Medieval Bodies: Life, Death and Art in the Middle Ages by Jack Hartnell makes a convincing case against the widely held perception of the Middle Ages as a bloodthirsty and violent period of history where beliefs about medicine were guided primarily by superstition. Instead, the reality is shown to be very different in Hartnell’s examination of how medieval people experienced their physical selves. Each chapter of this lavishly illustrated book focuses on a different part of the body and explores their cultural significance and how medieval attitudes towards them were shaped by a range of influences.
Drawing on art, medicine, literature, science, politics, history, philosophy and much more, I think Hartnell sometimes tries to tackle too much here. The geographical range of sources spanning across Europe and the Middle East is impressive but the scope is so wide that it is a lot to grasp for non-expert readers, whereas I think those who are more knowledgeable about this period of history may find the analysis too thin in some areas. However, Hartnell’s evident passion for his subject is infectious and I think ‘Medieval Bodies’ could be a possible contender for the next Wellcome Book Prize longlist. Continue reading
I read ‘The Little Stranger’ by Sarah Waters over seven years ago before I started my blog and reread it this month when the film adaptation was released in the UK. Set in the Warwickshire countryside in the late 1940s, Dr Faraday is called to Hundreds Hall, a once grand now derelict stately home where his mother once worked as a maid and which he has long viewed with fascination since he was a child. Occupied by the Ayres family for more than two centuries, the house is now in decline with just Mrs Ayres and her two adult children Caroline and Roderick struggling to manage the estate on their own. Roderick sustained serious injuries during the war and when Faraday offers some treatment for his leg, his regular visits to Hundreds Hall see him become increasingly more involved in the family’s affairs. Continue reading
‘Ghost Wall’ is Sarah Moss’s sixth novel which tells the story of Silvie, a teenage girl spending her summer in a remote area of Northumberland taking part in an “experiential” archaeological experiment in which the participants attempt to recreate the exact living conditions of the original Iron Age occupants of the site. However, this is not a gentle comedy in the style of the BBC series ‘Detectorists’. Silvie’s father, Bill, is a bus driver and amateur historian who has obsessive ideas about the “purity” of ancient Britons and his domineering personality and prejudices begin to take over the trip led by archaeology professor Jim Slade accompanied by three of his students, Molly, Dan and Pete. Continue reading
‘Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow’ is the follow-up to the hugely successful ‘Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind’ by Yuval Noah Harari which I read last year. Having examined the development of humans in his first book through the cognitive, agricultural, scientific and industrial revolutions, Harari turns to the challenges of the future in which humans will seek to “upgrade” from Homo Sapiens to gods (or “Homo Deus”), re-engineering our physical and mental capabilities to prevent ageing, escape death and increase happiness. The impact of famine, war and plague has been significantly reduced in recent decades, to the point where we now face the opposite challenges in the form of an obesity crisis, caring for an ageing population with people living longer than ever and a world where more people commit suicide than are killed by terrorists, criminals and conflicts. Continue reading
‘Normal People’ by Sally Rooney tells the story of teenagers Marianne Sheridan and Connell Waldron who go to school together in the small rural town of Carricklea in the west of Ireland and later move to Dublin to study at Trinity College in the early 2010s. Marianne is a loner from a well-off family while Connell is popular at school and their romance is kept secret from their classmates. However, Marianne finds friends easily among their privileged contemporaries at university whereas Connell feels alienated, and this sudden reversal in their social status complicates their relationship. Continue reading
Translated from the Japanese by Ginny Tapley Takemori, ‘Convenience Store Woman’ by Sayaka Murata tells the story of Keiko Furukura, a socially awkward woman in her mid-thirties who has been working at the Hiiromachi Station Smile Mart shop for the past eighteen years. She feels under pressure from others, particularly her family, to appear “normal” and meet society’s expectations, by which she must find a career with more prospects or get married and have children.