Through a Glass, Darkly



By Donna Leon 

March 27, 2014

Hard to believe this is the 15th book that Donna Leon has written about Commissario Brunetti; Guido and the rest of the cast of characters remain as fresh and interesting as ever.

One of the things I love about Leon's mysteries (besides the fact that they are set in Venice, and she describes the "calles" and the food and the Laguna so that you both feel as though you are there and wish you were there at the same time) is that they are so complex. There is a mystery to be solved at the heart of the story, but there are many other aspects to the main idea for you to relish as well. In this case, a young night watchman is found dead in one of the glass-blowing facilities on the island of Murano. On the face of it, he died of a heart attack, after falling down in front of one of the furnaces and succumbing to the extremely high heat blasting out of it. But surrounding his death are many other factors, including the debate about pollution from the glass-making and disposal of toxic wastes, possible health risks, and of course, political corruption.

Nothing is ever black and white in Leon’s world, which is probably more true to life than we want to see, and is similar in tone to some European authors. But, what makes it so interesting also makes it somewhat dissatisfying. I hate to criticize an author I love (and whose characters I adore) but sometimes, I actually want the good guys to get their guy and the bad guys to be punished! I think that’s why mysteries are such a cosy read, despite the sometimes gory and violent stories. It’s predictable. You feel good at the end because good wins out over bad. But, in Leon’s world, the distinction between good and bad is not easily defined. So, you’re forced to think about the people involved in a different way than usual—more intriguing, more demanding, sometimes more frustrating. Things are not tied up nice and neatly, and you know that the evil and corruption continue.

As I got closer and closer to the end of this book, there were more and more signs that this was going to be one of those endings that left me feeling that something was wanting. But despite the ambiguity surrounding the pollution and corruption issues, it is somewhat hopeful at the end. Whether or not things are concluded satisfactorily, a mystery with the honest but charming Brunetti, his admirable wife Paola, and the legendary Signorina Elettra, cannot help but be worth reading. Leondraws you in to another world, makes you think a little (perhaps with a bit of Dante thrown in for good measure) and sends you on your way again.

Reading Highlights of 2013




Looking back on what I read in the past year is always a pleasure. I read so many good books, a few rotten ones that I couldn’t finish, and some that were outstanding. Here are a few of my favourites, in the order that I read them:

February, by Lisa Moore

This was a contender in CanadaReads 2013 and one of the two that I hoped would make it to the end. And I was so pleased when it won! I loved this book and was very moved by the story of the disaster on the oil rig off the coast of Newfoundland in February of 1982. Heartfelt, and beautifully written.

Indian Horse, by Richard Wagamese

The other CanadaReads participant that I loved. It is a harrowing tale of a young boy, Saul Indian Horse, and his experience in the Residential school system. Not an easy read, as we are forced to think about what happened to so many Indian children, and the far-reaching, long-term effects of the abuse they suffered, mental, physical and sexual, but so important to be told.

Bury Your Dead, by Louise Penny

This is perhaps my all-time favourite of Penny’s series featuring Chief Inspector Armand Gamache of the Québec Sureté. The main focus is Gamache’s struggle to come to terms with a horrific event for which he feels responsible, but there are several other story lines, including an ancient mystery, and a local murder. All are tied together through the theme of past mistakes. One small mistake can lead to tragedy; but sometimes the mistakes can be fixed, and lead to hope. Fantastic read.

The Three Evangelists, by Fred Vargas

Brand new author for me and enjoyed this immensely. Another mystery, but very lighthearted and energetic, with quirky characters and scenarios. Set in Paris, and stars three young historians (Marc, Matthias, Lucien) who get involved in a local murder. Will definitely read more by her, especially if I can find them in the original French.

The Miracles of Ordinary Men, by Amanda Leduc

I was so excited to read Amanda Leduc’s debut novel because it was the first time I would be reading a book by someone I knew! But I was also a bit nervous—what if I didn’t like it??! Happily, my worries were soon laid to rest. Though some of the circumstances in the book are quite unusual (one of the main characters grows wings, really huge wings, that only a select few can see) we are easily led to suspend our disbelief and have great empathy for Sam as he undergoes his transformation. An extraordinary book about “ordinary” men.

Ru, by Kim Thuy

This book was a delight to read: the French is elegant and poetic, the story is gentle and humorous. It is written in memoir format, and through a series of vignettes that flow back and forth in time, we get to know An as a young refugee in Québec, a younger girl in Viet Nam before fleeing to Canada with her family, and as a present-day mother of two sons. Despite the harshness of An’s experience, she relates her story with humour, love and compassion. A book filled with hope that I highly recommend.

Bone and Bread, by Saleema Nawaz

Nawaz explores the relationship between two sisters, Beena and Sadhana, raised in Montreal by their mother and later their uncle. When Sadhana dies at the age of 32, Beena is confronted by the past as she tries to figure out how and why her sister died. Memories come flooding back, both good and bad, with all the quarrels and misunderstandings inherent in a sibling relationship as intense as theirs. Beautifully written, believable portrayal of a strong but prickly relationship.

The Beauty of Humanity Movement, Camilla Gibb

I absolutely loved this book. Set in Viet Nam, the timeline alternates between the present and the past, particularly the 1970s, and involves Old Man Hung, who makes the most delicious “pho” in the city, Tu, a young tour guide, and Maggie, who has returned to Viet Nam to search for clues about her artist father’s disappearance during the war. It is a wonderful book, filled with vivid descriptions of Viet Nam, its food, its culture, its history, with interesting, believable characters. You will be dying for Pho! Will definitely read again someday.

Natural Order, by Brian Francis

Beautiful book, told from the point of view of an elderly woman, thinking back on her life and her relationship with her gay son. Very, very moving, and highly recommended.

Oryx and Crake, by Margaret Atwood

Fascinated by the first of Atwood’s MadAdam trilogy and can’t wait to read the other two, especially the Year of the Flood because of being included in CanadaReads 2014. Her ability to create a truly believable dystopian world is uncanny, and although it is disturbing, at the same time it is a pleasure to read a book that is so well-written.



Ru


by Kim Thuy, July 10, 2013

I read this book slowly, partly because I was reading a French novel for the first time in many years, but also because it is so beautifully written. So I took my time, savouring the eloquent but very accessible French narrative that wove a story of a young Vietnamese refugee.

Through a series of poetic vignettes that flow back and forth in time we get to know An as a young refugee in Québec and a younger girl in Viet Nam before fleeing to Canada with her family, as well as a present-day mother with two sons. Each snapshot is triggered by something in the previous entry, so they are connected, but not at all linear. I found the structure of the book interesting as it mimics how our minds flit from one thing to another, but I have seldom read a book in that format.

The style of the book gives the story an air of gentleness, despite some of the harsh episodes Thuy relates. The memoir format has a very personal feeling to it, as though we are reading someone’s diary. I was hooked immediately, although I did enjoy the earlier part of the book with An as a young girl, more than the later part when she is an adult.

Although it would be understandable if An’s world view were bleak, I found her voice to be very positive. Rather than dwell on the horrendous hardships that she endured and witnessed, she focuses instead on the supportive community that surrounds her in Québec, and her strong family ties. Her relationships with her mother, cousin, sons, and uncle, are all very different, but her extensive writing about them makes it clear how important each one is to her.

Humour also adds to the positive feeling. One hilarious example is when a young inspector is cataloguing their possessions after the communists come to Saigon. When he comes to a chest of drawers filled to the brim with brassieres he seems reluctant to write down the contents. An wonders if he is embarrassed by the idea of all those young girls and their round breasts. But no—later she overhears a conversation among the inspectors that explains the problem—he had simply never seen a brassiere before! To him they looked like the coffee filters that his mother used. But he can’t understand why they would need so many, and why they were in pairs?!

She depicts the soldiers with humanity, outlining their poor background, and describing how they learn to love music (in secret of course, since this was strictly forbidden). Later they are forced to burn all cultural symbols, and the burning of books, music, films, etc. fills the sky with smoke.

Thuy ends the book with a lovely acknowledgement to those who have gone before her and how they illustrated the possibility of renewal. She has followed in their footsteps as in a dream "où le rouge profond d'une feuille d'érable à l'automne n'est plus une couleure mais une grâce ; où un pays n'est plus un lieu, mais une berceuse." (where the deep red of a fall maple leaf is no longer a colour but a blessing; where a country is no longer a place but a lullaby. — I can’t do justice to the French but you get the idea!) A book filled with hope that I highly recommend.

Memories




When my mother-in-law passed away a few years ago, I inherited her wedding rings. They sat in a jewellery box for quite awhile as I considered what to do with them. They seemed so personal and so completely hers, not mine. Then a lovely conversation with a friend made me realize what a gift I had. She had several pieces of jewellery, including rings, that she had inherited from different relatives. As she pointed to each of the pieces she was wearing, she told me who she had received it from, and gave a mini-bio of the donor. Each one was a memento of someone whom she had cared about and served as a daily reminder of the role that person had played in her life. She was proud to wear them and to remember the people she had loved.

That conversation spurred me to consider my mother-in-law’s rings again. I had always been a bit in awe of her. She was bold and experimental with her cooking and her painting and she created beauty in her home and her amazing garden. She was a nurse and was very active as a volunteer in the community. I admired her greatly and grew to love her very much.

So I took the box out again and put her sweet old-fashioned wedding band on my ring finger with my rings and it has stayed there ever since. Then I studied her engagement ring: it was a simple gold band with three diamonds. Very beautiful and classy. I still didn’t want to wear it and it didn’t fit with my rings, so I took it to a wonderful jeweller who had made me an anniversary ring many years earlier and asked him to use her ring as the basis for a bracelet. (Mourguet, for the Toronto readers. He’s on Queen St. E. in the Beaches and he is fantastic!) After a bit of a discussion with him and a few sketches on either side, he came up with a fabulous design. I picked it up two days ago and I am thrilled with what he made. It is so completely perfect and beautiful and simple, and I’m sure my mother-in-law would have loved it too! If you look closely, you can see a line of gold on each silver band, and that’s the gold from her ring. So he used the whole ring in making this bangle and I couldn’t be more pleased with the result:







I would be interested to hear if anyone else has stories about wearing jewellery or clothing that you’ve inherited. Now that I’ve done this I can’t wait to wear it at every opportunity!