13 February 2010

City of Literature: Edinburgh books

If I asked you what world city was the first title holder of the UNESCO designation "City of Literature," I'm not sure Edinburgh would leap to your mind. It certainly didn't leap to mine; my first guess was London. But Edinburgh it is: the City of Literature.

I will cede the floor to Justin on discussing the role of Edinburgh in English-language publishing (hint: massive) because heck, it's what he studies. Instead, I'll write a bit here about some books with Edinburgh connections, and make some suggestions in case you want to pick up a book that gives you a peek into our current hometown.

Harry Potter Series, by J.K. Rowling

If you've been paying attention, you already knew this! Edinburgh has served as the place of writing and also as the inspiration for many aspects of this series, including locations and character names. I won't bother to describe the series, but the Edinburgh connection was new to me when I moved here.

Who might enjoy: Everybody in the world, apparently

The Inspector Rebus series, by Ian Rankin

Inspector Rebus is an Edinburgh police detective. The series began in the late '80s - I got a chuckle at the scene in the first book where Rebus mentions his pride and joy, a Japanese-manufactured tape deck - but is still going strong. I've only read the first book, Knots and Crosses, but I ran into many Edinburgh locations that make up my daily life. I particularly enjoyed the scene where Rebus walks from his apartment in Marchmont (where there's a particularly nice beer shop Justin and I frequent) across the Meadows (how we get to campus) through Greyfriars Kirkyard (where we went with Meghan to see the Tom Riddle tombstone) and into the Central Public Library (where I currently have five books checked out). I think they've moved the children's section since the book was published, but the reference room is exactly as described. I should know - I researched there last December!

Who might enjoy: Rebus is not a procedural mystery, which is to say, you are not given clues to piece the mystery together. It's a crime novel much more in the thriller vein. The first one was violent (about child kidnapping and murder) but very little violence happened "on screen." You didn't get passages narrated by the crazy killer, which I always hate. I can't vouch for later ones. It's more for fans of Tom Clancy or James Patterson than Agatha Christie.

The Sunday Philosophy Club Series, by Alexander McCall Smith

Another Edinburgh mystery series. (Edinburgh and crime just seem to go together... maybe it's the weather, which can politely be termed "atmospheric.") Actually, word on the street has it that Rowling, McCall Smith, and Rankin are pals, and sometimes get together for a cup of tea.

To be honest, I read this book two years ago, before Edinburgh was even a glint in my eye, so I don't remember much of the plot or the Edinburgh connections. McCall Smith is better known for his No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency Series, which I prefer for its more lighthearted and chatty style. But if you like five-page philosophical digressions on Camus with your mystery novels (and I know you're out there), this may be a series you'd enjoy.

Who Might Enjoy: Seriously? I just answered that.

The Lymond Chronicles, by Dorothy Dunnett

Neither a mystery nor a book set in the present! The Lymond Chronicles is a massive six-volume series about a Scottish aristocrat named Francis Lymond, who becomes a key player in the political intrigue among England, Scotland, Ireland, France, and others during the early childhood of Mary, Queen of Scots. Lymond is brilliant, and watching him juggle plots and schemes while knowing he'll always somehow pull it out is great fun. His compatriots, sadly, do not always make it out with him (expect to lose many supporting characters along the way) and it's often Lymond's fault. Unlike superman James Bond heroes, he makes mistakes and changes and learns. I am about to start book 4, and I have been assured at a romance book forum I frequent that a thoroughly satisfying romance will conclude this series.

Edinburgh appears many times in the series. This website lists them all, but don't go there if you haven't read the series yet, as it's full of spoilers. One highlight for me was watching Lymond race up the Grassmarket to make it in time for a climactic sword fight in St. Giles' Cathedral. It doesn't look the same, as the building was Catholic during the 1550s but is Church of Scotland today, but if I moved some screens and altars around in my mind, I could get a very good idea of the setting. Bonus for Justin and me - a scene set at Tantallon Castle and a large chunk of the third book in Malta!

Who might enjoy: Anybody who likes a large but tightly plotted historical epic with a great lead character. Diana Gabaldon fans, fans of the Scarlet Pimpernel (with a higher tolerance for secondary character suffering), Scottish history buffs (many real people are part of the story).

Kidnapped, by Robert Louis Stevenson

I expect shrieks of outrage from Justin when this post goes up. He did a paper on Kidnapped last term in which he discussed the publication history of the book, including its selection as the first book for the "One Book, One Edinburgh" project. This was a City of Literature campaign to get everyone in Edinburgh to read the same book, and it included sponsoring a graphic novel adaptation of Kidnapped by the legendary Alan Grant and Cam Kennedy. Justin got a very good grade on this paper, but he gets an Incomplete for this blog post.

Kidnapped is set in the 18th century (1700s, for people like me who can never do that math correctly). It's an adventure tale originally published for young men (oh, Justin must be twitching now!). Most of the narrative takes place outside of Edinburgh, with a few exceptions near the beginning and end. It features the famous description of Auld Reekie "smoking like a kiln." I also liked the description of Grassmarket (the same one featured in Lymond):

"The huge height of the buildings, running up to ten and fifteen storeys, the narrow arched entries that continually vomited passengers, the wares of the merchants in their windows, the hubbub and endless stir, the foul smells and the fine clothes, and a hundred other particulars too small to mention.."

Writing in the early 19oos about the mid 1700s and applicable to the early 2000s (see image here). Nicely done, Bobby Louie Stevie.

Who might enjoy: According to Justin, everybody. Good for all ages. Stevenson's writing is clear and vivid and does not read at all as if it's one hundred years old (he's sort of like Orwell that way).

The Highland Countess, by Marion Chesney

You're not getting through this list without at least one romance novel. The Scottish/Highland subgenre in romance is colossal. Edinburgh is Lowland Scotland, so many romances don't actually include scenes here, but The Highland Countess does. I'm including it as a representative for every tartan-covered novel with a claymore-wielding Laird and semi-Scots expressions like "dinna fash" and "wee lassie."

Actually, I love Marion Chesney. My mother probably hates her, because of the time I misplaced a library book called Deborah Goes to Dover and we had to pay for it. I still have no idea where that book is. The Highland Countess is a similar plot to many Regency London-set novels, but it provides a fun alternative setting. I remember the scene in which the heroine, moving into her husband's apartment on the Royal Mile, reflects on some of the same human smells mentioned above by Stevenson. Edinburgh, historically, has not been a salubrious place.

Who might enjoy: Anybody who enjoys clever, short stories with happy endings. This is a very mild romance as far as... well, "romance" goes. Safe for most readers.

Honorable Mentions: The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson, and the Sherlock Holmes mysteries, by Arthur Conan Doyle.

(They're public domain, so if you click on the above links, you can read them online for free!)

Honorable Mentions because these books are ostensibly set in London, but any reader paying attention can pick out Edinburgh elements. Jekyll and Hyde, in particular, has foggy closes and passageways that could only be Old Town Edinburgh. Like Kidnapped, it was chosen as a City of Literature book (of Doyle's work, they chose The Lost World instead of a Holmes novel. It's good but not Edinburgh-y).

Additionally, both feature characters based on real Edinburghers. The double-life of Jekyll and Hyde likely drew on the story of Deacon Brodie, an upstanding Edinburgh cabinetmaker and councilman who just happened to moonlight as a burglar to pay for his gambling habit. Arthur Conan Doyle based Sherlock Holmes on one of his professors at the University of Edinburgh, a man named Joseph Bell. The professor was noted for his keen sense of observation and his process of logical deduction. Today, the university has a Joseph Bell Centre for Forensic Statistics and Legal Reasoning (very fitting, one must say.)

Who would enjoy: Jekyll and Hyde is a very readable and highly engaging classic. Don't assume you won't enjoy the book just because you know the plot twist. As for Sherlock Holmes - well, don't judge the books by the movie. Anybody could enjoy these. They are not violent and move quite quickly. Personally, I love the short mysteries, which come in collections. The longer mysteries tend to be padded out in the last two-thirds by an extensive victim/perpetrator backstory - of the longer ones, I can only recommend Hound of the Baskervilles without reservation.

And that's not even all the books with Edinburgh connections out there. If you run into another one, leave a comment on the page here and tell me what you thought of it!

09 February 2010

Line up!

Scotland and Korea: A Cultural Comparison

Koreans do not believe in lines. Lines exist to keep other people out of the way while you cut around them and do whatever it is they're all waiting in line to do. We have a theory that this dates back to the war - anybody who couldn't throw a few elbows wasn't going to survive - and this is somewhat borne out by the fact that the worst line violators in the country are women over the age of 60. Those women will blow you up. I've seen NFL replays less painful than what one of them did to Justin in a supermarket.

By contrast, the Scots love lining up (or "queuing," as it's called here.) It's reputed to be a national pastime. This may explain why Canadians, many of whom are part Scottish, are famous for polite queuing (side note: the Canadian o, as in "aboot," matches the Scots accent, and I strongly suspect "eh?" is a derivation of the Scottish "aye?", which serves the same grammatical function of asking you to confirm the preceding statement). Ryanair, which we took to Malta, has a no-assigned-seats policy that basically requires you to bullrush the aircraft. In Scotland, it works surprisingly well. In Korea, there would be casualties - except, of course, that boarding already works like this, so maybe they're used to it.

This isn't a perfect system, though. Case in point: I was waiting at a bus stop, and everybody got into a nice straight line. Sounds like a great idea, until you realize that five buses use the same stop. When your bus pulls up, nobody ahead of you is getting on it, so you get out of the line, walk around the line, and get on the bus. The line is entirely superfluous. Or lines get ridiculously long because people will tolerate them. British Telecom told us that if we wanted their internet service, there would be a two week wait before a guy could come out and check our apartment for an activated line, plus a 200 pound fee for line activation if necessary, followed by a six week wait for internet service.

In game theory, economists construct little grids showing what benefits you'll get from an action depending on the other person's move (see a particularly adorable example here). If you think of the Chicken Game, for instance, in which two drivers drive at each other and one of them has to swerve: if the other guy swerves, you benefit most by going straight. If the other guy goes straight, you'd better swerve. If you both go straight, you're both dead, and if you both swerve, you're both... well, chickens.

So with the question of queuing. If everybody's cheating, then we're all worse off, because only the meanest, toughest, elbow-throwingest Korean old ladies are going to get served. By contrast, if everybody queues nicely, it's a perfect setup for cheaters. Justin rejects the British Telecom offer and pulls an end-around by calling Virgin Wireless, which sets us up within ten days. When Justin has no boarding pass for the imminently departing Pittsburgh flight, I bypass the queue to ask at the counter for a thirty-second print job and departing one boarding pass richer. (Hypothetical situation, of course).

Ultimate lesson of the day: in the land of Scottish queuers, the Korea-trained line jumper is king.

07 February 2010

History from the Bottom Up: The Knights of Malta

(This is another post about the history of Malta, where we spent the first week of the new year. You can find our earlier posts on Maltese history here, here, and here.)

The History

When our last post left off, Malta was under Arab rule. In 1194, the Muslim rulers were driven out by the Sicilians, who re-established Catholicism and ruled via a feudal aristocracy. As Sicily itself passed into the hands of a succession of European feudal lords--most notably the Spanish kingdoms of Aragon and Castille--Malta picked up aristocrats and cultural influences from the farthest corners of Christendom.

The late medieval and early modern periods saw an ongoing struggle between Christians and Muslims for control of the Mediterranean, of which the Crusades were a part. In this struggle, Malta was an important naval base for European forces, though it was very difficult to defend from North African pirates.

In 1522, the Knights Hospitallar (aka the Knights of St. John, later the Knights of Malta), one of the more successful of the crusading orders, were driven by the Ottoman Turks from their island fortress of Rhodes in the eastern Mediterranean. Charles V of Spain, who also owned much of Italy at the time, ceded Malta to the Knights to protect Italy from invasion from the south. The Knights fended off a much larger Turkish force in the Great Siege of 1565, then over a period of about 200 years, as the fight over the Mediterranean petered out, settled into a new role as an aristocratic order concerned mostly with trading throughout the Mediterranean and governing their island home. They also continued their association with medicine, which dates from their original mandate to assist pilgrims to the Holy Land.

The Knights are still around today: they're a Catholic charitable organization that funds hospitals around the world.

Now we'll look at some of what the Knights have left behind.

The Co-Cathedral of St. John

The Co-Cathedral of St. John (called that because the original cathedral of Malta is in Mdina) is the spiritual home of the Knights of Malta. It's also a way of making demonstrating that the Knights were really, really rich. Seriously, every inch of the place is covered in precious art: gold-leaf wood carvings, intricate marble tombstones, elaborate Renaissance murals, fine portraits and sculptures, etc.
The above is the sculpture behind the altar, which depicts St. John the Baptist, the patron saint of the order, baptizing Christ.

The tombstones, set into the cathedral floor, are particularly interesting for their pre-Reformation imagery: nearly every one prominently displays death, while many display the angel of fame blowing a trumpet.
The most important knights--usually Grandmasters, who were the heads of the order--had full-on funerary sculptures, not just regular tombstones.

The aisles of the cathedral are divided into chapels, each one given over to one of the 8 langues (sub-groups) of the order. The langues themselves are an interesting reflection of the 12th-century political order under which the Knights were founded: in addition to the French langue, there's a langue of Auvergne and a langue of Provence; the Spanish kingdoms of Aragon and Castile belong to separate langues; and the langue of Germany is basically assumed to cover anything that wasn't part of the old Roman Empire, with England thrown in for good measure.

Each of the chapels is dedicated to a particular saint, and each focuses on a central piece of art.
Some of the chapels have been renovated, some are in various states of disrepair, and some are being refurbished as we speak, as part of Malta's general campaign to reinvent itself as a cultural and historical destination.

Off to one side of the nave is a magnificent little art museum, housing everything from Renaissance masterpieces to clerical vestments to 16th-century manuscript choral books.

Anyway, if you're in Valletta, don't miss St. John's--and don't be misled by its drab exterior.

You come to a point where you think, if you've seen one church, you've seen them all, but St. John's is in a category all its own. While the price of admission isn't cheap, it's well worth a look at the treasures within--and all the proceeds from ticket sales go towards restoration and conservation.

The Grand Harbor

Malta's strategic value as a naval base rests on its large natural harbors, the largest of which is the Grand Harbor, formed by the peninsulas of Valetta and the Three Cities.

The Knights of Malta fortified the bejeezus out of the harbor, building enormous battlements around each of the bordering cities. But the walls were no match for Nana! Muhahahaha!

The Prisons (and the Inquisition)

The Knights of Malta were a military order, and thus a popular dumping ground for the unruly sons of aristocrats throughout Europe (think military school). Of course, the Knights needed some way to keep these hordes of unruly young men in line, and if they doubled as a way to enforce spiritual order on their islands, all the better!

(Edit by Nana: That will teach me to ransack the Grand Harbor. Also, do you realize this is the third blog post in which I've gone to jail? Seriously: here and here. Do you think I should report this on my visa forms?)

Today, medieval and early-modern prisons dot the urban landscape of Malta. The best examples are in Victoria (on Gozo), Mdina, and Vittorioso, which is one of the Three Cities across the Grand Harbor from Valletta. Many of these feature elaborate prison graffiti, which are an attraction in and of themselves.
It has been suggested that carvings of hands like the one below were intended as a kind of signature for the illiterate.
Galleys like the one below were supposedly used to count out the length of a prison sentence, with each oar (I think) representing a certain length of time.

(Edit by Nana: We found this last graffito interesting because of the precision of the carving. We speculate that this was possible because somebody used a newspaper to stencil in their names. Unless somewhere out there is a mad graffitist who specializes in serif fonts...)

The largest of the prisons is the Inquisitor's Palace in Vittorioso. But it's not quite what you think: the Inquisition was of a much milder sort on Malta. The Inquisition was simply the authority for spiritual crimes, even minor ones, and as such was kind of like a more intense form of Catholic confession. For minor transgressions, typical penalties may have included mandatory alms, public prayer, or other forms of penance.