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.

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.

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!

birdmans-wife02birdmans-wife-04

 

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!

Barkskins1

 

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!

 

Timeline: A Visual History of Our World by Peter Goes is a magnificent book, perfect for inquisitive kids and design-minded adults. It does what it says on the cover but very beautifully and cleverly. Using just enough text and imaginative drawings Goes explores the end of the dinosaurs, the Incas, the European Dark Ages, the Second World Unpleasantness, Space Travel, the 1960s, up to the 2010s, teasing out the big themes that shape world history. The paper stock is a lovely heavy cartridge, which adds to the sense that this is a very special book.