Friday, May 28, 2021

processing middle names correctly is my middle name

The Tears Of The Giraffe post reminded me of a thing I mentioned on Twitter a while back: the difficulty of accurately categorising (in terms of alphabetical sorting) people whose authorial name is in three bits, like, for instance, Alexander McCall Smith, or, for that matter, Iain Duncan Smith, who actually is - no, seriously - a published novelist

Even in that tweet I have made an unwarranted assumption, which is that if you have someone who professionally goes by three names with no intervening hyphens, names two and three are a sort of combined surname. This is demonstrably untrue for names such as Joyce Carol Oates, double featuree on this very blog - to be fair if you read the thread under the original tweet I do acknowledge as much there. Below is a not-necessarily-exhaustive list of potentially problematic authorial names from my own bookshelves.
Author name Middle bit What is it?
Alice Thomas Ellis Thomas probably surname (pseudonym)
Isaac Bashevis Singer Bashevis probably surname (partial pseudonym)
Mario Vargas Llosa Vargas Spanish patronymic
John Kennedy Toole Kennedy middle name
Gabriel García Márquez Garcia Spanish patronymic
F. Scott Fitzgerald Scott middle name
Alexander McCall Smith McCall surname
Joyce Carol Oates Carol middle name
Lewis Grassic Gibbon Grassic probably surname (pseudonym)
Ruth Prawer Jhabvala Prawer surname
David Foster Wallace Foster middle name
Bobbie Ann Mason Ann middle name
Michael Marshall Smith Marshall surname
Brett Easton Ellis Easton middle name
M. John Harrison John middle name

It's important to point out that these are my best guesses based on some cursory scanning of Wikipedia pages for the authors in question and the application of what seems to me like common sense but could very possibly not be. So for Alice Thomas Ellis, for instance, there isn't much real-world context to go on, since her real name was either Ann Margaret Haycraft née Lindholm or Anna Margaret Haycraft née Lindholm, depending on whether you believe her Wikipedia page or her obituary. But since Thomas is an unlikely middle name for a woman I have chosen to assume it's meant to be the first part of a two-part surname. 

Since I am quite lazy I wanted to have a single rule I could apply to all authors, and so the only rational one seemed to be to file the books by the third part of the name. This avoids things which seem obviously wrong, like filing Joyce Carol Oates under "C", but does produce some results which are wrong the other way, like filing Gabriel García Márquez under "M" rather than "G" and Alexander McCall Smith under "S" rather than "M". But it's the best system I have.

These relatively minor problems are just a tiny microcosm of the problems that can be faced by anyone trying to categorise people's names, particularly those trying to design IT systems and databases that store and display them. This article has an excellent list of the Everything You Think You Know Is Wrong variety and this article builds on it with some real-world examples. (some more can be found here). For all that these are excellent things to remember, especially if your book collection contains anything by Colette or Voltaire, it doesn't necessarily mean that you should abandon the approach of storing "given name" and "family name" as two separate fields, as this is phenomenally useful for the vast majority of Western names, just that you need to design in enough flexibility to store what you might, in your blinkered Western-culture-centric way, consider to be "non-standard" names. 

And, I'd hope it goes without saying, while you're being all woke and accepting inputs from a gazillion different character sets, don't forget to sanitise your inputs.

Sunday, May 23, 2021

the last book I read

Tears Of The Giraffe by Alexander McCall Smith.

Precious Ramotswe is a woman of unusual talents. She runs her own detective agency in Gaborone, Botswana, called the No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency. There is, as far as we know, no No. 2. Mma Ramotswe is a woman of keen intuition and intelligence, has built up a solid reputation for herself, and in general things seem to be going pretty well. The same goes for her personal life, where she has recently become engaged to Mr. JLB Matekoni, the proprietor of Speedy Motors, a kind and diligent man, slightly older than her, but solid and reliable and with his own business. 

Mma Ramotswe and Mr JLB Matekoni are in the early stages of planning their wedding and working out how to bring their two separate households together. Both are old enough to be aware that some degree of compromise will be required, though Mma Ramotswe is reluctant to accommodate Mr JLB Matekoni's habit of setting aside whole rooms for the dismantlement of and tinkering with various interesting engines. In the meantime, there are matters to be attended to in their respective businesses.

Mma Ramotswe's next client is an American woman, Andrea Curtin, who is looking for some information about what happened to her son, Michael, who spent his late teenage years working on a sort of development project/commune in Botswana on the edge of the Kalahari Desert before disappearing in mysterious circumstances and never being found. This was a decade or so ago and the Curtins have long since returned to their previous life in America, but Mrs. Curtin finds herself reassessing some priorities in the wake of the recent death of her husband and has returned to Botswana for one final crack at finding out the truth. Mma Ramotswe finds herself sympathetic to Mrs. Curtin's loss and agrees to take the case.

While Mma Ramotswe busies herself with some preliminary enquiries, a few other things are happening: another case arrives at the agency, this one a seemingly simple case of adultery which Mma Ramotswe delegates to her secretary and sleuthular apprentice Mma Makutsi. Mr JLB Matekoni goes to visit the orphan farm run by Mma Potokwane, for whom he has a regular gig fixing mechanical pumps and various other bits of infrastructure, and is somehow inveigled into taking on two of the orphans (a brother and sister) as foster children. How is he going to explain this to Mma Ramotswe? Finally, Mr JLB Matekoni's house-maid, concerned about her future employment prospects in the wake of her employer's engagement and sudden entry into parenthood, hatches a plan to have Mma Ramotswe arrested and imprisoned.

Mma Ramotswe's finely-honed detectival instincts mean she can sniff out a wrong'un at 100 yards, and she is soon pursuing an angle which has eluded previous investigators: Michael Curtin's erstwhile colleague Dr. Oswald Ranta, now a lecturer in economics at the local university. It doesn't take much leaning on Dr. Ranta for him to reveal the truth: he and Michael shared a woman, Clara, something which Ranta and (obviously) Clara were aware of but Michael was not, and when he found out he took it badly, ran off into the bush and fell into a ditch, breaking his neck. Panicking, Ranta arranged for the burial of the body and denied all knowledge of Michael's fate.

So the case is solved. But there is an extra factor: Clara was pregnant with Michael's child when he died and the boy is now ten years old. Mma Ramotswe, as well as delivering her findings to Mrs. Curtin, also arranges a meeting between her, Clara and her grandson. 

And so the wheel comes full circle, closure is achieved, et cetera et cetera. All a bit convenient, you might say, and, well, yes, probably. Tears Of The Giraffe is actually the second in the No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency series of which, erm, The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency is the first, but just as with The Ionian Mission it's perfectly possible to pick up a random entry from the series (which now numbers twenty-odd) and enjoy it without having to have read all (or indeed any) of its predecessors. The Patrick O'Brian novels have a bit of literary heft and density to them, but this one is as light as a feather, the transparently good and kind protagonists never being in any danger of having bad stuff happening to them. It's a little bit cutesy and cosy for my taste, to be honest, and underneath the author's evident love for the country and people of Botswana there's just a hint of a rancid whiff of hankering for a simpler world of harsh retributive justice and childhood discipline, something we "sophisticated" first-world types have talked ourselves out of with our moral relativism and nuance.

Maybe I'm taking it all too seriously - this is a bit of fairly inconsequential fun, Precious Ramotswe is an appealing central character and I certainly wouldn't rule out reading another one in future if it presents itself in a second-hand shop for a small amount of money. What I would suggest, though, to anyone after short, slyly humorous detective novels that also feature a central mystery of some interest, is to get acquainted with the work of Kinky Friedman.

Tuesday, May 18, 2021

the last book I read

Brick Lane by Monica Ali.

Nazneen was born in fairly unpromising circumstances in a Bangladeshi village in the late 1960s, and, being premature, was not initially expected to survive. But, foreshadowing her unexpected resilience in the later stages of the novel, she does survive. Nonetheless the general prospects for a young girl aren't great, especially after her mother kills herself in a rather baroque fashion with a ceremonial spear. So Nazneen finds herself betrothed to an older man, also a Bangladeshi but older, from a different part of the country and currently residing in London. Without any knowledge of the world outside her village, and no knowledge of the English language, Nazneen is shipped off to be married and make a life for herself in London, specifically in the large Bangladeshi community in Tower Hamlets

Her new husband, Chanu, is a kindly enough sort of chap, though not exactly an oil painting, and afflicted with a sort of unshakeably delusional optimism about the soundness of his own ideas and the general blindly meritocratic nature of British society. The result of these things is that he gets into a series of menial jobs, gets downhearted when his ideas about how the business should best be run don't get him an instant leg up the corporate ladder, and leaves to move on to another job.

Nazneen, meanwhile, busies herself producing and caring for two daughters, Shahana and Bibi, doing all the usual cooking and cleaning, attempting to learn some English and corresponding with her sister Hasina back in Bangladesh. Hasina is having a few challenges of her own: an abusive marriage, abuse and exploitation from her boss at work, and eventually getting drawn into prostitution in order to make ends meet. Nazneen does her best to help by sending money occasionally, but there isn't much to spare.

One day Chanu has a bit of a stopped-clock moment and brings home something useful: a sewing machine. Nazneen soon gets up and running using it and is soon taking in sewing for some local Bangladeshi Del Boys, including intense young activist Karim. Not only does this enable her to bring in some extra money, but it sparks a bit of political consciousness in Nazneen and inspires her to get out of the house and go to a few meetings. Karim's presence at these is part of the appeal, of course, and as well as leading consciousness-raising efforts in the local community he is soon waging ruthless jihad in Nazneen's knickers.

Trouble is on the horizon, though, from a few different sources. Karim's group are waging a campaign against a BNP-esque group in the area, but are also having some more People's Front Of Dhaka-style internal disagreements. Nazneen lives in constant guilt about her affair with Karim and constant fear of being discovered. And Chanu's half-arsed entrepreneurial activities are revealed to have been partly financed by a loan (at ruinous rates of interest, naturally) from local loan shark Mrs. Islam, who employs her two somewhat bone-headed sons as enforcers for people who fall behind with the repayments. Nice flat you've got here, shame if someone was to break it, that sort of thing.

Chanu eventually decides that London is unacceptably corrupt and crime-ridden and that the best solution is for the whole family to uproot itself and relocate to Dhaka to start a new life. Well, of course, it's not "relocating" for Shahana and Bibi, who were born in London and are thoroughly Westernised teenagers and who naturally take a pretty dim view of the whole scheme. Nazneen's newly-developed political sensibility and self-confidence mean that she is also reluctant to make the move as well, though she's not so freed from submission to the patriarchy that she feels able to make Chanu aware of this up-front. After a bit of last-minute drama when Shahana runs away from home on the eve of their planned departure, gets caught up with some (mainly Muslim-on-Muslim) rioting on Brick Lane and has to be rescued by Nazneen, Chanu is finally brought into the picture and has to accept that his wife and daughters aren't coming with him to Dhaka - something that he takes remarkably well, considering. 

That last section of the book illustrates one of its problems: the conflict between Chanu's portrayal as a slightly infuriating but basically good-hearted and lovable buffoon who just wants the best for himself and his wife and daughters, and the necessity of involving him in some of the more gnarly elements of the plot: the highly-charged political meetings that Karim and his associates oversee, and the climactic events wherein he flies off to Bangladesh with promises from Nazneen that she and the girls will join him "later", which, even given his boundless optimism, he must surely know means "never". He never quite fits properly into the serious bits, unlike Karim who is generally a fairly humourless character.

There was some furore at the time of Brick Lane's original publication in 2003 and its filming in 2007 about whether Monica Ali, despite sharing some biographical detail with Nazneen (born in Bangladesh, relocated to Britain), was an authentic enough Bangladeshi Muslim voice to really tell a story such as this, and whether the portrayal of the Muslim community was unduly harsh. I'm probably not adequately qualified to comment on the first point, although it does seem an odd standard to hold someone to - had Dalton Trumbo actually had his face and all of his limbs blown off? What actual experience did Michael Marshall Smith have of actually rescuing genetic clones from an organ farm in a dystopian future world? Had Henry Miller actually drunk and fucked his way round Paris in the 1930s? Well, yes, OK, bad example, but you take my point, as Henry Miller said to several French prostitutes.

So, did I like it? Yes. Did I love it? Eh, no, not really. But it's a perfectly easy and entertaining read, even at a fairly hefty not-quite-500 pages. It is, I think, the third novel on this list after Falling Man and Dead Air to feature the 9/11 terrorist attacks as a significant plot point. It also shares a few themes (Muslim political consciousness-raising, excitingly illicit sexy sexy times) with The Black Album, and a partial setting in or around the Indian sub-continent with The God Of Small Things and the other novels listed in that post. Brick Lane was also shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 2003, as was The Good Doctor. That brings my total for that year to three (Notes On A Scandal being the other), one short of the record (I think) of four held jointly by 1984, 1989 and 2001.