Books · Reading Challenge

Read the Year: March

“Unknown Woman”

Since I spent most of the month finishing February’s novel, for March I settled on The Diary of Lady Murasaki, a short book with journal and letter extracts written by the woman known as Murasaki Shikibu, a Japanese author and courtier, about her time in the service of Empress Shōshi, at the height of the famous Heian period. The main events documented in the diary are the birth of Prince Atsuhira, and the celebrations which followed. For comparison, Appendix 2 offers translations of records of these events made by male authors, and I was struck by the attention that Murasaki shows to the people involved in comparison to those authors. She details the reactions, interactions, and outfits of a wide range of participants, and builds a textured picture of the events that unfold, her gaze at times critical, at others empathetic. It’s a wonderful window into history, and astonishing to think, as the translator notes in the introduction, that this elegant, refined world existed at a time roughly 50 years prior to the Norman conquest. At the time she wrote this ‘diary’ Murasaki was already well known as the author of Genji monogatari (The Tale of Genji), considered to be one of the first Japanese novels, and still revered as one of its greatest cultural works. Certainly one I’ll be adding to the TBR list.

Related Reading

Mary Catherine Bateson’s Composing a Life came to my attention via a Brain Pickings newsletter. A book examining the ways in which women construct their lives seemed like a good companion to the Diary, which moves between formal comment on public events, and inward-looking musing on what is possible for women. Composing a Life draws from the stories of five women (including the author), moving between the anecdotal, and published research. The main argument is that women have a long history of composing their lives through compromise and negotiation between personal ambition and desire, and societal pressures and responsibilities, and that there is potential in embracing this model for both men and women, rather than competitive ‘equality’. We’ll be in April before I finish this one, but I can already tell that I’ll be coming back to it.

Other Reading

Fictional Non-Fiction

Do D&D manuals class as fiction or non-fiction? They are books that offer the tools to tell a story, which suggests non-fiction, yet role-playing relies on suspension of disbelief, just as fiction. No doubt smarter people than I have answered this question. All I know is that I find them very enjoyable to read, both as a writer and gamer. This month I perused Xanathar’s Guide to Everything (an extension of the Player’s Handbook), and The Tomb of Annihilation (an adventure module set in the jungles of Chult). For me the latter wasn’t on a par with Storm King’s Thunder or The Curse of Strahd, but there were some fun ideas there (for a taste of ToA check out the 2017 Acquisitions Inc live shows on YouTube).

Non-Fiction

I’ve been reading Folk Fashion in a slow and thoughtful manner, as it raised questions for me around my own choices and processes of making. Broadly speaking, her thesis is that there is nothing inherently sustainable about making our own clothes if we engage with the process in the same mindset that we engage with fast fashion. She also explores the circumstances under which we feel permitted to alter or unmake existing designs and garments, and the ways in which we might encourage ourselves, and others, to do so. While this is a well-referenced, academic work, it is very readable, and I feel that I will be unpacking her insights and reflecting on my making for a while to come.

Running Total

Books Read: 20

Currently Reading: 5

Next Month

The next Read The Year prompt is to “Grab a book that will help you to explore your creativity” so I shall be working through Keri Smith’s The Imaginary World of… in April.

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