Project: Read-from-by- Bookshelves continues since I was last able to check books out from my library on March 14. I picked up A Rare Benedictine: The Advent of Brother Cadfael, a collection of short stories that are prequels to the Brother Cadfael series, on the recommendation of someone at a library sale some time ago. I miss book browsing, and I’ve also got a stack of books to donate too from the past two months. Some day, right? Anyway, back to the book.
This mystery is one of the few historical crime novels I’ve read, and the compactness of the stories made them perfect for reading this weekend. The three stories take place in 1120 as Cadfael leaves the Crusades and joins the monastery in Shrewsbury, and in the span of just 150 pages, he solves a kidnapping, a theft of silver candlesticks, and an attempted murder in Shrewsbury. Compact stories are good for my short attention span.
Reading a new-to-me author writing about the twelfth century was a project in vocabulary, notably about the plants and herbs that Brother Cadfael grows and uses. My favorite plant name was orpine, also known as “witch’s moneybags.” I have at least two more Brother Cadfael books on my shelves, and I’m looking forward to them.
I finished something short and something long this week:
Mario and the Magician, a novella by Thomas Mann;
Doc by Maria Doria Russell
First off, I read Thomas Mann along with an online reading group/program called #MutuallyMann. There were a series of short videos and articles from Mann experts to help ground me in this novella that’s about a strange vacation in Italy with a horrifying magic show. I’ve never read Mann for class or in a reading group before, so I appreciated the background. Going slowly helped too, and that fits my level of reading concentration these days.
Next, I finished the quite wonderful Doc on audio, read by the wonderful Mark Bramhall, about Doc Holliday. I’m not sure I’ve ever read a western, but I’ve watched my share, including Tombstone, which happens years after the events in this book. Certain things jumped out at me as I read this in 2020:
Of course I pick a book about a man with tuberculosis as we’re dealing with a horrible respiratory virus. I try to limit my news consumption, but I’m still preoccupied, you know;
The focus on small-town politics, including shifting alliances and powerbrokers who tried to keep that status secret, seemed very of-the-moment. And in the author’s note, Russell said she simplified the political history of Dodge City significantly. I can only imagine how much more convoluted the power plays were;
There were no hookers-with-a-heart-of-gold, refreshingly;
The focus on building a city whose economy depends on ridding cattle drivers of their money was interesting because right before Michigan’s stay-at-home order went into effect, I was at a meeting about branding our county for tourism. I think that conversation is on hold for at least a year, but we’ll see. I mean, cowboys aren’t tourists exactly, but they are passing through;
Finally, there was a mysterious death that took up a lot of focus in the story, so I haven’t totally abandoned my love of crime fiction. This book focused a lot more on atmosphere and the whole town of Dodge City than a whodunnit, though.
Hello, everyone. Hope everyone is well and staying safe, and I hope that just maybe reading is working as a solace for you. I’ve been pretty distracted– I can focus for about 30 minutes max on what I’m reading– but I hope I can read and blog more in the coming days.
Here’s a selection of the books I’m juggling at the moment:
I think I started reading memoirs centered on mental health well over ten years ago because books like The Glass Castle and Prozac Nation were book club picks. I’ve read a few more since then, but I’m by no means an expert in the genre. The Valedictorian of Being Dead centers on Armstrong’s experimental therapy for severe depression that involved extreme anesthesia instead of electroconvulsive therapy. She’s pretty explicit about her reasons for writing the book: she wants to eliminate the stigma around depression and explain what depression and treatment felt like for her. It makes for rough reading, but it’s also fascinating to hear about the experimental trial and her positive response to it.
The Valedictorian of Being Dead by Heather B. Armstrong
The most accurate blurb/ review I’ve read about American by Day is that it’s a hybrid sort of crime novel. But a hybrid of what, exactly? It’s a story about a crime, and it’s a story about a Norwegian police chief taking an unexpected trip to America. But it’s not really a thriller, and it’s not really a methodical investigation like a police procedural. It is a book that has stayed with me, despite the fact that I’m not as fond of it as I was by the first book in this series, Norwegian by Night.
American by Day starts shortly after the shooting at the end of Norwegian by Night. Sigrid, the police chief in the first book, is still grappling with the aftermath of the first case when she finds out from her father that her older brother is missing in the United States, where he’s lived for a number of years. Sigrid reluctantly travels to the US, and the plot slows a bit, and Miller is explicit about his narrative principle when Sigrid explains her investigatory technique: “Observations first. Questions next. Interpretation last.”
And the observations are about America, race, police, and more. Sigrid’s brother is suspected of murdering his girlfriend, and African American university professor who was despondent about her young nephew’s death at the hand of the police in his backyard. Sigrid is skeptical, and eventually she uncovers the truth, and that’s the satisfying part of the read, while the sociology-of-the-US portions are the parts of the book that make me more ponderous.
So when I stopped blogging a few months ago I started contemplating starting a booktube channel, and I think I’ll go for it soon. But first, just to get back into the blogging/book-talking in general, I’m writing this to catch up on what I’ve been reading and loving over the past few months.
The Clare Fergusson/Russ Van Alstyne series by Julia Spencer-Fleming is quite good: I wasn’t expecting as much action as there is in the first 5 books of this series. The books have mystery, romance, and no unreliable narrators!
Sherman Alexie’s memoir about his mother is harrowing and wonderful, and I can see why he needed to take a break from his book tour because it was traumatizing.
I’ve tried a couple giant nonfiction books lately, the first LBJ book by Robert Caro and Reformations by Carlos Eire about a couple hundred years of history, and I’ve read about half of each. It’s good to read stuff I don’t normally read and realize how much I don’t know about Texas in the early 20th century or Europe in the 15th and 16th centuries.
I’d love to hear your reading recommendations because I’ve nearly caught up on the Spencer-Fleming series.
I haven’t been reading much fiction lately, and I especially haven’t been reading a lot of crime fiction lately: I tend to go down a rabbit hole reading the news instead, and it’s not necessarily good for my equilibrium. I was happy to get into this police procedural with a new set of characters and with a plot not nearly as gruesome as the Tony Hill- Carol Jordan series by Val McDermid.
Out of Bounds is the story of Karen Pirie, the head of the Historical Crimes Unit. She’s mourning her dead partner Phil by burying herself in work, and she’s not a dour presence at all in the story. Score 1 for McDermid. Karen becomes involved in both a current and a historical murder investigation: a recent death of a young man whose mother died in an unsolved airplane bombing in the 1990s piques Pirie’s interest because she suspects that murder- or at least suspicious death- doesn’t run in families
What I liked most was the matter-of-factness not only of Karen but of a whole slew of highly competent women in police, social work, and forensic science. And McDermid had a damn sympathetic portrait of not one but two lawyers, for which I’m personally grateful. Also, McDermid is so good at populating this book with interesting people during the parade of investigatory interviews, etc. I hope this is the beginning of a new series.
Out of Bounds by Val McDermid
Grove Atlantic, December 2016
Disclosure: I received a review copy from the publisher.