Tag Archives: Donna Leon

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

2016 Roundup and Books Reviewed in 2016

In 2016, this blog passed the milestone of posting at least once per day for1,000 days in a row! January 5 will mark three years of daily posts to this blog.

My blog may not be great, but it is consistent!  Or at least persistent.


Regular readers know that this blog is somewhat random, touching on any topic I find interesting enough or have something to say about. But some topics were visited more than once.

This year saw many posts on coworking and similar “co” movements (cohousing, platform cooperatives, the future of work, the sharing economy, etc.)

These posts give you a preview of a new book that is in preparation, titled, “What is coworking?” It should be available in early 2017. I.e, Real Soon Now.

I posted nearly weekly about cryptocurrencies, blockchain technology, and the communities that have risen around these technologies.

Cryptocurrency and blockchain technology has so many perspectives, it is hard ot keep track, but some of the topics overlap with coworking, the sharing economy, and similar “bottom up” movements.

Reflecting earlier research, I have also posted frequently about HCI, particularly wearables, and haptics. I know quite a bit about these topics, though the most important thing is that no one really knows how to use them well.

I posted nearly weekly about robots and bio-inspired design. Robots are really cool, though in this area I am just an enthusiast, not an expert.

Other general science-y topics have included dinosaurs (naturally) and animal intelligence. I have also posted frequently about space exploration and remote sensing of the environment especially observing the retreat of the ice.


I should note that I had been posting comments on items picked up from Wired magazine on line. In fact, I was reading Wired so regularly, I was just about to subscribe. But then they decided to close off access to me unless I accept their advertising or pay $1 per article. I might have subscribed to this deal, were it not for the fact that even the “ad free” option still wanted to aggressively track me. So I stopped reading Wired.

You know what? I never even noticed it was gone.

I think you miscalculated, Wired


On a less contentious topic. Following Sensei Dave Barry, I suggested a number of names for rock bands based on current topics and reading.

I suggested some band names with cryptcurrency themed names, including “Fintech”, and “Hard Fork” (not to be mistaken for “Haardvark”, which I have actually heard of.)

Other nerdy names might be Feather Evolutionor the Saturn themed “First Ring Grazing Plunge


Books Reviewed

As always, I posted short book reviews every week. In case it isn’t clear, these are all books I read this year.

In total, I wrote about 100 books (a happy milestone, purely by luck). The majority of the books are relatively recent, and, with only a few exceptions are recommended.

But if I had to pick a few “best” books, I would say:

Best Fiction: Stiletto by Daniel O’Malley

 An eagerly awaited sequel to the The Rook (2012), this is easily one of the most enjoyable and imaginative fantasies of the year.

Best Non-fiction: The Euro by Joseph Stiglitz

A timely and riveting explanation of what went wrong in the Eurozone, and what might be done to salvage the situation. Considering the subject matter, I was expecting difficult and obtuse reading. Instead, I found it clear and easy to understand, if hard to swallow.

Walking the Walk:  How to Make Money (and a whole lot more) by Sharing by Claire Marshall

In a totally category, “walking the walk”, there are quite a few  important books about how to live right, but  the 2016 nod must got to Sensei Claire Marshall.  Actually living for a month in “the sharing economy”, and now teaching that “we are happiest when we share”.

Other notable reads

I read new  books by old favorites by A. Lee Martinez, Charles Stross, Carl HIasson, Connie Willis, and others.

I started reading Donna Leon, and wrote about a few of her books (there are many more great novels on the back list to be read).

I found some great new favorites, including Guy Adams.

In non-fiction, there have been several great books about animal intelligence, by Jennifer Ackerman and Frans De Waal. Many new articles and books about dinosaurs are coming out.

In addition to Stiglitz, Robert J. Gordon’s book on economics was good.

At a more personal note, there were a number of ebooks about “the new way of work”, by people who are  definitely walking the walk, including Angel Kwiatkowski and Beth Buczynski, Sebastian Olma, and Anastasia Cole Plankias.


For reference here is a list of the books reviewed in the fourth quarter:

Fiction

1636: The Chronicles of Dr. Gribbleflottz by Kerryn Offord and Rick Boatright
A Second Chance by Jodi Taylor
Crosstalk by Connie Willis
Curioddity by Paul Jenkins
Dark Matter by Blake Crouch
For a Few Souls More by Guy Adams
Hag-seed by Margaret Atwood
Pirate Utopia by Bruce Sterling
Silver on the Road by Laura Anne Gilman
Swing Time by Zadie Smith
The Lesser Bohemians by Eimear McBride
The Terranauts by T. Coraghessan Boyle

Nonfiction

Best State Ever by Dave Barry
Pax Romana by Adrian Goldsworthy
The Euro by Joseph Stiglitz

And here is a consolidated list from Q1, Q2, Q3:

Fiction

2 A.M. at the Cat’s Pajamas by Marie-Helene Bertino
A Question of Belief by Donna Leon
A Symphony of Echoes by Jodi Taylor
At the Edge of the Orchard by Tracy Chevalier
Beastly Things by Donna Leon
By Its Cover by Donna Leon
China Rich Girlfriend by Kevin Kwan
Coconut Cowboy by Tim Dorsey
Empire State by Adam Christopher
Falling In Love by Donna Leon
Inside a Silver Box by Walter Mosley
Just One Damned Thing After Another by Jodi Taylor
Lovecraft Country by Matt Ruff
Made To Kill by Adam Christopher
Miller’s Valley by Anna Quindlen
Monstrous Little Voices edited by David Thomas Moore
Once A Crooked Man by David McCallum
Razor Girl by Carl Hiaasen
Rewired edited by James Patrick Kelly and John Kessel
Robot Uprisings ed. by Daniel H. Wilson and John Joseph Adams
Save Room For Pie by Roy Blount, Jr.
Slade House by David Mitchell
Stiletto by Daniel O’Malley
Still Life With Bread Crumbs by Anna Quindlen
The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay by Michael Chabon
The Assistants by Camille Perri
The Black-Eyed Blonde by Benjamin Black
The Clown Service by Guy Adams
The Decent Proposal by Kemper Donovan
The Everything Box by Richard Kadrey
The Golden Egg by Donna Leon
The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt
The Heart Goes Last by Margaret Atwood
The Invoice by Jonas Karlsson
The Last Adventure of Constance Verity by A. Lee Martinez
The Lost Time Accidents by John Wray
The Mad Scientist’s Guide to World Domination edited by John Joseph Adams
The Nightmare Stacks by Charles Stross
The Path by Drew Magary
The Rain Soaked Bride by Guy Adams
The Regional Office is Under Attack by Manuel Gonzales
The Underground Railroad by Colin Whitehead
The Waters of Eternal Youth by Donna Leon
Vinegar Girl by Anny Tyler

Non fiction

Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are? by Frans De Waal
Chaos Monkeys by Antonio Garcia Martinez
Coworking: Building Community as a Space Catalyst by Angel Kwiatkowski and Beth Buczynski
Coworking: How freelancers escape the coffee shop office and tales of community from independents around the world by Angel Kwiatkowski and Beth Buczynski
Digital Nomads: How to Live, Work and Play Around the World by Esther Jacobs and André Gussekloo
Dude, Where’s My Drone: The future of work and what you can do to prepare for it by Liquid Talent
Hedy’s Folly by Richard Rhodes
How to Make Money (and a whole lot more) by Sharing by Claire Marshall
Inventology by Pagan Kennedy
Labor of Love by Moira Weigel
Magic and Loss by Virginia Heffernan
Reclaiming Conversation by Sherry Turkle
Straight to Hell: True Tales of Deviance, Debauchery and Billion-Dollar Deals by John LeFevre
The Farm on The Roof by Anastasia Cole Plankias
The Genius of Birds by Jennifer Ackerman
The Global Code by Clotaire Rapaille
The Invention of Nature: Alexander Humbolt’s New World by Andrea Wulf
The Rise and Fall of American Growth by Robert J. Gordon
The Serendipity Machine: A Disruptive Business Model for Society 3.0 by Sebastian Olma
The Tyrannosaur Chronicles  by David Hone
Tribe by Sebastian Junger

 

2016 Wrapup

 

Housekeeping: Books Reviewed Third Quarter 2016

In the past quarter,in addition to daily posts, comments on articles and products, I posted brief book reviews for 21 books and ebooks in the third quarter.

Here is a list, in no particular order.

Fiction

A Question of Belief by Donna Leon
A Symphony of Echoes by Jodi Taylor
At the Edge of the Orchard by Tracy Chevalier
Beastly Things by Donna Leon
China Rich Girlfriend by Kevin Kwan
Razor Girl by Carl Hiaasen
Robot Uprisings ed. by Daniel H. Wilson and John Joseph Adams
The Assistants by Camille Perri
The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt
The Invoice by Jonas Karlsson
The Last Adventure of Constance Verity by A. Lee Martinez
The Nightmare Stacks by Charles Stross
The Path by Drew Magary
The Underground Railroad by Colin Whitehead
Vinegar Girl by Anny Tyler

Nonfiction

Magic and Loss by Virginia Heffernan
Tribe by Sebastian Junger
The Tyrannosaur Chronicles  by David Hone
The Genius of Birds by Jennifer Ackerman
Chaos Monkeys by Antonio Garcia Martinez
Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are? by Frans De Waal