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.

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Feathered Things

The Birdman’s Wife by Melissa Ashley is a rather lovely novel based on the life of Elizabeth Gould, wife of the 19th century British ornithologist and bird artist, John Gould. Being a good Victorian scientist, he killed and collected thousands of specimens – and Elizabeth, an outstanding artist, gave them rather wondrous life in a number of monographs and plates.
The purpose of her work was to show the scientific points of difference and interest between all the ‘new’ bird carcasses – and occasional live specimens –  flooding into England from collectors in South America and Australasia, all engaged in the great project to name and catalogue the world – exciting stuff at a moment when Darwin’s preposterous theory was beginning to be taken seriously. But Elizabeth’s birds also have a liveliness and charm that lifts them above scientific usefulness. The novel explores what her life may have been like, engaged fully with the great project but still expected to take a backseat to the great men and be a proper Victorian lady, stoically birthing and losing children, and creating a family life, while deeply enjoying her art.
Beautifully written, this is a quiet but fascinating book, and Elizabeth springs from the page like one of her pretty birds. Have to say, this may be the most exquisite cover on a novel this Christmas – the palest blue dust jacket is attracting people in the shop and then, when you show them what is on the cream cover underneath the dust jacket… and the endpages also feature her work… it makes you feel all fluttery!

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A Game of Thrones…

Have to say, fiction and TV have nothing, nothing, on the Romanov dynasty. Struggling to hold on to their God-given Russian throne this family is as mad as cut snakes – but you know, in a dynastic, glorious, utterly cruel, unusually large way that warrants 784 pages of startling and absorbing history. A little more mad than the usual moments of madness every family has, when a Romanov sibling is jealous or mildly annoyed with another, heads get cut off (after some seriously horrible torture) as opposed to just thumping them and telling on them to Mum. In this family, sometimes Mum holds the axe.

Simon Sebag Montefiore’s The Romanovs is a masterly history of the family and Russia. The autocratic family and its storied scions, like Ivan the Terrible, Peter the Great and Catherine the Great, ruled Russia and its empire in a stew of murderous ambition, nationalistic over-identification, Gormenghastian-like rituals, clever but sometimes very stupid, political machinations, sycophantic, fanatic and terrified courtiers, and personal charisma – or lack of it – all underpinned by an absolute, unquestioned belief in their God-appointed right and duty to rule and an aristocracy that depended on the crown for land and serfs. Those that gained the throne through political savvy and luck often ended up exibiting seriously questionable mental health by the end of their tenure. Monetefiore identifies the stress of the pretty much impossible role of the tsar with all its absolute power (and we all know what that does to a person) and the fact that the thing that topples tsars is instability and being perceived at capricious. You can be as sadistic and scary as you like but you need to be so consistently. Unfortunately the world changes which requires new thinking and approaches – just what the last of the line, the ill-fated last tsar, Nicholas II, had been bred to avoid.

Montefiore is such a good writer and has amassed a staggering body of research. He revels in all the madness and glory, and shows how the family is Russia. This is just a great read, fascinating, repellent, thoughtful and revealing. It explains a lot about the Russia that has developed since the Romanovs fell. Montefiore invites you to wonder and shudder at the excesses and appreciate just how magnificent the successful (in the sense of waging wars they won, destroying all internal threats, improving Russia’s standing in the world) tsars were. I particularly enjoyed all the Russian names, rolling over you like a tidal wave like they do when reading Tolstoy’s War and Peace, sometimes you lose track of who is who and when it is all happening as the names, and many of the nasty deeds, repeat through the centuries and generations.

Romanovs

Life and death

The Wicked Boy: The Mystery of a Victorian Child Murderer is by Kate Summerscale who wrote the equally fascinating and much-awarded The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher: or the Murder at Road Hill House.

Wicked Boy

In this book, Summerscale investigates the true tale of two brothers, Robert Coombes, thirteen and his twelve-year-old brother Nattie, who went on a spending spree in the hot London summer of 1895. They ate out, went to the cricket at Lord’s, and the theater, and pawned various household items. Their father, they said, had gone to sea, their mother had been called away to Liverpool; the boys were looking after themselves. Until an awful smell drifted from their small East End house and the whole creaky edifice of fantasy and lies came down with a thump. Summerscale’s tracing of what happens next is masterly – what she finds is surprising and unexpected. As in Suspicions, there is much that is Whicherunknown about motives but again, there are enough hints about family tensions, sibling loyalties and issues of protection and care to raise some really interesting questions. I like the way Summerscale raises the questions, suggest a possible answer or two but doesn’t try to be definitive or defend a theory, just lets the various versions of the facts (contemporary newspapers and court records providing rich pickings of these) float around with the probable and possible.
Fascinating reading, clever and careful research, clear and elegantly simple writing and a real-life ending that is oddly moving – this is an excellent read.

And I try hard not to talk about books that are not published yet, but can I just say, I finished an advance copy of Annie Proulx’s Barkskins (due in June) last night, all 700+ pages of the life, death and times of two families from the late 1600s to 2013, and the timber they love and exploit. It starts with Rene Sel and Charles Duquet, two Frenchmen who go to work the great forests of New France in what becomes Canada. There are stunning passages about the New Zealand Kauri forests and I love the stark and beautiful cover. Her writing is so good, I am slightly jealous you have it ahead of you – do make sure you read it, I bet it will get a trophy case of prizes!

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Wild

I liked Michael Cunningham’s dark and insightful explorations of traditional fairytales in Wild Swan: And Other Tales. For a start it is a beautiful object, sparingly illustrated by Yuko Shimizu, a slim hardback wrapped in a lovely rough-textured paper. These stories attempt to explain some of the motives of their well-known – yet oddly opaque – characters, and to follow their characters beyond the bounds of ‘happily ever after’.

I particularly liked Rumpelstiltskin, where we discover why the sad little man helps turn straw into gold (and what sort of psychotic king demands such tribute on pain of death, and what sort of father says his daughter can do such a thing) and demands a baby in return. Also the first story is very clever, about what happens to the brother, bewitched into a swan, whose sister only has time to make almost twelve of the nettle-shirts that will restore her swan brothers to human shape. His shirt is missing an arm and so is he – although he does have a very beautiful wing. But how do then live the rest of your life, making your family uncomfortable by reminding them of family rifts, one-armed and so very other?
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Jonathan Bate’s Ted Hughes: the Unauthorised Life is quite unsettling. A colleague loved it and recommended it, and I was interested as I knew the Hughes and Plath myths and legends but only the outline that ‘everyone’ sort of knows.
As dark and fascinating in its way as Cunningham’s tales, it describes a life lived in a maelstrom of passion and death and guilt and raw talent. Not to mention fame and excoriating public opprobrium. On the one hand it feels like the old familiar story of the genius who requires the maelstrom to produce his work, regardless of who gets hurt, and who is somehow excepted from observing social rules or norms in exchange for sharing his – very great – gifts with us. On the other hand Hughes really did seem to need to live his life in the way he is famous for, and I guess it is no one’s business but the people living it with him – except some of them died. The awfulness of the suicides of Sylvia Plath, his first wife, and then his lover Assia Wevill, who also killed their 4 year old daughter Shura, seems insurmountable but I thought Bate very carefully, fairly and clearly spelt out what happened in each case.
Bate, who went from favoured biographer to persona non grata with the Hughes estate, was not allowed to quote much at all from the poems, and so the book concerns itself very much with the rest of his life, his deep love of British landscape and wildlife, his beliefs about astrology and a sort of occult spiritulism, his encouragement of children reading, writing and listening to poetry. Overarching all in the biography, much like in life, his relationships successful and unsuccessful make up so much of the story. I feel a bit odd about knowing all this intimate stuff about people far away and long dead – even if they are literary giants. Turns out, I might lean more towards those who believe that the work is the important thing – not so much the minutiae of the writer’s life, which I, a reader of biographies, wasn’t expecting.
A fascinating look at a man who said he didn’t ever want a biography but who’d been keeping journals, letters and drafts of his work with one and half eyes on posterity since he was about 16, saying one thing and meaning it, while doing another, and meaning that too – and always, there is the poetry.

Hughes

Forward Thinking

The shop is full of people buying books for Christmas presents, an excellent way, we think, of investing one’s hard-earned money! Talk in the staff room, when not about the festive treats and goodies given to us by reps and customers and bookshop friends (thank you!), is all about what we each intend to read in our precious time off.

Leading the pack are the Neapolitan novels by Elena Ferrante: My Brilliant Friend, Story of a New Name, Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay and Story of the Lost Child. There are about 4 or 5 of us curious to see what all the fuss Ferrante1is about, what with all theFerrante2 good reviews, and having watched customers come in to buy the first one and come back a couple of days later to buy the rest so that they are all set and ready to go when they finish the first. One of the interesting things we have discussed is how it seems to appeal to pretty much everyone, there is no typical reader. Watching someone reading them is kind of intense and the message is very clear: leave me alone, I have to read this!Ferrante4
Sadly for us though, customers have been Ferrante3buying up all our stock so we can’t buy it until the New Year when more stock arrives… frustrating but something to look forward to, and our booksellers’ hearts are v. pleased so many of our customers will be able to enjoy it…

So I will keep re-reading my way through Sophie Hannah’s Culver Ted HughesValley mystery series. There are 9 books in all and they are some of the best psychological thrillers I’ve ever read. They are utterly engrossing and mystifying – Sophie Hannah would have won all those lateral thinking quizzes at school – and very satisfying. Stuffed full of peculiar but ordinary people behaving strangely and with more than a touch of the gothics.
I also have the new Ted Hughes biography (Ted Hughes: The Unauthorised Life by Jonathan Bate) to read – I woke in the House rising Sunnight and saw him staring one-eyed out from the cover in the gloom which was startling – and the new James Lee Burke, House of the Rising Sun. He is always lyrical and thought-provoking and I am really looking forward to Empire Cottonreading more of his beautiful writing.

My colleagues are planning on reading a wide range of books they’ve been saving for the break.
One is in the middle of Knausgaard’s fictional/biographical series so intenLittle Lifeds pushing forward with that and is also going to try and finish Empire of Cotton: A New History of Global Capitalism  by Sven Beckert. Another has Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life lined up, along with Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot SeeAll the Light pbk.indd.

“everything and anything” by Isabel Allende is on another’s list – she hasn’t read any so wants to read them all, while one of our newest staffers is going to dive into The Kim Jong-Il Production: The
In
Brief Historycredible True Story of North Korea and the Most Audacious Kidnapping in History by Paul Fischer.
Tthis year’s Man Booker prize winner A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James is also on a couple of lists.

Whatever you are reading or planning to read, may your days be merry and bright and your books fabulous!

 

Chill

What a week of odd reading. It was mostly all good but didn’t have any sense of cohesiveness to it… These are my favourites.

(I have just come back here after writing to the bottom of the post. Scratch the comment above about cohesiveness: these are all slightly chilling, despite the often wonderful writing, full of perma-frosted Siberia, goulies and ghosties, death and its totems… if this is what I liked most this last week, I can see now that I just wasn’t in the mood to be amused by Bill Brysons’s latest jovial travel-writing outing The Road to Little Dribbling)

I kicked off with Kolymsky Heights, a thriller by Lionel Davidson which was first published in 1994 and has just been re-released. The publisher’s rep raved about it, and it has some big names on the cover shouting about how it is the best thriller EVER. And it was really good, all pre-digital spycrafty and ooh! look how much the satellites over the secret Russian science station can see! Which was sort of sweet but the very cool – think a Canadian multi-lingual, hyper-educated First-nations Jack Reacher/James Bond – hero copes admirably with all the challenges thrown his way, and the romance of the journey from Japan over the top of Russia through the rapidly icing Arctic Sea to Murmansk and beyond is fascinating. Very much worth a read, refreshing and fast-paced, and I didn’t really notice the devicelessness of the exercise until afterwards, in fact I think most devices (have you noticed this, the use if the word ‘device’ is now how writers refer to one’s personal technological , um, devices, so that they don’t date the story?) would be utterly useless.

Then I read the new collection of ghost stories from Head of Zeus, Ghost: 100 Stories to Read With the Light On, selected by Louise Welsh. Its a gorgeous big hardback and stuffed full of creepy, unseelie tales from Pliny the Younger through to Margaret Atwood and Kazuo Ishiguro. I have to admit I ended up skipping the ones written in any version of Scots, mostly from around the 18th century, as it was just too hard to figure out the words and get the sense of the tale, and I felt silly muttering under my breath as I tried to decipher the sounds the marks on the page made. Fun to dip in and out of, and quite a few would make for excellent reading aloud.

Grief Is the Thing with Feathers by Max Porter is utterly remarkable, and so very sad. A woman dies suddenly, one of those everyday falls where you hit your head the wrong way and life is gone. Her two young sons and her Ted Hughes-scholar husband are devastated, almost stopped themselves. Then Crow arrives, black feathers shining, beak clacking, truth-telling and keening, to wrap them in his wings and chivvy the household through the dark times ahead. You should read it, you don’t know when you may need the book’s scratchy, beautiful, squawky creature. It is just new in, a lovely small hardback, we have put it on a table next to the new Hughes biography, where the poet stares out strongly at the world.  Hughes wrote Crow: From the Life and Songs of the Crow, first published in 1970 by Faber & Faber, a collection of poems about the character Crow, which I haven’t read but now feel I must. I cannot wait to see what Max Porter does next.

Grief