For some readers, the last of the Armand Gamache mysteries by Louise Penny that I read, The Brutal Telling, had an unsatisfactory ending, loose ends left untied, clues unexplained. Now in Bury Your Dead those problems are solved. I was delighted with The Brutal Telling. It is a novel you can read on its own. But when you get down to it, Bury Your Dead is really the second part of a two-part story that started in the previous book.
Bury Your Dead is the best of Louise Penny's mysteries so far. The book has three stories interwoven and never is there a moment when you aren't on the edge of your chair, not because the characters are in trouble, though some of them are in one part of the book, but because these stories are so compelling and the characters so engaging.
The primary story takes place in Quebec City where Gamache is helping the local police to determine who murdered an eccentric old man who has been searching all his life for the body of Samuel de Champlain, who died in the city and was buried there but whose body disappeared sometime over the last 300 or so years.
The second story is about Gamache's recent case involving the kidnapping of a police officer and a terrorist threat. The third is a re-examination by Jean-Guy Beauvoir of the case that was solved in The Brutal Telling. Beauvoir, who has never really liked the village of Three Pines or the people who live there, now spends his time at the local B&B, purportedly recovering from a gunshot wound, but actually looking into the possibility that Gamache was wrong and the man he arrested for the murder of the Czech hermit is not actually responsible for his death.
Gamache, too, is recovering from gunshot wounds. Woven into the two ongoing investigations is the story of the kidnapping, as Gamache and his team try to figure out where the man is being held before it's too late. The scene shifts frequently, keeping the reader moving effortlessly along the three trajectories.
Penny pulls it all together at the end and although there are some things the reader can predict, there are also some surprises. Another delightful mystery drenched with Quebec history.
It took me less than three days to whip through David Quammen's new 587-page book, Spillover: Animal Infections and the Next Human Pandemic. It is without question the best book on the issue of how we can predict and prevent a global catastrophe like the 1918-1919 influenza pandemic.
It won't be easy, primarily because it will probably be a virus and viruses are notorious quick-change artists, mutating freely as they move from animal reservoirs through other animals to humans. After interviewing what must be hundreds of scientists Quammen reports that the evidence seems to show that bats are a primary reservoir for many of the recently discovered viruses and that contact with primates is the easiest way for them to spread to humans.
He tells the stories of recently emerged diseases like Ebola, Lassa, Marburg, Hendra, Nipah, the hantaviruses, and Lyme Disease, explains how they work, and describes how scientists went about discovering their secrets. After reading this book I have to say I have a whole lot more respect - awe really - for the scientists who trek about in Cameroon and the central African countries thereabouts in equitorial heat and humidity capturing bats and monkeys and mandrills (like the one on the cover) and many other species, drawing blood, and releasing them. Since they are analyzing the blood of these creatures because they believe they are infected with (or have been infected with) the horrific diseases the biologists are trying to prevent from moving to humans, this takes a level of courage I can't imagine.
The important thing about Quammen is his extensive interest in and knowledge of the subject of public health and his skill at explaining extremely complex matters. Lyme disease, for example. Everybody knows it is spread to humans by the bite of the deer tick. First of all, the tick is really a blackfooted tick and deer have very little to do with it all. The animals that are important in spreading Lyme are white-footed mice. Quammen explains that when large areas of woodland are broken into smaller ones the large animals like foxes and raccoons are less likely to make their homes there and this allows the population of small animals like chipmunks and field mice to grow.
I learned a great deal from Spillover. Quammen explains the origins of SARS, for example, and shows how and where it moved and how it was contained. He traces the origins of AIDS back to 1908, which is when the "cut hunter" theory thinks it jumped to humans when a hunter killed a chimpanzee and cut himself while butchering it. He explains that perhaps the most important event in its spread was when Mobuto chased the Belgians out of Zaire and needing teachers and engineers and doctors, got them from Haiti. The virus spread to Haitians and then took it back to their island when they left the increasingly chaotic country (now called the Democratic Republic of the Congo.)
So what disease is likely to be The Next Big One, as scientists call it? Influenza, which was The Last Big One. Influenza is complex even among the viruses and its RNA has many opportunities to mutate into something easily passed from human to human. Here's how Quammen explains it:
First the basics. Influenza is caused by three types of viruses, of which the most worrisome and widespread is influenza A. Viruses of that type all share certain genetic traits: a single-stranged RNA genome, which is partitioned into eight segments, which serve as templates for eleven different proteins. In other words, they have eight discrete stretches of RNA coding, linked together like eight railroad cars, with eleven different deliverable cargoes.
With me so far?
The eleven deliverables are the molecules that comprise the structure and functional machinery of the virus. They are what the genes make. Two of those molecules become spiky protuberances from the outer surface of the viral envelope: Hemagglutinin and neuraminidase. Those two, recognizable by an immune system, and crucial for penetrating and exiting cells of a host, give the various subtypes of influenza A their definitive labels: H5N1, H1N1, and so on.
H1N1, by the way, was the virus that caused havoc in 1918-1919.
The term "H5N1" indicates a virus featuring subtype 5 of the hemagglutinin protein combined with subtype 1 of the neuraminidase protein. Sixteen different kinds of hemagglutinin, plus nine kinds of neuraminidase, have been detected in the natural world. Hemagglutinin is the key that unlocks a cell membrane so that the virus can get in, and neuraminidase is the key for getting back out. Okay so far? Having absorbed this simple paragraph, you understand more about influenza than 99.9 percent of the people on Earth. Pat yourself on the back and get a flu shot in November.
This book is my first choice for a Christmas present for the scientifically-minded on your gift list. Not recommended, however, for hypochondriacs or picky eaters.
I have finished Spillover, which is an extraordinarily good book about zoonoses. I predict that a month from now it will be on the NY Times list of the 10 best books of 2012.
But instead of writing a review of it I picked up the next Louise Penny mystery, Bury Your Dead, and can't tear myself away. Here's a sample of the dialogue that gives you an idea why it's hard to put down. A body has been found in the basement of an English-language library in Quebec City and although the librarian and the policeman are purportedly bi-lingual, in reality, they both have a ways to go. The detective in charge asks Gamache to help him.
"My English isn't very good. It's OK, but you should hear the head librarian speak French. At least, I think she's speaking French. She clearly thinks she is. But I can't understand a word. In the entire interview she spoke French and I spoke English. It was like something out of a cartoon. She must think I'm a moron. So far all I've done is grinned and nodded and I think I might have asked whether she's descended from the lower orders."
"Why did you ask that?"
"I didn't mean to. I wanted to ask if she had access to the basement, but something went wrong," he smiled ruefully. "I think clarity might be important in a murder case."
"I think you may be right. What did she say to your question?"
"She got quite upset and said that the night is a strawberry."
There is something in the autumn that is native to my blood –
Touch of manner, hint of mood;
And my heart is like a rhyme,
With the yellow and the purple and the crimson keeping time.
The scarlet of the maple can shake me like a cry
Of bugles going by.
And my lonely spirit thrills
To see the frosty asters like a smoke upon the hills.
There is something in October sets the gypsy blood astir;
We must rise and follow her,
when from every hill of flame
She calls and calls each vagabond by name.
-- Bliss Carman
This third of the Jane Austen mysteries by Stephanie Barron, Jane and the Wandering Eye, starts with a shocker. Jane and her brother Henry and his wife Eliza are at a "rout," a fashionable, crowded party being given by the Dowager Duchess of Wilborough. During the performance of a scene from Macbeth by an actor/guest, a body is found stabbed to death in the next room. Simon, Marquis of Kinsfell is assumed to be the murderer. Wouldn't you know, he's the nephew of Lord Harold Trowbridge, the Gentleman Rogue who has assisted Jane in her previous detecting.
None of the family believes Simon, whom they call Kinny, has done this thing, despite his having been found with a bloody knife in his hand. He claims to have found the body already stabbed. The window is open. Perhaps the murderer jumped out of the window. And there is a hidden door in the wall that the servants use to move from one room to another inconspicuously. Perhaps the murderer left that way. The magistrate doesn't buy into any of this and takes Kinny off to gaol.
But before he goes he passes along a miniature that he found on the body. It's an eye, painted with exquisite detail. It was a popular practice in the very early 19th century to wear the eye of one's beloved, especially if one's beloved was someone else's wife and you couldn't sport a recognizable portrait of her. Why has the murderer left this beautiful little painting on the body?
Lord Harold hurries to Bath and with Jane's help begins to figure out who might want the man dead and who had the opportunity to murder him. This requires them to attend the theater and get better acquainted with the actors currently performing in Bath. All providing Barron with opportunities to show us the lovely fashions of the day.
I'm looking forward eagerly to the next book in the series.
Ann Patchett got together with Hans Weyandt of Micawber's Books in Minneapolis and they put together this little book. It's a list of great independent bookstores and lists of books that are favorites of booksellers in those bookshops. Who knows more about books than someone who sells them for a living?
I own a lot of books about books. Many of them are terrific and some are ho-hum. But I don't think there's one of them to compete with this for the mix of titles. Old and newly published, classics and graphic novels, big books and little books, mysteries, westerns, romance, humor, poetry, travel, books you've heard of and books that nobody but the guy who put it on his list (and perhaps the author) has heard of.
So of course (you could see this coming and you are probably doing the same thing yourself) I had to start a list of Handpicked Favorites. But where to start? Do I try to impress everybody with my erudition (did I spell that right?) or just slap my favorites up there?
I decided to list five books that come to mind without looking at lists of books read or even at my bookshelves. So here they are, my first five off-the-top-of-my-head handpicked favorites.
Already half a dozen more books have come to mind. What's on your handpicked favorites list?
Tags: A Time of Gifts, Ann Patchett, Anthony Trollope, Antrobus Complete, Bibliographies Can You Forgive Her, Hans Weyandt, Hilary Mantel, Housekeeping, Independent bookstores, Lawrence Durrell, Marilynne Robinson, Micawber's Books, Patrick Leigh Fermor, Wolf Hall
After a couple of weeks off Elaine and I got together to read this morning. She chose the most terrific books. Among others she picked two books about Halloween and one about a witch, just to get us into the mood.
The Hallo-Wiener by Dav Pilker was the funniest. It's about a dachshund who is half a dog high and two dogs long. The other dogs laugh at him. His mom gives him a halloween costume that makes it much worse. He is dressed to go trick-or-treating as a hot dog with a bun and a bit of mustard! SO embarrassing.
Another Halloweeny book we read is Wizzil by William Steig. Wizzil is a witch who turns herself into a fly to spy on the Frimp family and when old man Frimp tries to swat her with his fly swatter she vows revenge.
My favorite of this morning's books is The Greedy Apostrophe: A Cautionary Tale by Jan Carr. The other punctuation marks take their work seriously but the greedy apostrophe isn't content with contractions and possessives, he goes sprinkling himself around the plurals as well. Unconscionable behavior!
Unfortunately, time ran out and we didn't get to Tillie Lays an Egg by Terry Golson, so Elaine let me borrow it because she knows I love chickens.Tillie is a White Plymouth Rock who doesn't want to lay her eggs in the nests the farmer has provided for her and her fellow fowl. So every day she lays her egg in a different place. It's up to the reader (and the famer, of course) to figure out where she las laid.
The Pages Turned blog picked up a story from theguardian a month or so ago called New Reads: Methods of Discovery by Anna Baddeley. I liked the idea of tracing back to where you heard about the book so I posted about it.
And now I want to do it again.
Both dovegreyreader and Random Jottings are always good sources for books I know I'll like. I encountered a review of James Long's Ferney at the former not too long ago. And I've been reading three books mentioned by the latter.
The Great Charles Dickens Scandal came yesterday and I'm going to begin reading it today. That one was mentioned by Elaine on Random.
Two other books, Dear Governess, a collection of letters from Edith Wharton to her governess/chaperone/companion/secretary Anna Bahlmann, which I zipped through recently, and Victorian Bloomsbury, which I haven't had a chance to begin reading yet, came from Random.
Live by Night by Dennis Lehane, a novel of the Boston underworld in the 1920s, is being saved for a rainy day. I know I'm going to love it as I've loved all the previous Lehane novels. I heard about that from the New York Times Book Review. The same for Michael Chabon's Telegraph Avenue.
Dante's Inferno I had heard of, but I didn't think I wanted to read it again until I learned that my pal, Laurel, is leading a discussion of it on the Goodreads group, Classics and the Western Canon. Click on the link and you can join in. We begin the discussion on 31 October.
Tags: Anna Bahlmann, Dante, Dear Governess, Dennis Lehane, Edith Wharton, Ferney, Goodreads, Inferno, James Long, Live by Night, Michael Chabon, Michael Slater, Rosemary Ashton, Telegraph Avenue, The Great Charles Dickens Scandal, Victorian Bloomsbury
Charles Todd is among the finest mystery writers of our day. His Ian Rutledge series is now up to 15 titles and the quality is just as high now as it was when the first title was published in 1996. His second series, the Bess Crawford mysteries, now contains four titles, An Unmarked Grave being the most recent.
I would like to see this series go on forever, but it takes place during the First World War and this recent story takes place in the spring and early summer of 1918. Time is running out. The author could continue the series after the war, but so much of what we love about these books is Bess' challenge of nursing in France near the front lines and attempting at the same time to solve mysteries. There may be only one more book to come, I fear.
An Unmarked Grave starts out with a dramatic scene in which Private Wilson, an orderly in the nursing station where Sister Crawford is working, asks her to come to the shed in which dead bodies are kept before burial. He wants to show her a man whose body is improperly wrapped and who appears to Wilson to have been murdered. His neck has been broken and his body is with those of victims of the Spanish Influenza, not with those who died from war wounds. Bess recognizes him as a family friend, Captain Carson, and promises to tell the Matron about it as soon as the woman wakes from her nap.
But Bess never gets a chance to speak to the Matron because she herself suddenly becomes a flu casualty and before the woman wakes Bess is hallucinating with a high fever. Her life is in danger for some time but eventually she begins to get well and her father, Colonel Sahib as his family calls him, arranges for her to recover in an English port town.
But when she thinks back Bess feels certain she did not dream the trip to the shed with Private Wilson. The dead man with the broken neck and no uniform, tags, or other identification is real. She asks her father to talk to Private Wilson. But no one can talk to the private. He is found hanging from the rafters of the shed and declared a suicide. Bess refuses to believe it.
When she recovers enough to go back to work in France she learns that a man calling himself Colonel Prescott has inquired about her and a little detection reveals that there is no Prescott and Bess' life may be in danger.
Meanwhile her father's former batman, Sergeant Brandon, is behind enemy lines with a platoon of gurkhas trying to discover the identify of a German spy thought to be among the British soldiers. When he is injured and cannot help her Bess finds she is reluctant to trust anyone, just when she is in more danger than ever before.
Charles Todd, of course, is really a mother and son team, Caroline and Charles Todd, who live in Delaware and North Carolina.