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.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream

If ever a play lent itself to creative interpretation, Shakespeare’s lighthearted classic, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, is that play. The Princeton Summer Theater production, which opened July 25 and plays Thursday to Sunday through August 4, takes full advantage of that opportunity to innovate.

The plot of confused lovers, a night in the forest, and mischievous fairies is so familiar director Maeli Goren safely pared it down to run in 75 minutes without intermission. She’s added seats to the sides and rear of the stage so that every member of the 200-person audience feels they have ringside seats. This compresses the time and space available to the cast and magnifies the production’s intensity. You aren’t watching the performance; you are in it.

Most of the action takes place within the skeleton of what might be a greenhouse. I especially liked Oberon and Titania’s crowns made of twigs, the feather capelets, and a jacket made of hundreds of translucent white vinyl gloves that mimicked feathers. Small lanterns filled with, naturally, fairy lights looked like they held captured fireflies. There’s a little cast-created music, a bit of singing—and this may be a theatrical first—Puck occasionally plays an accordion. There are even puppets, which refract the shifting relationships among the lovers in new ways. In other words, there is no shortage of things to watch and delight in.

The cast comprises current Princeton students and recent graduates, and their lack of experience with Shakespeare and his rhythms is apparent, with the result that some of the speeches are hard to follow. But every actor enters the fray with enthusiasm, and the familiarity of the story backstops them. Standouts in the eight-member cast include Michael Rosas as Theseus and Oberon, Maeve Brady as Hyppolyta and Titania, Justin Ramos as Lysander, and Allison Spann as Puck. Rosas is notable for his range of gestures and Brady for her ability to convey a sense of wonder. Ramos and Spann display remarkably entertaining athleticism.

It’s a tribute to the dedication of the participants that so much effort and attention to detail goes into a show that will run for so few performances. Though “The course of true love never did run smooth,” this production gets great joy out of the lovers’ journey!

Princeton Summer Theater productions are staged in Hamilton Murray Theater on the university campus, easily reached from New York by car or train. Take New Jersey Transit to the Princeton Junction station, then the shuttle train into Princeton. The shuttle ends a short walk from the theater, which is also walking distance from numerous restaurants. For tickets, call the box office at 732-997-0205 or visit the ticket office online.

****Swann’s Down

Written by Charles Salzberg – Henry Swann’s Manhattan business is a murky one that only a big city, with all its ragged fringes, could support. He’s mainly a skip tracer, someone whose true skill is in finding people and sometimes things—lost, runaway, hiding—and a good guide to the dark corners that would never appear in a tourist’s Top Ten.

His self-described partner Goldblatt is loud and unpredictable, and Swann would prefer not to be saddled with him, but he’s harder to get rid of than a bad memory. How little he actually knows about Goldblatt becomes clear when the man asks Swann for help with a personal problem involving Goldblatt’s second wife, Rachel: “You… You’ve been married?” Three times, in fact.

Rachel is a little spacey, a little too trusting, and a fake psychic has bilked her out of some $75,000. Goldblatt wants Swann to find this psychic. And get the money back, if he can. Delving into the world of the con, Swann interacts with some real New York characters, brimming with a lively mix of attitude, insights, and venality.

Thankfully, a paying client turns up as well. Swann is asked to find a missing witness who supposedly can alibi her truculent boyfriend, Nicky Diamond, a notorious hitman who claims he’s innocent in this case. He’s bad news and Swann is reluctant to help him out.

Why did the girlfriend disappear? Does whoever actually did the killing want Diamond to take the fall? Did Diamond encourage (or frighten) her into disappearing because she actually can’t back up his story? When Swann finds her, will it be wise to encourage her to return to New York, or will he just make her a target? If she fled because she was afraid, would she return at all? The case is full of such quandaries, but Diamond’s lawyer finally talks Swann into pursuing it, and Swann applies one of his guiding principles to the decision: “Okay. I’m in. So long as I get paid, what do I care?”

Swann has to use his considerable persuasive powers to move these two cases in the direction of resolution, even if his remit is not to follow them to their absolute end. His self-deprecating narration and wry humor are charming, his descriptions of the daily frustrations of living in Manhattan hit home, and the issues that raise Swann’s curiosity interested me too.

Author Salzberg is a former magazine writer with both non-fiction and crime fiction to his credit. He’s a founding member of the New York Writers Workshop and has had a successful teaching career. This is the fifth Swann book—and Salzberg says the last. Whether he can really leave Swann behind or not, I’ll be on the lookout for those previous four books!

Photo: krazydad / jbum is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

****Grab a Snake by the Tail

By Leonardo Padura, translated by Peter Bush — For decades, glimpses into Cuban life were hard to come by, and for Americans will be harder to come by again with renewed travel restrictions. English-language crime fiction about contemporary Cuba, written by Cubans, also has been sparse, despite reader curiosity about a tropical culture with such a heady mix of Caribbean, Spanish, African, and Indian influences.

Leonardo Padura, whom the book jacket calls “Cuba’s most celebrated living author,” is the author of the Havana Quartet, crime novels that in their English versions each have a color in the title: Havana Gold, Havana Blue, Havana Red and Havana Black. Spanish-language television films were created from them, and they appeared on Netflix with English subtitles as Four Seasons in Havana. This police procedural follows the protagonist of those popular earlier works, police inspector Mario Conde, as he reminisces about a murder investigation from 30 years ago in Havana’s Barrio Chino (Chinatown).

Cuba’s significant Chinese community immigrated to the island under contracts that amounted to slave labor, and which led to the atmosphere of loneliness, contempt, and uprooting that forms the backdrop to the narrative and sets the stage for murder. Even in a culture where diverse racial and ethnic identities are a commonplace, the dirty, poverty-ridden Barrio Chino is considered mysterious and alien to most Havana residents.

Conde is persuaded to look into the murder by a beautiful African-Chinese police lieutenant Patricia Chion, about whom Conde has impure thoughts. Patricia tells him to engage her father, Juan, as his guide through the barrio’s labyrinthine streets and cultural ways. That’s because, as Conde says, “There were complications, as there almost always are in situations involving a chino.” (So evocative of the last line of Roman Polanski’s Chinatown: “Forget it, Jake. It’s Chinatown.”)

Patricia explains that the dead man, Pedro Cuang, was a friend of her godfather and an acquaintance of her father, even though her father denies knowing him. That would be one of the complications.

Cuang was a retired dry cleaner, no family, living alone on a pension in a dingy one-room apartment. Conde visits that apartment, where the corpse has yet to be removed. He and his sergeant Manuel Palacios see the 73-year-old has been hanged, with a couple of peculiar flourishes: a severed index finger and a circle with two crossed arrows inside carved on his chest.

Crime was rampant in the Barrio Chino, but what Cuang’s link to it may have been is murky. As is the meaning of the strange symbols. In Havana, there are lots of possibilities: a Congolese practice called nganga, Yoruba santaria, voodoo, or some heretofore unknown Chinese witchcraft. Investigating these possibilities and their practitioners gives Padura an excuse to delve into them a bit. These interesting diversions into cultural anthropology aren’t distractions from the main thrust of the story. It needs them to move forward.

Grab a Snake by the Tail is short book that employs a somewhat literary style, appropriate for a cop who wants to be a writer. The translation seems good – you aren’t frequently reminded of it, at least. The characters, especially Conde, his aide Manuel, and his unofficial deputy, Juan Chion, engage in lively interplay. There’s some sex. You never have the sense detective Conde is in any serious, thriller-style danger. It’s more that you’re following him around a fascinating town trying to avoid the complications—criminal, female and cultural.

Photo: dimitrisvetsikas1969 from Pixabay.

Prose by Any Other Name

books, bookstore

With more than 4,500 new books published every day in the U.S., the odds of coming up with a unique title would seem to evaporate by the minute. No surprise, then, that when you search for a book by title, you often have to scroll through a lot of misses to get your hit. Amazon had 10 books with the same title as a short story collection I recently reviewed!

Suitability

In Emily Temple’s recent Literary Hub encomium on the naming of Iris Murdoch’s The Sea, The Sea, she says, notice first “the incantatory effect of the repetition, the rush of sibilance, the plain punch of those four syllables,” not to mention, I’d add, the evocation of the sea itself: sssssss . . . sssssssss. “It just sounds good, and any great title should sound good,” she says. Beyond that is the title’s provenance, which goes back to Greek literature. While this distinguished patrimony may not resonate with most of us, she says, “It’s also, not for nothing, a band name.” More news.

We can think of any number of novels whose titles perfectly encapsulate their core: Rosemary’s Baby (Ira Levin) or, more recently, Below the Fold (Dick Belsky), and Where the Crawdads Sing (Delia Owens). Way too many book titles provide no memory-jog about their contents, as a scan of your own bookshelf will prove.

Distinctiveness

I’ve reviewed almost 175 new crime/thriller novels for CrimeFictionLover.com over the past four-plus years, and occasionally need to find one on my list. Some titles recall the book immediately. Others leave me wondering, did I read this??

One strategy is to include the name of a person or place in the title: A Gentleman in Moscow, Wolf Hall, Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine. Such a title will be distinctive, but since the prospective book buyer doesn’t yet know who Eleanor Oliphant is, it may not be memorable. Lincoln in the Bardo works because you know who Lincoln is, even if, like me, you have to look up “the bardo.”

Overfamiliarity

Gone Girl and the cover with the flying hair was suitable and distinctive. Not so the—dozens? hundreds?—of girl-titles that followed. So many the effect was lost. At least AJ Finn, whatever his other foibles, had a woman at his window. Similarly, The Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley (with a bullet-ridden dust-jacket), suitable, distinctive, even though we don’t know him yet, has now been followed by The 7 1/2 Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle. A little too similar for my taste, but both titles contain a puzzle. Even a cat has only nine lives and one death. A little snare for your memory.

Memorability

Being suitable and distinctive are ways of making your book title memorable. Given that word of mouth is one of your most potent marketing tools, you want to make sure the title of your book springs to the tongues of your many fans. When their friends seek it out, you want them to find your book, not twelve other people’s. Those right few words on the cover are hard to come by, but worth every effort.

Booky, Booky

Reading

Four books out of sync with my new crime fiction reviewing.

Yes, even I occasionally tire of a reading life of crime. And sometimes I want to catch up with a book from prior years.

And book clubs make choices . . .

****Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine

By Gail Honeyman – Which of us hasn’t felt saddled by a critical parent? One whose admonishing voice we hear when we least need it? Who among us isn’t more likely to remember a parent’s upbraiding rather than the praise? Eleanor remembers, to a miserable extreme. Patterning herself after her ultra-demanding mother, she needs to (to learn how to) unwind a bit, no, a lot. She longs for human connection and gets in her own way when she tries. Vodka helps, until it doesn’t. Although the plot doesn’t surprise, Honeyman has established a strong, if painful, voice for Eleanor, just too smart to stay locked inside herself forever. A prime example of the new literary trend called up-lit—“books that give us hope.” In many ways similarly plotted to Where the Crawdads Sing, it raises both hope and skepticism for the same reasons. The author, not the character, seems in charge, if that makes any sense.

****Murmur

By Will Eaves – This is literary fiction and far from as straightforward in the telling as Eleanor Oliphant. It’s based on the life of Alan Turing (Alec Pryor in the book), the brilliant British mathematician and computer scientist (now on the £50 note) who later led the Bletchley Park team that helped unravel the secrets of the Nazi code machine, Enigma. Ping-ponging between dreams, memories, letters with a woman friend, and more in the months before his suicide, the novel has been called “a hallucinatory masterwork.” Much of it looks back to Pryor’s adolescence, his discovery of his homosexuality, and the social and school problems that resulted. Murmur has won numerous prizes. Will Eaves is a poet and a teacher, as well as a novelist. This is the first of his books published in the United States.

***Blood Sisters

By Kim Yideum, translated from the Korean by Jiyoon Lee – I joined a book club that sends novels by international authors several times a year, as a way to become acquainted with other voices and sensibilities. This book was a hard go in the beginning, partly because of the unadorned writing style, but became easier, page by page. The narrator has left home (more difficult, hypercritical parents), and lives as cheaply as possible in a room over a café called Instant Paradise (yeah, right). She has a great many challenges including physical injuries, a parent who deserted her, plus an unexpected romance. Wait, am I writing about Eleanor Oliphant again? Totally different books, striking parallels, but without the too-easy resolution.

****The Word is Murder

By Anthony Horowitz – OK, back to my comfort zone. Horowitz is a crimewriter and TV scriptwriter (Midsomer Murders, Foyle’s War). This novel starts with the murder of a woman who appears to have predicted her own demise. A gruff former police detective, Daniel Hawthorne, is called in to take a look at the case, joined by a clueless writer named Anthony Horowitz who’s looking for some new plot ideas and manages to blunder about spectacularly. “Full of surprises and suspense,” said The Washington BookReview. And comic moments. This adventure has been followed up by 2019’s The Sentence is Death, again featuring Hawthorne and Horowitz.

Echo in the Canyon

In the brief musical moment of 1964-1967, Laurel Canyon in the Hollywood Hills was the place to be. It was home to an astonishing number of California-based rockers, the vanguard of rock music’s California sound. And it was the pilgrimage destination of choice for British bands like, oh, The Beatles. Across an ocean and a continent, the two nation’s young musicians inspired each other. Meaningful lyrics, tight harmony, the 12-string . . .

Andrew Slater’s documentary about this era is a mishmash of different parts (trailer). Yet it manages to provide enough music and tickle enough memories to create a pleasing whole. It has  a modern-day concert recreating some of the music and coffee-table discussions about the concert; historic documentary footage of performances, television appearances, and in-studio recording sessions; current-day interviews with a good number of aging principals; and unexplained snippets of a 1969 French movie set in Laurel Canyon, Model Shop, mysteriously appear. As to the last, give Slater credit for an inventive, if baffling, bit of cinematic free association.

Handsome, low-key Jakob Dylan is the film’s interviewer and concert performer (along with Cat Power, Fiona Apple, and Beck). What’s so refreshing about Dylan is that when he asks one of the aging rock stars a question, he shuts up and listens to the answer. His singing voice isn’t great, but it’s plenty good enough, and with the concert’s songs featuring younger performers and today’s musical styles, it brings the music to a new generation.

The best parts of the film are the interviews and 1960s (mostly black and white) video clips of the original folk-rock stars in action—jamming at home, in the studio, on stage, and on television. The Byrds, the Mamas and the Papas, Buffalo Springfield, the Beach Boys. OMG, the hair, the clothes, the polyester. But The Sounds are what blow you away again.

Wonderful interviews about the experience of living in and visiting Laurel Canyon with many stars, including: Stephen Stills, Graham Nash, Michelle Philips, Roger McGuinn, Brian Wilson, Tom Petty (in his last film interview, pictured with Dylan, above), Eric Clapton, and Ringo Starr. David Crosby explained that people are wrong when they say creative difference caused him to be booted from the Byrds. “I was kicked out because I was an a——” (an insight borne out by the preview for a new documentary about Crosby, shown prior to Echo).

This joins the group of excellent rockumentaries like The Wrecking Crew, Twenty Feet from Stardom, and Standing in the Shadows of Motown.

Rotten Tomatoes critics’ ratings: 93%; audiences, 91%.

****No Way to Die

ancient China

By PA De Voe – If you want a total escape from Brexit or US or European politics, PA De Voe’s second-in-series Ming Dynasty Mystery, No Way to Die, will take you back to late 1300s China. As a devoted fan of the Judge Dee mysteries of Robert van Gulik, set six hundred years earlier in the Tang Dynasty, I was delighted to find De Voe’s well-crafted series.

The prose is deceptively simple. No lengthy descriptions, just enough information to let you picture the scene—a style in keeping with both the era in which the stories are set and the heavily verb-dependent Chinese language.

Women’s doctor (and woman doctor) Xiang-hua is asked to serve as coroner to determine whether the mangled body of a stranger found in the village herbalist’s pig pen got there through foul play. Alas, the pig had made a bit of a meal of the man before his body was removed. Numerous males of the community are concerned the sight of the mangled corpse may be too much for the young Xiang-hua. But she does not shrink from the task. Trained as a healer by her grandmother, Xiang-hua is determined to fulfill her obligations (striking a feminist note that resonates in the 21st century). It’s tough, but she’s in possession of herself well enough to discover the dead man, muddy and bloody, had been stabbed in the back.

The local officials want to know the victim’s identity and, if possible, who stabbed him, before they have to report the crime to higher authorities. If they fail to find out, it will likely to bring down the wrath of the bureaucracy, never a pleasant outcome in ancient China, as punishments were plentiful and harsh. This is a prime example of how De Voe uses 700-year-old realities to create situations that adhere to one of the basic memes of modern crime stories: the ticking clock.

The investigation enables a fascinating trip back to a colorful and simpler time, and though the culture was so different, human emotions and motivations are the same across eons. De Voe’s training as an anthropologist and her advanced degree in Asian studies mean that what she writes carries an authority based on deep knowledge of that long-ago culture and society. I’ll be looking forward to more of her excellent tales!

Navigating Oceans of Words

From time to time, my writing group has included a member whose first language is other than English. It’s only when you tackle editing the prose of such an individual that you begin to appreciate what an unwieldy beast American English is.

A stunning recent reminder of this came in Reuben Westmaas’s essay on word order. It turns out that English has a very precise requirements for stringing along adjectives. Who knew? I didn’t.

Here is Westmaas quoting Mark Forsyth: “Adjectives absolutely have to be in this order: opinion-size-age-shape-color-origin-material-purpose Noun. [Really?] So you can have a lovely little old rectangular green French silver whittling knife. But if you mess with that order in the slightest you’ll sound like a maniac.”

It’s mind-bogglingly true. Try rearranging this example: “I just bought nice new wine refrigerator” (opinion-age-purpose-Noun) These insights, which most of us have internalized since “See Spot chase the big red ball” (size-color-Noun) and not thought of again—not even thought of as reflecting a thing, like a rule–are from Mark Forsyth’s 2013 book, The Elements of Eloquence.

I’m sure glad that decades of reading and listening have imprinted that rule in my brain so that I don’t have to actually think about it. I’ve also abandoned any thought of teaching ESL.

A second problem is our language is jam-packed with idioms. To a German-born friend, I suggested a book I was currently in love with—The Big Sky, one of Pulitzer-winner A B Guthrie. Jr.’s six monumental novels about the Oregon Trail and the development of Montana. To me, it was a perfect evocation of the American sense of the limitless possibilities of “going West” (alas, fading now), of being independent and free, of the frontier.

I foolishly didn’t recognize that the idioms were thick as the forests, and not just modern (for 1947) idioms. It employed colorful uses of language that would make sense to an 1830 fur trapper and his backwoods brethren rafting on the Missouri River. And here I thought the language was absurdly simple. We won’t mention their grammar: “Ain’t nothin like whiskey to ile (oil) a rusty tongue.” He gave the book back to me in complete bafflement.

A final problem is spelling, given that dozens of languages form our crazy talk, and the “rules” created to pretend it makes sense, which are rife with exceptions. Relatedly, I’d include that bane of the self-published and indifferently edited: homophones (led, lead; bough, bow; pique, peak; great, grate; and so on and on and on).

We all remember the spelling rule “i before e except after c and in words that have the ‘a’ sound.” Sure. Westmaas points out that more American words violate that principle than follow it. In fact, the score is 900 to 40 in favor of “exceptions.” I’ll take his word for it. How I became a school spelling bee champion is one of life’s mysteries. We writers sail on, navigating our little boats through a sea of linguistic confusion. We may take the peculiarities of English for granted, but when we’re faced with a non-native’s prose, wow. There be dragons. Give those adventurers credit!

Photo: Steve Johnson, creative commons license.

****The Bulldog and the Helix

Double helix

By Shayne Morrow – This fascinating true crime story by a former newspaper reporter is set in Port Alberni, a small town on Vancouver Island, the 12,000 square mile island across the Strait of Georgia from the city of Vancouver, British Columbia. Two tragedies from this tiny town tested the limits of DNA technology and forensic practice.

In 1977, Carolyn Lee, age twelve, was abducted as she walked to her parents’ restaurant after dance class. Her body was found the next day in a remote area, face down in the mud. While the police had a strong suspicion about who her murderer was, they had no evidence. In 1996, eleven-year-old Jessica States disappeared from a park near her Port Alberni home, and a massive search finally located her battered body, hidden in a nearby ravine under bark torn from a tree. In this case, there initially was no suspect.

While these tragedies were traumatic for the community, what propels them into salience for the wider world is how they demonstrate advances in forensic analysis. In the almost 20 years between these murders, DNA technology arrived. Morrow effectively details how not just the science improved dramatically during that period, but law enforcement procedures evolved, and legal requirements related to collecting DNA evidence changed. He describes a justice system constructed of moving parts. One mistake by the police and an entire case could be dismissed.

The Royal Canadian Mounted Police have a practice of moving officers around, much like itinerant preachers, so the officers who first worked on the Lee case had long been reassigned. Yet it wasn’t forgotten, and the RCMP hoped the new DNA analysis would finally solve it. Miraculously, some of the evidence had been saved from that two decade old crime and from which DNA could be extracted. The tenacity and careful work of the officers dedicated to solving this cold case—the investigative Bulldog of the title—that finally led to a conviction in 1998. Fortunately for the States family, justice was not so long delayed, and her killer was convicted in 2001.

These two cases were landmarks in Canadian jurisprudence regarding the treatment of forensic DNA evidence, and author Morrow was the primary court and crime reporter for them both. His meticulous retelling of the RCMP decision-making process—which, although it could have gone off the rails at any number of points, led to a successful prosecution of two killers—is as much a page-turner as any novel.

Graphic: Mehmet Pinarci, creative commons license

Deathtrap

A good many regular theater goers at some point will have seen Deathtrap, Ira Levin’s supremely popular comedy thriller, which premiered on Broadway in 1978, ran for almost 1800 performances, and was nominated for four Tony awards, including best play. Princeton Summer Theater’s production, directed by Annika Bennett, premiered July 4 (perfect choice for making a bang) and will be on stage at Princeton University’s Hamilton Murray Theater Thursdays through Sundays until July 21.

It’s been so long since I last saw Deathtrap, I’d forgotten the story’s twists and turns and appreciated anew its delicious surprises. This isn’t a play where you want to reveal overmuch about plot except to say Sidney Bruhl (played by C. Luke Soucy) is a formerly successful playwright specializing in murder mysteries. His wife Myra (Kathryn Anne Marie) is increasingly worried about the lack of money coming in and the diminishing prospects for more.

When a cleverly conceived play titled “Deathtrap” arrives unexpectedly from one of Bruhl’s former students, Clifford Anderson, it’s almost too tempting. It would be Bruhl’s perfect comeback vehicle, if only he’d written it! Levin’s dialog is full of jibes at the theater world and its vicissitudes, such as when Myra asks Bruhl “Is [Anderson’s play] really that good?” and he says, “I’ll tell you how good it is. Even a gifted director couldn’t hurt it.”

“Deathtrap’s” author Anderson appears (Dylan Blau Edelstein), a babe who’s wandered into some rather devious woods, as does a famous Dutch psychic (Abby Melick) living nearby, and Bruhl’s attorney (Justin Ramos). The Deathtrap you’re watching, just like Anderson’s “Deathtrap,” conforms to Bruhl’s favorite formula: two acts and a cast of five. All are fine in their parts, with special mention of Marie and Melick.

The play takes to heart Chekhov’s famous admonition that “if in the first act you have hung a pistol on the wall, then in the following one it should be fired.” Guns, maces, swords, a crossbow, knives—Bruhl’s study décor is a catalog of mayhem, with even a pair of trick handcuffs devised by Houdini. The set design is particularly strong, though the costumes were puzzling. (What era?)

When viewing a play forty years on, it’s fair to ask, does it hold up? In this case, the answer is a definite yes. Consider Deathtrap a solid choice for your summer entertainment!

Princeton Summer Theater productions are staged in Hamilton Murray Theater on the university campus, easily reached from New York by car or train. Take New Jersey Transit to the Princeton Junction station, then the shuttle train into Princeton. The shuttle ends a short walk from the theater, which is also walking distance from numerous restaurants.

For tickets, call the box office at 732-997-0205 or visit the ticket office online.