Ruminations on the eve of travel…

May 31, 2010

I am always a bit surprised (and impressed, truth be known) when I find non-English speakers engaged in the pursuit of foreign travel. It’s fairly easy for me as a native English speaker to navigate my way around Japan. First off, a lot of modern Japanese is simply Japanification of English; if you can figure out the variations in pronunciation, any vocabulary that has been added to the lexicon since, say, WWII is understandable in contemporary Japanese (baseball=baysuboru, hot dog=hotto doggu, hamburger=hambaagaa, ice cream=ice-oo-ku-reem-oo and so on). Additionally, on most urban trains and subways, station names and train information are given in English as well as the expected Japanese. All of which is fine if you are a native English speaker, but less so if your only languages are German and French. I don’t know how those folks manage; it is easy to see why so many uni-language foreigners prefer package tours when they are outside their comfort zones.

My friend Kawazu-san speaks Japanese, with a distant minor in Spanish. He went to university there back in the day, and he remembers a fair bit of the language, although he hasn’t had much chance to use it in the past fifteen or twenty years. Still, we chatter back and forth in our broken Spanish to the immense amusement of his nine-year-old daughter Momoko, who clearly thinks we are speaking in tongues.

His son is much too busy striking karate poses to be the least bit bothered by the vagaries of foreign languages.

Often we cannot remember a particular word needed to complete a thought; in that case, we resort to pen and paper, and take a stab at drawing whatever it is we are trying to say. Failing that, we shrug our shoulders and move on to a new topic. It is an unusual friendship, but one punctuated with lots of laughter, and a genuine rush of accomplishment when an idea makes it through intact.

My friend Miura-san speaks even less English than I speak Japanese, which borders on being measurable in negative numbers. But Miura-san and I share two strong affinities: movies and music. Not just any cinema and tuneage, mind you, but very specific bits and pieces: American film noir, Juzo Itami flicks, Japanese master cinema (Mizoguchi and Kurosawa), the Buffalo Springfield, Richard Thompson, Bert Jansch, Bruce Cockburn. This is definitely unexpected in someone born in the 1970s, and even more so when that person is Japanese. He and I both play guitar and can occasionally be induced to sing (read: caterwaul) when we are reasonably sure nobody is around except us two. We share an English-language repertoire of tunes, with him sticking more closely to the melody line, and me more closely to the lyrical intent of the writer. I am sure it would be most amusing to watch, but I can fairly well promise that you’ll never have the chance. I had supper last evening with Miura-san, and Saki-chan, who has been mentioned in this column from time to time. Saki often serves as my de facto translator, but she was out of her depth last night, with obscure references to movies, bands and songs she had never heard of (and likely will never hear of again). “You don’t need me here,” she said. “You too are much too busy entertaining yourselves! You know what you are talking about better than I do.”

So tomorrow I leave, bound for a place where my primary language is the primary language. For a while I will revel in the familiar. I will catch up on the car magazines that have been piling up in my absence. I will have meals and late-night chats (in English!) with friends I haven’t seen in the better part of a year. But by the time the evenings are touched by a bit of autumn chill, I will be getting antsy to be someplace where I am a foreigner once again. Somewhere I have to think about everything I do, before I do it, even something as simple as which way to look when I step off a curb. And then, for another nine months or so, the autopilot function will stay switched off, and life will grow more complex and tiring on the one hand, but exponentially more fascinating on the other. A reasonable trade-off, all things considered.


May 30, 2010

Even though I read suspense novels virtually back to back for BookPage, I find that my relaxation reading is quite often in the same genre. I do manage to fit in works from a handful of favorite non-mystery authors (Haruki Murakami, Pico Iyer, John McPhee, Michael Sims, Pat Conroy, to name a few), and occasionally some higher-minded stuff (Fitzgerald, Shakespeare, periodic rereadings of Mark Twain), but for the most part, I devour mysteries the way a gourmand snarfs down bacon.

The most recent denizen of my bedside table is Dana Haynes’ debut thriller, Crashers. The title refers to the informal name given to those who investigate airplane crashes, initially the National Transportation Safety Board; if there is evidence of sabotage, as in this case, police agencies (including the FBI) are quickly added to the mix.

Typically it takes months for the team to assess all of the data, but no such luxury will be afforded them this time around; disturbing indications point to the notion that this crash is nothing more than a trial run for a larger and more important piece of aircraft demolition three days hence, a crash with potentially global ramifications.  

On the job are head honcho Susan Tanaka, equally sharp of dress and mind; draftee Leonard “Tommy” Tomzak, pathologist and somewhat unwilling investigator in charge; humorless and self-confident Korean-American investigator Peter Kim;  Walter Mulroney, a growly old bear who knows airplanes better than anyone since Orville and Wilbur Wright; Dennis Silverman, electron-boy from Gamelan Industries, the maker of the latest in high tech in-flight recorders (the orange box, known colloquially as the “black box” (hey, if you think that is weird, when was the last time you saw a green “green card” or a pink “pink slip”?); FBI-guy Ray Calabrese, and his sidekick Lucas Bell, working from opposite ends of the country, and perhaps opposite ends of the playing field as well; and Kathryn “Kiki” Duvall, one of the first women to serve aboard a submarine, and a leading expert on sound. Together this diverse team will have to pull out all the stops if they are to have any hope of preventing imminent and exponentially greater disaster. Trouble is, somebody on the inside has a vested interest in misleading the investigation…

The adjectives that typically come to mind with regard to thrillers (gripping, tense, fast-paced) all fall somewhat short of the mark in the case of Crashers; something with a higher degree of ferocity is required (pit-bullish, stroke-inducing, warp-speed-paced…?). Seriously, though, this is a book for adrenaline junkies; it grabs you by the frontal lobes right at the outset and doesn’t let go until the last page. (Picture a jumbo jet landing on an interstate highway, touching down in the oncoming lanes, skirting overpasses and avoiding big-rigs, and you begin to get an idea of the relentless intensity of Crashers!)

The Week in Pictures

May 29, 2010

Have a (World) Cup of Coke!

A house in my 'hood

The parade past my balcony...

We call this "two-buccaneer corn"...

Mini Cooper, Version 1.0

The view from the rear...

Graveyard of the rare Bromosaurus...

A cocker spaniel friend of mine called Kabuto...

Traditional meets modern

Another house in my 'hood

 Accordion tea bottles, see folded ones on top

You are probably wondering “why did he take a picture of this?” I assure you, several locals wondered the same thing. These are plastic accordion tea bottles; note the ones on top of the display, which have been compacted after drinking a portion of the tea, to achieve the same “tea-to-air” balance as a full bottle, thus rendering the beverage uniformly delicious to the last drop.

This last photo is one of my favorite pictures I have taken in Japan. It depicts a political poster with a very nervous looking politician, sweating profusely. The “sweat”, however, is raindrops on the sign, not really sweat on the politician’s forehead. More’s the pity!

The Load Out

May 29, 2010

When I return to Japan later this year, I want a bigger apartment. Nothing palatial, you understand, but something bigger than the 400 square feet I have called home for the past two years, someplace where I can swing the proverbial cat without endangering its tiny cranium. So, with some nostalgia (especially for the clear-weather view of Mt. Fuji from my bedroom window), I am giving up my Saitama digs at the end of the month. I debated whether to just sell or give away the few sticks of furniture I have accumulated over my time here, but I actually quite like some of them, in particular a chocolate brown leather reclining love seat that looks and feels like a pair of first class airliner thrones. This was a high-yen item from the Shinjuku International Design Center, bought at a fire-sale markdown price in keeping with my moderate circumstances, and one I would not be able to afford to replace. Then there is the ultra-modern bent plywood kitchen table, whose Noguchi-inspired legs twist and curve in ways previously unknown to plywood. And my Okamura office chair, different in feel from the Aeron I use in Canada, but exceptionally comfy in its own right. So, after due consideration, I decided to rent a storage space and shlep all my stuff over there for the summer.

I phoned several moving companies, and Panda was the first to respond. Their rep was in the area and he came by to give me an estimate shortly after I called. He did a lot of writing in Japanese, talked to himself while making his notations, and then took out his calculator to tally up the total. Panda’s price seemed quite reasonable to me, but I thought it would be a good idea to get a second estimate nonetheless. The rep was understanding about that, but he presented an argument that was difficult to refute: “I know I am the first person here, which basically means that when I give you the price, the next person will come along and ask what was your best quote. He will beat that price by 10% and you’ll go with him instead. So how about if I give you 10% off the price now? That way you don’t have to waste any more time with other movers, and we will earn your business.” Done deal.

On moving day, three strapping fellows appeared right on time. Their truck was ultra clean, stocked with all sorts of ingenious moving supplies (collapsible cabinet boxes, rolling beltways, etc), and (most importantly) it was sized perfectly for the job at hand. In the space of an hour, they were able to load up a three-room apartment’s worth of stuff into the truck, including completely wrapping the sofa, table, bookcases, etc, and hefting countless boxes that had been self-packed the day before. We agreed to meet at my storage space, about twenty minutes’ bike ride away. Tokyo traffic being what it is, twenty minutes’ bike ride gets you a remarkably similar distance as twenty minutes’ truck ride. Of course motorized traffic can go faster when it is moving, but bicycles can shoot along the sidewalks while motor vehicles are gridlocked behind a car waiting to make a turn; for around-town trips, a bicycle is hard to beat. We arrived at the storage space within two minutes of one another. I actually would have been there first but for the fact that I stopped at a vending machine to pick up drinks for all of us, setting me back about three minutes in the race.

The load out was even quicker than the load up; in about forty-five minutes, the diminutive (10 x 10 x 10’) storage space was filled, basically from floor to ceiling. It looked not unlike an intricately stacked game of Jenga, awaiting only the removal of one strategically placed box, thereby causing the whole tower to collapse. In earthquake-prone Tokyo, this is a concern, but the movers assured me that all the light stuff was on top, so even if it were to fall, it would likely not do much, if any, damage.

Today, I will attack the small remainder of stuff in the apartment, things to be shipped home or thrown away. Then, with any luck, I will get a couple of relaxation days before the marathon eighteen-hour flight home, punctuated by an overnight stopover in Detroit, home of one of the world’s finest pizza establishments, Steverino’s, in suburban Sterling Heights. After having tried bizarre Japanese variations on the pizza theme (mashed potatoes, corn, and sardine pizzas), an American Pie is looking mighty fine!

John Harvey, Far Cry

May 25, 2010

John Harvey’s latest work, Far Cry, would have been a shoe-in for the July (expanded coverage) Whodunit column in BookPage (, and quite possibly Mystery of the Month as well, but for one thing: all of the writers featured will be women, and judging by the author’s picture on the back cover, it seems highly unlikely that he is a member of the fairer sex.   

British cops Will Grayson and Helen Walker, first featured in Harvey’s 2008 novel Gone to Ground, are back, this time in search of a young girl gone missing. The case has chilling ramifications, even more than is usual in this sort of situation, in that a) a convicted pedophile has just been paroled from prison, and subsequently has disappeared off the police radar, and b) the mother of the missing child lost her first daughter in the same manner a number of years before.

Grayson in particular is more than a bit obsessed with Mitchell Roberts, the convicted pedophile he helped put away. Roberts was sentenced to five years in prison, and served less than half, having convinced the parole board that he was rehabilitated. Grayson is not as easily persuaded. On the one hand, mounting evidence suggests the abduction of the girl might have been an “inside job”, perhaps the parents or a family friend; on the other hand, there are strong indications (but nothing admissible in a court of law) that Roberts is once again illicitly pursuing young girls. Grayson means to stop him in his tracks, even if it might involve stepping outside the strict limitations of the law.

Like every one of John Harvey’s books that preceded it, Far Cry is a taut thriller, populated with believable characters, a book that demands to be read in one sitting. At 512 pages, that is no easy feat, granted, but if you do put it down in mid-read, I guarantee that you will be eagerly looking forward to the moment when you can pick it up once again.

Hospital Discharge, Prognosis Good

May 23, 2010

I am happy to report that I have received my walking papers from the Horinouchi Hospital of Saitama, Japan, after a week-long course of repeated sticking, poking, prodding and meds. The final tally came to 34030 yen, about $375 at today’s exchange rate.

The last day's bill, about $19

That included six visits to the emergency room, the initial assessment, six IV-drip treatments of antibiotics, six rounds of blood testing, a bed for an hour or two per day, and at least a couple of hours aggregate of face time with the doctor. I am for the most part as good as new, or at least as good as I was before the event that predicated my encounter with Japanese healthcare, a bite or sting from some poisonous and vindictive insect, causing my knee to swell several centimeters beyond its usual (not inconsiderable) girth.

The hospital experience was, by turns, mildly traumatic and oddly humorous. On the third or fourth day of my treatment, there was no bed available, so they had to take my blood while I was seated. The nurse, clearly quite experienced, nonetheless had trouble finding a vein for the procedure. She tapped several spots on my arm, finally settling on someplace close to the wrist, then inserted the needle. But not into a vein, apparently. “Gomen nasai,” she said, Japanese for “I’m sorry,” trying again. No luck this time either. Nor the next, by which time she was becoming a bit flustered. By now I was feeling a touch light-headed. It wasn’t that it hurt particularly, it was just the psychological reaction to the repeated sticking. I thought there was a chance I would pass out, so I excused myself (in English) and made for the nearest sofa. She was mortified, but with the help of my trusty translator, I was able to convey to her that it wasn’t her fault, simply that I have a weak stomach when it comes to the sight of blood, particularly my own. They found a bed for me, after which a vein cooperated quite nicely, and once again I was hooked up to the IV, good to go.

I had a book to read, Nevada Barr’s latest, Burn (her best book in ages, by the way; see my review later this summer in BookPage); I carried it in a cloth bag I had borrowed, a bag with Snoopy the beagle pictured on the side. The girl at the counter where I paid the bill saw the Snoopy bag, and laughed and said “Kawaii!”, Japanese for “cute.” I wanted to tell her that it belonged to my friend, and so I pointed at the bag and said “watakushi no tomodachi…” (“my friend…”, hoping that she would realize that the bag belonged to someone with a greater tolerance for cutesiness than I). She looked confused for a moment, then smiled and said “Snoopy wa anata no tomodachi desu ka?” (“Snoopy is your friend?”) I couldn’t begin to figure out how to fix that, given my severely limited repertoire of Japanese, so I said “Hai. Ichiban inu desu.” (“Yes, he is the number one dog!”) I made a “thumbs up” gesture. She and her co-worker got a huge kick out of that. 

If I have any complaint at all, albeit a minor one, it is this: Japanese hospital bandages feature the stickiest adhesive known to man, a hair-ripping, skin-stretching bonding agent that makes Superglue seem positively Teflon-like by comparison. After the first removal, I was sorely tempted to let subsequent bandages simply erode away naturally.

Nobody wants to go to the hospital, or at least, nobody wants to need to go to the hospital. That said, I cannot imagine a more pleasant place to be in hospitalized than in Horinouchi Hospital, Saitama, Japan. Nice staff, spotless rooms, reasonable cost. And they fixed me up; one can hardly ask for more.

Tim Hallinan Interview, Part II

May 18, 2010

I am happy to report that I am on the mend after a nine-round title bout with the Japanese healthcare system (more about that process in my next blog post); in the meantime, here is part two of a recent email interview with author Timothy Hallinan, whose new thriller, The Queen of Patpong, will hit bookstores late this summer. For those unfamiliar with Hallinan’s last several novels, the protagonist is an author by the name of Poke Rafferty, who writes a series of adventure travel books entitled “Looking for Trouble in (insert the name of exotic locale here)”. Needless to say, he finds trouble on a regular basis, and if somehow he misses it, trouble seems to find him. He lives in Bangkok with his Thai wife Rose, a former exotic dancer in the city’s notorious Patpong district, and their adopted daughter Miaow, a charmingly streetwise orphan speeding up the onramp to adolescence. They are a tightly knit family, but not without growing pains, both from cultural and historical perspectives:

Rafferty’s family figures into all the books, but it’s really front and center in THE QUEEN OF PATPONG.  Where did the family come from?

It’s amazing to me that I started out to write a series of thrillers and wound up writing a family, but I did and they’re the most important element for me in the series.  Every time in a new book when I describe, for the first time, the three of them in that living room with the sliding glass door and the couch and the white leather hassock, something in my chest sort of unlocks, the same way it does when I walk into my living room after months away.  

First, I knew I didn’t want Poke to be alone.  I can’t think of a reason why male protagonists in thrillers should always be solitary.  Also, as someone who’s not Thai and never will be, I know that there’s truckloads of stuff I don’t understand about Thailand and Thai life, and I wanted to emphasize Poke’s status as an outsider and also give him a really good reason to need to understand better.  He loves Rose and Miaow, and he needs to understand their world if he’s going to share it with them. I pretty much put that issue front and center in A NAIL THROUGH THE HEART when he proposes to Rose and she turns him down, in part because he doesn’t understand how disastrous for her a misstep could be. 

It’s interesting for me to write the family because I’m partially writing about my relationship with my wife, but also because I’ve never been a father and Poke’s got a daughter, Miaow.  The oddest thing of all is that Miaow is the easiest member of the family for me to write although I didn’t even have a sister.  Somewhere inside me there’s a preadolescent (but not for much longer) Thai girl trying to get out. 

And I always knew that I’d go back at some point and build a book around the story of Rose’s and Miaow’s lives before they met Poke.  So this is Rose’s book (that was one of its early titles) and if the series continues for three or four books more, I’ll write a book about Miaow being abandoned on the sidewalk at three and how she survived.  We told a little of that story in NAIL but there’s a lot left. 

ROSE’S BOOK was an early title, and you’ve suggested there were several more.  How did you wind up with THE QUEEN OF PATPONG? 

The people at Morrow thought the book needed a more thrillerish (if that’s a word) title.  I’d suggested ROSE’S BOOK and THE ROCKS, because of the barren rocks in the middle of the Andaman Sea that are so important toward the end of the section that tells Rose’s story, and the rocks that make up Prospero’s island in Shakespeare’s “The Tempest,” which is woven throughout the book, and also the emotional rocks the family hits in the first third of the book.  Besides wanting a less languid title, my editor also wanted, design-wise, to get the series down to street level.  Up until now we’d had these sort of artsy titles and architectural snippets of Bangkok on the covers, and for this one and the paperback edition of BREATHING WATER they wanted to get closer to the things most people think of when they think of Bangkok.  So the new cover of BREATHING WATER has a foreign guy and a Thai girl silhouetted in really lush fashion, and this one has the word PATPONG in the title and a very strong pink-neon cover.  

All my warning alarms went off when I saw the two titles they proposed, THE QUEEN OF PATPONG and THE PATPONG GIRL.  I’ve tried very hard to make it clear that these books aren’t in the me-love-you-long-time tradition of Bangkok writing in which beautiful young Thai women fall hopelessly and inexplicably in love with boring middle-aged Western men.  So I screamed and waved my fists and they proposed I take it public – to “the cloud” as my editor put it.  I went onto Facebook, CrimeSpace, DorothyL, and The Huffington Post asking people to vote for the title they liked best: THE ROCKS, THE QUEEN OF PATPONG, or THE PATPONG GIRL.  THE QUEEN OF PATPONG won in a walk, and now I love it because the phrase acquires a completely new, and much darker, meaning as you read the book.  So Gabe, you were right. 

You’ve said you broke some rules in this book.  Which ones, and why? 

Well, the big one is kicking off a thriller plot, letting it intensify for about 30,000 words, and then abandoning it entirely for almost 43,000 words of backstory – the biggest chunk of the book, and Poke doesn’t appear in it.  The backstory ends with Rose’s encounter, years ago, with the guy who’s threatening the family at the beginning of the book, and then we’re back in the present and the thriller plot picks up again. 

I had no idea this was going to happen. I thought I’d tell Rose’s story in three or four chapters, maybe 8,000 words in total, maybe woven through the book.  But when I went back in time to Rose’s village and started to write, the material just took hold of me.  I knew something was happening when one character gave another an earring, and that earring and its mate had a story arc of their own that sort of parallels Rose’s entrance into the world of Patpong.  When something magical like that happens – here’s an earring out of nowhere, it burns in Rose’s hand during the most difficult moments in her life, and then there are two of them and they become an essential part of her transformation – it’s at times like that when I know why I write.

 I also give a lot of time to a very complicated antagonist, a really bad guy, without spending a syllable trying to explain how he got that way.  I originally wrote a bunch of background, including childhood scenes and military psychiatric files, and I finally just decided the hell with it.  We’d experience him the same way his victims did – whole and unholy.  Toward the very end of the book we’re in his head for about thirty minutes, which was an absolutely brilliant idea suggested by my first editor on the book, Peggy Hageman.  Thanks, Peggy. 

So I had no idea whether the book was good, mediocre, or awful.  The past few days have brought me welcome news – several early readers whose opinions I respect (including you) have suggested that the book works.  That’s good news, because this one is close to my heart.  The path Rose takes in THE QUEEN OF PATPONG is the path thousands of young women and girls take every year. For most of them, it’s a one-way trip.  Rose, who ends up happily married and economically comfortable. is the exception. 

But, of course, she’s fictional.

Japanese Healthcare Redux, the ER

May 13, 2010

In case you are wondering why I haven’t posted anything in Mysterious Orientations for a few days, it is because I have been spending a leisurely time in the caring hands of the Japanese healthcare system, specifically the Horinouchi Hospital of Saitama. It seems that some poisonous insect took an intense disliking to the outside of my left knee, and chose that moment go out in a blaze of glory. At least I hope he was one of those insects that bites the dust after he bites the knee, but I don’t really know, as I didn’t see the little charmer. All I knew at first was that my knee was painful, in the sort of way it might be if I had to play catcher for three innings at the company softball game. Also, there was a tiny weeping puncture mark just to the left of the kneecap.

By day two it had gotten worse: my leg was pink (like an annoying, but by no means dangerous, sunburn) from the knee to about halfway down the calf, and somewhat swollen as well. It hurt, too, with the intensity of what used to be known as an Excedrin Headache. I thought it might be time to visit a doctor, so I asked a Japanese-speaking friend if she would help (which, to be fair, basically meant her doing the whole thing) set up an appointment with a general or family practitioner the following day. “A what?” I explained the system of a family physician in the US, a “gatekeeper” who, if he or she is unable to treat you, refers you to the appropriate specialist. “Why not just go to the specialist?” my friend asked. But what if you don’t know what is wrong with you? Well, it turns out that you go to the ER of your local hospital, an alternative that is typically a) not covered by insurance stateside, unless it turns out to be a real emergency, and b) far and away the most expensive of all medical venues to obtain treatment. Still, no other answers were forthcoming, so I bicycled (painfully) to the hospital which, conveniently, is located about a half-mile from my apartment.

By this time, the girth of my left knee was about 4cm more than its sibling, a not inconsiderable amount, and quite warm to the touch as well. The doctor who examined me let out a grunt of surprise, that great Japanese catch-all exclamation, “Hwah!” He told me, through my trusty translator, that I would have to have a brace of blood tests, and an IV drip of some strong antibiotics. Additionally, I would require an assortment of pills, some cold compresses, and daily visits to the ER for the near future to monitor my progress. Oh, and no strenuous exercise, and lots of bed rest, two things I am fairly good at. So now I am on day four, and I am showing marked improvement, both to the doctors and to myself. My CRP, whatever that is, dropped from an astronomical 9-point-something down to 3-point-something (it is supposed to be 0-point-something…); two other of the critical factors were out of whack as well, but they smartened up quickly, and fell into line by day two. It’s only that cranky CRP that is still outside its prescribed limits.

The good news: day one, including the physical exam, a half-hour of face time with the doctor (a specialist, by the way), an IV drip, blood work, and all my prescriptions, set me back a bit less than $120 (I had raided my ATM for $400, my daily limit, and was concerned that it might not be sufficient). The encore visit, which was a shorter time with the doctor (albeit a happier one), plus the IV and blood work, was only $55. Days three and four, which as far as I could tell offered the same regimen as day two, ran $36 each. That’s the “retail” price, not the deductible or co-pay, but the whole enchilada. Are there really people left in the US who think that the American healthcare system doesn’t need an overhaul? If so, please have them phone their nearby medical center and request a quote on the above-referenced services.

In closing, I would like to upload a picture, to show you that even if I have not been able to blog for the past few days, I have not been a total layabout. Well, okay, I have been a layabout, but at least I have been a multi-tasking layabout:

Happy Mother’s Day

May 9, 2010

My mom passed away in 1992, on US Thanksgiving Day. It wasn’t Thanksgiving Day for her, as she was in Canada, where they celebrate the holiday about a month beforehand, due to the earlier harvest. She died, if not when she wanted to, at least where she would have wanted to, in the old family homestead, Version 2.0: a newly-built house with all the modern conveniences, at the water’s edge in rural eastern Prince Edward Island, just next door to the fifty-some-year-old cottage that had served as the site for many a childhood holiday for my extended family.

My mom was a huge fan of flowers, and our family homes both on the East Coast and in California were a riot of colors from early spring until the first snowfall. I was never a big devotee, I have to say; instead, I was an indentured servant, required on a weekly basis to weed, prune, water and dig, routinely jarring my arms and shoulders on hidden rocks, or smarting from an unexpected encounter with a cactus spine. I swore that if I ever graduated from high school and made it out of my parents’ house, I would never lift another shovel, rake or hoe. I did indeed graduate, and for several decades held firm to my senior-year oath.

My mother must have done most of the planting at the PEI house on her own, with a hand from my stepfather when heavy lifting or rock removal was required. Sadly, she didn’t get to see the fruits of her labors, as she died the first winter she was there. My stepfather kept the place for years, but failing health prevented him from being there much of the time. The house was falling into disrepair from being used only a couple of weeks a year, if that. In late 2004, around Christmastime, he told his five kids that he was planning to sell the place, and wanted to offer it to us first, if we were interested. It wound up that I was the one who bought it. My mother had wanted it to stay in the family, and I was ready for an abrupt midlife change of direction. We transferred the title at the end of December, braving an epic Cape Cod snowstorm to make it to the bank before it closed for the year.

And so, a month later, I found myself looking out across my new front lawn, my new snow-covered front lawn, in the dead of winter, in the dead of night. Just me and my good buddy, an English Cocker Spaniel by the name of Astro, the two of us surveying our new digs and marking our respective territories.  It wasn’t until several months later that I realized just how much planting my mom had done in her short time there. At the front door were a hydrangea bush, azaleas, morning glories, daffodils, and purple irises. Outside the kitchen window, overlooking the water, were lilies, some tropical-looking orange flower whose name escapes me, more daffodils, peonies, and probably some others I am forgetting. Like the house, the garden had fallen into weedy disrepair, but it had some of that faded elegance that you can find in, say, Tuscan ruins if you stray off the highways from time to time.

When I first came to Japan, I was completely flabbergasted by the proliferation of flowers, which seemed to grow out of every crack in the sidewalks or walls, in rich shades of crimson, tangerine, and ochre, and seemingly year round. I visited Nezu Shrine for the annual azalea festival, and I had a flash memory of my mother that was so strong I could actually smell her perfume—or perhaps it was just a trick of the flowers. It seemed that everywhere I went, her ghost snuck up on me, reveling in my newfound appreciation for all things floral. In Ashikaga, an hour or two outside Tokyo, there is a wisteria park, featuring the fragrant flowers in all the colors of the spectrum. There are dense tunnels of wisteria to walk through, with the blossoms hanging down from trellises just at nose level (actually that would be nose level for the Japanese, which meant that I had to duck to walk through them). And the piece d’resistance is a pale purple wisteria that is said to be the largest in the world, stretching some 600 feet from tip to tip.

My mom would have been in her element. She would not have enjoyed the subway and train trip to get there; she was always a bit claustrophobic and enochlophobic (no, I didn’t just rattle that word off the top of my head, I had to look it up; it means a fear of crowds), but once she arrived, she would have appreciated it in ways that will be forever elusive to me. So, here are some pictures, Mom. I think of you often.

Happy Mother’s Day!

The Queen of Patpong

May 8, 2010

When I first reviewed a Tim Hallinan book, the second in his series featuring gonzo Bangkok-based travel writer Poke Rafferty, I said: 

“OK, call me a sucker for thrillers set in exotic foreign locations, particularly ones with rampant corruption, triple-digit humidity and lazily seductive ex-bargirl protagonists. Guilty as charged; please let me serve out my sentence in the Thailand depicted by author Timothy Hallinan in his wickedly atmospheric new work, The Fourth Watcher.” 

I received an email shortly afterward, posted from Suvanabhumi Airport in Bangkok, from one T. Hallinan, thanking me for the review, and commenting that after waiting all night in the terminal for his crack-of-dawn flight, the review was “better than a quart of coffee.” 

Over the next couple of years, we traded emails, discovering along the way that we had a number of things in common: a fascination, bordering on obsession, for Asia; a group of writers whose work we both eagerly devoured as soon as it hit the stands (or in my case, often before it hit the stands); and a penchant for the bizarre and wonderful flavors of KitKat chocolate bars that show up in airports and convenience stores all over Japan (Apple Vinegar; Soy Sauce; Wasabi; Red Pepper; Roasted Corn; Baked Potato with Butter, I’m just scratching the surface here).

Tim’s latest Poke Rafferty book, The Queen of Patpong, will be out over the summer. I have read it and I can tell you this: it delves more deeply into the characters of Poke’s wife Rose, daughter Miaow, and friend Arthit than previous series entries have done. For more detail than that, you’ll have to wait for the review in the print issue of BookPage (or online at I do have a bad self-shot photo of the cover of my well-thumbed ARC (Advance Reader’s Copy), which nobody has said I cannot use; so, in the time-honored tradition of asking for forgiveness after the fact rather than permission beforehand, here it is:

A couple of days back, I sent Tim a few questions about his connections with Thailand, and how they influenced the writing of the series; here’s what he had to say:

Where did your interest in Asia come from?

I think it’s genetic.  

My wife is Chinese , I write about Thailand, and Asia is my preferred continent.  A long time ago in Phnom Penh – maybe 1996, when not too many Westerners had found their way back into Cambodia – I was eating a croissant in a really good little French bakery on the riverside.  It was a dump, the walls cracked from the Khmer Rouge’s attempts to level the town, but the croissant was amazing.  The owner and sole employee – at least, the only one I ever saw – was a French woman in her seventies, white hair tied back so tightly it looked like it hurt.  I asked her what she was doing there and she said the revolution had driven her out but the moment she could return, she had.  I asked why, and she said, “Ah, Monsieur, I have a yellow heart.”  

That was the first time I knew there was a name for it.  I’ve had it since I was a little kid.  In fact, I gave my whole story to Poke Rafferty, my protagonist, in THE FOURTH WATCHER – how Poke learned, as I did, to read upside-down by scanning his father’s paper across the breakfast table and how the words ASIA and CHINA and JAPAN sort of blinked on and off for him (and me).  When I went to school I had to be taught to read right-side up.  Also in THE FOURTH WATCHER, Poke’s father, like mine, had spent years in Asia he never talked about, and I mean never.   

When I got a chance to go to the Philippines to work on a movie, I jumped at it.  Then I went on business to China and Japan, shooting shows in both places. 

How did you wind up in Thailand?

I was in Japan, working on a PBS documentary about the first Japanese tour by a Western symphony orchestra, the LA Philharmonic.  After touring with the orchestra for a couple of weeks, I was ready for a vacation in Hokkaido, where I’d heard I could sit up to my nose in hot water and watch it snow, since this was February.  I shared my plans with some of the people on the tour, and it sounded great to them. They wanted to go.  This wasn’t what I had in mind – I’d actually had enough of pretty much everyone – so I called my travel agent and had her book me somewhere in Asia where I didn’t need a visa.  That limited it to the Philippines, where I’d already been, Taiwan, which didn’t really interest me, and Thailand.  I got off the plane in 97-degree weather wearing a quilted jacket and a hat with earmuffs, and halfway across the terminal I saw the immigration guys falling off their chairs laughing at me.  I fell in love with the place.  I took an apartment within days.  

That was in 1981, when Thailand was much more open emotionally to foreigners.  Now we’re not so exotic, not so interesting, and also, of course, we’ve sent them some of the worst possible specimens of our culture, so the welcome mat has been sort of rolled up.  That’s mainly in Bangkok and the major tourist areas, though.  In the real Thailand, the people are still sweet beyond all expectation. That’s why it’s so infuriating that they’re governed so badly.  

Now I’m there between four and six months most years, but I’m actually living now in Phnom Penh, which has the advantage, for a writer, of not being so distracting.  If there were an annual World’s Most Distracting City award, Bangkok would win it year after year.  In Phnom Penh, I’ve got nothing to do but write.

How similar in character are your wife and Rose, and is there a Miaow-Mia in real life?  

My wife is a college-educated, American-raised Chinese and has nothing in her background, other than a brief stint as a Playboy bunny, that approximates in even the palest way what Rose went through.  But over the three decades of our relationship, I’ve learned what it means to be in love – something I knew nothing about, in retrospect — and whatever depth of emotion there is between Poke and Rose in the books comes directly from my life with my wife.  My family was devoutly WASP and while we all liked each other pretty well, direct displays of deep emotion were silently regarded as being in bad taste.  I never would have dared to try to write Poke’s marriage without without having had the good fortune of experiencing my own.

There was (and probably still is) a real Miaow, and that was her name.  In the 1990s I wrote a series of six books about a Los Angeles private eye, and I wrote them mostly in the Tip-Top, a restaurant/coffee shop on Patpong Road.  A little girl – maybe seven or eight – who sold gum in the evenings would come and press her nose against the glass, just completely entranced with my laptop, which was more of a rarity then.  After a while I waved her in and bought her a Coke, then put Pinball on the screen, and left her alone for half an hour or so while I walked around and tried to plot my way out of whatever box I’d written myself into.  Over the course of a few years, we got to the point where she’d show up once a week and I’d buy her gum and she’d eat something, play Pinball or whatever new game I’d installed, and then I’d give her the gum back and she’d disappear back into the crowd on the other side of the window.  Around 1997 I stopped seeing her, but I used her name and her physical description – and that fearsomely parted hair – when I began to write the Poke books.

I closed out my BookPage review of one of Tim’s books with the following paragraph, and it is every bit as apropos today: “As a book reviewer, or as a Japanese immigration agent referred to me, a “rittererry clitic” (soon to be the new job title on my business cards), I get countless new books to read, and never have to pay a cent for them. In fact, I have been known to become somewhat cranky at the notion of having to shell out my hard-earned cash, particularly at pricey international airport bookstores, where I most often find myself short of reading material. Tim Hallinan is highly placed on the short list of authors whose books I would happily pay retail to read; if you think about it, that has to be just about the highest compliment a book reviewer (or rittererry clitic) can pay.”