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.

Nonfiction November: Week 2 – Book Pairing

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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: 

Week 2: (Nov. 4 to 8) – Book Pairing (host: Sarah @ 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’ve recently read a couple of newly published historical novels that I think go well together with nonfiction books about the same subjects:

First, The Vanished Bride by Bella Ellis, a novel I loved, pairing it with  Juliet Barker’s biography of the Brontë family, The Brontës

When I first came across The Vanished Bride I wasn’t at all sure I wanted to read it, as I’m never very keen on books about famous authors solving crimes. However, the Brontë sisters books have been amongst my favourites for years and I was curious find out what this book was all about. ‘Bella Ellis’ is the Brontë inspired pen name for the author Rowan Coleman, who has been a Brontë devotee for most of her life.

It is historical fiction set in 1845 about Charlotte, Emily and Anne and their brother, Branwell and how the sisters became ‘detectors’, or amateur sleuths as they investigate the disappearance of a young woman from Chester Grange, just across the moors from the Brontë Parsonage – which is, of course purely fiction. But it is not all pure fiction – in the Author’s Note Bella Ellis explains that it is based on biological facts or inspired by them.

Reading The Vanished Bride has inspired me to get back to reading the new edition of  The Brontës, Juliet Barker’s biography of the family.  I began reading (and never finished) it a few years ago. It is the result of 11 years’ research in archives throughout the world.  It contains a wealth of information, is illustrated and has copious notes and an index.

Juliet Barker is an internationally recognised expert on the Brontës and from 1983 to 1989 she was curator and librarian of the Brontë Parsonage Museum. Her qualifications are impeccable – she was educated at Bradford Girls’ Grammar School and St Anne’s College, Oxford, where she gained her doctorate in medieval history. In 1999 she was awarded an honorary Doctorate of Letters by the University of Bradford, and in 2001 she was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature. For more information see her website.

Then I thought of these two books –  A Single Thread by Tracy Chevalier, a novel published this year and Singled Out by Virginia Nicholson published in 2007.

Both are about ‘Surplus Women‘ – nearly three-quarters of a million soldiers were killed during World War One, many of them unmarried young men, leaving a generation of women who had believed marriage to be their birthright without prospective husbands. 

A Single Thread focuses on one young woman, Violet whose fiancé, Laurence was killed in the First World War. Determined to be independent she leaves her mother and moves to Winchester, where she joins the Winchester Cathedral Broderers, a group of women dedicated to embroidering hassocks and cushions for the seats and benches. The difficulties of being independent are brought home to her as she struggles on her wages as a typist to pay for her lodgings, laundry and coal, let alone feed herself. And then her mother is admitted to hospital and she has to decide whether to return home to look after her.

Tracy Chevalier writes novels on a variety of subjects, carrying out meticulous research for each one. In this book she lists a number of the many resources she used, including details of Louisa Pesel’s embroidery work as well as the history of Winchester Cathedral, bell-ringing, 1930s women and life in Britain in the 1930s .

Singled Out, in contrast, is nonfiction, telling individual stories of how these ‘surplus women‘ coped with enforced spinsterhood. Tracing their fates, Virginia Nicholson shows how the single woman of the inter-war years had to depend on herself and, in doing so, helped change society. These women harboured harrowing secret sadness, yearning for the closeness of marriage and children. Beginning in 1919 the book traces their experiences across the next two decades as they faced life alone, looking at how they survived economically, emotionally and sexually. There is a note on the sources she used and a select bibliography, plus photographs and an index.

Virginia Nicholson’s father was the art historian and writer Quentin Bell, acclaimed for his biography of his aunt Virginia Woolf and her mother Anne Olivier Bell edited the five volumes of Virginia Woolf’s Diaries. In June 2019 she was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature. The citation quoted Carmen Callil: “Virginia Nicholson is the outstanding recorder of British lives in the twentieth century.” For more information about see her website.

I have enjoyed looking at these pairs of books. Which books would you choose to compare?

Nonfiction November: Week 1

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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: (Oct. 28 to Nov. 1) The topic is Your Year in Nonfiction, hosted by Julie @ Julz Reads :

Take a look back at your year of nonfiction and reflect on the following questions:

What was your favourite 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 about 10% percentage of my total reading so far this year. Up to now I have read seven books but I’ve not been very good at writing about them, so I’ve only reviewed three of them, although I have started to write about a fourth book – The Marches by Rory Stewart.

I like to vary my reading but tend to lean towards reading memoirs, biographies and history.

First the books I have not written about:

  1. Great Britain’s Great War by Jeremy Paxman – The back cover describes it: ‘He tells the story of the war through the experience of those who lived it – nurses, soldiers, politicians, factory workers, journalists and children.’ I began reading this book last year and didn’t finish it until January this year! I borrowed this from the library and had to renew it to finish it.
  2. Bitter Lemons of Cyprus by Lawrence Durrell  – his account of his time in Cyprus, during the 1950s Enosis movement for freedom of the island from British colonial rule. I’ve visited Cyprus several times, but not the area Durrell wrote about in this book – Kyrenia in Northern Cyprus, where he bought a house in the Greek village of Bellapaix.  His writing is richly descriptive and made me wish I could have seen Bellapaix in the 1950s.
  3. A Life of My Own by Claire Tomalin – a book that Marina @ Finding Time To Write kindly sent to me. Claire Tomalin writes excellent biographies, so I wondered what she had to say about her own life. She began by saying that writing about herself had not been easy and querying the reliability of memory, which maybe why I found it in places rather impersonal as she related a number of tragedies she had had to cope with.
  4. The Marches: Border Walks with my Father by Rory Stewart – review to follow. I enjoyed this account of walks along part of Hadrian’s Wall, the Debatable Lands, the Cheviot Border and in the area Stewart calls the ‘Middleland’. The last part of the book is about his father, Brian, who died four days before his 93rd birthday.

The links on the titles below take you to my reviews on the books:

  1. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot – a fascinating, but harrowing biography of Henrietta’s life and death.She died of cervical cancer in 1951. Her cancer cells  became known as HeLa cells and have formed the basis for much medical research and drug development ever since.
  2. The Adventures of Maud West, Lady Detective by Susannah Stapleton, subtitled ‘Secrets and Lies in the Golden Age of Crime‘. Maud West was a private investigator with her own detective agency, based in London in the early part of the twentieth century, from 1905 onwards. It is also about the changing society in which Maud lived.
  3. The Riviera Set1920 – 1960: The Golden Years of Glamour and Excess by Mary S Lovell about Maxine Elliott and Chateau de l’Horizon, the house she had built on a promontory between Cannes and Juan-les-Pins and those who peopled it between the years 1930 and 1960.

I’m also reading – very slowly – a biography of D H Lawrence by John Worthen. I began this in April and hope to finish it this year.

I enjoyed all these books for different reasons, but the book that fascinated – an surprised me the most – is The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot

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!

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I’ll be 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.

The hosts and topics are: 

Week 1: (Oct. 28 to Nov. 1) –  Your Year in Nonfiction (Julie @ Julz Reads) : Take a look back at your year of nonfiction and reflect on the following questions – What was your favourite 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: (Nov. 4 to 8) – Book Pairing (Sarah @ 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. 

Week 3: (Nov. 11 to 15) – 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).

Week 4: (Nov. 18 to 22) – Nonfiction Favourites (Leann @ Shelf Aware): We’ve talked about how you pick nonfiction books in previous years, but this week I’m excited to talk about what makes a book you’ve read one of your favourites. Is the topic pretty much all that matters? Are there particular ways a story can be told or particular writing styles that you love? Do you look for a light, humorous approach or do you prefer a more serious tone? Let us know what qualities make you add a nonfiction book to your list of favourite.

Week 5: (Nov. 25 to 29) –New to My TBR (Rennie @ What’s Nonfiction): 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!

Six Degrees of Separation: from A Gentleman in Moscow to …

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.

A Gentleman in Moscow

This month the chain begins with A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles – a book I haven’t read, or even heard of before. It looks interesting from the description on Amazon:

On 21 June 1922, Count Alexander Rostov – recipient of the Order of Saint Andrew, member of the Jockey Club, Master of the Hunt – is escorted out of the Kremlin, across Red Square and through the elegant revolving doors of the Hotel Metropol.

Deemed an unrepentant aristocrat by a Bolshevik tribunal, the Count has been sentenced to house arrest indefinitely. But instead of his usual suite, he must now live in an attic room while Russia undergoes decades of tumultuous upheaval.

Can a life without luxury be the richest of all?

My first link is to another book set in Moscow Mrs Harris goes to Moscow by Paul Gallico This is a lovely little book. Mrs Harris is a London char lady who wins a trip to Moscow, where she wants to find her employer’s long-lost love. Mayhem ensues when she is thought to be Lady Char (the Russians not understanding what a ‘char lady’ is had converted it to ‘Lady Char’) and also a spy.

My second link is to a book about another visitor to Moscow: Archangel by Robert Harris. Set in present day Russia, it tells the story of Fluke Kelso, a former Oxford historian who is in Moscow for a conference on the newly opened Soviet archives. He learns of the existence of a secret notebook belonging to Josef Stalin and his search takes him to the vast forests near the White Sea port of Archangel.

Moving away from Moscow, but still in Russia my third link is Midnight in St Petersburg by Vanora Bennett. It begins in 1911 in pre-revolutionary Russia with Inna Feldman travelling by train to St Petersburg to escape the pogroms in Kiev. I liked the way Inna’s personal story is intermingled with the historical characters of the time, including Father Grigory (Rasputin), Prince Youssoupoff and Lenin.

The next book that came into my mind is another book set in St Petersburg and featuring Rasputin – Sashenka by Simon Sebag Montefiore. It begins in 1916 in St Petersburg. Sashenka’s mother parties with Rasputin whilst Sashenka is involved with conspiracy. It then moves forward to 1939 in Moscow under Stalin and ends in the 1990s when a young historian researches her life and discovers her fate. I haven’t read this book yet, even though I’ve had it for a long time.

My fifth link is a book I did read a long time ago, also set in Russia during the Russian Revolution – Doctor Zhivago by Boris Pasternak. At this distance in time my memories of it are a bit vague, but I remember more about the film of the book starring Julie Christie and Omar Sharif amongst others. I’d love to read it again sometime …

And so to the last link. It really should be to another book set in Russia to complete the chain with just one common theme. I wondered about a few – Anna Karenina, The Brothers Karamazov, or War and Peace, but eventually settled on a non fiction book, A People’s Tragedy: the Russian Revolution by Orlando Figes,  Unlike the other books in my chain I haven’t read this book, and it is not one of my TBRs – but it is now. It’s been described as the most vivid, moving and comprehensive history of the Russian Revolution available today. It’s long – 960 pages – and has won several awards.

 

My chain has one link throughout – Russia – passing from Moscow to St Petersburg and covering the modern day and the Russian Revolutionary period. Apart from the last book they are all fiction, beginning with the rather twee novel about Mrs Harris in Moscow. And for once I haven’t included any crime fiction!

Next month (October 5, 2019), we’ll begin with Three Women by Lisa Taddeo.

Nonfiction November Week 5: Additions to my TBR

Week 5: (Nov. 26 to 30) – 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!

I’ve had a great time doing these Nonfiction November posts, found yet more book bloggers and I’ve added these books to my TBR:

From the comments on my Ask the Expert post asking for recommendations about books on World War One:

The War that Ended Peace: How Europe abandoned Peace for the First World WarThe Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914Rites of Spring: The Great War and the Birth of the Modern AgeDead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania

From posts on Nonfiction that reads like fiction:

Midnight in the Garden of Good and EvilLeonardo da VinciThe Sound of a Wild Snail Eating

  • Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil by John Berendt from Rennie of What’s Nonfiction. She writes ‘Berendt’s story begins with a murder in the old-fashioned, uniquely southern atmosphere of Savannah but develops into so much more.’
  • Leonardo da Vinci by Walter Isaacson from Deb Nance at ReaderbuzzWalter Isaacson is not an art historian, he’s simply a lover of Leonardo, who manages to communicate the sheer joy of this remarkable man’ Books of the Year – The Times.
  • The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating by Elisabeth Tova Bailey from Brona’s Books, Brona writes, ‘Bailey uses examples from poetry, literature and science to bring forth the nature of her snail. Each little nugget is revealed with care and circumspection. Watching her snail, Bailey comes to terms with her own illness.’

Thanks everyone for your recommendations!

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.