Gems from the pen of Donna Leon

August 28, 2011 at 8:12 pm (Book review, books, Italy, Mystery fiction)

  I’ve waited too long to write about this novel. I no longer recall the details of the plot – or much about the plot at all, actually. But there is always so much more to a Brunetti novel than the detection aspect. I’d like to share some of the highlights.

The first concerns the somewhat enigmatic Signorina Elettra, factotum of the Questura:

Brunetti passed outside Signorina Elettra’s office and peered inside, relieved to see an abundance of flowers on the windowsill. A step further confirmed his hope that more of them stood on her desk: yellow roses, at least two dozen of them. 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 expenses. Every bud, every blossom was rich with the odour of the misappropriation of public finds: Brunetti breathed in deeply and sighed with relief.

Oh those deliciously satisfying little acts of workplace subversion…

Donna Leon may have issues with the current state of affairs in La Serenissima, but she gladly pays tribute to the city’s glorious past. An address that Brunetti and Vianello  are searching for proves to be “in a building just to the right of the church where Vivaldi was baptized….”

Willful Behavior concerns the search for the truth about a crime committed in the past.   Brunetti must investigate events that occurred during the Second World War. The Commissario seeks help from his father-in-law, Count Oralio Falier. When he’d first married Paola, Brunetti’s relations with her father, a member of Italy’s old aristocracy, had been uneasy. But as the years elapsed, they’d grown to like and respect each other. On the occasion of this particular interview, the Count is forced to revisit some painful truths and searing memories from his own past. It’s one of the most powerful scenes I’ve yet encountered in this series. Here’s how it ends:

Brunetti stood and, compelled by an impulse that surprised him, walked over to the Count and embraced him, held him in his arms for  long moment, then turned and left  the study.

Donna Leon

Click here for a reading group guide to Willful Behavior.

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First an earthquake, then a hurricane…

August 28, 2011 at 2:14 pm (Local interest (Baltimore-Washington), Weather)

What next?

Just kidding, Mother Nature – JUST KIDDING…

It’s been an eventful week. First, Tuesday’s earthquake, an event so rare in these parts and so bizarre that you couldn’t credit what was happening, even though you knew it couldn’t be anything else. Then yesterday – Saturday – along comes Irene.

Here in central Maryland, the storm seemed to reach its apogee last night around 2 AM. As I write this, it’s just after 10 AM, and the worst appears to be over. Winds are still gusting impressively, but the rain has pretty much stopped. It’s gradually and steadily getting lighter.

We’ve been fortunate in regard to our premises. There’s no obvious damage to the house (though we’ll be going out later to inspect the roof). The basement is still dry. Most crucially, we have not lost power. This is almost certainly due to the fact that the power lines hereabouts have been placed underground.

The grounds are littered with leaves, twigs, and small tree branches. But  the driveway remains unobstructed. And as I look outside – mirabile dictu – the sun is trying to come out!

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Yet another delightful (and invigorating) lunch with intellectuals

August 26, 2011 at 10:18 am (books, Friends and friendship, Travel)

Six of us try to get together once a month. The conversation ranges widely, from politics, to health and medical matters (the mandate here is to keep it brief), to grandchildren (same mandate!), to computers, electronic devices, and e-readers, about which some of us remain deeply ambivalent (same mandate again!), to travel, to items of local interest – and to books, always to books.

This past Monday I was bursting with enthusiasm for two terrific books I just finished: State of Wonder by Ann Patchett and The Greater Journey by David McCullough. The McCullough in particular I really loved. In fact, I hated for it to end. All those fascinating stories, equally fascinating people, coming to Paris and recording their impressions of this great cultural capital. Ah well – more about this embarrassment of riches later.


None of my four luncheon companions had read The Greater Journey, but two, Kay and Angie, had read the Ann Patchett novel.  (Ann is now in the process of reading it.) Kay agreed with me that it was excellent; Angie had reservations. I was so over the top enthusiastic about the book that I could hardly credit the latter reaction. (Isn’t that often the way, in the first blush of rapturous reading – “You simply MUST love this as much as I did!”) More about State of Wonder in a subsequent post – and about Angie’s reservations, which are cogently set forth in her Amazon review.

Kay told us about her recent trip to Yellowstone and Glacier National Park. She was telling us about the Going-to-the-Sun Road, a wonderfully named byway that I confess I’d never heard of. Kay also recommended Free Fire by C.J. Box.   This novel, one in the author’s Joe Pickett series, takes place in Yellowstone. Kay has recommended this book to me before and is probably waiting patiently for me to break down and read it! I note that the library is now getting Box’s novels on CD, including this one, so I have duly reserved it. C.J. Box is a fine writer; his terrific standalone Blue Heaven won the Edgar for best novel of 2008.

Once again, we were reminded of how pleasurable it is to read fiction that’s set in your travel destination. I experienced that pleasure during our British sojourn this past May with Phil Rickman’s Midwinter of the Spirit, Edward Marston‘s The Dragons of Archenfield, and Kate Charles’s luminous ecclesiastical novel Appointed To Die. For me, similar confluences occurred with Jane Langton’s God in Concord, read while in historic Concord Massachusetts; Michael Dibdin’s Cosi Fan Tutti, read – or rather re-read – while in Naples, Italy;  Washington Irving’s Legend of Sleepy Hollow, read while staying in a B&B in the beautiful Hudson River Valley; and of course, the Navajo mysteries of the great Tony Hillerman, read while in New Mexico. In point of fact, those books were what made me want to see the aptly nicknamed Land of Enchantment in the first place. (Nevada Barr was also mentioned in this context.)

I can recommend two sites for finding books set in a specific locale: Longitude Books and the location index on

Angie belongs to two book clubs: one reads philosophy; the other, science fiction. (Have I got that right, Angie?) She recommended the latest Hugo Award winner: Blackout/All Clear by Connie Willis. An article in the Guardian newspaper describes this as “two volume time travel sequence” and praised Willis’s depiction of London during the Blitz.

I mentioned that for the first time in many years, I had recently bought a copy of Fantasy & Science Fiction, formerly known as The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction.   I had obtained the July/August issue because it featured a story by Steven Saylor, one of my favorite authors of historical fiction. But when I actually held the digest-sized magazine in my hands and fingered the raspy (pulpy?) paper on which it’s printed, I found myself assailed by distant memories. F&SF, as it is sometimes called, began publishing in 1949. My brother and I used to read it when we were kids.

As it turns out, F&SF put out a sixtieth anniversary edition in 2009:  . I got it from the library. And there they were, the names of some of my favorites, past and present, emblazoned on the cover:

Ursula K. LeGuin

Ray Bradbury (a terrific writer who also has impeccable taste in pets)

Philip K. Dick

Damon Knight

Alfred Bester

William Tenn

William Tenn

Theodore Sturgeon

Angie frequently recommends science fiction to our group. I for one have not followed up on these recommendations; perhaps, the time has come…

  It’s always a delight when someone discovers an author that you already know and like. Ann had just read Other People’s Money by Justin Cartwright and enjoyed it enough to want to read other works by this author. I immediately suggested The Promise of Happiness and To Heaven By Water. An earlier Cartwright title that I also liked very much is Interior. One thing I particularly recall about that novel is that it had a terrific ending, one that was exactly apposite. Since so many modern novels don’t achieve a satisfying culmination, I am always pleased to find one that does.

Justin Cartwright

I’m sure I’ve left out some books and some topics. Feel free to remind me in the comment section, ladies. Meanwhile, I look forward as always to our next get-together.

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Where were you when…

August 24, 2011 at 12:46 am (Earthquakes!, Local interest (Baltimore-Washington))

Ron and I were in a Target store looking for various household items when the floor beneath our feet began to shake. Then the whole store began to tremble. The lights flickered but stayed on. In ten seconds it was over.

Ron said instantly, “That was an earthquake.” We proceeded to the front of the store, where we encountered numerous individuals on their cell phones, in some cases, trying in vain to get through. Outside, there were more people milling about. We went back to our car, got in, and drove home – a distance of only a few miles. We were anxious about the house, and its contents – particularly the live one:  . Everything was as we’d left it. Miss Marple was as we left her; she began begging for food immediately. Thus we knew everything was back to normal – for the time being, at least.

I’m creating a special category for this post. I sincerely hope I never use it again!

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A story to warm the hearts of opera lovers (and lovers of Italy as well)

August 23, 2011 at 2:24 am (Italy, Music, opera)

  The original title of this post was “Riccardo Muti is my hero.”  Here’s why:

An article by Alex Ross in the July 25 New Yorker alerted me to an extraordinary event in Italian opera. In “At the Brink,” Ross describes what happened during a performance of Verdi’s Nabucco at the Rome Opera in March. The conductor was the renowned Riccardo Muti. First, a bit  of background information is necessary.

Written in 1842, the opera Nabucco contains the Chorus of the Hebrew slaves, “Va pensiero.” In it, the Hebrews lament their captivity and give expression to their longing for their homeland: “Oh, my country so beautiful and lost! / Oh, remembrance so dear and so fatal!” At the time, Italy was chafing under the yoke of its Austrian occupiers. “Va pensiero” became, in the words of Alex Ross, “an unofficial national anthem,” expressing as it did the desire of a nation to seize control of its own destiny. For Italy, this goal was finally achieved in 1861, the year of Risorgimento. (This is a tremendously complicated story. I was having a great deal of trouble pinning down the date of unification. but since Italians are celebrating its 150th anniversary this year, let’s just accept that date as a given and leave it at that, for the time being. Wikipedia has a fairly comprehensive entry on the subject.)

No doubt you have read of Italy’s ongoing financial crisis. One of the line items to get its budget slashed was arts funding. Finance minister Giulio Tremonti was quoted as saying, “You can’t eat culture.”


I’ll let Alex Ross take it from here:

On the opening night of Muti’s “Nabucco,” during the ovation after “Va pensiero,” someone shouted out “Viva L’Italia!” The conductor made a little speech, with television cameras running. “Si, I am in accord with that “Viva L’Italia!’ he said, in a quiet, pensive voice. Alluding to the budget cuts, he declared, When the chorus sang ‘Oh mia patria si bella e perduta!'” – Oh, my country so beautiful and lost! – “I thought to myself that, if we slay the culture on which the history of Italy is founded, truly our country will be beautiful and lost.” He then led an encore of “Va pensiero,” inviting the audience to sing along.

Ross observes that “Muti, who seldom indulges in political posturing, knew exactly when and where to strike.” There were reverberations from this extraordinary event. The aforesaid Signor Tremonti rolled back the funding cuts. Ross concludes: “Seldom has a celebrity musician intervened in politics to a more decisive effect.”

In an interview with Corriere della Sera, Muti expresses his own frank amazement at the events of that evening:

“At the end of Va’ pensiero, I heard shouts of “Viva l’Italia” and turned instinctively towards the audience. I could see groups of people getting to their feet here and there. In the end, everyone was standing, including the chorus, and singing an encore at my request. It was a steadily rising tide of participation and intensity…. It was a call for a united fatherland, in Verdi’s name. I thought I was dreaming. I’ve never experienced a thrill like that before”.

Muti goes on to assure the interviewer that the outburst of patriotic fervor was completely unscripted: “I spoke to remind everyone that the arts guide our society. Then the whole theatre sang Va’ pensiero. Some members of the chorus were in tears. A moment of outstanding Italianness.”

Riccardo Muti has had his share of health problems in recent months. He recently had a pacemaker put in. Reports claim that he returned to his conducting duties sooner than his doctors had advised. Maestro Muti turned seventy last month. Happy Birthday, Maestro – and may you celebrate many more!

A view words about the video: First, I was not able to find a word for word translation of Muti’s impromptu speech, but I think you can get the gist of it from what I’ve written and quoted above. With regard to the leaflets cascading to the floor: Muti explains what they were in the newspaper interview I linked to above.

At any rate, may blessings continue to rain down on music-loving Italians; they know what makes life worth living.


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Faberge Revealed, at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts

August 19, 2011 at 7:25 pm (Art, Music, Russophilia)

Surely this photograph, taken in 1913, of Nicholas and Alexandra and their children is one of history’s most haunting images:

The name of Faberge, master jeweler, is indelibly linked with those of  Tsar Nicholas, Tsarina Alexandra, and their five children, whose fate it was to be the last of the Romanoffs.  Currently on display at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts is Faberge Revealed, an exhibit featuring more than five hundred objects designed and created by  Peter Karl Faberge and the superb craftsmen who worked under him. Thanks to the generosity of various donors, the VMFA has one of the finest collections of Faberge objets d’art to be found anywhere in the world. On the occasion of this special exhibition, additional works have been loaned to the museum.

Should you go there, here are some of the things you will see:

Imperial Tsarevich Egg

Napoleonic Egg

Diamond tiara, one of the few made by Faberge

Imperial Lilies of the Valley Basket

The Coronation Egg

The Hen Egg, Tsar Alexander III's Easter gift to his wife in 1885

Imperial snuff box

The eggs, with their tiny miniatures inside, are the most famous products of the House of Faberge. But as this exhibit demonstrates, these master jewelers crafted many other equally beautiful objects. There were brooches and pendants, animals carved from hard stone, snuff boxes – and picture frames. And from these frames, picture after picture of members of the royal household, unsmiling and imperious, gaze out at the world they unthinkingly dominated. 

I could not resist buying the exhibition catalog, a weighty tome with lavish illustrations:  It wasn’t until I took a good look at this book that I fully took in the name of the guest curator: Geza Von Habsburg. Von Habsburg…? A rather storied name in European history, n’est-ce pas? Indeed so. Born in Bupapest in 1940, Geza Von Habsburg is a direct descendant of the Austro-Hungarian Emperor Franz Josef and his wife Empress Elizabeth. In a bygone era, he would’ve been entitled to style himself an archduke. In the current era he may be called Dr. Von Habsburg: he is the holder of a Ph.D. degree from the University of Fribourg in Switzerland and an acknowledged expert on the history and works of the House of Faberge.

Geza Von Habsburg

When this exhibition opened in early July, Philip Kennicott wrote about it in the Washington Post. The article is illuminating, not least because in the middle of it, Kennicott erupts into a diatribe against the Romanoffs and their privileged ilk. He begins with a fairly innocuous observation regarding the eggs, to wit: “In an age of digital illusionism, these little mechanical marvels give an almost reflexive pleasure, no matter how hard one tries to resist.”  But then comes this paragraph:

And there are good reasons to resist everything in this exhibition of more than 500 objects. Faberge’s work is mesmerizing and horrifying at the same time. Although Faberge strove to distinguish his product from the purely ostentatious display of gold and jewels made by other purveyors of useless baubles, his artistry had absolutely no socially redeeming merit. In an age when other artists served broadly humanist causes, when much-needed revolution was in the air, Faberge comforted the comfortable. He may have thought of himself as an artist, but his business lived and died by the whims of a parasitical class of people who either inherited their obscene wealth, built it through raw exploitation, or both.

Still in full bore fulminating mode, Kennicott adds that “It’s enough to send one back to the wisdom of Karl Marx….” Resentment and indignation eventually give way to grudging admiration. Kennicott may hate this aspect of history – the intertwining of beauty with arrogance and wealth – but he cannot deny that this symbiosis  has given the world much of its greatest art.

Click here to read the article in full. And be sure to watch the slide show at the top. You’ll have to endure a short commercial first. Just grit your teeth; it’s worth the wait.

The House of Faberge has recently been reborn as an online retail establishment. Here’s the story of how that happened. One of their premier offerings is the Sadko Sea Horse brooch.  Sadko is the name of a Russian folk legend. It has been made into an opera by Nickolai Rimsky-Korsakov. Here is “The Song of India, from that work:

Here is  “Sadko in the Underwater Kingdom” by Ilya Repin, an artist whose gifts were apparently limitless:

The History International Channel’s program on Faberge Eggs is available on YouTube. Start here:

With its appalling history and magnificent achievements in music, dance, and literature, Russia fascinates. (This may be especially true for those of us who trace our ancestry to that troubled region.) I’d like to conclude with music that seems to me quintessentially Russian. It is a selection from Lieutenant Kije by Sergei Prokofiev. (The art work, by Ilya Repin, is entitled “Reply of the Zaporozhian Cossacks.)

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A luminous tale of love, illusion, and despair: Tigerlily’s Orchids, by Ruth Rendell

August 11, 2011 at 8:45 pm (Book review, books, Mystery fiction)

  Stuart Font can’t help admiring himself in every mirror he encounters. He’s good looking, to be sure. But he’s not very bright, and what’s worse, his narcissism exists along side a complete lack of either ambition or imagination. Add to all this a tendency to take the coward’s way out of tough situations and there you  have Stuart Font: a young man whose not very attractive character traits do not prevent women from succumbing to his charms.

Stuart lives in London, in a condominium complex called Lichfield House. Among the building’s  other residents are three breezy young women who share a flat. One of them, Molly, is among those hopelessly smitten by Stuart. There’s also Rose Preston-Jones, a lonely elderly woman whose chief consolation in life is her little dog McPhee. And there’s Marius Potter, who seems to be living in a different time. altogether.  Marius reveres the classics and tells fortunes by means of the sortes, a method favored by the ancients. Rose and Marius are good friends and  could be something more to each other – except for a shameful secret in their mutual past. Finally, there’s the profoundly sad Olwen, who has given up on life and wants simply to be left alone while she drinks herself to death. That, quite literally, is her only remaining purpose in life.

Rather improbably, Stuart decides to invite this motley group, along with several others, to a housewarming at his flat.  He’s also inviting Claudia Livorno, his  wild and voracious lover. He simply has to have her at the party – try keeping her away! But Stuart is wary, with good reason, of her insanely jealous  husband.

Rendell’s writing here is, as always, spare and elegant. No one is better at juxtaposing the prosaic and the profound or describing the sudden onset of an obsession. In this scene, Stuart, a reformed smoker, decides to give in to the craving.  He walks to a local newsagent to buy cigarettes.

Nothing alerted him as to what was to come, nothing said to him, Go, turn around and leave now. If this was his fate, perhaps the most significant moment of his life, as forecast by the sortes, he didn’t recognize it.

Enter Tigerlily.

This novel is much more than the sum of its parts. The story of these tangled lives was, at least for this reader, mesmerizing. In particular, with the character of Olwen, Rendell has provided the most harrowing description of end stage alcoholism that I have ever encountered on the printed page.

Ruth Rendell is a writer for whom I have boundless admiration. Tigerlily’s Orchids is an outstanding addition to a distinguished body of work.

Ruth Rendell

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