Thursday, February 22, 2018

A Question of Belief by Donna Leon

A Question of Belief (published 2010) is book nineteen in Donna Leon's acclaimed Commissario Brunetti mystery series.   Death At LaFenice, the first book in the series, remains my favorite.  However, A Question of Belief (starred review from Publisher's Weekly) is very good as well.  In fact what's remarkable is the high quality Ms. Leon has maintained certainly in the three Brunetti mysteries that I have read so far.

She created in Guido Brunetti a decent, thoughtful, very smart detective who is happily married, enjoys good food and wines reads The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius in the evening for pleasure.  He is cynical about government bureaucracy but he is committed to solving crimes and when A Question of Belief begins it is August in Venice and it is hot.  Comissario Brunetti speculates on what the criminal population is doing:

"Could they be induced to leave people alone until the end of this heat spell?  That presupposed some sort of central organization, but Brunetti knew that crime had become too diversified and too international for any reliable agreement to be possible ... His thoughts drifted to the promises he had made to Paola that tonight they would discuss their own vacation.  He, a Venetian, was going to turn himself and his family into tourists, but tourists going in the other direction, away from Venice, leaving room for the millions who were expected this year.  Last year twenty millon.  God have mercy on us all".

Unfortunately, Commissario Brunetti does not get to join his family in the mountains for vacation.  He is stuck in sweltering Venice working two separate cases. The first involves a psychic healer who is depriving vulnerable people of their money.  The second case involves a murder of a civil servant at the courthouse and could his death be linked to the fact that he was helping a judge delay court cases in exchange for pay offs?

I enjoyed A Question of Belief.  Many of Donna Leon's book are topical dealing with issues of the day and a running theme throughout her novels is the cynicism the people of Venice, including Brunetti and his wife Paola, feel towards their government, the media, the church.  I am reminded of a passage in Death at LaFenice, for example, in which Paola is sitting in the kitchen reading the newspaper.  She explains to Brunetti that she reads a different paper each day, going from left to right politically because "I want to see how many different ways the same lies can be told".  

Donna Leon's novels tell us that the Venetians have made a certain peace with their "it's all corrupt" mindset.  They go about their lives in spite of it and I felt a little envious.  Here in the US where there used to be accountability, Trump has completely changed that.  He is awash in corruption and he has a Congress who rubber stamps whatever he wants.  I wish like the Venetians I could ignore him and go about my life but Trump makes it impossible.  Anyway, I recommend A Question of Belief.  Is a nice escape from what is going on now.

Saturday, February 10, 2018

The Small Room by May Sarton

I read The Small Room by May Sarton (published 1961) decades ago and the beginning of the novel has always stayed with me, a young woman, Lucy Winter, is heading to her new teaching job at a small prestigious women's college in New England.  It's quite an accomplishment for someone only 27 to be a professor but Lucy is feeling melancholy.  Her plan was to be married but that fell through and now Lucy is beginning a teaching career she didn't want and she is also plagued by fears that she is not prepared.  She wonders what does she really know about teaching?  What does it take to inspire one's students and get them to be  passionate about the subject one is teaching?

Later, after settling in at Appleton College, Lucy will face deeper questions about the dangers of getting too close to a student or remaining too detatched when a student needs your help.  The crisis that will bring these questions about happens shortly after Lucy arrives at Appleton.  One of the most brilliant students on campus, Jane Seaman, is caught plagerising an article she wrote for the school newspaper.   It is Lucy who discovers this plagerism and she brings it to the attention of the administration.  Plagerism means expulsion from Appleton College but the school is conflicted.  A plagerism expulsion would follow Jane Seaman throughout her life and so it's a harsh punishment.  Also Jane is the protege of a famous professor at the school, Professor Carryl Cope, one of the top Medieval History scholars in the country.  Professor Cope wants to protect Jane and sees herself when she was young in Jane  and feels guilt about putting too much pressure on the young woman to excel.  The student body gets wind of what is happening and they are angry knowing that had they done what Jane Seaman did they wouldn't be let off so lightly.

Battle lines are drawn and the question of what to do is debated over a number of faculty dinner parties as we are introduced to Lucy's colleagues, their lives off campus, their views about teaching, their different opinions about the best way to deal with Jane's plagerism.  Lucy because she is young and new to the academic politics at Appleton College becomes the sounding board for her colleagues as they confide to her about the school, what they think about teaching and what they think of each other.  Appleton, Lucy comes to see, is an insular community where the professors live too near to each other and to the campus.  They are lonely, argue, drink too much and they know each other too well but they are also brilliant teachers.

A little bit about the author May Sarton (1912 - 1995).  She was a talented poet and novelist who had a rebirth as a writer in the 1970's.  Ms Sarton was a pioneer in feminist and gay and lesbian literature.  She wrote openly about being a lesbian woman back in 1965 when she published Mrs Stevens Hears the Mermaids Singing, possibly her most well known novel.   In her later years May Sarton who had moved to York, Maine began publishing her journals: Journal of Solitude (about turning sixty), House by the Sea, Recovering, After the Stroke, At Seventy, At Eighty-Two.  Her journals are about solitude, nature, women, friendship, love, writing, illness, books, life, etc.  I enjoyed rereading The Small Room and the novel left me eager to begin May Sarton's journals which continue to have a wide readership.  I'll be turning sixty myself this year so maybe Journal of Solitude is the place to begin.