Tag Archives: Donna Leon

Book Review: “The Temptation of Forgiveness” by Donna Leon

The Temptation of Forgiveness by Donna Leon

Yet another fine story from perennial favorite Donna Leon.  Commissario Brunetti is still on duty after all these years, and Venice is still Venice. (Yet another place I’ve never been.)

In this story, he investigates the case of a badly injured man. Did he fall or was he pushed?  And if so, why and by whom?

The case is complicated by a possibly or possibly not related report that the victim’s son might be involved in drugs.

Unwinding the facts leads to several sad cases, as well as the usual web of scheming fraud and theft.  Brunetti has too little information, and too much guesswork to go on.

As usual, Brunetti’s Venice seems to occupy a strange, dreamy time warp.  While many of the concerns are clearly contemporary (giant cruise ships, post-Berlusconi politics, the crazy floating tide wall, 30 years old and no where near done), other things seem to hang forever in earlier days.  Brunetti’s children are still teenagers (just barely), though they were in their teens over twenty five years ago.  Brunetti should have grandchildren by now. He recalls “when he and Paola had bought their apartment, more than twenty years ago” (p. 203), which must be actually be more like forty years ago.

As I have said before, Venice is a magical city, but probably not magical enough that children do not grow up.

Some aspects of the Brunetti franchise have become surprisingly timely.  There is no escaping the cultural stresses of migration, race, and cultural collision, In Italy and Europe, even the “native” Europeans are culturally divided.

Most timely of all, in this story the police face tough questions about violence, bullying, and denegration of women, which play out in different ways in the law, in Italian and in immigrant culture.  Several women are willing to speak up and educate even good-hearted men like Brunetti.

Other aspects of the stories seem more problematic with age.  For one thing, Signorina Elettra Zorzi’s digital hacking is not nearly as amusing or harmless as it once may have.  She is even said  to be bugging her bosses office, which I don’t find charming in any way.  Nor is her merrily hacking health records a laughing matter, especially by the police.

I don’t care the Commissario Brunetti is a good guy, and Italian policing a chaotic and corrupt mess.  Elettra’s outlaw cowgirl attitude is not a good solution, especially within the police department.


These quibbles really don’t matter very much, though. We don’t read Donna Leon to learn about real life police work, or for morality lessons about digital privacy or vigilante justice.  We read Leon to enter this gauzy, time-warped city, visit with these familiar and beloved characters, and get away from the ugly world for a short time.


  1. Donna Leon, The Temptation of Forgiveness, New York, Atlantic, 2018.

 

Sunday Book Reviews

2017 Roundup and list of Books Reviewed

This year I continued daily posts, which I have done for just under four years now.  Overall, traffic to the blog was up about 18% over 2016.

As always, the coverage is mainly review and commentary on topics of interest to me, including “the new way of work”, robots, dinosaurs, cryptocurrency/blockchain, quantum cryptography, internet of too Many things, computer software in general, and so on.

This year I continued weekly posts noting and commenting on books I have read.  Most of the books were recently published, with a few older ones.   (Listed below.)

Throughout the year, I offered a number of “great names for a band”, in tribute to Dave Barry who pioneered the genre.  Most of these are “sciency”, inspired by technical articles I read and commented on.

Countershading
Banded tail
Dinosaur bandit mask
Paleocoloration
Beryllium hydride
Biomimetic Robotic Zebrafish
Chicxulub    [Note:  pronounced ( /ˈtʃiːkʃʊluːb/; Mayan: [tʃʼikʃuluɓ])]
The Chicxulub Event
We Are Children of Chicxulub
Thanks to Chicxulub
Brought to You By Chicxulub
Service Office Industry
Comfortable edgy fit outs
As Greenland Darkens
Recent Mass Loss
Larsen C
My Raptor Posse
A Rip of Raptors
Personal Raptor
The Robot Raptor Revue
Final Five Orbits
Kuiper Belt & Braces
A Belt of Kuiper
The Grand Finale Toolkit
Fog World Congress
Penguin Guano

Adelie Census
Fog Orchestra
Shape Changing Fog Screen
The Fog and the Eye
First Ringplane Crossing
Grand Finale Dive #2
The Grand Finale Toolkit
Last View of Earth
Final – and Fateful – Titan Flyby
Robots On Europa
Gay Robots on Europa


Books Reviewed in 2017

Overall I posted 79 book reviews, 58 fiction and 21 non-fiction.

In fiction, these include old favorites (Donna Leon, Charles Stross, Thomas Perry, Tim Dorsey, Ian McDonald, Gregory Maguire, Tom Holt).

Some new favorites include Richard Kadrey,  Viet Thanh Nguyen, Emma Straub.

I really liked Robin Sloan’s Sourdough, and Touch by Courtney Maum, but my best reads for the year have to be

Joe Ide,  IQ and Righteious.  <<links>> Righteous by Joe Ide

In non-fiction, I liked Weird Dinosaurs by John Pickrell and Eugenia Chengs Beyond InfinityHow America Lost Its Secrets by Edward Jay Epstein is both good and important.

<<links>>

But at the top, I’d probably pick

The Totally Unscientific Study of the Search for Human Happiness by Paula Poundstone

List of Books Reviewed

Q4

Fiction

First Person Singularities by Robert Silverberg
The Adventurist by J. Bradford Hipps
Artemis by Andy Weir
Hiddensee by Gregory Maguire
Willful Behavior by Donna Leon
A Selfie As Big As The Ritz by Lara Williams
Righteous by Joe Ide
Shylock is My Name by Howard Jacobson
The Gap of Time by Jeanette Winterson
Border Child by Michel Stone
Dunbar by Edward St. Aubyn
A Spool of Blue Thread by Anne Tyler
The Muse by Jessie Burton
Sourdough by Robin Sloan

Non-fiction

Napoleon in Egypt by Paul Strathern
After Piketty edited by Heather Boushey, J. Bradford DeLong, and Marshall Steinbaum

Books Reviewed In Q3 2017

Fiction

Rich People Problems by Kevin Kwan
The Answers by Catherine Lacey
Woman No. 17 by Edan Lepucki
The Management Style of Supreme Beings by Tom Holt
The Delirium Brief by Charles Stross
Shiver Hitch by Linda Greenlaw
Dichronauts by Greg Egan
Killing is My Business by Adam Christopher
The Painted Queen by Elizabeth Peters and Joan Hess
Standard Hollywood Depravity by Adam Christopher
Seven Wonders by Adam Christopher
Will Save Galaxy For Food by Yahtzee Croshaw
Reincarnation Blues by Michael Poore
Arlington Park by Rachael Cusk
Transition by Rachael Cusk
Death at La Fenece by Donna Leon
A Sea of Troubles by Donna Leon

Non Fiction

Giant of the Senate by Al Franken
Weird Dinosaurs by John Pickrell
Made With Creative Commons by Paul Stacey and Sarah Hinchli Pearson
How Not To Be Wrong by Jordan Ellenberg
Beyond Infinity by Eugenia Cheng

Books Reviewed Second Quarter

Fiction

New Boy by Tracy Chevalier
The Refrigerator Monologues by Catherynne M. Valente
Touch by Courtney Maum
Mother Land by Paul Theroux
Walkaway by Cory Doctorow
Startup by Doree Shafrir
Off Rock by Kieran Shea
The Wrong Dead Guy by Richard Kadrey
Earthly Remains by Donna Leon
The Underwriting by Michelle Miller
Luna: Wolf Moon by Ian McDonald
Huck Out West by Robert Coover

Non-Fiction

Half-Earth by Edward O. Wilson
The Book of Joy by Dalai Lama, Desmond Tutu with Douglas Abrams
Solve For Happy by Mo Gawdat
The Totally Unscientific Study of the Search for Human Happiness by Paula Poundstone
Lenin on the Train by Catherine Merridale
The Spider Network by David Enright
Churchill’s Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare by Giles Milton

Books Reviewed Q1 2017

Fiction

Revenger by Alistair Reynolds
The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen
The Refugees by Viet Thanh Nguyen
The Girls by Emma Cline
Norse Mythology by Neil Gaiman
The People’s Police by Norman Spinrad
IQ by Joe Ide
Clownfish Blues by Tim Dorsey
The Vacationers by Emma Straub
Empire Games by Charles Stross
The Cold Eye by Laura Anne Gilman
Modern Lovers by Emma Straub
The Golden Gate by Robert Buettner
The Old Man by Thomas Perry
Last Year by Robert Charles Wilson

Non Fiction

The Caliphate by Hugh Kennedy
The New Better Off or Reinventing the American Dream by Courtney E. Martin
How America Lost Its Secrets by Edward Jay Epstein
Valley of the Gods by Alexandra Wolfe
Wonderland by Steven Johnson
Measure for Measure by Thomas Levenson


That’s all for 2017!  Happy New Year!

 

Book Review: “Willful Behavior” by Donna Leon

Willful Behavior (2002) by Donna Leon

On this US holiday, let’s take break from all the Turkey’s out there, crypto-Turkeys, quantum Turkeys, DinoTurkeys, and all,

Instead, I’ll continue my look back at Comissario Brunetti’s career.

Willful Behavior (2002) is an interesting and somewhat pivotal novel.

As I noted earlier, Leon’s Venice is a magical city, where time seems suspended. As I noted before, somehow his teenage children circa 1992 are just entering university in this story (2002) (and apparently not finished yet in 2017).

On the other hand, even the magic city of Venice cannot hold off the twenty first century.


We find some more history of mobile phone use. By 2002, Brunetti has a telefonino, but often leaves it at home or the office, but increasingly has difficulty finding a public phone. Younger officers carry theirs, but Paola seems not to have one at all. And Brunetti’s children want phones, but only the older boy (probably 18 years old) is allowed to have one.

Within a few years, no one would imagine living in a city without a mobile phone, and most parents would not allow their children out of the house without one. Times have changed.

It is interesting to see that the Internet is fully in bloom, at least for searching and emailing—and hacking. Leon displays a cavalier attitude toward white-hat hacking, which levels the playing field and cuts through bureaucracy and official secrecy. This attitude seems adolescent and rather dangerous today.


In Venice one is surrounded by deep history, and also the willful amnesia about the catastrophes of the twentieth century. In Willful Behavior and other stories, there are somehow still veterans and war criminals around, as well as their children, though nobody talks about the reality of the Mussolini years. Leon has Brunetti despair at the erasure of the war years, which inevitably leads to resurgence of fascist mythology among the young.

In 2002 Brunetti encounters waves of immigrants, with Africans displacing Easter Europeans. He also encounters rising anti-immigrant sentiment, and neo-fascist politics. These events continue today, and have come to dominate Italian and European politics.

As always, Brunetti’s Venice and Italy are awash in corruption and public mismanagement. In Willful Behavior he even advises a friend to pay a bribe, and emperils his own ethics by suggesting a quid pro quo for his own help. These views of cronyism and misrule are all the more salient in post-Obama America.

Far right immigrant bashing plus incompetence plus official extortion—where have I heard about that, in 2017?


But to me the most important part of this book is that it is the follow up to Signorina Elettra’s disastrous adventure in Troubled Waters. In her unofficial undercover role, she suffered physical and emotional trauma above and beyond her official role as “secretary”.

In Willful Behavior, she is back in the office and apparently fully recovered. Leon offers little insight into this miracle, though we are all pleased to see it.

Finding her office filled with fresh flowers, Brunetti muses,

How he had prayed in the last months that she be returned to her shameless depredation of the city’s finances by claiming these exploding bouquets as ordinary office supplies. Every bud, every blossom was rich with the odour of the misappropriation of public funds. Burnetti breathed in deeply and sighed with relief.” ([1], p. 110)

This is the extent of what we are told about her recovery.

Elettra seems undaunted by the experience, cheerfully commanding men and the Internet to do her bidding, just as before.

I would note, though, that in subsequent stories she does not seem to take on such personal risks, either for police work or in her love life.

Just like Brunetti and his family, Elettra seems to stay the same age and attitude for another decade and a half. She does not marry, and seems not to have a significant relationship. How ever much I like her, this seems rather magically implausible.


This, then, is Leon’s Venice. Caught in the past which few actually remember, timeless, yet flooded by the twenty first century. Unreal, but beautiful.

That’s kind of the whole point, no?


  1.  Donna Leon, Willful Behavior, New York, Penguin, 2002.

 

Sunday Thursday Book Reviews

Roundup: Books Reviewed In Q3 2017

This quarter saw a few interesting ideas about coworking, ever weirder computer security threats, and the rapid approach of Quantum Computing and Quantum Cryptography.

Dinosaurs and birds remain interesting.

There was a never ending drum of dubious Blockchain technology, dubious Internet of Things technology.

And, as usual regular book reviews.

Fiction

Rich People Problems by Kevin Kwan
The Answers by Catherine Lacey
Woman No. 17 by Edan Lepucki
The Management Style of Supreme Beings by Tom Holt
The Delirium Brief by Charles Stross
Shiver Hitch by Linda Greenlaw
Dichronauts by Greg Egan
Killing is My Business by Adam Christopher
The Painted Queen by Elizabeth Peters and Joan Hess
Standard Hollywood Depravity by Adam Christopher
Seven Wonders by Adam Christopher
Will Save Galaxy For Food by Yahtzee Croshaw
Reincarnation Blues by Michael Poore
Arlington Park by Rachael Cusk
Transition by Rachael Cusk
Death at La Fenece by Donna Leon
A Sea of Troubles by Donna Leon

Non Fiction

Giant of the Senate by Al Franken
Weird Dinosaurs by John Pickrell
Made With Creative Commons by Paul Stacey and Sarah Hinchli Pearson
How Not To Be Wrong by Jordan Ellenberg
Beyond Infinity by Eugenia Cheng

Finally, I suggests a bunch of “great names for a band”.

“Service Office Industry”
Comfortable edgy fit outs”
As Greenland Darkens
Recent Mass Loss
Larsen C
My Raptor Posse
A Rip of Raptors
Personal Raptor
The Robot Raptor Revue
Final Five Orbits
“Kuiper Belt & Braces”

“A Belt of Kuiper

“The Grand Finale Toolkit”
“Fog World Congress”

Looking Back At Brunetti

Earlier this year, Donna Leon published the umpteenth Comissario Brunetti story, set as always in the dreamy timelessness of Venice. These stories have appeared over the last twenty five years, and have their own timeless qualities that seems to match the city itself.

This summer, I took an opportunity to look back across the years, sampling stories through the years. My sample today is Death at La Fenece (1992), A Sea of Troubles (2001), and Earthly Remains (2017).


Death at La Fenece (1992)

The first book featuring Venice Comissario Brunetti is amazingly fresh and just as good as the more recent works more than two decades later.

The first book is a sudden death of a famous conductor at the even more famous opera house.

As in all the Brunetti stories, the city of Venice is lovingly portrayed, a mixture of small town gossip, absurdly fine food, and centuries old decay.

Brunetti follows his now familiar process, talking and listening carefully, along with some psychological tricks aimed at eliciting truth from witnesses and cooperation from colleagues.

In other words, Leon’s work was great from the first.


A Sea of Troubles (2001)

This story visits the outer island, inhabited by fishing families and tourists. This story further develops the bright young “secretary”, Elettra. Under her elegant façade and insulting job title, she is a canny operator, and knows how to make  both men and the Internet do what she wants.

The islands are an inbred village culture that is dying out, as so many parts of Venice are. They are a home to smuggling, illegal fishing, and illegal waste dumping—and not necessarily friendly to the police.

The face of Italy and Venice continue to change. Brunetti learns about the decrepit state of Italy’s public health system, and the ugly mess facing immigrants from Eastern Europe.

Earthly Remains (2017)

Leon’s most recent Brunetti novel visits another remote part of the lagoon, taking Brunetti back to his boyhood. Recuperating from a health scare, he investigates the death of an old man, which requires uncovering.

By now Signorina Elettra is supplemented by detective Claudia Griffoni, who displays an alarming acting ability and an acute sense of psychology. Like Brunetti, she knows ways to lead people to reveal the truth.

Venice is changing. The city is overrun by tourists and gigantic cruise ships. The shops are filled with shoddy fakes from China, and run by immigrants from Africa (who seem to have pushed out the East Europeans). Venice is becoming a theme park, with little room for Venetians.

Brunetti himself is sagging into despair over the dysfunctional political and judicial system (which is he is a part of), and the grinding anxiety about environmental degradation. As the lagoon and the sea dies, can Venice survive? Can humanity survive?

Can anything be more symbolic than the giant floating barrier, intended to hold back the rising sea. Preposterously expensive, logically suspect, behind schedule, and, of course, under investigation for corruption.

Or the skyscraper cruise ships that absurdly and insanely plow the ancient canals, threatening the foundations of the city.  Literally.


Over the Years

First: Leon is a great writer, and the Brunetti books have been consistently fine from the very start. That hasn’t changed.

Second, the city of Venice as Leon knows and loves it has always been a main character in the stories. Much of Brunetti’s story makes little sense except as a foil for Leon’s love of life in Venice. He and his family embody what Leon treasures about the city, and exemplifies how she would want life to be. Like the imagined city of Venice, this too has not changed.

There have been, of course, some changes over the years.

In 1992, there was no Internet. To find things out, Brunetti relies on his old fashioned social network, friends of friends, and family connections.

In 1992, he has no mobile phone, but by 2001 all the police had them. (I haven’t identified exactly when Guido gets his first telefonino, in the mid-90s sometime.) This makes a huge difference for police procedures, because once everyone has a mobile, the Commissario is never out of communication for long, and does not have to return to his office to catch up or check on his family. This is connectivity is good and bad, given the unhelpful kibitzing of his bosses.

The city of Venice is, of course, ageless. But Leon’s unvarnished eye sees the decay and environmental degradation, as well as the tourist menace. These things were evident back in 1992, and have only grown worse over the years.

Brunetti’s (and Leon’s) despair is the same, even as the details evolve.

Leon also seems to “enjoy” Italian politics and social follies. 1992 is pre-Burilisconi, but the story is pretty much the same in his reign, and now after it. In more recent stories. Paola adds in a despairing view of academic politics, and his children display a bitter realism about prospects for a future in Venice, in Italy, or anywhere on Earth. Italy is Italy, Venice is Venice.

There are some peculiarities in the story telling.

Leon has had to deal with the age of her character. Like Christie’s Poirot and Marple, Leon’s protagonist is middle aged in the first story. Over the ensuing 25 years, he surely must be ready to retire or move on, but never does. He doesn’t seem to age very much, either.

His wife Paola’s parents are very old in 1992, and seem to get younger through the years. Equally inexplicably, his children are teenagers in 1992, and are just preparing for college in 2001, and are at University in 2017—and still living at home.

I realize that young people have a tough time finding work in Italy, but no matter how magical Venice may be, it cannot keep children young forever. Brunetti’s offspring should be middle-aged parents by now—but they are still in college.

Brunetti and his family, like the city of Venice itself, do not seem to age. Throughout all the stories, there is a hazy golden glow, and time passes slowly, allowing Brunetti to amble through his cases, untangling the true story and bringing his own justice to the world.

This is not the real world, but the real world of corruption and decay is seen, and the ageless and very fortunate Brunetti despairs for the future, though the future does not seem to be in a hurry to arrive.

In a sense, this is what we expect from the magical city of Venice, reasonably or not. More to the point, this is what we expect from Donna Leon.  This is a charming fantasy, and very Venetian.

This probably isn’t what life is really like in Venice or anywhere, but it is a beautiful vision, and I would like it to be real.

I think I’ll keep reading as long as she keeps writing.


  1. Donna Leon, Death at La Fenece, New York, HarperCollins, 1992.
  2. Donna Leon, A Sea of Troubles, New York, Penguin, 2001.
  3. Donna Leon, Earthly Remains, New York, Atlantic Monthly Press, 2017.

 

 

Sunday Friday Book Reviews

Housekeeping: Second Quarter Roundup, Books Reviewed

A bit of housekeeping at the end of Q2.

The usual

This quarter has seen daily posts, a steady stream of comments on research papers* and general articles on favorite topics including blockchains, the new economy, solar power, environmental sensing, computer security, and “brilliantly executed BS”.

I’ve begun to pay attention to Quantum Computing, which is surely a coming thing.

And Robots! And Dinosaurs!

*Note: discussion of scientific and technical research always refers to the primary sources.


Books Reviewed This Quarter

A summary of the books reviewed in the second quarter.

Fiction

New Boy by Tracy Chevalier
The Refrigerator Monologues by Catherynne M. Valente
Touch by Courtney Maum
Mother Land by Paul Theroux
Walkaway by Cory Doctorow
Startup by Doree Shafrir
Off Rock by Kieran Shea
The Wrong Dead Guy by Richard Kadrey
Earthly Remains by Donna Leon
The Underwriting by Michelle Miller
Luna: Wolf Moon by Ian McDonald
Huck Out West by Robert Coover

Non-Fiction

Half-Earth by Edward O. Wilson
The Book of Joy by Dalai Lama, Desmond Tutu with Douglas Abrams
Solve For Happy by Mo Gawdat
The Totally Unscientific Study of the Search for Human Happiness by Paula Poundstone
Lenin on the Train by Catherine Merridale
The Spider Network by David Enright
Churchill’s Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare by Giles Milton


Some ideas for band names

 Following the lead of Sensei Dave Barry, I occasionally suggest names for bands.

This quarter’s harvest include:

Penguin Guano
Adelie Census
Fog Orchestra
Shape Changing Fog Screen
The Fog and the Eye
First Ringplane Crossing
Grand Finale Dive #2
The Grand Finale Toolkit
Last View of Earth
Final – and Fateful – Titan Flyby
Robots On Europa
Gay Robots on Europa

 

 

 

Book Review: “Earthly Remains” by Donna Leon

Earthly Remains by Donna Leon

Yet another installment in Sonna Leon’s the long running and beloved Venetian stories.

Like the author and many of her readers, Commissario Brunetti is aging. The thoughtful and introspective detective grows ever more thoughtful and introspective as time goes by. (If you are hoping for swashbuckling cinematic excitement, these stories are not the droids you are looking for! :-))

As Brunetti faces his own eventual retirement and mortality, he acutely observes other older people. He also worries about the past and the future, and what will be left for the children.

In the last decade, Brunetti has watched his beloved city of Venice become overrun with tourists, touristy junk, mega cruise ships, and all the other horrors. He has also had to watch the slow degradation of the fragile coastal environment under the pressure of industry and human activities.

This story involves the death of an old man Brunetti is staying with, which may or may not have been an accident. The Commissario cannot let it lie without finding the truth of the matter. This requires uncovering the old man’s life, including dramatic events in his past, grief follow the death of his wife, and the slow death of the Laguna, including his colonies of bees.

(It’s not all about old people—Brunetti’s younger colleagues are fascinating as always.)

It’s all a rather sad story, beautifully told in Leon’s understated style.

As I said in an earlier review,

Reading Lean makes me want to live a little more “Venetian”. Not indolent luxury, but gently caring for my home town and the people who live here.

And, of course, “I wish I could write this well!


  1. Donna Leon, Earthly Remains, New York, Atlantic Monthly Press, 2017.

 

Sunday Book Reviews