Books Recently Read

Charles Cottle —


Below are a few thoughts about books I have read recently. Mysteries are my guilty pleasure. Once I have started one, I find it hard to put it down. And if I’m reading a series that I like, I’m barely social until I finish every book in the list. So here are some thoughts about recent mysteries I have read followed by short reviews of a couple on non-fiction works.

Louise Penny, The Three Pines Mysteries

Booksrecentlyread

In order of their publication dates, the books are:

Still Life, A Fatal Grace, The Cruelest Month, A Rule against Murder, The Brutal Telling, Bury Your Dead, A Trick of the Light, The Beautiful Mystery, How the Light Gets In, The Long Way Home, and The Nature of the Beast.

Although it is possible to read this series of out order, I recommend that you don’t. While Louise Penny has written each book as a stand alone work, reading them out of order would short circuit the rich character development, plot complexity , and cultural nuances contained in the series.

Most of the action in the series takes place in the village of Three Pines, a bucolic village only one hour from Montreal. Notwithstanding its proximity to the city, the village is almost inaccessible to modern communications due to its location in a deep valley. And oddly enough, the village fails to appear on any version of recent maps. Nonetheless, it is a charming setting in rural Quebec populated with a variety of congenial residents. The lead character is Inspector Armand Gamache, Chief Homicide Inspector for the Sûreté du Québec, which is headquartered in Montreal. As it turns out, Gamache’s cases frequently take him to Three Pines where  a number of the colorful residents figure prominently in the plot of each book.

Although there are too many characters to survey here, I should at least mention Myrna Landers, a former psychotherapist who owns a bookstore in Three Pines. Then there is Ruth Zardo, an aging poet who drinks far too much Scotch, swears too much, borrows freely from the bookstore without paying, and whose primary companion is Rosa the duck.  Clara Morrow is a portrait painter with a gift for revealing unanticipated inner aspects of her subjects. Clara’s husband, Peter, is also a painter whose abstract works have led to a successful artistic career. And much of the action in the village takes place at the local bistro,  owned and operated by the gay couple, Olivier Brulé and Gabri Dubeau.

Finishing this series was, for me, a sad event. I lived with the characters for such a long time that I now feel as if I know each of them personally. I certainly know them better than my next door neighbors. For this reason I have decided to move to Three Pines as soon as a map is published showing its location. The people who live in that small community are congenial, non-judgmental, and interesting. Except for the occasional murder I’m sure that my life there will be quite to my liking.


Agatha Christie, The Mysterious Affair at Styles, The Murder on the Links, The Murder at theVicarage, The Body in the Library

Having read many mysteries over the past few years, I thought it appropriate that I read at least a few works by Agatha Christie, the grand dame of the genre. I also thought it important to start at the beginning. Thus, the first two books listed are the first two novels featuring Inspector Hercule Poirot and the second two are the first two novels featuring Miss Marple.

Cristie is the master of the “cozy” mystery format. A murder is committed, a cast of suspects is presented, and the sleuth then reveals the murderer based on clues and clever logic. In the four Christie novels I have read, the reader, just as the sleuth, should know the identity of the murderer before the end of the book. All the information necessary to solve the crime has already been presented. I was, however, without a clue as to the identity of the culprit by the end of each novel.

Notwithstanding Christie’s expertise at creating such clever scenarios as those presented in her books, they are not to my taste. For me, the characters are forgettable, possibly because there are so many of them. Character development is not one of Christie’s strong points. All one needs to know about any particular character are their whereabouts at the time of the murder, their relation, if any, to the victim, and their potential, but usually superficial, motives for committing the crime.  Thus, we are left with a puzzle about a cast of thinly framed characters about whom we know very little and a victim about whom we know almost nothing.


maps of timeDavid Christian, Maps of Time: An Introduction to Big History

David Christian is a noted historian who has become a major leader in the “big history” movement. Big history takes a bird-eye view, focusing on the vast sweep of events rather than the more micro perspective of history to which we are accustomed. It is an approach to history in which the French Revolution gets barely a mention, but which dwells at length on the transition from hunter-gatherer to agricultural society. In this work, Christian presents an analysis of history from the big bang to the present day and beyond. This task goes far afield of the ordinary scope of historical analysis as it engages the disciplines of physics, cosmology, chemistry, geology, and biology.

Undertaking the reading of this work is a mammoth project. It is long and the prose is sometimes dense, not to mention that the subject matter can be unfamiliar for one schooled in the humanities.  I read this volume as part of a reading group in which different members would be assigned to lead the discussion in each session. It fell to me for my first assignment to lead the discussion on the first three hundred thousand years of the universe. At a later point in the project, a fellow reader asked when we might finish the work. Another member of the group responded, “Never. Reading this book will be our life’s work.”

If there is a general theme in Christian’s opus as it reviews the expanse of 13.8 billion years, it is the movement from simplicity to complexity, in seeming contradiction to Newton’s second law of thermodynamics; that is, to the law of entropy. To the extent that entropy should apply to the universe as a whole, it is postponed well into the future, long after a time when we, as a species, will be here to observe it.


Tony Judt, Ill Fares the LandIll fares the land

Tony Judt, recently deceased, was a noted historian of European and North Atlantic affairs. In this, his last published work, he laments the current cultural and political divide in American society, claiming that is more than dysfunctional. It is also destroying our sense of nationhood. And, because of increasing inequality and declining social mobility, our democracy, itself, is in danger of becoming a myth that will eventually become only a memory.

Judt’s solution is a call for social democracy in the U. S.  and a revitalization of its ideals. I largely agree with Judt’s analysis, and I try to be cautiously optimistic about the realization of social democracy in today’s political environment.


About Charles Cottle (14 Articles)
I'm retired after teaching political theory and social science research methods for 35 years at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater. I'm interested in lots of things - mainly social issues, photography, and politics.

8 Comments on Books Recently Read

  1. The “Maps of Time” book looks interesting. As I read your review, and another that I looked up because yours intrigued me, I was reminded of another book that caused quite a stir when it was first published in the early 1980s, “The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind,” by Julian Jaynes.

    The ‘big history’ Jaynes dealt with was human evolution at the point where we went from pre-conscious, reflex-driven creatures to modern conscious humans. The breakdown of the bicameral mind, according to Jaynes, was when the corpus callosum evolved into being and first allowed the two hemispheres of our brain to interact.

    Jaynes pulled from neurology, religion, archaeology, anthropology, and a few other disciplines that I forget. I don’t know how his theories have fared over time–a LOT of neurology research has come and gone since the early 80s–but it was still fascinating to be able to step that far back and contemplate history at a grand epochal level, instead of the finely grained details we usually dwell on.

    http://www.amazon.com/Origin-Consciousness-Breakdown-Bicameral-Mind/dp/0618057072

    Liked by 1 person

    • David Christian, author of Maps of Time, is the leader of a major educational movement that is attempting to revise the way students learn history. Christian argues that insofar as all the disciplines are interrelated, students should learn about those interrelationships. The history of the universe and of earth is the platform for this endeavor. The result, according to Christian, is a broad brush perspective on history that is missing in the traditional curriculum, both in high school and college.

      Karen, I am delighted to find someone other than myself who has read Julian Jaynes. The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind was one of the most exciting intellectual adventures I have had. I picked up the book on a whim, but once I started it, I could not put it down. After reading it, I began to think seriously for the first time what it meant to be human in the contemporary sense. Initially, it helped make sense of Rousseau’s discussion of proto-humans and why the acquisition of language for the species was so important. Since reading Jaynes, I have had a long, but ‘unrequited’ interest in consciousness, a topic that remains mysterious even to the best minds that have attempted to explain it.

      Like you, I don’t know the stature of Jaynes in psychological circles. I suspect it is not high. If it were, we would have heard more about him. I recall that he intended to write a couple more volumes on the topic of consciousness, but to my knowledge, they never appeared.

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  2. I want to concur with Charlie’s recommendation of the Louise Penny mystery series. Charlie introduced me to the series and I’m now on the seventh book. I, too, will feel a loss when I finish all the books, although I imagine Penny will write more.

    Regarding Tony Judt, I also recommend his collection of essays called Reappraisals: Reflections on the Forgotten Twentieth Century. He was a great writer and such a learned man.

    http://www.amazon.com/Reappraisals-Reflections-Forgotten-Twentieth-Century/dp/0143115057

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Mark Richardson from Facebook commented:

    I have always enjoyed detective fiction. I think that, after feeling throughout my teenage years that I was guilty of reading fluff, I felt vindicated when Dr. Peters in the English Dept. at UW-Whitewater offered a course called “Classics of Detective Fiction,” which held as a premise the idea that mysteries are a valid, legitimate genre of literature. Agathat Christie, at her best, is outstanding. Unfortunately, she was only at her best in about 1/3 of her published works. In her dotage, her works became nothing less than an exercise in senility, and even as a young author, she often cheated. Edgar Alan Poe, the father of the mystery, wrote three Auguste Dupin mysteries (The Murders In The Rue Morgue, The Mystery of Marie Roget, and The Purloined Letter) in which he set down 17 conventions which were followed quite closely by succeeding authors. Such things as making sure that all evidence that the detective uses to solve the crime is clearly presented to the reader, that the murderer (it’s almost always a murder) is introduced no later than 1/3 of the way into the story, that the detective announces his/her solution and then explains the reasoning that led to it, etc. were a few of these conventions, and Christie, at her worst, followed few of them. Her masterpiece, though, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, is a very, very nice piece of writing. My favorite authors in this genre are Raymond Chandler (detective-Philip Marlowe), Dashiell Hammett (who has three distinct detectives-the team of Nick and Nora Charles, Sam Spade and The Continental Op (Odd name, you say–LOL. He’s an operative for the Continental Detective Agency; we never learn his real name), Ross MacDonald (detective-Lew Archer), Robert B. Parker (Spenser–with an “s,” like the poet) and Rex Stout (Nero Wolfe). If you are an aficianado of the “locked door” mystery, where a murdered corpse is found in a room with no windows, only one door–locked from the inside–the acknowledged master is John Dickson Carr. There are many, many others, as well, but these are the consistently great, book after book.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Dolly Jane Prenzel from Facebook replied and the discussion continued.

      Dolly Jane Prenzel – Dorothy L Sayers is also one of my favorites. And Rex Stout, especially the books (no longer) on tape.

      Mark Richardson – Yes, Dolly, Sayers’ Lord Peter Wimsey is a hoot.

      Mark Richardson – Dolly–If you enjoy the British female mystery writers, you may also like Margery Allingham, whose detective is Albert Campion, and a New Zealander, Ngaio Marsh, whose detective is Inspector Roderick Allyn.

      Dolly Jane Prenzel – Mark Richardson – I have read them all. Also love Andrew Taylor – The Lydford series; Louise Penney; Charles Finch; and a mother-son team whose name I cannot call – they do a post WWI series which is fascinating. Plus all the Dalzeil books. Tremendous stories.

      Dolly Jane Prenzel – Mark Richardson the recordings by Ian Carmichael are terrific. Hard to find now.

      Dolly Jane Prenzel – I have read all the Christie books two or three times. Miss Marple is my favorite.

      Mark Richardson – Dolly, what did you think of “Curtain,” the last Hercule Poirot mystery, published shortly after Dame Agatha’s death? I have never believed that she wrote it. I have always thought that her publishing house capitailzed on her death, knowing that they would have a big seller if they had one last Poirot book to sell. I cannot fathom for the life of me, after years and years of reading Christie, that she would finish by allowing the great Hercule to commit suicide. I just don’t believe it.

      Dolly Jane Prenzel – You could be right. Hercule is a committed Catholic. Hard to believe he would kill himself. But he was old and in terrible shape. Maybe she related to that. Christie said she wrote that book long before she died. I don’t know who around her would have the talent to do that. We will never know Mark. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  4. On Charlie’s other blog, Snapshots (http://cecottle.com), he has additional reviews of books he likes. One of them is by a good friend of mine, Richard Quinney, called Ox Herding in Wisconsin. Here is what Charlie wrote about Richard’s book:

    “Quinney offers a series of meditations or vignettes written over the course of a year. The title is taken from the parable of the ox and oxherd in Buddhist teachings. This is a story used to illustrate the path toward enlightenment. In the parable the ox represents undivided reality, the ground of all being. The oxherd represents individuality, separate from the ox. The oxherd, a young boy, goes searching for the lost ox, only to find in the end that to find and tame the ox there must be a transcendence of self.

    A native of Wisconsin, Quinney’s meditations are beautifully written descriptions of daily life in rural Wisconsin. The vignettes display a mindfulness of ordinary life activities and ordinary things. Ox Herding in Wisconsin is a welcome departure from the noisy popular media parade. It invites reflection and contemplation.”

    http://www.amazon.com/Ox-Herding-Wisconsin-Richard-Quinney/dp/0983517428

    Liked by 1 person

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