“The Girl of his Dreams” by Donna Leon

Like all Donna Leon’s mysteries, you get at least three stories
when you read one:- there’s the mystery itself (and in this book there
are two going on), the continuing story of Commissario Guido Brunetti’s
own family, and the background, always-enchanting story of the city of
Venice.

“The Girl of his Dreams” has to be one of Leon’s best. It opens
with a major event in Brunetti’s own family and continues throughout
with glimpses of his wife Paola, daughter and son and their growing-up
travails. Brunetti is then confronted with an investigation into a new
American-style Christian sect meeting in private homes in Venice.
While he is facing this, one cold rainy morning the body of a young
gypsy girl is found floating in the canal.

She has apparently fallen off the roof of a nearby apartment while
caught stealing. Noone had reported either the theft or the missing
child. Brunetti ventures out to the gypsy camp on the mainland and we
get a good picture of this unhappy, ostracized world of Romani people.

Like all of Donna Leon, this is what The New Yorker calls “an
unusually potent cocktail of atmosphere and event.” You’ll find it a
pleasure to read. Leon has written seventeen novels and won the CWA
Silver Dagger Award. She has lived in Venice for twenty-five years.

Book Review by Anne McDougall

“Life Beyond Measure” by Sidney Poitier

This is quite an inspirational book by the great American actor, in
which he sends letters to his great-granddaughter, full of stories of
his own life, dreams and aspirations, and the hopes he has clung to
through a lifetime of extreme hardship, as well as soaring success.

Poitier was born in a small community of the Bahamas called Cat
Island. His father was a tomato farmer, and neither of his parents
had any schooling. They eventually got to Nassau, where the barriers
of race were a new experience. Sidney left for New York. Barely
able to read, he saw an advertisement in The Amsterdam News “for an
actor”. Instead of his usual occupation of dish-washer, he applied.
Though he failed the test, it spurred him on his way. By age 23 he had
made the movie “No Way Out” and was starting on “Cry the Beloved
Country”.

Poiter has written other books in which he discusses the forty
films he has acted in, as well as nine he has directed and four he has
written. This book, therefore, is more of a philosophical ruminating
by a man of 8l, surrounded by a huge loving family, who wants to give
what clues he can to his little Ayele. He covers the big subjects;
science and faith, the environment and what we can do. But he returns
to an inner strength which he prays she has inherited (chiefly from his
own remarkable mother).

There are good photographs: Mandela, the Clintons, James
Baldwin. But the main story is the family, and it is worth reading about.

Review by Anne McDougall

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“The Enchantress of Florence” by Salman Rushdie

“Witchcraft requires no potions, familiar spirits or magic wands. Language upon a silvered tongue affords enchantment enough.”

So writes Salman Rushdie in his new book “The Enchantress of Florence”, and sure enough the novel glitters with Rushie’s unique flow of exotic people, palaces, duels, and wild love affairs. The story leaps from kingdom to kingdom. Rushdie is as much at home in Scotland as in Persia . His hero, a tall, blonde European calling himself “Mogor dell’Amore” , comes to the court of the Grand Mughal and claims to be the child of a lost Mughal princess. He traces his ancestry back to a Florentine soldier of fortune. From then on the two capitals – Florence and the Mughal capital – are bound in a story of intrigue that includes Niccolo Machiavelli.

Rushdie leaves plenty of mystery. But the pleasure of reading his book leaves you gasping at his amazing knowledge of so many countries, so much history, so much inter-weaving.

Rushdie is best-known for his “Midnight’s Children” which won the prize for best novel to have won the Booker prize in its first 25 years. He was knighted inJuly 2007 and lives in England. The cover of this new book is quite beautiful, and gives a good idea of the far-flung enchantment to be found inside.

Review by Anne McDougall

“The People of Privilege Hill” by Jane Gardam

It’s very hard to find new ways to praise Jane Gardam.

She is of course the British author of some fifteen books of fiction,as well as books for children and non-fiction. “Old Filth” is the most recent and hailed by many as Gardam’s masterpiece, and now here is a new one – a collection of fifteen short stories under the title “The People on Privilege Hill.”

I’m writing this on Mothers Day – an appropriate time to tackle Gardam. Heaven knows what she would concoct if she ever wrote on this sentimental celebration !!! As it is she has wonderful stories like “The Flight Path”, a would-be medical student from the north of England, in London during the blitz trying ( and succeeding ) in getting into a London hospital; “Hair of the Dog” telling of a grandmother in London for a reunion which she almost misses by walking out from Victoria Station and visiting old haunts on foot; finally., a priceless story, ” The Last Reunion” in which four women back at university after many years discover secrets about each other they had never suspected.

Gardam is funny, compassionate, as well as deeply moving. She has won endless prizes for fiction, including the Whitbread Prize for Best Novel of the Year, the only person to win it twice.

She was born in Yorkshire, England, is married with three grown-up children, and lives in East Kent, as well as a converted barn on the Pennines. For sheer delight, try her new book.

Book Review by Anne McDougall

“The Apprentice’s Masterpiece” by Melanie Little

This is a very disturbing little book.. and very well-written.

Set in Medieval Spain, it tells the story of two teen-aged
boys -Ramon Benveniste, a converso, or Jew converted to Christianity,
and Amir,a Muslim. Ramon is following the trade of his father, a famous
scribe. Amir has been sent to be their slave.

This is l5th century Spain at the time when Queen Isabella bears
down with a zeal to convert the entire country to Christianity.
Up til now the various provinces had enjoyed an enlightened period when
Jews, Muslims and Christians coexisted in peace and considerable
prosperity. Now the Spanish Inquisition set up an Office where
Spaniards were encouraged to report and tell on their neighbours. Fear
filled the country.

This book tells in blank verse how these two boys struggle against
events that conspire to destroy them both.

The author,Melanie Little, has won many prizes for her essays and
short fiction, particularly her essays for young adults. She won the
Markin-Flanagan Canadian Writer in Residence at the University of
Calgary in 2005, and continues to live in Calgary where she edits the
new literary imprint, Freehand Books.

Book Review by Anne McDougall

“Mordecai Richler” by Reinhold Kramer

Mordecai Richler was said to deplore the cult of “writer as
personality”, believing his books were important, he was not.

Nonsense, says writer Reinhold Kramer, and in this biography of
Mordecai’s life, sets out to show how the colourful novelist’s life and
times had a profound and pervasive influence on his writing. They
turned him in fact into a personality in his own right, just as
interesting and provocative as his books.

Kramer’s book is a long narrative, beginning with the story of
Mordecai’s grandfathers escaping the pogroms in Poland in the late l9th
and 20th centuries, to settle in the New World. One of these men was
a wily junk dealer, the other a highly educated Orthodox Rabbi. They
made their home in the East End of Montreal . Mordecai struggled with
their values until the end of his life.

Mordecai grew up in the St. Urbain district, attending the Baron
Byng High School,and Sir George Williams University. Restless by the
second year, he had already started writing, and scraped together the
fare for Europe, sailing in l950. His bohemian life in Spain, and the
Left Bank, Paris, led to a wider circle of writers and artists, and he
was on his way, precariously, to selling the occasional article, and
getting his first novel underway. From here on, the book reads like a
flashback to the whole story of Canadian writing with the names we now
take for granted, in both film and literature. Richler even spent some
time giving a seminar at Carleton University.

Kramer is thorough and sensitive as he reveals the details in
Mordecai’s life that come through in his novels, with their names often
changed. Richler of course did succeed, particularly when “The
Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz” was published. Thereafter he became
rich and famous and what were once his left-wing leanings became more
conservative. The steady streams in his life seem to be his insistence
on hard work, and his devotion to his wife, Florence, and very happy
home life with his five children. The book strikes a balance between
the reckless, irreverent Richler and the solid qualities lurking in his
satire.

Book Review by Anne McDougall

“The Uses and Abuses of History” by Margaret MacMillan

Margaret MacMillan is such a good writer that she makes the study
of history nothing but a pleasure. She did this in her best-selling
books “Nixon in China” and “Paris l9l9” which won prizes here and
abroad. In this new book she updates the Joanne Goodman Lecture Series
of the University of Western Ontario.

She regrets that just as history is becoming more important in our
public discussions, professional historians are abandoning the field to
amateurs. Political leaders too often get away with misusing or
abusing history for their own ends because the rest of us do not know
enough to challenge them. Surely this happened in Iraq….How many
people in the West know the history of what was once Persia? Or for
that matter the complications of Afghanistan?

She admits that history can be well taught, or badly. In China,
the Party keeps a close eye on the schools to make sure the lesson is
conveyed that history chose the Communist Party to lead China into its
present happy state. The Smithsonian Institution in Washington planned
an exhibit including the bombing of Hiroshima, but in the end had to
cancel. In Ottawa we know what happened at the War Museum over
another instance of illustrating bombing in Europe..

MacMillan admits the difficulties, but pleads for a better use of
history, first to understand those with whom we have to deal, and
second, equally important, ourselves.

She herself has had a long distinguished career in teaching
history. She recently left the position of provost of Trinity College
at the University of Toronto to become warden of St. Antony’s College at
Oxford University.

Book Review by Anne McDougall

“Musicophilia” by Oliver Sacks

Music of the right kind can serve to orient a patient when nothing
else can. So writes author Oliver Sacks, a physician living in New
York City where he is Professor of Clinical Neurology and Psychiatry at
Columbia University.

Ever since his days in l966 at the Beth Abraham Hospital in the
Bronx, when Dr.Sacks used music to bring life to patients immobile from
sleeping-sickness, he has widened his research and practice of musical
therapy and shares some astounding results in this book.

He tells of idiot savant children, feeble-minded but with
remarkable musical talent; blind piano-tuners, whom we have all met;
jazz musicians like Art Tatum; a stroke patient, speechless for years,
whom a music therapist heard singing and brought back until he could
use words. Patients with Parkinson’s, as well as Tourette’s Syndrome,
can get motor freedom from music. Drumming plays a huge part, in fact
rhythm (from the Greek meaning measure, motion and stream) helps with
learning and remembering. It also brings people together, in song and
dance, turning listeners into participants. Music, above all else, can
kick-start a damaged motor system into action. All this, Dr.Sacks
notes, before LDopa was discovered.

In the case of dementia, the response to music is often preserved
, even in advanced cases. Dr.Sacks gives sensitive illustrations of
Alzheimer’s patients who have made amazing recovery, through music.

This is a compassionate and impressive book, one of nine by this
distinguished author, including “Awakenings” which is the basis of a
recent film.

Book Review by Anne McDougall

“The Home we Build Together” by Jonathan Sacks

Ever since the l970’s, the trend of multiculturalism has been
sweeping societies of the West. Many people feel that while this is
meant to honour multiple identities, it also leaves too little to bind
us together.

In his new book, author and religious thinker, Rabbi Jonathan
Sacks, looks at society as a home that we build together. As Chief
Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregation of Britain and the
Commonwealth, he includes the place of religion in this unifying plan.

He suggests the U.K. once thought of society as a country-house,
with newcomers finding their place as guests. But this became
condescending and unwelcoming. In the U.S. he says society became
more of a hotel, but this can turn into a cold melting-pot. The new
technology, Email, satellite TV, internet, he sees as driving us
apart. And so he stresses liberal democracy which honors the
distinctions of politics, religion and law without blurring them, but
concentrating on society, with its “neutral spaces” of universities,
libraries, parks to pull us together.

He writes of rebuilding the family, and community service through
religion. He tells how the Israelites built their first Tabernacle,
after being freed, and thus became a covenanted nation. He believes
the U.K. should institute a Britain Day, and teach the history of
their nation. Strange for a Canadian to read this when we feel
even more remiss about our own history lessons !!! and sometimes long
for another Expo 67 when the whole country felt pulled together.

Book Review by Anne McDougall