Venice and Vigata

When I posted on Facebook recently about Inspector (Commissario in Italian) Montalbano a friend asked about the comparison between him and Donna Leon’s Inspector (Commissario) Brunetti. I think this is an interesting question so I’ll take a stab at it.

They are different locations: Montalbano in Sicily, and Brunetti in Venice. The location shapes the character of the story. Both authors use the languages of the place – Veneto and Siciliano. And both include the different idioms unique to the place. Camilleri writes in Italian and Siciliano and is translated into English. The translator, Stephen Sartarelli, does include notes in the books as even Italians need help with some of the words. Donna Leon writes in English, and has never officially allowed her books to be translated into Italian because she lived in Venice (a very small city) and didn’t want the daily notoriety. (She now lives in Switzerland.)

Both Montalbano and Brunetti are inspectors (commissarios), part of the civilian police force. And they both have complicated relationships with the carbinieri, the military police. They also both have great disdain for their immediate superiors and have a mischievous attitude towards them. They also each have a regular team of detectives that accompany them on their cases. We do get to know Montalbano’s Augello and Fazio better than Brunetti’s assistants. The medical examiners are a bit different. Rizzardi in the Brunetti books is skilled, competent, and serious. Pasquano in the Montalbano books is certainly competent, but also a bit of a cannoli-loving buffoon.

And, speaking of cannoli, food plays a huge part in both series. Montalbano’s housekeeper Adelina prepares amazing dishes that are ready for him on his return home in the evening, and Camilleri’s descriptions of Montalbano’s delights at these creations are wonderful. Montalbano also eats lunch almost every day at Enzo’s where the owner simply presents him with the best thing of the day. In the Brunetti books, his regular bar stops for a coffee and maybe a quick tramezzino and a glass of white wine (all eaten standing in the Venetian way) are accompanied with his delight at whatever his wife Paola has prepared for dinner. Leon, like Camilleri, describes the food in wonderful detail so we can almost imagine being at the table with them.

Those are the parallel pieces of these books. But each has its own very distinct feel. When reading these you’ll be transported to each of these unique and beautiful locations in Italy and learn well about the culture, the crime, and yes, the food!

I’ve written extensively about both of these series before, but here are the first two books of each so you can get started if you’ve missed these delightful reads.

The Thursday Murder Club by Richard Osman

A friend told me about this book a while ago so I checked it out. It’s the first novel by Osman, who is an English television personality. He intends this to be a series of four books about these older people in a luxury retirement complex in Kent. The second one, The Man Who Died Twice, is also out now. There are already talks about a TV series and maybe a movie.

This is a fun premise that mostly works. The main characters meet every Thursday to talk about murder, both old unsolved cases and a current one on the retirement complex premises. There’s a bit of political drama as well, including the residents needing to defend the property on which the complex stands. The book is often very funny, but I thought the storyline dragged a bit in the middle. I did enjoy the characters, and there is quite a bit of thoughtful writing about aging and its challenges, as well the dynamics of grief.

I’m looking forward to reading the next one, and certainly recommend The Thursday Murder Club for a light, fun read.

State of Terror, by Hillary Rodham Clinton and Louise Penny

I am not a big fan of Hillary Clinton, although I admire her courage and confidence. I am a big fan of Louis Penny’s novels, so I was intrigued when they teamed up to write a political thriller, State of Terror. Right away there were amazing reviews from trusted places. I’m always a bit suspicious of reviews that call a book “a real page-turner,” but this one definitely was one for me!

It’s a great plot and is maybe just a bit close to the bone for the current political climate. And it certainly kept me guessing! At one point midway, I thought there was a weak spot in the plot. I was wrong about that! And it was a bit unnerving to think about how much Hillary Clinton really knows. For all of the Louise Penny fans, it wouldn’t be a spoiler to say the book includes a visit to Three Pines.

Among the best parts for me were the friendships defined among the characters, especially the women. Penny and Clinton used names from real-life loved people, and that honoring adds depth and richness to the whole story.

The book is worth the piece at the end of the book that each of them wrote about how they got into doing this and what the experience was like. It reminded me of my favorite Dorothy L. Sayers and her dedication to her friends at the beginning of Busman’s Honeymoon: You [Muriel], Helen, and Bar, were wantonly sacrificed on the altar of that friendship of which the female sex is said to be incapable; let the lie stick i’ the wall! [Dorothy L. Sayers, dedication in Busman’s Honeymoon, 1937.]

A friend sent this piece from CBS Sunday Morning, an interview with Penny and Clinton: https://www.cbsnews.com/news/louise-penny-hillary-rodham-clinton-on-their-thriller-state-of-terror/

This is a good read!

The Care and Management of Lies: A Novel of the Great War by Jacqueline Winspear

I really enjoy the Maisie Dobbs series by Jacqueline Winspear and have written about that series here. The same friend who first introduced me to Maisie recommended this stand-alone novel by Winspear. If you have read Maisie Dobbs, you know that the author’s historical research is quite remarkable. This really shines in this book. We learn so much about the effect of WWI on all sorts of people in England. This war completely upended British society, and Winspear has done a grand job of narrating that upheaval.

I don’t think this book is quite as good as the Maisie Dobbs books, largely because I think character development is one of Winspear’s strong suits and there’s not quite enough time here. I also thought the ending was a bit overly sentimental, so will enjoy hearing others’ opinions.

It’s definitely worth reading. The title comes clear as the story unfolds.

Andrea Camilleri’s Inspector Montalbano

We have so enjoyed the books by Andrea Camilleri about Sicilian detective Inspector Salvo Montalbano. They are such great stories with amazing characters, people you come to know and enjoy. They are very funny, and also so well describe the current challenges of Italy today, and particularly Sicily.

Camilleri’s career was in the theater, but he also wrote the occasional novel. In 1994 he wrote the first Montalbano book, The Shape of Water. It was an instant hit, and the books and the subsequent TV series both had spectacular reception. Something like 80% of the television viewers in Italy watched the first episode of the last Montalbano series a couple years ago.

Camilleri grew up in Sicily and these books are a tribute to his hometown, Porto Empedocle. The town in the book is Vigata. After the huge success of the books and the TV series, Porto Empedocle changed its name to Porto Empedocle Vigata. There is a statue of Inspector Montalbano in the town square, and you can eat at the bar that is the model for Enzo’s in the books.

There are 28 books. The last one, Riccardino, just came out at the end of September. Camilleri wrote it over ten years before he died. He wanted to end the Montalbano saga on his own terms, so he wrote the last book while he still had his wits about him and still had a few more books to write. Camilleri died in July, 2019, at the age of 94.

There are 37 TV episodes. You can read about them at this Wikipedia link: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Inspector_Montalbano_(TV_series)
The main cast remained the same throughout the series (except for Montalbano’s girlfriend Livia) and they are all terrific. You can stream them on MHz. Worth the subscription to see them all.
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Here are the books. Like all good series, it’s best to read them in order. They are all written in Italian, but the English translation is excellent.

The Shape of Water (2002)
The Terra-Cotta Dog (2002)
The Snack Thief (2003)
Voice of the Violin (2003)
The Excursion to Tindari (2005)
The Smell of the Night (2005)
Rounding the Mark (2006)
The Patience of the Spider (2007)
The Paper Moon (2008)
August Heat (2009)
The Wings of the Sphinx (2009)
The Track of Sand (2010)
The Potter’s Field (2011)
The Age of Doubt (2012)
The Dance of the Seagull (2013)
Treasure Hunt (2013)
Angelica’s Smile (2013)
Game of Mirrors (2015)
A Beam of Light (2015)
A Voice in the Night (2016)
A Nest of Vipers (2017)
The Pyramid of Mud (2018)
The Overnight Kidnapper (2019)
The Other End of the Line (2019)
The Safety Net (2020)
The Sicilian Method (2020)
The Cook of the Halcyon (2021)
Riccardino (2021)

Goodbye without Leaving by Laurie Colwin

The summer 2021 issue of my favorite literature quarterly – Slightly Foxed http://www.foxedquartlerly.com – is full of more treasures and guides to great reading. One essay is on the American author, Laurie Colwin. She wrote five novels and some collections of essays, and wrote a food column in Gourmet magazine. She has two collections about cooking – Home Cooking and More Home Cooking – which are also partly memoirs.

When I read the essay in Slightly Foxed I was thinking that I would love to read Laurie Colwin, and I had a vague memory of a volume on my own shelves. So I went there and indeed found Goodbye without Leaving. I don’t know when and why I bought it many years (decades?) ago. It was published in 1990. I probably saw it in a bookstore and thought it would be a good read. (I do that all the time, so there are more treasures to be mined on my shelves!) And so I read it and it is delightful.

The protagonist, Geraldine Coleshares, is a graduate student who grew up in a pretty normal New York middle class neighborhood. She is devoted to rock and roll and her moment comes when she gets to sing back-up for the Shakettes. The book is funny, poignant and full of insight. As you read Gerladine’s story there are lots of places where she’s trying to decide something about the next part of her life. I found myself almost saying out loud, “Don’t do it! Don’t do it!” And, it won’t be a spoiler if I tell you all that she doesn’t!

I heartily recommend Goodbye without Leaving and I look forward to reading more of Laurie Colwin. She sadly died of a heart attack in 1992 and age 48, but we are fortunate to have her writing.

Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell

This has been a very popular book since it came out in July of 2020. I just finished it in preparation for our book group’s discussion on July 2. It’s an intriguing premise: the young son of William Shakespeare dies and we know nothing of him. So O’Farrell constructs a story around him, and it is a wondrous tale.

O’Farrell is a beautiful writer, and reading this book is like floating on a river. (Maybe the Avon?) It took me a little bit to get into it, not in the least because of some confusion regarding Hamnet’s mother, William Shakespeare’s wife. We know her as Anne Hathaway, but O’Farrell names her Agnes which apparently sounds like “Anne” in 16th century English. But that is a small thing, although names are very important in this story. Shakespeare himself is never named, and the name of their child Hamnet who dies becomes increasingly significant as the novel progresses.

O’Farrell makes the Bubonic Plague a central part of this narrative and the cause of Hamnet’s death. There is no certain cause of his death, but the plague theme is well done and effective. Of course it is so related to the current pandemic. I found myself paying close and focused attention to her chapter on how the plague arrived in England. (A flea jumped from a monkey to the scarf of a young crew member and so on.)

One of the few pieces about Anne Hathaway that has survived down the centuries is that William Shakespeare in his will (he predeceased her by 7 years) left her his “second-best bed.” O’Farrell has a wonderful way of explaining that mystery!

Do read Hamnet. It is a sad story in many ways, but one rich in all the necessary parts and descriptions of love and joy and grief.

Louise Erdrich

I just saw the happy news that Louise Erdrich won the 2021 Pulitzer Prize for fiction for her novel The Night Watchman. I like her writing so much, and I am looking forward to reading this one. My favorite of her many novels is The Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse. If you have never read her books, this is a great moment to do so!

Bookstores!

When we travel anywhere we always look for the local bookstore. This week we’re spending four days on beautiful San Juan Island. Even though we have truly spectacular weather, we stopped in at Friday Harbor’s Griffin Bay Bookstore for a look around. (That was after an amazing breakfast at Rocky Bay Cafe – best corned beef hash and eggs anywhere!) We were very happy we stopped at the bookstore. It has an excellent selection of really interesting new books and good authors in many genres. Larry made a suggestion for their mystery shelves – Christopher Fowler’s Bryant and May mysteries, and it was well received and the idea written down. I bought the latest Kate Atkinson, One Good Turn. It will get me off my Kindle and out of the Maisie Dobbs saga for a while!

Visiting San Juan Island is always a good thing to do! Have breakfast at Rocky Bay Cafe and stop in at Griffin Bay Bookstore: http://www.griffinbaybook.com

Lethal Lesson by Iona Whishaw

I did take a break from Maisie Dobbs to read the latest in the Lane Winslow series from Iona Whishaw. (I really need to read a stand-alone novel…) It’s a great continuation in these stories set in the interior of British Columbia after WWII. The plot in this one is particularly good, keeping you guessing in the best possible way. And, like Jaqueline Winspear, you learn a lot about the roles of women amidst difficult cultural constraints.

I write this in the week when 200 bodies of indigenous children, most from BC tribes, were found on the grounds of an old boarding school in Quebec. Here is a quote from Dorothy L. Sayers which speaks to the constraints against women and the racial hatred that forms so much of our society:

To oppose one class perpetually to another–young against old, manual labour against brain-worker, rich against poor, woman against man–is to split the foundations of the State; and if the cleavage runs too deep, there remains no remedy but force and dictatorship. If you wish to preserve a free democracy, you must base it–not on classes and categories, for this will land you in the totalitarian State, where no one may act or think except as the member of a category. You must base it upon the individual Tom, Dick and Harry, and the individual Jack and Jill–in fact, upon you and me.

-Dorothy L. Sayers, Are Women Human? (1947) (Another good read on the subject.)

So if you’ve gotten into the Lane Winslow stories, I do recommend Lethal Lesson.