Nonfiction Challenge 2015 Wrap Up

The Nonfiction Reading Challenge was hosted by The Introverted Reader It ran between 1 January to 31 December 2015.

Nonfiction Reading Challenge hosted at The Introverted Reader
Image courtesy of Serge Bertasius Photography at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

The Challenge:  Read any non-fiction book(s), adult or young adult.. You could choose anything. Memoirs, History, Travel ‘“ absolutely anything that is classified as non-fiction counts for this challenge.

The levels:

Dilettante‘“Read 1-5 non-fiction books

Explorer‘“Read 6-10

Seeker‘“Read 11-15

Master‘“Read 16-20

I reached the Seeker level and read more than in previous years.

I read mainly autobiography/biography/memoir, and history:

  1. Wilkie Collins by Peter Ackroyd (Biography)
  2. An Autobiography by Anthony Trollope
  3. Spilling the Beans by Clarissa Dickson Wright (Autobiography)
  4. Burying the Typewriter: Childhood Under the Eye of the Secret Police by Carmen Bugan (Autobiography)
  5. Nothing To Be Frightened Of by Julian Barnes (Memoir, philosophy, reflection on the fear of death, belief)
  6. H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald (Memoir, Falconry, Goshawk, T H White)
  7. Poirot and Me by David Suchet (Autobiography, Agatha Christie’s Poirot)
  8. The Golden Age of Murder by Martin Edwards (Crime Fiction, History, Biography)
  9. Stephen Hawking: His Life and Work by Kitty Ferguson (Biography, Science)
  10. One Life: My Mother’s Story by Kate Grenville (Biography)
  11. Come, Tell Me How You Live by Agatha Christie Mallowan (Memoir, Syria, 1930s)
  12. Alan M Turing by Sara Turing (Biography)
  13. Watching War Films with My Father by Al Murray (Memoir, History, Second World War)
  14. Alan Turing:Unlocking the Enigma by David Boyle (Biography, History)
  15. The Monocled Mutineer by John Fairley and William Allison (History, First World War)
  16. Mrs Jordan’s Profession: the Story of a Great Actress and a Future King by Claire Tomalin (Biography, History)
  17. Nagasaki: Life After Nuclear War by Susan Southard (Japan, Nuclear Weapons, History, World War Two)
  18. A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson (Appalachian Trail, USA)
  19. The Churchill Factor by Boris Johnson (History, Biography)

A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson

I thoroughly enjoyed Bill Bryson’s A Walk in the Woods, but with
Christmas and New Year just a few days away this is just a brief post to record a few of my thoughts before they fade from my mind.

This is the Blurb:

In the company of his friend Stephen Katz (last seen in the bestselling Neither Here nor There), Bill Bryson set off to hike the Appalachian Trail, the longest continuous footpath in the world. Ahead lay almost 2,200 miles of remote mountain wilderness filled with bears, moose, bobcats, rattlesnakes, poisonous plants, disease-bearing tics, the occasional chuckling murderer and – perhaps most alarming of all – people whose favourite pastime is discussing the relative merits of the external-frame backpack.

Facing savage weather, merciless insects, unreliable maps and a fickle companion whose profoundest wish was to go to a motel and watch The X-Files, Bryson gamely struggled through the wilderness to achieve a lifetime’s ambition – not to die outdoors.

And here’s what I thought:

I was fascinated by it all from the details of the Appalachian Trail itself stretching from Georgia to Maine, to Bryson’s observations about the people he met, the difficulties of walking with a huge backpack, and his relationship with Katz, who struggled to keep up with him. I know what that feels like, hiking with people fitter than you and seeing them march off in front of you, waiting for you to catch up and then setting off again – I felt sorry for Katz.

I can’t say that it made me want to go out and walk for days along a long distance trail, but I did enjoy reading about his experiences and his descriptions of the trail and of the places he visited off the trail. Some of the route sounds very dangerous, such as this for example as Bryson and Katz walked through a snow storm:

… we came to a narrow ledge of path along a wall of rock called Big Butt Mountain.

Even in ideal circumstances the path around Big Butt would have required delicacy and care. It was like a window ledge of path on a skyscraper, no more than fourteen or sixteen inches wide, and crumbling in places, a sharp drop on one side of perhaps 80 feet and long, looming stretches of vertical granite on the other. Once or twice I nudged foot-sized rocks over the side and watched with faint horror as they crashed and tumbled to improbably remote resting places. (pages 100-101)

What? He watched with ‘faint horror’? It terrifies me just to think of being on a path like that! He goes on to say that all the way along this ledge they were half blinded by snow and jostled with wind. It wasn’t a blizzard, it was a tempest and at one point Katz lost his footing and ended up hugging a tree, his ‘feet skating, his expression bug-eyed and fearful’. Oh, no that is definitely not for me.

I liked all the facts about the flora and fauna, and the history of the Trail and indeed about the history connected to the landscape.  Bryson’s descriptions set the scene so vividly I could easily imagine myself there – too easily in the hard places, but also in the beautiful locations, such as this in the Shenandoah Valley:

… a spacious, sun-dappled dell, tucked into a bowl of small hills, which gave it an enchanted secretive feel. Everything you might ask of a woodland scene was there – musical brook, carpet of lush ferns, elegant well-spaced trees … (page 204)

I wished it had an index and that the map of the Trail was more detailed, oh and some photos would have been good. I shall have to wait until I see the film to really see what the Trail is like.

I set out to write just a brief post! But there is so much more that I could have written that really it is just a brief post.

Nagasaki: Life After Nuclear War by Susan Southard

Nagasaki: Life after Nuclear War by Susan Southard is an amazing, heart-wrenching book.

The facts are horrendous – on August 9th 1945, two days after the atomic bombing of Hiroshima, a five-ton plutonium bomb was dropped on the small coastal town of Nagasaki. The effects were cataclysmic.

This must be one of the most devastatingly sad and depressing books I’ve read and yet also one of the most uplifting, detailing the dropping of the bomb, which killed 74,000 people and injured another 75,000. As the subtitle indicates this book is not just about the events of 9 August 1945 but it follows the lives of five of the survivors from then to the present day. And it is their accounts which make this such an emotive and uplifting book, as it shows their bravery, how they survived, and how they were eventually able to tell others about their experiences. Along with all the facts about the after effects of the bombing, the destruction, and radiation, it exposes the true horror of atomic warfare, making it an impressive and most compelling account of pain, fear, bravery and compassion.

Throughout the book the black and white photos illustrate the true horror of the effects of the bomb – photos of Nagasaki both before and after the bomb was dropped, of five survivors – Wada Kohi (aged 18 in August 1945), a street car operator; Nagano Etsuko (aged 16), who worked on a production line in a Mitsubishi airplane parts factory;  Taniguchi Sumiteru (aged 16), who worked at Minchino-o Post Office; Yoshida Katsuji (aged 13), a student at Nagasaki Prefecture Technical School on a ship building course; and Do-oh Mineko (aged 15), formerly a student at Keiho Girls High School, working at the Mitsubishi Arms Factory Onashi Plant. There are also maps showing Japan today and of Nagasaki 1945 showing the Scope of Atomic Bomb Damage.

Susan Southard’s ten years of research has resulted in this impressive book as she reveals what happened in particular to these five survivors, their immediate injuries, the radiation-related cancers and illnesses they have suffered, and their difficulties of daily living still in pain both physical and emotional.

In addition to all that Nagasaki ‘reveals the censorship that kept the suffering endured by the hibakusha [atomic bomb-affected people] hidden around the world. For years after the bombings news reports and scientific research were censored by U.S. occupation forces and the U.S. government led an efficient campaign to justify the necessity and morality of dropping the bombs’ (from the jacket sleeve).

I knew a bit about Hiroshima and Nagasaki before I read this book but it has opened my eyes to the true horror of nuclear war and the need to prevent anything like this happening again.

Many thanks to Souvenir Press Ltd for sending me a complimentary copy for review.

  • Hardcover: 416 pages
  • Publisher: Souvenir Press Ltd (2 Nov. 2015)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0285643274
  • ISBN-13: 978-0285643277

Mrs Jordan’s Profession by Claire Tomalin

Mrs. Jordan's Profession: The Actress and the Prince

I loved 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 .  It’s based on material in the Royal Archives at Windsor; letters from Dora held at the Huntingdon Library, San Merino, California; various private family papers, letters and memorabilia, as well as numerous secondary sources from national and local libraries.  The resulting biography took her several years to complete.

Much of the information about Dora is taken from her own letters, written over 25 years, to her children and friends and many hundreds of those to the Duke of Clarence, the father of ten of her children (the FitzClarences) have survived. She was a remarkably strong character and an incomparable actress.

William, the Duke of Clarence and Dora Jordan were born into very different families – born in 1765 he was the third son of George III and Queen Charlotte,  and she was born in 1761, the daughter of Francis and Grace who although not legally married lived together as Mr and Mrs Bland.  He was not expected to succeed to the throne and as a boy served in the navy, later he was given a dukedom, an income and an estate. She became 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. The two met and she became his mistress in 1790, eventually living together at Bushy House in Middlesex. Their relationship was a happy one until, as the years went by, William was put under pressure to find a suitable wife and, of course, marriage to Dora was out of the question. They separated in 1811 and she was heart broken.

There is so much in this book that fascinated me. The attacks in the press on their relationship were vicious and there were storms of abuse – as an actress and a prince they could not have private lives and the journalists and cartoonists were savage in their portrayal of the couple. The cartoons in particular amazed me. ‘Jordan’ was a common term for a chamber-pot, so her name came in very handily, and became an instantly recognisable visual symbol:

Sometimes it was put over the Duke’s head; sometimes he was shown standing in it, with her prettily draped round the edge, naked and mermaid-like. In other drawings the pot reverted to its domestic function under the bed; the words ‘Public jordan open to all parties’ were written round one of these. The most effective and cruellest was Gillray’s simple picture showing Dora as a giant chamber-pot, cracked and with a vagina-shaped hole into which the figure of William is disappearing, giving a nautical shout of pleasure as he does so. His braided coat is hanging on a peg to one side and her ankles and feet in dainty slippers appear below the pot. The caption reads ‘The Lubber’s Hole, alias the Cracked Jordan’, (page 123)

Dora comes across as a very likeable person, hard working, and devoted to her family. She was a talented and probably  the most popular actress of the time in Britain, based at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane and also appearing in theatres throughout the country, acting throughout her pregnancies and often taking a baby with her on tour. Claire Tomalin writes

She was the best-loved and most admired comic actress of her time, hailed by fellow actors, critics and public alike as a uniquely gifted performer, fully the equal in comedy to Mrs Siddons in tragedy: for several decades they were generally referred to as the Muses of Comedy and tragedy. (page 3)

After she and the Duke separated the debts incurred by a son-in-law drawn on her account forced her to live abroad until they could be cleared, but she sank into illness and despair and died near Paris in 1816.

William succeeded to the throne in 1830, after the death of his older brother, George IV. One of the first acts of his reign was to commission a sculpture – he wanted a life-size representation of Dora, She had been dead for  fifteen years, so Francis Chantrey, the sculptor worked from portraits, finishing it in 1834. William’s intention was to place the statue in Westminster Abbey, but the Dean of Westminster refused to allow it and it remained in Chantrey’s studio. Eventually, after passing through several hands, the fifth Earl of Munster bequeathed it to the Queen and it is now in Buckingham Palace among the portraits of kings and queens in the Picture Gallery.

Like all good biographies Mrs Jordan’s Profession has an extensive bibliography, additional notes and an index. There are several photographs, family trees of and an appendix of Mrs Jordan’s Roles.

  • Paperback: 422 pages
  • Publisher: Penguin 1995
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-13: 978-0140159233
  • Source: I bought the book

Reading Challenges: Mount TBR Reading Challenge 2015, Non Fiction Reading Challenge 2015, TBR Pile Challenge 2015.

The Monocled Mutineer by John Fairley & William Allison

When I was asked if I would read and review a revised edition of The Monocled Mutineer by John Fairley and William Allison, the book on which the 1986 BBC TV series was based I was immediately interested as I had watched the TV series.

Description from the Press Release:

In 1917 British, New Zealand and Australian troops stationed at the Étaples Training Camp in northern France protested against the inhuman conditions and the protest erupted into mutiny. Private Percy Toplis was named by the authorities as a leader of this mutiny. While several of the mutineers were executed in its aftermath, Toplis escaped and remained at large for three years. The Army immediately covered up the mutiny, thousands of the participants died shortly afterwards in the Passchendaele offensive while the survivors remained silent for over fifty years. After three years as Britain’s most wanted man Percy Toplis was killed in 1920 by a policeman.

My thoughts:

This is the 2nd and updated edition of The Monocled Mutineer, which  includes a new introduction and epilogue that expand on newly discovered information about the events of the mutiny and the government’s response to it. It is primarily based on interviews and correspondence with survivors of the First World War nearly sixty years after the events they describe. In 1976 the authors advertised in newspapers asking whether any veterans from the First World War had recollections of the events in Étaples in September 1917. They received many replies containing:

  … sharp, bitter accounts of events long ago, but far from forgotten. Inevitably they were careful handwritten stories in old men’s script, teased out without any other prompting than the brief enquiry in their local paper. (page 2)

In addition to the anecdotal evidence the authors have used other sources including the published personal reminiscences of Edwin Woodhall,  Detective and Service Days and Lady Angela Forbes. Memories and Base Details; journalists’ accounts in various periodicals; and have drawn background material from records about the First World War in the  Imperial War Museum, The Public Record Office and the British Newspaper Library.

Not many contemporary records have survived that relate to the mutiny. One of the surviving records is the war diary of the Commandant at the Étaples Camp,  Brigadier-General Andrew Graham Thomson. Thompson describes what happened as a ‘disturbance’ and as ‘riots’ and ‘breakouts’:

Disturbance in Reinforcement Camp between military police and troops, Corporal Wood, 4th Gordons being accidentally shot … a crowd of about 1,000 gathered at Ã‰taples town, and about 7.30 pm tried to break into the Sevigne cafe where two policemen were hiding. (page 1)

But in 1978, after the publication of the 1st edition and the BBC dramatisation, the British government admitted that the events that took place at Ã‰taples had been a mutiny and also that  it was probable that the records relating to the board of inquiry into the events had been destroyed many years ago. The files on the mutiny and Percy Toplis’ military records are closed until 2017.

Historical accuracy is never easy to obtain, especially where records have been lost and where there is a limited number of sources to compare one against the other. In this case the main sources of information are the personal accounts from the veterans as they remembered them many years later.

And the picture they paint is a most remarkable and shocking one of the brutal and inhuman conditions which were in operation at the camp. As for Toplis’ part in the mutiny, the letters from the veterans occasionally mentioned him and whilst some thought he was the main ringleader, few thought he was the only one, but that there were a number of soldiers involved. One remembered Toplis’ name on a wanted poster and wrote:

If he was a villain then he was not the only one around Étaples. Maybe he too was tired of being humiliated, deprived, brutalized and treated like a dog. We had all got tired of being treated with less consideration than that given to horses. (page 91)

Another reported that Toplis, heading a mob of about 1,000 deserters confronted Thompson, surrounding his car. Toplis climbed on the running board and dictated the terms for ending the mutiny (page 93). After the mutiny ended, whilst some of the ringleaders were executed, Toplis escaped. Others were killed in the battle for Passchendale which began on 20th September.

Maybe more information will be available in 2017 when the files are opened and a fuller picture of what happened will emerge.

The Monocled Mutineer also goes into detail about Percy Toplis’ life before and after the war. Coming from a working-class background, by the age of eleven he was already a con artist and a thief. He must have been a charismatic character, able to both charm and deceive people, successfully impersonating officers, able to melt into the background deserting and then rejoining the army seemingly at will, not sentenced to execution by the firing squad (the penalty for desertion). But after the war ended in 1920 his luck ran out as he was accused of murdering a taxi-driver. The inquest held that he was guilty in his absence. Toplis fled, evading capture for six weeks and he was eventually shot down in a police ambush near Plumpton in Cumberland.

  • Paperback: 208 pages
  • Publisher: Souvenir Press Ltd; 2nd Revised edition edition (7 Sept. 2015)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 028564310X
  • ISBN-13: 978-0285643109
  • Source: review copy from the publisher

Come, Tell Me How You Live by Agatha Christie Mallowan

Agatha Christie 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. 

Come Tell Me How You Live: an archaeological memoir is her answer to her friends’ questions about what life was like when she accompanied Max on his excavations in Syria and Iraq in the 1930s.

She began writing it before the Second World War and then laid it aside. After four years of the war she picked it up again, using her notes and diaries to complete this memoir, writing about her life with  Max Mallowan and his team excavating the ancient sites at Chagar Bazar, Tell Brak and other sites in the Habur and Jaghjagha region in what was then north western Syria. This map shows the area they were working in:

Syria 1930s

She wrote in the Epilogue  (written in 1944) that in remembering and recording that time it had been

… not a task, but a labour of love. Not an escape to something that was, but the bringing into the hard work and sorrow of today of something imperishable that one not only had but still has!

For I love that fertile country and its simple people, who know how to laugh and how to enjoy life, who are idle and gay, and who have dignity, good manners, and a great sense of humour, and to whom death is not terrible.

Inshallah, I shall go there again, and the things that I love shall not have perished from this earth.

With regard to her statement about death earlier in the book Agatha Christie had explained the difference between the Western and Oriental attitudes to life and death:

Accustomed as we are to our Western ideas of the importance of life, it is difficult to adjust our thoughts to a different scale of values. And yet to the Oriental mind it is simple enough. Death is bound to come – it is as inevitable as birth; whether it comes early or late is entirely at the will of Allah. And that belief, that acquiescence, does away with what has become the curse of our modern day world – anxiety. (page 96)

The emphasis in the book is on the everyday life on a dig and Agatha took an active part, helping to catalogue, label and clean the items they found as well as taking photographs and developing them. She also found time to spend on writing her books. So, although she gives a detailed account of how they worked, how they employed workmen for the excavations and servants who looked after Max and his team of archaeologists, there is not much about what they found.

Although she described the local people in her Epilogue as people, who know how to laugh and how to enjoy life, who are idle and gay, and who have dignity, good manners, and a great sense of humour, she also recorded their disputes:

Quarrelling is, in any case, almost continuous. All our workmen have hot tempers, and all carry with them the means of expressing themselves – large knives, bludgeons, and a kind of mace or knobkerry. Heads are cut open, and furious figures are entangled with each other in fierce struggles … page 86

And she also recorded this chilling statement:

We come to the question of religions generally – a very vexed question in this particular part of the world, for Syria is full of fiercely fanatical sects of all kinds, all willing to cut each other’s throats for the good cause! (page 166)

How sad and horrified she would be if she could see Syria today, but in the light of the extract above I don’t think she would have been too surprised! And sadly the places she loved are no longer the same. Here is her description of the shrine Sheikh ‘Ada near Mosul

There  can be, I think, no spot in the world so beautiful  or so peaceful. You wind far up into the hills through oak trees and pomegranites (sic), following a mountain stream. The air is fresh and clear and pure. …

And then suddenly, you come to the white spires of the Shrine. All is calm and gentle and peaceful there. Gentle-faced custodians bring you refreshments and you sit in perfect peace, sipping tea. (page 109)

Compare that with the description in The Guardian last August of the area as ‘hell on earth‘.

This book is written with love and humour – for example Agatha’s description of buying clothes for her visit to Syria because her last year’s summer clothes  are Shrunk, Faded and Peculiar – and too tight everywhere.  In the Foreword she stated that it is a book full of everyday doings and happenings with ‘no beautiful descriptions of scenery, no treating of economic problems, no racial reflections, no history.‘ I think she was under estimating her writing, because this little book has all that and more. I loved it.

One Life: My Mother’s Story by Kate Grenville

One Life: My Mother’s Story

Australian author, Kate Grenville has written a beautiful biography of her mother Nance Russell. A book that casts light not only on Nance’s life but also on life in Australia for most of the 20th century. Nance was born in 1912 and died in 2002, so she lived through two World Wars, an economic depression and a period of great social change. Nance wasn’t famous, the daughter of a rural working-class couple who became pub-keepers, but she was a remarkable woman.

Kate’s mother had wanted to write her own story and had left fragments of stories about her ancestors, stories her mother had told her, about her childhood, but most about her adult life up to her mid-forties. (Kate Grenville has used some of the stories of her ancestors in her own novels – such as The Secret River, a wonderful historical novel).

So this biography reads like a novel, but is based on Nance Russell’s memories, making it much more than a factual account of a person’s life. It’s is a vivid portrait of a real woman, a woman of great strength and determination, who had had a difficult childhood, who persevered, went to University, became a pharmacist, opened her own pharmacy, brought up her children, and helped build the family home. She faced sex discrimination and had to sell her pharmacy in order to look after her children at home.

Nance had wanted to be a teacher, but when she said this to her mother she ‘exploded. Over her dead body Nance was going to be a teacher!‘  But her parents thought that pharmacy was ‘good for a girl‘. It was 40  years later, after her own children were grown up, that Nance took an arts degree, then a teaching diploma and a diploma in teaching English as a foreign language. ‘She taught French in schools, taught English to newly arrived migrant children, and ran her own business teaching English to the wives of Japanese business men.

My bare account of Nance’s life doesn’t do justice to this book, in which Kate Grenville brings to life both the good times and the bad times, writing about her mother’s heartache, worries, joys and sorrows, of the hard times during the economic depression, all of it as a whole making a rich and fulfilled life. Very near to the end of the book Kate Grenville writes:

One of her last trips [to Europe] was to Florence, where she stood in front of the frescoes that Dante had seen. A line came into her mind from somewhere in all her reading: Suffering pierces the shield of habit. It was a thought that made sense of the unhappiness she’d known, and also the happiness. She knew that ultimately it didn’t matter what happened to you. In the light of eternity, in the light of all those dead writers in whose work she’d recognised the great truths, only one thing mattered. What other people did was up to them. Your job was to live – as richly and honestly as you could – your one life. (page 246)

Reading Challenges: Non Fiction Reading Challenge 2015 and What’s in a Name? 2015 in the category of a book with a familial relation in the title.