June 7, 2017 NotesUnknown-1

In attendance:  Liz Clarke, Vivian Krone, Janice Loschiavo, Lois Pagnozzi, Meta Pitrelli, Sharon Rome, Barbara Santillo, Tina Segali, Marilyn Sinisi, Joan Swensen

In Memoriam: Cathy Quinn

 Emeritus: Donna Sabetta, Jeri Stangl.

Before beginning the discussion, the group raised their glasses in a toast of remembrance to Cathy. Meta distributed “Our Lady of Grace” bookmarks in honor of Cathy. Barbara offered how much being part of the book club had meant to our dear friend.

Book & Author: Our Souls at Night, by Kent Haruf

Questions and Comments:  

  • Barbara opened the evening by saying that, after reading the book, she was newly evaluating all the men on her block (!).
  • In response to Barbara’s question about why she chose this book, Meta explained that the author blended himself into the story. Apparently he and his wife would lie in bed at night and discuss things the way it is described in the novel. He has since died and it’s almost as if this book is a message to his wife that it’s OK for her to do the same after he’s gone.
  • The issue of how people feel when a deceased person’s spouse has a relationship with a new person generated a lot of stories and emotion. Some people think it’s OK and a healthy way to acknowledge that life goes on. Others feel that there’s something disloyal about it. Barbara pointed out that this reaction is primal, that a son may have unresolved feelings about his mother and can’t stand her involvement with a man.
  • Some in the group pointed out that bad feelings come about because of money issues. Some children are adamant that an outsider mustn’t be allowed to get some of their inheritance.
  • Barbara recommended the movie Lovely Still, with Ellen Burstyn and Martin Landau. They’re married but he has Alzheimer’s and can’t remember the relationship.
  • The loneliness of the couple in the novel pushed them to do things they otherwise wouldn’t have considered doing. He was protective of her and didn’t want the neighbors talking about her.
  • Would she have married him if she had met him before she met her husband?
  • There was some disagreement about whether her overture to him was a courageous act or a sign of desperation.
  • They are together because they want to be – there is no sense of obligation.
  • Most agreed that the book left them with a sense of sadness for these two old souls.
  • One of the true highlights of the evening was the appearance of Joan’s grandson Timmy. A handsome specimen of young manhood, Timmy was gracious enough to seriously answer questions we posed to him regarding things in the book. His presence was such a hit that we are considering offering him membership in the book club.

The book was given a rating of 3.0.

Next Meeting: Wednesday, July 12, beginning at 5:00 p.m., at Joan’s house in Mahwah. Assignments include: Meta, dessert; Liz, lottery tickets; Tina, cheese/crackers and wine; Marilyn, fruit salad; Vivian, green salad.

Next Book: Death at La Fenice, by Donna Leon. This was to be Cathy’s month to make the selection and since she loved mysteries, this was chosen in her name. Donna Leon was a classmate of Barbara’s. This novel is the first in a series of mysteries set in Venice, featuring the detective (Commissario) Guido Brunetti. For the August 2 meeting, Sharon will choose the book. Barbara will pick for September and Tina for October.

Submitted by Tina Segali  June 12, 2017

The following is an interview with Donna Leon by Tim Heald of Britain’s The Telegraph.

Over the past two decades the American academic Donna Leon has done for Venice what Colin Dexter did for Oxford and Sara Paretsky for Chicago. Through a series of crime novels in which her home town plays as great a part as any of her human protagonists, she has made hundreds of thousands of fans into Venetian know-it-alls. Even readers who have never set foot in the Serenissima know where to get the best glass of Prosecco in town, which calle to walk down to visit which particular palazzo and what number vaporetto to catch to make it home for lunch.

She is in a long and distinguished line of expat Venetian writers that includes Byron, Ruskin, Henry James and latterly Salley Vickers and the late Michael Dibdin. So prolific and popular has Leon become that she is not only publishing her 19th Venetian crime novel, About Face, but has also spawned a companion volume, Brunetti’s Venice: Walks Through the Novels, by her friend Toni Sepeda. For lovers of the city Sepeda will take her place alongside Jan Morris, John Julius Norwich and J G Links, who wrote an inimitable celebration of pedestrian Venice, Venice for Pleasure.

I meet Leon and Sepeda by the Accademia Bridge, 15 minutes from their respective homes. Leon’s apartment is in an unfashionable part of the city close to the fictional flat of Commissario Guido Brunetti, the Venetian policeman who has plodded sceptically through all her books. From time to time people have asked why Leon does not move to an area such as the Dorsoduro, which she describes in About Face as “the most sought-after address in the city, for the English and American colonies”.

“But where would I find a coffee?” she asks, for the Dorsoduro has become so gentrified that every other shop is a gallery or a boutique.

Leon is wearing a tweed jacket, and if I hadn’t known who she was I would have put her down as one of those fine-boned Italian women who are Left-wing but socially conservative, not unlike Brunetti’s mother-in-law, the Contessa, who reveals more and more hidden depths in each book. Leon is virulent in her antipathy to the manifold eccentricities and malevolences of state bureaucracy, and ambivalent about Italy – but then so are most Italians, especially Venetians who are notoriously insular and grumpy.

She refuses to be published in Italian, despite blandishments from Italian publishers. For years now she has assigned her copyright to the small German language publisher Diogenes, based in Zurich. “It’s a question of trust,” she says simply. Every year she completes a new Brunetti and hands it over to Diogenes. English-speaking editors in London and New York make notes, as do friends in Venice and beyond. She absorbs them, hands the manuscript back and lets them edit it.

Leon did not expect to be a crime writer or an expat. She was born and brought up in New Jersey. “My father read The New York Times, my mother did secretarial work, we had a dog, we had a garden, I had a brother,” she says. She did a doctorate in Indiana, specialising in 18th-century novelists. American academe seemed to have a hold over her, but then one of her friends decided to go to Rome. “Two girls couldn’t get into trouble, could they?” she winks, squeezing my elbow and laughing.

A famous conductor, also a friend, suggested she try a crime novel. She wrote Death at la Fenice as a joke. When she finished the book she stashed it away and forgot about it until submitting it for the Suntory prize in Japan. Somewhat to her consternation, it won and she was offered a two-book contract by Harper Collins. This meant, among other things, that she was compelled to write a sequel. She did and the rest is history. “I lucked out,” she says.

Leon’s books are crime novels in that their protagonist is a policeman and his best friends, Inspector Vianello and the glamorous omniscient secretary Signorina Elettra, work at the Questura while his infuriating boss is the well-connected popinjay Giuseppe Patta. At the centre of each book is a crime, but the novels are not whodunits in the old-fashioned sense. “Who is just a noun,” Leon says, “why is a verb. Who someone leaves his wife for is dull, but why he leaves his wife is interesting.” As for the modern craze for detailed forensics and descriptions of cadavers, she shrugs disdainfully. “Who wants to describe that gunk?” she asks.

Like so many successful modern crime novels, her books are more than puzzles strung together with minimal prose. Like “proper” novels they concern plausible people. “There is a woman in the English faculty who insists that I have modelled Guido’s wife, Paola, on her. I’ve never even met the woman,” she protests, “I write novels.” It’s probably a compliment that there are so many people who believe they have been given a new life on her pages. She also dissects almost every aspect of modern Italian society from Opus Dei, the military establishment and bureaucracy generally to corruption, the Mafia and Italian food and drink.

Above all, however, these are books about place. As the new companion volume of walks around the city and Brunetti’s favourite haunts written by Sepeda suggests, Leon lives and breathes Venice. Every few yards along the pavements and canal-sides Sepeda stops and reads another evocative passage.

Thus we turn from the burgeoning window boxes of the houses on the little canal by the Dorsudoro’s most famous church with their golden marigolds or white calendula to a world of Eastern European women forced into prostitution. We stop for lunch at Antico Dolo, a tiny old restaurant where, in Fatal Remedies, the Commisario has a glass of wine and a couple of cuttlefish but is so preoccupied he hardly tastes anything.

Like her hero, Brunetti, Leon seems at odds with the world, yet part of it. Like him she seems optimistic. Like him she believes “there exists the possibility that the city will come back into the hands of people like him, who learnt its language by listening to their parents speak it and learnt its geography by following along with them as they went about their lives”.

Unlike Brunetti she is exiled and yet like him she has found roots in the Serenissima. Luckily for the rest of us she wants us to share: her cast of characters, cock-up, crime, conspiracy, radicchio from a market stall by the Rialto, a glass of grappa from Bassano and perhaps above all, the stones, the stones of Venice.