Nonfiction November: Week 3 – Be The Expert – Agatha Christie

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I’m taking part in Nonfiction November 2019 again this year. It was one of my favourite events last year – this year it will run from Oct 28 to Nov 30. Each Monday a link-up for the week’s topic will be posted at the host’s blog for you to link your posts throughout the week.

This week’s topic is: 

Be The Expert/Ask the Expert/Become the Expert (Katie @ Doing Dewey): Three ways to join in this week! You can either share 3 or more books on a single topic that you have read and can recommend (be the expert), you can put the call out for good nonfiction on a specific topic that you have been dying to read (ask the expert), or you can create your own list of books on a topic that you’d like to read (become the expert).

I read more fiction than nonfiction, so I can’t claim to be an expert in any one subject, but I do read quite a lot of autobiographies and biographies and combined with my love of crime fiction I’ve chosen Agatha Christie for the subject of this post. I have read all of her crime fiction novels, her Autobiography and her memoir, Come Tell Me How You Live.

Agatha Christie

Agatha Christie: An Autobiography. It took her fifteen years to write it. She stopped in 1965 when she was 75 because she thought that it was the ‘right moment to stop’. As well as being a record of her life as she remembered it and wanted to relate it, it’s also full of her thoughts on life and writing. I’ve written about her Autobiography in a few posts as I was reading it:

Agatha Christie: Come, Tell Me How You Live: an archaeological memoir – she had visited the Middle East in 1929 travelling on the Orient Express to Istanbul and then on to Damascus and Baghdad. She visited the excavations at Ur and returned there the following spring where she met archaeologist Max Mallowan – by the end of the summer they had decided to marry, which they did on 11 September 1930. She wrote this memoir to answer her friends’ questions about what life was like when she accompanied Max on his excavations in Syria and Iraq in the 1930s.

I can also recommend the following books:

Agatha Christie and the Eleven Missing Days by Jared Cade – a fascinating book. I did feel as though I was intruding into Agatha Christie’s private life that she had not wanted made known but Cade writes sympathetically. In December 1926 Agatha Christie disappeared from her home, Styles, in Berkshire. She was found eleven days later in a hotel in Harrogate, Yorkshire apparently suffering from amnesia.   The book is not just about those eleven days but is a biography that reveals how those eleven days and the events that led up to her disappearance influenced the rest of her life.

Agatha Christie: An English Mystery by Laura Thompson – Overall, I think that this book as a biography is unbalanced, concentrating on the events surrounding Agatha’s disappearance and there is much speculation and supposition. I prefer Agatha’s own version of her life: An Autobiography, in which she merely referred to the events of 1926 thus:

The next year of my life is one I hate recalling. As so often in life, when one thing goes wrong, everything goes wrong. (page 356)

Agatha Christie at Home by Hilary Macaskill –  a beautiful book, with many photographs – more than 100 colour photos – illustrating Agatha’s life and homes.

Poirot and Me by David Suchet – For me Suchet was the perfect Poirot and this book really lives up to its title, as the main subject is David Suchet’s role as Poirot. His first performance as Poirot was in 1988. Over the intervening twenty five years he played the part in every one of the seventy Poirot stories that Agatha Christie wrote, with the exception of a tiny short story called The Lemesurier Inheritance (a story in Poirot’s Early Cases and in The Under Dog).

I also dip into two more books about Agatha Christie’s work – Agatha Christie’s Secret Notebooks: Fifty Years of Mysteries in the Making by John Curran and The Life and Crimes of Agatha Christie by Charles Osborne.

My Friday Post: Boris by Andrew Gimson

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Every Friday Book Beginnings on Friday is hosted by Gillion at Rose City Reader where you can share the first sentence (or so) of the book you are reading, along with your initial thoughts about the sentence, impressions of the book, or anything else the opener inspires.

Boris

I’ve been thinking for a while of reading Boris: the Rise of Boris Johnson by Andrew Gimson, published in 2012. I bought it secondhand several years ago after Boris had been elected as Mayor of London and it is an updated version of his earlier biography to include Boris’s record in power as the Mayor of London.  I see that Gimson has since brought out  another updated edition, subtitled The Adventures of Boris Johnson, after the Brexit Referendum in 2016.  

It begins with an Introduction explaining why Gimson thought of writing a life of Boris Johnson.

In the summer of 2004, Boris’s star shone with amazing brightness. Reputable judges predicted he would be the next Conservative Prime Minister, and that June morning he was all over the newspapers, which were enthralled by a scoop he had gathered while waiting on his bike at a traffic light.

Well, he wasn’t the next Prime Minister – for that he had to wait until this year.

Then Chapter I begins:

Boris was born to British parents in New York City on 19 June 1964. His mother Charlotte, who was only twenty-two years old, relates that at his birth he had the thick yellow hair for which he was later to become so celebrated: ‘We didn’t cut it, so it turned into ringlets.

And in the photos there is one of Boris, aged one with his mother celebrating at the end of her Oxford exams and Boris is determined to have some of her champagne – his hair a mop of curls.

Also every Friday there is The Friday 56, hosted by Freda at Freda’s Voice.

30879-friday2b56These are the rules:

  1. Grab a book, any book.
  2. Turn to page 56, or 56% on your eReader. If you have to improvise, that is okay.
  3. Find any sentence (or a few, just don’t spoil it) that grabs you.
  4. Post it.
  5. Add the URL to your post in the link on Freda’s most recent Friday 56 post.

Pages 57:

At a time when many of us are still in a state of utter confusion, Boris knew where he wanted to go. A close friend said of him: ‘At the age of eighteen he set himself the target that he was going to be in the Cabinet by the age of thirty-five.’

He didn’t make that target until later in his life – and he went on to become Prime Minister in July.  But will he still be PM by the end of this year … ?

Who knows??

Reading in May

I’ve been reading eight books in May, and have finished reading six of them, but only reviewed four of them:

  1. The Butterfly Room by Lucinda Riley 4* –  a family saga spanning generations  revealing the dark secret hidden behind the locked door of the Butterfly Room
  2. Mrs Whistler by Matthew Plampin 5* – not about his mother, but about him and his model and mistress, Maud Franklin
  3. Codename Villanelle by Luke Jennings 3* – the basis for the TV series Killing Eve 
  4. The Doll Factory by Elizabeth Macneal 5* –  the story of Iris who dreamed of being an artist and her involvement with the Pre-Raphaelites

The other two books I finished are:

Before the Fall by Noah Hawley, which I didn’t enjoy and I’m just writing a few notes here about it. It won the 2017 Edgar Award for Best Novel and was selected by The Sunday Times as one of the top page-turners of summer 2017, so I’m in the minority because I thought it was boring and tedious. The plot is simple – a plane crashes into the sea after taking off from Martha’s Vineyard, just two people survive and the mystery is why did the plane crash and who was responsible. The main part of the book is made up of the long backstories of the people on the plane. It’s not gripping or thrilling and definitely not a page-turner. 1*

However I thoroughly enjoyed The Ruin Dervla McTiernan’s debut novel and I’ll be writing more about it in the next few days. Now this is a page-turner, about a current murder linked to a cold case. It’s complex and compelling reading as DI Cormac Reilly unravels a web of secrets. 4*

I’m still reading two books:

D H Lawrence: the Life of an Outsider by John Worthen, from his childhood in Nottinghamshire to his death at the age of 44. I’m reading this slowly and it will be some time before I finish it. An ‘outsider’, he always felt he didn’t fit in or belong either with his family or his work colleagues or the literary elite of the times.

The other book I’ve been reading is Sweet Thursday by John Steinbeck, my Classics Club Spin book that I was hoping to finish by the end of May. I’ve only read half of it so far. It’s a follow up to Cannery Row, with some of the same characters and I’m enjoying its humour and view of life in Monterey in the 1950s.

And now it’s June! I’ll be concentrating on reading the books I’ve listed for the 20 Books of Summer challenge – and hoping I won’t be distracted by too many other books!

Six Degrees of Separation: from Murmur to Alan Turing: The Enigma

I love doing Six Degrees of Separation, a monthly link-up hosted by Kate at Books Are My Favourite and Best. Each month a book is chosen as a starting point and linked to six other books to form a chain. A book doesn’t need to be connected to all the other books on the list, only to the one next to it in the chain.

Murmur

This month the chain begins with a book I haven’t read or heard of before, Murmur by Will Eaves. This is the summary from Amazon: Taking its cue from the arrest and legally-enforced chemical castration of Turing, Eaves fictionalises the devastating period before the mathematician’s death in an extraordinary contemplation of consciousness.

Murmur has won several prizes including the 2019 Wellcome Book Prize, an annual award, open to new works of fiction or non-fiction. To be eligible for entry, a book should have a central theme that engages with some aspect of medicine, health or illness.

I checked back to see if I had read any of the earlier  Wellcome Book prize winners. I had to go back to 2010 when The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot was the winning book. I read this in April and thought it was excellent. Henrietta Lacks died of cervical cancer in 1951. The cancer cells taken from her tumour were cultured and became known as HeLa cells which have formed the basis for medical research and drug development ever since.

The Quarry by Iain Banks is a novel about Guy, a man dying from cancer. He lives in a house that is gradually falling to pieces, situated on the edge of a quarry in the Pennines..Feeling his death is imminent, Guy gathers around him his oldest friends as they reminisce about their time as film students and search through the house for a video tape they had made that could ruin all of their lives if it became public.  It’s the last book Iain Banks wrote – whilst writing it he, himself, was diagnosed with cancer.

Another house in ruins is the setting for the opening of The Ruin, Dervla McTiernan’s debut novel. DI Cormac Reilly has left his high-flying Dublin career to return to Galway, where he is confronted with a case that has haunted him for twenty years. As a young constable he was called to a decrepit country house where he found two silent, neglected children and their mother lying dead upstairs.

Another debut novel is Everything But the Truth by Gillian McAllister set in Newcastle and Oban. This is a thriller about lies, secrets and relationships; about how we get to know people and learn to trust them.

Also set partially in Newcastle is Harbour Street by Ann Cleeves. It begins ten days before Christmas, as the Newcastle Metro is packed with shoppers, babies screaming, office workers merry after pre-Christmas parties where an old lady, Margaret Krukowski, is found fatally stabbed. This book was adapted for TV adaptation, but with many changes from the original.

Another adaptation is the film The Imitation Game starring Benedict Cumberbatch and Keira Knightley about Alan Turing as he tries to crack the German Enigma code.  It’s an adaptation of the book Alan Turing: The Enigma by Andrew Hodges. In 1952 Turing’s homosexuality rendered him a criminal and he was subjected to humiliating treatment. In 1954, aged 41, Alan Turing took his own life – thus linking back to Murmur.

I’ve started and ended with books about Alan Turing, linked by books that have won the Wellcome Book Prize, books about cancer, set in ruined houses, debut novels, books set in Newcastle and books that have been adapted for TV and film.

The books are mostly crime fiction, all of which I’ve read. Although I haven’t read Andrew Hodges’ book I have seen the film – which is excellent!

Next month (July 6, 2019), the chain will begin with the children’s classic, Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak.

WWW Wednesday: 22 May 2019

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WWW Wednesday is run by Taking on a World of Words.

The Three Ws are:

What are you currently reading?
What did you recently finish reading?
What do you think you’ll read next?


Currently reading: Three books,  D H Lawrence: the Life of an Outsider by John Worthen, Sweet Thursday by John Steinbeck and The Doll Factory by Elizabeth Macneal.

I’ve made more progress with D H Lawrence: the Life of an Outsider. It’s a thorough and detailed account of his life and I’ve just got up to 1912 when he first met Frieda Weekley, the wife of Ernest Weekley, a Nottingham University professor of modern languages. Lawrence had finished writing ‘Paul Morel‘ (Sons and Lovers) and had needing a break he decided to travel – to go to Germany. He got in touch with Weekley to ask for his advice.

Sweet Thursday is my Classics Club spin book to read by 31 May. So far I’ve only read a few chapters. This is a follow on from Steinbeck’s Cannery Row which I loved. Set after the Second World War in Monterey, on the California Coast, Sweet Thursday is what they call the day after Lousy Wednesday, which is one of those days that’s just naturally bad.

I’ve included The Doll Factory in my 20 Books of Summer challenge and I made the mistake of looking at it and before I knew it I’d read 20%. It really is compelling reading for me – historical fiction set in London beginning in 1850 as the Grand Exhibition is being built in Hyde Park. Twin sisters Iris and Rose paint dolls for a living but Iris dreams of a life as an artist. This is the period when the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood are making their mark in the art world.

Recently finished Codename Villanelle by Luke Jennings, the basis for the BAFTA-winning Killing Eve TV series. I enjoyed this but not as much as the TV version. See my review here.

Codename Villanelle

My next book could be:

As usual I’m not at all sure what it could be, but after reading Codename Villanelle I’ve got my eye on No Tomorrow by Luke Jennings, which continues the story.

No tomorrow

Blurb (Amazon):

In a hotel room in Venice, where she’s just completed a routine assassination, Villanelle receives a late-night call.

Eve Polastri has discovered that a senior MI5 officer is in the pay of the Twelve, and is about to debrief him. As Eve interrogates her subject, desperately trying to fit the pieces of the puzzle together, Villanelle moves in for the kill.

The duel between the two women intensifies, as does their mutual obsession, and when the action moves from the high passes of the Tyrol to the heart of Russia, Eve finally begins to unwrap the enigma of her adversary’s true identity.

Have you read any of these books?  Do any of them tempt you? 

WWW Wednesday: 15 May 2019

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WWW Wednesday is run by Taking on a World of Words.

The Three Ws are:

What are you currently reading?
What did you recently finish reading?
What do you think you’ll read next?


Currently reading: Two books,  D H Lawrence: the Life of an Outsider by John Worthen and Before the Fall by Noah Hawley.

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I’ve made some progress with D H Lawrence: the Life of an Outsider. His mother Lydia is seriously ill with cancer and Lawrence has started to write a novel to include her girlhood, and her marriage moving on to his own upbringing. By October 1910 he was calling the book ‘Paul Morel‘ – which later became ‘Sons and Lovers.’ It will take me several weeks (at least) before I finish the book as I’m reading short sections each day.

Before the Fall won the 2017 Edgar Award for Best Novel.

Before the Fall

Description:

THE RICH ARE DIFFERENT. BUT FATE IS BLIND.

A private jet plunges into the sea.

The only survivors are down-on his luck artist Scott Burroughs and JJ Bateman, the four year old son of a super-rich TV executive.

For saving the boy, Scott is suddenly a hero.

And then, as the official investigation is rapidly overtaken by a media frenzy, it seems he may also be a villain.

Why was he on the plane in the first place, and why did it crash?

I’ve read 72% of this book so far. It begins well, but then it becomes rather disjointed, as it relates each character’s back story in some detail. So any suspense that the opening had built up is fading as I read about each person’s life story up to the time they entered the plane. But with nearly a quarter of the book left to read I’m hoping the tension will rise.

Recently finished:

Mrs Whistler

Mrs Whistler by Matthew Pamplin, a novel is based on the life of the artist, James Abbott McNeill Whistler, and his muse Maud Franklin, covering the years from 1876 to 1880. I loved this book and am in the middle of writing a post about it  – I may finish it today, or tomorrow …

My next book could be:

It could be Codename Villanelle by Luke Jennings, the basis for the BAFTA-winning Killing Eve TV series. I’ve had this book for a while – after I watched Killing Eve, which I loved, and it seems a good time to read it now. The second series began on 7th April 2019 on BBC America and all I know so far is that it will be shown here in the UK – soon!

Codename Villanelle

She is the perfect assassin.

A Russian orphan, saved from the death penalty for the brutal revenge she took on her gangster father’s killers.

Ruthlessly trained. Given a new life. New names, new faces – whichever fits.

Her paymasters call themselves The Twelve. But she knows nothing of them. Konstantin is the man who saved her, and the one she answers to.

She is Villanelle. Without conscience. Without guilt. Without weakness.

Eve Polastri is the woman who hunts her. MI5, until one error of judgment costs her everything.

Then stopping a ruthless assassin becomes more than her job. It becomes personal.

Originally published as ebook singles: Codename Villanelle, Hollowpoint, Shanghai and Odessa.

Have you read any of these books?  Do any of them tempt you? 

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot

Immortal life of HL

Pan|First Paperback Edition edition (1 Jan. 2011)|431 pages|5*

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot is an outstanding book! It took her more than ten years to research and write and has won numerous awards and been made into a film starring Oprah Winfrey as Deborah Lacks, Renee Elise Goldsberry as Henrietta Lacks, and Rose Byrne as Rebecca Skloot.

I found it all fascinating, but harrowing to read in parts, from all the details of Henrietta’s life, how she was treated for cervical cancer in 1951, when she was just 30, to her death nine months later.  During her diagnosis and surgery cancer cells taken from her tumour were cultured and amazingly those cells multiplied, doubling every twenty four hours. They became known as HeLa cells (pronounced hee-lah) and have formed the basis for much medical research and drug development ever since. It is also a history of the diagnosis and treatment of cancer and considers the ethical issues around ownership of her cells and the distress, anger and confusion this caused her family. It raises many issues not just regarding ethics, but also regarding science, race and class.

Cancer treatment in 1951 with radium was brutal, but what made it worse was that Henrietta was a black woman, living in near-poverty in Baltimore. Black oral history from at least the 1800s tells of kidnapping black people for research and there were disturbing truths behind the stories – doctors did test drugs on slaves and carried out operations to develop surgical techniques. In 1951 Henrietta was treated at Johns Hopkins Hospital, a hospital built for the benefit of Baltimore’s poor, but black residents suspected it had been ‘built in a poor black neighborhood  for the benefit of scientists – to give them easy access to potential research subjects.’ (page 190)

The Lacks family were poor and they misunderstood what was happening. They became fearful and distressed, and some of them were aggressive when they realised with horror that Henrietta still lived on in a way they couldn’t understand. They had no health insurance and received no financial benefit from the research done on the HeLa cells. Rebecca Skloot’s investigation reveals the mental anguish they went through and her account is so very moving. In particular her times with Henrietta’s daughter, Deborah are heart breaking as she records the terrible struggles Deborah had to overcome. It was only years later that Deborah understood that it was her mother’s cancer cells that were still ‘alive’ and not her own normal cells.

‘So we don’t have the thing that made her cells grow forever?’ Deborah asked. Christoph shook his head. ‘Now you tell me after all these years!’ Deborah yelled. ‘Thank God, cause I was wonderin.’

She pointed at a cell on the screen that looked longer than the others. ‘This one is cancer, right? And the rest are her normal ones?’

‘Actually, HeLa is all just cancer,’ Christoph said.

‘Wait a minute,’ she said,’you mean none of our mother’s regular cells still livin? Just her cancer cells?’

‘That’s right.’

‘Oh! See, and all this time I thought my mother regular cells still livin!’ (page 302)

Rebecca Skloot based her book on an impressive amount of research  – archival documents, scientific and historical research, including legal documents and medical records. She also used Deborah’s personal journals as well as conducting more than a thousand hours of interviews with Henrietta’s family and friends, and lawyers, ethicists, scientists and journalists who have written about the Lacks family.

This is not a dry scientific account – although there is a lot of scientific detail in the book (not all of which I’m sure I fully understood). It is a remarkable and personal record of the Lacks family that comes to life through dialogue, by adopting the language with which each person spoke and wrote. She explains that where she wrote in the first person using Deborah’s voice she was quoting what she said, only edited for length and occasionally clarity. It is brilliantly written, giving me much to think over – one of the most moving books of non-fiction I’ve read!