Medieval Bodies by Jack Hartnell – review

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I bought this book for two main reasons: I love medieval stuff and I love the cover.  What I didn’t expect was quite how much fun it was going to be.

Starting at the head and working down, the author gives us a colourful and exuberant guided tour of the medieval body, not simply addressing literal, medical approaches to human physiology but its more abstract significance too.  The body as a whole was a universally understood metaphor for the functioning of medieval society, with the monarch as the head, the peasants as the labouring feet and all other levels of life in between, everyone working within their God-given social sphere to keep the state functioning as it should.  The phrase “the body politic” is of course one we still use today.  Beyond that generality, however, it turns out there were a huge number of bodily parts that had their own philosophical significance; one of the most interesting aspects of this book is the connection it highlights between the spiritual meaning attached to the various body parts and the age’s prevailing scientific understanding of how they functioned.  The heart, for example, had for several centuries been regarded as the seat of the soul and, as opposed to the brain as we now know, the organ that governed actions and emotions – hence the plethora of art and literature depicting deep feeling, but in particular love, as being almost literally linked to a person’s heart.  In fact, for all culture vultures out there, this is a very satisfying book, including its fair share of analysis of art forms ranging from tapestry to music, sculpture to literature, all presented in the context of the medieval body.  A real bonus is that rather than the small section of colour plates often found in the centre of non-fiction paperbacks, this book has coloured illustrations throughout, which definitely adds to the reading enjoyment and appreciation.  What I really liked as well was the fact that this bodily exploration isn’t just confined to English medieval history, but also takes in Europe and the Middle East, the latter in particular providing a fascinating comparison and an opportunity to introduce many artworks with which most of us won’t be at all familiar.

In case you were getting worried, don’t fear – there’s also a lot of the inevitable gruesome fun to be had from the accounts of medieval medical procedures and pictures of surgical instruments and body parts.  Of course we regard it all as incredibly primitive stuff, but the author is keen to point out that we shouldn’t look down on the middle ages too harshly; he demonstrates that diagnoses and treatments weren’t plucked out of the air according to pure superstition, but rather followed their own definite logic to what was considered a reasonable conclusion, even if that isn’t the conclusion we would draw today.

Far from being dense or heavy-going, Jack Hartnell writes with a light, easy style and a definite sense of humour.  The only drawback I found was that because the subject is so vast, certain aspects of the body are abandoned just as you were getting interested.  I wouldn’t say it’s unsatisfying by any means, but it definitely leaves you wanting to find out more.  The flipside of that though is that it’s accessible to absolutely everyone, and as such I think there are loads of people out there who may not be particularly into medieval history that will still find this a really absorbing read.

The Planets by Andrew Cohen and Brian Cox – review

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Being a bookseller certainly has its perks.  A few years ago I was lucky enough to go and help run the bookstall for one of Brian Cox’s lectures on his national tour; there were unfortunately a couple of complete fangirling moments when it’s fair to say I didn’t cover myself in glory (I could feel my IQ slipping away before my eyes in the presence of the Great Man), but his talk was absolutely mesmerising, and his ability to captivate an audience incredible.  This latest book ties in with the TV series on the planets that he presented not long ago.  Although he’s listed prominently on the cover (understandably), in fact he only wrote the introduction and one of the chapters, but I found it didn’t matter at all as the entire book is very engaging in style and completely readable for the space science layman such as myself.

Out of all Brian Cox’s TV series, I actually found The Planets my least favourite, I think because mind-blowing though the special effects were, I found they distracted me from the scientific content, and it seemed as though most of the emphasis was on the visual impact rather than how thoroughly the science was explained.  The book totally redresses that balance, giving as it does a detailed, but completely comprehensible, explanation to go alongside the images that are still, it has to be said, very vivid in my mind.  As someone with no science background beyond a very general interest, it’s always a bit disappointing to pick up a book on a subject you’re keen to find out more about, only to find it way beyond your capability or stuffed full of equations only comprehensible to someone with an advanced degree.  Happily, this book is extremely informative but also accessible to just about everybody, both describing the wondrous and utterly alien worlds that make up our solar system, and also doing a fantastic job of drilling down into why and how they have evolved over billions of years to be so different to our home planet.  As well as the physics and chemistry, it also covers many of the exploratory missions that have been launched over the decades to further our understanding of these mysterious worlds; the human ingenuity these represent is almost as fascinating as the planets themselves.

You can tell that both Cohen and Cox are supremely passionate about their area of interest, and their desire to share this enthusiasm really brings the science to life.  For anyone who has even a passing interest in space science, or found the TV series left them wanting to know more, then this great introduction to the subject comes highly recommended.

Once Upon a River by Diane Setterfield review

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Although my return to blogging was meant to be a guided tour of the books I was reading during these weeks of lockdown, I have to confess that for my first review I’ve cheated a bit and gone back to a book I read a few months ago.  Since I waved goodbye to Girl, Reading and launched This Girl’s Book Room, I’ve come across some amazing books that have made their way onto my list of favourites, so it seemed to make sense to share them here by way of recommendation for anyone finding themselves at a loss as to what to read next!

“Once Upon a River” is the first of these.  I loved “The Thirteenth Tale” by the same author, and one look at the cover made me pretty confident I was going to fall in love with this one too.  If you enjoyed “The Essex Serpent” by Sarah Perry or “The Wonder” by Emma Donoghue, then this is in a similar vein in the sense that the main plot device is a mysterious event that may or may not be supernatural, and that it features a cast of characters whose opinion is divided as to whether the weird goings on can be explained by science, faith or superstition.  The story starts with the shocking appearance in a rural inn of a stranger carrying what appears to be the corpse of a girl found drowned in the nearby river.  None of the onlookers can be left in any doubt that the child is dead; however, after some hours have passed, the body miraculously stirs…

From that point onwards, the mystery piles on thick and fast.  The girl becomes the focus of a missing child case that sees different parties vying for her custody and claiming her as their own, and in the midst of it all, local nurse Rita is trying to uncover the truth of the strange evening that apparently saw a body rise from the dead.  Many of the locals are convinced that it’s all the doing of Quietly, the otherworldly ferryman, who appears to those in trouble on the river and chooses either to return them to the safety of dry land or carry them off to the next world.  Not everyone is convinced, Rita, included, but a more logical explanation seems just as elusive.

In this nineteenth century setting, society is at a something of a crossroads, with ancient superstitions still keeping a firm foothold in people’s minds even as the new sciences of biology and psychology are becoming ever more prevalent.  The result is a melting pot of ideas and beliefs old and new that rub up against each other and battle it out for supremacy, and it’s this mix of the magical and the rational that Diane Setterfield evokes so beautifully.  As readers we’re also asked to contemplate what it is that makes something true or untrue, and to reflect on the nature of storytelling itself.  As the events of the mysterious resurrection spread through the community and get repeated over time they take on a life of their own, and each newly moulded tale becomes the established truth every time it’s told.  Is any listener, then, ever in a position to judge with any certainty where reality lies?  For all the characters in this novel, their version of the truth is also dependent on their own pre-established beliefs:  Rita in science, Joe the innkeeper in the powerful myths of the river and its ghostly guardian.

I thoroughly enjoyed this novel; Rita is a likeable and engaging heroine, and the balance of a realistic setting with hints of the supernatural was perfect for me.  If you’ve visited my blog before, you’ll know I love historical fiction anyway, but the folklore element was what really made this novel stand out for me.  If you’ve read it let me know what you thought!

Bookshop spot: seaside shopping

As I sit here in my flat, typing away with rain pouring down the window, it’s hard to believe that only a few hours ago I was in blazing sunshine a short drive away down the coast in the gorgeous seaside town of Hastings.  The British summer may have ended before it’s begun, but I’ve brought a little bit of cheer back home with me in the shape of a beautiful second-hand book I found while rummaging in the old town quarter earlier today.

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Many old hardbacks have quite plain fabric covers, so this one jumped out at me straight away.  I love the 1920s and 30s illustration style and to find it adorning the jacket of a classic like this was a bonus indeed!  Inside the front cover there’s a book plate that tells me a little of the book’s history (which I always love finding); it was presented to a Newcastle schoolgirl called Ada Simpson in 1932 for “attendance, progress and conduct” – amazing to think that more than 80 years ago, someone was holding this very book in their hands with probably as much delight as I do today.  And it gets even better – there are beautiful colour plates throughout the book, each with a brief caption in the form of a quote from the novel.

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I’m ashamed to say I’ve never read any of Elizabeth Gaskell’s work; how this has happened I’m not quite sure!  Both my mum and sister are huge fans, yet somehow, when I was embarking on my literary educating by raiding the family bookshelves in my adolescence she was an author I must have passed over for some reason.  I haven’t read any classics in a while as I’ve been going through more of a contemporary fiction phase, but now I’m the proud owner of this lovely edition this surely has to be next on my reading list.

I’d love to hear about any gems you’ve uncovered while book-shopping, so do share your finds and pics!

“Portrait of an Unknown Woman” by Vanora Bennett – review

If you’re a regular visitor to my blog you’ll know that I’m mad keen on historical fiction.  Any era will do, I’m not fussy; as long as it’s sometime pre-twentieth century and there’s a sumptuous dress on the cover I’m probably going to be happy.  A few years ago, however, I went through a phase of gravitating towards novels set in the Tudor period, to the extent that I ended up feeling I’d overindulged myself and consequently burned out my interest in that era.  “Portrait of an Unknown Woman” is the first time I’ve returned to the Tudors in quite a long while, and to my relief I felt completely refreshed, as if I was discovering my love of the period all over again.

The book that ignited my love affair with historical novels was “The Other Boleyn Girl” by Philippa Gregory, and if you enjoyed her books I can pretty much guarantee you’ll love this.  Vanora Bennett has quite a similar writing style and way of approaching her subject, wearing her meticulous research lightly but still delving beyond familiar representations of the period to shed new light on characters about whom, if we know a bit of history, we have perhaps already made assumptions.  The novel centres on the family of Thomas More, civil servant and later Lord Chancellor at the court of Henry VIII, and Hans Holbein, the ambitious German artist hoping to advance his career by painting the rich and powerful of Tudor England.  Much of the story is told my Meg, a young woman taken in by More as a child following the death of her parents and raised as one of his own.  It starts as a love story, with Meg looking out across the Thames from the Mores’ Chelsea home, awaiting the arrival of John Clement, her one-time tutor and the man with whom she has fallen completely and utterly in love.  And in a sense a love story it remains – but not in the way I expected when the novel began.  This isn’t about spending three hundred pages wondering whether the would-be couple are finally going to get together; this is about what happens to our feelings when the first flush of a seemingly perfect romance turns out not to lead anywhere near the places we’d anticipated.  Almost everyone in this novel – the lovers included – has secrets, some kept out of pure motives, others concealed out of fear, jealousy or desire for control.  As more and more truths are gradually revealed the relationships between the characters become increasingly complex; just as we’ve decided where our sympathies lie, the rug is pulled out from under our feet.

Of course, all these relationships are played out during one of the most turbulent periods in English history: the lead up to the monarchy’s break with the Church of Rome.  The brutal religious politics of the day cannot help but exert their influence on the emotional lives of characters whose marriages, friendships and family ties are already under strain from the various grievances, resentments and suspicions that affect us all even in the most stable of times.  Sinister events – imprisonments, tortures, executions – that are merely hinted at in the novel’s early chapters become increasingly exposed as the book goes on.  At first Meg is unaware of the extent to which her father is involved in Henry’s reign of terror; we learn the truth along with her as she gradually uncovers the accumulating horrors being committed in the name of God.  It is Hans Holbein who is perhaps the novel’s one true sage.  He may not have the broad education of the precocious More children, but the author presents him as one of the only characters who has their eyes open to the truth from the start.  Holbein has seen enough of the Reformation in Europe to realise that religious extremes, whichever way they lean, cause nothing but cruelty and chaos.  When he paints the commissioned portrait of Sir Thomas More’s family he resolves not to produce the flattering representation that most patrons would expect, but rather to capture the veracity of each individual: their coldness, weariness or naivety.  You could say this is a novel about learning to live with the truth, and coping with life when neither the world nor the people in it are what we hoped they would be.

This is definitely going to join my list of favourite historical novels.  Just as the story throws up a succession of surprises for its characters, so the book surprised me somewhat right up until the end; even the conclusion is not as you might imagine.  It’s a perfectly balanced blend of romance, history and drama – one I’d recommend without a doubt.

Why I love…. Kazuo Ishiguro

When I tell people they should try an Ishiguro novel (which is quite often) there’s one piece of advice I always give: if the book they choose doesn’t strike a chord with them, be sure to try another, as he offers something a bit different every time. That’s one of the reasons I love him as an author – I know that with each of his stories he’s going to take me to a place I haven’t been before. I’m always amazed at how he manages to explore his ideas through such a wide variety of settings. There’s the traditional country house of “The Remains of the Day”, the post-war Japan of “An Artist of the Floating World” and the unsettling alternate reality of “Never let me go”; and I marvel at the imagination of a novelist who can conjure up this array of fictional landscapes whilst writing with such precision and authenticity. One thing you can guarantee though is that the prose is going to be utterly sublime – and that’s the principle reason I love his books so much. His style is deceptively simple, almost sparse sometimes, with a restraint that often belies the emotional turmoil at the heart of his stories. There’s no melodrama and no linguistic flamboyance, just purity, clarity and a real sense that every word has been carefully placed and is there for good reason.

If I had to pick a favourite it would be “An Artist of the Floating World”; there’s something about the visual cleanliness of the Japanese setting that really seems to mirror his writing style. But, as I said at the start, with Ishiguro there’s such variety on offer that I’m sure you’ll find your own favourite.