is due to the unexpected fabulousness of Star Trek: Discovery. It is still very silly in the manner of traditional Star Trek, and I am one of those unconvinced by the redesigned Klingons, but the stories kept me rushing to watch each time a new episode dropped.

The TV event of the year here has been Blue Planet 2. While the BBC’s political coverage might have descended into a morass of far-right propaganda, their natural history unit continues to pump out brilliant, and strongly environmentalist, TV. Blue Planet 2 is what large-screen TV was made for.

I’ve fallen woefully behind on some of my favorite podcasts, but that’s in part because there is so much good stuff out there these days. I was delighted to see Tea and Jeopardy win a Hugo. Another local (to me) production is the strongly feminist Breaking the Glass Slipper. It is specifically intended to raise the profile of women writers of speculative fiction, and one of the presenters is Exeter-based author Lucy Hounsom.

I have also been listening to history podcasts. I particularly recommend The Art Detective from TV Historian Janina Ramirez. The basic format is that she finds someone famous and asks them to choose a painting to talk about. Many of the guests are academics, but the episode featuring Neil Gaiman discussing “The Fairy Feller’s Master Stroke” is a classic (if only for Janina geeking out over who she is talking to). Philip Pullman and Tony Robinson have also featured.

Earlier this year I was lucky enough to be invited to present a paper at an academic conference in Bologna. The conference venue, in an old castle atop a mountain, was spectacular enough, but on my way home I stopped off in Rome. If you get a chance to visit that city, do it. You’ll probably need two weeks to do it justice, and I only had two days. I probably walked a marathon. The food is great too. I so want to go back.

One of the best things that has happened in the UK this year is the rise to prominence of women’s cricket. I was lucky enough to be in Brighton to watch my local team, Western Storm, become league champions for the first time. The highlight of the season, however, was the World Cup which England won after a magnificent final against India. The star of the show was the Storm’s best bowler, Anya Shrubsole, who almost single-handedly wrested back control of a game that India should have won easily. Anya is a local girl from Bath and we are all very proud of her.

Cheryl Morgan  blogs, reviews and podcasts regularly at Cheryl’s Mewsings . Cheryl co-presents the Women’s Outlook show on Ujima Radio . In 2015 she was honoured to give a lecture on “Exploring Gender Fluidity through Science Fiction and Fantasy” at Liverpool University, available online here. Her work has appeared in Letters to Tiptree, The WisCon Chronicles, and elsewhere.

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