Friday, December 30, 2005

Joseph Finder - Company Man

I don't think that I've mentioned it before, but my job is CIO (Chief Information Officer) or super-IT manager at one of Israel's leading office furniture manufacturers. In this capacity I was approached by a lady in the summer asking me to translate some technical terms about furniture from English into Hebrew. I didn't think very much about this, but during an exchange of emails (which I remember because at the time I was in San Francisco, accessing my work email), the lady asked whether she could thank me in print for my co-operation. I reluctantly agreed, out of modesty.

As we were in America on holiday, I completely forgot about this until a few weeks ago, when a lady from another furniture company in Israel whom I know phoned me and said that she had seen my name in the translator's credits of a newly published book in Hebrew. I asked her to send me a fax of the page and discovered that I had participated - albeit tangentially - in the translation of Joseph Finder's "Company Man" into Hebrew.

Last night my family were celebrating my wife's birthday in one of Tel Aviv's shopping mall. Wandering into a book shop, I decided to see the credit for myself; the book was found, but my son found it hard to believe that I had helped. As I was feeling somewhat in debt to the saleshand who had found the book, I asked for the original English copy which was quickly located, after which I bought it.

Today I read the book. It has several things which attract me: it's about a company man (actually CEO) of a furniture manufacturing company in America, which creates parallels with my own job (even though the company described is about 50 times bigger than mine). It's also a murder story, and these days most of the fiction which I buy is murder stories (check out Ian Rankin's John Rebus or Peter Robinson's Alan Banks). It's also a long book - just over 550 pages in my edition - which means that it kept me occupied for several hours.

- Warning: spoilers ahead -
It's unusual from most of the crime books that I read in that more space was devoted to the crime's perpetrator than was to the crime's solver (ie the police detective), and even then a fair amount of the pages devoted to the detective was about her home life and not the detective process. Many times, especially during the middle of the book, I found myself wondering what the book was really about, and what the author was trying to tell me.

Of course, everything came together in the end, both the criminal and the business themes, along with surprise resolutions to everything. But that's fiction.

Whilst I think that at least one hundred pages could easily be trimmed without losing anything (do we really need to read about the CEO's son's problems at school or the detective's domestic problems?), the seemingly extraneous material allows the reader to see the characters as much more life-like and three dimensional, as opposed to characters that the book's structure requires. Did it make me care anymore about the characters?

Well, murder stories are normally written from the point of view of the detective, so it's refreshing when the author throws in material from a different angle. Rankin doesn't do this very much (although his last few books feature several cases being run simultaneously by at least two detectives, so there is always variety) whereas Robinson tends to be more varied.

But "Company Man" has two protagonists: Nick Conover, the CEO, who is engaged with problems at work as well as a murder, and Detective Audrey Rhimes, who is trying to do her job whilst being distracted by unhelpful colleagues and a wayward husband. Both are trying to outwit each other, and both are being back-stabbed at work. The extra pages try to show that both these characters are very professional whilst at work, and try (not too successfully) to show that they are human beings outside of work.

I think that the book would have been a tauter thriller had it lost this extraneous material, but it's still worth reading, even if I didn't learn much about the furniture business.....

Saturday, December 17, 2005

The Brief and The Book

I know that I haven't posted here as often as I would have liked recently. There are quite a few contributing causes: what seems to be like a perpetual headache, plenty of pressure of work and a genuine lack of interesting things to write about (or maybe the headaches and the pressure are preventing me from seeing the interesting things). My favourite tv channel started its winter season with a selection of American series, and unfortunately the Americans don't produce tv shows which interest me.

Standing far ahead of these imported series is "The West Wing", which we are seeing from the sixth series onwards. It took a bit of time to assimilate the series, not only because I don't know the characters and how they stand between one and other, but also because of the rapid fire dialogue which is on a high level. The first programme which I saw was not the opening show of the series, but rather one in which Israeli and Palestinian leaders are invited to Camp David in order to sort out an agreement. Obviously this episode struck very close to home. Since then, the episodes have been more about internal affairs of the White House, which I believe is the raison d'etre of the series.

But to me, the best programme of the week - and one which is shown only once a week (most of the others have at least two repeats) - is a very low profile British television show called 'The Brief'. Obviously, being British, this show starts off with a several point advantage, but I think that it really earns one's respect. 'The Brief' is about an excellent but wayward barrister; most of the episodes are concerned with the trials in which QC Henry Farmer defends, but there is also a certain amount of time devoted to his life outside of the courtroom, and there is also some time devoted to what happens in chambers. One gets the feeling that the programme could be 50% longer and still interesting, as there are many aspects of the background story which only get partially touched.

A courtroom drama is always interesting, especially in the way that the author plays with the audience's expectations. This week's episode was about an autistic young man who is accused of killing his mother. He maintains that he didn't kill her, and autistic people never lie. During QC Farmer's examinations and cross-examinations, one is led to believe that person X committed the crime, and then it seems that person Y did it. In the end, it was indeed the autistic young man, but it wasn't murder, and was barely manslaughter.

Aside from the courtroom time, the glimpses into Farmer's personal and professional lives are also very interesting. As few people really know what goes on 'in chambers' (and I base my knowledge on playwright cum barrister John Mortimore's autobiographies), I think that this part of the story could easily be expanded whilst still mainting the audience's interest.

The first series of 'The Brief' was indeed brief and consisted of only four episodes. The programme which I saw last night was the second programme of the second series and I hope that more episodes were made.

It's quintessential British drama: no violence (maybe implied, after all we are normally dealing with murder), no sex (only implied flirtation), no bad language - just an excellent script and very good performances. The same could be said about 'The White House'.

One American series which I've tried watching is 'Weeds', which is about an American woman in the suburbs of Southern California who is suddenly widowed and has to start working in order to provide for her family. She does this by becoming the neighbourhood's pusher. Had she not considered selling her huge house and firing her live-in maid? Each episode is a bit too short, there's plenty of gratuitous bad language and a certain amount of female body parts, but basically what the programme lacks - in my humble opinion, of course - is direction. What is it really about? It doesn't seem very focused.

The only other major event in my life recently is the arrival of The Book (this shows you what sort of life I'm leading at the moment if this can be considered to be a major event). The Book (capital letters please) is the story of an obscure British group from the seventies, Van der Graaf Generator. It's a very large, heavy and detailed book about a group whose name was probably only vaguely known to the masses in the seventies and totally unknown now, even though the group seems to have been an influence of all kinds of modern day musicians.

I first heard VdGG in early 1971, and whilst it wasn't quite love at first listen, there was serious appreciation which quickly lead to total involvement. Although VdGG were - for me - primarily about Peter Hammill's fantastic songs, they were also about Hugh Banton's incredible organ playing, David Jackson's saxophones and inevitably to a lesser extent, Guy Evans' drumming. The Book throws light on what happened behind the scenes, information which was never available at the time, and makes for a rewarding read.

True, I would have appreciated more material on the origin of the songs and how Hammill was even able to write them, considering the huge number of gigs which they played. Banton remarks on this at one point, but it's never followed up. I think that this might be because Hammill didn't want to get involved with the book, as opposed to the others. Also I have to admit that I am more interested in the music than most people, but then VdGG were about the music, not about the lifestyle or its players. They were certainly unfashionable, and almost everyone who listened was either there for the music, the lyrics or both.

Read more about it here.