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.

Egypt Adventure: Muslim Dress

Egypt, workmen, Temple of Dendera

What to wear? Inevitably, some American tourists did not get the message that conservative dress is preferred in Egypt—no shorts, no tank tops, no short skirts, no excessive display of skin. While this standard is pretty much adhered to in Cairo and, certainly, in mosques throughout the country (where you are expected to show the skin on your feet), near the monuments in the blazing desert sun, Bermuda-length shorts are more the rule, especially for men tourists. Many women wore capri pants. Jeans, which tend to be too form-fitting, were rare among women tourists. (I should add that most visitors, on our tour and others, were “of a certain age.”)

Although I wouldn’t have expected it, my shirts with three-quarter, loose-fitting sleeves were just as comfortable as short sleeves, because they protected my arms from the sun. I got a last wearing out of my somewhat battered hat from Hawai`i with the wide brim. Women tourists were never expected to cover our hair, although most of us had scarves or shawls that could have served that purpose.

But what about the Egyptians? In Cairo, the men generally wear Western dress. The women wear long sleeves, long pants or skirts, and cover their hair with the hijab, usually a colorful one. Occasionally you see a Cairo woman wearing the enveloping abaya (almost always in black; it looks suffocating) and wears the veil. The farther south you travel, the more women are so attired. Wearing the faceveil (the niqab) is seen by many as a political act in support of Islamism, not a religious duty, and the country’s leadership has tried to discourage it.

In the south, many men wear the long garment called the gellabiya. Most often, as I remember it, the gellabiya is gray, as it is in the photo of workmen at a construction site outside the Temple of Dendera. As every woman knows, a skirt is often cooler than slacks, because its movement creates a little breeze—automatic air conditioning. Many southern men wear a small turban. These keep the sun from beating down directly on their heads and are common among farmers in their fields.

Our tour guide told us that in much of the 20th century, Egyptian women did not cover their hair. But in the 1970s, when satellite television came to Egypt, there were many broadcasts by imams of Saudi Arabia’s conservative Wahhabi sect, who claimed that to be a “good Muslim” and go to heaven, women should cover. Eventually, our guide said, the authorities stopped these broadcasts, but the seed was sown. With about a third of Egypt’s population being Coptic Christian, you wouldn’t expect that headscarf-wearing would appear so near-universal.

Photo: Vicki Weisfeld

Spies X 3

spy, espionage, reading

****Spy’s Fate

Overhearing someone talking about you can be both unsettling and revealing. Arnaldo Correa’s novel, full of observations about the US and its spycraft, from the point of view of a Cuban intelligence operative, is another such revelation. While there’s plenty of ineptitude and bureaucratic blindness on one side or the other, the main character, Carlos Manuel, is an expert at exposing and outwitting it. For a book about a Cuban spy stranded in Miami with a vindictive CIA agent on his trail, there’s quite a bit of humor and a heartwarming romance too. I really enjoyed this book. First published in 2002, it was Correa’s first novel translated into English. Available here from Amazon.

***Spies

This Fiction River special edition, edited by Kristine Kathryn Rusch, includes 15 short spy stories by a range of authors. If you think the short story form doesn’t provide enough space to explore the long con of espionage, these tales may change your mind. Rusch says that what links them, besides their topic, is “their willingness to look at the world in all its messiness,” without flinching from the corrosive effects of secrets on everyone involved. My favorites included two historicals—the clever and very British “Our Man in Basingstoke” by Sabrina Chase, set during World War II, and “The Message” by CA Rowland, set during the Civil War—and Ron Collins’s “The Spy Who Walked into the Cold,” set in racially divided Chicago a few decades back. Get it here.

****From the Shadows

Spies needn’t be government agents or involved with great sociopolitical questions. Spanish author Juan José Millás’s novel (translated by Thomas Bunstead and Daniel Hahn) barely escapes the bedroom. Damián Lobo, a youngish man down on his luck and out of work, entertains himself by carrying on pretend conversations with a famous talk show host. This fantasy so preoccupies him that, in a rash moment, he steals a tie pin he believes the tv star would like. The police chase him through an outdoor market and he ducks inside an old wardrobe on display. Before it seems safe to emerge, the wardrobe is trundled away, loaded onto a truck, and delivered to its new owners’ bedroom, with Lobo still inside. As it turns out, there’s never a good moment to climb out, and through an elaborate ruse, Lobo makes his home there, listening in on all the family’s intimate secrets. An amusing tale that Kirkus Reviews calls “spectacularly bizarre.” Millás has won numerous literary prizes; this short novel is his first published in North America. Loved it! Available from Amazon.

Photo: David Lytle, creative commons license

****City of Windows

snow city blizzard

By Robert Pobi – In a CrimeFictionLovers interview with Robert Pobi about his 2012 debut novel Bloodman, he revealed he’d wanted to write an old-fashioned character-driven story. He’s done it again with his new police procedural, City of Windows.

Ten years before the start of this book, Dr. Lucas Page, astrophysicist, left his FBI career on uneasy terms after an accident with explosives nearly killed him. He now has a prosthetic arm, a prosthetic leg, and one ceramic eye that doesn’t quite track with the other. Page’s challenges in dealing with the bionic parts of his body greatly increase the depth of his character.

Now Page teaches at Columbia University in Manhattan. He thinks his students are generally lackluster, but then he has a jaded view of most things. Except his family. His wife Erin is a pediatrician. They have five kids and a happy dog—a ragtag collection of children “whose biological parents had failed them and the system had given up on.” The family interactions provide a nice balance to the story’s crime elements, though the kids are possibly too cooperative.

As the university’s semester closes out for the Christmas holiday, a huge blizzard is under way. Many blocks south in midtown Manhattan, a bizarre shooting has occurred, and the news reports show Page’s old FBI colleagues working the case. The victim was in a moving vehicle, shot from a high angle from a considerable distance. Identifying the sniper’s nest will be difficult.

Because Page has an uncanny ability to plot bullet trajectories and lines of sight, that evening’s visit from his former FBI supervisor, though unwelcome, is not unexpected. The Bureau is involved because the dead man was one of their own, Page’s former partner. Page’s uncanny ability, though rusty, still works—automatic, instinctive, and unexplainable. He identifies a building almost eight football fields away from the point of impact.

Old jealousies arise, family needs pull at him, his former supervisor is as opaque as ever, there’s political pressure to pin the shooting on a Muslim extremist, without any evidence, and Page is not on a track that will make him friends, but when a second law enforcement officer is assassinated a mere thirteen hours later, any hope evaporates that the first agent’s death was a fluke. In his heart of hearts, Page loves this work.

The second victim was shot on the semi-crowded tram that operates between Roosevelt Island and Manhattan, moving at almost eighteen miles an hour, through the continuing snowstorm, from a distance of almost a half-mile. Another impossible shot. And again, Page pinpoints the shooter’s position. When yet a third law enforcement officer is killed, it’s clear the killer is after specific individuals, but they seem unrelated and even are from different law enforcement agencies. Figuring out what they have in common calls on Page’s insightful investigatory skills, aided by three of those maligned college students.

As the bodies pile up, it appears that Page and his family are the assassin’s ultimate targets. This is the book’s weakest point, as it seems manufactured so the plot can culminate in a showdown between Page and the killer. While the rationale for the earlier murders follows a kind of twisted logic, the targeting of Page and his family does not. That problem aside, the story provides plenty of thrills along the way, and I hope Pobi writes more about Lucas Page.

Photo: from Pixabay

Egypt Adventure: Security

Close quarters in the temple at Sakkara
Close quarters in the temple at Sakkara

The first question almost everyone asked when they learned I was traveling to Egypt had to do with safety. So let me tell you what has been done to protect tourists—vitally important to the country, as tourism is a multibillion-dollar source of revenue and a huge employer. Tourism is on the rise again in Egypt, and our guide estimated it’s reached about 80 percent of pre-2011 levels. It’s an odd balancing act, really, with concerns about safety on one hand and wanting to see these popular monuments sans crowds on the other.

Friends who visited Egypt shortly after the Arab spring had the Valley of the Kings almost to themselves. By contrast, we visited it on the same 95-degree day as the vice-premiere of China and his many perspiring, black-suited minions, big video cameras, and hangers-on. That was a special case, but you could see how a crowd affects the experience.

There is a big police presence in Egypt, and wherever you drive, as you enter a new jurisdiction, there are knots of police, road barriers that must be negotiated—drivers cannot just barrel through—and elevated sentry posts, most of which have six or eight inches of a rifle barrel sticking out of them. If the young man inside sees you driving by in your bus, he smiles and waves.

As I understand it, whenever 10 or more tourists travel anywhere, they must be accompanied by the Tourist Police, and several times our three buses had to await the arrival of our police escort. Usually that escort consists of a police car in front or behind. In one rural area, the accompanying officer was so energized by this assignment that he gave us lights and sirens—charming and embarrassing in equal measure. Traveling to some sites, our security detail also involved a plainclothes policeman (always a man) traveling with us inside each bus. Yes, they were armed. Once when I lagged behind the group to take a picture, I noticed one of our accompanying officers discreetly hanging back to make sure I got back with the group. The tour company also had staff keeping track of us, especially in crowds, watching out for turned ankles, falls, over-insistent hawkers, and the like. Probably the right word here is teamwork.

On the boat there were police, but they were invisible to us, and a guy whom we’d occasionally see coming in from deck patrol carrying an AK-47. Our itinerary did not include the Red Sea or the Sinai Peninsula, where security is likely much tighter, as that’s where most of the trouble has occurred.

All this is separate from the well-armed security personnel working at the monuments themselves and not specifically for our tour. When we were at the pyramids, I even saw a policeman on a camel!

The Semiramis Hotel in Cairo has two public entrances, each guarded by a clutch of uniformed police and a sniffer dog that walks around every car, even checking the trunk. It’s next door to the British Embassy and adjacent to the US Embassy, and security around those blocks is extreme—piles of big, ugly concrete block the streets, police everywhere. The US embassy is capped by something that looks like a rural water tower—stuffed with listening gear, I suppose—and has asked the hotel to confiscate guests’ binoculars. Our guide advised us of this in advance and suggested simply, don’t bring them. They are returned on check-out.

Any well organized, reputable tour company and hotel probably provides these levels of security. Was it oppressive? Not at all. I viewed it as a preventive measure. I was never made uneasy by anything or anyone I encountered, even on a post-tour day-trip to Alexandria with only a guide and a driver. And, at the major sites we always had generous “free time” to wander where we wanted to, take pictures, soak in the atmosphere. Probably when we were on group outings our escorts kept an eye on us, but it wasn’t obvious. When we struck out on our own from the hotel or boat, we were unaccompanied (and the hawkers knew it!).

Photo: Vicki Weisfeld. I did not take pix of any of the security or police!

Go Like Hell! On Screen

The new movie, Ford v Ferrari, is based on the exciting 2010 book, Go Like Hell: Ford, Ferrari, and Their Battle for Speed and Glory at Le Mans, by AJ Baime. The movie, directed by James Mangold, stars Matt Damon, Christian Bale, and Tracy Letts (trailer). It opened while I was in Egypt and audiences love it! (98% audience score on Rotten Tomatoes). Critics too: 91%.

I’ve listened to the book twice over the years. If the movie is as good as the book, it’s a must-see. It is for me, no matter what. Here’s my review of the book, read by Jones Allen.

Go Like Hell is the story of classic duels of machine and driver in the French countryside.There’s just enough biography of Henry Ford II (the Deuce) and Enzo Ferrari to understand the motivations of these two rivals, willing to stake their fortunes, their companies’ futures, and (all too often) their drivers’ lives on this grueling competition.

The Deuce believed—correctly—that supremacy in the racing circuit would lead to sales of Ford cars. The components that had to be developed to survive the 24-hour race at Le Mans were testaments to product reliability as well as power, and many advances originally developed for racing vehicles—such as independent suspensions, high-performance tires, disc brakes, and push-button starters—have found their way into passenger cars.

For Enzo Ferrari, whose interest in consumer cars was always secondary to racing, the point was being the world’s best and proving it in the world’s most prestigious and dangerous sports car race, Le Mans.

If you’re at all familiar with auto racing’s “golden age,” the big names are all here: Carroll Shelby, AJ Foyt, Dan Gurney, Phil Hill, John Surtees, Ken Miles, Bruce McLaren, and an upstart kid from Nazareth, Pennsylvania, who took the pole position in the Indianapolis 500 the year I saw that race, Mario Andretti. To get an idea of the speeds they achieve, Baime notes that at top speed, they complete the 100-yard distance of a football field in one second.

This was a fast, fun read that shifts between Dearborn, Shelby’s racing car development team working for Ford in Southern California, and Ferrari’s workshop in Maranello, Italy. For a Detroit girl like me, whose grandfather, father, and many uncles worked for the Ford Motor Company, it was a thrill a minute! But even for people who don’t get goosebumps when they hear those Formula One engines roar, Baime’s cinematic recreation of the classic Le Mans races of 1965, 66, and 67, with all their frustrations, excitement, and tragedy is a spectacular true story.

Times have changed, and these past automotive battles have faded. But, hope is on the horizon. According to a 5/22/15 Jordan Golson story in Wired, new rules under consideration “could make Formula One exciting again.” Yea to that!

Egypt Adventure: The Nile

Nile River, river boat

In a much-anticipated 17-day trip, I finally went to Egypt this month. To see in person the legendary monuments and all the evidence of a 4000-year-old civilization was, of course, thrilling. The whole experience was enhanced by the skill of our Grand Circle tour guide, Gladys Haddad, who, despite her name, is Egyptian. The overwhelming friendliness of everyone we met was heartwarming.

As you probably know, but may not have thought about, Egypt is basically a desert. Almost all the country’s 100 million or so people live in the narrow strip of arable land along both sides of the Nile River. Egypt’s Western Desert, which extends to Libya, and its Eastern Desert, which extends to the Red Sea, flank this fertile Nile valley. We were well aware of this in Cairo, because of the tremendous amount of dust in the air and on anything not moving, like a parked car or building. Check your plate when you sit down to eat.

In some places, that fertile strip is miles wide, in others, mountains encroach. There’s a sharp line between where palms, crops, and other greenery will grow and where they will not. Here we have plants; here we don’t.

For millennia, the north-flowing Nile predictably and massively flooded every June, bringing a thick layer of silt to the valley and recharging the farmland soil. In the 1960s, the Aswan High Dam was built to control this flooding, which has enabled much enlargement of the area available for farming and building where it was impossible before. If you’ve seen old photos of the Nile with the pyramids in the background, those were taken during the flood season. In fact the river channel is many miles away.

In ancient times, several fingers of water flowed to the Mediterranean, but over the centuries, many of them were blocked off, and now only two form the Y of the delta at Alexandria.

I didn’t know or had forgotten that Sudan was originally part of Egypt and was not an independent country until 1956. A tricky political problem to watch is whether Sudan pursues a plan to build more dams on the southern reaches of the Nile, closer to its headwaters. Such an act would be catastrophic for Egypt, which has no groundwater and depends totally on the river.

Nile River, night, lights

In Cairo, our lovely Intercontinental Hotel Semiranis overlooked the river, and, surprisingly, in this generally conservative country, the party on the corniche 15 stories below seemed to go all night. That I did not expect. Neon bedecked motor cruisers, water taxis, and traditional feluccas are always out.

For a week on this trip, we were on the lovely MS Nefertiti, pictured below, cruising from Luxor south to Aswan with stops for the sights in between. 220 tourist boats (capacity 100-200) are licensed to use the river. About 80 percent of them were on the water this month, as Egypt’s tourism industry continues to recover from the dip after 2011. They dock six to nine abreast in the major ports. If we thought we were spoiled by the hotel staff, imagine 75 Americans on a ship with 63 crew! One night they set up a movie for us—what else, but Agatha Christie’s Death on the Nile.

River Boat, Nile River, Nefertiti

More to come.

Photos: the Nile from the boat and at night by Vicki Weisfeld; the Nefertiti by Grand Circle tours.

*****This Mortal Boy

justice

By Fiona Kidman – Based on a true story of one of the last executions in New Zealand, Fiona Kidman’s historical crime novel, This Mortal Boy, concerns a young man found guilty of murder is a powerful question mark. When is the death penalty justified? How does politics affect ‘blind justice’? Fundamentally, what is justice?

Although the novel takes place in New Zealand in late 1955, its thought-provoking issues are still germane to the United States and to the more than 50 countries where the death penalty exists today, countries where more than 60 percent of the world’s population lives.

What’s remarkable about this book is how Kidman brings forth the issues involved like specimens under a strong light, showing them in all their complexity, without ever preaching or becoming polemical. You are reading a compelling and disturbing story, not an essay.

Albert Black is a young man from tension-filled, divided Belfast, who leaves his parents and younger brother to immigrate to New Zealand for a fresh start and a better life. In a bar fight, he stabs Johnny McBride, the bully who’s been tormenting him. From his Auckland jail cell he reminisces about his upbringing on the other side of the world and his life during the two years since he left Northern Ireland. The vivid descriptions of these various communities and his circumstances, as well as his actions, make him a fully rounded person. While Kidman doesn’t romanticize him, he inspires empathy.

He feels he’s an outsider in New Zealand. That feeling turns into grim reality when he’s on trial, and jury members hold his Irishness against him. He’s ‘not one of ours,’ the judge says. Kidman also reveals the mindset of the jurors (‘set’ being the operative word) and the high-level discussions amongst the legal establishment regarding capital punishment.

She skillfully uses the frame of the trial to enable comparison of retold events to witness testimony, and while there’s no doubt that Black attacked McBride, the circumstances make both the situation and the cause of death more ambiguous than they first appear or than the court ever hears.

Albert Black was hanged 5 December 1955, and, as Kidman says in an Afterword, “A tide of disgust against the penalty overtook public perception after the hanging of Albert Black.” When a new government took over in New Zealand in 1957, all death sentences were commuted to life imprisonment, and in 1961, the death penalty was abolished.

This Mortal Boy won the 2019 Ockham New Zealand Book Awards Acorn Foundation Fiction Prize, the NZ Booklovers Award, the NZSA Heritage Book Award for Fiction, and the Ngaio Marsh Award for Best Crime Novel. Dame Fiona Kidman, DNZM, OBE, was born and lives in New Zealand and is the award-winning author of novels, poems, plays, and short stories.

Photo: Mike Gifford, creative commons license

Romeo and Juliet: On Stage

Romeo and Juliet, Shakespeare

“For never was a story of more woe, than this of Juliet and her Romeo.” The Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey opened its production of this classic tragedy, directed by Ian Belknap, runs through November 17.

You know the story. An implacable hatred has arisen between two Verona families: the Capulets and the Montagues. Prince Escalus (played by Jason C. Brown), fed up with the constant street-fighting of the two households, vows to have any future combatants executed. Romeo (Keshav Moodliar) attends a banquet hosted by the rival Capulets in disguise. He sees their daughter Juliet (Miranda Rizzolo), the two instantly fall in love, and Friar Lawrence (Matt Sullivan) secretly marries them. Meanwhile, Juliet’s father (Mark Elliot Wilson) intends her to marry wealthy Count Paris (Ryan Woods).

Romeo’s friend Mercutio (Joshua David Robinson) is slain by a goading Tybalt of the house of Capulet (Torsten Johnson), and Romeo slays him in revenge. Instead of executing Romeo, Prince Escalus banishes him. Though the sentence is merciful, Romeo regards it as a heart-breaking separation from Juliet. From there, everything goes downhill.

Over the years, seeing this play and reading David Hewson’s admirable Juliet and Romeo, I’ve come to recognize that, although Romeo is an effective swordsman, with at least two notches on his scabbard, he’s something of a weakling. He’s dreamy, falls in love too easily, and even his father laments his lack of focus. Yet he needs to be a credible lover, a person who would inspire passion and passionate acts. The weakness of this production is the lack of chemistry and connection between its two eponymous characters.

Perhaps in trying to make the play approachable for new generations, Belknap encouraged the actors to hurry along and avoid becoming ensnared by the rhythms of Shakespeare’s prose. If so, it didn’t work for me. At times, the main characters spoke so quickly I couldn’t follow (from the front row). Romeo and Juliet is a wonderful play. I want my full measure of enjoyment out of it.

Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey productions are hosted at Drew University in Madison, N.J. (easily reachable from NYC by train). For tickets, call the box office at 973-408-5600 or visit the Box Office online. Note that STNJ offers special ticket pricing of $30 for theatergoers under age 30!

****Fishermen of Kérity

fishing nets

By Peter James Quirk – In 1959, when Peter James Quirk’s protagonist Tommy Kiernan goes in search of his past, he finds a more complicated and thrilling story than he’d ever imagined. Only 19 and an American college student from upstate New York, he was born in the English fishing village of Brixham to an elegant French mother and Irish father, now separated.

Two events start his quest. One night recently, a deliberately set fire destroyed Tommy and his mother’s home, and not long afterward, his mother is killed when her car plunges from the mountain highway into a ravine. Suspicion arises that these two events are not unrelated, and Tommy decides he must find out who murdered her. As she is not the type to develop enemies, he believes the killer is someone from her mysterious past.

Clues to her life in Brittany might lie in her beautiful artwork. Tommy finds her journal, sketchbook, and a bit of shocking information. When Breton fishermen helped her escape the Nazis in 1940, she was already pregnant, which means the big Irishman, Francis Thomas Kiernan, isn’t his father after all.

His mother’s painting, Fishermen of Kérity, suggests where to start in trying to fill in the details of her life. Tommy travels to Kérity on the Breton coast, hoping to meet some of Jackie’s long-ago friends. Did any of them survived the war, do they know who his birth father was, and will they talk to him about any of this? Author Quirk does an excellent job evoking the Breton community as the threat of war materializes into invasion, occupation, and retribution. It is a sad, dangerous time.

Quirk, born and educated in England, now lives in the United States. The knowledge of the sea he gained as a fisherman and with the British Merchant Marine gives the book’s scenes on the Breton docks and sailing the French coastline a nice realism. While I enjoyed the historical content that makes up most of the book, the scenes set in 1959 Vermont—Tommy’s romance and his clumsy methods for finding his mother’s killer—are less convincing.

This is a short novel (169 pages), quickly read, and while I had the aforementioned quibble with the 1959 story, on the whole Quirk’s writing style is clear and enjoyable. He has created a memorable tale in a colorful, high-stakes setting.

Photo of fishermen’s nets: Lisa Redfern for Pixabay

A Dose of Reality

gun, firearm, weapon

Although the average American may not encounter diabolical teen serial killers, sociopathic torturers, or gun-toting assassins with preternatural aim and massive martial arts skills of the types found so frequently in novels, there are plenty of real-life tragedies to baffle our humanity and cry out for explication. Readers and writers of crime fiction don’t have to look further than national crime statistics to understand the interest crime stories hold.

A friend passed on the following information from the October 2019 “violence and health” issue of Health Affairs, the nation’s top health policy journal. Here are some data points, drawn from the 20 or so peer-reviewed articles—the real-life backdrop against which crime stories are written and read.

In 2017, the United States experienced about 19,500 homicides and 47,000 suicides from all causes.

US violent death rates, which had fallen dramatically since the 1970s and held steady for fifteen years are rising again, driven by increasing rates of homicide and suicide by firearms. Rates of firearm deaths increased between 1999 and 2017 in most states; in 29 states, the rate increased more than 20%.

The firearm homicide rate in the United States is 25 times higher than that of other industrialized countries, while the firearm suicide rate is eight times higher.

Many mass shootings involve domestic or family violence, as when the shooter opens fire on a group that includes a target individual.

More than one in five US children are physically abused, and about one in six are sexually abused.

About three in ten emergency physicians are assaulted every year.

About three percent of homicides are police killings.

Research on violence is underfunded. The federal government spends about $25 million per death on HIV research, about $200,000 per death on cancer research, and $600 per death on violence research.

In four surveys conducted between 2013 and 2019, in which gun owners were over-represented, the National Survey of Gun Policy found greater than 75% of respondents supported such policy measures as universal background checks, temporary gun removals based on family concerns, mandatory licensing for concealed carry including a safety test, and a mandatory safety course for first-time gun owners.

Journal editor Alan Weil says, “Even as media attention tends to focus on incidents of mass violence, it is the daily burden of violence in its many forms that takes the greatest toll.”

You can order a copy of this themed issue here.

Photo: r. nial bradshaw, creative commons license