Monday, December 2, 2013

book review: My Venice and Other Essays by Donna Leon

The backstory: Venice is one of my favorite cities in the world. I first visited it in the summer of 2004, on my way to Athens, Greece for the Olympics. I fell in love. Two years later, Mr. Nomadreader and I opted to spend our Christmas and New Year together in Venice rather than decide whose family to visit. Despite my love of both Venice and mysteries, I still haven't read Donna Leon's much-acclaimed series set there. It's near the top of my list, but in the meantime, I had to read her essays about Venice as soon as I got my hands on a copy.

The basics: My Venice and Other Essays is a collection of essays and vignettes divided into these sections: On Venice, On Music, On Mankind and Animals, On Men, On America, and On Books.

My thoughts: I've often bemoaned how difficult it is to review a collection of short stories, and here I find myself with the same problem as I attempt to cohesively talk about a collection of essays that itself is not terribly cohesive. As I finished the first essay in the collection, I said "that's it?" Truthfully, I wouldn't consider any of the essays about Venice to be essays. While classically there may not be a prescribed number of pages an essay must be, I found these pieces to also be lacking the things I most love about essays: immersion, reflection, and wisdom. The pieces themselves aren't necessarily bad, but when I expected essays about Venice, they didn't meet my expectations. If, however, you go in expecting brief, curmudgeonly anecdotes about life in Venice, you will find them.

Early in this collection, Leon comes off as quite an unhappy person. She frequently shares her annoyances and they often read more life rants than observations. Once the collection shifted away from Venice, however, moments of wisdom, clarity, and joy began to emerge. I was surprised how much I enjoyed her musings on animals, as I am far from an animal lover. Leon was at her absolute best when offering insight on American and books. Perhaps her musings on Venice would delight Venetians, but they left me cold. When she turned her critical expatriate eye to the United States, however, I was enchanted.

It is apparent at least some of these essays were written, if not also published, some time ago. There are numerous references to current events that aren't current. There are references to U.S. presidents I don't think are the current one. As a reader, I would have found it helpful to have a date written or previous publication information shared to help illuminate the setting and perspective Leon brings.

Favorite passage: "In an age where meaning has been tossed out in favor of rhetoric, in a time when films are mere concatenations of loud noises and the shedding of human blood, it is to be expected that language should no longer be considered the chief means by which we reveal ourselves, our thoughts, and our feelings. When meaning disappears so, too, must the ability to perceive it."

The verdict: As a collection, My Venice and Other Essays is frustratingly uneven. Mercifully, the collection improves as it goes on, both in quality and depth. The essays on Venice itself were each so brief I would hardly call them essays. Leon is at her best when the essays go on more than a couple of pages. It's a shame she didn't combine or develop the shorter pieces to make them fit in with the stronger, longer essays. While there's much to be enjoyed here, there are far too many piece that detract from the collection's best. Still, by the end, I wanted to claim Donna Leon as a long-lost relative, invite her to dinner parties, and listen to her delightfully unrestrained thoughts, opinions, and experiences.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5
Length: 240 pages
Publication date: December 3, 2013
Source: publisher

Convinced? Treat yourself! Buy My Venice and Other Essays from an independent bookstore, the Book Depository or Amazon (Kindle edition.)

Want more? Visit Donna Leon's website.

As an affiliate, I receive a small commission when you make a purchase through any of the above links. Thank you for helping to support my book habits that bring more content to this blog!


  1. Not sure if that posted the first time, so... Someone recently gave me her first novel, so now I'll check it out! (I'm always wary of random recommendations from people I don't know so well.) Even if you didn't like this collection, it's encouraging that someone else has heard of her.


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