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Death at the Priory

Thursday, 28 October 2010

There are gaps in my to be read bookshelf. Gaps.

Not on the pulp shelf, true, but on the non-fiction and ‘proper fiction’ shelves.

Death at the Priory
James Ruddick
(Atlantic, 2001)

The Charles Bravo case is one of several notorious Victorian crimes. In 1876, Bravo took three agonised days to die of antimony poisoning. The police couldn’t find any conclusive evidence, and the coroner’s inquest returned an open verdict. Bravo himself never suggested who might have poisoned him. His wife’s companion, Mrs Cox, suggested he had commited suicide, but no-one doing that would use antimony.

Many books have been written speculating on who did it. This 2001 book by journalist James Ruddick introduces the facts of the case, works through the common theories and produces its own.

Ruddick uses the investigative skills of a journalist (the proper ones, not modern churnalism) to go back to the primary sources. He goes further, in fact, and tracks down living relatives of the key protagonists. This produces new evidence such as letters about wills which changes the standard theories about the case. If someone knew they were due to inherit a vast estate, would they still kill Bravo for threatening their financial state?

As with the Road Hill House murder*, the Bravo case intrigues as it demonstrates the passionate turmoil behind the surface veneer of an upper class Victorian household. Florence Bravo, Charles’ wife, had been married before to an alcoholoic then had an affair with a much older man before deciding she wanted respectability again. She died two years after Charles’ death, of alcohol poisoning.

The contemporary press reported the Bravo inquest verbatim, fuelling a desire for every sensationalist detail. When the inquest was due to sit on a bank holiday the crowds who showed to watch were so great the coroner had to postpone it for the day.

Ruddick covers the details concisely and puts forward a convincing case for his solution, based on the new primary material he uncovered. But some of the familial history is hearsay, so needs to be taken cautiously. Given how many people the case ruined (both in social standing and in physical health), the descendents are unlikely to be unbiased.

Still, the return to primary sources and the determination to find new evidence makes this book a good example of investigative journalism as well as a smart traipse through a true crime.

*I’m shocked to discover I’ve not reviewed The Suspicions of Mr Whicher here but suffice to say I loved it.

Krakatoa: The Day the World Exploded

Monday, 19 July 2010

I did occassionally tweet whilst reading this one:


Krakatoa: The Day the World Exploded
Simon Winchester
(Penguin, 2004)

In 1883, Krakatoa exploded. It wasn’t actually the biggest volcanic eruption ever recorded but it was the first to happen with something resembling modern media to report on it. Winchester explores not only the geophysics of Krakatoa – much of which has only come to be understood in the last fifty years – but the cultural, political and botanical impact of it. Why did it blow, and why is it so iconic?

There’s a lot to unpack here and the book looks at, amongst other topics: the colonial history of the East Indies; theories of geology including plate tectonics; Darwinism and the Wallace line; undersea telegraphs; Javan and Sumatran religious beliefs; and the touring circus whose elephant trainer tried to house her upset baby elephant in her hotel room (see screencap).

Is all of this relevent? Maybe not if you just want to know what happened. The short version is that the island of Krakatoa is thrown up by two tectonic plates meeting and sometimes the pressure explodes so violently the island is destroyed. When that happened in 1883, a massive tsunami hit the coasts of Java and Sumatra resulting in a horrific loss of life. But the short version doesn’t place you there.

By delving into all the different contexts of the explosion, Winchester recreates a sense of place, time and culture and enables you to empathise with the people who witnessed Krakatoa and understand why it still resonates today. He does this with charm, self-deprecation and without becoming bogged down in the science. You’re not entirely sure where a chapter is going at first, or how it connects, but by the end you’ve gained a real understanding of a complex historical event.

An Apple a Day

Wednesday, 9 June 2010

I’m really not sure why I bought this book: I think I was getting withdrawal symptoms from not buying a book in a charity shop for some months but was conscious just how many fiction books are in the to be read pile.

An Apple a Day
Caroline Taggart
(Michael O’Mara Books, 2009)

Covering the origins and meanings of various proverbs, this reads like a collection of newspaper columns. The sort of ones that appear in the second section of the broadsheets and then gets collected and published in time for Christmas so you’ve something to buy that slightly awkward uncle.

It does explain proverbs, and reveal just how often Shakespeare uses or appears to cointhem, but it’s in that terribly jolly voice that becomes tiresome if you read more than a few pages at a time. It’s not a scholarly item, more of a bathroom book: easy to dip into but not worth treating as precious.

An ideal gift for that slightly awkward uncle, in fact.

The Woman Who Shot Mussolini

Sunday, 2 May 2010

I’ve no idea why I am reading so much stuff set between 1900 and 1950 at the moment. I’m not working on any ideas set then. Quite the reverse, in that I’ve broken the cardinal rule of being a writer and turned down the chance to pitch for a couple of collections because I simply can’t manage full time work, writing and being pregnant. The energy runs out. So I’m back to reading.

The Woman Who Shot Mussolini
Frances Stonor Saunders
(faber & faber, 2010)

My knowledge of Mussolini, prior to reading this, boiled down to his death and the myth that he made the trains run on time. That there had been attempts on his life was unsurprising. That the one that got the closest to him was a shot fired by an Irish aristocrat who’d turned to mysticism and religion was utterly surprising.

Stonor Saunders’ book takes the increasingly common format of a dual biography: she works backwards and forwards from the moment Violet Gibson shot at the dictator. How did these two very different people end up on that piazza? What became of them, afterwards? With Mussolini we know that twenty years later he is shot and then strung up ‘like prosciutto’. Violet, we discover, spends the thirty years after her attempted assassination locked away in a mental asylum. But was she mad?

Probably not, is the book’s conclusion. What Violet Gibson was was a non-conformist. Raised in the Victorian Anglo-Irish aristocracy, she chose to rebel in her choice of politics, religion and spiritualism (I always enjoy a book where Madame Blavatsky pops up – see my tweet of delight). She didn’t marry, didn’t become the stoical supportive spinster daughter one of her sisters became. Her thinking and romanticism of both Italy and martyrdom eventually led her to firing the shots. Chapters of the book are devoted to the realpolitik involved in getting her out of Italy alive and the decisions her family – and the British diplomats then loving Mussolini – made on her behalf.

Throughout the biography there are mentions of Virginia Woolf and other intelligent women who were constrained and sometimes physically restrained in order to maintain the social order they threatened. There are also multiple references to Lucia Joyce, James Joyce’s daughter. I get the impression that there is another book beneath this one where the focus would have been on the medicalisation of female independence and self-possession, but that for some reason the focus was shifted onto the Mussolini biography instead. There’s no doubt there are some interesting parallels between Mussolini and Gibson, not least that both remade themselves into radicals, but the glimpses of the other possible book left me wanting to have read that more.

Austerity Britain, 1945-51

Monday, 5 April 2010

Austerity Britain
David Kynaston
(Bloomsbury, 2007)

Kynaston brings together social, economic and political historical documents to create a picture of Britain between 1945 and 1951 in this first part of his history of modern Britain. The whole series will cover 1945 to 1979: from the day the country celebrated victory in Europe to the day we voted in Margaret Thatcher. Those are telling dates: the whole set will document a period in which an attempt was made to build ‘a new Jerusalem‘, to bring in equality and a social – if not outright socialist – state. That experiment in altering a nation’s culture was finally called to an end with the rise of Thatcherism and the cult of the individual.

Reading the 1945 sections, as people struggle with increased rationing and the removal of ‘wartime spirit’, the politicians find it hard to believe the voters will reject a wartime leader in favour of a socialist party. Yet it happens. Even as the rations become tighter, Nye Bevan drives through the creation of the National Health Service. It seems like a long-distant age.

Yet the real revelation of the book is not the unsurprising desire of people to have a better life after the economic depression of the 1930s and the privations of total war: it’s in how little people have changed. Mass Observation records conversations about the upcoming election where people say that “it’s time for a change” and that they don’t really have time for politics, or that all politicians are the same. A social survey of young working men in a surburb of London reveals that, though they do some dreary job, they dream of escaping by becoming “a champion cyclist, a footballer or a dance band leader“. Really not so different from modern dreams of escape via sport or music.

There are big changes, of course. There’s big manufacture and big industry for one. There’s the nationalisation of the mines and the railways. But there are people complaining about the trains being worse than they were under private hands just as now people mutter about how things were better under British Rail.

What makes this book fascinating is how the fundemental attitude of people is so recognisable despite the massive environmental difference – you laugh at the similarities whilst marvelling at how truly austere life was.

It takes a long time to read: Kynaston’s desire to cover so much material means it took me from before Christmas till just last week. But I’ve the next volume, Family Britain, already on pre-order. A real delight, and something anyone thinking about writing stories set in the period should read.

How to Read a Novel

Tuesday, 16 September 2008

I put the book on the counter in the charity shop, my quid already in hand to pay. The old dear behind the counter – and it is nearly always old dears, or thin-faced yoghurt-knitting women, or the mysteriously never aging Saturday lad in Oxfam – looked at its cover.

How to Read a Novel: A User’s Guide
John Sutherland
(Profile, 2007)

She looked up at me.

“It’s pretty obvious, isn’t it?” she said.

I can’t remember the last time one of the various people I buy books off of on the Saturday book run (the lazy walk back from lunch in the cafĂ©, calling into every charity shop to look at the books) commented on my choice. Look at my to be read list and you see plenty of books to comment on. “More crime, and yet you’ve not returned that bunch you bought a few months ago yet?” they could say. Or, “Why do you keep buying Margaret Atwood? Why?”. Like me, they might point out that I now have two copies of The West End Horror, simply as I’ve read so many non-canonical Holmes that I can’t remember which ones I’ve got. But no, John Sutherland got singled out.

I muttered something about him being one of the best popular lit-crit writers of the day, including a ramble about Heathcliffe’s fortunes, left the money and fled. I also read the book in two nights.

How to Read a Novel: A User’s Guide is a collection of essays (a friend points out they were a series of lectures) that are not on the mechanics of reading. Not on text, subtext, meaning, voice, symbolism etc. There are already books on that. Instead, Sutherland offers the poor bewildered novel reader a guide on how to pick which novels to read. The cover and its myriad enticements is dissected (the cover of the paperback of How to Read a Novel includes the quote “This is a truly important book” which sounds like a ringing endorsement until you spot the quote is from, er, John Sutherland). As are those tightly edited review quotes, the blurb, the cover artwork* and so on. Inside the books’ covers, there’s how to analyse the copyright page, the uses of genre and the intertextuality of most literature. And whether reviews are of any use at all.

Faced with the towering babels of BOGOFs, 3for2s and other promotional gimmickry in bookshops, Sutherland offers a way to pick a few books out of the masses. A few books we, as readers, will enjoy. Not a literary canon, or the literary canon. Not novels we should read so we can compile our meme lists. But books which will bring each individual reader pleasure.

There are some places I disagree with Sutherland. I know the arguments in favour of buying hardbacks, especially with interweb discounts. But, as a lover of pulp fiction, I want paperbacks. I want books whose spines indicate a few weeks shoved in a handbag, or whose splodges of dried water indicate a long read in the bath. I want books that aren’t revered. And hardbacks just don’t offer the same scruffy thrill.

Overall though, so long as you don’t expect it to explain the mechanics of reading, this is every bit as enjoyable as Sutherland’s other books.

Although I’m not sure it helps with my problem: when the charity shops can be treated as loaning libraries, where I pay a quid or two for a paperback and then give it back in a few months – or years – later to be sold to another person, what’s to stop me buying more books for the tbr pile? I’ve been planning to read Mrs de Winter for years as part of my fascination with professional fanfiction, so how can I resist buying it for a quid? How to dodge the lure of second hand books? How, in fact, could I resist buying How to Read a Novel: A User’s Guide, by John Sutherland?

*or, design your own penguin cover!

ETA (April 2010): Oh, and I have eventually read Mrs de Winter

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