Tag Archives: literature

I Like Big Books and I Cannot Lie

MobyDickIf you haven’t read a big book in a while, I suggest you pick one up soon.

Big books are the warm bubble baths of the book world, but they’re often talked about as if they’re itchy woolen snowsuits instead. Sinking into a big, dense book should be a pleasure, not a headache-inducing nightmare.

What makes a book big? Size, obviously—let’s say (arbitrarily) 600 pages or more—but also, to a lesser extent, complexity. Although Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows pushes 800 pages (and I loved it dearly), I would hesitate before calling it a big book; it followed too easily the path laid out for it by its six prequels; it tied up too neatly every loose end with an escapist epilogue. But then again, the bigness of big books may lie in the heart of the reader. For me, the really big books are those that intimidate the reader, the ones that feel like a challenge at the start, but a best friend by the finish, the ones that most closely mimic an actual marathon; instead of churning legs over terrain for 26.2 miles, readers of big books sprain their fingers flipping pages and mentally race through page after page to the triumphant end.

As usual, the public reluctance to engage with big books can perhaps be traced back to high school (what problem can’t, really), when a deadline imposed on the reading of a big book like The Grapes of Wrath or The Iliad or Ulysses is a significant threat to getting any other homework done. Students dread large reading assignments, a feeling that usually persists throughout college and beyond.

On the other hand, there are those who see a big book as a challenge to overcome rather than a pleasure. They might read one big book a year, and then talk incessantly about how they read it, leaving out the fact that they haven’t read anything else that year except their Twitter feed. These people may or may not usually be men with scruffy beards who just finished David Foster Wallace’s The Pale King. Avoid conversation with them at all costs.

Here’s a list of some of my personal favorite big books, broken up by genre. What big books would be on your list?

Contemporary Literature
Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides
Freedom by Jonathan Franzen

Historical Fiction
Sacajawea by Anna Lee Waldo
The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay by Michael Chabon
Gone With the Wind by Margaret Mitchell

Classics
Moby-Dick by Herman Melville
East of Eden by John Steinbeck
Middlemarch by George Eliot
Daniel Deronda by George Eliot
The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoyevsky
Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy
Les Misérables by Victor Hugo

Fantasy
Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien
Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke

These books are all dear to me in their own ways, but they share one thing in common: they contain entire worlds and generation-spanning sagas so richly and completely imagined that they become real, and so real that they become road maps for navigating my own world.

So put a big book in your To Be Read pile–not just because it’s a classic or an award winner, though that’s a good enough reason, too—but because it’s epically, gloriously, luxuriously big. Sink it to it. Let it sweep you away.

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Marie is a writer and editor who lives with her feral cat, and, like most people, prefers dance parties to homework.

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Who is Your Favorite Fictional Villain?

Today, some of the Sheroes Blog editors dive into their favorite fictional villains and sheroes.

Zoë says: 

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My favorite villain is Hell (or an aspect thereof) from the book Summon the Keeper (Book #1 of The Keeper’s Chronicles) by Tanya Huff. The Keeper’s Chronicles are an incredibly engaging comic-fantasy trilogy, and the first book features the adventures of Claire, her feline sidekick, and a cast of other well-developed characters after Claire is called to deal with a gateway to you-know-where in the basement of a Guest House in Kingston, Ontario.  Hell (or some incarnation thereof) is discovered to be hanging out in the basement, sealed in by the actions of a previous Keeper, but trying quite persistently to escape.  Huff imagines this aspect of Hell as a multi-personalitied, witty, but not altogether brilliant “villain” desperately trying to encroach on the minds of the inhabitants of the Guest House.
Read this if you like light, witty fantasy along the lines of Diana Wynne Jones, Terry Pratchett, or Patricia C. Wrede.
Ratesjul says:
coverI always find it hard to pick favourites of anything, whether it’s books or authors or characters (or even specifically villains)…. So I’ll give you two. One of my favorite characters is Paksenarrion Dorthansdotter of Three Firs (Elizabeth Moon’s Sheepfarmer’s Daughter and sequels). I like Paks because, well, she’s human. She has flaws, and admits to them, and strives to better herself. She goes from little or nothing to honors, and back again. She stumbles into traps, and extricates herself, but will also give in, when it seems best. I guess what I like most about her is that she fights, she doesn’t really give up (and giving in is not giving up), and even as a mercenary she won’t just follow blindly.

20020712022127_105Another favorite character is Elizabeth from V M Caldwell’s The Ocean Within and Tides. I like Elizabeth because she struggles to continue to be herself, to fit within a tug of war between her need to not let anyone matter in case they go away, and to find her place. Particularly when it comes to a small boy who calls her turtle and worms his way into her heart. I read somewhere that there was originally a third book, set between the two of these, and I’d love to read it and see how the family changed in between. Even discovering these books as an adult, I love the characters.

TamLinAs for a favorite villain, I’m not so sure…. So many of them don’t really stick with me as much as the heroes and sheroes do. (I guess I like the happy endings!) One that sticks the most is Tam Lin, who doesn’t particularly have much of a choice in the matter of being a villain. In some ways he isn’t the villain – he is a product of the life he lives (or is forced to live) – but to Janet, in some ways, I guess he is.

Marie says:

119322Compelling villains are the backbone of good literature! I don’t even know where to start. I’m always most taken in by insidious, surprise villains, where you don’t know they’re bad until close to the end. Mrs. Coulter from Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy is one of those villains. You can almost feel how evil this cloying, beautiful woman is but it’s not until the main character herself figures it out that you realize just how truly horrible Mrs. Coulter is.

As for a favorite character, again, I could pick a thousand! But I’ll stick with His Dark Materials, since those books are fantastic and if you haven’t read them yet and you like young adult fantasy that is deep and sweet and smart, you need to read them ASAP. My favorite character is Lyra Belacqua, the main character,  the girl-who-saves-the-world. She does this, with extreme personal sacrifice, at the age of twelve. She is wild and tough and vulnerable and loving and her sharp as a knife little-girlness is pitch perfect, as is her wrestle with what it means to grow up.

 

We want to know: who is your favorite fictional villain? Who is your favorite fictional shero?

~~~~~~~~~

Marie, Ratesjul, and Zoë are Sheroes Blog editors who fight crime…er…read a lot of books in their free time.

 

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Very Specific Book Recs: Historical Queer Ladies

When I was about 5 years old, my father read Watership Down out loud to me. I was way into the characters, the epic adventures they had, and even the stories they told each other about Ancient Rabbit Heroes With Unpronounceable Names, but I was less enamored of the long descriptive passages. According to my dad, I’d sit patiently for a paragraph or two of description, but if Richard Adams’s depiction of the countryside went on any longer than that, I’d interrupt with a plaintive, “But Daddy, where are the rabbits?”

Much as I love the genre, that’s generally how I feel when I read historical fiction as an adult, only replace “rabbits” with “queer ladies.” At least 1/10 of the ladies in history must have been queer, so where the hell are they? And why doesn’t the author of the book I’m reading seem to care? And if the author doesn’t care about what was happening to people like me during the time period they’re writing about, how much do I care about what happens to any of their straight characters? (Spoiler alert: probably not that much, unless they are a Naguib Mahfouz level literary genius, because I am a cranky queer feminist, and that’s how I roll.)

Fortunately for me (and for you), there are some brilliant historical fiction writers who have not only considered my “But where are the queer ladies?” question, but have answered it with, “Right here, being awesome!” Here are some of my all-time favorite books starring historical queer ladies:

1. Hild by Nicola Griffith

9780374280871_custom-dba405fdd210ea13df71aefd93403eaf3d8501dc-s6-c30What it’s about: The first book in a planned trilogy about the life of Britain’s St. Hilda of Whitby, Hild traces the title character’s life from age 3 to age 19 as she and her family navigate war, court politics, and religious shifts in 6th century Britain.

Read this if: You want a gorgeously written, immersive experience that will make you feel like you’re navigating serious sociopolitical issues and intense emotional journeys right along with Hild, and/or you’re intrigued by the idea of a writer combining historical research with science-fiction-honed world-building skills to breathe the 6th century into life.

No, really, read this even if: You’re intimidated by trying to navigate Anglo-Saxon and Old Irish names and places on this large a scale, because never fear! Nicola Griffith has created a wealth of supplemental materials to help you through.

Steer clear if: You will find discussion of rape and consent issues triggering, or you’re not feeling up to reading about the realities of war.

2. The Color Purple by Alice Walker

ColorPurpleWhat it’s about: Through a series of letters spanning several decades, Celie chronicles her life in early 20th century Georgia, from her girlhood with an abusive father to her arranged, exploitative marriage to her coming into her own, finding her voice, and creating a community for herself.

Read this if: You want a breathtakingly beautiful and compulsively readable novel about passion, love, unconventional families of choice, the discovery of self, and the survival of terrible things, and/or you are tired of white ladies hogging the historical fiction spotlight.

Steer clear if: You will find depictions of physical abuse, rape, and virulent Jim-Crow-era racism triggering.

3. The Last Nude by Ellis Avery

10836810 What it’s about: Rafaela Fano, a young Italian-American fleeing an arranged marriage, accepts a job modeling for Neoclassical Cubist painter Tamara de Lempicka in 1920s Paris. Great art, love, and betrayal ensue until World War II ruins everything.

Read this if: You want a passionate story of intense love and loss that might remind you of your own first love, and/or you find the idea of running into Gertrude Stein (and the rest of the era’s famous ex-pats, including an alternate-universe Hemingway) in a social context thrilling.

Steer clear if: You find unreliable narrators irritating or will find depiction of prostitution, rape (both statutory and otherwise), and anti-Semitism triggering.

4. Life Mask by Emma Donoghue

9781443406956What it’s about: Celebrated actress Eliza Farren, convention-defying sculptor Anne Damer, and peer of the realm Edward Smith-Stanley navigate high society and weather scandal (including accusations of lesbianism against the ladies) in 18th century London.

Read this if: You want a slow-paced, slice-of-life exploration of high society social interactions and artistic pursuits written in such a pitch-perfect historical voice that excerpts from the characters’ real-life letters are woven in seamlessly.

Steer clear if: You will be annoyed that you have to wait more than 400 pages for it to be confirmed whether any of the ladies are actually queer, let alone for any queer ladies to make out with each other.

5. Patience and Sarah by Isabel Miller

f23860What it’s about: Two young women fall in love in early 19th century New England and overcome class differences, societal expectations, and homophobia in order to build a life together.

Read this if: You want a sweet, well-written love story with plenty of hot lesbian sex scenes, and/or are intrigued by the idea of 19th century non-binary gender expression.

Steer clear if: You will find depiction of sexual assault and violently homophobic families triggering.

6. Tipping the Velvet by Sarah Waters

9781860495243What it’s about: When she falls in love with a professional male impersonator, Nancy King leaves her life as an oystergirl in small town, Victorian-era England and begins an odyssey of self-discovery that includes drag show performance, cross-dressing prostitution, forays into the high society lesbian kink scene, and socialist organizing.

Read this if: You want characters who are beautifully, infuriatingly real and unpredictable, compelling plots.

Steer clear if: You are not in the mood for a potentially-disturbing detour into the seamy underbelly of the Victorian kink scene.

7. Stone Butch Blues by Leslie Feinberg

9781555838539_custom-5c027f71c8b1d234dfc81f043c01bb8afc5dc50b-s6-c30 What it’s about: After growing up working class in a small town in the 1950s, labor organizer Jess Goldberg navigates life in the violently transphobic and homophobic mid-century United States first as a butch lesbian, then as a trans person.

Read this if: You want a front row seat for the development of the LGBT rights movement, both pre- and post-Stonewall, brought to life through such vivid description of individual experience you’ll feel like you’re living it along with Jess.

Steer clear if: You don’t think you can handle being hit with the emotional equivalent of a sledgehammer right now. ALL OF THE TRIGGER WARNINGS APPLY. NO, REALLY. ALL OF THEM.

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Liyana is a queer actor, aerialist, bookworm, and tea enthusiast. She lives in the Pacific Northwest and is confused by the concept of “free time.”

 

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Feminist Science Fiction and Fantasy Starter Kit

I have always loved reading Science Fiction and Fantasy (SFF); I loved exploring what it might be like to live in a completely different world.  At some point I began to realize that the genres I loved didn’t always love me back. The most respected stories were by men and about men, and women were often not portrayed at all, as in early Asimov, or portrayed in problematic ways, e.g. Heinlein’s women who are incredibly othered.  Newer books may be a bit less blatant, but their portrayal of women can still be really problematic. Female characters often seem like afterthoughts and women’s stories are rarely given center stage.  SFF offers a lot of ways to explore gender, yet a few months ago, when Alex Dally MacFarlane posted on Tor.com suggesting the gender binary should not be the default for SFF, she was attacked.

As a teen I read lots of books that I would now avoid. I read quite a few problematic books. I read what I could find in bookstores and libraries and on my parents’ shelves.  Some of what I read was lovely, but most of my teen reading was really sexist. Books by women and books with feminist themes were not always easy to find. Over time, I’ve figured out new ways of finding books to read so I can avoid these issues. I joined online communities (like Sheroes!) where people talked about feminist books, and I started reading SFF blogs with a feminist focus. But I know it can still be hard to find feminist books that aren’t pushed through the main channels, especially older books.

This post is for people who like the idea of feminist Science Fiction and Fantasy but aren’t quite sure where to start. I attempted to include a mix of older classics along with some newer favorites of mine. These books consider feminism and gender in a variety of ways. There are books that foreground female characters or explore gender and society.

200px-woman_on_the_edge_of_time_book_coverWoman on the Edge of Time by Marge Piercy: Simultaneously dystopic and utopic, this book is about a woman in a mental institution who visit a utopic future. The mental institution is as grim as any dystopia; however, the future she visits is very feminist with roles such as “mother” being detached from the gender of the person performing the role.  The book also explores how women are disempowered and how even people who feel powerless can shape the future.

A-door-into-oceanJPGA Door Into Ocean by Joan Slonczewski: This book uses and subverts the planet of women trope.  The planet is called Shora and the women are purple and have the most awesome eco-tech. The women have a managed ecosystem that provides for all their needs. As someone who studies ecology, I especially loved this aspect of the book. Slonczewski’s Quaker values are very much in evidence, as the main characters attempt to resolve their problems with nonviolence.

41A2XSAMWHLSlow River by Nicola Griffith: All of Griffith’s work is amazing and worth checking out, but this one happens to be my personal favorite. It’s about troubled families and finding one’s place in the world, and also using bio engineering microbes to treat sewage. I love it when the science in science fiction is biology! The main character is a queer woman, who was kidnapped and is now estranged from her family, and must work to find herself again. (Trigger warning: Child abuse)

4b98224128a0b3494b677010The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin: All of Le Guin’s work touches on feminist themes, but this one deals with gender most directly. The book features a planet were the people are physically sexless most of the time, except for a few days a month, when they become either male or female bodied in order to procreate. It is beautifully written.

 

spiritwalker

The Spiritwalker Trilogy by Kate Elliott: This series engages with feminism in a much more political sense than the works I’ve discussed so far, and features more direct discussion of the legal rights of women. This book offers a complex alternative earth, were the ice age didn’t end, the intelligent descendants of dinosaurs are still with us, Rome didn’t defeat Carthage, and, oh, there is magic. I loved Cat, the main character, who is fierce and unapologetic, and has an important relationship with her cousin, Bee.

12974372A Natural History of Dragons: A Memoir by Lady Trent by Marie Brennan: This book is secondary world fantasy about a young woman in a restricted society who wants to be a scientist. The book addresses the obstacles she faces in a very feminist manner. Brennan has a background in anthropology and folklore, which really shows in her world building.

 

cover_red_stationOn a Red Station, Drifting by Aliette de Bodard: This book is a study of two women in power. It’s also an awesome story about a complex family that lives on a space station that makes its own fish sauce.  I find the focus on domestic issues, such as running a household and planning dinner parties, traditionally women’s work, to be very feminist.

 

908311The Female Man by Joanna Russ: An under-rated classic, The Female Man mixes together the stories of women from different timelines, including the female-only society of Whileaway. Russ really focuses on feminist issues like presenting oneself as feminine and saying no to men. This book is postmodern and can be a bit hard to follow in places.

 

Bonus Nonfiction:

51aLzdI9XfL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_The Battle of the Sexes in Science Fiction by Justine Larbalestier: A great history of feminism and SFF that looks at not only how stories have been used to discuss gender, but also the role of feminist debate within science fiction fandom. The history of women participating in SFF is often erased, so I found it very valuable to have this resource.  This book acknowledges that women have always been part of SFF, both reading and writing.

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Glory is graduate student who studies ecology, history, and community planing. She also spends too much time reading, and loves science fiction and fantasy.

 

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Very Specific Book Recs: Bringing up babies

Throughout human history, all over the world, babies have started out life pretty much the same – slimy, squishy, and totally unable to take care of themselves.  Whether their first moments are in a sterile operating room or a tent with a dirt floor, newborns want to be warm, full, and snuggly.  But from that first breath onward, the way adults perceive and treat children varies tremendously between cultures.  As a nanny, I love reading about childrearing practices of all types – it’s a good reminder that there’s no “right” way to raise a child!  Here are some of my favorite books and movies for the baby-crazed.


Babies ‘round the world

12470851How Eskimos Keep Their Babies Warm by Mei-Ling Hopgood

What it’s about: A journalist and mom combines personal experiences with research to cover childrearing practices from a variety of world cultures.  It’s a quick read with lots of anecdotes about babies all over the world.

Read this for: An overview of styles without any preaching.

Don’t read this if: You’re looking for something comprehensive or scholarly.

 

 

 Bringing Up Bébé by Pamela Druckerman13152287

What it’s about: An American mom raising her young daughter in France discovers the significant differences between parenting styles in each county.  Interestingly, the common French methods fall well into line with RIE or respect-based parenting, but the French parents Druckerman talks to don’t see their parenting as following any specific philosophy.

Read this for: A personal exploration of French and American parenting styles

Don’t read this if: You’ll be offended that she has strong preferences and opinions about the two philosophies.

 

Cinderella Ate My Daughter by Peggy Orenstein8565083

What it’s about: Raising girls in an era of “princess culture.”  Orenstein discusses the Western focus on pretty pink princesses, early sexualization, advertising to children, and the negative effect on girls. This is easily my favorite book on the list, possibly my favorite nonfiction book of any sort, and I wish every American parent and caregiver would read it!

Read this for: A very readable feminist smackdown.

Don’t read this if: You are fiercely loyal to Disney.

 

Babies, then and now

15594 A Midwife’s Tale by Laurel Thatcher Ulrich

What it’s about: A biography of an 18th century New England midwife by historian Laurel Thatcher Ulrich (author of the now-famous quote “well-behaved women seldom make history”).  Martha Ballard kept a daily record of her life and work as a Maine midwife and nurse for nearly 30 years, and, amazingly, the diary has survived to the present.  It gives a remarkable look into the untold history of women’s lives in an era defined by men’s political actions.  There’s an associated PBS documentary which I recommend as well.

Read this for: A scholarly historical work.

Don’t read/watch this if: You are looking for a light, quick read, since it’s long and quite dense.

 

 6114607The Midwife by Jennifer Worth

What it’s about: A memoir of a midwife in 1950’s London – this is the book and the woman that the popular British TV show Call the Midwife is based on.  Worth was a district nurse and midwife in one of the poorest areas of post-war London, delivering babies in often miserable conditions before the advent of birth control or hospitalized birth.

Read this for: A world of bicycles and babies that will make you want to join a convent.  Then watch the TV show!

Don’t read/watch this if: You are easily grossed out by birth, blood, or grime.

 

Bonus! documentary

Babies (2010) babies-documentary

What it’s about: A documentary that follows 4 babies from the US, Japan, Mongolia and Namibia for their first year of life.  It’s entirely footage of the babies, and the simplicity of the format emphasizes the differences in parenting and the similarities in the babies themselves.  You might be surprised at which practices you identify with!

Watch this for: The babies.  Duh.

Don’t watch this if: You will be bored by the lack of narration or plot.

 


Stellata is an infant/toddler nanny living in Washington, DC.  When she’s not baby-wrangling, she loves baking, handcrafts, reading, and museum-hopping.  Online, she is on the Sheroes Blog editorial team and serves as the Sheroes Central rep to the Board of Directors.  Her book blog can be found at The TBR Shelf.

 

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When authors change the story

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Not too long ago, JK Rowling, beloved author of the even more beloved Harry Potter series, confirmed that hindsight is, indeed, 20/20. In an interview for the February/March 2014 edition of Wonderland magazine conducted by Emma Watson (the acclaimed actress who played Hermione Granger in the eight-part Harry Potter film series), Rowling revealed that, if given her druthers, major supporting characters Hermione Granger and Ron Weasley would not have ended up as a romantic couple. Even worse, she went so far as to suggest that Hermione might have been better off paired with the main man himself, Harry Potter.

Putting aside both the fact that this is straight-up blasphemy to Harry Potter lovers worldwide, and the fact that speaking of a kick-ass female heroine in terms of which one of the boy-heroes she should’ve married undermines her important role in the series, there are other, more philosophical reasons why Rowling’s opinions on the matter are irrelevant.

The furor over this situation in the world of Harry Potter fandom brings up really interesting questions about the nature of literary characters and of literature itself, as well as an author’s authority over his or her own works of literature. Is an author always “right” about his or her characters? Can characters exist outside of their text? They are born in an author’s mind, but are they really brought to “life,” so to speak, until they are published and read?

If the answer to the latter question is “no,” as I think it must be (for example, Hamlet would no more exist in the literary canon if Shakespeare hadn’t been widely read and published than the crush I wrote about in my diary at age 12), then, by the same token, characters are contained, or “live,” wholly within the published works in which they feature. What an author says or thinks outside of those works amounts to nothing whatsoever. For example, imagine John Green saying, twenty years for now, “It’s okay, fandom. Ansel Elgort Augustus Waters actually lives.” Do we reinterpret our understanding of The Fault in Our Stars based on the author’s opinion of his own work?

Of course not. While the above is an extreme example, it demonstrates that if authors hold an incorrect opinion about their own books, they’re not granted any more “rightness” than anyone else just because of their relationship to the material. Once a piece of literature exists, its interpretation is passed into the hands of its readers. An author’s opinions may be considered secondary or tertiary or completely irrelevant when it comes to an interpretation. Like any other reader, an author may correctly or incorrectly analyze a given work, even if that work is his or her own creative property.

So when Rowling says that Hermione and Ron might not have worked out together after all, even though there is an (admittedly poorly written) epilogue in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows that says that they did, readers are rightfully infuriated. Their vital role in the conversation between text and reader is being ignored, while Rowling is failing to take up her proper place as a reader like anyone else. However, it should soothe readers to realize, even if Rowling doesn’t, that as a reader, she is just as susceptible to wrong or unsupported interpretations of her own text as anyone else.

Harry Potter is finished (as much as it pains me to admit it). Not just finished, but edited, published, and offered for sale in both physical and digital versions. Had Rowling still been drafting the novels at the time of the Wonderland interview, her opinion on the matter would have the utmost importance, and she could have gone home and rewritten the scenes that so clearly demonstrated Hermione and Ron’s growing attraction and affection for one another. However, given that the complete series has been available for public consumption since 2007 (and new paperback editions with gorgeous cover art were just released in August 2013), the content of those books are now outside her control.

Then again, Rowling owns her characters and she can do whatever she wants with them by asserting her absolute authority in published writing that reaches a widespread audience as an obvious continuation of the series. While her interview comments are irrelevant, readers should beware: she could always wave her magic wand and conjure up a new novel in which Hermione and Ron divorce and split their wizarding belongings between them.

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Marie is a writer and editor who lives with her feral cat, and, like most people, prefers dance parties to homework.

 

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