More Of What I’ve Been Reading Recently

'Portrait of Maria Adelaide of France in Turkish-style clothes' by Jean-Étienne Liotard

Last month, Bookshelves of Doom hosted a celebration of Elizabeth Peters, an American author I’d never read, so I decided to check out some of her novels. I started with The Seventh Sinner, the first in a series about Jacqueline Kirby, librarian and amateur sleuth. The story involved international graduate students living in Rome and featured many of the standard elements of a murder mystery – a victim who scrawls a cryptic message in the dust before expiring, a small group of suspects who all hated the victim and who persist in doing mysterious, suspicious things, a debonair detective (who may or may not be working in conjunction with the amateur sleuth), and a dramatic revelation and confession in the penultimate chapter (at a costume party, of course). The book was also written in the 1970s, so the women all stoically endure being groped and ogled, the one young woman who’s as sexually active as the men is constantly derided for being a slut, and there are a lot of unfunny jokes about Women’s Lib. On the other hand, the descriptions of the Roman archaeological sites were absolutely fascinating, and Jacqueline was snarky and interesting enough for me to consider reading another (more recent) book in this series.

I also read The Hippopotamus Pool, by the same author, starring Amelia Peabody, a parasol-wielding Egyptologist with a talent for solving mysteries. This was a bit like a Victorian-era Indiana Jones, but much smarter and with better jokes. There were noble archaeologists, vicious criminal masterminds, mysterious orphans, secret cults, long-lost tombs, disappearing mummies, kidnappings, murders and a bit of romance, all packed into a fast-paced, exciting story. Amelia was a clever and amusing narrator, but my favourite character would have to be Ramses, her twelve-year-old son, who never shuts up and also happens to be an expert in ancient languages and a master of disguise. (His cat, Bastet, was pretty great, too.) The only character I couldn’t stand was Emerson, Amelia’s husband, who kept losing his temper, ripping off his shirt and cursing at the ‘natives’. Is he supposed to be some sort of endearing parody of machismo? I kept hoping he’d get a horrible contagious disease and be quarantined in Cairo, so that Amelia and Ramses could get on with solving the mystery by themselves. I also assumed Amelia and her family and friends were American, based on their language and behaviour, but no, I think they’re meant to be English. I’m guessing the author’s research into Victorian England was limited to learning about ladies’ fashions. However, her knowledge of ancient Egypt is very impressive and she weaves facts (and real historical figures, such as Howard Carter) into her story beautifully. I’d definitely like to read more of this series, especially if I can find a book where Emerson goes missing for most of the story.

I also enjoyed Wonder, by R. J. Palacio – although ‘enjoyed’ is possibly the wrong word, given how much I cried while reading this novel. It’s the tale of ten-year-old August, who has craniofacial deformities and a hearing impairment, and has been home-schooled while enduring years of surgery and therapy. However, his mother decides he’s now ready to join the wider world, so he starts fifth grade at the local private school. There are multiple narrators – August, his protective older sister Olivia, her boyfriend Justin, her former best friend Miranda, and various students at August’s school – which is a clever way of revealing the complex motives behind people’s actions. All of the characters are engaging and, more importantly, they’re real. August, for example, is smart, brave and stoic, but he can also be selfish and manipulative. Olivia loves her little brother, but she can’t help resenting that August gets all her parents’ attention. August may believe that none of his school friends have any problems in their lives, but he gradually learns that that’s not true. I especially liked the portrayal of August’s parents, and his sensible, kind school principal. The final chapters of the book descend into pure schmaltz (I was half-expecting Oprah to turn up on stage at the school assembly and initiate group hugs), but August was so endearing that I was happy to see him triumph over the bullies and bigots.

Finally, I was entertained and educated by The Curse: Confronting the Last Unmentionable Taboo, Menstruation, by Karen Houppert, which was a well-written account of cultural attitudes to menstruation in the United States. The author examines some hilarious historical advertisements, pamphlets and sex-education films, including a “menstrual classic” called Molly Grows Up, shown in American classrooms in the 1950s (in one scene, Molly’s teacher urges restraint during Those Days, saying “You can dance, but don’t do any strenuous dancing like square dancing”). Ms Houppert also notes that Catholic priests campaigned against tampons in the 1930s (apparently, they “worried that women would find them erotic. And they worried that girls would lose their virginity upon insertion”). And did you know that Disney refuses to allow any ads for menstrual-related products during its television programs? And that modern sanitary pads and tampons almost never have the words ‘period’, ‘blood’ or ‘menstruation’ written on their packets? (Naturally, I had to conduct my own bathroom-cabinet survey to investigate this. It’s true! Only one packet of pads mentioned the word ‘period’, but it was in tiny writing and only appeared once, and there was no mention of ‘blood’. Apparently, pads and tampons only exist to provide ‘protection’ against ‘flow’, ‘fluid’ and ‘moisture’. Isn’t that weird?) The book also describes how men in the late nineteenth century used menstruation as a reason to exclude women from higher education and the medical profession (after all, a woman has a “body and mind which for one quarter of each month, during the best years of life, is more or less sick and unfit for work”) and how taboos about menstruation allowed the manufacturers of tampons and dodgy PMS ‘cures’ to get away with unethical behaviour that put women’s lives at risk. I can’t say I was convinced by all of the author’s arguments, but she had clearly done a lot of research on the subject, including some fascinating interviews with pre-adolescent girls at summer camp about their perceptions of menstruation. “We’re talking about periods,” one girl shouts. “It’s very bloody!”