Back to Venice…at least in my reading…

I read about Venice a lot.  There’s something about all that water and all those boats and the absence of cars and the complex history and the crumbling, sinking buildings and the Byzantine influence and the mosaics that just keeps pulling me back.  One of these days, I’m going to find the financial wherewithal to follow through on a decades-old desire to spend a few weeks/months living there, but in the meanwhile, I read…

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Venice:  A New History, by Thomas F. Madden (Viking Penguin, 2012) is an excellent addition to the many narratives about this fascinating city.  Madden is a scholar, and he writes with the precision and attention to detail of one, but his narrative reads easier than many history volumes.  He makes a complex story accessible, and I found that it filled in many gaps in my understanding.  I even found myself briefly mentioned in its pages, although not in a particularly flattering way:

During the 1970s and 1980s the arrival of budget travelers (many clutching their copies of Let’s Go!) led to a steady increase in the numbers, but not a corresponding increase in revenue.  Before cheap international flights, it had been nearly impossible to get to Venice without money in one’s pocket.  By the 1970s that was no longer true.  Student travelers and others watching their wallets would frequently stay in a low-cost pensione in Padua or Mestre and simply take the train into Venice.  These day-trippers wanted to get into Venice, see the major sights, and get out before it was late or they had spent too much money…

Ummmm.  Yeah.  That was me in 1981.  Clutching my Let’s Go and with so little money in my pocket that I used my Eurorail pass as a cheap pensione, sleeping on the train from Vienna to Venice, then catching the next night’s train to Rome.  Yet even as a destitute student, there are some things money can’t buy, like the awe I felt when I stepped into the Basilica of San Marco, or rode a vaporetto down the Grand Canal at sunset. When I went back with my family in 2005 I had a bit more money in my pocket, even springing for a gondola ride…touristy, yes, but SO cool! Though we still slept outside of the city to save on costs, we did stay very late, long after the day-tripping tourists had left.  Many of my favorite memories are of the meals we ate in out-of-the-way restaurants where we were the only customers, of the way the water reflected the lights, and of the feeling as we explored back streets that we were walking with ghosts.  I’m grateful that both times I visited the city, I did so in the “off”  season, so have never contended with the tourist hordes that friends have said ruined their time there.

A Question of Belief (Guido Brunetti Series #19)               The Golden Egg

I am reminded of these fleeting memories every time I pick up a “Commissario Guido Brunetti mystery”  by Donna Leon.  I was enjoying the vicarious experience of a non-tourist Venice so much that I read two of these gentle mysteries in succession:  A Question of Belief (Atlantic Monthly Press, 2010) and The Golden Egg (2013).  Though I’m not necessarily a great lover of the mystery genre, I like Commissario Brunetti a great deal.  He is a thoughtful, history-reading policeman who cynically knows how to navigate the corruption of Italian bureaucracy in pursuit of a greater good.  His ruminations on the vagaries of human nature make for intelligent reading, and as he works through his days he allows us the privilege of seeing a Venice far removed from that photographed by the day-tripping tourists.

I’ve been looking seriously at an Italian language school recommended by a dear friend.  If other possibilities for European travel (Istabul and Greece?  Granada and Sevilla?) don’t pan out, next fall may very well find me studying Italian in Venice and sleeping in the school’s student housing in the Paladian Cloister on the Guidecca.  And isn’t sleeping in a cloister a far cry from sleeping on a train?!

Europe 2005 130                                           Europe 2005 150   Europe 2005 067



On catastrophes and end-of-life issues…

Recent events in seemingly every branch and generation of my family, as well as in the families of friends, have had me thinking a lot about medical care in the United States, and about end-of-life ethical issues.  And when I’m thinking about stuff, I tend to want to read about it.  Two excellent books wandered across my reading radar of late, and while they are a departure from what I usually review here they have both challenged my preconceptions and given me new perspectives.

I didn’t actually chose Sheri Fink’s book, Five Days at Memorial:  Life and Death in a Storm-ravaged Hospital (Crown Publishing Group, 2013), because I was looking to explore the above issues, though.  I chose it because I have a fascination with New Orleans coupled with a borderline voyeuristic interest in stories about Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath.  The fact that this volume was a National Book Critics Circle Award winner, as a well as a New York Times Book Review Ten Best Books of 2013, made me feel nominally more comfortable with wanting to learn about how the disaster played out in one hospital.  What I got was a book I could scarcely put down, and one that challenged me to think differently about pretty much all of my previous assumptions.

As the floodwaters rose in New Orleans, the generators at Memorial Medical Center failed, plunging the hospital into darkness and threatening the survival of patients who depended on modern medical equipment.  As the exhausted and frightened staff worked to evacuate the building, they designated the sickest patients, and particularly those with Do Not Resuscitate orders, as the last to be rescued.  At some point, the decision was made to hasten the seemingly inevitable death of these patients by injecting them with morphine and other drugs.  Five Days at Memorial reflects six years of investigation by Fink, an MD herself, into the events leading up to that decision, as well as the legal ramifications in the days, months, and years after the disaster.

Like most Americans, I watched the heartbreak of Hurricane Katrina unfold on my television, unable to understand how the wealthiest country in the world could leave thousands of its citizens to drown or die from lack of food, water, and shelter.  Fink’s book paints a frightening picture of how ill-prepared we are across the country for large-scale disasters.  It also challenges the decisions made by some of the staff, and reveals deeper issues about end-of-life care.  I started it inclined to think that perhaps, if someone were going to die anyway, hastening that end so that they weren’t forced to die in a highway clover leaf or airport terminal was the more humane option.  I finished it wondering what, exactly, made the doctors and nurses involved feel they had the right to make that decision, without the input of families or even adequate knowledge of the patient’s medical history.

Five Days at Memorial is investigative writing at its finest.  Fink portrays all the people involved as real human beings, with real personalities and motivations.  She tries (without wholly succeeding) to conceal her own judgements.   And in the tradition of the very best writing, she leaves the reader pondering “what would I have done?”

Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End

After finishing Five Days at Memorial, I found myself really wondering about end-of-life issues, especially given events and developments in my own family.  I had been wanting for a while to read a book I had first heard about through an interview on The Daily Show, Being Mortal, by Atul Gawande (Henry Holt and Company, LLC, 2014), and decided now was the time to seek it out.  This ended up being another one of the best books I have read in a very long time, so much so that I started and finished it in one day, unable to put it down!

Subtitled Medicine and What Matters in the End, Being Mortal explores exactly the issues and conundrums I have been struggling with.  Gawande writes with the authority of a professor at Harvard Medical School, but also with the gentleness of a doctor who genuinely wants to help people, and who thinks deeply and carefully about what that REALLY means.  He does not spare himself, freely admitting to his doubts and mistakes, which sets him somewhat apart from my personal experience with many doctors.  Exploring the classic American nursing home, the “Assisted Living” trend, and the hospice movement, at its core this is actually a book about the death of Dr. Gawande’s own father.  As such, it makes the topic both universal and particular.  It gave me a lot to consider, and is a book I think pretty much everyone should read, since sooner or later we are ALL going to face the issues of how our loved ones, and we ourselves, want to die.

Which is not a very pleasant way to end this post, I admit!  The real genius of Gawande’s book, though, is that despite its premise it is actually a very hopeful and life-affirming approach to a topic most people, Americans in particular, avoid.  It has changed the way I think about many issues, and isn’t that what the very best books accomplish?

I received the book Five Days at Memorial from Blogging for Books for this review.

More running away reading…

Here’s the problem with my “running away” fantasies:  what would I do with all my books?  I have A LOT of books.  In fact, I might (probably) qualify as a “book hoarder”.  But whenever I fantasize about my little apartment in Barcelona, or my house on a Canadian island, I can’t envision being able to enjoy a life without my book collection.  Or, for that matter, my dog.  Or my cats.  So, until I find the wherewithal to resolve those dilemmas, I stay here in Colorado, planning my next short-term adventure and…reading!

Given that I’m still somewhat mobility-impaired due to my fractured ankle and a cough I can’t shake, I’ve been doing quite a bit of reading.  Here’s where I’ve “been” lately:


…In New Guinea during the 1930’s with Euphoria, by Lily King (Atlantic Monthly Press, 2014).  Based loosely on the life of anthropologist Margaret Mead, this beautiful novel explores a love triangle between American protagonist Nell Stone, her abusive Australian husband, Fen, and lonely British anthropologist Andrew Bankson, all set against the background of the primitive tribes they are studying.  The writing is tight and luminous, the characters are expertly drawn, and I loved the narrative style, which made the novel feel like the reader is observing (and judging?) the protagonists in much the same way an anthropologist would.  The book was one of those I couldn’t put down, and I was glad my book group choose it, since it is probably not something I would have necessarily picked up on my own.  There is a reason it won a plethora of awards!  From New Guinea I next went…


On the Chocolate Trail:  A Delicious Adventure Connecting Jews, Religions, History, Travel, Rituals and Recipes to the Magic of Cacao (Jewish Lights Publishing, 2013).  Written by Rabbi Deborah R. Prinz, this volume is part cookbook, part history, and part travel narrative.  Since I freely admit to being a chocolate addict, and one of my deepest joys when going to Europe is pausing at every pastry/chocolate shop to peruse and then sample the gorgeous displays it seems only the Europeans do so well, I absolutely loved this book!  It is Prinz’s belief that chocolate was introduced to Europe through the Sephardic Jews who had been expelled from Spain the same year Columbus set out on his first voyage, and I found her evidence to be exhaustive and convincing.  Her analysis of Inquisition records was especially interesting, and I was surprised to learn through the course of the book just how indispensable chocolate became in daily and religious life not only to the native “New World” cultures that had always valued it, but also to the colonists of both North and South America as well as Europeans.  I have a particular fascination with holidays and the ways in which humans celebrate, so the considerations of how chocolate came to be linked with these was illuminating.  Just remembering the book has me craving some Spanish “churros y chocolate”, as well as remembering the beautiful chocolate concoctions I admired and salivated over during the Easter season in Iceland, Spain, and Italy…

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…Speaking of Italy…the next book on my “running away” pile was sent to me by a dear friend (and Madrid roommate).  Dances With Luigi:  A Grandson’s Search for His Italian Roots (St. Martin’s Press, 2000) was written by my friend’s friend, Paul Paolicelli, and narrates the story of how he decided to move to Italy for several years in order to search for his family’s history.  The book reads somewhat like a mystery, as Paolicelli navigates complex bureaucratic and social systems -while also trying to master the Italian language- in his effort to learn the real story about one grandfather’s involvement with Mussolini and the other’s origins in the south.  I enjoyed his unsparingly honest descriptions of Italian life immensely, so in the spirit of living abroad vicariously through my reading, I next “traveled” to…

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Paris, My Sweet:  A Year in the City of Light (and Dark Chocolate) (Sourcebooks, Inc., 2012).  In this combination travel guide and memoir, author Amy Thomas narrates how she accepted a job with a prestigious advertising firm in Paris.  She is also quite honest about the ups and downs of adjusting to another culture, though I have to say that I found her writing to be a bit annoying at times.  (Phrases like “laughed our heads off” and “giggled like schoolgirls” just strike me as trite and lazy…)  Thomas spends a good amount of time comparing and contrasting her life and dessert obsessions in New York and Paris.  She does best when she lets the croissants and cakes and truffles speak for themselves, and her depictions make me think she is certainly a fabulous advertising copywriter.  I do have to say, I loved her portrayals of Paris and its sweets very much!  It made me head over to the French bakery nearest my house, which doesn’t come even close to rivaling the beautiful European establishments Thomas recounts and I remember, but does sell a “Chocolate Ecstasy” pastry that lives up to its name!    Reinforced, I next headed in a completely different direction with…

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The Last Runaway, by Tracy Chevalier (Penguin Group Inc., 2013).  This novel, written by the author of bestseller Girl with a Pearl Earring, follows Chevalier’s focus on a particular art or artist by narrating the story of Honor Bright, an accomplished quilter and Quaker who leaves England after being jilted by her fiancé and ends up quite alone in Ohio.  Set in the period leading up to the Civil War, Honor finds herself inadvertently drawn into helping with the Underground Railroad.  I have enjoyed all of Chevalier’s novels (including The Lady and the Unicorn, Falling Angels, and The Virgin Blue.)  She creates vivid and believable characters, and sets them in compelling times and places.  As a teenager, I fancied myself a quilter, so I especially enjoyed this lovely novel.  Her depictions of the realities of American “frontier” life are spot on, and her attention to the details of Quaker religious experience and quilting are admirable.  As “running away” reading, this took me into a past I don’t necessarily wish I could live, but that I certainly appreciate.

At my last book group meeting, we spent several minutes discussing where we would all move if Donald Trump were actually elected President.  While I think often that type of talk is hyperbolic, there are aspects to his campaign that do, in fact, worry me deeply.  So, who knows?  Maybe I’ll have the decision to cull my books and move abroad made for me!  I’m pretty sure both Spain and Canada would let me bring my dog and cats…