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!

 

First Chapter First Paragraph: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot

Every Tuesday First Chapter, First Paragraph/Intros is hosted by Vicky of I’d Rather Be at the Beach sharing the first paragraph or two of a book she’s reading or plans to read soon.

This week I’m featuring The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot. This is one of the books that I’m currently reading.

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

 

Prologue

The Woman in the Photograph

There’s a photo on my wall of a woman I’ve never met, its left corner torn and patched together with tape. She looks straight into the camera and smiles, hands on hips, dress suit neatly pressed, lips painted deep read. It’s the late 1940s and she hasn’t yet reached the age of thirty. Her light brown skin is smooth, her eyes still young and playful, oblivious to the tumor that would leave her five children motherless and change the future of medicine. Beneath the photo, a caption says her name is “Henrietta Lacks, Helen Lane or Helen Larson.”

Blurb (Amazon)

Her name was Henrietta Lacks, but scientists know her as HeLa. Born a poor black tobacco farmer, her cancer cells – taken without her knowledge – became a multimillion-dollar industry and one of the most important tools in medicine. Yet Henrietta’s family did not learn of her ‘immortality’ until more than twenty years after her death, with devastating consequences . . .

Rebecca Skloot’s fascinating account is the story of the life, and afterlife, of one woman who changed the medical world forever. Balancing the beauty and drama of scientific discovery with dark questions about who owns the stuff our bodies are made of, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is an extraordinary journey in search of the soul and story of a real woman, whose cells live on today in all four corners of the world.

~~~

So far, I’ve read 34% and I am thoroughly enjoying this book. It tells Henrietta’s life story, explains the details of her cancer, and the medical details of how her cells were grown, how they have stayed alive and multiplied. It also considers the ethical issues around ownership of her cells, racism and the distress, anger and confusion this caused her family.

I know ‘amazing’ is such an over used word – but this book really is amazing!

If you’ve read it I’d love to know what you thought of it. If you haven’t, does it tempt you too?

Nonfiction November Week 4: Reads Like Fiction

The topic for Week 4: (Nov. 19 to 23) is Reads Like Fiction (Rennie @ What’s Nonfiction): 

Nonfiction books often get praised for how they stack up to fiction. Does it matter to you whether nonfiction reads like a novel? If it does, what gives it that fiction-like feeling? Does it depend on the topic, the writing, the use of certain literary elements and techniques? What are your favorite nonfiction recommendations that read like fiction? And if your nonfiction picks could never be mistaken for novels, what do you love about the differences?

It doesn’t matter to me whether a nonfiction book reads like a novel, although I think those that do read like novels are easier to read, even though they are packed full of details and information. It does depend on the topic though and looking through the nonfiction I’ve read in recent years I see that most of the ones that read like fiction are either autobiographies or biographies.

Biographies are written using a mass of material gathered from various sources and are a result of selection – choosing what to include and what to leave out, how to interpret the gaps in the material available. Claire Tomalin in the foreword to her biography of Dora Jordan writes that ‘History – and biography, which is a branch of history is always a matter of choice and control. The writer or editor decides what is history and what is not.

Likeness must be there in a biography, whether it is more like history or fiction. I like historical fiction and, to a certain extent, fictionalised biography but I like to know what is fact and what is not. But then facts are open to interpretation – biographies are given a story-like shape  but still need to be accurate.

Mrs. Jordan's Profession: The Actress and the PrinceSisters of Sinai: How Two Lady Adventurers Found the Hidden Gospels

Mrs Jordan’s Profession: The Story of a Great Actress and a King, Claire Tomalin’s biography of Dora Jordan. It is both well researched and well written making it easy to read despite being packed with information, brilliantly bringing the late 18th and early 19th centuries to life as she tells the story of Dora and her relationship with the Duke of Clarence, later King William IV. Dora was an actress, known as ‘Mrs Jordan’, although there was never a Mr Jordan. She made her stage debut in 1777 at the age of 15 and her first Drury Lane appearance in 1785. She met William, the Duke of Clarence (later William IV) and she became his mistress in 1790.

Another example of a biography that reads like fiction is Sisters of Sinai: How Two Lady Adventurers Found the Hidden Gospels by Janet Soskice. As I was reading I remember thinking that if this were a novel I would think it was a most unlikely story. It tells the story of twin sisters in the latter half of the nineteenth century, who travelled to St Catherine’s Monastery at Mount Sinai where they discovered one of the earliest copies of the Gospels written in ancient Syriac. They also went to Jerusalem and beyond crossing the desert on camel or walking miles on foot.

An AutobiographyCider With Rosie

Then there are autobiographies. These can be very different depending on how much the author wants to reveal about themselves. I loved Agatha Christie’s An Autobiography, written in such an easy style that it was as though I was listening to her talking. It took her fifteen years to write and is filled with her thoughts and reflections as well as telling the story of her life. But although she wrote about her childhood, teenage years, friends and family, her marriage to Archibald Christie and their divorce, about her travels around the world, the two world wars, her interest and involvement with archaeology and her marriage to Max Mallowan, she didn’t write about her disappearance in 1926.

A very different autobiography is Laurie Lee’s autobiography Cider With RosieIt is a beautiful book, full of wonderful word pictures of life in a remote Cotswold village at the beginning of the twentieth century. Laurie Lee was also a poet and this book reads like a prose poem throughout. Cider with Rosie covers his childhood years and it is absolutely fascinating. He was born in Stroud and moved to Slad when he was three in 1917. His love for his mother permeates the book (his father had left his wife with seven young children).

I’ve also read two more of Laurie Lee’s books – As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning (1969), which is about his life after he left his home in Slad, and A Rose for Winter (1955), which is a record of his travels in Andalusia 15 years after he first went there. Again in these books he writes vivid, lyrical prose with beautiful descriptions of the countryside, the scorching heat, the poverty and the people, It’s not just the scenery he captures, but also the atmosphere, the splendour and squalor, and the desperation and also the love and enthusiasm for life.

But are these books fiction? There are doubts that Lee falsified and embellished his involvement in the Spanish Civil War in A Moment of War (which I haven’t read). However, his widow denied this. In an interview recorded in The New York Times, 24 February 1985, Lee, talking about Cider With Rosie said  “… it is not so much about me as about the world that I observed from my earliest years. It was a world that I wanted to record because it was such a miracle visitation to me. I wanted to communicate what I had seen, so that others could see it.”

It’s a fascinating topic – and I’m looking forward to seeing what other readers think? do let me know.

Nonfiction November: Week 2 Fiction/ NonfictionPairing

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Week 2: (Nov. 5 to 9) – Fiction / Nonfiction Book Pairing (Sarah’s Book Shelves): This week, pair up a nonfiction book with a fiction title. It can be a “If you loved this book, read this!” or just two titles that you think would go well together. Maybe it’s a historical novel and you’d like to get the real history by reading a nonfiction version of the story.

I couldn’t stick to just pairs of books because I read more fiction than nonfiction, so my pairings are trios.

The first three I’ve chosen are about Richard III – what is the truth about him, was he deformed, with a withered arm, a hunch back and a limp as Shakespeare portrayed him, was he a cold-blooded, evil villain? Or has he been maligned and been turned into a  monster who killed his brother’s sons in order to take the Crown?

The Princes in the TowerThe Daughter of Time (Inspector Alan Grant #5)The Sunne In Splendour

Many years ago I read The Princes in the Tower by Alison Weir, which examined the available evidence of the disappearance of the princes in 1483 at the time her book was first published in 1992. It has an extensive bibliography, her sources mainly supporting the view that Richard was guilty of their deaths. Alison Weir has since revised this book and published it as Richard III and the Princes in the Tower, published in 2014. I haven’t read this revised edition, but looking at Alison Weir’s website I see that she still holds the same views on Richard’s guilt.

Years later I came across The Daughter of Time by Josephine Tey, a novel in which Inspector Alan Grant of Scotland Yard, recuperating from a broken leg, becomes fascinated with a contemporary portrait of Richard III and investigates Richard’s role in the death of his nephews and his own death at the Battle of Bosworth. He concluded that Richard hadn’t murdered his nephews.

And two years ago I read The Sunne in Splendour by Sharon Penman, probably the best historical novel that I’ve read. Penman portrays a very likeable Richard. From his childhood onwards he comes across as a kind, generous and brave man, a skilled leader on the battlefield, a loving husband to his wife, Anne, and devoted and loyal to his brother, Edward IV. I’m not going to reveal her solution to who killed the princes, but I was convinced by her version of events.

The discovery of Richard’s skeleton buried beneath a car park in Leicester in 2012 revealed that although ‘the curved spine on the skeleton does show he had Scoliosis, he did not have a withered arm or other details attributed to him in some characterisations’ (see the Incredible Discovery at the King Richard III Visitor Centre).

There are many books about Richard III, especially following the discovery of his remains, and in time I hope to explore more of them.

The next three books are about Thomas Cromwell, Earl of Essex, Baron Cromwell of Okeham. He was born c.1485, Putney, near London and was executed on July 28, 1540.

Thomas Cromwell: The Untold Story of Henry VIII's Most Faithful Servant

Wolf Hall & Bring Up the Bodies PBS Masterpiece E-Book Bundle

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Tracy Borman’s biography of Thomas Cromwell and Hilary Mantel’s novels, Wolf Hall/Bring Up the Bodies all cover the life of Cromwell, the son of a blacksmith, who rose to become Henry VIII’s Chief Minister and was executed for heresy and treason.

Hilary Mantel’s books bring the Tudor world to life for me. They are beautifully written, full of colour and detail so that there is no doubt that this is 16th century England, with vivid descriptions of the people, buildings, fabrics, and landscapes of both town and countryside. Her Thomas Cromwell is not the saint I thought he was from watching ‘A Man for All Seasons’, and neither is he the hard-hearted, cold and stern character I’d read about before, but he is humane, kind and considerate, hardworking, generous and cultured. But tough and ruthless too. I haven’t read Tracy Borman’s biography yet, so I have yet to see how it compares to the novels (and the TV adaptation), which I loved.

My third trio of books are about Robert Scott’s 1912 Antarctic expedition, comparing Beryl Bainbridge’s novel with two nonfiction books.

South with ScottThe Birthday BoysRace to the End: Scott, Amundsen and the South Pole

Ever since I bought South with Scott by Edward Evans, Lord Mountevans when I was at school I’ve been fascinated by the race to reach the South Pole. Evans was the Second-in-Command of the British Antarctic Expedition under Captain Scott. He nearly lost his life on the return journey from the Pole, falling ill with scurvy and was rescued. Years later I was delighted to find that Beryl Bainbridge’s novel, The Birthday Boys is about the expedition. It’s narrated by Captain Robert Falcon Scott and the other four men who died in the Antarctic having reached the South Pole. It gets inside each man’s mind, vividly describing the events as they progressed to the South Pole and the terrible conditions they had to endure.

I enjoyed it so much I wanted to find out more – which I did in Race to the End: Scott, Amundsen and the South Pole by Ross D E MacPhee, a beautifully illustrated account of each team’s trek to Antarctica and the Pole. Comparing the books I think Beryl Bainbridge’s fictionalised version is remarkable accurate, bringing the terrible hardships vividly to life.

I’ve enjoyed comparing these books – what books would you choose to compare?

A-Z of TBRs: E-Books: A, B and C

Earlier this year I looked through my TBRs – the ‘real’ books – and as it did prompt me to read more of them, I’ve decided to take a fresh look at some of the TBRs on my Kindle. I have a bad habit of downloading books and then forgetting all about them – it’s as though they’ve gone into a black hole.

So here is the first instalment of my A – Z of my e-book TBRs – with a little ‘taster’ from each. I’ve picked books from different genres – fantasy fiction, crime fiction and non-fiction – a biography.

Assassin's Apprentice (Farseer Trilogy, #1)

A is for Assassin’s Apprentice by Robin Hobb, Book One of the Farseer Trilogy  (On my Kindle since September 2014.)  It’s fantasy fiction set in the  imaginary realm of the Six Duchies and tells the story of the illegitimate son of a prince, assassin FitzChivalry Farseer. He is raised in the stables, rejected by all his family apart from his uncle Chade, who trains him as an assassin.

My memories reach back to when I was six years old. Before that, there is nothing, only a black gulf no exercise of my mind has ever been able to pierce. Prior to that day at Moonseye, there is nothing. But on that day they suddenly begin, with a brightness and detail that overwhelms me. Sometimes it it seems too complete, and I wonder if it is truly mine. Am I recalling it from my own mind, or from dozens of retelling by legions of kitchen maids and ranks of scullions and herds of stable-boys as they explained my presence to each other? Perhaps I have heard the story so many times, from so many sources, that I now recall it as an actual memory of my own. (page 2)

The Big Sleep (Philip Marlowe, #1)

B is for The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler, with an introduction by Ian Rankin. It’s been on my Kindle since July 2017. Crime fiction is one of my favourite genres – I read a lot of it, but have never read any of Chandler’s books. This is his first book featuring Philip Marlowe. Rankin writes that is ‘a story of sex, drugs, blackmail and high society narrated by a cynical tough guy, Philip Marlowe‘ and that it is ‘such fun to read that you won’t notice how clever its author is being.’

The the old man dragged his voice up from the bottom of a well and said: ‘Brandy, Norris. How do you like you like your brandy, sir?’

‘Any way at all,’ I said.

The butler went away among the aboriginal plants. The General spoke again, slowly using his strength as carefully as an out-of-work showgirl uses her last good pair of stockings.

‘I used to like mine with champagne. The champagne as cold as Valley Forge and about a third of a glass of brandy beneath it.’ (page 4)

The Churchill Factor: How One Man Made History

C is for The Churchill Factor: How One Man made History by Boris Johnson, on my Kindle since June 2016. The extract below is from the Introduction in which Boris explains why he wants to convey something of Churchill’s genius in this book, and asking what made up his character.

I knew that he had been amazingly brave as a young man, and that he had seen bloodshed at first hand, and had been fired at on four continents, and that he was one of the first men to go up in an aeroplane. I knew that he had been a bit of a runt at Harrow, and that he was only about 5 foot 7 and with a 31-inch chest, and that he had overcome his stammer and his depression and his appalling father to become the greatest living Englishman.

I gathered there was something holy and magical about him, because my grandparents kept the front page of the Daily Express from the day he died, at the age of ninety. … So it seems all the more sad and strange that today – nearly fifty years after he died – he is in danger of being forgotten or at least imperfectly remembered. (page 3)

If you’ve read any of these please let me know what you think?

Books Read in September 2018

How my reading habits have changed! It was only a few years ago that I read mostly paper books, but these days I read mostly e-books – six out of the nine books I read in September are e-books. Another major change is the amount of review copies I read. This month I read five review copies that came to me via NetGalley. I also read one library book and the other three books are all my own books – but only one of those is an actual physical book! And only one of the nine books is non-fiction.

They range from 5 star to 2 star books and are a mix of crime and historical fiction plus one biography. My ratings are based solely on my reactions to the books.

I’ve written about five of these books – click on the links to read my reviews:

  1. The Way of All Flesh by Ambrose Parry 5* – historical fiction set in Edinburgh in 1847 as Dr James Young Simpson, a professor of midwifery, discovered the anaesthetic properties of chloroform.
  2. The Dancer at the Gai-Moulin by Georges Simenon 3.5* – one of the early Maigret books, set in Belgium not France.
  3. The Clockmaker’s Daughter by Karen Morton 3* – historical fiction set over multiple time-lines and with multiple narrators. I loved parts of it and it’s richly descriptive, but found it hard to keep track of all the characters and separate strands of the story.
  4. Appleby’s End by Michael Innes 3* – an Inspector Appleby book. It’s surreal, a macabre fantasy with a  complex and completely unrealistic plot and strange characters.
  5. Down to the Woods by M J Arlidge 2.5* – crime fiction, a DI Helen Grace murder mystery, tense and dark with several twists and turns. Not my favourite book of the month!

Here are some brief notes about the remaining four books:

Dead Woman WalkingDead Woman Walking by Sharon Bolton 5* – Sharon Bolton is a brilliant storyteller and this is a brilliant book – complex, very cleverly plotted, full of suspense and completely gripping with great characters and set in Northumberland. It begins with a balloon flight that ends in disaster and only Jessica survives as the balloon crashes to the ground, but she is pursued by a man who is determined to kill her.  I loved this book.

Wedlock: How Georgian Britain's Worst Husband Met His Match

Wedlock:  How Georgian Britain’s Worst Husband Met His Match by Wendy Moore 4* – a biography of Mary Eleanor Bowes, who was one of Britain’s richest young heiresses. Her first husband was the Count of Strathmore – the Queen Mother, Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon, was a direct descendant of their marriage. Her second marriage to Andrew Robinson Stoney was an absolute disaster. He was brutally cruel and treated her with such violence, humiliation, deception and kidnap, that she lived in fear for her life. This is non-fiction and is full of detail, but even so it reads like a novel.

East of Eden

East of Eden by John Steinbeck 4* –  the story of two families—the Trasks and the Hamiltons—whose generations helplessly re-enact the fall of Adam and Eve and the poisonous rivalry of Cain and Abel. I enjoyed this beautifully written book, which begins slowly, but not as much as The Grapes of Wrath, which I thought was amazing. It’s long – too long really – and to my mind it reads like a morality tale of good versus evil. There are many parallels to the Bible stories, with surely one of the most evil characters ever in Cathy. I liked the way Steinbeck set out the moral dilemmas and gave the characters choice using the Hebrew word ‘timshel‘, meaning ‘thou mayest’.

The Gaslight Stalker (Esther & Jack Enright Mystery #1)The Gaslight Stalker by David Field 2* – historical crime fiction set in London in 1888. This was a disappointing book, that provides a new solution to the Jack the Ripper murders. There are two elements to the plot and I don’t think they mixed well. I liked the historical facts based on the evidence in the Jack the Ripper case and thought they were well written, if a little repetitive. But the romance between Esther, a young seamstress and Jacob Enright, a young police officer, felt out of place and is too simplistically narrated.