Tag Archives: Venice

Reprise: Beastly Things – Donna Leon

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I don’t typically read the same book twice—at least not for this book-a-day challenge–but this one has to go back to the library and I was curious about the lovely digressions that created a somewhat leisurely pace and a deeper portrait of my favorite Venice homicide detective. So I read Donna Leon’s Beastly Things again, looking for those moments, and they are not digressions at all.

The exchange between Police Commissario Guido Brunetti and the Vice-Questura’s executive assistant Signorina Elettra about unemployment and the soul rot that can accompany working with money reveals more of the delightful Elettra, gives a reminder of important elements of Brunetti’s background—his family connections—and prefigures disclosures about the motive for the murder. A conversation with his old pal, the medical examiner, establishes the fact that Brunetti is aging, if not exactly rushing headlong into decrepitude, and depicts the rich relationship of two humanitarians trying to deconstruct criminal behavior.

A bedtime story recounted by a murder victim’s widow is an exact parable for the victim’s life and the circumstances that led to violent death. Interludes with marvelous Paola, Brunetti’s college professor wife and the independent-minded daughter of a wealthy and influential Venetian family, sketch his warm home life, solid values and the contrast between his marriage and the fractured relationships of various people involved in the murder.

All the “digressions” fill in the palette of colorful characters and contemporary issues, like the choice to eat vegetarian and avoid meat, and they contain clues about the crime. It’s so well-done that the seams are invisible—no work for the reader because it is all taken care of by the writer. So, re-reading Beastly Things was very satisfying and even illuminating. I might revisit the first book in the series, Death at La Fenice , to track how Donna Leon’s treatment of Guido Brunetti and his Venice have evolved.

See related posts:

Beastly Things

Drawing Conclusions

The O’Briens – Peter Behrens

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The O’Briens is the post-diaspora saga of an Irish family in Canada. After a brief scene-setting introduction, we follow the trajectory of Joe, the eldest boy, as his stepfather torments the family, his mother dies and he takes charge of dispersing the younger children into safe havens. Two young sisters go to a cloistered convent. The little brother who wanted to become a priest goes to a Jesuit seminary and Fordham University in New York. Second brother heads for family in Chicago and Joe sets out to build the railroad and make his fortune.

Peter Behrens holds fifty years of the family’s peregrinations up to the light. Joe meets his match in Iseult, a young woman searching for a new start in Venice, California. Their lyrical courtship—attentive to the space between the words—results in a marriage that survives tragedy, the acquisition of great wealth, two devastating wars, the exposure of their personal faultlines, the forgiveness and accommodation of an enduring commitment.

The story tracks what happens to each of the siblings and to their children and children’s children. It is both epic and intimately emotional. There are passages of pure beauty as Behrens describes interior and exterior landscapes. The events of their lives are captured with such verisimilitude that they seem real, and evoke real responses. Most unusually, you can empathize with all the characters, as they experience loss, disappointment, wonder, infatuation, passion, rage, exultation and the restless anxiety that precedes, and sometimes precipitates, change.

I’m not a huge fan of family sagas but I was impressed with this one. The O’Briens are very human, recognizable, loyal, even admirable. They are each searching for meaning, trying to see with clear eyes, intending not to hurt each other. Some of the time they succeed, and you want them to. It was a worthwhile read, a reflection of the terrible mistakes and small graces that tear every family apart–and bind them together.

The O’Briens   Peter Behrens | Pantheon Books   2011

Beastly Things – Donna Leon

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Donna Leon’s Commissario Guido Brunetti mysteries tend to follow two trajectories. Some are busy with action and clues breaking out all over from page one as Brunetti juggles multiple plotlines to arrive at his arrests. And others tend to ramble for a while, mixing murder with a native’s views of Venice, lovely interludes with Brunetti’s admirable family and appreciation for fine wines and classic literature. Beastly Things, the latest of his adventures, is the latter. There is more than just murder disturbing the polis, although murder most foul and dramatic there is. This being Venice, the corpse is fished out of the canal, not an uncommon disposal site for victims in fabled La Serenissima.

It takes a few chapters for Brunetti and his investigator, the amiable Lorenzo Vianello, to identify the dead man, whose neck and upper body are disfigured by Madelung disease, a rare physical thickening that turns a human shape into a barrel. But their search, abetted by the bewitching and devious Signorina Elettra, by now a hardened hacker who never meets a protected databank she can’t crack, leads them into a world of the non-human. Somehow veterinarians, slaughterhouses, organized crime and sheer human greed combine to keep Brunetti gainfully employed. A few of the characters are more than gainfully employed—voracious for ill-gotten gains would be an accurate description.

Beastly Things may make you a vegetarian—or a vegan if you avoid meat already. It may also awaken a craving for prosecco, for the perfect pinot grigio, for excellent cappuccino on demand, and for the pastries and homemade pasta that are daily fare in Brunetti’s Venice. It will put you off what comes out of the knackers’ world in the abattoirs that transform cows, pigs and sheep into cutlets and other slabs of protein. Hunger for the cash that comes from cutting corners on public health and unbridled blackmail is another unappetizing aspect the crew at the Questura confront while hunting for a motive.  

The Venetians still hate the tourists and Guido and company continue to mourn a vanishing world. But the Commissario gets his own computer in this episode and he isn’t half-bad at figuring it out to help solve the crime. It’s a pleasure to overhear his urbane and affectionate conversations with Paola, a fully-drawn character who manages to run a nurturing home, teach part time at a university and remain a feisty, independent woman with a strong moral core. Another pleasure to track is the dialog as Brunetti bags his prey—he is brilliant, if low-key, and occasionally indulges in provoking the witness—fun to observe.

Donna Leon writes some of my favorite books, guaranteed escapes from a driven city in which no one walks home along winding streets of crumbling, sun-splashed villas for a peaceful two-hour lunch, mulling over the puzzle of the day’s work and arriving at an intelligent conclusion. Guido Brunetti’s Venice is so civilized—even though every time we catch up to him he is solving a murder with tentacles that reach far into the corruption that taints all levels of Italian society. I like a sleuth who reads the Agamemnon and makes his own coffee at six A.M. in the Bialetti so his wife can sleep in. I loved the ingenious final scene–won’t even hint at it to avoid spoiling a treat. And I sincerely hope Leon is scribbling away at her next book so the ongoing saga of death in Venice continues uninterrupted.

Beastly Things: A Commissario Guido Brunetti Mystery (Commissario Guido Brunetti Mysteries)  
Donna Leon | Atlantic Monthly Press  2012

Drawing Conclusions – Donna Leon

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When a widow living in a large apartment in Venice is discovered dead with suspicious marks on her collarbone and a bloody gash on her head, Commissario Guido Brunetti senses foul play. The coroner says heart attack but he, too, is troubled by the signs of violence. Brunetti sets out to satisfy his hunch and ends up digging beneath the benign surface of Venice’s  social services in his quest for answers.

Drawing Conclusions is the twentieth Commissario Guido Brunetti novel in Donna Leon’s popular mystery series and all the pieces that make these puzzles international best sellers are in place. Signora Altavilla, the dead women, has been running a shelter for abused women who might be illegal immigrants. The nursing home where she volunteered holds more secrets and those have to do with wills, fabulous fortunes, missing art, unrequited love and confessional guilt.

The detective walks the streets of his city to sort through the clues he finds—and to get around. Brunetti prefers going on foot through the familiar byways of Venice so we get mini-tours of neighborhoods, architecture and the cafes where he grabs a quick coffee or a glass of wine and lunch. The spoken exchanges and Brunetti’s inner dialog are taut and constructive—Leon’s mysteries feature literate, intelligent characters who aren’t ashamed to quote classics or deduce motives by examining emotions. The usual cast of suspects and Questura personnel add color and personality to photo-worthy glimpses of the city. Vice-Questura Patta is still an ass and his executive assistant Signorina Elettra, major hacker and couture queen of the cop shop, is still competently breaking privacy laws to supply Brunetti with leads.

Guido Brunetti’s family life is a warm counterpoint to the crimes he confronts. Paola Brunetti cooks delectable lunches, takes delivery of a case of Moët from a grateful student in her Henry James seminar, and puts up with her husband’s over-zealous work ethic. The teens, Chiara and Raffi, grace the family table with their presence and hold their own in mealtime conversation. Brunetti’s humanity is his ace and it’s in full view in this novel, both at home and at the scene of the crime.

What the commissario finds is not what he expected but is definitely not legal and not simple. Leon excels in painting in shades of gray and Drawing Conclusions is complex and richly ambiguous. In the end, Brunetti knows what happened and why and a lot more about the seamy underside of everything in the city he loves. And he applies his own standard of justice to resolve crimes that cannot touch the dead but continue to haunt the living.

Drawing Conclusions: A Commissario Guido Brunetti Mystery (Commissario Guido Brunetti Mysteries)   Donna Leon | Atlantic Monthly Press   2011

Friends in High Places – Donna Leon

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Commissario Guido Brunetti is one of the more likable crime-solvers in detective fiction and he lives in one of the more colorful cities on the planet. In Donna Leon’s successful mystery series,Venice is as strong a presence as the corrupt politicians, nefarious criminals and salt-of-the-earth cops who manage the action on the byways tourists seldom see.

Brunetti starts the adventure in Friends in High Places with a problem: his apartment, on the top floor of a 15th century Venetian landmark building, may not exist. He discovers this while in the apartment in question from Franco Rossi, a bureaucrat who works at the building department tracking old construction permits. There is no paperwork at all for Brunetti’s apartment and, if it can’t be found or magically materialized by a large bribe, Brunetti, his English professor wife Paolo and his teenage kids could find themselves living in the rubble of a bare rooftop.

The police commissioner’s son is caught with drugs, an architecture student overdoses and Rossi turns up murdered after calling Brunetti about some troubling matter he never gets the chance to report. Before he is finished solving this one, Brunetti will explore the deadly underworld of Venetian moneylenders, the heroin trade, corruption in more than a few Italian bureaucracies and frequent meals of tempting pastas and antipasti.

Leon’s stories are always layered with generous helpings of homemade Italian delicacies—the Brunetti family eats and drinks well–various excellent wines, grappas and spirits, camaraderie among longtime colleagues at the Questura—the cop shop–and complications in plotlines, murders and the loathed tourist trade that keeps the city partly afloat even as it submerges it in crowds and threatens the local businesses.

Signorina Elettra, the boss’s secretary who wears the latest from Milan, fills her office with fresh flowers daily and can hack into any computer system on the planet, is supremely competent, feisty and delightful. Vice-Questore Patta, the boss, is an insufferable gas-bag, as dangerous as unbridled ambition gets. Paola is devoted to Guido and Henry James—probably in that order, whips up a mean soft-crab and low-keys her connection to one of the wealthiest and most influential families in Venice.

The behind-the-scenes glimpses of Venice are terrific, the plots twist and turn through crooked streets, political malfeasance and human greed. The canals are picturesque and polluted. The old buildings are crumbling, magnificent and hiding dark secrets. A Guido Brunetti mystery is a treat and Friends in High Places is one of the good ones. Read it to find out if the Commissario is homeless or not at the end of the day—and whether the bad guys he invariably exposes ever pay for their foul deeds. I’d be happy if Leon could crank out one of these every couple of months—they are as addictive as a well-made cup of cappuccino in a Venice bar.

Friends in High Places  Donna Leon | Penguin Books 2008

The Magician King — Lev Grossman

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In Fillory, the magical land of children’s literature and the kingdom of Lev Grossman’s spell-casting slackers in The Magician King, things are starting to go off the rails. Clock-trees are waving their branches wildly, the Seeing Hare is playing hard to get and the Master of the Hunt drops dead in the middle of a soft green grassy circle, heavy with enchantments, in the woods.

The Magician King picks up some time after Grossman’s first fantasy, The Magicians, leaves off. Quentin Coldwater is one of the four Kings and Queens of Fillory as The Magician King begins and he thinks he’s landed in a cushy spot. Although, in typical Quentin fashion, he’s beginning to get just a tiny bit bored with his perfect life. His fellow royals, Eliot and Janet from Brakebills, the magicians college on the Hudson where the three learned their stuff, and Julia, an old high school friend who didn’t get into Brakebills and acquired her magic where she could find it, contemplate the disturbing signs of magical unraveling and agree to a Quest.

The fantasy, a grown-up pastiche of J.K. Rowling, C.S. Lewis and some very Grimm tales, sets sail on a charmed ship in search of answers and adventure. Our hero—still no dashing Lancelot—discovers he is looking for a golden key. Eventually there will be seven golden keys. But not before Quentin and Julia reach the Outer Island, meet a child who draws them scribbled passports they later find useful, locate and try a key with dizzying, disastrous results, continue their quest back in the Earth world, revisit Brakebills to no real benefit, steal some cars, hack an ATM, mess with disenchantments at a magnificent palazzo in Venice and learn about the dissolution of magic and the heroics it will take to save it.

Quentin is less of a jerk in this second half of what is really one long coming-of-age story split into two books. He exhibits some heartening maturity and altruism, along with his burning obsession to find the key to meaning in his own life. His evolution and the rich imaginative world Grossman builds around him make this a much more satisfying read than the first book. There is still an alarming tendency to imbibe hangover-inducing amounts of alcohol as daily fuel and unmagical humans—AKA family—are sloughed off with minimal concern and consequence. Events follow the predictable story template: just when things are staring to look better, they get worse. A lot worse.

The storyline for Julia weaves in and out in alternate chapters and we learn how she acquired her magic—none of it is remotely pretty. Death and defeat are as ugly as they come in this fairytale. The scenes are salted with arcane bits of erudition that lend them authenticity and show Grossman did his homework, a lot of really strong research. But the book seems slightly long and the adventures pale as they double back on themselves in loops of endless action and reaction that start to blur together. This might be a book to savor slowly, over several days, rather than power through in one.

I liked The Magician King far more than its prequel. Grossman has built a convincing world, if a graceless and sour one. His hero grows up and sacrifices himself to save some of the others. Quentin is left sadder, wiser and more hopeful by his quest. But, despite his admirable gestures, and all the powerful magic that slips through, and from, the hands of the Fillory royals and their companions, there isn’t much there there in the end. The magicians are an intelligent and egocentric lot and remain true to form. They are alienated from their roots, their surroundings and each other—it’s still all about them. The magical and mundane realms of Grossman’s books are bleakly existential. They offer a downbeat escape into fantasy for a reader whose sunny life is in need of a few contrasting shadows. The travails of this Quest are not so much an antidote to the gloom, angst and despair of the barren landscape we already inhabit.        

The Magician King: A Novel    Lev Grossman  |  Viking   2011