This is a transcription of Best of Shetland Islands & Two New Books — 24 March 2023’
Melissa: Coming up, a novel about a deadly shade of green.
David: An easy-to-use dessert cookbook.
Melissa: Plus, our distraction of the week. I’m Mel.
David: I’m Dave. This is the library of lost time.
Melissa: During the Victorian era, arsenic was used all over the house — in food coloring, face powder, rat poison. In 1775, a Swedish chemist named Carl Scheele used copper arsenite, which contains arsenic, to create a vivid green dubbed Scheele’s Green. It was used to dye fabrics and to tint candles… and in wallpaper that was all the rage in the sitting rooms of fashionable people.
Melissa: Sadly, that shade of green was toxic. There were nineteenth-century reports of children wasting away in bright green rooms and ladies in green dresses swooning. By the 1890s, they had to stop using Scheele’s green because it was killing people.
Melissa: If you hear that and think, ‘That would make a great novel,’ you are right! A new book called The Company by J.M. Varese riffs on this real-life history with a gleefully gothic story. Our heroine is Lucy, heir to the fortune of Braithwhite & Company, her family’s company which manufactures luxury wallpaper. Their designs seem to cast a spell on everyone who sees them. Is it artistry or something more sinister?
Melissa: This is a romp through a haunted mansion in London with spectral visions, secret identities, mysterious deaths, a conniving suitor, and a heroine who refuses to cave to pressure.
Melissa: The author, Jon Varese, is a literary historian and works at The Dickens Project of UCLA. That’s a group that promotes the study of the life and work of Charles Dickens. It sounds awesome. Every summer in Santa Cruz, a bunch of Dickens scholars and fans get together to talk about Victorian fiction and how it relates to life now. It’s like an awesome nerd summer camp and book club rolled into one.
Melissa: All of which to say, this author knows his way around some Victorian Gothic. His new book is The Company by J.M. Varese, and it’s out now.
David: So, here are two things I know about myself. One: I have a sweet tooth. I enjoy ice cream, pie, cake, and other delicious things. Apparently, it’s genetic. There’s a family story that my grandfather stopped for doughnuts on his way to the hospital when I was born.
David: And two: I’m pretty hopeless in the kitchen.
David: This week, I learned that Alison Roman is here to help me. Alison Roman is a best-selling cookbook author. She used to work at Momofuku Milk Bar as a pastry chef. She’s written a series of cookbooks about food that tastes good and look good but is easy to throw together. She’s kind of famous for a recipe called Salted Butter and Chocolate Chunk Shortbread that broke the internet, according to some.
David: Her next book is almost here. It’s called Sweet Enough: A Dessert Cookbook. In this book, she promises desserts that come together faster than you can eat them. I’m skeptical about this claim, but the recipes look good. She says you need your hands a few mixing bowls and some common ingredients. And then you can bang out desserts like a Salted Lemon Cream Pie, or Toasted Rice Pudding, or a Caramelized Maple Tart. She also has more unusual flavors, like a Creamy Cauliflower Galette or Raspberries and Sour Cream. Which is more of a serving suggestion than a recipe, but still. Here for it.
David: And now, our Distraction of the Week. [magical sound effect]
David: We spent the first week of March in Scotland, and I wanted to tell you about it. We started and ended our trip in Edinburgh, which is a delightful city, particularly if you love books. Or old Edwardian buildings that seem to be stacked on top of one another.
David: But what I really wanted to tell you about was Shetland. Shetland is a little chain of islands off the north coast of Scotland. They are frequently described as remote, windswept, and beautiful. I am here to tell you that all of those things are true.
David: You can fly to Shetland, but we got there on a ferry. It’s a 12-hour ferry out of Aberdeen. It’s an overnight. We got on in the evening and off the following day. You can white-knuckle it by sleeping in a chair, but you can also rent a cabin, which is what we did. There’s a restaurant and a bar onboard the ferry. There’s a tiny room where they show movies. And, of course, you can go outside and watch the North Sea go by. There was a full moon on our return trip. The moonlight lighting the clouds and the sea looked like a painting.
David: And then you’re in Shetland. I wasn’t sure how to break down the experience quickly, so I’m going to fall back on the tried-and-true listicle. Here are three things you can do in Shetland.
David: 1. Buy a sweater. There are a lot of sheep on Shetland. The sheep make wool, and that gets turned into sweaters through a mystical process I barely understand called knitting. That all happens there on the island. We got our locally sourced and made sweaters in a little store called ‘Jamieson’s of Shetland.’ I paid about $80 for a blue-black sweater that I love and will have forever.
David: 2. Eat a scone. One of the things that we did in Shetland was a hike in Unst. Unst is the northernmost of the Shetland islands. It was chilly! It snowed while we were there, and we caught the beginning of it up in Unst. After our hike, we went over to Victoria’s Vintage Tea Rooms, where we met Victoria herself. She served us a pot of tea and some crispy, tasty scones. We sat and looked out the window as the snow fell on the bay there. That was magic. For a few minutes, there was absolutely nothing wrong in the world.
David: 3. Enjoy the animals. We saw so many incredible animals. On a different walk, we saw a large hill that had been absolutely overtaken by rabbits. While we were waiting for a ferry to take us from one island to another, an otter came walking past the car, doing otter stuff. I’d never seen an otter in the wild before. We saw Shetland ponies, some highland cattle with their crazy bangs, an absolute ton of sheep, birds I’d never seen before, and a seal.
David: We had a fantastic time. One hundred percent, ten out of ten, would recommend. If you’re interested in remote, windswept beauty, Shetland awaits you.
Melissa: We worked with a woman named Laurie on our itinerary. She born in Shetland and her family goes gack hundreds of years in the islands. She has a blog and videos. She’s written for Lonely Planet and has been the curator for two museums on the Shetland Islands. She spent an hour with us on Zoom, helping us figure out how to fit in all the things we wanted to do in Shetland. She’s great!
Melissa: Visit strongsenseofplace.com/library for more about the Shetland Islands and the books we discussed.
David: Thanks for joining us in the Libary of Lost Time. Remember to visit your local library and your independent book store to lose some time yourself.
Melissa: Stay curious! We’ll talk to you soon.
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