Nonfiction November: Week 4 Stranger than Fiction

Week 4: (November 22-26) – Stranger Than Fiction with Christopher at Plucked from the Stacks: This week we’re focusing on all the great nonfiction books that *almost* don’t seem real. A sports biography involving overcoming massive obstacles, a profile on a bizarre scam, a look into the natural wonders in our world—basically, if it makes your jaw drop, you can highlight it for this week’s topic.

Operation Mincemeat: The True Spy Story that Changed the Course of World War II by Ben Macintyre is my choice for this week. When I read it I thought that it was so far-fetched to be almost like reading a fictional spy story. It’s the ideal choice for this week’s topic!

When I reviewed this book back in 2011, I wrote:

Operation Mincemeat is about the Allies’ deception plan codenamed Operation Mincemeat in 1943, which underpinned the invasion of Sicily. It was framed around a man who never was.

The success of the Sicilian invasion depended on overwhelming strength, logistics, secrecy and surprise. But it also relied on a wide web of deception, and one deceit in particular: a spectacular con trick dreamed up by a team of spies led by an English lawyer. (page xi)

At first I found this book a little confusing and far too detailed, but as I read on I became absolutely fascinated and amazed at what had actually happened. The plan was to take a dead body, equipped with false documents, deposit it on a beach in Spain, so that it would be passed over to the Germans and divert them from the real target into believing that the preparations to invade Sicily were a bluff.

Operation Mincemeat would feed them both a false real plan, and a false cover plan – which would actually be the real plan (page 58)

The corpse was a Welsh tramp who had committed suicide. His body was clothed in the uniform of an Royal Marine with documents identifying him as Major William Martin and letters about the top-secret Allied invasion plans. This involved creating a fictional character, a whole host of imaginary agents and sub-agents all with their own characteristics and imaginary lives – just as in a novel. The details of the deception were dreamt up by Ewan Montagu, a barrister and Charles Cholmondeley (pronounced Chumley), a flight-lieutenant in the RAF seconded to MI5, the Security Service. Both were enthusiastic readers, which stood them in good stead:

For the task of the spy is not so very different from that of the novellist: to create an imaginary credible world, and then to lure others into it, by words and artifice. (page 62)

The plan was not without its faults and and indeed it contained some potentially fatal flaws, but incredibly it succeeded.

Operation Mincemeat was pure make-believe; and it made Hitler believe something that changed the course of history. (page 307)

This is a book, totally outside my usual range of reading. I wasn’t expecting to enjoy it as much as I did and I think I did enjoy it because it was so far-fetched to be almost like reading a fictional spy story. I marvelled at the ingenuity of the minds of the plans’ originators and the daring it took to carry it out.

~~~

Which nonfiction book that *almost* doesn’t seem real would you choose?

Nonfiction November: Week 3: Be the Expert

Week 3: (November 15-19) – Be The Expert/ Ask the Expert/ Become the Expert with Veronica at The Thousand Book Project: 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’m doing Be the Expert, but I am not an expert! My post is about a subject that I read a lot and enjoy enormously, and that is Autobiography/ Biography and Memoir.

These are just some of my favourites.

  1. Ice Bound:  One Woman’s Incredible Battle for Survival by Jerri Nielsen. Dr Jerri Nielsen was a forty-six year old doctor working in Ohio when in 1998 she made the decision to take a year’s sabbatical at the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Research Station in Antarctica, the most remote and perilous place on earth. Whilst she was there during the dark Antarctic winter of 1999 she discovered a lump in her breast. This is a true story of survival under extreme circumstances, of courage and endurance. 
  2. Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China by Jung Chang – Jung Chang’s book about her grandmother, her mother and herself, telling of their lives in China up to and during the years of the violent Cultural Revolution. Her family suffered atrociously, her father and grandmother both dying painful deaths and both her mother and father were imprisoned and tortured.
  3. Toast by Nigel Slater – the story of his childhood and adolescence told through food; food he liked and food he hated. Reading it was a nostalgic remembrance of my childhood, even though mine was so very different from his, apart from the food.
  4. Daphne by Margaret Forster – an extremely well researched and informative account of Daphne Du Maurier’s life, taken from her letters and private papers, with personal memories of her from her children, grandchildren and friends. It is a candid account of her relationships, eg her troubled married life; wartime love affair; and friendships with Gertrude Lawrence and Ellen Doubleday, as well as an excellent source of information on Du Maurier’s method of writing and views on life. 
  5. Jane Austen by Claire Tomalin – I was surprised by how detailed it is given the fact that few records of her life have survived. Claire Tomalin admits that it was not an easy story to investigate, as Jane Austen wrote no autobiographical notes and if she kept any diaries they did not survive her. Most of her letters to her sister Cassandra were destroyed by Cassandra and a niece destroyed those she had written to one of her brothers. But as Tomalin discovered her life was “full of events, of distress and even trauma, which left marks upon her as permanent as any blacking factory.”
  6. Victoria: A Life by A N Wilson – masterful and detailed and like all good biographies this is well researched and illustrated, with copious notes, an extensive bibliography and an index. He had access to the Royal Archives and permission from Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II to quote from materials in royal copyright. He portrays her both as a woman, a wife and mother as well as a queen set against the backdrop of the political scene in Britain and Europe.
  7. Rebus’s Scotland: A Personal Journey by Ian Rankin is fascinating, with insights into Ian Rankin’s own life and that of the character he has invented, along with his thoughts on Scotland and the Scottish character. It’s partly autobiographical, blending his own life with Rebus’s biography. It also describes many of the real life locations of the books, in particular Edinburgh, Rebus’s own territory.
  8. Giving Up the Ghost a memoir by Hilary Mantel, which she states she wrote to take charge of her memories, her childhood and childlessness, feeling that it was necessary to write herself into being. From the age of 4 she believed that she had done something wrong and she was ‘beyond remedy and beyond redemption’. She thought it was because of her that her parents were not happy and that without her they would have had a chance in life. Home was a place where secrets were kept and opinions were not voiced. Her experience of ghosts at the age of 7 was horrifying she felt as though something came inside her, ‘some formless, borderless evil’.

Nonfiction November: Week 2 Book Pairings

Week 2: (November 8-12) – Book Pairing with Katie at Doing DeweyThis 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. 

Earlier this year I read the novel A Room Made of Leaves by Kate Grenville and I’m pairing it with Elizabeth Macarthur: A Life at the Edge by Michelle Scott Tucker, which I haven’t read yet.

Kate Grenville is one of my favourite authors, so I was very keen to read A Room Made of Leaves. It’s historical fiction telling the story of the Macarthurs, Elizabeth and John Macarthur, who settled in Australia at the end of the eighteenth century. It’s based on the real lives of the Macarthurs using letters, journals and official documents of the early years of the New South Wales colony. Her writing suits me – historical fiction, with good descriptive writing setting the scenes vividly in their locations. I find her books difficult to put down and they stay in my mind long after I’ve finished reading. This one is no exception.

Whenever I read historical fiction I always want to know how much is fact and how much is fiction, how accurate it is. And so this novel intrigued me because Kate Grenville’s book begins with an editor’s note about ‘the ‘incredible discovery of Elizabeth Macarthur’s secret memoirs’ in a tin box containing old papers, revealing the real person behind the few letters she wrote home to her family and friends and a lot of ‘dull correspondence with her adult children’. Was this true, I wondered. So I turned to the back of the book to read Grenville’s Author’s Note and in that she clarifies that this is not history and, although the extracts from Elizabeth’s letters are from the letters of the real Elizabeth Macarthur, she has ‘taken some liberties in order to shape this work of fiction’. The old documents were Grenville’s ‘inspiration and guide’. In other words you have to bear in mind the epigraph, an actual quotation from one of Elizabeth’s letters: Believe not too quickly, a reminder that this is fiction.

It made me want to know more about the Macarthurs, and what was indeed their history, so I was delighted to find out that Kate Grenville references Michelle Scott Tucker’s biography: Elizabeth Macarthur: A Life at the Edge of the World as the standard biography in her Acknowledgements and I was even more delighted to see that it’s available as a ebook. So it is now in my Kindle and I’m keen to read it as soon as possible. I want to see what Michelle Scott Tucker has made of the same historical sources – history, after all, is an interpretation of the facts from the records, trying to explain what happened and why, dependent on available evidence. Fiction is more flexible and can fill in the gaps where the documentary evidence is lacking.

Nonfiction November: Week 1

Week 1: (November 1-5) – Your Year in Nonfiction with Rennie at What’s Nonfiction: Take a look back at your year of nonfiction and reflect on the following questions – What was your favorite nonfiction read of the year? Do you have a particular topic you’ve been attracted to more this year? What nonfiction book have you recommended the most? What are you hoping to get out of participating in Nonfiction November?  

So far this year I’ve read 15 nonfiction books, more than in previous years, but I haven’t managed to write reviews of all of them. The links shown take you to my posts, where they do exist.

My favourite is English Pastoral: An Inheritance by James Rebanks.

I read it in February and gave it 5*. I thought then it would be one of the best books I’d read this year and I still think that. Rebanks’ farm is in the Lake District hills. It was part of an ancient agricultural landscape: a patchwork of crops and meadows, of pastures grazed with livestock, and hedgerows teeming with wildlife. And yet, by the time James inherited the farm, it was barely recognisable. The men and women had vanished from the fields; the old stone barns had crumbled; the skies had emptied of birds and their wind-blown song.

It is inspirational as well as informative and it is beautifully written. I enjoyed his account of his childhood and his nostalgia at looking back at how his grandfather farmed the land. And I was enlightened about current farming practices and the effects they have on the land, depleting the soil of nutrients.

But all is not doom and gloom as Rebanks explains what can be done to put things right, how we can achieve a balance of farmed and wild landscapes, by limiting use of some of the technological tools we’ve used over the last 50 years so that methods based on mixed farming and rotation can be re-established. By encouraging more diverse farm habitats, rotational grazing and other practices that mimic natural processes we can transform rural Britain.

I can highly recommend reading English Pastoral. I loved it and came away with much to think about and also hope for the future.

~~~

I like to vary my reading but tend to lean towards reading memoirs, biographies and history. This year I’ve also been interested in climate change, politics and in learning more about Covid-19 and how it’s been managed. Taking part in Nonfiction November in previous years has given me an incentive to read more nonfiction and I’m sure it will again this year. I’m looking forward to seeing what others have been reading!

Theses are the other 5* books:

  1. A Life on Our Planet by David Attenborough 5*
  2. Ice Bound by Jerri Nielsen 5*
  3. The Yorkshire Shepherdess by Amanda Owen 5*
  4. I Love the Bones of You by Christopher Ecclestone 5*

The remaining 10 books:

  1. For the Record by David Cameron
  2. The Salt Path by Raynor Winn
  3. The Way Home by Mark Boyle
  4. How Britain Ends by Gavin Esler
  5. And Away by Bob Mortimer
  6. Breathtaking by Rachel Clarke
  7. The Madness of Crowds by Douglas Murray
  8. Index, A History of the by Dennis Duncan
  9. Failures of State by Jonathan Calvert and George Arbuthnott
  10. Another Journey Through Britain by Mark Probert

Nonfiction November is Coming!

November will be a busy month bookwise as Nonfiction November is happening again this year, as well as Novellas in November!

See Rennie’s blog What’s Nonfiction for the full details.

Nonfiction November Week 4

Week 4: New to My TBR, hosted by Katie @ Doing Dewey: It’s been a month full of amazing nonfiction books! Which ones have made it onto your TBR? Be sure to link back to the original blogger who posted about that book!

So many books to choose from! Here are a few that appealed to me:

Plus the books recommended to me on my Ask the Experts post on World War Two:

From Shelleyrae – Poland 1939: The Outbreak of World War II by Roger Moorhouse

From Deb Nance:

  • The Splendid and the Vile: A Saga of Churchill, Family, and Defiance During the Blitz
  • Lost in Shangri-la: A True Story of Survival, Adventure, and the Most Incredible Rescue Mission of World War II
  • Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience and Redemption
  • Torpedoed: The True Story of the World War II Sinking of “The Children’s Ship

From The Paperback Princess

  • A Train in Winter by Caroline Moorehead, Hitler and the Habsburgs by James Longo
  • Sons and Soldiers by Bruce Henderson
  • When Books Went to War by Mollie Guptill Manning
  • In the Garden of Beasts by Erik Larson

From Gilt and Dust -No Woman’s World: From D-day to Berlin by Iris Carpenter

From What’s Nonfiction

  • A Woman in Berlin, an anonymous diary of a woman who lived through the Russian occupation of the city
  • Primo Levi’s memoirs like Survival in Auschwitz and The Reawakening,
  • Underground in Berlin.
  • Svetlana Alexievich’s The Unwomanly Face of War is an oral history of the women in the Red Army by Marie Jalowicz Simon

Thanks so much to our hosts, Katie at Doing Dewey, Julie at Julz Reads, Leann at Shelf Aware, and Rennie at  What’s Nonfiction! And thanks to everyone who stopped by with comments and recommendations as well!

Nonfiction November Week 3: Ask the Expert

We’re now in Week 3: (Nov. 12 to 16) of Nonfiction November. The topic is – Be The Expert/Ask the Expert/Become the Expert (RennieWhat’s Nonfiction)

Three ways to join in this week! You can either share three 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’ve read a few books on World War 2 and would love to find out more. I have read several novels set during the War, the most recent is V2 by Robert Harris, which has made realise how little I know about it. It is a vast subject and I know there are very many books both fiction and nonfiction about it. My difficulty is where to start!

These are some of the nonfiction books I’ve read/have waiting to be read:

  • Our Longest Days: a People’s History of the Second World War by the Writers of Mass Observation, which is fascinating.
  • Wartime Britain 1939 – 1945 by Juliet Gardiner – I’ve only read some of this book.
  • The Ration Book Diet by Mike Brown, Carol Harris and C J Jackson – social history.
  • Winston Churchill’s six volume History of the Second World War – these look particularly daunting in the amount of detail involved! I’ve start the first volume.
  • Band of Brothers by Stephen E Ambrose – I watched the entire HBO series called Band of Brothers. I started to read the book and stalled!
  • Great Escape Stories by Eric Williams – TBR
  • How the Girl Guides Won the War by Janie Hampton – TBR

There are so many aspects to the war, so many countries involved, so many battles, people, places, politics, so many events that led up to the war, so many technological details and developments, etc, etc. Any suggestions of where to start will be much appreciated.

Nonfiction November: Week 2 Book Pairing

I’m taking part in Nonfiction November again this year. It runs from Nov2 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. 28 to Nov 30.

Week 2: (November 9-13) – Book Pairing (Julie @ Julz Reads): 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’ve recently read Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell, historical fiction inspired by Hamnet, Shakespeare’s son. It is a story of the bond between him and his twin sister, Judith.  Shakespeare isn’t the main character and he is never named in this novel, which really focuses on Ann Hathaway and her children. Little is actually known about her and she comes across to me in this book as a rather wayward, wild young woman when Shakespeare first met her, flouting convention and set on getting her own way, manipulating the people around her.

So, I’d like to know more about Ann Hathaway. Germaine Greer’s book, Shakespeare’s Wife explores what is known but I haven’t read it, so I don’t know how much is supposition and padding. I think it sounds interesting from the description on Goodreads:

Until now, there has been no serious critical scholarship devoted to the life and career of the farmer’s daughter who married England’s greatest poet. Part biography, part history, Shakespeare’s Wife is a fascinating reconstruction of Ann’s life, and an illuminating look at the daily lives of Elizabethan women, from their working routines to the rituals of courtship and the minutiae of married life. In this thoroughly researched and controversial book, Greer steps off the well-trodden paths of orthodoxy, asks new questions, and begins to right the wrongs done to Ann Shakespeare.

If you have read Shakespeare’s Wife I’d love to know what you think about it.

Nonfiction November 2020: Week 1 – My Year in Nonfiction

Nonfiction November begins this week. 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.

 Week 1: (November 2-6) – Your Year in Nonfiction (Leann @ Shelf Aware): Take a look back at your year of nonfiction and reflect on the following questions – What was your favorite nonfiction read of the year? Do you have a particular topic you’ve been attracted to more this year? What nonfiction book have you recommended the most? What are you hoping to get out of participating in Nonfiction November?

I love reading non fiction but it takes me much longer to read than fiction, so it’s only been 11% of my total reading so far this year. And during this strange year I’ve found it hard to concentrate on reading, and even less motivated to write about what I’ve read. Reading nonfiction always takes me longer than fiction because of the detail involved but this year it’s been taking me even longer than usual.

I like to vary my reading but tend to lean towards reading memoirs, biographies and history. This year I’ve also been interested in learning not just about Covid-19 but also about the history of disease and its impact.

It’s hard to say which one is my favourite as they’re all so different, but Happy Old Me by Hunter Davies, which I read in February, entertained me the most. And if you like history, and biographies I can definitely recommend The Mystery of Princess Louise by Lucinda Hawksley, which gave me a different perspective on Queen Victoria. Louise reminded me a bit of Princess Margaret and also of Princess Diana – she really had an interesting and unconventional life.

These are the books I read and one I’m currently reading. The links on the titles below take you to my reviews on the books:

Happy Old Me by Hunter Davies, the third book of his memoirs, written when he was in his eighty-second year, after the death of his wife, author, Margaret Forster. It is part memoir, part self-help, as he got to grips with being old and living on his own. He writes openly and frankly, with a sense of humour and a zest for life. I really enjoyed it. Hunter Davies is a writer and journalist who has written more than 30 books, covering biographies, novels, children’s novels. These include the only authorised biography of The Beatles, many works on the Lake District, and Confessions of a Collector.

Writing Wild by Kathryn Aalto – part travel essay, literary biography, and cultural history. A fascinating book about 25 women writers covering two hundred years of women’s history through nature writing, including natural history, environmental philosophy, country life, scientific writing, garden arts, memoirs and meditations and does not aim to dismiss men’s contributions. 

The Mystery of Princess Louise: Queen Victoria’s Rebellious Daughter by Lucinda Hawksley – a detailed biography about Victoria’s sixth child – her fourth daughter, born on 18th March 1848. There is so much detail about her life in this book, packed with intrigues, scandals and secrets. She had a difficult childhood, disliked and bullied by her mother and she often rebelled against the restrictions of life as a princess. Louise was unconventional, generous and charming to people she liked. She was a sculptor and several scandals arose about her, rumours of an illegitimate child and of her love affairs. The mysteries are still unresolved as Louise’s files in the Royal Archives are closed.

Blue Tits in My Nest Box by David Gains – this is a short book, packed with information. I bought it after my husband bought a new blue tit box – one with a camera. It gave us enormous pleasure watching a pair of blue tits make a nest in the box, lay eggs and feed the chicks and then fledge.

And Now For the Good News by Ruby Wax – written clearly in a breezy conversational style and covering a large amount of information. She emphasises the importance of compassion and kindness, of community and on working for the good of all. Above all she focuses on the benefits of mindfulness and on positive experiences.

The Virus in an Age of Madness by Bernard-Henri Levy – review to follow.

The Pandemic Century by Mark Honigsbaum – beginning with the Spanish Flu in 1918 this is a fascinating account of 100 years of pandemics. Review to follow.

I’m currently reading For the Record by David Cameron – his autobiography. I rarely read about politics, so this is a change for me. I’m interested to find out his views on the EU and Brexit, but haven’t got up to that yet. I never thought I’d say this, but I’d prefer the news to be full of Brexit talk instead of Covid-19!

By participating in Nonfiction November I’m hoping this will encourage me to read more nonfiction rather than picking up the next novel to read and I’m looking forward to seeing what others recommend.

Nonfiction November is Coming

The last couple of years I’ve taken part in Nonfiction November, so although this year I haven’t read a lot of nonfiction I’ll be joining in once more.

Throughout the month of November, Katie @ Doing Dewey, Julie @ Julz Reads, Leann @Shelf Aware, and Rennie, invite you to put nonfiction at the top of your reading list with us. Each week’s prompt will be posted at that host’s blog on Monday with a link-up where you can link your post on the topic throughout the week.

This year’s schedule:

Week 1: (November 2-6) – Your Year in Nonfiction (Leann @ Shelf Aware): Take a look back at your year of nonfiction and reflect on the following questions – What was your favorite nonfiction read of the year? Do you have a particular topic you’ve been attracted to more this year? What nonfiction book have you recommended the most? What are you hoping to get out of participating in Nonfiction November?

Week 2: (November 9-13) – Book Pairing (Julie @ Julz Reads): 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.

Week 3: (November 16-20) – Be The Expert/Ask the Expert/Become the Expert (Rennie [me!] @ What’s Nonfiction [here!]): 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).

Week 4: (November 23-27) – New to My TBR (Katie @ Doing Dewey): It’s been a month full of amazing nonfiction books! Which ones have made it onto your TBR? Be sure to link back to the original blogger who posted about that book!