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Tell them stories, twenty years on October 17, 2017

Posted by dolorosa12 in books, fandom, fangirl, memories.
Tags: , , , , , ,

Twenty years ago (or nineteen years, nine months, and about twenty days ago, if you want to get really technical), I was a restless thirteen-year-old, stuck inside during a rainy week on holiday down the south coast of New South Wales. It was the week between Christmas and New Year’s Eve, which meant that I was carting around a massive haul of books, given to me for both my birthday and Christmas. I had read all my new books — all except one, whose cover put me off. My younger sister, fed up with me moping around the house complaining of ‘nothing to read,’ made the very sensible point that I hadn’t read that book. ‘I don’t like books about animals,’ I objected. She insisted. I am forever grateful that she did. Feeling resentful, I sat down to read Northern Lights (or, as my edition was called, The Golden Compass), the first in Philip Pullman’s sweeping, expansive children’s trilogy, His Dark Materials. I was hooked from the first page, inhaled the book in one sitting, and, once I’d finished it, opened it up at the beginning and reread it without pause. I reread the book four times over the course of that one-week holiday.

It’s hard to describe what it felt like, to read that story as a thirteen-year-old. I was already a voracious reader, and I had already encountered many beloved stories, books I would reread incessantly, or borrow repeatedly from the local library. There were already books I felt fannish about, and whose characters I identified with and drew courage from. But this was different. It was like being seen for the first time. It was as if ideas, beliefs and fears I had long felt but was not yet able to articulate had been given voice and shape on the page. As a teenager, my many rereads of Northern Lights (and, after impatient waits of one year and three years, respectively, for its follow-ups The Subtle Knife and The Amber Spyglass) helped guide both my reading tastes, and my burgeoning sense of political awareness. My love of the series got me a paid newspaper reviewing gig at the age of sixteen, and I continued to freelance as a reviewer for various Australian broadsheets for ten years after that.

Ten years ago (or, if you want to get technical, ten years, nine months, and a couple of days ago), I was in a bad place. I had returned to my hometown after graduating university, and although I had a good job and a lot of family support, I was desperately unhappy, and felt isolated and directionless. All my friends seemed to have adjusted to adult life in a way that I was incapable of, and I felt left behind. In a fit of desperation I — who mistrusted the internet and who barely went online except to check email — typed ‘His Dark Materials fansite’ into Google. I found something that saved me. 2007 was not a good year, but it was made infinitely more bearable by the incredible collection of people — most of whom lived on the other side of the world — who hung out in the forums of that site. Most of them had been there for years, and were all talked out about His Dark Materials, so instead they analysed other books, shared music tips, or just vented about their daily lives. Although by their standards I was a latecomer, they welcomed me with open arms. For a long time, the only thing that got me through the day was the prospect of hanging out in the IRC chat room they’d set up — the international composition of this group of fans (plus the fact that most of them were students or otherwise kept odd hours) meant that someone was always around at all hours. This was my first foray into online fandom, and I made friends for life. Meeting the sraffies — as we called ourselves — was like coming home. Being with them was, like reading the books that had brought us all together, like being seen for the first time. I was able to relax and be myself and feel safe in a way that I hadn’t really anywhere since becoming an adult. Ten years have passed since then, and the group of us have gone through so many things together. We’ve graduated from university, changed jobs and careers, had books and academic articles published, moved cities, emigrated, fallen in and out of love (in some cases, with each other), mourned deaths, and supported each other through whatever life threw at us. We travel specifically to meet up with each other, and if work, study, or holidays bring us by chance to each others’ cities, we make a point to hang out. One of the friends I met through His Dark Materials was even a bridesmaid at my wedding.

I recently did a reread of the trilogy, wanting to refresh my memory before reading Pullman’s much anticipated foray back into the world of His Dark Materials. I was anxious that it wouldn’t affect me as it had when I was younger, that I would pick up on flaws, that its emotional notes would leave me unmoved. I shouldn’t have worried. Reading Pullman’s words again, returning to that world, was like falling into water. Like the best and most meaningful of stories, it gave me something different, as it had done with each reread, and reading it as a thirty-two-year-old woman was different to reading it as a thirteen-year-old girl, or when I was in my twenties. But, like Lyra relearning to read the alethiometer as an adult after losing the unconscious ease with which she read it as a child, it was a deeper, richer experience — not better, not worse, just different. In the years since I first opened Northern Lights and read those resonant first words, Lyra and her dæmon, I’ve finished high school. I’ve graduated three times from two different universities, with an Honours degree, MPhil, and doctorate. I’ve changed careers three times. I’ve emigrated, lived in two new countries, acquired a new citizenship, learnt two new languages (as well as many dead languages), presented at conferences, been published academically in two very different fields, fallen in love, had my heart broken, and fallen in love again. In those years, I found my home, and I found myself again. In other words, I’ve done exactly what His Dark Materials urges: live, as much as I can, feel, as much as I can bear, and learn, as much as I am able. On Thursday, I will collect my preordered copy of La Belle Sauvage, the first of Pullman’s prequel trilogy that will return readers to the world of His Dark Materials. I will sit down and read it in a desperate, yearning rush. I wonder what the twenty years that follow will bring. I know that having read this new book — and those that follow — will help me cope with whatever those next years throw at me.

Liebster Award November 26, 2012

Posted by dolorosa12 in blogging, books, childhood, life, memories.
Tags: , , , , , , , , ,

I was nominated for a Liebster Award. Says Catie, who nominated me, the Liebster Award is a meme for small blogs (with under 200 followers) where you answer 7 questions and then ask a new set of 7 questions to 7 people. I’m not going to tag other people, but I will answer the questions provided by Catie. And they are:

1. Have you ever read a book that changed your life, or your reading habits?
A book, or rather series of books, did both of those things – at the same time. Most of you probably know that I’m going to say the His Dark Materials trilogy, and you’ll probably know why. But to recap:

When I first read HDM, it pushed my reading habits in a much more fantasy-oriented direction than previously. This led, firstly, towards me developing an interest in medieval literature, which ultimately led to me becoming a PhD student at the University of Cambridge, meeting an amazing group of friends, and my current boyfriend, and deciding to, if at all possible, live in Europe for the remainder of my life.

Secondly, HDM got me a career as a newspaper book-reviewer! When I was 16, I read what I considered to be a very poor review of the third book in the series, The Amber Spyglass. I wrote the reviewer – the children’s books editor at The Sydney Morning Herald – a very snotty letter accusing her of not reading the book before she reviewed it. Rather than throwing my letter in the bin, she offerred me the opportunity to write my own review. This led to a ten-year career writing reviews and interviewing authors for various Australian newspapers.

Finally, HDM saved me, because it introduced me to the people at bridgetothestars.net at a very low point in my life. Those people were there for me when no one else was, and I’ve met so many people I love through that site. btts introduced me to the best friend I will ever have, a woman I consider to be my fourth sister. More broadly, btts was my introduction to online fandom and online friendships and community more broadly, and it remains my gold standard in all such matters, a model of how to do fandom and do friendship right.

I will never stop being thankful to His Dark Materials. It changed my life in such profound ways.

2. If you could recommend one book to the world, what would it be?
To be honest, I’d like to recommend the entire corpus of Victor Kelleher novels, but if I had to select just one, I’d say The Beast of Heaven, which is a deeply unsettling, remorseless and transcendentally beautiful exploration of what it means to be conscious and human. I doubt I will ever read another book more perfect than that. It encapsulates my views on human nature, morality, history and the future completely.

3. Do you read when you’re out and about or just at home?
Obviously I read a lot for my PhD, so by definition I read while I’m out and about – in libraries. I also read for pleasure when I’m out and about. I tend to carry novels with me everywhere, and my favourite thing to do is sit alone in cafes and read.

4. Is there any genre that you don’t read, and why? Or do you only read one particular type of book?
I pretty much read everything, although I tend to steer clear of epic or heroic fantasy written by men. Modernist literature isn’t my cup of tea either, although I’ve enjoyed books by Faulkner and some poetry written during this time period.

5. What is the first book that you remember reading?
The first novel I remember reading was Rainstones by Jackie French. It’s not actually a novel, but rather a book of short stories, but I was immensely proud of myself at the time for being able to read a ‘chapter book’. I’d obviously read picture books before then, and had lots of books read to me by my mother, but I don’t remember the first.

6. What is the last book that you read that was outside your comfort zone?
I read a book of crime stories in German over the (northern) summer, and that was out of my comfort zone because I’m still not completely fluent at reading in German. But it was good to push myself.

7. If you had to memorise a novel or book of poetry to preserve it à la Fahrenheit 451, which would it be and why?
This question makes me so uncomfortable and upset! It reminds me of this neo-Victorian novel I read a few years ago, which has a scene where one character asks the (bookish) protagonist to imagine a scenario where every copy of the great works of the literary canon are being drawn along a conveyor belt into a furnace. The protagonist has a gun. If she shoots and kills a human being, the conveyor belt stops. Reading it, I started to hyperventilate. Is one human life worth more than the Western literary canon? It is unbearable to be forced to confront that question.

In light of that anecdote, I think I’d have to say the complete works of William Shakespeare should be saved. I’m uncomfortable with the notion of canon – any canon besides a personal canon, that is – and yet I love the plays of Shakespeare and can see how they have influenced so much writing in English and say such interesting things about humanity. And on a more political level, I love how the foundation of the English literary canon is a collaborative effort of people who stood somewhat outside the boundaries of ordinary society, and its prime mover was an aspirational, lower middle-class man who somehow managed to educate himself and say such clever things. It appeals to my socialism and belief in the power of education.

I’m not going to tag anyone, but if you’d like to join in, consider yourselves tagged. These are my seven questions:

1. How have your reading tastes changed in the past ten years? In the past five?
2. Do you read book reviews? Do you think they influence your reading habits?
3. What is your opinion of sites such as Goodreads and reviews on Amazon?
4. Do you note down quotes from books or poetry? What is a quote that means a lot to you?
5. Which fictional character did you identify with as a child or teenager? Looking back, do you think that identification was accurate?
6. What is the most important thing you learnt from a work of fiction?
7. And I’d also like an answer to the same question I was asked: in a Fahrenheit 451 scenario, which book would you save?

‘Far from my home/ is the country I have reached.’ September 30, 2008

Posted by dolorosa12 in sraffies, university.
Tags: , , ,

Yes, I’m quoting Suibhne, and I make no apologies about it.  After all, that’s why I’m here.

I’ve recovered sufficiently from the long journey over here to finally post about my first impressions of Cambridge.

The flight over was horrendous, but I was expecting that. I was wedged between two other people, hemmed in by my numerous items of carry-on luggage (stored, overflowingly, under the seat in front of me). The food, as all plane food is, was disgusting. My feet, legs, hands and face swelled up. I slept for three hours of the 24. I then dragged my small suitcase, 28kg suitcase, laptop and overstuffed handbag from Terminal 4 to Terminal 2 at Heathrow, and boarded a bus that would take me to Cambridge. The weather was incredible, with a layer of mist covering the land until about 10am. Although I was very tired, it was too beautiful to sleep, although I felt my first pang of homesickness, when, thinking of telling my friends and family about the landscape, realised I had no words with which to describe it. I didn’t know the names of any of the vegetation. Even the grass looked foreign, lush, green and silky-looking, as opposed to the tough, scraggly brown stuff in Australia. I arrived at Cambridge at 11am. A woman (who must’ve been on my plane over, since she had also come from Australia) took pity on me, offering to share her taxi, and when it arrived at St. John’s refusing to accept payment for my half of the fare. A kindly porter offered me free biscuits. I must’ve looked really pathetic.

Another taxi took me to my house, which is very nice (although the bathrooms make me feel like throwing up. They have no windows or fans, and their heavy doors slam shut. This lack of ventilation makes for a rather steamy and mouldy environment.) Several of my housemates had moved in already, but the majority arrived just after me, so it was nice to come into a house with a whole lot of other newbies.

Although I was fainting with exhaustion, I forced myself to walk back into town, to familiarise myself with the layout of the streets and to shop at the (very expensive) supermarket. Then I staggered back home and went to sleep for four hours. In the evening I went downstairs and hung out with my housemates. They’re a good bunch – quite a few girls from America, an American guy, a South African guy, an English guy who’s been at Cambridge for five years now, and a Canadian girl who’s also a medievalist (although she’s studying 15th-century English literature). A few more people have since moved in, and I’m expecting the rest to arrive on Wednesday, the ‘official’ opening day of university.

Sunday was fabulous. The English guy graciously played host-with-local-knowledge, and took us all around town. First we wandered around St. John’s and some of the other colleges (Trinity, Clare and King’s). Then we went and heard the choir at King’s, which was an amazing experience. (I’m supposed to say that John’s choir is better, but I find the whole inter-college rivalry thing thoroughly ridiculous.) When we emerged from the chapel, my English housemate had hired a punt from St. John’s and was waiting for us on the river. Luckily it was a nice sunny day. We all had a turn punting. I was shockingly bad (yes, it did ‘keep steering to the left’), but it was still fun. After that we had a bit of a look around town, and I picked up a UK phone number and got some phone credit.

The next day, I began my ongoing struggle with St. John’s insane bureaucracy. I’m used to everything being centralised. When you sign up at Sydney Uni, everything is in one room. You collect your card, perhaps sit for your Access card photo, pick up a university-made yearly planner and confirm enrolment all at once. Sometimes you have to wait a while, but it’s a straightforward matter. A week later you find your timetable online, confirm your choices (or, if you’re like me, fiddle around with them to squash all your classes onto three days), print it out. Much later, you’re sent a bill for your semester’s fees, which you pay upfront if you want a discount, or defer, according to the HECS system.

Here, it’s insane. Everything is in a different place. No-one volunteers any information. I have even asked, ‘Is there anything more I need to collect, sign or whatever?’ and been told ‘No,’ simply because there was nothing more to be done in that specific room. Needless to say, my bemused housemates have been a godsend. Each of us seems to find out one piece of inside information, which we pool in the evenings, and then make use of the next day.

What more to be said?

Classes don’t start until next week, when there are also a lot of meet and greet events (including a formal dinner for all new St. John’s graduate students, where we wear academic robes and sit in the College’s Great Hall). I’m feeling a little apprehensive because it’s been a while since I’ve been a student. I need to get back into that academic frame of mind. Also, I kind of coasted along a lot at Sydney Uni, to be honest. It was possible to do well there without putting in a huge amount of effort. But judging by my housemates, everyone here is super-ambitious. Most of them have conferences lined up, which makes me feel like a huge, publication-less fraud. I freaked myself out sufficiently to do a bit of translation of the Tain, borrow a book that may be useful for my thesis, and also Branwen Uerch Llyr to see if my Welsh has faded from existence.

Things I love so far:
My housemates seem very nice, and there’s a lot of hanging around in common areas and socialising, which makes me confident we won’t turn into one of those ‘everyone sitting alone in their rooms’-type households.
Cambridge is really really beautiful, but in an awe-inspiring, daunting way. It’s a grand, bold, imposing beauty. I still feel like a bit of an upstart visitor, rather than a local.
The sraffies have been really wonderful. They’ve been posting supportive replies to my angst-ridden posts on the forum. The instant they found out my mobile number, they sent me welcome text messages. Barney’s arriving soon, and wants to meet up, which will be great. I’m lucky to have had such good, caring friends around when I moved to a new country.
The libraries. Oh, the libraries. Massive. The university library has a copy of every book ever published in the UK (I’d assume over the past hundred years or so, but I may be wrong). Even my college’s library has some good Irish texts. I haven’t even seen my departmental library, but I’m sure it’s good too.

Things I don’t like so much:
The feeling of anxiety and self-doubt that creeps up on me every so often when I worry that I’ll never be good enough, that I’ll fail and flee back to Australia with no more options.
The sense of entitlement that some (not all) longer-term students of this university seem to have, almost unconsciously. Let’s hope I don’t transform into one of them. If I keep feeling anxiety about my ability to cope here, I imagine such a transformation would be impossible. I hope.

Something for the sraffies May 29, 2008

Posted by dolorosa12 in sraffies.
Tags: , , ,

So, for some weird reason, I found myself last night re-reading lots of my old reviews. I was searching for one on Peeps and The Last Days by Scott Westerfeld, but I ended up reading them all. It was like peering back through the pages of an old diary, laughing at the clunkiness of my old prose and, every so often, shocked, thinking, ‘I believed that?’ My review of Eragon is absolutely painful to read. I described the book as ‘richly imagined’? That pile of dross recycled from The Lord of the Rings, Star Wars and The Earthsea Quartet? What was I thinking?

What I really wanted to post here, was, however, my article about literary internet fansites. I think it will be amusing for all the sraffies. I certainly laughed when I read it (and not only at the clunky writing). The illustrations show a very early image of the BttS homepage, with news stories by Merlyn (that’s how old this article is, sraffies) and Blighty (is that Will?).

So, for your reading pleasure and amusement, I present ‘It’s Booklovers Anonymous in cyberspace’.

One of the delicious thrills of joining a literary Internet chat room is the possibility that you may actually be talking to a friend. Hidden behind the many adopted noms de plume may be someone you know – a casual acquaintance or even someone you passed in the street that day. While in the library at uni a few weeks ago, I noticed something unexpected as I waited in line to check my email.

Another student, already on the computer, was browsing the forums of an unofficial literary Internet fan site with which I was perhaps too familiar. I did not know this girl – indeed, I know none of the other members of the fan site. All go by pseudonyms, preferring to cloak their almost fanatical love of books in obscurity. It is strange and slightly unsettling when the anonymity of the Internet is threatened in this way – when its artificial world comes too close to the real world.

This girl and I did not know each other, and yet we may have been sharing thoughts on our favourite books for months. A literary fan site provides anonymous possibilities similar to the pleasures of a masked ball.

While many have claimed that the wonder of the Internet is email – instant communication in real time – for those with a passion for particular authors or genres of literature, the unofficial fan site would have to run a close second. For booklovers who perhaps had scorned the Internet as yet another small-screen diversion from life’s real purpose, of reading more books, the development of literary fan sites has proved as much of a diversion as the Australian Idol website has been for those with a different kind of passion.

Literary fan sites – on authors from Sir Thomas Malory to George Orwell to the generic writers of The Saddle Club – are generally run by fans, places where groups of like-minded people can discuss their favourite books, trade gossip on book-related topics, and essentially indulge their obsession with a particular series of books. (argh! three ‘books’ in the one sentence. *winces*)

Indeed, one of the chief delights of literary websites lies in sharing the obsessive pedantry of the fan with like-minded souls around the world. While some of the sites are little more than chatrooms providing a front for selling merchandise, others include transcripts of interviews, heated discussion about the significance of particular events (on the fan site for His Dark Materials by Philip Pullman, the discussion about whether two characters slept together goes on for 36 pages and counting!) and speculation about where a particular series of books is heading. (hmm, only 36 pages? It must be close to 200 by now…)

Many fan sites, particularly those related to fantasy writing, are really clusters of sites. The main site for Isobel Carmody fans is obernewtyn.net, which has a sister site, Obernewtyn Theories. The main site has transcripts of interviews, fan fiction, fan art, news and gossip. The second site is an endless forum for discussion of the meaning of texts, plot development and cross-text references.

The Philip Pullman site, which is at bridgetothestars.net, includes a series of forums dedicated to not only the His Dark Materials trilogy itself but all other books by the author, as well as separate forums for discussing other books, movies, music and interests. As well as the inevitable fan fiction (stories using the original novels as a starting point), bridgetothstars.net also has a section where fans can publish their essays.

Fantasy sites seem to attract mainly young people, who enjoy writing themselves into the story. However, these fantasy sites are not simply filled with lost children escaping the real world. The existence of an essay section in bridgetothestars.net actually encourages readers to research and write essays about aspects of their favourite texts. (No, really?)

Children and teenagers are writing essays on topics as diverse as the scientific basis of the multi-universes of Pullman’s world, to his use of Kabbalah, Jewish mysticism, in in work, for the sheer love of it.

Just as the line between fantasy and reality can be thin on the Internet, so it it too for these avid fans. One of the more recent issues discussed on the Pullman site was the possibility of dedicating a park bench – which plays a significant role in Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy – in the Oxford Botanical Gardens to the chief characters in his books. Later, English fans returned to the site to report that the characters’ names had already been carved into the bench by more switched-on fans. They also reported that the bench had been formally dedicated to a couple of women already, and a search began to find out information about these women and the possible reasons behind this dedication.

The obernewtyn.net site hosts monthly “moonfairs”, complete with competitions and prizes, in an attempt to emulate similar moonfairs in the series. The moderators of the sites use a number of creative methods to contribute to the intellectual life and discussion of the site. For example, members of obernewtyn.net belong to “guilds”, similar to the guilds created by Carmody’s heroic characters; each guild member attracts points by contributing to the site.

On bridgetothestars.net members are rewarded for posting on the numerous forums by being moved up on the invented hierarchy of characters from Pullman’s trilogy. For example, a member who has posted 25 times or less is known as a “grazer” – a bovine-type character with no consciousness – whereas 25 to 50 posts puts the member in the category of the “mulefa” – a creature similar in appearance to the grazer but with the bonus of human-like consciousness. (hmm, someone didn’t understand the conventions of php-based forums, clearly. Someone also appeared to think that post-count related ranks were there to reward post-whorage. *shame*)

All of these things combine to create a friendly, if obsessive, atmosphere, full of like-minded people. As for collectors of memorabilia and the other groups of passionate oddballs, the sense of community, of shared experience, in literary Internet fan sites, is strong. They provide an outlet for such people to enjoy literature away from the academic world, and without its pressures.

With the freedom of anonymity, users are able to cultivate individuality and enhance any quirkiness they are able to express. While the rise of the Internet was seen as a threat to the future of the book, just as television was supposed to signal an end to reading, literary fan sites encourage an appreciation of literature and should be applauded.

Fantasy web sites, in particular, created for the most part by young people, have encouraged the close reading of texts and the self-expression dear to the heart of any English teacher. They are also lots of fun!

~ This originally appeared in the CT on Saturday, January 31, 2004.

I feel shame that I ever wrote this badly, but the comments about teh sraffies crack me up now. Anonymity? *falls over laughing* I also love that I hadn’t quite been bitten by the Internet bug yet – and still believed in a false dichotomy between the ‘online’ and ‘real’ worlds.

Let loose to roam teh internets once more May 13, 2008

Posted by dolorosa12 in Uncategorized.
Tags: , , ,

Our old modem completely collapsed the other day. It’s always been a bit iffy, often refusing to connect, but usually what you have to do is switch it off for a few minutes and then it’s fine. We got fed up with doing this, and angrily phoned our ISP. They talked us through a firmware upgrade, which broke the modem. So we got a new one for free. But I had to wait several days.

I realised, when sitting through this torture, how much I’ve come to rely on the internet. Whenever something goes wrong, I jump on #btts and whine about it to the sraffies, or, if no-one’s around, post about it over at the ‘Pub or on LJ or something. But…broken internet, so how could I go online to complain.

Then I realised that much of my daily OCD-induced routine involves the internet. Every day I check my two email addresses several times. I’ll hang out over at the ‘Pub for quite a bit, and also check my LJ friends page. I’m on Facebook quite a bit, too, and I’ll also tend to check out what’s going on at Obernet. I also read a few blogs such as Boing Boing and Joel’s SMH blog, as well as webcomics such as XKCD, Get Medieval, QC and NAR when moony gets his act together.

Without this daily routine, I felt bound, limited, disconnected…caged. This worried me a lot. If you’d told me two years ago that I’d become an internet addict, I would’ve laughed in your face, and then buried my head in a book. Well, I still bury my head in books, but I also bury it in various outlets for my self-absorption. The degree of my distress at being internet-less worries me. But not enough to give up feeding my addiction.

I was in Melbourne over the weekend at my newest sister’s baptism, and I have a few photos to put up, but I’ll probably do that on LJ and Facebook. If you’re reading this, you know where to find me at either of those places.

/me hugs the whole internet, and in particular the above-mentioned sites
Oh, how I’ve missed you!