Tuesday, 22 August 2017

Victorians Undone by Kathryn Hughes

Biographies will give you all the facts of their subjects' lives, but what they can't do is explain what it was like to be them - to fight for breath against the constriction of a whalebone corset, or attempt to eat with decorum despite the encroachments of a particularly bushy beard.

Nowhere is this more true than Britain in the nineteenth century. For while we like to think of the Victorians as prudishly detached from their unruly bodies, the fact is that they were just as subject to the tyrannies of their flesh as we are today. Now, in Victorians Undone, the major award winning historian and biographer Kathryn Hughes reveals what it was physically like to be a nineteenth century man or woman through a close examination of five famous, controversial or curious Victorian body parts.

Through her eyes we encounter Lady Flora Hastings's swelling belly, which sparks a scandal that almost brings young Queen Victoria's reign crashing down. We run our fingers through Charles Darwin's beard in an attempt to understand just what made men start sprouting whiskers in the 1850's. The novelist George Eliot, meanwhile, is proud that her right hand is bigger than her left, so why is her family so desperate to suppress this information? We learn how the Pre-Raphaelite painter Dante Gabriel Rossetti takes his art in a revolutionary new direction, thanks to the bee stung lips of his secret mistress, Fanny Cornforth, Finally, we meet Fanny Adams, an eight year old from Hampshire whose tragic physical dissolution has come down to us in the phrase 'Sweet Fanny Adams'.

Based on a treasure trove of new archive material, groundbreaking in its methods and frequently very funny, Victorians Undone is a wholly original approach to life writing. You will never think of biography - or Victorians - in quite the same way again.

I do not read much in the way of non-fiction but I was tempted by this book when I saw that it dealt with often overlooked aspects of Victorian attitudes.

Clearly well researched through a variety of sources Ms Hughes presents anatomical references relating to well known people of the Victorian era in a way that is both intelligent and entertaining. I particularly enjoyed the section on Fanny Adams and how her name came to be part of everyday language both then and now.

Although Kathryn Hughes is an academic this book does not read as an academic text. It is a very easy and engaging read which I recommend to anyone interested in history.

ISBN:  978 0 00 754836 1

Publisher: 4th Estate

About the Author:

Kathryn Hughes is the author of award winning biographies of Mrs. Beeton and George Eliot, both of which were filmed for the BBC. For the past fifteen years she has been a literary critic and columnist for the Guardian. Educated at Oxford University and with a PhD in Victorian Studies, she is currently Professor of Life Writing at the University of East Anglia and Fellow of both the Royal Society of Literature and the Royal Historical Society.

Thursday, 3 August 2017

Pachinko by Min Jin Lee

Set in Yeongdo, Korea in 1911 in a small fishing village on the banks of the East Sea, a club-footed, cleft-lipped man  marries a fifteen year old girl.

The couple have one child, their beloved daughter Sunja. When Sunja falls pregnant by a married yakuza the family faces ruin until Isak, a young Christian minister, offers her a chance of salvation: a new life in Japan as his wife.

Following a man she barely knows to a hostile country where she has no friends and no home, Sunja's salvation is just the beginning of her story.

Spanning eight decades and four generations, Pachinko is an epic tale of family, identity, love, death and survival.

Things have been fairly quiet on the blog recently. I have done lots of reading, the weather has been wonderful and somehow, I have been lacking in opportunity to write reviews. However, this book has stirred me from my summer slumber and I want to share my thoughts on it with you all.

I have read few novels set in either Korea or Japan (the exception to the latter being Haruki Murakami whose work I adore) and I have honestly never considered how difficult life was for those who made Japan their home. Racial prejudice is the overriding theme of this book and as such, makes this a very relevant read as the experience of the characters could be transposed to anywhere in the world where racism exists today.

The characters are wonderfully evoked in this novel and the author has a very acute sense of detail in her descriptions of them. Their history and cultural background were vital to my understanding of them as individuals and I was completely engrossed by the four generations of this family.

My one minor criticism is that the ending felt rather hurried and I wanted to know more about some of the characters. For a book that was so character focused I felt that the previous level of detail fell away. However, this did not distract from my enjoyment of this superb novel.

Despite serious themes this book was an easy read with beautiful prose and I am glad to have read a book which taught me something new. Anyone who enjoys historical fictions will love this book and I highly recommend it.

About the Author:

Min Jin Lee is a Korean-American author and journalist. Her debut novel, Free Food for Millionaires, was one of the 'Top 10 Novels of the Year' for The Times, NPR's Fresh Air and USA Today. She has written for the New York Times, Conde Nast, The Times, Vogue and the Wall Street Journal amongst others, She wrote Pachinko whilst living in Tokyo, and now lives in New York with her family.