July 26, 2016

I seem to have appointed myself as a linguistic critic of English-language novels.

It started with a discussion of what I called yanking, the Americanization of the vocabulary of British mystery novelists. It went on to pointing out inadvertent Americanisms in the set-in-Britain novels of Elizabeth George (which in general are meant to use British vocabulary and spelling). From there it went to examining the peculiar difficulties that English-language writers have with rendering Hispanic culture (the Spanish language itself, naming customs, and so on) realistically, starting (once again) with Elizabeth George and going on to others.

I have just read James Lee Burke’s latest novel, The House of the Rising Sun. Its main character is named Hackberry Holland, but, though Wikipedia lists the book in the Hackberry Holland series, he doesn’t seem to be the same character as in the other books in the series, but perhaps his grandfather or great-grandfather. This book’s action takes place between 1891 and around 1920, and Hackberry is not a young man even then.

There is a fair amount of Spanish dialogue, the action taking place mostly in Texas and Mexico, and all in all the Spanish is not bad; either Burke knows Spanish or a competent editor’s hand was involved.

What did strike me is the surprising number of linguistic anachronisms in English, surprising for a writer who is almost my age and who has taught creative writing. Here is a sampling:

  • A house in Mexico, observed in 1916, is called Victorian. Even an American observing such a house wouldn’t call it that at the time. According to Google Ngrams, “Victorian house” doesn’t show any use until 1927.
  • In 1916 there is a reference to Gauguin. The chances of a lifelong Texan being acquainted with the artist at the time are infinitesimal.
  • In 1891 we find normalcy. As is well known, the word was not used in American English until Warren Harding did so in 1920.
  • There is a reference to flak in 1915, a word that was coined (in German) in the 1930s.
  • Sometime around 1920 we find Malaysian, which of course should have been Malayan; Malaysia did not exist before 1963.

What has happened to the art — if it ever was there — of copy-editing?

No more yankin’ Rankin!

July 16, 2016

I have just read Ian Rankin’s latest novel featuring John Rebus and Malcolm Fox, Even the Wild Dogs, in its American edition (by Little Brown), and as far as I could tell it was indistinguishable from the British original. Not only was there no Americanization of the vocabulary — Briticisms like ‘pavement’ (for ‘sidewalk’) and ‘tannoyed’ (‘announced on the PA system’) and Scoticisms like ‘haar’ and  ‘bothy’ were left intact — but even the spelling and punctuation were not tampered with. It’s high time!

Now I wonder if William Morrow will treat the new Alan Banks novel by Peter Robinson, When the Music’s Over, with similar respect. Or will it turn out that Morrow yanks Banks?

No cure for… oops!

July 9, 2016

As I mentioned in a recent post, I am an enthusiastic follower of the Harry Bosch novels of Michael Connelly and the Banks novels of Peter Robinson. Both writers have new entries in the series coming out later this year, and I am awaiting them eagerly.

While waiting, I came across a recently republished non-Banks novel by Robinson, originally published (in Canada) in 1995 and titled No Cure for Love. The new edition features a foreword by Connelly, largely devoted to praise of the authenticity of Robinson’s writing. Coming from Connelly in reference to Los Angeles (where the novel’s action largely takes place) this is high praise indeed. (At this point I will charitably abstain from commenting on Connelly’s forays into Spanish.)

As I  began reading the book, I quickly came to a passage referring to an “article in TV Guide that mentioned she  [the novel’s non-detective protagonist, a Yorkshire lass turned Hollywood television star] lived in Malibu. Which wasn’t quite true. Strictly speaking, the house was in Pacific Palisades, close to the Los Angeles city limits…”

Wait a minute, I said to myself. Malibu is a good fifteen miles from Pacific Palisades, with Topanga Beach in between, and I can’t imagine that a journalist who is probably based in Los Angeles would ever confuse the two. And what does “close to the Los Angeles city limits” mean? Pacific Palisades is within the LA city limits. Of course,  the house could be within LA and near the city limits, but that would put in the Getty Villa area, where there are no private houses with beach access.

As I got into the book, the plot took over my attention and I stopped paying mind to geography. I focused on dialogue instead. Connelly, after all, attributed to Robinson “a snare-trap ear for dialogue.”

I have written before about Ian Rankin’s Briticisms creeping into the dialogue of Americans in one of his novels. But I expected Peter Robinson, who by 1995 had been living in Toronto for some twenty years, to have no trouble with North American English. And yet:

“Now she was…,” “Now she had…” (f0r ‘now that’).

“A rasher of bacon” (for ‘slice’).

“Carry on!”

“Have done!”

All of these are spoken or thought by Americans.

Oh, well…

Ham or um?

July 6, 2016

Yesterday I was in downtown Berkeley. As I walked past the Berkeley Repertory Theatre , I saw that one of the plays to be produced in the upcoming season was “in association with… Birmingham Repertory Theatre.” As I was reading the information to myself, I got stuck: is it Birming-ham, as in Alabama, or Birming-um, as in England?

A quick check with Google revealed that the only known Birmingham Rep is in England. Birmingham (Alabama) does have some theaters, but not a rep.

But how would someone know without recourse to Google?


June 30, 2016

The Lewandowskis have scored recently.

Corey , probably the better-known one in the USA, has scored a plum job with CNN, where his duties will apparently to comment on the Trump campaign, from which he was recently fired as manager.

Robert, arguably the more famous one outside the USA, scored a goal that gave Poland an early lead in the Euro 2016 quarterfinal against Portugal, as well as a penalty kick in the shootout, but one of his teammates had his kick blocked, so that Poland lost.

The reign of Spain…

June 30, 2016

…as champions of European nations’ soccer is over. The top Spanish clubs are, of course, as strong as ever, mainly on the strength of their non-Spanish strikers (Messi, Suárez, Neymar, Ronaldo, Bale, Griezmann). But the national team, already ignominiously (and, at the time, unexpectedly) knocked out in the 2014 World Cup, made a similarly disastrous showing in the Euro 2016.

There were easy victories over weak teams (Belarus, Ukraine, Luxembourg, Macedonia), with only a loss to Slovakia, in the qualifying round, and victories over Turkey and Czechia in the group stage, but a loss when Spain finally met a team of  similar caliber (Croatia) — a loss that made Spain the runner-up of their group and so forced to faced a group winner, Italy, who knocked them out with a decisive defeat.

It was a few hours after that match (on June 27) that England was famously knocked out by Iceland. And England’s coach, Roy Hodgson, resigned immediately.

What about Vicente del Bosque, the Spanish coach? Well, he had announced in 2014 that he would retire after Euro 2016, on turning 65, and he is in fact being allowed to

retire when he chooses, with no accounting for his recent coaching failures. It’s reminiscent of the way Franco, his lookalike, was allowed to die peacefully, with no accounting for his crimes against the Spanish people.

The day before the Italy match Spaniards went to the polls and, as they had done six months earlier, voted, in roughly the same proportions, for the same four parties that had been unable to form a government.

There is a Catalan saying for persistently doing the same ineffective thing: voler fer entrar el clau per la cabota (trying to drive a nail in head first). Is this what the Spanish people, whom I love dearly, are doing?




The Inspector Luann Mysteries

June 22, 2016

My favorite daily comic strip is Luann, by Greg Evans. It is, in fact, the only daily comic strip I read, now that Doonesbury is in reruns. I have been following it for thirty years, during which Luann DeGroot has gone from being an eighth-grader to a college freshman.

Yes, thirty-odd years of real time for about five years of comic-strip time. That is normal, of course, when we consider that a typical narrative daily strip of four panels may contain barely a minute of dialogue, and a single scene may take a week or more. But references to what happens outside the world of the strip’s characters — political events, technological changes — are usually kept contemporary so as to maintain relevance, so that the characters cannot age in real time, but in a sort of slowed-down time which I will call Luann time.

I am also a serial murder… uh,  a serial reader of murder mysteries; specifically, mystery novels written in series featuring a lead detective and a floating cast of associated characters. Since a novel is not limited by four daily panels, these characters do age in real time, and we get to follow them through promotions and suspensions; marriages, parenthood and divorces; relationships with colleagues, friends and lovers; and reactions to actual events. It can usually be assumed that in such a series the action takes place within a year or so before the novel’s publication.

The authors that I have followed steadily, though not always from the beginning, have been P. D. James (the novels featuring Adam Dalgliesh), Ruth Rendell (Reginald Wexford), Colin Dexter (Morse), Henning Mankell (Kurt Wallander), James Lee

Burke (Dave Robicheaux) — all of these now finished — and, still soldiering on, Peter Robinson’s Alan Banks, Ian Rankin’s John Rebus, and Michael Connelly’s Harry Bosch.

Until recently I would have included Elizabeth George’s series featuring Detective Inspector Thomas Lynley and and Detective Sergeant Barbara Havers with this group. As George herself has written, she prefers series that “allow[…]  the characters to grow, change, develop, and move through time.” Only, as I have just lately realized, the time is not real time but Luann time.

The realization came to me as I was reading her latest novel, A Banquet of Consequences (2015). The first occasion was one in which Barbara Havers takes part in a speed-dating exercise that is segregated into age groups, and she — honestly — sits among those in their thirties. Later, Lynley himself is judged (by an older woman) as being in his thirties. Wait a minute, I said to myself, these characters have been around for more than 25 years! What’s going on?

Then there were two specific references that reinforced the impression of elastic time. One was to an episode of collaboration with Cambridgeshire Constabulary said to have taken place “a few years ago,” but the reference is to For the Sake of Elena, published in 1993. The other is to Lynley’s having lost his wife “eighteen months before”; this loss (a senseless murder) happened in With No One as Witness (2005).

What is Elizabeth George’s time frame, then? Let’s begin, not at the beginning, but with Playing for the Ashes (1994). This a pivotal novel in the series in several respects: it’s where Barbara first meets her neighbor Taymullah Azhar and his eight-year-old daughter Hadiyyah, who become her steady friends; it’s were Isabelle Ardery makes her first appearance, as a detective inspector with what EG calls the Maidstone Constabulary (actually the Kent County Constabulary, soon to become the Kent Police), before she is (in later novels) transferred to the Met and promoted several times to eventually become Lynley’s boss; and it’s where, at the novel’s end, Helen Clyde agrees to marry Lynley. In this novel one of the central characters tells us that she was born in 1962, and we also learn that she is thirty-two. Ergo, the novel clearly takes place in the year of publication, and we are still in real time.

But in Deception On His Mind (1997) Hadiyyah is still eight, while in Just One Evil Act (2013) she is… nine. It seems, then, that Luann time began for Elizabeth George around 1995.

It could, of course, be that in all the novels after 1994 the action takes place in the 1990s (I don’t recall any years being actually numbered). But this is belied by the presence of the latest technology (laptops, memory sticks, smartphones) in them.

I still like Elizabeth George. She is still brilliant at concocting convoluted plots that, somehow, make sense at the end, and in which it’s very hard to suspect the eventual culprit almost till the end. But from now on I will have to read her novels more in the way that I read Luann, divorced from actual time consideration, than the way I read my other favorite detective series.


Enough already, Bernie

June 9, 2016

I was going to write this piece a few days ago, before the California primary, when the polls were showing California Democrats split evenly (about 45-45) between Bernie and Hillary. I was going to title it “Bye-bye Bernie” on the assumption that my hero would be his gracious and realistic self and recognize that, by any democratic measure — votes received and elected delegates — Hillary had won the Democratic nomination for President. I mean the graciousness and realism that Bernie had shown in the early debates, when he said, “Enough already with those damned emails!”.

But Bernie seems to have taken leave of that graciousness and realism, and refuses to give up, even after the last batch of primaries, most of which Hillary won decisively. In California, the undecided 10 percent seem to have all gone for her, since she won 56-44.

I voted for Bernie in the primary. Not two days ago but many weeks ago. I am a mail-ballot voter from way back, and I tend to vote early, sometimes too early. (In 2008 I voted — face reddening — for John Edwards). I voted for Bernie for the sheer pleasure of voting for someone who openly calls himself a socialist, as I have done since the age of thirteen. (While Ron Dellums, for whom I voted many times, was a member — as I was — of Democratic Socialists of America, he did not go around saying “I am a democratic socialist.”)

But as the actual primary election approached, I began to wonder if I might have voted differently had I waited.

I believe in most of Bernie’s program for America. Our country certainly needs the kind of progressive revolution that he advocates. But is he the right man to lead us into it?

The two presidents who presided of the most striking progressive changes in the USA were, undoubtedly, FDR and LBJ. Both were veteran Democratic politicians, steeped in the party’s establishment. Roosevelt had been a state senator, a junior cabinet member, and governor of New York. Johnson had been congressman, a senator — rising to majority leader — and Vice-President. They had the political resources that  enabled them, with their great political skill, to swing their party, and some of the opposition as well, behind their programs.

I see no evidence of Bernie Sanders having such resources. I don’t see the movement that he seems to have created among millennials as any more viable than Occupy.

I remember that when, in November of 1963, Lyndon B. Johnson suddenly became President of the United States, neither I nor anyone around me expected what came to be the great achievements of his presidency, unfortunately stymied by his inability to resist the military’s push for involvement in Vietnam.

Hillary Rodham Clinton is a veteran politician in the mold of FDR and LBJ. I don’t necessarily see her hawkish and finance-friendly past as indicating how her presidency might evolve. And while those on the political right operate mainly on fear, those of us on the left live on hope. And I refuse to give up hope.

I won’t hold my breath, but maybe — just maybe — Hillary’s hawkish record will give her the standing to resist needless military interventions. Maybe — just maybe — her knowledge of Wall Street will give her the strength to oppose more concessions to the financiers. Maybe — just maybe — HRC will take her place alongside FDR and LBJ.

So, Bernie: Enough already!



May 19, 2016

On Saturday, May 28, two soccer games with similar names will be played. One is called The Championship playoffs final. The other is the Champions League final. Which is more important?

Well, “The Championship” is the name euphemistically given to what is the top division of England’s Football Leage, which is actually the second division of English soccer, because the first division, the English Premier League (alslo known as Barclays Premier League) is a separate organization from the Football League. And the playoff is a tournament, among the third- to sixth-place finishers, meant to choose the third team to be promoted into the Premier League (the top two finishers get promoted automatically).

The Champions League, on the other hand, is not a league but also a tournament among the very top teams throughout Europe and those parts of Asia covered by UEFA. The winning team is usually honored as the greatest team in Europe, if not in the world.

But which is more lucrative? Well, the winning team in the Champions League earns €15 million and the losing team €10.5 million. So, winning is worth €4.5 million, for a team which is likely to be valued at several billion.

And The Championship? It has been reported that promotion to the Premier League may be worth as much as £200 million, even if the team stays in the top league for only one season.

So, there’s more than one way to measure importance.


May 19, 2016

The Associated Press story reporting on yesterday’s death of the historian Fritz Stern includes this information:

He was born in the former German province of Silesia (now in Poland) to a prominent family that had converted from Judaism to Christianity. But the Sterns felt increasingly menaced by Hitler’s reign and left in 1938 for New York…

Why “but”?

Apparently someone at AP thought that there was a contradiction between conversion to Christianity and being menaced by Hitler. That is, they are confusing Judaism — a religion — with Jewishness as an ethnic or “racial” category. To Hitler, of course, it was only the latter than mattered. In other words, his regime persecuted Jews, not only those who also happened to be Judaists.

A common confusion, to be sure.


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