This summer has mostly been a non-fiction reading binge for me. Blood on the Page by Thomas Harding is one of the most unique and intriguing true crime books I have come across in a long time. Photographer, writer and expert on the playwright George Bernard Shaw, 86-year-old Allan Chappelow was found beaten to death at his home in Hampstead in north London in June 2006. He was also a recluse and hoarder and his house was so cluttered that it took the police three days to locate his body buried under four feet of paper. Harding outlines Chappelow’s life, the investigation into his death and the background of the main suspect, Wang Yam, a Chinese dissident. The final part of the book covers Yam’s murder trial, which was the first in modern British history to be held in camera – that is, totally secret with no reporting of the defence case in the press. Even speculation about why the trial was held in this way remains completely banned. Despite the obvious limitations posed by this, Harding makes good use of the available background material to produce a gripping account of a truly bizarre and unique case.
Featherhood by Charlie Gilmour is a memoir about birds, fathers, sons and the bonds between them. Until recently, Gilmour was probably best known for being the adopted son of Pink Floyd guitarist David Gilmour, and for being sentenced to 16 months in prison for violent disorder during the student tuition fee protests in London in 2010. His biological father, the writer and anarchist Heathcote Williams, abandoned Gilmour and his mother Polly Samson when he was a baby. Gilmour’s attempts to rekindle the relationship towards the end of Heathcote’s life occurred at the same time as he was planning to start a family with his wife, Yana, and looking after an abandoned baby magpie named Benzene. ‘Featherhood’ is an elegantly written book and I can see why it was mentioned in several “best books of 2020” lists last year and drawn comparisons with another excellent nature-themed memoir H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald.
Prisoners of Geography by Tim Marshall is a book I have been meaning to read ever since I went to Marshall’s talk on flags at Chiswick Book Festival in 2016 which is one of the most interesting festival events I have been to. Books about geopolitics aimed at the general reader are fairly few and far between, and this one does a solid job of explaining how the geography of various countries, including their natural resources, climate, terrain, population and borders, have strategic implications on international relations. Donald Trump’s presidency, the Brexit referendum and a global pandemic have all occurred since ‘Prisoners of Geography’ was first published in 2015, but otherwise almost all of its content is still relevant even if it is no longer entirely up-to-date. For example, the section on Afghanistan has been useful background reading in the context of recent events in the region. I look forward to reading its recently published sequel ‘The Power of Geography’.
Inheritance by Dani Shapiro is a memoir about the author’s discovery in 2016 that her father was not her biological father after sending her DNA sample to Ancestry.com on a whim. The results revealed that Shapiro was 52% Ashkenazi Jew and 48% European (French, English, Irish, German), the 48% European being the half that couldn’t be explained. Her memoir reflects on her Jewish identity – she grew up in an Orthodox Jewish family in New Jersey – and the tricky ethical dilemmas around privacy in these matters. As her parents were no longer alive, Shapiro’s quest for answers is not entirely straightforward. A chance conversation with her mother several years ago revealed that she had been conceived at a fertility clinic in Philadelphia. Her biological first cousin had also used Ancestry.com and could be identified via Facebook, which meant that Shapiro was able to track down her biological father, who had donated his sperm while working at the clinic as a 22-year-old medical student in the early 1960s and thought no more about it, having been assured at the time that he would remain anonymous. It is unknown if either of Shapiro’s parents suspected that the clinic had mixed sperm without their permission. Overall, I found this memoir very moving and thought-provoking, given that millions of DNA tests have been sold in the United States, of which around 2% have discovered a “Non Parental Event”. This equates to potentially hundreds of thousands of people discovering that their biological parents are not who they thought they were, which means there are many more of these stories to tell.