History 101: Agatha Christie’s 11-day disappearance

For past installments, head over here to the History 101 page!

AAAHHHH, History 101 is back! It’s been almost two years since the last post – can you believe it’s been that long? For new followers, History 101 is one of my favorite features here where I step away from book reviews for a bit and let my history-loving heart run wild. In previous posts I’ve discussed art heists, America’s first serial killer, Ernest Hemingway, and more!

Today’s topic is something I’ve wanted to discuss for well over a year now (and was actually the basis of last year’s NaNoWriMo project!) Agatha Christie. With countless books to her name (and even more under a pseudonym) Christie is a household name and the quintessential mystery writer. Her real life, however, was just as mysterious as her novels and for an 11-day period in 1926, Christie simply vanished. Though there are theories, to this day no one knows exactly what happened or why she vanished. What is known however, is that:

  • Her husband was in love with another woman and wanted a divorce. After an argument Christie left their home and later her abandoned car was found.
  • When the news of her disappearance got out, crime novelists such as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Dorothy Sayers joined the hunt.
  • Once she was found, Christie could not recall where she had been or the circumstances that led to her leaving her home, though it was discovered she had boarded a train and checked into a hotel under the name of her husband’s mistress.

At the time, people thought that Archie, her husband, had murdered Agatha. There was talk of a publicity stunt or that Christie purposefully vanished in an attempt to embarrass her unfaithful husband. It has also been said that Christie suffered from amnesia, thus explaining why she had no recollection of where she went or why. Yet another theory suggests she was in a ‘fugue’ state, a trance of sorts, brought on by severe depression (her mother had passed the year before and she was still grieving over the loss in addition to her work schedule and Archie’s infidelity.)

Though she made a full recovery and went back to writing, Christie never discussed the incident, not even in her autobiography. I recently fell hard for my first Hercule Poirot novel and look forward to binging on the rest, but this just goes to show that truth really is stranger than fiction!

History 101: War of the Worlds

History 101 is an original, regular feature here at The Pretty Good Gatsby that combines my two passions: history and reading. Each post I’ll discuss a historical figure or event and then pair it with a book. Interested in previous History 101 posts? Check out its page!

Orson Welles’ “War of the Worlds” is synonymous with hysteria and mass-panic. Apart from a few details, however, how familiar are you with what really happened? I thought this would be a fun Halloween edition of History 101!

In the 30s, evening entertainment came in the form of radio. There were no Wiis or Playstations for families to gather around. Instead plays and variety shows ruled the airwaves. The most popular show of the day was NBC’s Chase and Sanborn Hour and Orson Welles’ The Mercury Theatre on the Air ran during the same timeslot on CBS. In an attempt to garner more listeners, Welles and one of his writers reworked H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds into a more radio-friendly adaptation (along with a local setting) for its October 30, 1938 broadcast and the rest is history.

The Mercury Theatre on the Air saw its commercial-free program as an advantage. Instead of working breaks and pauses into the play, Orson and his crew were able to continue along, lending credibility to their news reports of alien sightings. It also meant that notices stating this was just a dramatization were few and far between – and many listeners tuning in managed to miss them. Welles knew how the Chase and Sanborn Hour ran and about ten minutes into the show there was a musical act. Many listeners would tune in to a different station during this act and Welles saw this as an opportunity. Sure enough, twelve minutes into War of the Worlds, new listeners were tuning in and were shocked to hear reports and interviews, not realizing it was all fake. Soon radio stations and police were flooded with calls and there were even reports of people packing their belongings and fleeing their homes!

With the tension of World War II looming, any talk of invasions – supernatural or otherwise – didn’t sit well with the public and after the broadcast ended the outcry led to lawsuits and police investigations. Radio was still relatively new and newspapers leapt at the chance to badmouth it. Within a month of the broadcast 12,500 articles had been written and it’s possible the hysteria was played up, that it wasn’t nearly as wide-spreading as we think. Until radio came along, newspapers held a monopoly on news and entertainment. With radio, news programs and shows were readily accessible and journalists weren’t pleased. There are people who believe angry journalists wanted to show just how unreliable radio was and exaggerated the numbers.

Regardless of the actual numbers, War of the Worlds has an unparalleled legacy and to this day it’s still being broadcast. Yesterday marked its 75th anniversary and to celebrate the town of Grover’s Mill, NJ (where the play was set) celebrated in style with live reenactments; movies; a discussion led by a panel of historians; and, of course, the original 1938 broadcast.

History 101: Papa Hemingway’s not-so-heroic WWII feats

History 101 is an original, regular feature here at The Pretty Good Gatsby that combines my two passions: history and reading. Each post I’ll discuss a historical figure or event and then pair it with a book. Interested in previous History 101 posts? Check out its page!

EH4369P Everyone knows Hemingway and chances are, if you’ve made it through high school, you’re familiar with at least a handful of his works. Also widely known is his time spent at an ambulance driver in WWI and later as a war correspondent during WWII. What many people might be surprised to find out, however, is that there were a few not-so-legendary exploits.

Not long after America entered the war, the US government began issuing Q-ships – armed ships disguised as ordinary, civilian crafts – to the coast in an attempt to lure German submarines. When Hemingway got wind of this, he volunteered his fishing boat, Pilar, to be used. Unfortunately, his wife’s suspicions were correct: Hemingway and his fishing buddies were using this time (& extra fuel rations) to continue fishing and drinking.

Things came to an end in October 1943 when J. Edgar Hoover, the FBI director, stopped Q-ship operations. Over the course of his patrols, Hemingway only spotted one U-boat.

Ernest Hemingway’s books weren’t the only instance where fiction came into play. Collier’s Weekly, the magazine he was working for, sent Hemingway on assignment to cover D-Day landings. Unfortunately, for Papa, once the troops went ashore, the landing craft headed back for the ship, Hemingway in tow.

Not one to let a silly little thing like not being there stop him, Hemingway brazenly told of his experience as though he stormed the beaches right alongside the troops. To add insult to injury, his wife at the time, rival correspondent Martha Gellhorn, actually went ashore the very next day disguised as a nurse.

Yesterday I reviewed Kate Atkinson’s latest novel, Life After Life (you can read my review here).

A good portion of the novel takes place at the height of WWII, with the main character volunteering as an air raid warden during the London Blitz.

Ursula Todd is blessed – or cursed – with reliving her life over and over. In one life she died as a baby, in the other she lived. She drowned on a family vacation when she was a child and later went on to insert herself in Hitler’s inner circle.

For my first Atkinson novel I was extremely impressed! Definitely check this one out.

History 101: Richard III

History 101 is an original, regular feature here at The Pretty Good Gatsby that combines my two passions: history and reading. Each post I’ll discuss a historical figure or event and then pair it with a book. Interested in previous History 101 posts? Check out its page!

r3 Yesterday news of the discovery of King Richard III’s skeleton rocked the world. Even more exciting was where his bones were discovered: in an ordinary parking lot.

Although it would be beyond awesome for this to be just a completely random uncover, the truth is that archaeologists had an idea where to look. See, it was long believed that his remains resided in a Franciscan monastery. Unfortunately, that monastery has long since been destroyed. However, ancient walls were unearthed and that got the ball rolling, eventually resulting in a skeleton.

I remember the announcements of this discovery last summer, but at that point scientists weren’t 100% positive of the identity. Tests done to age the bones as well as wound marks pointed to the slain monarch, but they needed DNA proof.

A direct descendant was tracked down – a furniture maker living in Canada – and after some DNA testing, it was determined once and for all the remains of Richard III were indeed found and will receive a proper burial next year.

Fun fact: Richard III was the last English monarch to die in battle!

My book pick for this edition of History 101 is The Perilous Gard by Elizabeth Marie Pope (my full 5-star review → here).

No, Richard III does not play a role in the book (and, no, I was not going to recommend Shakepeare’s play). Instead, The Perilous Gard takes place during Mary’s reign, though much of the focus is on Elizabeth (still Princess at the time) and her young handmaiden. Mary and Elizabeth’s grandfather, Henry VII, seized the throne after Richard III’s death and issued in the reign of a little family known as the Tudors.

Unfortunately The Perilous Gard was only one of two books Pope wrote. Originally released in the 70s, I had only just recently discovered the novel and fell for it hard late last year. Kate Sutton is exiled to an old fortress after Queen Mary receives a letter written by Kate’s younger sister. Now long after arriving at the Perilous Gard, Kate gets to feeling that something isn’t right.

A trip to the village results in looks of terrors and whispers of the Fairy Folk and Christopher Heron lives with the guilt of his young niece’s sudden disappearance.

Take a look at my reviews; I’m extremely picky when it comes to handing out praise, but my goodness The Perilous Gard was PHENOMENAL. Also, it features one of the best romances I’ve come across in YA.

history 101: the greatest art heist in history

History 101 is an original, regular feature here at The Pretty Good Gatsby that combines my two passions: history and reading. Each post I’ll discuss a historical figure or event and then pair it with a book. Interested in previous History 101 posts? Check out its page!

In this edition of History 101 I want to discuss art thefts. Not just any particular art theft either, but the most famous – or infamous, rather. In the middle of the night on March 18, 1990, thieves disguised as police made their way into the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston and walked out with over $500 million of art. And get this: to this day, the art has yet to be recovered and no one knows the identity of the thieves.

How the thieves pulled this off sounds like something straight out of a story. While Boston was in the midst of Saint Patrick’s Day celebrations, two men in police uniforms came to the door and said they were responding to a call. The guard let them in and, along with another guard, was taken to the basement and handcuffed to the pipes.

It wasn’t until the following morning when the next shift came in that the guards were found and the theft was discovered.

To this day both the museum and the FBI are looking into the case! The museum is offering a $5 million reward and still no one has stepped forward. Recently a few men were questioned, but nothing seems to have come from it.

The stolen artwork includes paintings by Vermeer, Degas (five of his works were taken), Rembrandt, an ancient Chinese goblet, and others.

The museum has a separate page on their website detailing the theft. You can read more about it here.

Yesterday I posted a review for the fantastically wonderful book The Art Forger by B. A. Shapiro. The backbone of this novel is the heist. The main character, a painter specializing in Degas reproductions for a high-quality copy website, gets the chance of a lifetime when she’s given the opportunity to paint a Degas masterpiece that was stolen from the museum.

This book has a little bit of everything that’s sure to please fans of all genres. Historical fiction: check. True crime: check. Mystery: check. Romance: check. The Art Forger has it all.

To be honest, I was a little hesitant to read it at first. I know the names of the popular artists, but I couldn’t tell a Rembrandt from a Monet. The worries I had completely dissolved the moment I opened the first page. Even if you know nothing about art, this book is for you.

Want to know more? Check out my review here!

History 101: will the real mother goose please stand up

History 101 is an original, regular feature here at The Pretty Good Gatsby that combines my two passions: history and reading. Each post I’ll discuss a historical figure or event and then pair it with a book. Interested in previous History 101 posts? Check out its page!

Everyone is familiar with Mother Goose and her nursery rhymes. However, beyond Humpty Dumpty, little is known about this woman. Was she even a real person? If so, who was she?

Let’s start at the beginning. In the late 1690s, a book was published in France entitled Contes de ma mère l’Oye (Tales of my Mother Goose). It wasn’t until 1729 that an English translation was printed, first in London and then in America in the late 1780s. Finally, in 1791, John Newbery (yes, that Newbery) published a collection of tales entitled Mother Goose’s Melody and she’s be a household name ever since.

Surprisingly enough, there are only two theories as to Mother Goose’s real identity. The first is Bertrada of Laon, an ancient queen (and mother of Charlemagne) who had the unfortunate nickname Goose-Foot Bertha.

The second – and far more widely accepted – theory is that the real Mother Goose was a Bostonian named Elizabeth Foster Goose. When she was 27 (in 1692), she married the widowed Issac Goose and brought to the marriage her six children to his 10. With sixteen children – and later, numerous grandchildren – Elizabeth kept everyone entertained by telling stories and singing songs. One of the couple’s daughters married a printer and in the early 1700s he published a collection of Mother Goose’s rhymes. There’s a gravestone in Boston that has become something of a tourist attraction, but whether or not Mrs. Goose was the real Mother Goose is still unknown.

I’ve mentioned these books once before (in a rather short-lived feature that I’m hoping to revive someday!). Jasper Fforde – if you aren’t reading him, you should probably fix that – has a series called Nursery Crimes and they’re wonderful. If you’re familiar with Fforde, you already know what to expect. If you’re new to him, well..expect a lot or quirk. He’s a little out there, but once you get used to his writing, you won’t be able to put him down.

The Nursery Crimes series takes a beloved classic and turns it on his head. The Gingerbreadman is actually a psychopathic killer. Humpty Dumpty has hit rock bottom – literally (spoiler?) – as well as the bottom of the bottle. Inspector Jack Spratt, head of the Nursery Crimes Division, and his partner Mary Mary tackle odd and ridiculous cases in these books and it’s awesome. There’s a third book coming out (not until 2014 UGH!) and I can’t wait!

history 101: giants!

History 101 is a regular feature here at The Pretty Good Gatsby. I combine my love of history and reading by pairing an odd or interesting event/historical figure with a book. For more History 101 post, check out its page.

:) I got some really good feedback for my first History 101 post and I’m beyond ecstatic that you guys like it! ♥ For the second post I thought I’d talk about a famous hoax: The Cardiff Giant.

“There were giants in the earth in those days.” (Genesis 6.4)

Thus begins the fascinating tale of the Cardiff Giant. In the late 1860s George Hull, a New York resident, got into a heated debate with a Reverend over that particular line in the Bible. The Reverend stated it should be taken literally while Hull, an atheist, firmly disagreed. He was, however, inspired to create his own giant – and make some money at the same time.

After Hull noticed that the blue streaks in lime rock closely resemble human veins. He hired men to cut a large 10’+ slab of lime and had it carved to look like a human. He even went so far as to use a tool to add pores to the ‘skin.’

Once the giant was finished, Hull shipped it to his cousin’s farm in Cardiff, New York. In the middle of the night, William Newell, his son, and Hull buried the giant and Hull instructed them to keep quiet and in a year or so he’d contact them again and they’d move on to the second stage of the hoax.

In a bizarre coincidence, six months after burying the giant, fossils were discovered on a nearby farm! This exciting news made the papers and George was ready to proceed.

True to his word, a year after they buried the giant, George contacted the Newell’s and on October 15, 1869, William Newell hired men to dig a well in his yard. A few hours later, the men discovered the giant and word quickly spread. Soon people were coming from all over to see this giant including distinguished scholars and clergymen. It wasn’t long before two theories popped up: 1, the giant was an authentic human and 2, it was an ancient statue. Interestingly, no one put forth the idea it was a fake.

Ten days after the giant’s discovery, Hull sold it to a group for $30,000 (around $490,000 today!). This group moved the giant to Syracuse, New York and put it on display there. It was around this time that P. T. Barnum heard about the giant and sent a representative to check it out. Barnum was a shrewd businessman and offered $50,000 (over $808,000!), but was turned down. Determined to get his way, Barnum had his own giant carved and started announced that he had bought the ‘real’ giant, while the one in Syracuse was a fake. Naturally the newspapers latched on to Barnum’s story and ran with it.

It wasn’t until Barnum was sued and went to trial that George Hull stepped forward and confessed his giant was a fake.

Both giants can still be seen today: George Hull’s is on display at Farmer’s Museum and Barnum’s replica can be seen at Marvin’s Marvelous Mechanical Museum.

Fun fact: It was during this time that the famous quote “There’s a sucker born every minute” first came about. It’s widely attributed to Barnum, but it was actually said by David Hannum, a member of the group that bought the giant. He said it after Barnum started charging people to see his replica (Hannum was still under the impression that his giant was real).

:) What else could I have possibly recommended? The BFG is a classic and one of my all-time favorites. 2012 marks The BFG‘s 30th birthday and today is Roald Dahl Day!

Seriously though, if you made it out of childhood without reading this book, stop what you’re doing and get a copy. I was first introduced to it in 3rd grade and when I reread it my senior year, so many classmates saw it and shared their memories. It’s a great book and one I revisit often.

new feature! history 101

I’m testing out a new feature here at The Pretty Good Gatsby. If you guys enjoy it (& I’m hoping you will!), you can definitely look forward to this becoming a regular feature.

History 101 combines my love of books with my love of history. I’m a total history nerd and although my studies focused on the American Civil War, so many other eras have a special place in my heart.

The gist is to ramble on a bit about a historical figure/event/whatever and then to share some books for further reading.

Ready? LET’S GO!

For the first History 101 piece, I wanted to discuss another first: America’s first serial killer, H. H. Holmes. Dr. Henry Howard Holmes, the alias of Herman Webster Mudgett, was born in May 1861 in New Hampshire. By the time of his execution in 1896, Holmes had amassed a staggering victim count. To this day an exact number is unknown, with estimates ranging from a few dozen to hundreds.

Holmes was a conman of legendary proportions. While attending medical school, he would steal bodies, only to later collect the insurance money. By the mid 1880s, Holmes found himself in Chicago (after having married multiple woman along the way) and it is there the story begins.

After a legitimate business failed, Holmes and his wife (whom he married while still married to other women across the country) settled in a Chicago suburb and Holmes found decent earnings as a drugstore clerk. Within a few years he bought out the owner and set to work building an enormous building across the street. This building was to become his infamous murder castle.

From the outside, the new building seemed completely normal: Holmes relocated the drugstore to the first floor and acted as a hotel for visiting guests to the Chicago World’s Fair. In reality, however, Holmes’s true intentions were far more sinister.

Investigators later discovered the true horrors of the ‘castle.’ A giant safe sealed the fate for some victims, while others succumbed to torture. Still more were locked in windowless bedrooms while gas was pumped in through lines that ran along the walls. Holmes also has large furnaces installed which he used to cremate bodies, thus destroying any evidence of his crimes and, through his school connections, he was able to sell off other bodies.

Finally in 1894, after years of swindling and killing, Holmes was caught and ultimately hanged in 1896. In just a few decades he perpetrated acts more gruesome – and numerous – than the country had seen committed by a single man as well as cheat scores of people and companies out of thousands of dollars, all the while playing a loving family man.

My choice of book belongs to Devil in the White City by Erik Larson, an absolutely FASCINATING non-fiction novel.

Larson tells the stories of two men: Daniel H. Burnham, the architect responsible for the fair’s construction, and H.H. Holmes, a serial killer masquerading as a charming doctor.

Burnham’s challenge was immense. In a short period of time, he was forced to overcome the death of his partner and numerous other obstacles to construct the famous “White City” around which the fair was built. His efforts to complete the project, and the fair’s incredible success, are skillfully related along with entertaining appearances by such notables as Buffalo Bill Cody, Susan B. Anthony, and Thomas Edison.

The activities of the sinister Dr. Holmes, who is believed to be responsible for scores of murders around the time of the fair, are equally remarkable. He devised and erected the World’s Fair Hotel, complete with crematorium and gas chamber, near the fairgrounds and used the event as well as his own charismatic personality to lure victims.

I know people tend to shy away from non-fiction, claiming they’re too boring, too ‘textbook,’ whatever. Personally, I’m a huge fan of non-fic! &, trust me, Erik Larson’s writing is anything but boring. More often than not I completely forgot I wasn’t reading a fiction novel!

Devil in the White City intertwines Holmes’s story with the World’s Fair beautifully. Everything – and everyone – is brought to life and the details are perfect (I would have loved to have visited the fairgrounds; it sounds magical). Also, I had no idea the inventor of the Ferris Wheel (invented specifically for the fair!) hailed from Pittsburgh!

The painstaking detail given to Holmes is remarkable and, in the case of his crimes, downright nauseating. The lengths he went to for his murders is unbelievable and his smooth, easygoing way of conning people is astonishing.

& that wraps up the first History 101 post! Admittedly it’s a haphazard job with a LOT of rough edges that need to be polished, but this gives you a glimpse as to what’s in store. :) Thoughts?