Reading Diary: Mar. 19-Mar. 25

9780691181264The Golden Rhinoceros: Histories of the African Middle Ages, by François-Xavier Fauvelle: Each very short chapter of Fauvelle’s book takes an archaeological site, artifact, or ancient text as its focus. From these items, he creates what a Literary Review critic called “historical pointillism”, opening tiny windows onto medieval African international relations, piecing together tantalizing stories: the Jewish merchant who impregnated his Indian maid and abandoned her in Somaliland; the Sultan of Mali whose lavish tipping while on hajj crashed the Cairene gold market for thirty years. But Fauvelle is not a storyteller, and frequently stops writing just as these stories begin to pique interest. The Golden Rhinoceros is a great introduction to other work, but sometimes frustrates in and of itself.

9781408890950The Pisces, by Melissa Broder: Initially worried that this was going to be some sort of Moshfegh-esque body-grossout fic, I instead found myself captivated by Lucy, an aimless Sappho scholar, and her attempts to find love (or at least, following the advice of her group therapist Dr. Jude, to determine whether love is what she really wants). What you’ll already know about this book is that there’s merman sex in it, which is true, but the merman (Theo) doesn’t turn up until about halfway through the book, and the ending—which Broder handles brilliantly—is hardly a fairy tale. Lucy’s feelings of “nothingness”—the existential void—and her subtly woven backstory induce a kind of shamed empathy: it’s hard to imagine a 21st-century woman who can’t identify, at least a little bit, with this protagonist. I wrote a longer piece on The Pisces here.

9781405926935Sins As Scarlet, by Nicolás Obregón: The second in a series featuring Inspector Kosuke Itawa; the first, Blue Light Yokohama, gives him sufficient traumas to make him abandon life as an official detective, move to LA, where his mother lives, and become a private investigator instead. The plot of Sins As Scarlet revolves around the murder of a transgender woman, who happens to be Itawa’s sister-in-law. Obregón handles the material sensitively, and points to all-too-common lapses in official behaviour, such as the consistent misgendering of the victim by the LAPD. The novel takes an unexpected turn when the US-Mexico border, and the hazard involved in crossing it, becomes relevant to the case. Itawa is a great flawed detective, and Obregón is as deserving an heir to Chandler and his LA noir as I can think of.

91lsfruinzlSpring, by Ali Smith: The third in Smith’s seasonal quartet, and a lot of her overarching plan with this project starts to come clear. Focusing in part on grieving filmmaker Richard Lease, who has just lost his friend, collaborator and former lover Patricia Heal, and in part on Brittany Hall, a young security officer at a refugee detention center just outside of London, the novel is also dotted with short sections which we’re meant to think of as being authored by Florence Smith, a schoolgirl who seems bafflingly capable of both selective invisibility and holding authority figures to account. As with earlier seasonal quartet installments, the plot is somehow less important than the empathy these characters induce in us. It feels both more hopeful and more emotionally accessible than Autumn (I haven’t yet read Winter).

And two rereads: One, Lucy Mangan’s delightful memoir of childhood reading, Bookworm, I read last year—my review of it can be found here. I revisited it with the excuse that it constitutes professional development; I’ve now taken on responsibility for some of our Children’s Year In Books at work, and reacquainting myself with the world of literature for kids is proving very enjoyable.

cleopatraroyaldiaries_1_The second is, appropriately, an old childhood favourite. In the late ’90s and early 2000s, Scholastic produced a series of books entitled The Royal Diaries. Written in diary format, they were meant to be the adolescent journals of various princesses from world history. There were the obvious candidates, like the ones for Marie Antoinette, Elizabeth Tudor, and Mary Queen of Scots; but there was a genuinely global focus, so that the series included diaries from the likes of Sondok of Korea, Kazunomiya of Japan, Weetamoo of the Native American Pohasset tribe, and even some princesses whose names have not come down to us (they were marketed under their dynastic titles instead; there’s one about medieval China entitled Lady of Chi’ao Kuo: Warrior of the South). They were by far the most significant source of my world history knowledge until I entered high school, and frankly, even then I relied fairly heavily on what I had learned from them.

I’ve recently discovered that you can buy pretty much every title for a penny plus shipping through secondhand sellers. My first, and favourite, of these books was Cleopatra VII: Daughter of the Nile, so Cleopatra was, of course, my first priority. It’s easy to see why my youthful self loved it: it combines historical detail (the sights and sounds of the markets of Alexandria! The Great Library and the Lighthouse! The pet monkeys and leopards!) with interpersonal conflict (will Cleopatra’s scheming older sister kill her before their father returns? Will her father’s habitual drunkenness jeopardize their ability to negotiate with Rome?) in an immensely appealing way. There’s also a section of historical notes, family trees, and contexualizing pictures at the back of the book; this is where I first learned, for instance, the story of Cleopatra rolling herself up in a carpet for Julius Caesar, and where I acquired my first inkling of the complicated political nature of her later-in-life love affairs. I can’t wait to choose which one to acquire next.

Currently reading: Abi Elphinstone’s new children’s novel, Rumblestar (see “reacquainting myself with the world of literature for kids”, above). So far I’m not totally convinced, but maybe it’s just a matter of time.

16 thoughts on “Reading Diary: Mar. 19-Mar. 25

  1. As someone who worked extensively with children’s literature throughout a forty year career I can only applaud your enthusiasm for returning to some of your favourites and envy your discovery of many of the books you may not yet have read.

    1. There’s rather more joy in the world of children’s publishing, I feel. My brother and I had a delightful conversation over dinner a few weeks ago, recalling everything we’d loved to read as kids – it reminded me of how rich the field is, and was!

  2. I love your thoughts on children’s literature. I remember reading a similar Scholastic series called ‘My Story’, which was in diary format – a particularly harrowing one about the Irish potato famine has never left me.

    I’ve recently made the most amazing find, which is saving me those 1p + P&P charges – Newcastle University have an open-stacks archive of children’s literature, which I swear was based on my library checkouts from the 1990s/early 2000s, it has EVERYTHING. Hoping to do some blog posts on my findings soon…

    1. Yes! My Story was part of the same conglomerate of series, I’m sure; there was another one that focused on the historic diaries of regular girls, called Dear America, which I also loved.

      AAAAHHHH I am so JEALOUS of your Newcastle find!! I don’t suppose they’ll lend books to randomers from London, though.

      1. Sadly, probably not, although I can’t take them out of the library – I have to sit there and read them. Newcastle students must think I’m doing a research project on bad teenage series fiction at the turn of the millennium – maybe one day I will 🙂

      2. One of the joys of lecturing in Children’s Literature was that I got to do all the University Library ordering of children’s books (we had a teaching degree and we had a dedicated library for teaching practice borrowing) and then got first shot at them when they arrived. I really miss what I know was an incredible privilege.

  3. Hey there Elle, how you doing!? I just went through your blog again and its fab, keep up this effort love and stay blessed ❤
    Looking forward to reading from your blog more and have a nice day 🙂

  4. Your assessment of the Ali Smith is encouraging, though I’m still not sure: I wasn’t that keen on Autumn, and DNFed Winter.

    I hope you’ll enjoy your forays into kid lit! I’m glad the Mangan stood up to rereading.

    1. Spring worked really well for me; I liked Autumn well enough but kept being interrupted by sneaking suspicions that she was preaching to the pro-EU choir, that it was a little on the nose. Spring feels different – a lot of which, I think, is down to her using Brit Hall as a point-of-view character. Brit’s hardly a member of the liberal metropolitan elite, although she’s not a completely terrible person either, and Smith’s allowing her a voice of her own makes Spring feel like a much more considered piece of work.

      I’m already excited. There’s a whole list of titles I remember loving, pinned up above my desk at work now.

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