Something I rarely do when traveling is take a guided tour. Usually I prefer to use public transport or to rent a car or motorcycle, which allows me to linger as long as I please at places that intrigue me, and to quickly bail out of sites that prove to hold little interest. When I first came to Jeju a few days back, I was a man without a plan, or at most, an exceptionally loose one. I thought to rent a scooter, then to take a slow and leisurely clockwise spin around the sun-drenched subtropical island, making no reservations, and counting on the winds of fortune to steer me true. Two things conspired to put paid to that notion: 1) Jeju was indeed drenched, but not by the sun (it is quite jarring to the sensibilities to see palm trees bending under the unaccustomed weight of freshly fallen snow!); and 2) even if the weather had cooperated, Korean drivers make it problematic, nay impossible, to proceed along the byways at anything less than NASCAR speeds. It is as if native cars have two modes, warp speed and stop, punctuated by neck-wrenching transitions between the two. So, in deference to my fears of grievous bodily harm, I opted instead for the comfort and relative safety of a silver minivan operated by Yeha Tours, and piloted by the multilingual and irrepressible Uno Park. My traveling companions were a couple from Singapore and their teenaged son, to all appearances relishing the break from the year-round perfect weather of Southeast Asia. The layout of the minivan was three rows of two seats each; I was paired with the son, Wei Liang, fourteen-going-on-thirty, and gifted with a mischievous sense of humor and a pretty amazing camera. By the time we arrived at Seongsan-Ilchulbong (Sunrise Peak), we had traded “my life in travel” stories (mine took longer, but his were equally varied, and included some destinations I still long to visit); the two of us opted for the steep and precipitous climb up slippery and uneven steps to the edge of the seaside volcanic crater while his parents elected to wait below in the relative warmth, comfort (and safety) of the hillside café. On the way back down Wei Liang and I decided to have a bit of fun at his parents’ expense. When we met up with them again, we showed them our pictures and told them they really should have made the ascent. “Besides,” we continued, “no more than twenty meters past the café there was an elevator to the top.” Two faces dropped, followed immediately by two others erupting into merriment at the well-told untruth. A “gotcha!” moment if ever there was one…
My laptop, a mid-grade Toshiba, has an SD card reader, which allows me to download digital images from my small (and also mid-grade) Canon point-and-shoot camera. So I rarely bother to take my camera-t0-computer cable with me, a lapse in judgement this time, as a) I don’t have my laptop with me, and b) the computer in my hotel in Seogwipo, Jeju Island, Korea has no such image-reading abilities. Thus, if a picture is worth the proverbial thousand words, then this blog p0st will be somewhere between a picture and a picture and a half, although I can flesh it out with pics when I return to Japan (and my laptop) after the holidays.
Jeju, sometimes known as Cheju, is a small island in the deep south of South Korea, kind of like Korea’s Key West. In fact, it is billed as the Hawaii of Asia, and indeed there are regiments of swaying palm trees as well as dramatic cliffs and lava formations around every turn, giving credence to that appellation. It is very popular with Korean honeymooners, Japanese budget tourists and precious few Westerners. I was all ready for a holiday relaxing on the beach by day, and perhaps a bit of judicious partying by night. Only one tiny problem: when I arrived yesterday, it was snowing. Not a US-Midwest kind of white deluge, to be sure, but sufficient to be a significant deterrent to soaking up UV-rays.
So, I have gone sightseeing instead. My first full day has been a day of waterfall viewing, first Choenjiyeon Falls, within easy walking distance of my hotel, then Jeongbang Falls, still within walking distance, but let’s delete the “easy” adjective in its case. It is quite the precipitous descent to the bottom of the falls, but well worth it upon arrival, as it is one of but a handful 0f falls worldwide that drop directly into the ocean (and quite definitely a first for me). It is also the place where I ran into a pair of attractive Korean teenaged girls embroiled in a spitting-for-distance contest. I watched as one, then the other (both clueless that they were being observed), coughed up ammunition and fired it off into the ocean. Back in the day, I had a reputation for pretty good range my own self, so I approached the pair from behind with a viscous “Ahem!” I held one finger up in the universally-recognized motion for “Watch this…”, and proceeded to launch a Mountain Dew-hued (I have a slight head cold) missile across the rocks and into the waves. The two had the grace to appear momentarily startled, and then to blush, before marshalling their resources for round two. All I want to say about it is that I am glad I didn’t have any money riding on the old guy. These two were true Olympians, the Venus and Serena Williams of their chosen sport. We climbed back up the hill together, and I treated them to Cokes at the top. You know, to replenish their reserves…
It is said that the suicide rate is quite high in Arctic Circle countries, particularly in the dead (sorry, I cannot resist a bad pun) of winter, when the landscapes are consumed by darkness for twenty-plus hours each day, and cold takes up residence in the bones like an uninvited relative. Judging by the number of mysteries that originate in Norway, murder must rank quite highly on the list of winter diversions as well, right up there with skiing, sauna, and assorted indoor amusements.
For sheer originality, kudos to Norwegian author Pernille Rygg, for her protagonist Igi Heitmann, a research analyst with a transvestite husband and a precocious young daughter. Igi’s introduction takes place in The Butterfly Effect, in which she finds an unusual butterfly pendant while cleaning out the office of her recently deceased private investigator father, who was killed by a hit-and-run driver. With the pendant is the address of a woman unknown to Igi, a situation that will soon be rectified, for in a matter of hours the woman will turn up dead as well, two bullets in her brain. A connection? Ya think? The body count is just starting, though, as Igi takes on the role of reluctant detective, her investigation leading her into the mean streets of the usually sedate Norwegian capital.
Harry Hole is the unlikely name of the protagonist in a series of police procedural novels by Jo Nesbo (The Redbreast; Nemesis; The Devil’s Star). Hole shares a first name and more than a bit of literary DNA with Michael Connelly’s Los Angeles detective Harry Bosch, albeit with a laconic Scandinavian-ness to spice up the brew. I had the pleasure of reviewing Nemesis for BookPage, and noted: “High tension, lightning pace, a flawed but ultimately sympathetic protagonist…Nemesis has it all.” You can read the entire review at the BookPage website: http://www.bookpage.com/0901bp/fiction/whodunit.html
BookPage Mystery of the Month winner Karin Fossum is so good she almost makes me want to learn to read Norwegian (reportedly one of the more difficult tongues to master) so I can avoid the years-long wait for translation of her books into English. I have read all her books thus far translated, and have reviewed three of them for BookPage. The review appended below, for When the Devil Holds the Candle, dates from June, 2007:
Karin Fossum may not be a household name in the U.S., but in her native Norway, she is Agatha Christie, Ruth Rendell and P.D. James all rolled into one. Fossum made her literary debut in 1974, at the tender age of 20, with a volume of poetry. Since then, she has published another volume of poetry, a couple of collections of short stories, a non-crime novel, and (of course) the dark and moody police procedurals set in coastal Norway. Indeed, she has gained quite a bit of popularity in the rest of the world as well: her novels have been published in 16 languages to date. Now she’s releasing her third novel in the U.S., When the Devil Holds the Candle. Like the previous two U.S. releases, Don’t Look Back and He Who Fears the Wolf, the latest features the introspective Inspector Konrad Sejer. Sejer faces a rival to be reckoned with, an amoral juvenile delinquent named Andreas. Fresh from a mugging in which a young child was killed, Andreas targets an old woman as his next victim. But Andreas does not, indeed cannot, imagine the resourcefulness of this “victim,” Irma Funder, an elderly woman with a well-developed instinct for survival. Now Andreas lies at the bottom of Funder’s cellar stairs, alive but paralyzed, at the mercy of the woman who had so recently been his prey. Early on, Sejer doesn’t connect the dots between the murder of the child and the disappearance of Andreas; there would be no reason to. As the investigation proceeds, however, the clues begin to add up in chilling fashion, raising the small hairs on the arms of Inspector Sejer and his colleague, Jacob Skarre. There are overtones of Stephen King’s Misery in When the Devil Holds the Candle, and perhaps a bit of John Fowles’ The Collector; that said, it is an impossible book to put down, a psychological thriller that will haunt you long after the final page has been turned.
So there you have it, installment one in Planet Mystery, a snapshot of the state of the art in suspense writing from around the world. Next up (cue the spinning globe, please…)…India.
My new box of books arrived from BookPage today (these will be set for review in February, 2010), and with them, the germ of an idea for Mysterious Orientations. Every once in a while, a group of books shows up exhibiting some central theme (i.e., they all take place in the British Isles; all are debut novels; all are set in times other than the here and now, etc.). Regular readers of BookPage’s Whodunit column will know that this sort of propinquity is a rare thing indeed; most months feature books from across the broad spectrum of mystery and suspense, varying by age, gender and ethnicity both of author and protagonist, and set in locations as close as your back yard and as distant as, say, Botswana. So I got to thinking: if I cannot always group similar books together in my monthly column (I mean, what are the chances of finding four suspense novels set in, say, pre-revolution St. Petersburg, all due for release in the same month?), there is really nothing to stop me from doing that very thing in Mysterious Orientations.
My plan is to break it down by country, for my first pass at it. For the time being, I will leave out England and the US, as the overwhelming majority of mysteries available in English take place in one or the other of those countries, and/or the authors are from one of the two. So it seems only fair to give some less mainstream countries (and by extrapolation, the authors therein) their day in the sun. That will not be a rule set in stone; I might make exceptions for outposts and colonies, for example: Scotland, The Channel Islands, Alaska, Puerto Rico and Santa Monica. I won’t be terribly fussy about when the books were written, as long as they are reasonably available nowadays at bookstores or online.
You would perhaps be surprised at some of the far-flung countries able to field an Olympic team of mystery writers: Norway, Thailand, China, Brazil, Spain, India, Korea, Finland, Turkey, South Africa, the aforementioned Russia and Botswana, and Austria, just to name a few. Some countries will be a cakewalk: there are so many good writers in the Netherlands, Germany, France, Italy, Sweden and Japan (once again, just off the top of my head) to fill several blog entries each. Some places may require a bit of gerrymandering: if I cannot find a sufficient number of, say, Burmese suspense novels (and there is a good chance of that being the case), I may have to do a “Mekong Delta” entry, and include mysteries from Laos, Cambodia and Viet Nam as well. I guess I will cross that river when I come to it.
Check back soon. First up: Norway.
Each year as I get ready to leave the Eastern Hemisphere and head back to Canada for the summer, I get conflicting pangs of separation anxiety and antici………….pation. It will be good fun to hook up with relatives and friends I haven’t seen in a year, and of course any excuse for travel is okay with me; but the thing that really predicates the move at that particular time (the last week of June), is not the changing weather, for by then it is already too hot in Tokyo and still not quite warm enough in the Maritimes. Instead, it is a well-kept secret, known to but a comparative handful of folks worldwide who once a year brave the torrential downpours, the legendary mosquitoes, the ill-maintained roads (and one another) for the opportunity to take part in… Stanfest.
What’s Stanfest, you might ask, and rightly so. Well, it is an iconic music festival that takes place in an out-of-the-way corner of an out-of-the-way province, of what is to most people an out-of-the-way country: Canso, Nova Scotia, Canada (said to be the oldest fishing village in North America, and at 45 degrees and change north latitude, almost equidistant from the equator and the north pole). If you attempt to go any farther east in mainland Nova Scotia than Canso, the next place you will set foot will be the coast of France. A ravaged and narrow two-lane highway leads into town, perfectly adequate most of the time for the 900 hardy souls who call Canso home. However, the highway is taxed to its limits and then some as more than 10,000 visitors descend on the tiny fishing village over Canada Day weekend. There they will rock out (or folk out, as the case may be) to the sounds of musicians from all over the planet.
In the several years that I have been in attendance, I have seen such diverse musicians as:
Cape Breton folk singer Bruce Guthro (“Falling” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RebDnhGkG4U );
Singer/songwriter Gordie Sampson (“Jesus Take the Wheel”);
Prince Edward Island native son Lennie Gallant (“Which Way Does the River Run?” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YtslyNhoazM&feature=related )
Italian guitar virtuoso Beppe Gambetta (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ob75_Y7fdJw )
African a cappella group Black Umfolosi (“Summertime” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=myxnYE-9Nb4 );
American songwriter John Gorka (“Blue Chalk”; http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9eIc3ubvfEo );
70s hitmaker Don McLean (“American Pie”);
Country singer Nanci Griffith;
Torch divas Po’ Girl (“Gandy Dancer” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=q2d04iRgL54 );
Nova Scotia troubador Dave Gunning (“Hard Working Hands” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hUp7O_mtJzw&feature=related);
Award winning violinist Samantha Robichaud (“Always Remembered” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=A8Hx6LhQyuU);
New Brunswick blues legend Matt Andersen (“When My Angel Gets the Blues” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BdsNQ-W1m20 )
Boundary breaker Martin Sexton (“Can’t Stop Thinkin’ ‘Bout You” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=o8dHhYZtshQ&feature=related )
There is something for every age and musical taste. Seven venues within the Stanfest grounds offer nonstop music from lunchtime until ‘way past bedtime for three glorious days. You can see your favorites numerous times throughout the weekend and in unusual collaborations, as artists group thematically (“guitar legends”, “electric bands unplugged”, “folk songs of the prairies”, “world beat”, etc.) during the daylight hours. Then every evening, the main stage is filled with back-to-back acts, nonstop for six hours or more.
“Stanfest” is actually an abbreviation of “The Stan Rogers Folk Festival”. It draws its name from a well-loved Canadian folksinger and songwriter who died in an airplane fire in 1983. He left behind a legacy of songs well known to every Canadian: “Barrett’s Privateers” (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=G-PQbdmQRwc ), “Fogarty’s Cove”, the anthemic “Northwest Passage” (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TVY8LoM47xI ), “The Mary Ellen Carter”, “Make and Break Harbour”, and I am just scratching the surface here. Stan was only thirty-three when he played his last show at the Kerrville Folk Festival in Texas.
PS: Thanks to ace photographer Saki Aoki for the pictures!