Posted by: billpurdue | July 12, 2009

62 Sandi Toksvig and the Natural History Museum

Sandi Toksvig and the British Museum this time, but first: I promised to let you know about Mike Pannet’s book signing at WHSmith Mansfield. The author of You’re coming with me Lad: Tales of a Yorkshire Bobby [Hodder and Stoughton £12.99] will be in WHSmith to sign copies on July 24th from 12 noon to 2pm.

A Comedy (?) of Errors.

MeltedI’m not sure what to make of Sandi Toksvig as a novelist ; I’ve just read one of her recent (2006) books – Melted into Air [Time Warner £6.99 9780751535433] which is set in a small town in Tuscany. I was hoping to find it quite funny.

Frances Angel – born with the surname Angelli – isn’t doing particularly well in her job as a theatrical impresario in England so her cousin Gina persuades her to take a break in the Italian village of Montecastello where she spent her earliest years. She tries to confront her past and find out what had happened to her two childhood friends after she was sent away by her parents to live with relatives in England. The only place to stay in the town is an art school which turns out to have a weird assortment of guests and proprietors who could do a good Italian version of Sybil and Basil Faulty. There is a darker side to the story: as very young girls, Frances and her two friends decided to announce that they had seen a vision when in actual fact there was no vision. This was immediately seized upon by the local priest as a good way to bring fame to the town and to further his career. One of her friends has been living under his “protection” ever since and it is suspected that he had something to do with the death of Frances’ other friend.

I have to admit that I nearly didn’t read this novel to the end. At times it didn’t seem to be getting anywhere and it wasn’t until at least three quarters of the way through that things really seemed to gel  as Frances and the other guests at the art school decide to put on a play for the whole town which will finally bring matters to a head. Perhaps my final comments on the book are that it is comical, but not especially funny and that it was like the curate’s egg – good in parts.  Watch a Google video here.

Life at the Museum

Dry storeWhenever I think of the Natural History Museum in London, I think of the giant skeleton of the dinosaur , diplodocus carnegii which greets visitors as they enter the building. Apparently this is not a real skeleton, but a cast of an original in Pittsburgh and has been there since 1905. It’s this and thousands of other fascinating insights into the running of the Natural History Museum which Richard Fortey writes so eloquently about in his Dry Store Room No 1: the secret life of the Natural History Museum[ HarperPerennial  £8.99 978-0007209897]. (NB the illustration is of the hardback edition). It’s an absorbing exploration of the building housing the museum with particular emphasis on the areas not normally seen by the public. Take the wet collections for example “pickled, preserved and potted zoology”: round glass jars containing all manner of fishes, lizards, crustaceans, snakes and many other types of creatures in alcohol or formaldehyde.

In another part of the book Mr Fortey talks about the variety of characters who have worked at the museum spending years discovering new species and deciding where they sit in the evolutionary heirarchy. Some have published great tomes on very specialised subjects. David Reid, for example is devoted to winkles or littorina and has spent the best part of his professional life so far studying them. As Mr Fortey says, “they are ideal subjects to winkle out the truth about evolution”.

I’m going to repeat myself and say once again that this book really is fascinating. It’s not a book to read quickly, but rather one to savour as the author takes you on a tour of the museum or delves into a bit of gossip about some of the characters working  there. It might get a little technical at times and there is a smattering of latin names, but stick with it. This book is well worth the effort.

For Chick Lit fans….

… and that doesn’t include me, but if you like a spot of that type of reading from time to time, have you tried Paige Toon’s new book Chasing Daisy [Simon and Schuster £6.99 9781847393906] which is just out? It has a globe- trotting motor racing theme. You can find out more about Ms Toon on Simon  & Schuster’s website.

Another Odd Title.

A short while ago I mentioned the Diagram prize which is awarded every year for the oddest book title . In the shortlists of the past year or two I don’t remember seeing this one: Stray Shopping Carts of Eastern North America: A Guide to Field Identification[Harry N. Abrams £9.95 978-0810955202] I’ve just discovered that this handy volume is on special offer in the latest Bibliophile catalogue for only £3.50. A snip!


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