Monday 29 April 2019

The Birdman's Wife - Melissa Ashley (2016)

Rating: Admirable

The Birdman's Wife is a novel based on the life of Elizabeth Gould, a talented artist who married the Victorian era English ornithologist John Gould. As with many talented women Elizabeth became eclipsed by her husband, even though she was the exceptional artist and, if the novel is to be believed, he 'merely' caught, killed and then stuffed the birds that she rendered alive again via her beautiful paintings. I knew nothing of either Goulds, but now thanks to Ashley's beautiful prose and detailed narrative, I feel much more intimately knowledgeable regarding this husband and wife team. The novel also illuminates the particular world view of Victorian era naturalists and scientists in general; that the natural world could be, and must be, categorized into endless classifications. Therefore the novel can at times be a distressing exploration of the Victorian propensity to destroy and interfere with the natural world for the sake of their demanding curiosity.

As with many of the book club novels I would never have chosen The Birdman's Wife to read of my own volition and within this context it unfortunately failed to win me over. Although Ashley's prose is particularly beautiful and it is essentially quite well written the endless descriptions of painting techniques and stuffing birds caused me to, at times, to lapse into a state of of delirious boredom. Although Elizabeth and John Gould led fairly interesting lives relative to many who lived in the mid 1800's, they did not lead dramatic lives. There was the tragedy of Elizabeth's babies who died before their time (in the end she had eight children!) and her own early demise due to childbirth, but other than that there is not much in the way of narrative tension. There are some parts in which Elizabeth is upset over her relegation to being merely John's talented wife, however if Ashley's depiction is to be believed she was no trailblazing feminist. Ultimately The Birdman's Wife is the perfect novel for a particular kind of reader and that is absolutely fine, it was just not 'my kind' of novel, one that kept me awake...

Monday 15 April 2019

Japan Story: In Search of a Nation, 1850 to the Present - Christopher Harding (2018)

Rating: Excellent

Late last year while I was reading Mishima on the plane flying from Perth to Melbourne it occurred to me that I should source a book about the history of Japan. The very first night in Melbourne I walked into the fantastic Readings book store in Carton to find Japan Story waiting on the shelves in the well stocked history section. Harding's biographical blurb at the back of the book indicates that he is a cultural historian; which is perhaps why his approach in Japan Story is certainly different to most other history books I've read. Harding uses the lives of particular individuals, from doctors, writers, feminists, revolutionaries and ordinary people to illustrate how each phase of Japan's modern history effected their lives both practically and psychologically. There is still plenty of fairly straight historical reportage, but ultimately Harding's approach is both intriguing and refreshing. Also Harding's writing style reveals a rigorous thinker with a deft touch, something that is not always evident in some historians work.

Harding manages to say considerably more about Japan than just where their aggressive expansionist desires came from that climaxed in the middle of last century; I completed the book feeling like I understood the nation and its peoples considerably more, including the evolution of Japanese family life, feminism, the arts and politics. It was particularly fascinating to read about how Japanese society was effected by and dealt with the multiple forces of modernism in the early twentieth century relative to what I know about how it effected western society. In this way the book is aptly named, as Japan Story does indeed outline a story that is divergent from familiar western histories, which is a valuable thing in our self obsessed nationalistic age.