Archive for the ‘Literature’ Category

Inspector Luann returns

May 17, 2018

I’ve just read Elizabeth George’s latest, The Punishment She Deserves. This time I didn’t wait my turn to get it from the library but actually bought the book, brand-new, with dust jacket and all. And I noticed that on that dust jacket, above a misty photograph of Ludlow (England), both the author’s name and the title appear in all lower case. But of course no one will refer to the novelist as “elizabeth george.” And l still don’t understand why the writer who calls herself Bell Hooks and also chooses the all-lower-case format for her title pages is almost universally cited as “bell hooks,” as though referring to some devices from which bells are hung. Esthetic choices of title-page typography do not, in my opinion, trump the rules of English, one of which is that in ordinary writing personal names are capitalized.

But I digress.

I managed to go through the book’s almost 700 pages in a few days. The plot is gripping, with several subplots that seem unconnected at first but finally come together logically.

There are, of course the usual recurring characters: DI Thomas Lynley, DS Barbara Havers, DCS Isabelle Ardery, and the others. Elizabeth George clings to the old naming convention, where women are referred to by first name and men by surname (as I have noted, Michael Connelly and Ian Rankin — but not Peter Robinson — have overcome it). And, as usual, the characters’ histories build upon previous novels, but in what I have called Luann time: the events of the preceding novel, published three years earlier, are described as having happened “last year.” Havers is still in her thirties (a character in her late forties is described as having “more than ten years on her”) and Lynley at least appears to be no more than forty: he is seen as “twenty years older” than an eighteen-year-old. (The series, mind you, began in 1988.)

In the customary afterword, George acknowledges her editor, who “set me straight when I went off track in British English.” Not enough, I’m afraid.

I have already commented on George’s pet Americanism, “run interference” (a term taken from American football); it appears twice in this book. A few others crop up: “GPS” for “satnav”; “pressured” for “pressurised”; “Indian” (based on appearance) for “Asian”; and George’s tendency to confuse “due” and “do”: she once wrote “undo” for “undue,” while this time its “make due” for “make do.”

Then there is George’s penchant for eye dialect, intended somehow to reproduce the speech of those who are not toffs like Thomas Lynley and who are quoted, for example, as saying “su’prise”; but of course no English person (except in the West Country) pronounces the first R in surprise; nor would anyone pronounce the phrase problems are as anything like “problems’re”; but there you are.

I also find it jarring to read British spelling with American punctuation, but that’s another matter.

So much for ling-crit. A bigger problem, for me, is the superficiality of Elizabeth George’s acquaintance with British culture. Referring to Thomas Cromwell when Oliver is meant is a small example.

The novel takes place in the small but historic town of Ludlow, in Shropshire, as well as elsewhere in the county and in the neighboring counties of Herefordshire and Worcestershire — the territory served by the West Mercia Police, which figures prominently in the action. The area, including its topography and architecture, is described in vivid detail that adds color to the narrative. It’s clear that George explored the places she describes; she also gathered inside information by interviewing the Chief Constable of the WMP, the mayor of Ludlow (who is — though she doesn’t say so — not an executive mayor but merely the chairman of the town council, a body with very limited authority), and the chairman of the gliding club to which three of her characters belong.

One institution that plays a large part in the story, is a college, which George calls West Mercia College (like the police), but whose description as regards location and buildings matches the actual college located in Ludlow, Ludlow College. Several of the principal characters are students at the college; they are 18 or 19 years old, and appear to be in their first year of studies. They also (with one exception) are heavily involved with drinking and sex.

In other words, the college is supposed to strike American readers as something like what they think of as a college. But the reality is different. (No wonder George renamed the college, and did not interview its head.)

Ludlow College is, in fact, a sixth-form college, a school corresponding chronologically (though not academically) to the 11th and 12th grades of American high schools; students who are 18 will actually be finishing the second of its two years (known as lower and upper sixth).

I am not sure that Elizabeth George knows the concept of sixth form, since she seems to confuse the British form with the American grade. In one place, Isabelle Ardery thinks of the children playing in a schoolyard as being in third form, and thus close in age to her own children, who are nine. In another, a twelve-year-old is asked if she remembers her fourth-form teacher.

As a matter of fact, “form” is used in England to denote grade in secondary school, which begins at age eleven; thus third and fourth form correspond to ages thirteen and fourteen, respectively (they are also called year 8 and year 9), and sixth form accordingly begins at age 16.

Why does Elizabeth George’s British editor let her get away with these things? I don’t know, but in a way I’m grateful. For I enjoy reading her books, but then I get the additional enjoyment of quibbling about the solecisms.




Crime report

January 4, 2018

About a year and a half ago I wrote about my favorite series (plural) of detective novels, and I included the Robicheaux novels of James Lee Burke with the ones I thought were finished (the last one having been Light of the World, in 2013). I am happy to report that I was wrong. I just learned that a new novel in the series — titled, of all things, Robicheaux — has just been published. I rushed to put a hold on it at my library, and I’m looking forward to reading it soon.

Meanwhile, over the last couple of months I have caught up with the latest Rebus by Ian Rankin (Rather Be the Devil) and the latest Bosch by Michael Connelly (Two Kinds of Trush), as well as what seems to be the onset of a new series by Connelly, featuring a woman detective, Renée Ballard (The Late Show) and written entirely from her point of view (in free indirect style). In addition I read the latest by Tana French (The Trespasser), featuring two detectives carried over from her previous book (The Secret Place)  but written entirely from the point of view (in first-person narration) of the female partner, Antoinette Conway.

Differences in narrative style aside, I was struck by some of the similarities between the latter two novels. In addition to having French first names, both detectives are tall, hard-boiled, rough-talking single women in their thirties; both work the night shift with male partners, are treated unsympathetically (or seem to be) by the other men on their squads, and venture outside their working hours in order to pursue their cases. In both cases the murderer is himself a detective, discovered (by good detective work and a ruse involving a senior detective) after another detective had been a suspect.

The Trespasser came out some nine months before The Late Show. Could the former have inspired the latter?

I have long believed that John Rebus was, in some way, an inspiration for Harry Bosch. The first Rebus novel, Knots and Crosses, came out in 1987; the first Bosch, The Black Echo, in 1992. Both men are war veterans (Rebus in Northern Ireland, Bosch in Vietnam) and around forty when the series begin. Both are mavericks who often get in trouble with their superiors and get denied promotion or demoted. Both have unsteady relationships with women, each being married once with a resulting daughter (though the circumstances are vastly different). Both work well with women partners. Both are forced to retire but continue working cases voluntarily. Both series abound with local color of Edinburgh and Los Angeles, respectively.

And in both of the recent novels the women detectives are, at last, referred to by their last names, just like the men, unlike, say, Peter Robinson’s (Alan) Banks and Annie (Cabbot) or Elizabeth George’s (Thomas)  Lynley and Barbara (Havers).


October 24, 2017

I recently read a book that I should have read some forty years ago, when it first came out. And reading that book led to another, by the same author, which turned out to be among the most delightful novels I’ve ever read. And all because of serendipity.

A couple of months ago Mark Liberman published a post on Language Log about a book that had just appeared in English, The seventh function of language, by Laurent Binet. The book’s relevance to Language Log lay in its linguistics-laden contents and in its inclusion as characters of many real-life personalities in linguistics, semiology, literary criticism and related fields. Here’s the list cited by Mark Liberman:

Roland Barthes, Michel Foucault, Umberto Eco, Noam Chomsky, Louis Althusser, Paul de Man, Jean-François Lyotard, Judith Butler, Jacques Derrida, John Searle, Morris Zapp, Gayatri Spivak, Bernard-Henri Lévy, Julia Kristeva, Philippe Sollers, Jacques Lacan, Camille Paglia, and more.

I was familiar (if only from having seen them in print) with many of these names, but not Morris Zapp.

I was able to get the French original (published in 2015), La septième fonction du langage, from my university library. It turned out to be a fun read, and the first part, taking place in Paris and Bologna, seemed like historical fiction. While this term is not usually applied to books taking place in the recent past (here it’s around 1980), there is no reason why it shouldn’t: actual events (the death of Roland Barthes, the Bologna massacre) form the background, and fictionally treated actual persons mingle with fictitious ones — that’s what historical fiction is. But when the scene shifts to Ithaca, NY, things go haywire: Derrida and Searle die (the former lived till 2004, the latter is still with us), and the flamboyant Morris Zapp makes his appearance.

When I tried to find out about Morris Zapp, I discovered that he is a fictitious character created by David Lodge in his novel Changing Places: A Tale of Two Campuses. I looked this up on Wikipedia, and found out that one of the two campuses involved is modeled on UC Berkeley, the university where I taught for most of my adult like. My public library has nothing of David Lodge, and the one at UCB had it  only as part of a trilogy, which I duly checked out.

To say that the State University of Euphoria (also called Euphoric State) is “modeled” on Berkeley is an understatement. While the state of Euphoria is supposedly “a small but populous state… situated between Northern and Southern California” — that is, the greater Bay Area is imagined as a separate state — the site of the university, “Plotinus” is an obvious stand-in for Berkeley (both are named for philosophers), and is across the Bay from the “glittering, glamorous city of Esseph” (SF, get it?). The “right-wing Governor of the State” is (this is 1969) “Ronald Duck, a former movie-actor.” Berkeley’s Euclid and Shattuck Avenues become Plotinus’s Pythagoras Drive and Shamrock Avenue, while UC Berkeley’s Wheeler Hall is Euphoric State’s Dealer Hall. San Francisco’s North Beach is Esseph’s South Strand, and the Golden Gate Bridge is the Silver Span.

(To be continued)


Mysteries of Vienna

August 28, 2017

I have been in Vienna only three times in my life, each time for a few days, but my visits have left me with an impression of it as an easy city to get to know, not especially mysterious. It has a well defined city center (the Innere Stadt) and nearly all the major attractions and m (other than the large parks and palaces, such as the Prater, Belvedere and Schönbrunn) are in it or just outside it. At least as regards the city as it has developed since the end of the  Allied occupation (1955), it doesn’t seem to have the kind of seedy underbelly — a great setting for crime fiction — that such cities as London, Paris, Barcelona or Edinburgh have. The Vienna of The Third Man has given way to one that recently has been consistently ranked among the most livable and most prosperous cities in the world.

It is therefore fitting that the series of Vienna-based mystery novels that I have recently been reading has as its locations not dark alleys, slums or Bohemian hangouts, but the best-known tourist attractions of Vienna. The author is Beate Maxian, who besides writing novels is a print, radio and television journalist. The principal crime-solver in the series is, not surprisingly, a young, attractive woman journalist named Sarah Pauli.

The first novel in this series (Maxian had written some crime novels before it) is Tödliches (deadly) Rendezvous (2011); in it the mid-twentyish Sarah, who lives with her younger brother Chris (a medical student/bartender/irresistible seducer of women) since their parents died in a car accident, gets a job as a freelance intern at a (fictitious) major newspaper, the Wiener Bote. She is assigned to assist the prestigious muckraking reporter Hilde Jahn, who is murdered in the course of her investigation. Sarah then takes it over and solves the case, not before almost getting murdered as well. When she gets a permanent job at the paper, it is not as an investigative journalist but as a columnist writing about superstitions, folk beliefs and the like, something she is an expert on (besides being slightly superstitious as well). She also develops a crush on the paper’s publisher, the handsome David Gruber, who had been Hilde Jahn’s lover. The central setting here is the Steinhof hospital, with its famous church built by Otto Wagner.

All the subsequent novels in the series have the landmark location in the title: Die Tote vom (The Dead Woman of the) Naschmarkt (2012); Tod hinter dem (Death Behind the) Stephansdom (2013); Der Tote vom (The Dead Man of the) Zentralfriedhof (2014); Tod in der (Death in the) Hofburg (2015).

The last one mentioned happens to be the first one that I read; I picked it up last April at a bookstore in the Vienna Central Station so that I would have something to read during the four-hour train ride to Prague. By this time Sarah and David are committed lovers (though there is still no mention of marriage), and Chris, instead of bringing a different girl home every night, is in a more-or-less steady relationship with Sarah’s best friend Gabi, a secretary at the paper.

It’s in the preceding one that we learn, from the point of view of one of the criminals (who means to possess her before killing her), that Sarah is quite a desirable woman, with a lovely face framed by dark hair and her usual outfit of jeans and T-shirt covering a slim, shapely body. For she is quite unassuming, using a minimum of makeup and detesting high heels, and during the first stages of her infatuation with David she is unsure of her attractiveness.

I am currently waiting for the following volume, Mord (Murder) in Schönbrunn (2016). The latest one, Die Prater-Morde, has just come out, and I am looking forward to it as well. For I have become addicted to the doings of Sarah Pauli and her companions — not to mention the variegated local color of Vienna — as I am to those of Peter Robinson’s Alan Banks and his Yorkshire, and Michael Connelly’s Harry Bosch and his Los Angeles.

Unfortunately — not for me but for others — the books are available only in the original German (in a Viennese variant). As I have been reading them I have found myself half-consciously translating them into English in my head. I have even flirted with the idea of writing Frau Maxian with a proposal to actually do so. I have done a bit of translating in my life, but I don’t think I have the time or stamina to do any more of it. But to any German-readers out there who don’t yet know her work: Gutes Lesen!



June 3, 2017

I never got around to seeing the movie Elle when it was released last year. Though I have long been a big fan of Isabelle Huppert, and usually try to see everything she is in, for some reason I missed Elle. It isn’t the first time I missed seeing a movie I had meant to see. But then I have usually made up for it by seeing it in a revival or on video, sooner or later.

But something made me want to see it sooner rather than later. It so happened that on some recent flights on Air France I got to see a couple of movies with an actress named Virginie Efira, hitherto unknown to me, and I was quite impressed by how skillfully she managed to move between the serious and comical aspects of her characters, unhampered by her spectacular looks. When I found out that she had a supporting role in Elle, I became eager to see it soon.

It turned that I was not the only one. The Contra Costa County Library has 15 copies of the DVD, and not only are they all checked out, but I placed a hold a month ago and I am still in 54th position in the queue.

While waiting, I checked out (from another library) the novel that the film is based on, Oh… by Philippe Djian, about whom I have written before. (Hence the title of this post.) I was, of course, curious about  the character named Rebecca, played by the new object of my fandom.

To my surprise, Rebecca makes only the briefest of appearances, and is described by the narrator-protagonist as an mousy (by implication) little redhead. Well, Virginie Efira is a spectacular-looking (as I said) tall blonde. (In the films that I saw she did not display her assets as prodigiously as she does in her publicity shots, except in one comic turn in Victoria.) The screenwriter must, then, have expanded the part to accommodate Virginie Efira’s commanding presence.

I am getting curiouser and curiouser.


Dreamtown Berkeley

March 30, 2017

The Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) station in downtown Berkeley is called — get ready for it — Downtown Berkeley. Until the mid-1990s, however, it was called just Berkeley, and this is still what the signs on the platform say. Not that it matters very much, since the signs can hardly be seen from the train anyway, and passengers must depend for orientation on the (not always very clear) announcements by the drivers. These give sometimes the old, sometimes the new name of the station.

But it is not BART that I mean to write about. It’s my dreams.

My dreams often involve travel, or some other kind of displacement, but the locales and means of travel are invariably surreal — they may involve train or car travel that begins in America and ends in Europe, or air travel between Berkeley and San Francisco. And the “Berkeley” of my dreams is nothing at all like the real Berkeley, any more than my “New York” or “Barcelona” is like its actual self. In my dreams I frequently experience enormous difficulties in getting to the airport and end up missing flights (usually just before waking up). I also often forget where I parked my car (something that happens in real life too).

My dreamtown Berkeley — where I still live in my dreams, despite having moved to El Cerrito nine years ago — is more like a European city, and rather than being part of a compact conurbation it is a separate place with streets leading into rural outskirts.

I was therefore intrigued, when I recently Isabel Allende’s latest novel, The Japanese Lover, by the focus of its action being a ficticious place called Lark House that is located on the outskirts of Berkeley (at least in the Spanish original, en las afueras de Berkeley — the reference is omitted in the English edition). Moreover, “[t]he property adjoined the bay”; in the real Berkeley there are no private properties adjoining the bay. And the Lark House neighborhood has its own square (plaza del barrio in the original) with a police station and a Starbucks.

Isabel Allende is known as one of the writers associated with the “magical realism” school. Perhaps my dreamtown Berkeley belongs there.

Incidentally, I have yet to read Allende’s El cuaderno de Maya (Maya’s Notebook), which, as I understand, also has Berkeley as one of its locales. Maybe I can find some more of my dreamtown there.




February 28, 2017

As soon as I entered the title I realized that it could be understood in several different ways, even if only relating to language. Without checking any dictionaries, I would posit that accent can mean one of the following:

1. Stress on a syllable.

2. A way of pronouncing a language, indicating (a) a regional variant or (b) the influence of a foreign language.

3. A diacritic mark on a vowel, which may indicate

(a) Syllabic stress, as in (i) Greek (in all words), (ii) Italian (on final syllable only), (iii) Spanish (only in words that don’t follow the default stress rule, (iv) Swedish (mainly in surnames)

(b) Vowel length, as in Czech and Slovak

(c) Vowel height (openness or closeness), as in French

(d) A combination of (a)(iii) and (c), as in Catalan and Portuguese

(e) Tone (as in Mandarin pinyin)

Here I mean to write only about 2(a), specifically with reference to the BBC series Line of Duty.

British writers of detective fiction often use fictitious locations, but when this happens they are usually within well-defined regions, such as Peter Robinson’s Eastvale (in Yorkshire), Ruth Rendell’s Kingsmarkham (in Sussex), or Caroline Graham’s Causton (in fictitious Midsomer, but within commuting distance of London). And in the television adaptations of these novels the characters – if they are local – speak with the appropriate regional accents, just as they do in series where the locations are real. It’s different, of course, when the location is London, because one expects to find people from all over the UK ending up there; practically every London-based show has its token Scot.

Line of Duty is anomalous. It takes place in a nameless big city that is clearly not London: no London landmarks are ever shown, and one of the characters is a Deputy Chief Constable, a rank that doesn’t exist in the Met. The first series (“season” in US parlance) was filmed in Birmingham, and though the subsequent ones were filmed in Belfast, there are some hints that the city is something like Birmingham (though no actual Birmingham locations are ever shown). For one thing, according to Wikipedia, “maps of Birmingham appear on walls, and telephone numbers use an 0121 area code.” For another, there are references to “East Midlands Police” as being a neighboring police area (in reality the East Midlands cover six counties with six police areas, though not exactly one per county), while Birmingham is in the West Midlands.

However, no one speaks with anything like a Birmingham accent (such as can be heard, for example, on WPC 56). Instead, it seems as if every actor speaks with their native accent: Adrian Dunbar (Hastings) — Northern Irish, Mark Bonnar (Dryden) and Allison McKenzie (Akers) —  Scottish, Vicky McClure (Fleming) — Nottinghamshire (which sounds quite a bit like Northern to a non-expert like me), Lennie James (Gates) – London, and so on. Most of the others speak with what to me sounds like a kind of neutral RP-like accents, including, strangely enough, Martin Compston (Arnott), who is a Scot and has spoken like one in other television appearances (for example in an episode of Death in Paradise). I don’t know why.

I have never been in Birmingham, so I don’t know if such a variety of accents is heard there in reality, but I have my doubts. It ain’t London.

Science fiction

January 9, 2017

Being a scientist, I have long been bothered by the use of “science fiction” to denote, in literature and film, improbable fantasies with no connection to science. If detective fiction (I dislike the term “mystery”) is about detective work, spy fiction is about espionage, historical fiction is about historical characters, why shouldn’t science fiction be about science — scientists and their work?

I have just finished reading a novel that’s a perfect example of what I mean, Ann Patchett’s State of Wonder (about which I posted a bit of ling-crit the other day). Most of the principal characters are scientists, and their work — in this case pharmacology and ethnobotany — is at the heart of the action. It’s fiction, of course — the drug that serves as the story’s MacGuffin is fictitious, as is the tribe in whose habitat it’s found — but it’s all plausible, with a fair amount of biomedical detail. While Ann Patchett did not study biology at university (as did, say, Diana Gabaldon and Barbara Kingsolver), she is married to a physician, a fact that I’m sure helped with the details.

If I come across another example of science fiction as I have redefined it here, I’ll write about it.

Patchett’s patchy Portuguese

January 6, 2017

It’s only in the last few years that I have expanded my reading of contemporary fiction beyond detective novels (and the occasional New Yorker  short story), thanks to a wonderful institution a few blocks from my house: the El Cerrito Recycling + Environmental Resource Center, and specifically its Exchange Zone, where thousands of used books can be found free for the taking. It was there that I discovered Barbara Kingsolver, Nick Hornby, Jonathan Franzen and their ilk — writers whose names I had heard of or read about, but not actually delved into. My latest such discovery is Ann Patchett, whose State of Wonder (2011) I am currently reading.

Despite the lovely writing – in free indirect style, entirely representing the protagonist, Marina Singh – I did not become absorbed in the book until Marina got to Manaus, in the Amazon region of Brazil. But then I was gripped by the vivid descriptions of the city’s air – beginning with “the musty wind of the tropical air-conditioning” at the airport —  and people.

And those of the people who are local and speak with one another do so in Portuguese. That’s where things get patchy, and I have to don my ling-crit mantle. The first sentence is, Negócio é negócio,.”  “business is business.” The second is, “Dr. Singh conhece o Dr. Swenson,” “Dr. Singh knows Dr. Swenson.”

I have long believed that writers should not use abbreviations, symbols or numerals in dialogue, only words as they are spoken. Initialisms or acronyms are okay,  if they are said as such, but the author needs to make it clear how they are said. I can make allowances for “Mr.” and “Mrs.”, because there is really only one way of saying them, but “Dr.” is read differently in different languages; in Portuguese it happns to be doutor.

But doutor, or o doutor with the definite article required when “doctor” is used as a title, is strictly masculine. And both Dr. Singh (the aforementioned Marina) and Dr. Swenson are women, so that of course they would be (a) doutora, or, if abbreviated, (a) Dra.

What seems to have happened is that Patchett used some kind of translation resource (electronic, written or personal) to translate “Dr. Singh knows Dr. Swenson” while neglecting to specify gender.

The rest of the Portuguese dialogue I have read so far seems similarly patched together.

Another linguistic weakness is one that Patchett seems to share with the late Ruth Rendell (I discussed it here) is the apparent belief that Indians necessarily speak Hindi. Marina, whose father is Indian, is reported to have, as a child, visited him in Calcutta, where she found herself swallowed up by a Hindi-speaking crowd. Hindi is in fact spoken in West Bengal — by about 7% of the population — but it’s hard to imagine a crowd in Calcutta speaking anything but Bengali.


December 25, 2016

About a decade ago I went on a binge of novel-writing, completing six books between 2005 and 2011. I did it for the sheer joy of challenging my creative imagination and experimenting with genres, and did not make any serious attempt at getting them published in the conventional way, since I didn’t relish the idea of having to deal with agents and editors. And so, when Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing became available, I jumped on it, especially enjoying the freedom that this platform gives me to revise my work at will. I have not done any promotion, and my sales have been less than modest, but, in all honesty, I didn’t do it for the money.

Of my six novels, three are free-standing. One is a historical novel about Manuel Godoy, inspired in part by the memoirs of the 19th-century Spanish writer Mesonero Romanos, Memrorias de un setentón (Memoirs of a his seventies), since I began writing the book as I was about to enter my seventies. The other two are more contemporary but also historical in the sense that they are set at a definite period in time, one in mid-eighties Hollywood and the other  (the only one written in the first person) in mid-twenty-oughts San Francisco.

The remaining three form a trilogy, with all the titles being single nouns ending in -ion, but they are quite different in form and style. The first tells a story of a man of my age whom I named Miki Wilner, like me a Polish Jew who was liberated at Bergen-Belsen, but otherwise having no resemblance to me; it is told, in alternating sections, over a twenty-day period in August of 1970 and a twenty-year period from 1950 to 1970 (a format I stole from the novel Blue by my friend Rosa Regàs). The other two are about his son and his daughter respectively. The latter is, essentially, a Bronx murder mystery, with a couple of NYPD detectives working with Betty Wilner. The former is a bildungsroman with a twist.

The twist is that Daniel Wilner, Miki’s Montreal-born son, goes on a quest to learn as much as he can about his father (who died when Daniel was two), and in the process finds out that his father was not who he had thought he was.

The coincidence alluded to in the title is that I recently saw two movies in which the protagonists undertake a search to find their fathers, and in each case learn that the father is not who they had thought. One was Incendies (2011), by the well-known Denis Villeneuve, who has lately become a big-time Hollywood director. The other was L’Origine des espèces (2016), by the first-timer Dominic Goyer. And both films are about French Canadians based in Montreal!

Of course, I saw both of them on an Air Canada flight to Montreal. But still…