Weekend Reading

I normally have two books on the go at any time – one fiction, and one non-fiction – and it’s rare that I finish them at the same time, but today is one of those days.  And it’s Friday, so I figure, what the hey, I’ll do a version of Friday Reads.

So the two books I’ve selected are:

The Bookshop at 10 Curzon Street: Letters between Nancy Mitford and Haywood Hill 1952-1973The Bookshop at 10 Curzon Street: Letters between Nancy Mitford and Haywood Hill 1952-1973
by John Saumarez Smith (Editor)
isbn: 9780711224520
Publication Date: January 1, 2004
Pages: 191
Genre: Non-fiction
Publisher: Frances Lincoln

This collection of previously unpublished correspondence with Heywood Hill is filled with gossip about life in Paris, tales of her writing life, and her own personal request for books. Hill in turn provides news of customers - many of whom were the elite of post-war London - and reports on how Mitford's books were being revived in London. It is an intimate and charming look at a world that has all but disappeared and will appeal to anyone interested in postwar English literature and/or high society.


Did you know Nancy Mitford worked in a bookshop?  I did not, and having just finished Don’t Tell Alfred recently, this seemed a timely choice.

Tell Me No LiesTell Me No Lies
by Shelley Noble
isbn: 9780765398741
Series: Lady Dunbridge Mystery #2
Publication Date: May 11, 2019
Pages: 364
Genre: Fiction, Historical, Mystery
Publisher: Forge

A modern woman in 1907, Lady Dunbridge is not about to let a little thing like the death of her husband ruin her social life. She’s ready to take the dazzling world of Gilded Age Manhattan by storm.

With the elegant Plaza Hotel and The Metropolitan Museum of Art as the backdrop, romance, murder, and scandals abound. Someone simply must do something. And Lady Dunbridge is happy to oblige.


I read the first book in this series and remember very, very little, but I have a vague idea that I sort of liked it.  So I bought the second one.  We’ll see.

Saving Mona Lisa: The Battle to Protect the Louvre and its Treasures from the Nazis

Saving Mona Lisa: The Battle to Protect the Louvre and its Treasures from the NazisSaving Mona Lisa: The Battle to Protect the Louvre and its Treasures from the Nazis
by Gerri Chanel
Rating: ★★★★
isbn: 9781785784163
Publication Date: September 1, 2018
Pages: 377
Genre: History, Non-fiction
Publisher: Icon Books

In August 1939, curators at the Louvre nestled the world's most famous painting into a special red velvet-lined case and spirited her away to the Loire Valley. So began the biggest evacuation of art and antiquities in history. As the Germans neared Paris in 1940, the French raced to move the masterpieces still further south, then again and again during the war, crisscrossing the southwest of France. Throughout the German occupation, the museum staff fought to keep the priceless treasures out of the hands of Hitler and his henchmen, often risking their lives to protect the country's artistic heritage.

Thus a story that features as a vignette in the George Clooney film The Monuments Men is given the full-length treatment it demands. The recipient of several independent publishing awards in the United States, and illustrated throughout with nearly 100 photographs, Saving Mona Lisa is a compelling true story of art and beauty, intrigue and ingenuity, and remarkable moral courage in the darkest of times.


The copyediting in my hardcover edition is total crap, and the narrative dragged a wee bit in the middle – although I doubt nearly as much as the same point in the actual war felt like it did for those that had to go through it – but otherwise, and excellent book about exactly what it says on the wrapper.  Concise, focused, and written to be easily read (if not for the bad copyediting), Chanel does a masterful job at juggling an enormous number of French and German players, and the unbelievable efforts curators, guards and volunteers went through to protect the art of Louvre.   The fact that she does this without deviating into politics or resistance efforts that don’t directly pertain to the protection and conservation of the art made me appreciate the read even more.

Though I’ve been to France, I’ve not been to Paris; I knew, of course, that the Louvre isn’t a po-dunk museum, but until I read this book and saw the photos included (alas, all black and white but better than none), I really hadn’t comprehended the sheer vastness of their collections.  And of course, having been to other world museums, I know that ‘art’ comprises many different mediums, but when I first imagined the evacuation of the ‘art’ prior to the outbreak of war in France, my mind’s eye thought, of course, ‘paintings’.  Nevermind the Winged Victory of Samotrace, a sculpture coming in at just around 3.5 tons.  And I never considered the paintings that were huge that had to be rolled up on giant oak poles, or Raft of the Medusa, that couldn’t be rolled because the artist used bitumen for the black, which never dries but remains sticky.  Evacuating that piece alone was a tale.  And the Bayeux Tapestry?  That tale is one that can only be marvelled at in retrospect; in the moment it must have been … I don’t know, but I image the three meant who lived it got very, very drunk afterwards.

An engaging read.

DNF: The Botany of Desire

The Botany of Desire: A Plant's-eye View of the WorldThe Botany of Desire: A Plant's-eye View of the World
by Michael Pollan
Publication Date: January 1, 2001
Pages: 273
Genre: Natural Science, Non-fiction, Science
Publisher: Random House

In 1637, one Dutchman paid as much for a single tulip bulb as the going price of a town house in Amsterdam. Three and a half centuries later, Amsterdam is once again the mecca for people who care passionately about one particular plant -- though this time the obsessions revolves around the intoxicating effects of marijuana rather than the visual beauty of the tulip. How could flowers, of all things, become such objects of desire that they can drive men to financial ruin?
In The Botany of Desire, Michael Pollan argues that the answer lies at the heart of the intimately reciprocal relationship between people and plants. In telling the stories of four familiar plant species that are deeply woven into the fabric of our lives, Pollan illustrates how they evolved to satisfy humankinds's most basic yearnings -- and by doing so made themselves indispensable. For, just as we've benefited from these plants, the plants, in the grand co-evolutionary scheme that Pollan evokes so brilliantly, have done well by us. The sweetness of apples, for example, induced the early Americans to spread the species, giving the tree a whole new continent in which to blossom. So who is really domesticating whom?

Weaving fascinating anecdotes and accessible science into gorgeous prose, Pollan takes us on an absorbing journey that will change the way we think about our place in nature.


Nopity nope, nope, nope.  Couldn’t do it.  Way too much meandering about and I was just bored.  Plus, I have problems with authors trying to explain evolution as though it were a sentient process, and while I agree with the premise that plants have likely evolved to appeal to humans, thus ensuring their own survival, I draw the line at the conceit, through bad use of language, that the plants made a rational choice to do so.  It makes me imagine a room full of plants, sitting around a table, plotting out the structure of their own DNA in order to better market themselves to humans.

No, no, no, no, no.

I’ve read 40 pages of 273; The Botany of Desire

 I’ma havin’ some issues with this first chapter about apples.  I have issues theological, academical, and pedantical (a word I just made up), and if I don’t rant them out they’ll nag at me and I won’t be able to let them go.

Pollan is talking about his first plant, the apple.  Which is an interesting plant in its own right, (each seed in an apple, if planted, will grow an entirely new variety of apple – very likely a crap, inedible one, but totally unique), but Pollan has instead glommed onto the man and the myth that is Johnny Appleseed.  Going in, one can see the relevance:  while John Chapman (a/k/a Appleseed) is ‘helping’ frontier settlers by seeding the apple trees, he’s also working for the apple, allowing it to increase its habitat across a whole new continent.  So far, on topic.

But the author has lost himself in the whole mythology of Appleseed, arguing he wasn’t a saint, the way so many want to believe he was – a hero with no questionable habits.  Fine, I guess, except in his argument against mythologising Appleseed as a heroic saint, he turns around and mythologises him into “very much an American Dionysus”.  So … it’s ok to idealise the historical figure as a Greek god, but not as a Christian saint? Never mind that Chapman/Appleseed himself identified as a Christian (although not a mainstream one to be sure) and would discuss the “good word” with people as he traveled.

How about just letting John Chapman be John Chapman?  How about we don’t argue what special snowflake box he belongs in (which is really the same box with different wrapping paper), and just let him rest in peace, with the record showing he was a complicated man who loved the outdoors and planting apple trees.

And what in the name of a Jonah Gold does any of it have to do with the evolution of plants as it pertains to domestication, and who domesticated whom?

Rant over.

Are We Having Fun Yet?

Are We Having Fun Yet?Are We Having Fun Yet?
by Lucy Mangan
Rating: ★★★★½
isbn: 9781788161084
Publication Date: November 1, 2021
Pages: 303
Genre: Fiction
Publisher: Souvenir Press

From the deep rage of knowing where to find every single thing your husband is looking for to the joy of a friend's longed-for pregnancy, here is the pleasurable stab of fellow feeling you get over drinks with friends. Liz records her ups and downs, including the love of a good cat (up), not being able to find a babysitter (secret up) and the question of what 'we' really means when it comes to fixing the dishwasher (definitely, definitely down).

Spiky, charming and most of all loving, it's a hilarious skewering of the sweetness and nightmare that is modern family life.


This book is the literary equivalent of those visual illusions that psychologists try to hang meaning on depending on what you see – like the one that’s either an old woman or a candlestick.  Or is it an old woman / young woman?  Anyway, whatever, you know what I mean.

As someone who is voluntarily childless, this book was a hilarious – and I mean laugh-out-loud hilarious – justification that my decision to stick with the furry and feathered walks of life, rather than replicating my own DNA, was the right decision for me (and MT, who came to the same decision long before we met).  Her kids are hysterical, but they’re hard work and are constantly opening up avenues of conversation that I’d hurt myself to avoid having.  Mangen’s descriptions of child birth should be required reading in human development classes as psychological birth control.  I was made to be an Aunt.

There was another – unintended, I’m certain – consequence this book had for me, one that is again tied, I’m equally certain, to our choice to stick with non-human family members, and that’s the lack of suppressed rage that lies as an undercurrent in Liz and Richard’s marriage, that I recognise in the marriages of my friends with children.  It’s not all chocolates and roses here at chez zoo by a long shot, but without the stress and pressure of making new humans that will hopefully treat the world better than we have, MT and I have experienced more fun than festering resentment.  Of course, I also recognise the near-miracle that he’s one of the 1 in 100,000 men who seem to have been raised without the ingrained gender biases and learned helplessness most are saddled with when it comes to matters of home keeping.  Still, the book really gave me a few moments of “do you really appreciate how lucky you are? really, truly?“, which I think constitutes healthy self-reflection.

Putting all that aside, I have to figure out how to get my sister-in-law to read this, because, as the mother of 2, she will appreciate this book for all the opposite reasons: because Lucy Mangen wrote her truth, and she will laugh as she nods her neck stiff in righteous agreement of the trials and tribulations of an all-human family of 4.

I read so much of this out loud to MT (honestly, it’s almost been a nightly story-time around here lately) that he actually insisted I rate this 4.5 stars.  As he said, it made us both laugh out loud and the writing was excellent (which gives you an indication of how much I read out loud; he was able to judge the quality of the writing).  I’d been thinking more 4 stars, but since he put up with all the reading out loud, I acquiesced.

If you need a laugh, you won’t go wrong with this one.

Venomous: How Earth’s Deadliest Creatures Mastered Biochemistry

VenomousVenomous
by Christie Wilcox
Rating: ★★★★
isbn: 9780374283377
Publication Date: September 13, 2016
Pages: 236
Genre: Natural Science, Non-fiction, Science
Publisher: Scientific American

In Venomous, the molecular biologist Christie Wilcox investigates venoms and the animals that use them, revealing how they work, what they do to the human body, and how they can revolutionise biochemistry and medicine today.

Wilcox takes us from the coast of Indonesia to the rainforests of Peru in search of the secrets of these mysterious animals. We encounter jellyfish that release microscopic venom-packed darts known to kill humans in just two minutes, a two-inch caterpillar with toxic bristles that trigger haemorrhaging throughout the body, and a stunning blue-ringed octopus with saliva capable of inducing total paralysis. How could an animal as simple as a jellyfish evolve such an intricate, deadly poison? And how can a snake possess enzymes that tear through tissue yet leave its own body unscathed? Wilcox meets the fearless scientists who often risk their lives studying these lethal beasts to find out, and puts her own life on the line to examine these species up close. Drawing on her own research on venom chemistry and evolution, she also shows how venom is helping us untangle the complex mechanisms of some of our most devastating diseases.


Venomous and I did not get off to a great start.  You’d think it would be a sure bet, since Chapter 1 kicks things off with the platypus, possibly my most favourite non-domesticated animal, and one she visited with – as she notes on page 1 – at Lone Pine Koala Sanctuary “in Melbourne Australia”.  I’ve been to Lone Pine Koala Sanctuary and I have a picture of myself and the koala that peed on me to prove it (fun fact: koala pee smells sooooo bad).  The thing is, Lone Pine Koala Sanctuary is in Brisbane, not Melbourne.  Not a small error, either; one is at the bottom of the continent and the other at the top.  Plus, Wilcox was there, so you’d like to think she knew she was in Brisbane and not Melbourne.  Unless the koala pee stench got to her.

Anyhoo … I was understandably feeling a bit cynical after that illustrious beginning, and the first few chapters were not enough to sway me either way, but I began to find myself invested – as measured by how much I started reading out to MT (I am a trial to this poor man, I know) – by chapter 6: “All the better to eat you with”.  This is the chapter about necrotising venoms, proving that I’m really no better than a 12 year old boy sometimes.  But chapter 8 was even better: Mind Control.  OMG.

Chapter 9 is about the pharmacological miracles that have been wrought by venom research, and reading it made me want to rush out to the world and scream nobody touch anything! simply because at the rate humanity is going, we’ll exterminate the cure for cancer, et al long before we ever knew it existed.

Venomous is a popular science book and as such is filled with anecdotes that make it easier for the average arm chair science nerd to connect with the material being discussed; it also has a not insignificant amount of the harder science in the form of detailed descriptions of neural chemical pathways, etc. but I wouldn’t call it inaccessible.  In comparison, my recent read, Venom, is a far more hard-core scientific discussion and breakdown of the study of venom.  (And it had much better pictures).

In an interesting six-degrees-of-separation chain of my TBR reads, Venom cited this book, Venomous, in the text, and Wilcox has cited The Botany of Desire by Michael Pollan, so I guess I know what my next non-fiction book is going to be.

My Family and Other Disasters

My Family and Other DisastersMy Family and Other Disasters
by Lucy Mangan
Rating: ★★★★½
isbn: 9780852651247
Publication Date: June 16, 2009
Pages: 260
Genre: Essays
Publisher: Guardian Publishing

'Hi Dad.'
'Who's calling, please?'
'It's Lucy ...Your daughter.'
'Ah, yes. Which one are you again? The one that reads or the one that shops?'

For Lucy Mangan family life has never exactly been a bed of roses. With parents so parsimonious that if they had soup for a meal they would decline an accompanying drink (soup is a drink), and a grandmother who refused to sit down for 82 years so that she wouldn't wear out the sofa, Lucy spent most of her childhood oscillating between extreme states of anxiety.

Fortunately, this hasn't affected her ability to write, and in this, her first collection of "Guardian" columns, she shares her hilarious take on everything from family relations to the credit crunch and why organized sport should be abolished.


I so thoroughly enjoyed Lucy Mangan’s writing in Bookworm that I wanted to try some of her other titles.  I ordered two of them, and this one was the first to arrive.

A collection of essays/columns written for The Guardian that covers a multitude of topics, My Family and Other Disasters easily met and exceeded my expectations.  I hoovered these down, laughing and often – very often – reading parts aloud to MT; her writing is so good he rarely even minded when I did.

This is a woman who does not hold back her inner misanthrope; she lets it rip and in the process tears a strip off anyone and anything she considers irrational or stupid.  I might have a tiny book crush on her, but only because I agree with her about most all of it, and she makes me laugh.

Mangan writes for the UK Guardian so there’s a highly British slant to most of her essays, but many of her topics cross the international barriers – especially the essays pertaining to television; I don’t watch TV, but the essays are old enough to refer to the shows that aired when I did.  Saying that, they were also the essays I enjoyed the least, although I whole-heartedly agree with her views on Seinfeld.

All up, a delightful collection.

The Sherlockian

The SherlockianThe Sherlockian
by Graham Moore
Rating: ★★★
isbn: 9780446572583
Publication Date: January 1, 2010
Pages: 351
Genre: Fiction, Mystery
Publisher: Twelve Books (Hachette)

In December 1893, Sherlock Holmes-adoring Londoners eagerly opened their Strand magazines, anticipating the detective's next adventure, only to find the unthinkable: his creator, Arthur Conan Doyle, had killed their hero off. London spiraled into mourning-crowds sported black armbands in grief-and railed against Conan Doyle as his assassin.

Then in 1901, just as abruptly as Conan Doyle had "murdered" Holmes in "The Final Problem," he resurrected him. Though the writer kept detailed diaries of his days and work, Conan Doyle never explained this sudden change of heart. After his death, one of his journals from the interim period was discovered to be missing, and in the decades since, has never been found.... Or has it?

When literary researcher Harold White is inducted into the preeminent Sherlock Holmes enthusiast society, The Baker Street Irregulars, he never imagines he's about to be thrust onto the hunt for the holy grail of Holmes-ophiles: the missing diary. But when the world's leading Doylean scholar is found murdered in his hotel room, it is Harold-using wisdom and methods gleaned from countless detective stories-who takes up the search, both for the diary and for the killer.


This book and I had problems.  Well, half this book and I had problems.  The other half was amusing if completely unrealistic.

The Sherlockian is a story told in two timelines: one that begins in 1893, when Conan Doyle makes the fateful decision to kill off Sherlock Holmes, and covers the events that happen though 1901; the other timeline takes place in the ‘present’, which is 2010, in this case.

The Holy Grail of Sherlockians has always been what happened to a cache of Conan Doyle’s papers that were missing after his death, including one of his journals, so the present day timeline is the search for that journal and the answers to who killed the Sherlockian who claimed to have found it, while the Conan Doyle timeline follows events that would have been recorded in the missing journal.

As I mentioned above, I found the present day timeline amusing in a mad-cap caper kind of way – the kind that requires a complete suspension of disbelief, as well as operating on the pretence that law enforcement, for all intents and purposes, no longer exist.  This story line is entirely about the thrill of the puzzle, the hunt, the process.

But here’s my beef, and it’s about the other timeline; the historical one.  This is a work of historical fiction, and the author is quick to point out at the end that all the events are fabricated.  Fine.  I read that type of historical fiction frequently – real people in fictional settings.  But usually the author has a greater respect for the real-life people he uses in his fictional story lines.  There’s an expectation that the author adhere to a character’s basic … character.

That categorically did not happen here.  Moore obviously did not care a whit for maintaining Conan Doyle’s integrity, because most of the historical timeline had him doing things so completely out of character as to drive me to yelling at the book.

If I knew nothing about Conan Doyle, I’d have found him and Bram Stoker dressing up as women and crashing a suffragette meeting mildly amusing, but I do know something about Conan Doyle.  Enough to know that it beggars belief to think of him doing anything of the sort.  If an author is going to write a fictional story using real historical people doing fictional things, those historical persons should do those fictional things the same way they’d do the factual things – otherwise, it’s not the same person and the author (and reader) would have been better served using a fictional character instead of maligning the real one.  (“Malign” does not refer to Conan Doyle dressing as a woman, but to a different event that to share would be a massive spoiler.)

So.  Half the book was amusing.  The other half … ok, the other half might have been amusing for someone who doesn’t know, or hold in such high regard, the real life people used for fictional purposes, against their basic characters.  If you know nothing about Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and are in the mood for a bit of madcap mystery, go for it.  If you do know and admire ACD, you’ve been warned.

Darwin’s Most Wonderful Plants: Darwin’s Botany Today

Darwin's Most Wonderful Plants: Darwin's Botany TodayDarwin's Most Wonderful Plants: Darwin's Botany Today
by Ken Thompson
Rating: ★★★★
isbn: 9781788160285
Publication Date: July 4, 2018
Pages: 255
Genre: Natural Science, Non-fiction, Science
Publisher: Profile Books

A rediscovery of Darwin the botanist and his theories on insectivorous and climbing plants

Most of us think of Darwin at work on The Beagle, taking inspiration for his theory of evolution from his travels in the Galapagos. But Darwin published his Origin of Species nearly thirty years after his voyages and most of his labours in that time were focused on experimenting with and observing plants at his house in Kent. He was particularly interested in carnivorous and climbing plants, and in pollination and the evolution of flowers.

Ken Thompson sees Darwin as a brilliant and revolutionary botanist, whose observations and theories were far ahead of his time - and are often only now being confirmed and extended by high-tech modern research. Like Darwin, he is fascinated and amazed by the powers of plants - particularly their Triffid-like aspects of movement, hunting and 'plant intelligence'.


A well written homage to Darwin’s other ground-breaking works, each chapter covers one of Darwin’s papers or books concerning plants.  As the author points out, if Origin of Species never came out of the drawer, Darwin would still be a genius game-changer just in the subject of botany.

The book is easy enough to read with a basic background in botany and/or a tolerance for the technical names for the parts of a plant.  As usual after reading a book about plants, I have a new list of plants I want in my garden – all of them carnivorous.

Don’t Tell Alfred

Don't Tell AlfredDon't Tell Alfred
by Nancy Mitford
Rating: ★★★★½
Publication Date: January 1, 1960
Pages: 248
Genre: Fiction
Publisher: Hamish Hamilton

Fanny Wincham—last seen as a young woman in The Pursuit of Love and Love in a Cold Climate—has lived contentedly for years as housewife to an absent-minded Oxford don, Alfred. But her life changes overnight when her beloved Alfred is appointed English Ambassador to Paris.

Soon she finds herself mixing with royalty and Rothschilds while battling her hysterical predecessor, Lady Leone, who refuses to leave the premises. When Fanny’s tender-hearted secretary begins filling the embassy with rescued animals and her teenage sons run away from Eton and show up with a rock star in tow, things get entirely out of hand. Gleefully sending up the antics of mid-century high society, Don’t Tell Alfred is classic Mitford.


Oh this was a lot of fun.  Ostensibly the third book of the series that includes Love in a Cold Climate and The Pursuit of Love, it’s been so many years since I read the first two that I barely remember the important characters, but it made not a lick of difference.  Don’t Tell Alfred takes place 30 years after the events of the first two books, and anybody who is still alive is almost too different to recognise anyway.

Fanny is now the main character, rather than just the narrator, but it seems she’s also a helpless bystander in the three ring circus her life has become when Alfred becomes the Ambassador to France.  One hilarious calamity after the other – most involving her extended family, if not her own children – has her scurrying to keep one step ahead of the chaos, and if not one step ahead, arranging the fall out so that Alfred comes out looking his best.

Not quite under the surface of these calamities – it bubbles up regularly throughout the story – is every parents lament over their childrens’ avowal to reject every principle they were ever taught.  This being the late 50’s, the rejection is, as the age of Aquarius looms, that much more outsized and outrageous.

Throughout the narrative, Mitford takes potshots in turns at the British, the French and, of course, the Americans (I’m pretty sure it’s a national sport in the UK); about the only country to come out unscathed from her pen are the Irish, which she feels a rather lot of sympathy for.  It all reads as though it’s meant in good fun and it adds to the often manic laughs.

So far, Mitford is 3 for 3; I have a couple of her other titles on my TBR and I’m curious how well the humor will hold with a whole new cast of characters.