It’s the start of another month and time for another literary round-up of the books I’ve read recently. In March, I read one non-fiction title and three novels. Let’s start with the non-fiction book: a biography of Jane Austen by historian Lucy Worsley.
2017 marks the 200th anniversary of Jane Austen’s death. At just forty-one, she died tragically young. The cause of her death is unknown, but some scholars have suggested Addison’s or Hodgkin’s disease. However, some new research recently came to light — it’s possible that Jane was unintentionally poisoned by arsenic, a popular ingredient in Georgian medicine.
Worsley’s book, Jane Austen at Home, is one of the publications timed to commemorate her death. I’m an Austen fan and I’ve read several well-researched biographies (Jane Austen: A Life by Claire Tomalin is one of the best), so I was already familiar with the facts of Austen’s life. However, Worsley has taken these facts, along with historical context, letters and info from other sources, and woven them into a highly enjoyable book.
After I finished reading, I felt like I knew Jane Austen much better than before. There’s always going to be a certain amount of mystery about her life, especially as her sister Cassandra destroyed many of her private letters after Jane’s death. Worsley avoids speculating too much, while also suggesting ways for the reader to interpret the events of Jane’s life.
When you think of Jane Austen, images of grand country houses, sprawling parkland and wealthy young men probably come to mind. But Austen wasn’t rich, and her books are set in a world which she could not fully access — she was looking from the outside in. As an unmarried woman, she was forced to rely on a small allowance from her father and, later, from her brothers. Money was a source of concern and after her father’s death, she was dependent on her wealthier brothers to provide her with a home.
I found parts of the book quite moving. She wrote six of the finest novels in the English language, but much of her time outside writing was spent on day-to-day housekeeping. As she wrote in one of her letters to Cassandra: “Composition seems to me impossible, with a head full of joints of mutton and doses of rhubarb“.
She needed space to write and be creative, but she didn’t even have a room of her own. As Worsley points out, it’s lucky for us that she never married. Otherwise, she would have almost certainly produced babies rather than books.Despite having to rely so much on her family, Austen comes across as being an independent spirit (as much as a woman could be independent in the 1800s), who was entertaining, witty and perceptive. Whether you’re a dedicated Austen fan like me or someone who only knows a little about her, I’d recommend Worsley’s biography as an insightful and enjoyable read — 4/5.
My next three reads were fiction, and they all have very different settings: Korea and Japan, modern-day America, and Soviet Russia.
One of them was Pachinko by Min Jin Lee — I received a free digital copy from the publisher via Netgalley in exchange for honest feedback. It’s an epic saga, set in Korea and Japan, which spans eight decades and four generations of the same family.
It begins with Sunja, a young girl who becomes pregnant by a yakuza — a Japanese gangster. When a Christian minister, Isak, offers to marry her, he saves her from being a societal outcast as a unmarried mother and takes her to start a new life in Japan.
The historical context was eye-opening for me, as I didn’t realize that Korea was under Japanese occupation from 1910 until 1945 or how badly the Korean people were treated in Japan at that time. Many were forced to live in segregated areas and were viewed as second-class citizens.
At almost 500 pages, Pachinko is certainly an epic read. I don’t mind long books if they hold my attention all the way through, but with this one, I felt a stronger emotional connection with Sunja and the characters at the beginning of the story. Later on, around two thirds of the way through, the plot became rushed and some chapters/sections ended abruptly.
Without including any spoilers, I felt that some of the characters’ actions weren’t fully explored towards the end. I was also surprised that major world events which happened during the time of the novel — two world wars, the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki — were barely mentioned at all. I don’t think it will be one of my stand-out reads of 2017, but it was a worthwhile read — 3.5/5
Standard Deviation by Katherine Heiny was my next March read. I received an advance reader copy in exchange for an honest review. It’s a sweet, funny novel with delightful characters who made me laugh out loud. The plot focuses on a married couple, Graham and Audra, and their son.
Audra is Graham’s second wife and her personality is a polar opposite from his first wife, Elspeth. Elspeth, a lawyer, is sophisticated, quiet and introverted while Audra is a social butterfly who thinks nothing of inviting strangers for dinner and delights in making friends with anyone.
Standard Deviation is a light, easy read. Its strength lies in the vividness of the characters and Heiny’s gift for writing entertaining, perceptive observations and dialogue — 4/5
My last March read — The Patriots by Sana Krasikov — took me to Soviet-era Russia. The publishing house Granta Books sent me a copy to review, and I’m planning on publishing a longer post about it next week. It’s a compelling novel which follows the life of Florence Fein, a young Jewish woman growing up in 1930s Brooklyn.
Florence knows that she doesn’t want her life to be confined by her family’s expectations, and she leaves New York to embark on a career working in Moscow. But she soon becomes entangled in Communist Russia, and her American citizenship can’t protect her.
“Florence could feel a constriction in her chest…She had been foolish enough to hope that whatever she was walking into would affect no one but herself. Now the truth was catching up with her at the speed of her galloping heartbeat…Now they had summoned her. And they knew everything.”
Decades later, her son Julian visits Moscow and finds that his mother’s KGB file has been opened to the public. In this file, he finds out the truth and the events that his mother was always reluctant to speak about.
The Patriots alternates between Florence and Julian’s perspectives, between decades and across two different continents. Krasikov’s writing is well-researched and detailed, building up a picture of the characters’ motivations for their actions and also the historical setting of the book. An excellent read — 5/5.
What did you read in March? Do you like the sound of any of the books in this post?