About Victoria

Born in Detroit. Lived in Ohio, Pennsylvania, D.C., and Princeton, New Jersey. Degrees in Journalism (U. of Michigan) and Public Health (U. of Pittsburgh). Alumna of U. of Michigan and U. of Pittsburgh. Favorite authors: Neal Stephenson, Frederick Forsyth, Alan Furst, Charles Dickens--they all know how to tell a good story! Best book read so far in 2012: Hilary Mantel's Bring up the Bodies. Favorite TV: The Wire; Treme.

The Measure of Time

By Gianrico Carofiglio, translated by Howard Curtis — Guido Guerrieri is a lawyer of middle years who practices in Bari, on Italy’s Adriatic coast. In this, Gianrico Carofiglio’s sixth legal drama featuring Guerrieri, a woman named Lorenza Delle Foglie asks him to appeal her son’s conviction on a first-degree murder charge.

Decades before, when Guerrieri was in his twenties and still in training, he had a love affair with Lorenza. She was older than he and at the time of their relationship, the center of his life. Not hers, though.

She was mysterious and vague, and what she did between their meetings was an unknown he never dared probe. The sex was great, but more lastingly, she introduced him to literature and philosophy—heady discussions for a young man. Then, for no particular reason he ever learned, she dropped him.

Now her son, Iacopo, a small-time criminal, has been convicted of murdering a drug dealer. When Guerrieri and his team review the case evidence and trial transcript, they feel pretty confident the son is guilty, but it’s also true a weak defense was mounted on his behalf.

Guerrieri hopes he and his investigators can make the most of a few poorly examined leads. Then he may convince the judges and jury that the prosecution’s version of events is not the only reasonable one. Doubt will be their friend.

Chapters about the investigation, which no one on the team seems to have much enthusiasm for, alternate with chapters in which Guerrieri reflects on his and Lorenza’s long-ago relationship. His team might have engaged more had he made them aware of their past, but he doesn’t. While his recollections about Lorenza show how some of his attitudes have evolved over nearly thirty years, I found those sections of the book slow-going. Lorenza herself came across as bloodless and intellectually pretentious. Guerrieri sees her more clearly now, of course.

When the case finally comes to court, the proceedings are rather staid. The judge is even-handed, and the shrill female prosecutor appears not a bit worried that the original verdict will be upended. As a result, there’s a lack of narrative energy to this aspect of the story, though Guerrieri nicely demonstrates important points about establishing doubt. If I’d been on that jury the prosecutor certainly would have failed to convince me that hers was the only possible interpretation of a sketchy set of facts.

Carofiglio’s works are extremely popular in Italy. Fans of his work, especially, may appreciate the opportunity to observe the inner-workings of a talented investigative mind. Once again, Howard Curtis translated, and he does so seamlessly. You’re not aware, really, that it even is a translation. Nice work.

A Plague of Plurals

Belfast, Writer's Square

English with all its aberrations in spelling and pronunciation is fairly simple when it comes to forming plurals (with innumerable exceptions, of course). For most nouns, you can feel pretty safe just adding -s or -es and be done with it. My daughter arrived at that conclusion by age three, and, one day when she was getting dressed asked for her “clo.” Once you’ve tacked on that “s,” you switch to a plural verb. Easy, right?

Orrin Hargraves in his current Language Lounge column for Visual Thesaurus points out two classes of exceptions. One is the group of words that in earlier English ended in -ik (physik, magike) or the French -ique. In modern English these words generally end in –ic or –ics. Having that “s” doesn’t automatically call for a plural verb, though (“Physics is beyond me”). And sometimes, it depends. He gives the example of “optics.” If you’re talking about the field of study, it’s acts like the word physics and takes a singular verb: “Optics explores light and vision.” But if you’re talking about any number of events in our recent political history, it calls for a plural verb: “The optics were bad.” The ethics too, sometimes.

A second strangely interesting group of nouns that are plural (that is, end in “s”) whose verbs are tricky have to do with disease and illness. (Why? Is this a philosophical question?) Measles, mumps, the bends, rickets, smallpox (plural of pock), yaws are among Hargraves’s examples. An attack of any of these conditions usually has multiple effects (not just one measly measle), yet they take a singular verb. The whole things is simpler if you refer to “a case of measles/smallpox/the bends,” with “case” taking a singular verb, unequivocally.

But singular verb isn’t a universal solution here. He takes up conditions in which the noun is plural (hiccups, shakes, sneezes) and takes a plural verb too—no “My hiccups is embarrassing.”

In reading, I frequently run across passages where the author/editor allowed themselves to be distracted by a prepositional phrase, in sentences such as “The group of teenagers are celebrating.” Clearly the subject is “group,” a collective noun, not “teenagers,” and in American English, collective nouns are singular and usually take singular verbs. However, British and American English differ on this question. Other collectives are class, family, jury, staff, and team. I never have become comfortable with “the staff is,” and don’t trust myself to get it right, so usually amend the phrase to “the staff members are.” That workaround also helps with “members of the press,” “family members,” and in other situations.

The word “number” presents its own challenges. It’s correct to say, “A number of us are . . .” but “The number of victims is . . .” The former example refers to an undefined, possibly malleable number of people; the latter refers to a specific integer, even if the precise number is unknown.

Well, I’m happy to have cleared that up.

Photo: Writer’s Square, Belfast. Copyright, Albert Bridge; creative commons license

Murder on the Island

By Daisy White – If you like to be in on the very beginning of a new cozy mystery series, you should know that Murder on the Island is billed as the first book in the Chloe Canton Mystery Series. At Chloe’s 50th birthday dinner, her husband of some years announced he was leaving her. Impeccable timing.

Soon thereafter, she learned her grandmother had died and left her the house and horse stables she owned in Bermuda. The timing of that is pretty spot-on, too, as Chloe definitely needed a fresh start. The story begins on the airplane ride taking her from the UK to her new life.

Thirty-some years earlier, Chloe spent time in Bermuda with her grandmother and the beautiful island is still somewhat familiar. But still, it holds surprises. Not all of them pleasant. On an early-morning trail ride, she discovers a dead body on her property. The victim turns out to be an up-and-coming artist showing at a gallery in town. Chloe is a bit of a busybody—ok, more than a bit—and, as the investigation seemingly bogs down, starts asking questions herself. Always a risky proposition.

Is her curiosity the reason for her escalating troubles? There’s a break-in at her home, rampant rumors her business is going under, and the horsenapping of a palomino scheduled for a high-profile photo shoot. Or, are other stable owners on the island concerned she’ll be too successful? Or, does someone want her to leave Bermuda altogether? Author White has an easy writing style that keeps the story pinballing among these possibilities with alacrity.

Helping Chloe sort out her increasingly fraught situation, as well as trying to assure that she stays safe are her jovial neighbor, her conscientious stable manager, and a detective from the local police—her age, handsome, and widowed. Romance is definitely on the turquoise horizon.

Chloe takes oddly unnecessary risks, as heroines in the cozy genre do, and you may be puzzled as to why she’s thinking whatever she’s thinking at a particular moment. And, while you may not be surprised at the whodunnit solution, getting there is definitely a pleasant ride. One of the strongest features of the book is author White’s depiction of Bermuda. She became acquainted with the island in real life while working as a flight attendant, and her descriptions are so lush and vivid, this book is like a vacation between covers.

Order here from Amazon or support independent bookstores by ordering here from IndieBound.

Jewels That Made History

American Ancestors recently featured an entertaining session with author Stellene Volandes, editor-in-chief of Town and Country magazine and author of Jewels That Made History: 101 Stones, Myths, and Legends. As jewelry is considered one of the decorative arts, it often hasn’t been taken seriously. Volandes likes to look below the surface to uncover what the piece was designed to convey. Immediately, you think of Madeleine Albright and her carefully curated collection of pins!

Now I look more closely at Queen Elizabeth II, too. Her predecessor, Elizabeth I, used her jewels to express her power. That association was the reason the Justinian code said only the emperor could wear pearls, sapphires, and emeralds. Charles I was beheaded wearing his pearl earring, a symbol of his power & status. With the development of the cultured pearl industry, which accounts for virtually all pearls sold today, they are less rare and, therefore, less precious.

Volandes credited Queen Victoria with creative use of her impressive supply of jewelry, pointing to her use of a coronet (small crown) as a holder for her hair arrangement, as shown in an 1840 painting by Franz Xaver Winterhalter.

Not just royalty has made a statement with their jewelry choices. Volander said the development of Art Nouveau, which influenced all the decorative arts, can be linked to the opening up of Japan, which inspired a whole new aesthetic tradition. Receptivity to Eastern influences was, in turn, a reaction against the Industrial Revolution.

When the French wanted to erase the legacy of their aristocracy, the leaders planned to sell the crown jewels. Charles Lewis Tiffany, founder of New York’s Tiffany & Co., palace of breakfasts, bought many of them in the 1800s. He knew his clientele was hungry for items with a royal provenance, and the act brought him the sobriquet “King of Diamonds.”

One of Tiffany’s best-known gems today is the 128 carat yellow diamond that Lady Gaga wore at the 2019 Academy Awards. She was only the third person to wear it. Tiffany paid $18,000 for it (uncut) in 1877. Now, it’s “basically priceless.”

Read my Pins: Stories from a Diplomat’s Jewel Box, by Madeleine Albright, 2009. Order here from Amazon or shop your local indie bookstore

Jewels That Made History: 101 Stones, Myths, and Legends, by Stellene Volandes, 2020. Order here from Amazon or shop your local indie bookstore

I Love Streaming!! Recent Finds

News of the World is a 2020 movie starring the ever-genial Tom Hanks and 12-year-old Helena Zengel, directed by Paul Greengrass and written by Greengrass and Luke Davis (trailer).

The Civil War is over, and former Confederate Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd is traveling between the ramshackle towns of north central Texas entertaining the (mostly illiterate) residents with his readings from newspapers. It is, literally, the news of the world he brings to their muddy doorsteps.

Traveling between gigs, he encounters a busted wagon, a hanged man, and someone running through the trees. It’s an eight-year-old (approx.) girl, kidnapped by the Kiowa years before from a German-speaking settlement in the Texas Hill Country. She speaks only Kiowa. With little exposure to white culture, she longs to return to the Indians, while he’s determined to return her to her family against her will, and her will is formidable.

Together, they encounter a number of fairly predictable lowlifes and have some nevertheless tension-filled adventures. The depiction of immediate post-war Texas was of particular interest, as much of my family moved there from Central Tennessee and other places in the South. The rougher elements are not folks you’d want to tangle with!

Rotten Tomatoes critics’ rating: 88%; audiences: 89%.

Les Parfums (Perfumes) is a 2019 French romantic comedy (subtitles) we watched through our local independent movie house’s website (trailer). Written and directed by Grégory Magne, it stars Emmanuelle Davos and Gregory Montel, who played Gabriel in the wickedly funny tv series, Call My Agent.

She’s a “nose”—someone who’s cultivated her sense of smell to the point that she’s created perfumes and developed scentscapes for boutiques. It’s a job that requires high sensitivity, and she’s afraid of losing it. Meanwhile, she’s very much the diva. Montel plays her much put-upon chauffeur, desperate to hang onto his job so he can gain partial custody of his daughter.

Unlike so many American shows, she’s a person with a real job and an interesting one, and you see her doing it. Montel is his bumbling self, who brings unexpected skills to the task of accommodating her.

Rotten Tomatoes critics’ rating: 100%; no audience rating.

Page to Stage: The Table Read

Washington DC’s Theatre J has a new Zoom course on the play rehearsal process, led by the theater’s artistic director Adam Immerwahr (pictured). If you, like me, have wondered how a creative team goes from black type on white paper to vibrant, full-color theater—full of action, song, and emotion—in just three to four weeks, this class is a brilliant idea. Helping Immerwahr are popular husband-wife actors Cody Nickell and Kate Eastwood Norris.

The class began with a session on the table read, when the director and all the actors get together to go through the script—“the first time the words are shared,” as Norris described it. If you were cast in a play, at the table read you might find you know some of the actors well, and some—say, the person playing your mother, or your lover—may be complete strangers. At the table read, you also may have a chance to see mockups of the set and the costumer’s ideas, a sort of tangible creation of a new reality.

The table read also suggests how the other actors work, their process. A few may come to the table with all their lines learned, “off book,” as they say; others will still rely on the printed text. Norris said she may have ideas about how a character should present herself, but since each character should be shaped by what the other actors do, she tries “to be respectful of other people’s choices” or, as Nickell said,  “to stay as open as possible to the room.”

In this course, the play we’re walking through is Neil Simon’s 1969 comedy, Last of the Red Hot Lovers. If you’ve seen this play (or movie), you’ll recall it involves a nebbishy middle-aged husband who decides to spice up his life with an affair. Trying out his powers of seduction with three different women (in three acts) proves disastrous in each case.

Immerwahr’s pre-rehearsal pep talk gently guided the actors toward his ultimate vision. If you remember this play, you won’t be surprised that Immerwahr admitted up front that the play has challenges. Not only is there some racist language in act two, but it’s misogynistic and might have trouble being appreciated by “Me, too” audiences.

Immerwahr’s strategy for lessening the negative stereotypes of the women characters—the sexpot, the crazy lady, the moralist—is to have one actor play all three. This not only suggests different sides of the same person, but opens the possibility there are many others. In other words, “women have many sides; we’re showing you three.” Like a sphere, a well-rounded person may have an infinite number of “sides.”

He further held open the possibility that at the end of this fictional production, in the scene with the man’s wife, she too be might played by the same actress, as if “he was looking for his wife all along.”

Finessing the racism also will be tricky, and Immerwahr advises staying in the era of the play, avoiding intonations and mannerisms of 2021. Evoking the world of fifty years ago “will be our friend.”

A Galway Epiphany

By Ken Bruen, narrated by Gerry O’Brien–A Galway Epiphany is the latest in award-winning Irish author Ken Bruen’s long-running series involving former (and disgraced) Garda detective Jack Taylor. He’s now a private investigator with a haphazard career since being thrown off the force for excessive drinking and associated poor judgment. At last he’s found some solace, a result of long stays at the farm of his friend, Keefer, once a roadie for the Rolling Stones, and their falcon, Maeve.

Bruen begins with musings on the seven epiphanies identified by a mid-eighteenth century monk who called them ‘blends of blessed curses and cursed blessings.’ Such a pregnant statement was sure to cast its spell over the ensuing story, and indeed it does.

A pair of children from a Galway refugee encampment is seen near Galway’s Irish Famine Memorial. They light a candle, and the girl whispers, “Here’s a trick I learned in Guatemala.” She causes a blue light to shimmer over their heads, and that’s all the public needs to start a frenzy of religious fervor.

Soon thereafter, Jack is in town on business and is hit by a truck. A big one. He’s in a coma for some weeks, but, inexplicably, otherwise unscathed. The children from the blue light were seen bending over him, and his lack of injuries is interpreted as their first miracle.

Various characters wander into the story to complicate Jack’s life. They include: his long-time acquaintance, Father Malachy, vainly hoping for a bishopric. Failing that, and suffering a debilitating illness, he wants Jack to kill him. There’s a spiffily dressed oddball whose calling card is a long matchstick; a California woman starting her own religious sisterhood, a scam for certain. They all want to get their hands on the miracle children. And they want Jack’s help. But are the children innocents or exploiters themselves?

Jack is irreligious in the best of times—hostile would be pretty much on the mark—and is disgusted by the machinations of the miracle-seekers and quashers alike. He just wants to go back to the farm. His drinking is out of control, and he’s not as much help to anyone as he really needs to be.

Bruen is a master of the apt witticism and nicely placed literary quote. Because the story is told by Jack in first person, his prejudices and cynicism and erudition have full rein. Despite the abundant humor, a pall hangs over the tale, like the smoke from one of the match-toting arsonist’s fires, and you may sense events will end badly.

This impression is aided by the sadly ironic reading by superb audiobook narrator Gerry O’Brien, who wrings every drop of Jamieson-soaked humor and regret out of Jack’s thoughts. An audiobook with a skilled narrator is a thing of joy, and O’Brien makes you believe for a few hours, that you too are in Galway, sitting on a barstool next to Jack, puzzling out the Fates.

Order here from Amazon.

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Tips for Screenwriters: Police Procedurals 101

ICYMI this “Shouts and Murmurs” satire by Paul Rudnick in the March 22 (I’m catching up) issue of The New Yorker had me laughing out loud.

Here are a couple of Rudnick’s surefire script ideas.” The main character should be a “troubled male detective whose marriage has crumbled because he works too hard and cares too much”; his ex-wife should be “glimpsed only through a screen door”; if the detective is female, she should have a ponytail (that way she can have long, sexy hair at dinner but keep it from blowing over her partner’s eyes and blinding him as they case the bad guys).

Oh, and be sure to write in a fresh-faced (and fresh-mouthed) tech person who can instantly find any details whatsoever on anyone. For example, Rudnick says, he can instantly tell the detective: “Your suspect dropped out of business school three weeks ago, he’s had contact with three known militia members, and he’s headed east on 168th Street in a stolen van.” Plate number?

Read the whole piece, you’ll get a good laugh. Here on Facebook, the author community airs frequent laments.“Enough with the ‘Girls’ book titles.” Or “Not another flawed police detective hunched over her whiskey!” Or “How many serial killers are there, really. Outside of books and movies, I mean..” We all have our favorite pet peeves in television scripts and topics, the too-tired tropes and cliched plot devices. What sets your teeth on edge?

Red Widow

By Alma Katsu – I really wanted to like this book more. Written by a former officer of both the US Central Intelligence Agency and National Security Agency, Red Widow plunges you right into the world of partial information, hidden agendas, latent violence, and self-interested double-dealing.

Lyndsey Duncan is a CIA officer whose romantic attachment to an agent of Britain’s MI6 has put her under a cloud. This, despite her remarkable success on her first overseas assignment. Detailed to the high-stakes Moscow Field Station, she recruited and ran an invaluable asset, Yaromir Popov, a high-ranking officer in the Russian Foreign Intelligence Service. Now she’s been sent back to CIA headquarters, unsure of her future there, while an investigation drags on.

On the promising side, the Chief of the Russia Division, Eric Newman, wants her help in investigating the disappearance of two Russian double-agents. The coincidence suggests Russian internal security was onto them. And that information on their identity came from within CIA.

In another shock, Eric tells Lyndsey that her prize, Yaromir Popov, has died of poisoning.

Since Lyndsey has been overseas for several years, many of the Division staff she knew have moved on. However, she recognizes one woman, Theresa Warner, whom she knew slightly in the old days. Theresa’s husband was killed while conducting a sketchy Russian operation, and her colleagues regard her simply as The Widow. These two quasi-outsiders, Lyndsey and Theresa, form a friendship.

The extreme compartmentalization of the Agency, particularly Lyndsey’s sensitive task, means not much job-related information can be exchanged, but author Katsu doesn’t give the women any other common interests—movies, tennis—that they could share. As a result, the basis for their relationship is thin and feels contrived.

Katsu does what I assume is a creditable job describing operational constraints and office operations within the CIA—who can talk to whom, when, and about what. The big reveal the women experience isn’t much of a surprise for readers of espionage fiction, nor is what they do with that knowledge.

Additional plot information risks being a spoiler. Suffice it to say that, even if Lyndsey and Theresa’s actions are a tad predictable, they remain interesting characters. The bigger problem is that the male characters didn’t come across as real, three-dimensional people.

Authors worry, maybe a little, sometimes a lot, that friends and family will think they recognize themselves among a novel’s characters. (They’re almost always wrong about this.) Perhaps Katsu was hampered in writing about a world she knows so well, precisely to avoid any such misconceptions.

Reading Red Widow, you come away with a strong impression of what it’s like to work in a clandestine service, the resources at your disposal, those withheld from you, and the cynicism of many of the participants. You won’t develop a strong affinity for many of the people involved, and perhaps that’s part of the game.

Order it from Amazon here or from Indiebound here.

It’s Shorts Season!

No, not the kind that guy’s wearing!

The short films nominated for Oscars are on view via various streaming outlets. We watched the five “live action” nominees over the weekend and while, year after year, all the films aren’t necessarily funny or uplifting, they’re almost always interesting.

Consciously or unconsciously, the creative teams behind this year’s nominees must have been immersed in the George Floyd aftermath, because four of the five deal with a character’s interaction with uniformed authorities–police, border guards, corrections officers, most of whom are frustratingly intransigent. The fifth nominee lacks cops, but deals with building understanding between people with totally different backgrounds.

“The Present” by Farah Nabulsi documents the struggle of Palestinians living under Israeli occupation, where even the simplest act leads to a morass of difficulties. Performances were good, but the story is predictable. (Tastes differ. IndieWire liked this one best.)

In “White Eye,” an Eritrean immigrant buys a used bicycle, which turns out to have been stolen. The bike’s owner wants it back. The police know only one way to react. Nice twist at the end.

“Feeling Through” involves a young, homeless black man who encounters a blind and deaf white man and helps him across the street. Produced by Oscar-winner Marlee Matlin, it’s a feel-good movie that shows the blossoming of an act of kindness.

“Two Distant Strangers” is an urban Groundhog Day with guns. A young black man repeatedly dreams about (foresees?) a dangerous confrontation with an older white cop. In any version of reality, can this ever turn out OK?

In “The Letter Room,” Oscar Isaac plays Richard, a surprisingly genial corrections officer who screens prisoner mail. (The film was written and directed by Isaac’s wife, Elvira Lind.) One of the death-row inmates receives numerous steamy letters from his girlfriend, and another begs Richard to make sure his daughter’s letters haven’t been lost in the system. Two nice reversals at the end.