Don’t lick the wallpaper…

… good general life advice you might think, but in Victorian Britain’s arsenic-imbued green-wallpapered rooms it could literally save your life to hold your tongue. Bitten by Witch Fever: Wallpaper & Arsenic in the Victorian Home by Lucinda Hawksley is a beautifully designed book (just like those luscious wallpapers) with death at its heart. The Victorians (of a certain, moneyed class) never met a new, vibrant colour that they didn’t like, or immediately apply to their households and themselves. Meanwhile the other classes, made (in atrocious conditions, no need to lick anything, just breathe the air around you) and sold the goods that were so desired – and so deadly.
Scheele’s green and schweinfurt green, pigments created using arsenic, were used to produce the startling green wallpapers that became immensely popular. Designers and manufacturers (William Morris described the ridiculous fears of those worried about the worrying papers as the ramblings of those “bitten by witch fever”) were dismissive of the potentially fatal effects of covering your walls with arsenic-imbued paper (cigarette companies anyone?). Heating rooms with fire and gas is thought to have created a miasma of the awful compounds: it wasn’t the tight lacing of corsets that made Victorian maidens swoon, it was dancing in clouds of nasty contaminated air.
One of the theories about why Napoleon died when he did, is that he was poisoned by his fashionable Scheele’s green wallpaper in his lonely St Helena bedroom, as he sat out his final exile. Mind you, arsenic was everywhere: in bread – an excellent whitener, eaten as a medicine, used in quantities to rid houses of vermin. A number of the big Victorian poisoning murder trials hinged on trying to prove that the victim hadn’t just ingested the fatal dose just going about everyday life – a lot of the time, looking back at the evidence presented, it is fifty-fifty if evil or stupidity was afoot. We can thank the prevalence of the use of arsenic in all sorts of industrial processes, and the manufacturers’ refusal to not use it, for the introduction of regulations and laws protecting consumers and workers from the ill-effects of using ingredients and chemicals that can injure and kill you really, really easily.

The book it very beautiful, with is lovely green cover, the text is on pages sliced in half vertically, nestling between breathtaking images of wallpapers on full size pages. These are so lively and stunning and exquisite – that you can see why people wanted them on their walls despite the danger – a bit like eating fugu, for the frisson of dancing with death and a slightly numb tongue. Best all round really, to keep your tongue in your cheek.

Before & after…

We are very much enjoying these two clever board books: from art publishers Phaidon is  Before & After by Jean Julien, My Pictures After the Storm by Eric Veille, is from Gecko Press.

 

 

 

 

 

 

You probably get the idea of the main theme, the plot as it were, of the books but they are delightfully illustrated, with sophisticated examples that will draw a smile from old and young alike. Before & After looks simpler:

but introduces some interesting philosophical ideas:

 

 

 

My Pictures After the Storm shows a page of pictures before something happens to them, like a storm, or a playfight, or a trip to the hairdresser, and then the effect on the pictures:

 

 

 

 

 

 

My favourite might be after the elephant, here in the original French (elephant/éléphant the effect is the same…

 

 

A capital read…

John Lanchester is coming to the Dunedin Writers and Readers Festival, which is just about to start. One of our booksellers, KG, has been reading him…

Delving into the ordinary, everyday lives of 20 characters, Capital reveals the intimate thoughts of a vast group of people. Honing in on perspectives, actions, and reactions of these characters leads you on a rollercoaster ride; one moment you are cosy-ing up to the man who has seemingly earned his worth and spends 12 hour days in the office, supporting him in his morning routine of shampooing and wearing his favourite underwear to ensure he is best prepared for the tough meeting that day. Ten pages later you are agreeing with the poorly treated, over-qualified and under-appreciated assistant who is being neglected and ignored by the very same man. An emigrated parking warden made out to be the most unpopular person in the street has her own story of standing up for humanitarian rights in her country, being beaten, deported, and made state-less. Working as a parking warden and meeting her quota is the only small achievement she is allowed in a day (albeit illegal) after having her rights stripped from her as a human being. Capital exposes us to the minds of differently situated individuals and if it needs to have a moral to the story, it’s that no one is the bad guy. It is not a book about adventure; by following the menial and mundane activities of city-living, it highlights the fact that the smallest things which may once have been deemed ‘nothing to write home about’, actually make up life as it is. To explore these comings and goings from different perspectives builds up a sense of community but also isolation. The characters in the book would struggle to expand their minds to be able to look at the street through another person’s lens, but that is exactly what Lanchester wants us to do: consider everyone. By writing through women, men, the young, old, local, expat, unlucky, gifted, spoilt, and attentive, Lanchester re-iterates what we already know: everyone has a story and we shouldn’t be quick to label. Don’t judge a man until you’ve walked a mile in his shoes, and all that. This isn’t a new idea that Lanchester is bringing to the floor, he is simply illustrating it in a way that will help us understand it better. For the sake of reminding yourself that there’s more to people than meets the eye, I’d jump the book to the top of your reading list.

 

The best novel I’ve read this year?

Yes, I do, I really do think that Reservoir 13 by Jon McGregor might just be the best novel I’ve  read so far this year – which is a longer time and more books than you might expect. It has just come out here but I read an advance copy back in January and nothing else has stacked up since… I have been waiting for it to appear so I can share it. It is quite amazing, the slow, beautiful telling of many lives in a small town nestled in a landscape in which, one day, a young girl disappears.

It begins on the day of her disappearance, and explores how life nevertheless just goes on. Animals still need tending, trolley loads of groceries need to be bought and cooked, school years wax and wane, people marry, die, are born, are hateful to each other, experience moments of quiet grace and hope. Leaves fall from trees, foxes have many litters, badgers do violent things to hedgehogs, the earth keeps turning and the girl is still disappeared.

The writing is so very beautiful, the observations of precious everyday lives so acute and meaningful you are pulled into the small dramas and important details that such lives are made up of, and then you remember: but a girl disappeared. What happened to her? who knows what? and then the leaves are falling again and the family down the road is splitting up and it is time for the carol singers to get organised, the leafhoppers are hibernating and dear life asserts itself again…

Read this – you need to, really, and I am sure you will love it.

 

Foreign crimes…

New crime just in from Iceland and Venice is refreshing and bright, full of interesting glimpses of very different cultures and countries – the contrast between them, an Italian police procedural and an Icelandic psycho thriller, made for interesting reading…

Donna Leon’s Earthly Remains, is the 26th in her Commissario Brunetti series, set in his beautiful, beloved Venice, bursting with tourists, swathed in political corruption. Brunetti, fed up with his job, and the overwhelming heat of a Venetian summer, leaves his family at home to spend two weeks on an island in the lagoon, spending every day rowing on the mysterious waters with a waterman who tends beehives on tiny, remote islets. When Davide disappears, Brunetti follows the trail to discover what has happened – and why. This series increasingly addresses the very big problems that Venice faces, so beautiful, so unusual, it is being loved to death by the hordes that come to see and be amazed; and polluted to death by years of active disregard and then politically bound-up inaction. Leon’s Brunetti is a pleasure to read – he is humane, sardonic, food and book-loving, flawed but ultimately happy, with a family he likes and loves; a really refreshing change from the more common sad, traumatised, substance-abusing, family-estranging homicide detectives. Venice, as usual, is a lovely and interesting place to set a mystery, its unusual watery setting flavouring both the crime and its solving – this is not a series that is waning.

Yrsa Sigurdardottir’s The Legacy is the first in a new series featuring the Children’s House, a centre that treats traumatised young people. Freya works at the centre, and is asked to help with the police interviewing of a 7-year-old who hid under the bed while her mother was killed. Sigurdardottir’s thrillers are also informed by the environment her characters move through: spare, huge, very cold. She writes children really well, there have been a few of them in her thrillers, and her characters move within a society where both politics and social institutions are more overtly organised and efficient than say, Italy. From NZ, this feels more familiar.
People are very small here, and, in this book at least, which is dark and nasty and just what you want in a thriller, none of them seem to be enjoying life’s pleasures quite like the Italians are – but really, who does?

 

Entanglements…

…amorous, affectionate, fond , fierce or nasty, have shaped the artistic world for better or worse. Thankfully here is the book The Art of the Affair by Catherine Lacey and Forsyth Harmon – with handy visual links between the players – to tell you who did what to/with whom, and then who else they did something with, oh, and what was done to them after that. It is a big chaotic, over-emotional mess, and sort of amazing anything got written, painted, filmed sung, created at all in the 20th century – unless of course, these various entanglements are the rocket fuel beneath the creative wings…
As the blurb says, this is “Lovingly researched, playfully prurient and cleverly intertwined…”, it is beautifully illustrated and great fun, and makes you wonder quite what this lot would have got up to with all the opportunities afforded by the internet.

Help the Little Rabbit…

Our bestest books this week might be Bathtime for Little Rabbit by Jorg Muhle, the riveting sequel to Tickle My Ears.

These interactive charmers are perfect for the youngest members of the family; In the first, you follow the rituals of getting ready for bed, getting the reader or the read-to, to participate with face-cleaning, pyjama-buttoning and finally, ear-tickling. Then in the sequel, you get to help with bathtime. swooshing the bubbles, rescuing rabbit when he gets water in his eyes, drying him off, and then, when the hairdryer breaks, blowing his ears dry.

Deeply satisfying, with the child-taming lessons about going to bed and keeping clean hidden in the lovely illustrations and simple stories like zuchinni in a chocolate cake: so delicious they’ll just eat it up…

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