Thursday, December 31, 2009

In the footsteps of Kubu...kind of.

Cara’s interesting piece about her visit to the Brigade Criminelle in Paris made me think of the police stations Stanley and I have visited in Botswana seeking information for our Detective Kubu novels. You could call them pre-footsteps, if you like.


The headquarters of the Criminal Investigation Department is in the Millennium Park complex west of Gaborone.  Characterless, it is surrounded by parking covered by shade-cloth which loses a daily battle with the sun. It is a new building (ten years old would be a reasonable guess) and encroaches on the base of Kgale Hill which is about the only bit of topography in the area.  We visited the director of the CID there on a Saturday, but went back for another sortie around the area on Sunday.  We were delighted to see that a troupe of baboons had come down from their haunts in the rocky cap of Kgale Hill and taken over the area around the CID. They were sorting through bins and any other items of interest left as the human tide went out for the weekend. It seemed a wonderful metaphor for the juxtaposition of old and new in Africa. One we were not able to resist bringing into the stories.


Up north the Kasane police station has an interesting feature. Kasane lies on the confluence of two major rivers – the Chobe and the Zambezi. It is also at the meeting point of four countries – Botswana, Zambia, Namibia and Zimbabwe - clearly not an entirely comfortable location these days. However, the town is thriving with fancy modern hotels overlooking the broad Chobe river and packed with tourists taking trips into the Chobe National Park a short distance away.  Built on the site of the old prison, a modern multi-story building houses the police. The architect took care to design it in such a way that two ancient baobabs could be preserved. Both are hollowed out with once locking doors that allowed prisoners to be held within the tree itself. One tree for the men and one for the women. No more than two in each at a time one hopes! You can climb in, but it’s not a very comfortable or salubrious place to spend the day.



Our third book will be set in the Kalahari desert part of Botswana, so we made the acquaintance of the police there. As usual they were charming and helpful. Tshane is a small village in the heart of the southern Kalahari. It has neighbours of the same type: Hukuntsi – the “commercial centre” sporting a petrol station and guest house, Lehututu – named after the cry of the Ground Hornbill, and Lokgwabe. The villages are there because of the usually dry salt pans which provide subterranean water. The only police station for the group of villages is at Tshane. Unlike the usual Botswana police building, this is an old style colonial one-story dating back to the days of British rule - the Bechuanaland Protectorate. It has the prime site in town: overlooking one of the salt pans. We were told it is the second oldest permanent police post in Botswana. Obviously someone thought this area would grow. Perhaps the old building survived because it didn’t.


The View from Tshane Police Station


Michael-Thursday.

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Auld Lang Syne


Tomorrow night, midnight to be exact, marks the passing of yet another year and the dawn of the one that follows – 2010. I must say that it is a nice number, even and round. For some reason I have never managed to figure out, I have since childhood had the feeling that odd numbers are bad and even numbers good – not in a bad luck/good luck kind of way but more in the way of a good guy/bad guy grouping. Seeing this in print makes me understand why I have never been able to put my finger on the reason behind this idea, as it makes no sense at all. But then neither do a lot of things.

In the wake of the year we now discard, one tends to briefly review the past, and for desert, contemplate the future. This is an exercise in futility as there is really nothing in hand except the present, the past is over and done with and the future not something one can count on acquiring. There is however something to be said for looking over one’s shoulder to learn from one’s mistakes and possibly making up for them, as well as gazing ahead and setting the benchmark for what is coming, preferably a little bit higher than one can realistically attain.

Now this may sound as if Icelanders spend New Year’s Eve sitting on a rock overlooking the sea, philosophizing as if we were a nation of Platos and Simone de Beauvoirs. This is not the case at all. New Year’s is a time of commemoration where the only recess from nonsensical festivities is the occasional celebrator loudly making a resolution to stop this, start that or state some other pledge that is seldom followed through. This is probably the case in most countries; friends and family get together, drink and become merry. However Iceland does have a small claim to fame regarding this holiday, namely the fireworks and bonfires associated with our New Year’s Eve celebrations. These are truly something to behold and unless I am badly mistaken not paralleled elsewhere. What makes the fireworks unique is that they are not organized shows but are set off by the individuals and families, coming to a head at midnight when the sky is next to set ablaze. This year 550 tons are expected to go off.



Fireworks are only legal over this period and are sold by rescue teams who use the profits from the sales to run their operations until it is New Year’s again. Sales begin on the 27th and soon thereafter isolated pops and bursts can be heard, preparing your eardrums for what is to come. The frequency increases at a steady pace until it is about six in the evening of New Year’s when the noise becomes a steady tattoo, stopping at ten on the dot when everyone goes inside to watch a parody on TV of the passing year’s events. At eleven this program is over and the president gives his TV speech – precisely at the same moment that everyone goes back outside and the fireworks begin again. The explosions last into the early morning hours while the smell of gunpowder lingers in the air even longer.



Regarding the bonfires, these are organized by the various neighborhoods and towns, set afire in the evening and are massive enough to burn for some hours. Almost everyone drops by one of these sites at some point during the evening, to meet up with neighbors, friends or relatives or just to feel the heat on their exposed cheeks from the enticing orange flames. Adults usually bring along flasks with schnapps to pass around and kids small handheld fireworks to add some color to the gathering. It is a truly wonderful event, irrespective of the weather outside.

So shortly my family and I will be dragging our personal arsenal out of our garage along with the family and friends that will be joining us for dinner and possibly breakfast. If you look to the north between 10 and 12 PM GMT you might see a multicolor glow denoting our celebration of what is to come, marking a hope that it will be better, kinder and more enlightened than what we leave behind.

Happy New Year everyone.

Yrsa - Wednesday

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

champers, bubbly, fizzy stuff

As opposed to the rot-gut I drank, er, swilled in student days, the cheap red sediment laden gorp that made Chianti taste like nectar of the gods, I've developed a taste for champagne. No offense to the wine experts, Stan and Michael here but my allergies to whatever is in red wine saw to the end of le vin rouge for me.

However, for whatever reason, one flute of Champagne does not clog my sinuses, cause pounding in my brain or wither my tongue with red gorp.

I blame the Widow. You might have seen her on the bottle of Veuve Cliquot on the shelf. Almost stern, a little old lady dressed in black with a lace cap, reminiscent of an Italian Mafia matriarch.

But she's French, grew up during the Terror, survived the Revolution and despite Napoleon's taxes, a vineyard on the brink of disaster, kept the Champagne industry alive. By her tiny, little self and the determination of a stubborn Charolais steer. And I thank her for that...



I adore La Veuve Clicquot (the widow Clicquot), born Barbe-Nicole Clicquot Ponsardin in Reims in 1778. When her husband, Francois Clicquot, died in 1805, she had the courage and strength to take over the Champagne house that today bears her name - Veuve Clicquot Ponsardin.

She was also responsible for devising the riddling system by which bottles are placed on special racks and regularly turned by hand.

Long considered one of the great Champagne houses I only discovered Veuve Clicquot a few years ago. A New Year's eve in a small liquor store in San Francisco stopping on the way to a party. What could I bring? I knew nothing except that a bottle of 'champers' my Brit friend said was required. The store owner suggested 'French champagne you can't go wrong.' Sounded good and being no connisseur what did I know? And then I looked at the prices...sticker shock.
He pointed out the various Champagnes, explained that 'Champagne' referred to only that grown in the Champagne region of France - by French law - and how vintage meant that the grapes used in the Champagne were from one vineyard in contrast to 'regular' Champagne a blend of the grape harvest. 'Brilliant' I said 'but I'm not quite there yet. Nor will the people at the party who'd probably swill the stuff down.'
He gave me a knowing look. 'It's always good to go with best. It's simple. And a nice touch, a statement.'
This was an expat drinking group who liquored up any occasion and even more so on New Year's Eve.
'Try the Widow,' he said. 'You can't go wrong. For the price you're getting the best.'
Well, I liked the dark bottle, the orange label, the picture of the little old woman in black and the orange box. I liked that it was French and truth to tell, might impress my hostess who knew more about connisseurship than I.
That did it. I've never bought or drank anything else. Suffice it to say I only drink Champagne about two or three times a year so I don't break the bank and I'm really a lightweight with alcohol. Ask Leighton. The last time I drank the Widow Leighton and I were with his son-in-law at the brasserie across from the Gare du Nord, eating oysters and sipping the Widow. Perfect.

It's not the amount it's the taste. I love the fizzing velvet down my throat. Talk blending, grand cru, aromas and you've lost me. I like the bubbles, that pale color and fruitiness and the moment in time sharing a glass with a friend.

Last year Denise Hamilton who sometimes reviews for the LATimes sent me her copy of The Widow Clicquot by Tilar Mazzeo. 'You'll like this,' she said. The book was all about the Widow, her life and turbulent times, the history of Champagne, how growers like the Widow struggled to keep Champagne and their vineyards after the Revolution and prevent the wine industry from ruin. Fascinating and full of things I'd never known. In 1798 the wine growers paid up to as much as %40 of their profits to the noblemen and the clergy for the right to harvest and crush grapes. The region had suffered drought in the summer, cold weather, a frost in winter and the peasants were starving. Then came the Revolution and with no bread on the table, how could a luxury like Champagne survive? With marketing astuteness it was the Russian czar and his court who the Widow targeted. For an upper middle class woman with only a convent education she showed amazing business acumen, and sent her Champagne across the Baltic. The Czar and the Russians became her and the wine industry's new clients. This little woman almost saved Champagne single-handedly, a widow with a child to support, a chateau to keep open, workers to employ and vineyards to maintain. The Widow learned the trade, the chemical formulas, tramped the vineyards and never gave up. She carried on the vineyard, the techniques with a passion. It makes me appreciate the contents more.



If you're interested in another book about Champagne I recommend Champagne: How the World's most glamorous wine triumphed over war and hard times by Don and Petie Kladstrup. They point out that so much concerning Champagne is about survival; be it wars, weather, terrible harvests, phylloxera or boycotts.' A fascinating account. Me, I like the bubbles.

Best wishes in the new year and hoping you ring in 2010 with a toast of bubbly,
Cheers, Prost, Salut, l'haim, a santé,
Cara - Tuesday

I'll let Madame de Pompadour have the last word here "Champagne is the only wine that lets a woman stay beautiful after she has drunk it."

Sunday, December 27, 2009

The Girl From Ipanema




You've probably heard the music.
But did you know that there really was a girl from Ipanema?
Her name was Hêlo Pinto and, in 1962, she was a statuesque brunette living on Montenegro Street in the fashionable Ipanema district of Rio de Janeiro.


There was, and still is, a drinking establishment on a corner of that same street, situated about halfway between her home and beach.

Back then, it was called the Bar Veloso.

Tom Jobim was one of the regulars. He was a musician, fond of whiskey.


Vinicius de Morães. another regular, was a diplomat, playwright and poet - even fonder of whiskey. (He once called the stuff "man's best friend - a dog in a bottle".)



Tom and Vinicius used to hole up in the Veloso to drink the afternoons away. Hêlo, the heartthrob of the neighborhood, often passed-by on her way to the beach The composer and the poet, struck by her beauty, wrote a song about her, A Garota de Ipanema. It became an instant hit, first in Brazil and then around the world. 

Vinicius, at the time, was already famous. He'd written the play that gave rise to the film Black Orpheus (Oscar Winner; Best Foreign Film of 1959).

He died in 1980 at the age of 66. The street where the Bar Veloso stood has been renamed in his honor.

Tom went on to compose many jazz standards recorded by the likes of Ella Fitzgerald, Frank Sinatra and Tony Bennett. He died in 1994 at the age of 67.

Rio's International Airport is named after him.



Hêlo, at 61, now Hêlo Pinheiro, is very much alive.

She's dyed her hair blonde and has a lovely daughter.


And the Bar Veloso is now named after the song that made it famous. It's now called A Garota de Ipanema.  If you click on the image to enlarge it, you'll be able to see the name above the blue roof.


 
On the walls you'll find a number of Vinicius's poems. Here are two appropriate lines from one of them:


"...the love I had was not immortal
But it was infinite - while it lasted."


Leighton - Monday

Holidays Neverending

With Christmas behind us and New Year ahead of us, I'm pretty much holidayed out. Still, it seems to me that we're missing a few obvious holidays -- days that would celebrate something that deserves it, or days that might just, against all the odds, give us a lift.

First, some days I'd like to transplant from other cultures.



Japan celebrates Girls' Day and Boys' Day, and I think both are worthy of consideration. Any day that celebrates kids is okay by me. And I especially like doing it one sex at a time, so both sexes get equal applause without everyone getting all twittery about how boys get more attention than girls or vice-versa. It would be nice to honor boys and girls in the spring, say in April and May, since that's the most optimistic season.




Thailand and many other Asian countries observe Buddha's birthday, and we should make make room for it on our calendars as well. Actually Visakha Bucha, as it's called in Thailand (Hanamatsuri in Japan), celebrates both the birth and the enlightenment of the founder of the only major world religion that has not killed millions of people in the name of God. The celebration is marked by kindness to others, especially the less fortunate. Like Christmas, it's an arbitrary date, chosen much later than the event it commemorates. Unlike Christmas, it's a floating festival, since the date is determined by the lunar calendar, but it's usually in early May.



That's a lot of spring holidays, so let's turn to summer and the first of my new holidays,
Global Golf Pants Day. No article of clothing is sillier than golf pants, so why not give them a day of their own? Millions of people out on the streets, wearing the worst golf pants they can find. A parallel YouTube golf pants film festival. A commemorative Victoria's Secret Golf Pants catalog. Awards in appropriate categories, such as Most Deafening Color Combination and Most Perilous Plaid.





In fall, at the beginning of the television season, it would be appropriate to remember the fallen prime-time warriors of yesteryear on Canceled Series Memorial Day. People could dress as the characters in their favorite extinct programs; they could rehearse short scenes with friends and, for a small donation to a good cause like the World Federation for the Furtherance of Laughter, they could get little laugh track boxes -- just a speaker with three buttons for guffaw, chortle, and anticipatory giggle. Think of it -- for one day a year, New York could actually be like "Seinfeld" and Los Angeles could go back to the palmy days of "77 Sunset Strip," the worst show nobody remembers.


And for winter, at least in colder parts of the world, we could do Anime Snowplay Day, on which children build frosty tributes to their favorite animated character. Some Japanese kids have gotten a jump on us with this snowy "Totoro" from Miyazaki's animated masterpiece of the same name. I'd personally love to turn on the news one night and discover animated figures glistening all over the landscape.

Any other suggestions? My only criterion is that it should make us feel better, even if only for a day.

Friday, December 25, 2009

SciFiRomgate - an update

A punctuation of sorts to my post last week, about the rather touchy author who initiated an Internet flame war with a bunch of readers after receiving a one-star review on Amazon. The novelist herself has written to fellow writers on Novelists Inc to explain her behaviour...

Hello everyone,

I was the nutcase involved in the FBI incident. Since I don't suppose this post will remotely move some who'll read it, I'll go ahead and make my statement and see what part of the Internet to which you flee to cross-post.

If you think it's appropriate for a so-called reviewer that no one has ever heard of and/or her juvenile blog ilk to find your home phone number and call at all hours; if you think it's appropropriate for them to contact your employers to find out about you or to attempt to invade/hack private sites you've set up on for family and friends to chat...when/if it happens to you please don't make any issue of it lest you also be labeled insane. Maybe LK Hamilton is insane as well? These same individuals (there are a group of them who post their side and no one else's on the Internet) did the same thing to this author when she took issue with their behavior as I have.

I make this statement in defense, identifying myself in front of everyone, because I wouldn't have cross-posted about the incident. I wouldn't have done that to you or to any other person. Doing so - inflicting pain on a total stranger without knowing what you're talking about and for your own amusement -makes me a crazy? I segue to your psychological and humane expertise and your ability to make less of us all. That you believed what some cowardly posters wrote on the Internet is saddening. Everyone knows that everything you read out there must be the truth, the whole truth and nothing but?

Still, I uphold your right to make any statement you want. I served my country in my own way so that you could. My insistence that you be able to keep and hold your opinions, even in light of your posts, makes me..."NUTS! BONKERS! OVER THE EDGE! OFF THE DEEP END! DOWN THE RABBIT HOLE!"

I'm a bit startled at the few posts in this venue - sent out at a time of year when folks should be a bit more charitable. I'm startled that you'd say what you have - in the way you said it - that you'd actually believe thereafter that others would think that there's something wrong with me. Please all...re-read what the posters on this list said and draw your own conclusions as to who's mentally unhinged.

Somewhere on your block or in your hometown...there's an elderly person who can't buy a prescription or turn on their heat; an animal has strayed or has been dumped and is cold and hungry and in need of comfort. A sick person could use a helping hand by bringing in their mail from the mailbox. Someone who isn't able to do so could use some help shoveling snow. But this is how you choose to spend your time? And why...so you could get some attention; maybe sell one of your romance novels at someone else's expense?

Yet I'm "over the edge"?

My apologies to the hundreds on this loop who've been inflicted with others' idea of an amusing event. I pray to God this situation never happens to you or anyone else.

Have a happy and safe holiday all,
Candace Sams (aka C.S. Chatterly)
~ Where Fantasies Embrace Legend ~
www.candacesams.com
www.cschatterly.com


Hmmm. If you peer very closely you might be able to detect an apology of sorts in there, but also a great deal of self-justification. However, if the allegations she makes are true then that is extremely disturbing. Though, personally, I feel it just goes to prove my point that responding to criticism, good or bad, is a mug's game, regardless of people's motives. And is it any wonder that the odd reader gets irritated when half the five-star reviews of so many books on Amazon are palpably written by friends or family or the author in disguise? (Which reminds me, should we ever meet for a drink, remind me to tell you about the one about the publisher who posted a one-star review on Amazon about one of his own authors...).

I also stand by my vow to keep well away from the world of Science Fiction comedy. That's not to devalue the genre. Let's face it, Spock's gotta get some...

Anyhow, I have some Brussel sprouts parboiling and a bird the size of Scotland to cram in the oven. Merry Christmas to you all. May all you dreams be merry and bright.

Dan- Friday

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Merry Christmas, happy holidays, and a healthy, happy, and prosperous 2010

My greatest hopes for 2010 are that egos deflate, compassion rises, and tolerance grows.  Every day I tell myself that I am the most fortunate person on the planet.  And I remind myself that that is largely due to good fortune.  With a little luck and a bit of support, how many more could enjoy the benefits I have?

My challenge for the year is to make a REAL difference to one person's life.  Let's all try to do at least the same.

Peace.

Stan - Christmas Day

The Wine of Constantia



Jan van Riebeeck landed in 1652 on what became the Cape of Good Hope.  His mission was to provide fresh produce for ships of the Dutch East India Company on their way to and from the Indies around Africa.  Ostensibly because wine was supposed to help scurvy but perhaps for a quiet tipple on the side, he planted the first vineyard three years later.  And on the 2nd of February 1659 he was able to proclaim: “Today, praise be to God, wine was pressed from Cape grapes for the first time”.  By all accounts the wine was pretty foul, not too surprising given the level of expertise around at the time.


But van Riebeeck was succeeded twenty years later by Simon van der Stel, an interesting if contentious character, who did know about wine and saw the opportunity for a guilder or two to come his way also.  He was the son of Adriaan van der Stel and Maria Lievens, the daughter of a freed Indian slave woman, which made him “coloured” in the racial parlance of the previous South African government.  Needless to say this was not a feature emphasized in the history text books of the day!

The Cape peninsular has a climate not too different from that of southern Europe with winter rainfall and moderate temperatures.  It is the area of South Africa which most reminds people of Europe with streets lined with gnarled oaks and the genteel shrubs and flowers that thrive in the “old country”.  Van der Stel carefully selected a large wine farm for himself along the southern slopes of the Cape peninsular, actually testing the soils and choosing an area cooled by winds from the sea.  He called the estate Constantia, and he did very well indeed.



But the wines that made Constantia famous came later when Hendrik Cloete moved from Stellenbosch (named after the same van der Stel) and bought a portion of the Constantia estate.  He planted new vines and specialised in a wine made from grapes ripened almost to raisins on the vine, matured in vats and fortified.  The wine was called simply Constantia and it held its own with all the choice sweet wines popular with the rich and famous of the day.  All this came to an end late in the nineteenth century when the phylloxera plague devastated the vineyards.  Still, a few bottles survive to this day.  A wine-writer friend of mine was fortunate to taste one some years ago and pronounced it still luscious after more than 100 years.

In 1980 a new estate named Klein Constantia (part of the original van der Stel estate) decided to try to recreate the famous 19th century Constantia wine.  It was to be a sweet desert wine in the late harvest style – not botrytis – with the berries hand-selected.  The venture was a stunning success and celebrated in the name – Vin de Constance – and in copies of the old Constantia hand-made bottles which the estate uses for the modern wine.  It IS available outside South Africa – a friend in Australia has a good selection of vintages, and I had a bottle in a restaurant in New York once.  If you like dessert wines, this one is worth trying if you have the chance.  And you can imagine you are sharing the bottle with Bismark or Napoleon or King George.  Works well at Chrismas too!

Michael - Thursday

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Aquired Taste

Christmas Eve is the pinnacle of the Christmas holidays in Iceland, the evening when families come together to dine and open presents. It is therefore unfortunate that my blog this time around lands on what must be called Christmas Eve Eve, i.e. the evening before, the evening before, Christmas Day. This particular day is one of the busiest of all, as you only have until noon tomorrow to wrap, decorate, pick up stuff from the cleaners, figure out if you forgot someone and last but not least, buy all of the groceries you need for the next three days as everything is closed until Sunday.

Another Icelandic tradition, unrelated to religion, does nothing to make the 23rd of December less hectic. It involves eating putrefied starry ray (kæst skata, a fish), a dish only the bravest dare cook at home so in most cases it involves going to a jam-packed restaurant and lining up with your plate to access a buffet overflowing with this “delicacy” in various editions, from mild to unbearable. The mild version leaves your sinuses clear until approximately mid-February and the unbearable burns the skin off the roof of your mouth. I cannot explain the taste in any detail but think ammonia and you are halfway there. As the name of the dish, putrefied ray implies, the smell is obnoxious and after going to one of these buffets your clothes stink to high heaven until they have been washed at least twice. Not exactly a smell one associates with Christmas which is why few choose to cook this at home and those who do usually do it on their balconies or in their garages when the weather is really, really bad. My husband and I went and had some for lunch today and our coats are still banished to the outdoors, left hanging outside our front door as they are not washing machine proof. The rest of the clothes we wore are drying after their second spin through the laundry process.

I am not 100% sure what the idea is behind this tradition although I know it originates from the Icelandic Western Fjords. I have read two theories that sound semi-reasonable, one is that this horrid meal was meant to make people look even more forward to the Christmas meal the following evening and the second that the workers and servants were provided this on the 23rd as it meant that they would not have anything to eat that could constitute as worse for a whole year – I am however a bit unsure of the logic in the latter explanation. Maybe it simply had something to do with clearing out you sinuses until mid-February. That would actually rhyme with another tradition that I will tell you about when the season draws closer, or the Þorrablót season (loosely translated: Feast of Disgusting Food) when fermented shark cleans out the nasal passages again until spring.

So, before logging off and starting to wrap and wrap and wrap, I am going to share with you my one and only obsession and claim to being a member of the loony tunes. This is my Christmas tree which is adorned with 3600 bulbs, all fastened to a branch, not just thrown on. It probably takes about two to three full working days to accomplish but as I do it in the evenings the work is spread over a about ten days. The photo at the top shows the outcome and it is the first actual photo successfully taken of a Christmas tree in our house as the mass of light is too much for an ordinary camera. This one was taken by a professional photographer sent over by one of the local newspapers that is going to publish a brief article about it tomorrow. As proof of how proud I am of this tree I am placing the photo on the internet despite how awfully fat I look in it which has something to do with my clothes being the same colour as the stereo I am standing up against. If you zoom in you will see I am not lying about this.

So until next time when the New Years festivities will be a breath away.

Yrsa - Wednesday

Monday, December 21, 2009

the not forgotten and turning a street corner






















I turned a corner in Paris and found this film about a female Resistant in the the window..






















This plaque to Henri Chevessieur who ran a clandestine printing press in the Passage Gravilliers during the Occupation. The flowers were fresh.







And this plaque where Raymond Legrand lived before he was arrested and deported to Auschwitz.













But how were these people arrested?


Their names came from lists. Lists and files of Jews made by the Germans. Jews who were arrested by the French police and sent to Camp de Pithivier, Camp de Baume-La-Roland French interment camps.

Most were Eastern Europeans Jews, the majority sent to Drancy, the holding camp outside Paris. The transit camp before deportation to Auschwitz.





And this name...end point unknown.






Cara - Tuesday

How Brazil Got Its Name





When the early Portuguese explorers first came ashore in what is now Brazil they called their new possession Ilha de Vera Cruz, Island of the True Cross. It wasn’t long, though, before they discovered it wasn’t an island. That’s when they changed the name to Terra de Santa Cruz, Land of the Holy Cross. And so it might have remained. 


But then they stumbled across this tree.
They’re a rarity these days, but five hundred years ago the country was covered with trees just like this one. And before gold, before precious stones, before sugar cane and coffee, they were the source of Brazil’s wealth.

Early on, it was discovered that the wood, ground up very fine, could be used to produce dyes and paints of a unique color. That color was often described as closely resembling red-hot embers. Embers, in Portuguese, are brasas. The tree came to be called Pau Brasil, (very) roughly translated as “wood that produces the color of embers”.Today, English speaking people call it Brazil wood.

Literally millions of trees were harvested over the course of the next four hundred years. Their sawdust was used to color fabrics, but also as a pigment by the great artists of the sixteenth, seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, most of whom mixed their own paints. By the nineteenth century such paints were being commercially produced. By then, the painters of Italy had corrupted brasil into verzino, the name by which the color became known. It was available in several different shades, two of which are in the background of this painting by van Gogh.


These days, verzino has largely been replaced by cadmium and azo pigments, which can duplicate the same colors at lesser cost. But if a painting is over a hundred years old, and contains this shade of red, the likelihood is that it has a little bit of Brazil in it.

I know of no other country that got its name from a color. But Brazil did.

Leighton - Monday

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Genre Ghetto






In a New York Times review of Dan Chaon's estimable
Await Your Reply, Janet Maslin, who should know a hell of a lot better, wrote: "[the book] bridges the gap between Literary and pulp fiction." (The cap "L" is mine.)

Really.

Talk about snobbery. The ill-chosen word "gap" suggests that we exist in a sort of bifurcated world, where the lovers and creators of Literary fiction lead heightened lives, subsisting on the fragrance of oranges, sunlight, and a wry acceptance of the human condition, while the rest of us grub around on our elbows in the muck, grunting at each other and trying to keep the drool off our copy of the new mass-market paperback by Stuart Woods.

By pulp fiction, Maslin means what she undoubtedly thinks of as genre fiction: mysteries, thrillers, science fiction, romance -- you know, the stuff people read. And I'll admit that some of it is awful, but I'll also say that some of it is every bit as good as Literary fiction. And even when genre fiction is bad, it's not as bad -- nothing is as bad -- as bad Literary fiction.

I believe that one of the things that agonizes many Literary critics (and editors) about genre fiction -- okay, about mysteries and thrillers -- is the prevalence of happy endings. No book can be taken seriously by the critical establishment unless it ends on a gray, cold beach, shrouded by fog, with a gull screeching unseen as a child's brightly colored shoe washes ashore. I mean, that's life. Life as it really is. With a bad ending. Bleak is the new black.

In today's criticism, a bad ending, by which I mean an ending in which the characters are considerably worse off than they were in the beginning, is almost a requirement for fiction to receive serious artistic consideration. Happy endings are a convention. They're vulgar. They're not real.

It will not come as news to the writer or fan of mysteries and thrillers that everyone dies sooner or later. Most of us understood that before we began to shave wherever it is that we shave. We actually do realize that all happy endings are temporary. And so what? One of the essential creative acts in writing a book is putting a frame around the story: it begins here, it ends there, it goes no higher than this and no lower than that. Painters and
photographers face the same challenge. For a work of art to be about anything, there have to be things it is not about. That's the function of the frame -- to exclude the irrelevant.

And (this is a secret not to be shared with critics) we all experience happy endings all the time. The biopsy comes back benign. We marry the one we love. We have kids. We get home from the dry cleaner without being hit by a dump truck. The sun goes down at the end of the day and everyone we love is still alive. Those are perfectly good places to say the arc of a story is complete. Why would it be better or more honest to wait until the sofa on which we gather at day's end is empty, perhaps with the family dog, in the midst of starving to death, looking mournfully up at it?

Mysteries and thrillers are fundamentally optimistic. Whether they have happy endings or not, they're about the restoration of order. They take a situation (or a person) that's broken, and the main course of the action is about fixing the break. The truth comes out. The innocent are vindicated. The guilty eat it, one way or another. Life can move on again.

Sorry, but that's not a definition of pulp, not unless it's very badly done. That's a consciously constructed approach to a novel, with the frame the writer chose to impose on the material.

Look, do we criticize a wedding portrait, the commemorative shot of two people at a high point in their lives, because the photographer didn't back the camera up so he could squeeze in the church cemetery, where the blushing bride will eventually be buried? Or mount his lens on a satellite so he could put the nuptial celebration into the larger perspective of global ethnic cleansing?

All I ask of an ending is that, whatever it is -- happy, mildly happy, bemused, unsettling, tragic -- it has to arise naturally from the story and the characters. It has to be consistent with the world the novel presents. If it isn't, if it's a phony, tacked-on, cobbled-together resolution plucked out of nowhere, then it doesn't matter whether it ends a 180-page private-eye novel or the latest 468-page sofa from a Literary Novelist. It's pulp. Even if it's sad.

Because pulp is about quality, Ms. Maslin, not about genre. And you should be ashamed of yourself.








The type says it all: going downhill.

Tim - Sunday

Friday, December 18, 2009

There but for the grace of God...

A short post from me this week, as I'm snowed under - literally, it snowed here last night and if there's one thing the UK can't cope with, it's a flurry of the white stuff. Stoically we endure grave threats to our nation's wellbeing - the Blitz, numerous recessions, terrorist attacks, the collected TV works of Simon Cowell. Yet when a few flakes drop from the sky, our transport system grounds to a halt, schools close and people start stockpiling tins of spam.

However, I offer all of you, writers both real and budding, a cautionary tale. What not to do when greeted with a one-star review on Amazon. We all dread having them. We've all cursed and sworn and wished ill on the reviewer who has taken a kick at our hard work. But I think we're all wise to keep our counsel.

For proof, go here..

http://www.amazon.com/review/R1BA0D6J2GS59/ref=cm_cd_pg_pg1?ie=UTF8&cdPage=1&cdSort=oldest

Read it all to see the unfolding horror - and make sure you click to reveal 'Niteflyr One's' (aka the author) responses.

Crumbs...remind me to stay away from the science fiction romance genre.

Cheers.

Dan - Friday

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Rust en Vrede


I’ve been keeping a low profile in the African bush and the Cape winelands while the others have been beavering away at this blog. Finally I’ve emerged and decided to catch up. I must say that I had so much fun reading what the others had written – and the comments on it – that I nearly missed yet another deadline. Thursdays, it seems, arrive with increasing rapidity every week.

My visit to the Cape was for a conference on mathematics education, optimistically named Delta (the mathematical symbol for change). The change in question is the teaching of mathematics at college level. One of the plenary speakers noted that if ten years ago we had the research results we have now on how ineffectual lectures are, we wouldn’t be giving them anymore. I’m not so sure. Old easy habits die hard...

Anyway, I felt the need to combine this academic activity with some research for a future book. We have been toying with the idea of having our wine-loving Botswana detective win a wine tasting competition in Gaborone (perhaps he is the only entrant?) and getting a week tour of the Cape winelands as a prize. I suppose something unpleasant will happen to someone while he’s there, but that lies ahead. The real point was that I needed to do some fieldwork. The fact that I had some of the foreign delegates to the conference along to impress added zest to the undertaking.

As a wine lover myself, I find all areas hosting vineyards beautiful. But I have to say that the combination of vineyards, mountains and the ubiquitous Cape Dutch architecture makes the Cape wine growing region among the most lovely. The visitors seemed to feel much the same way. We got into the mood with a good lunch in the town of Franschoek – a village surrounded by the Hottentots Holland mountains with vineyards rising from its outskirts up into the foothills. Although the very first Dutch settlers started growing grapes and making wine, it was regarded as pretty foul. The real wine making expertise dates back to the French Protestant immigrants who came to South Africa to escape Catholic France. Many settled in this area giving the village its “French Corner” name.

After lunch we sauntered over the Helshoogte (“Hell’s Heights”) pass to the Stellenbosch area, which is widely regarded – and certainly regards itself – as the centre of South African wine farming.

We chose to visit the Rust en Vrede wine estate at the end of a narrow road that climbs up into the hills. The farm was established in1694, and the date is celebrated in the winery’s premier wine. The 1694 is a blend of Cabernet and Shiraz (Rust en Vrede is one of the few South African wineries which have managed to deal with that popular Australian blend successfully), and the price is an eye-watering R1200 a bottle (roughly US$160) which puts it among South Africa’s most expensive wines. But the Engelbrecht family has been making good to excellent wines at the estate since the 1970s, and the wines have a great reputation. Nelson Mandela chose them for his Nobel Peace Prize dinner in 2004. Other South African wineries have also had their moments in the limelight. President Obama enjoyed a South African sparkling wine to celebrate his election. Napoleon was partial to a sweet fortified wine from the Constantia area very near to Cape Town and had a bottle of it at his bedside when he died. Some suggest that it was used to poison him; others believe its supply showed that he was treated well by his British jailors.

The Rust en Vrede manor house was built in 1790 and although most of the buildings are much more recent, they all match the Cape Dutch style of gables, thatch and whitewash. The picture above is of the restaurant which started life as the old barrel cellar. And the name? For the non-Dutch speakers, it’s Rest and Peace. As appropriate today as it was in the seventeenth century.

The View from Rust en Vrede
Michael - Thursday

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Aurora Borealis



The northern lights are a rarity of the sort that never ceases to amaze, no matter how often you witness their majestic, light-footed dance across the blackened sky. Maybe it has something to do with the unexpected aspect of their appearance; you can never be 100% sure to see them even if conditions are perfect. It could also be related to the fact that this is not a static phenomenon , the diffuse lights move in a manner best likened in my recollection to an electric ribbon, gently propelled into movement by a light breeze somewhere way up high in the ionosphere. This is further enhanced by an irregular, up/down motion of the individual rays that line up to form the glowing ribbon. Usually the shimmering colour is a multi shaded green but at times pink layers can be seen, adding flavour to the grandiose and surreal happening. It is on purpose that I am going to spare you the scientific explanation of what drives the northern lights, it is too boring and unworthy of the actual glory involved.

Seeing as how unworldly the northern lights are, I have often wondered why the old Norse mythology is relatively silent regarding this phenomenon. We have Þór (Thor) the god of thunder, but no god seems to have had the good sense to associate him- or herself with the northern lights. Explanations for earthquakes exist; bad, bad Loki causes them when poisonous venom from a huge snake occasionally drips onto his face while his wife is emptying the bowl she usually uses to catch it with. And why does Loki not move from underneath the beast’s fangs? Because the gods have tied him down using the entrails of one of his own sons – of course. It is obviously not for lack of imagination that the northern lights get no mention, neither can realism have cramped the Viking’s style much. The most likely explanation I have come across is that the magnetic north pole was located elsewhere at the time when Norse mythology was coming into its own and if I had provided the boring scientific explanation I purposely skipped you would know that this means the northern lights were turned off over northern Scandinavian at the time.

The above reminds me that Christianity stopped using lightning as a sign of the wrath of God during the early dark ages. Lightning was no longer mentioned and the topic avoided at all cost. This was due to the fact that church steeples were usually the highest urban points at this time, and therefore more subject to being hit by lightning than the local whorehouse or other such establishments of lesser ethical standards. Without question, placing a metal cross on the top did not help at all. One cannot but wonder what must have gone through the church officials’ minds while passing buckets of water between themselves to put out a fire caused by lightning. What the hell did we do now? It might explain some of the more bizarre bans that have been passed over to us by this establishment. Maybe it had something to do with people wearing a hat inside during mass?

Back to my original topic, if you ever have the chance to come to Iceland during the winter time, jump on it. If you are lucky and it is both cold outside and the sky is clear the northern lights will make your trip worthwhile, horrible security checks and all. We even have a hotel on the south coast that specializes in northern lights tourism – on their home page they have a video that gives an idea of what to expect even though it is pretty grainy:

http://hotelranga.is/video/271/video-from-hotel-ranga/default.aspx

Finally I would like to thank my colleague Málfríður Guðmundsdóttir, who lent me photos to accompany this post. Unlike me she is a great photographer and if interested you can see more of her wonderful photos from Iceland by following this link:

http://www.flickr.com/photos/fridamin/

Yrsa – Wednesday

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

How To Subscribe

Recently, a couple of folks have asked us how to subscribe to this blog.
Question: Why would you want to?
Answer: In order to make sure you don't miss any of the posts. (Or the comments from our readers, some of which are quite as good as the posts.)
Here's how you do it:
On the upper right hand corner of the page you'll find the words "subscribe to:"
To get the posts, you hit "posts".
When the pulldown menu appears, you cllick one of the options.
Most people will prefer Atom, the one at the bottom.
That will open a window which allows you to opt where you want to direct the feed.
If you use out Outlook, do that, because that will send the posts directly to your email program.
That's it. Done.
In the case of Outlook a little box will appear on the email page. It will say "RSS feeds" and under that the name of this blog "Murder is Everywhere".
And by clicking on it, you'll find all of our posts.
And, if you want the comments as well, opt for them by repeating the process.
Except you start by clicking on "comments" instead of "posts".
And a second box will open on Outlook.
Easy.

Leighton

In the footsteps of Inspector Maiget...kind of



December 15 Tuesday

In the footsteps of Inspector Maigret...kind of

It’s all about connections in France. A friend’s high school classmate knows a man who knows the person you want to meet. Connections get you his phone number. But introductions, I’ve discovered after many painful botched attempts, will get you in the door. In this case the wide portal of 36 Quai des Orfevrés home of the Paris Police Prefecture. Also the haunt of George Simenon’s Inspector Maigret fictionally in charge of the Suréte homicide. Now it’s called Brigade Criminelle, the elite homicide division on the fifth floor.

But I’d been there, visited ‘Maigret’s office’ and seen the photos of Simenon visiting the real Inspector he based Maigret on. I saw the intake desk, the holding cells, climbed the winding back stairways and saw messy paper piled desks. But this time I had an introduction to the Crime Scene Investigation Unit. The team who arrived at the scene of the crime, assembled the evidence, handed it to the Brigade Criminelle detectives and particular to the Prefecture, exclusively handled the fingerprints of each case.

My friend Anne, who founded an association with rape victims and their families to promote legislation for penal re-education and pyschological programs for offenders, met François at the sentry gate. François, seventeen years in the Brigade Criminelle and now running the Crime Scene Unit, puffed on his pipe with a nod to Maigret and flashed his ID at the sentry. The we were in the famed courtyard and seconds later mounting the staircase into the heart of ’36’. Magistrates and avocats, wearing black robes and white ermine around their necks bustled past since the Tribunal, court, adjoins the Prefecture.

One stop shopping, I thought, since a suspect is booked on the third floor, held in gard à vue in a cell in the basement then within twenty four to forty eight hours taken back up to the third floor crosses the corridor and into the courtroom to be arraigned. After that the suspect either bids adieu or if the Brigade Criminelle’s assembled enough evidence and the la Procurer - like the DA - has enough to try her/him he’s back downstairs to the basement cells.
After the quick tour through the clogged Tribunal corridor - I mean how many black robed Magistrates does it take to block a wide high ceilinged 18th century corridor? Enough I discovered as they huddled discussing cases, we again crossed the courtyard, past ‘flic’s, cops, smoking in the corners, down more steps and into another courtyard and then into another. Now we were in a courtyard surrounded by a soot-stained wing of the Tribunal and facing ugly tan portables. The ‘heartbeat’ of the Crime Scene Unit.

I’d hoped for a more picturesque building but here François - off to a case - handed us to Remy who was in charge of the division. Remy, orange pants, matching tie and little English smiled. “I’ll show you the father of modern forensics, Bertillion, this was his lab and office.” Here I wondered? But Remy led us to the next building, through a warren of hallways and we were back in the old part. Somehow this complex at ’36’ on the Ile de la Cité all connected. We saw Bertillon’s early instruments and how he developed in the late 1890’s what everyone still uses today - the techniques of fingerprinting and identification. In 2000 the fingerprint division connected to APHIS the fingerprint database but they still use the old fingerprint cards to identify a hit on APHIS and keep to the standards of a 12 point match up on the fingerprint pad.

But forget the technical for a moment, I was struck by the camaraderie among the technicians at their computers, the joking and quips and comments as they stood comparing old brown files, or in the lab room pulling out graphite powder and testing for indentations on paper, or in another the fingerprints on counterfeit Euros. Like a family. Everyone time we met someone it was handshakes or kisses hello...ok, it’s France even in the workplace people double cheek kiss when they meet. But it added a human touch not found at the FBI. Even a Christmas tree near Bertillion’s old lab. One of the highlights was the reconstruction room. A room in the base of the 15th century tower where the team re-enacts the crime scene. The new in the old, and with their cramped headquarters every bit is used. So after an illuminating four hours and with a nod to Maigret, double cheeked kisses to his descendent Remy we left ’36’ and headed across the street to Cafe Soleil d’Or, where the ‘flic’s’ eat lunch. Supposedly Maigret 'ate' there, too.


Cara - Tuesday

Monday, December 14, 2009

FLIP






 I’m standing on a street in Paraty. Back in colonial times, Paraty was the deep water port from which much of Brazil’s gold was sent “home” to Portugal. These days, though, there’s barely enough draft in the main channel for small fishing boats and pleasure craft. 




 
The city fronts on a bay where the turquoise water is studded with more than three hundred islands. And, beyond it, a dense rain forest covers mountains that rise to heights of more than five thousand feet.


But, for the Brazilian literary world, Paraty has a significance that goes beyond its colonial architecture and  picture-perfect setting. Paraty is the site of the FLIP, Festa Literária Internacional de Paraty, The Paraty International Literary Festival. Guest authors from the past have included Dennis Lehane, Salman Rushdie, Martin Amis, Margaret Atwood, Paul Auster, Anthony Bourdain, Jonathan Coe, J.M. Coetzee, Amos Oz and Nadine Gordimer.










Most of the action takes place in a huge air-conditioned tent. There’s a café on one side, a bookstore on the other and, inside, authors do their stuff by participating in a series of panels. There’s simultaneous translation into English, Portuguese, Spanish and other languages when necessary. The FLIP’s opening shows feature performers like Chico Buarque, Paulinho da Viola, Gilberto Gil, Caetano Veloso and Maria Bethânia, all famous names in Brazilian Popular Music.


And then there’s the parallel event, the Flipinha (little FLIP) for kids. Books dangle from shade trees, storytellers spin tales, and writers read from their works.




 Check out the insect. No kid who saw that will forget Gregor Samsa.

Dates vary from year to year, but the FLIP is always in (Brazilian) mid-winter, July or August. In Paraty, there are plenty of cheap hotels, restaurants and bars. And, for a small fee, a fisherman is always willing to take you out to a deserted beach on one of the islands. Even at that time of the year, the water is comfortably warm.

Thinking of coming down for a visit to Brazil? Do it when you can attend the FLIP.
It’s only a three hour drive (or a four hour bus ride) from either São Paulo or Rio.

Their website: http://www.flip.org.br/

Leighton - Monday