Donna Leon is the creator of the Venetian Commissario Guido Brunetti mystery series beloved throughout the world, as well as by many in the Grover Beach Community Library Senior Book Break. Our affection for the characters has not dimmed through the more than 20 books and several decades during which Leon has been telling their stories. Now she’s offered us a non-fiction look at “her Venice,” as well as a variety of other topics in this 2013 essay collection.

While there isn’t a lot of personal information about her earlier years, we know that she grew up in New Jersey, spent time in graduate school, then started teaching. (We know she is well-educated by the reading choices she gives Brunetti.) She taught for 4 years in Iran, which she liked very much, but was forced to make a dangerous and hasty exit when the Revolution began. She then taught for one year in Saudi Arabia, which she did NOT like.

At some point along the way, she was captivated by Italy and settled there. She lived mostly in Venice for about 30 years, although she has homes in other places now. Sadly, Venice has deteriorated in recent years due to several factors (e.g., unrestricted tourism, garbage issues, and worsening acqua alta), and she now spends much less time in Venice proper.

Several things about her surprised me, such as how much she does besides researching and writing the Brunetti books. She continued to teach for many years in a variety of settings; travels a lot for various literary-related functions and events; and does a lot of other writing, as well. Leon doesn’t seem to be slowing down as she approaches her late 70s!

Besides her beloved Venice, Leon’s essays cover music (she’s an opera lover, as we might have guessed from Death at La Fenice); mankind and animals; men; America (where she will never again live and explains why in the essay “The United States of Paranoia”); and books.

The essays are funny, angry, informative, human; always interesting, the product of an obviously insightful and intelligent mind. Maybe more of us should emulate her in not owning a television and rejecting social media and technology except for email on her computer and a telefonino! She describes her eventual capitulation to using minimal technology in the essay “E-mail Monsters” in a quite funny way.

I think many of us have heard horror stories of people who have bought centuries-old homes in Italy (especially Tuscany), southern France, and Spain. The nightmare of remodeling and rebuilding them has been written about by many, and we know it takes great love and patience to undertake such a task and remain sane.

Leon did not escape the infection from that particular bug and writes about it in “The House from Hell.” She found a 7-room apartment with views of Venice one can only dream of, then attempted to have the myriad things wrong with it fixed…or so she thought. Twenty-one months later, unable to take it anymore even for that exquisite view, she was actually able to sell it to someone else after telling him every detail of its problems. P. T. Barnum was right once again.

In the first essay section “On Venice,” we learn of the joys and downsides of life in La Serenissima. On the one hand, living in a city where the only vehicles allowed are boats on the canals allows (or maybe forces) one to meet and get to know real people. On the other hand, one doesn’t always want to know them. Neighbors can also be problematic, as Leon recounts in “Neighbor” about an elderly, largely deaf woman across the way who blasted her TV all night while SHE slept, and Leon did not.

Venice is a city of great beauty, has a long illustrious history, and is the repository of some of the world’s greatest art. Leon’s accounts of how Venetians (and tourists to some extent) treat their city, however, shocked me. Garbage is literally strewn in the streets and tossed in canals. Even worse, people often do not clean up the sidewalk after their dogs; or if they do, they may simply toss the waste into the canal. In a city where people must walk everywhere, often carrying heavy bags of groceries, careful navigation is crucial.

I’ve recently learned that Rome also has a street garbage problem, and perhaps other Italian cities do, too. I’m baffled that a country that has produced such beauty treats its common living spaces and environment with such lack of respect. In her essay “Badgers,” Leon says:

“…I’ve long been of the opinion that Italians don’t like nature. In fact, I’ve seen precious little evidence in thirty years that they see nature as much more than something to be brought into submission so that they can either profit, look good wearing it, or cook it.” [p. 99]

I had to laugh at her description, but in her frankness, she may be right.

The essay that enlightened me the most about Italian culture and mindset is “The Italian Man.” I will hasten to point out that Italian “legal institutions provide women complete equality with that of men,” and many women hold high office and positions. Yet Italy in general remains a man’s world.

Leon explains that because invaders, governments, and other ruling entities historically have been corrupt and unreliable, Italians turned to the FAMILY as the one trustworthy unit of Italian society. Its importance cannot be overstated: family is the bedrock from which all Italian men spring. Their certainty of self-worth and virility, of their place in the family, of their ability, right, and obligation to protect that unit, is unassailable.

At the same time, Leon regards Italian men as perhaps “the only pagans left in Europe, men for whom vanity is a virtue and not a vice, men for whom pleasure is a goal and not a sin.” [p. 129] The mother, whether their own or their children’s, is most highly respected, but men enjoy the company of all women.

While Leon doesn’t characterize it exactly this way, playful flirting permeates exchanges between Italian men and women, and represents the pleasure men take in interacting with women. She says:

“Some people might find this offensive, an invasive familiarity on the part of a stranger, but to many Italian men it is no more than the tribute due to a woman, no more flirtatious or suggestive than the admiring glance given to a painting or a field of poppies….If the family is the only meaningful bond, then all others are free to be nothing more than superficial.” [p. 130-1]

I suspect that not all women, especially younger ones, will regard such attention as a tribute, or agree with me to enjoy the fun without allowing it to go too far. Some cultures are simply more relaxed than others.

Finally, there are two essays that I also enjoyed very much. “Suggestions on Writing the Crime Novel” gives good advice from a professional writer that can be applied to all writing. It gives us insight into the process Leon has gone through to bring us one of our most beloved characters in crime fiction today.

“With Barbara Vine” is a very funny short essay about Vine and Leon, “two women of a certain age, respectably dressed,” eating at a public restaurant in Covent Garden while discussing the various ways they kill characters in their novels. While she makes no mention of anyone at the “closely placed” tables around them overhearing their conversation, the reader can imagine how funny the situation could be: how would others know they were talking about characters in books? Both decided they hate using guns and poison, by the way.

A final mystery: Leon writes in English and has allowed her Brunetti novels to be translated into other languages…but not into Italian. Hmmmmm….

Meanwhile, I know I’m not the only one eagerly awaiting another visit with our beloved old friend Commissario Brunetti, his family, and co-workers.

–Donna Rueff–