Happy Father’s Day

June 20, 2010

Where fathers are concerned, I have been twice blessed; my mother chose well. My biological dad was a fiery redhead, in temperament as well as appearance. From all the stories I heard about his younger years, Leith Tierney was a daredevil bordering on hellion: motorcycle racer, athlete, warrior. He sailed off to England in 1939, at the tender age of sixteen, to join the effort to stop the German juggernaut. He had wanted to join the Air Force, but my grandmother would have no part of it. Under pressure from my grandfather, or so the story goes, she relented, provided that Leith would enter the ground services instead. He served in England and in Italy, primarily, and was shipped back home in 1945. He would never talk much about the war, and although I would by no means call him haunted by it, it was something that I think he would have preferred to forget, had it been possible.

By the time I knew him, his rowdy youth was behind him for the most part. He settled in New Brunswick and worked for the Canadian Fisheries department in an obscure fishing village in the north of the province. It promised to be a dead end, as indeed did most jobs in the Maritimes in those days, so in the mid-fifties he moved his young family (which by that time included myself and my infant brother Thane) to Pennsylvania, and took a position as a chemist with American Sugar corporation. We lived up and down the eastern seaboard, as he was called upon to assist in the opening of new sugar processing plants from Boston to Florida. Just before the dawning of the 1960s, another member joined the family, a girl this time, my sister Laurie. Not terribly long thereafter, Leith got sick. At first, it didn’t seem too serious, but he was later diagnosed with cancer, and it took him out in horrible fashion. At the time of his death, he had been fighting the good fight for close to three years, and it had taken its toll in no uncertain terms; he carried perhaps 125 pounds on his formerly husky 6’2” frame. He was buried in Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island. I was thirteen at the time; Thane and Laurie were nine and six, respectively.

A couple of years went by, and my mom met Jack Pennock, the son of an elderly couple who lived down the street from us in suburban Philadelphia. The family had been Pennsylvanians at least since Revolutionary War times, and the original Pennock property had been deeded to them by none other than William Penn. Jack was annoyingly handsome, in the manner of a fifties’ movie star, like William Holden or Gary Cooper. At the time, we couldn’t imagine what he would have seen in my mom, a mid-forties working mother of three unruly kids, but love doesn’t have to make sense to anyone but the direct participants, I guess, and after a whirlwind romance, they were married in the garden of my aunt’s old stone home in nearby Penn Valley. Jack lived in Southern California at the time, and we were uprooted once again; we were not entirely happy about this, mind you, but California had its attractions, and Jack seemed a likable enough fellow. And he drove a hot rod Mustang, one of the first to roll off the assembly line, which was pretty cool, in my estimation. Jack and my mother remained married until her death in the early 1990s. He soldiered on for another dozen years, finally succumbing to complications following an operation. His back had been giving him excruciating pain in his last few years, and he elected to have surgery which, in his words, “will fix me or kill me, and either is better than this.” I hope I have that courage should I ever be faced with a similar decision. In the years between my mother’s death and Jack’s we became quite close, often travelling together to Prince Edward Island to survey the inevitable winter damage to the family homestead, which he had designed and built some fifteen years before. We talked about books and movies we admired, WWII, family history and anything else that struck our fancy during the long drives through the Maine wilderness. Shortly before he died, I bought the PEI house. I spend summers there nowadays, and a day rarely goes by without some reminder of him.

Whether through heredity or environment, I have my two fathers to thank for my literary bent, my somewhat warped sense of humor, and for my sense of family, which reaches well beyond the ties of shared DNA.

Sleep ye well, my fathers, and Happy Father’s Day!


Travels a Bit Closer to Home

June 17, 2010

After a couple of false starts (thankfully, on the small street leading to and away from my house), I am happy to announce that I am getting the hang of driving on the right again, just as I was becoming thoroughly accustomed to left-side driving in Japan. It is easy enough, in theory at least; simply position yourself on the side of the road opposite to the side that the steering wheel is on, and you’re good to go. Needless to say, that doesn’t work for motorcycles or home-market cars imported from England or Japan, but that is another problem for another day, I suppose.

So, barely a week after arriving in North America from Tokyo, I found myself once again on the road, this time en route from Prince Edward Island to Nashville, TN, via the Eastern Seaboard. The trunk of my Civic looked a bit bare, occupied by only two carry-on bags, a small grocery sack of snacks and drinks, and a pair of lawn chairs destined for Stanfest 2010, Eastern Canada’s premier folk music festival. We sat on plastic tarps on the ground at last year’s rain-drenched Stanfest, and promised our posteriori that we would upgrade to folding chairs in the future.

The cargo bay didn’t stay empty for long, as we paid a visit to tiny Kittery, Maine, the outlet mall capital of the Northeast. Several hours later, colorful bags from Eddie Bauer, The Gap, Timberland, and Tommy Hilfiger adorned the trunk, stuffing the available space to capacity and beyond. Fortunately, there was still some back seat room left as we lumbered into Freeport, Maine, the home of outdoor outfitter L.L. Bean. Any notions we might have had about, say, picking up hitchhikers were put to rest thanks to the drastic markdowns offered by the camping equipment giant. It was as if they were reaching out to me and saying, “Bruce, you need a mosquito resistant mesh shirt, don’t you? How does $7.99 grab you?” It grabbed me pretty well, I have to say. The final tally: eight polo shirts; four pairs of khakis; one pair of jeans; four button-front shirts; one pair of deck shoes; as well as a small assortment of trivia (t-shirts, windbreaker, wallet, etc.). And that was just my stuff; add in a similar haul for Saki, and you begin to get an idea of the Beverly Hillbilly-esque aspect of our diminutive conveyance. American Express kindly approved all the purchases, putting me a few hundred air miles closer to my next free flight to Asia, so all was good in my world.

The next day we made our way south to the Chesapeake Bay area, where we’ll stay until the weekend; as I write this, I am looking out over the Patuxent River from the living room of my cousin’s house. It is sunny and warm, bordering on hot, but there is a nice breeze off the river, and I am a happy camper (and, I might add, well outfitted for that pursuit; see above).

PEI flora, part one...

Cardigan River, near my house...

Bruce, bare tree, PEI


Great pub grub. Liberal Cup Pub, Hallowell, ME

Saki is always getting underfoot...

L.L. Bean door handles; are these cool or what?

Patuxent Sunset

The Owl, The Sparrow, and The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo (the Movie, that is…)

June 15, 2010

The afternoon before leaving Prince Edward Island for my annual Nashville sojourn, I caught wind of a screening of a movie I had been wanting to see, a Vietnamese flick called The Owl and the Sparrow. The story chronicles the adventures of a charming ten-year-old runaway in modern-day Saigon, and her attempts at matchmaking involving a lonely airline stewardess and a hopelessly romantic zookeeper. I checked the newspaper to find out the showtimes, and was surprised and delighted to find that its companion feature was a cinema adaptation of Stieg Larsson’s The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, a movie whose very existence had thus far eluded me. Needless to say, I was hooked, and later that evening I tuned in to my first double feature in recent memory, a four-and-a-half hour marathon of cushy red velour theater seating, popcorn, Dasani, and the silver screen.

The Owl and the Sparrow was all I had hoped for: affecting, lushly photographed, poignant, yet neatly avoiding the treacly sentimentality into which it could have easily slipped in less capable hands. All in all, a feel-good movie that didn’t make one feel embarrassed for feeling good.

The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, playing second, made for a jarring counterpoint, to say the least. However visceral and violent the book was (which is to say, quite a bit), the movie amplified by half again. Anti-heroine Lisbeth Salander, gothically edgy in the book, is played by veteran Swedish actress Noomi Rapace. Taller and less Lolita-esque than the Salander of the book, Rapace nonetheless delivers a riveting performance, by turns vicious and vulnerable. Second lead Michael Nyqvist likely had little difficulty remembering his character’s name, Mikael Blomqvist.  Still smarting from a botched expose on a notorious industrialist, Blomqvist has been hired to unearth clues to the disappearance of a beautiful sixteen-year-old girl, a case that originally made headlines some forty years before.

There are more than enough villains for an entire series of novels, played gleefully by Swedish character actors Peter Andersson, Peter Haber, and Gosta Bredefeldt, to name but a few. The balance of the supporting cast is excellent as well, a skilled ensemble ably suited to the rigors of adapting the well loved series into an equally compelling cinema troika.

Although all three books have now been made into movies, playing to appreciative audiences across the European continent, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo is the first to hit our shores. It is a deeply disturbing movie, and definitely not for the faint of heart, but I predict that it will be as major a critical success on this side of the pond as it has proved in Europe. Available starting July 6th; get your order in early!

Jacob de Zoet

June 12, 2010

In my last box of books from the States, BookPage uber-editor Lynn Green included one she thought I might like, something outside the normal mystery/suspense novels that typically populate my columns both in print and online, David Mitchell’s The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet. Lynn had wonderful things to say about the book, so I packed it into my luggage for the seemingly endless (but in reality, only about eighteen-hour) airplane trip from Tokyo to Halifax.

The airplane offered a pretty good selection of movies, many of which had not yet hit the big screen in Japan, so for the early part of the trip I was in cinema-junkie heaven. After a while, though, I got tired of the tiny screen and the ear-bud sound system, so I curled up in the window seat with my book, whisked away to 19th century Nagasaki, where young Jacob de Zoet has gone to seek his fortune with the Dutch East India Company. By the end of the 1700s, the Japanese have grown intensely wary of foreigners, having had a bad experience with the proselytizing Catholics of Spain and Portugal some years before. The Japanese summarily expelled those offending zealots, and in the intervening years have set up an island enclave for foreign traders, a velvet prison from which no escape to mainstream Japan is permitted. Still, if the winds of trade blow favorably, fortunes can be made, thus attracting young souls the likes of Jacob de Zoet, whose tenuous betrothal to a lovely Dutch socialite depends on his ability to return to Holland a prosperous man.

De Zoet is something of an anomaly in the Nagasaki expat circles, one honest man in a den of thieves. Steadfastly he tries to maintain his standards, but the deck is stacked against him, as even his respected mentor has played fast and loose with company funds. Complicating matters is a clever and oddly attractive Japanese woman of de Zoet’s acquaintance, Orito Aibagawa; de Zoet’s heart has the purest of intentions where she is concerned, but it seems that others of his body parts have a mind of their own. Then, Orito disappears; rumor has it that she has been spirited away to a remote nunnery atop a mountain, there to serve as midwife for a strange sect of fertility worshippers. de Zoet is beside himself with worry, further exacerbated by a purloined scroll which suggests that the babies issuing from the nunnery are used in bizarre fetishistic rituals culminating in their untimely deaths.

It would be quick and easy to draw comparisons to tales of feudal Japan such as Shogun, or The Last Samurai. Perhaps a more apt comparison would be to a book such as Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose. Similar elements of mystery and religion exist in both books, to be sure, and both are decidedly dark and edgy; on top of that, both books slot securely into the “literature” category, elevated a cut above the undeservedly maligned sobriquet “genre fiction”.


June 9, 2010

I have just arrived back in Prince Edward Island, after a circuitous route winding from Tokyo to Detroit, then Halifax. It was an “air miles” flight, which basically means that the airline can route you through Turkmenistan if it suits their purposes. My “Turkmenistan” was the fabled Motor City, which on short inspection appeared more lively than I would have expected, given the news reports on the dismal state of the automotive industry. The airport parking lot was chock full of late model cars, mostly American, and the couple of restaurants and stores that I visited seemed as crowded as their counterparts in New York, LA, or Tokyo for that matter.

Due to a scheduling conflict, my flight arrived in Detroit at about 5pm, and my outbound to Halifax left at 5:30. Naturally the first flight arrived late and (equally naturally) the second one departed right on time, so I got to spend the night in lovely Inkster, MI, adjacent to Detroit’s Metro Airport. Great hotel, though; I was upgraded to a suite, and it was all quite comfy, particularly after fourteen hours in an economy class airliner seat.

The following day, I arrived in Halifax, where my sister had left her pickup truck at the airport for me. My own cars are rather smaller than a full-size Chevy pickup, so much so that one of them would likely fit in the bed of the truck. So it was with some trepidation that I navigated out onto Nova Scotia Highway 102, driving on the right hand side of the road for the first time in nine months, and in a vehicle of Brobdignagian proportions as well. No worries, though; it all went very smoothly, and I traversed the forty-odd miles to her house in less than an hour, including a brief stop at a Taco Bell for a burrito, my first taste of Mexican (-ish) food in quite some time.

My sis took me to the PEI ferry shortly thereafter, and some friends picked me up at the Wood Islands terminal. The house was pretty much intact after the long Canadian winter, thanks to the ministrations of the same friends who picked me up, Scott and Marina MacLeod. The cars were both comatose, however, and it took a daylong hookup to the battery charger to get the Civic functional once again. The Mini is still asleep in the garage, but I plan to get it going directly. Its battery is buried somewhere under the back seat, so I’m told (I have had it for several years and have never once laid eyes on the battery), so I’ll have to do a bit of research on how to get it going after a long lay-up.

PEI is as gorgeous as I remember it. Purple lupins bloom alongside every rural highway, freshly painted lobster boats ply Cardigan bay in the early morning mist, and geometric furrows of red soil preview the onset of the planting season. It is chilly here by Tokyo standards, about 65 degrees in the daytime, and perhaps ten degrees cooler at night. That’s fine by me, though; it was pushing ninety degrees in crowded Tokyo when I left, and humid as well. This feels positively civilized by comparison.

A quick note: pics will follow as soon as possible, but my home internet service is defiant at the moment. More news on that as it develops.