Is it me or is it a little exciting that summer is almost here and, for the vaccinated, it’s about to be a lot freer than the last one? May is such a lovely month in the Northwest, but don’t worry — I still devoted plenty of time to reading. I’ve been taking a good look at how I’ve spent my free time lately and I’ve decided to cut down on television and dial-up things like reading and music.
May was another great month for reading — I finished 16 books, including my HR textbook (FINALLY!) and two more Ken Follett epics (almost 1000-pages each!). May is also Mental Health Awareness Month so you’ll see some books related to that theme.
So, without further ado…
Pillars of the Earth and World Without End (Ken Follett): If you like epic series, these are parts two and three (though they were the first and second books written) of the Kingsbridge series (I reviewed Part 1 in April’s blog).
First, Pillars of the Earth, which is the first book written in the Kingsbridge series (but the second in the timeline now that The Evening and the Morning has come out), Follett’s cathedral construction thriller, a sentence that I never thought I’d type. Set in the 12th century, the book follows Prior Phillip, who desires to build a cathedral in the English town of Kingsbridge, as well as a cast of other characters, from Tom the Builder, the master mason for the church, his wife and family, and a whole host of baddies (earls and priests and nobles who want to get in the way). I had first read this book many years ago, and while I did enjoy the re-read, I had forgotten that not only did this cover the interpersonal dramas of the characters but it talked a little *too* much about construction for my taste, especially coming *after* a read of Follett’s newest book, The Evening and the Morning.
The third book in the Kingsbridge series, World Without End kicks off with an attack in the woods witnessed by a group of children and a hidden letter than hangs over the course of the story. Because it’s a Kingsbridge story you have merchants against the monks, but because the plague makes an appearance in this story you have conversations about how to stop this deadly disease — and a fair share of forbidden love affairs and illegitimate children. These epics are easy and fun to read and mix in equal parts drama and history. Follett is a perfect escapist author!
The Murder at the Vicarage and The Big Four (Agatha Christie): I’m a collector. I know this about myself and, so as not to be on a future episode of Hoarders, I have to watch myself. However, I finally found a form-factor of Christie’s paperbacks that I like, and you best believe I’m going to read them all!
Though I have not read Christie’s other books in any sort of order, I decided to read the Miss Marple mysteries *in* order, thus started with The Murder at the Vicarage. I knew little of Miss Marple coming into this other than that she was a Miss (unmarried) and a “lady of a certain age.” And, in some ways, I knew I would compare her to Hercule Poirot, Christie’s most famous (male) detective.
In some ways this book seems to center more around Vicar Clement, who narrates the book and who finds the murder victim deceased in his study. As he was called away at the time of the crime we take his word as being the truth and we follow the village police, busybodies, and lovers go about their lives and share their clues little by little. Miss Marple doesn’t play an active role throughout the book but she is working away in the background the entire time, solving the case.
I really enjoy Christie’s writing, but I wasn’t much in love with Miss Marple. I hope that her character is more developed in further books.
Next was another Poirot mystery — The Big Four. This book was an interesting Poirot mystery, different in that it takes place in many small episodes over quite a long period of time (6 months? a year?) compared to most of his adventures, which take place on a single trip (say, on the Nile riverboat or the Orient Express) or in a single place. In this case, Poirot is traveling around England and Europe to find a criminal cabal called the Big Four — a Chinese man, a Frenchwoman, an American man, and, the trickiest of them all, a man who is #4. There is really a lot of murder in this one, witnesses being killed just before or after they meet with Poirot and his sidekick/narrator, Hastings.
One thing to note is the negative and stereotyped portrayal of the Asian characters (“the Chinamen”). The book clearly has not been updated since it was written in 1927, so if you are letting a kid read it, it would be useful to put those descriptions in context.
Strange Weather in Tokyo (Hiromi Kawakami): Even a few weeks after finishing this book I’m not entirely sure what to make of it! Kawakami’s book was sweet and simple but also left me connected with deeper feelings of longing and sadness. The story follows the relationship between Tsukiko, a late-thirties Japanese office-worker and her former Japanese teacher “Sensai,” who is 30 years her senior. They have randomly crossed paths when they meet in restaurants, but as they begin to encounter one another more often they develop a friendship which blossoms into a romance. Even typing that is a little icky given that the teacher/student story seems so overplayed… but somehow I was able to get past my ick response and see how these two lonely people found a dynamic and a relationship that made them happy.
Insane: America’s Criminal Treatment of Mental Illness (Alisa Roth): This book is a must-read for anyone who cares about mental health and criminal justice. Roth explores how our jails and prisons have had to take on the mental health challenges of their inmates, and in a system not designed for this purpose, you can imagine how challenging this is for everyone involved. Police and corrections officers are undertrained and overworked, psychiatrists and therapists are rarely available, and many inmates are held for long periods of time until they are competent to stand trial. Roth’s book is incredibly well-researched and I appreciated how she highlighted stories of people caught in the system. This book is a difficult but necessary addition to your list!
In Pieces (Sally Field): There wasn’t much I knew about Sally Field other than Steel Magnolias, Mrs. Doubtfire, and Forrest Gump, but, interestingly, her memoir barely touched on these later films and instead focused on her childhood and entry into the industry. Field was sexually and emotionally abused by her stepfather, and, as she learns later in life, her mother knew more about it than she had let on, leading to a lot of mixed feelings. This relationship with her stepfather carries over into her relationships with men, especially those in power.
Some reviews have commented that this is just an average story of a Hollywood darling, but what they miss with that statement is that, for many years, this was just how it was for young actresses — taken advantage of by their costars, directors, agents, and even those close to them. We are only able to tell the stories that we have, and I learned a lot from what Field wrote.
Inside the Mind of BTK (John E. Douglas): I really enjoy reading books by Douglas because it is a lovely blend of criminology and profiling as well as weaving in his personal story and how his work impacts him. BTK (which stands for bind, torture, kill) was a Wichita serial killer who was not caught for more than 30 years. Douglas, who was consulted very early on in the process, shares his initial profile, and then as the book continues we start to understand what was correct and what was wrong. Due to the nature of the material this book is not for the faint of heart (or stomach), but if you enjoy profiling and true crime, I recommend this book.
What have you been reading lately that has brought you joy? Please share your ideas! I’m always on the hunt for another great story.
P.S. Okay, okay — I’m far, far behind on my second COVID-times blog, but it’s almost complete! Let’s hope it’s ready for consumption early next week@