Planet Mystery: Laos

August 26, 2010

The Peoples Republic of Laos must rival Botswana or Mongolia as one of the more unusual settings for a mystery novel, particularly when the action takes place in the heady days following the Vietnam War. Such is the case with Colin Cotterill’s Dr. Siri series, featuring an elderly coroner who has not quite come to grips with the “Peoples Republic” component of his beloved country. The latest in the series, Love Songs From a Shallow Grave, finds the crotchety but lovable senior investigating the deaths of a group of young women who have been murdered with epees. What is an epee, you ask? It is the sort of flexible sword used in fencing, although in that application it is rendered rather less deadly by the application of a cork onto the point.

Dr. Siri Paiboun is one of the more original protagonists ever to grace a mystery novel, as he is a holdover from the pre-Communist Lao regime, a recently married septuagenarian, and something of a shaman. Or, more precisely, his body serves as the host for a long-dead shaman, who has a way of showing up at the most inopportune times. Indeed, all manner of ghosts channel in and out of Dr. Siri’s consciousness, and it takes quite an effort on his part to keep their existence off the radar of his superior officers. Said superiors, by the way, really have no idea what to do with Siri, as he is a) the only coroner in postwar Laos, b) a bit of a firebrand, and c) oddly well connected when push comes to shove. So, he soldiers on, by turns oblivious or non-caring with regard to the political machinations that go on all around him.

Author Cotterill is a true Asia hand, having lived several years in Laos and Thailand, and it shows in his writing. Last year he won the Crime Writers Association’s Dagger in the Library Award, for being “the author of crime fiction whose work is currently giving the greatest enjoyment to library users.” In addition to his Dr. Siri books, he has written a program on English language for Thai television, three stand-alone novels based on his studies of child abuse in Southeast Asia, and a cartoon scrapbook, Ethel and Joan Go to Phuket. (Phuket, pronounced Foo-KETT, is a resort island off the coast of Thailand.)

Cotterill’s work is appealing in much the same sort of way as that of Alexander McCall Smith: both feature unusual protagonists, both feature off-the-beaten-path settings, both boast a playful command of the language, and both can spin a tale quite engaging, even to readers with no familiarity with their respective milieus.

The Siri Paiboun series: The Coroner’s Lunch (2004); Thirty-Three Teeth (2005); Disco for the Departed (2006); Anarchy and Old Dogs (2007); Curse of the Pogo Stick (2008, you can see my review of this one in BookPage magazine, www.bookpage.com ); The Merry Misogynist (2009); Love Songs From a Shallow Grave (2010).

A brief footnote: after his Dr. Siri books garnered well-deserved popularity, Colin Cotterill founded Books for Laos, a voluntary program supported by his readers and fans, with the mission of providing books for Lao children and sponsoring trainee teachers.


Time Zone Curiosities

August 23, 2010

Some of my most recent blog posts have been about Newfoundland, where I spent a week or so earlier this summer. One of the things I failed to mention is the fact that Newfoundland has an odd and pronounced effect on the first time visitor from mainland Canada: you have to set your watch ahead—by a half hour. To the best of my recollection, that was the first time for me to exist thirty minutes out of synch with virtually everyone else in the world (by times I have been accused of existing thirty years out of synch, but never thirty minutes…).

This got me to thinking, surely there can be but a handful of thirty-minute time zones in the entire world, right? Well, as it happens, we have a new entrant into the club right here in our hemisphere: Venezuela, whose contrary president, Hugo Chavez, established the offset time zone in late 2007, presumably to give himself a half-hour leg up on his longtime nemesis, gone-but-never-forgotten US President George W. Bush.

For those not familiar with time zone implementation methodology, the original idea was that a) the day is twenty-four hours long, and b) the earth is a 360-degree sphere (sorta), hence c) the sun passes over fifteen degrees of longitude every hour (24 x 15 = 360). Therefore, each time zone occupies roughly fifteen degrees of longitude. Exceptions are made all over the place, to accommodate whole states or countries into one time zone; usually, however, this is usually effected in one-hour increments. The concept of an offset time zone was created for some off-the-beaten-path locations, like Newfoundland, as a means to set the noon hour when the sun was the highest in the sky. However, some offset time-zone countries are anything but off the beaten path. Take India, for instance, whose rather large subcontinental land mass is entirely encompassed within a single time zone set 5 ½ hours later than Greenwich Mean Time (GMT). As a brief aside, I travelled by boat down the Thames from London to Greenwich one summer with my friend Paul, who commented en route that he hadn’t been to Greenwich since he was a teenager. “What have you been doing in the Mean Time?” I asked. (Cue rimshot…)

Iran and Afghanistan are on half-hour split zones as well (hmm, Iran, Afghanistan and Venezuela…am I beginning to sense a commonality here?). Probably George W. Bush missed a great opportunity in not establishing an Axis of Evil Standard Time Zone, but it might not have worked anyway, as North Korea is in the same time zone as Japan and South Korea, both of whom seem firmly rooted in the Axis of Good.

But I have to say, all these anomalies pale in comparison to the ultimate hippie destination, Nepal, whose clocks are set fifteen minutes askew from its southern neighbor, India, or 5 ¾ hours later than GMT. What an additional headache for advanced mountain climbers, who may, upon arrival in the Himalayan republic, already be suffering from altitude-induced noggin pains of epic proportions. But perhaps I am making too big a deal of it: ace mountaineer Hirotaka Takeuchi, who, as you might guess, is Japanese, and has climbed an even dozen mountains each in excess of 26,000 feet, has a novel way of dealing with the Nepalese time issue. If your watch is set, as his usually is, to Japan time (three hours and fifteen minutes later), simply rotate the face ninety degrees to the right, and pay no attention to the numbers, the hands will be in the correct position for the local Nepal time. This may not make a great deal of sense just reading about it, but if you have a look at his website (http://weblog.hochi.co.jp/takeuchi/2007/03/post_9d1b.html), clarity will follow.


The Bus Plunge Highway

August 21, 2010

A couple of days back, in my blog post about The End of the World, I made a brief mention of the sort of filler article one might see on the front page of a newspaper, citing as an example a typical two-inch item about a bus plunge in Peru. This got me to thinking about a book I had read years before, Tom Miller’s The Panama Hat Trail.

From the title you might glean that it is a book in the “travel literature” vein, although it has precious little to do with Panama, because, inexplicably, the celebrated headgear actually hails from Ecuador. Go figure. Miller traces the making of one Panama hat from its inception in the straw fields through the weaving and finishing, then the marketing and export, with insightful and often humorous observations of the process at each step along the way. At one point, the author finds himself aboard one of those third-class Andean buses, of the very sort that contribute to the aforementioned two-inch blurbs in the bottom corner of Page One of your city newspaper. And he realizes, with Growing Dread, “I am on the Bus Plunge Highway.”

I knew whereof he spoke, as several years back, while doing volunteer work in Guatemala, I too traversed the Bus Plunge Highway, albeit not in a bus, and happily lived to tell about it. In fact, I wrote a song about it, which goes, in part:

Little item, morning paper, read one every week or two

Bus goes sailing through a guardrail, off some mountain in Peru

Take me down the Bus Plunge Highway, on a roller coaster ride

Take me down the Bus Plunge Highway, get me off this mountainside

I really wanted to write it about Guatemala, but rhyming possibilities were limited, especially for a poet of my caliber. Anyway, for my BP Highway experience, I was in the back seat of a Chevy Yukon, the second vehicle in a two-car convoy, bound from Guatemala City to a lakeside retreat in the mountains. Four of us were in the truck: the driver; a young American dentist who rode shotgun (also known as “the death seat” in Latin America); and my ex, Cyndi, and I in the back. The driver piloted the Yukon with a ferocity that bordered on mania, both of which considerably exceeded his skill level. At one point we were literally up on two wheels, during which time the passengers hung on for dear life to any available handhold, and silently invoked St. Christopher (although I suspect the driver was offering up his prayers to St. Earnhardt). We prevailed upon our chauffeur to make a pit stop in a small village, ostensibly for refills of Pepsi, and took the opportunity to have a chat with Marco, the lead driver in our convoy. We praised Marco’s driving skills profusely, but noted on the sly that our driver (who should probably remain nameless) was nowhere near in the class of his fearless leader, and asked if perhaps it would be possible to ratchet back the cruise control a few notches, in the interest of our all arriving alive. It was definitely the way to play it, as nobody had to lose any face; I found out later that the way Marco spun it to his amigo was to say that one of the passengers (probably yours truly) was coming down with altitude sickness, and “we’d better slow down or the gringo will likely hurl all over your nice leather upholstery; what can you expect from soft Americans, right?”

Still on balance, I have to say that I’d rather be a live soft (and in this case, somewhat duplicitous) American, than a polite, stoic, and honest-to-a-fault dead Canadian, if those are the only choices on offer. At least until I am not on the Bus Plunge Highway anymore.


It’s the End of the World As We Know It, and (so far) I Feel Fine

August 19, 2010

Every so often, propelled by a vast and unknowable ethereal algorithm, some evangelist (usually from the US south, usually male) with a self-professed direct line to God predicts the end of the world as we know it: the Rapture, when all true believers will ascend en masse, leaving the world to its own devices, with only a population of rationalists, scientists, engineers, mathematicians, rock musicians, Liberals, Wiccans, and other such heretics to run things back here on Terra. Oh, and lawyers and accountants. Surely there cannot be too many of them bound skyward. And, when one of these predictions occurs, here is something that can be counted upon: the news will be trumpeted from the front page of the Nashville Tennessean. Not one of those small 2” blurbs below the fold, like a filler story about a bus plunge in Peru, but a full-on above-the-fold page-wide headline. Other newspapers will feature articles like “Amish Seclusion Shattered by School Slayings,” or “Solons Question Gun Ban” (headlines may be the only places left on earth where you can routinely read the words “slayings” or “solons”), but count on the Tennessean for up-to-the-minute reportage on predictions of the Rapture.

One such occurrence took place in September of 1988, at which time I was working in Nashville for a giant national insurance conglomerate (known to its employees back in the day as “Called In, Got No Answer”, I can’t imagine why). Anyway, during my period of indenturement, a former NASA engineer, one Edgar Whisenant, predicted confidently that the Rapture would occur at such-and-such a time, which, to the best of my memory, was around 8:30am on a weekday. I arrived to work a bit late that day, and when I got to the office, I discovered that I had missed the beginning of a department-wide meeting which I had no desire to attend in the first place, so I simply went into my office and began catching up on some busywork. The whole floor was quiet as a morgue, and I could devote my full attention to the matters at hand without bother or interruption. And then I heard a rustling noise outside my door, so I got up to have a look and see what was causing it. I spied a co-worker, one of the data entry folks, an attractive young woman named Lauren, rustling through some papers on her desk. “Hey Lauren,” I called out from my office door. She looked up at me and broke out into tears. Not the dramatic bawling boo-hoo kind, but the quiet “just lost my best friend” variety. “Whoa,” I said, taken aback. “What’s up?”

“I just got up here, and everyone was gone, and I thought the Rapture had happened without me,” she said, evidently referring to Mr. Whisenant’s prediction, and as serious as could be. “Well,” I said consolingly, “if it did, I didn’t get to go either.” The prospect of the two of us being the final remaining people in the world appealed to me at least as much as it horrified her; nonetheless, I took the high road and explained to her that everyone had been called into a meeting, one ordained by a higher power within the company, to be sure, but not a Higher Power in the grand scheme of things. Lauren was visibly relieved, although whether it was on account of not missing the Rapture or not having to spend the rest of her days with me, I couldn’t say.

I thought about writing up the experience and submitting it to the Tennessean, but after due consideration, vetoed the notion. I guess I’m just not that much of a front page kind of guy.


James Cook Revisited

August 16, 2010

I don’t know if this happens to you, but sometimes I will run across, say, one bright red pleasure boat speeding down the inlet, a fairly novel occurrence (as most pleasure craft seem to be white or blue), and then in the space of the next week or so, I will spy four more red boats in rapid succession. I always used to notice this with cars, auto geek that I am: the moment I bought a Triumph TR-6, I started seeing them everywhere. I haven’t owned a TR-6 in a dozen years or more, but I have no doubt whatsoever that if I were to buy one this afternoon, I would see another one before the day was out.

It doesn’t even have to be something that I know anything about. If I contract malaria, for example (admittedly a pretty unlikely scenario in Prince Edward Island), shortly thereafter I will be sure to happen upon articles about malaria, meet people who have had recurring bouts of malaria, read news stories about an outbreak of malaria in East Timor. And then there will be some tangentially related occurrence, like my Mosquito Magnet goes on the fritz. It is truly bizarre.

My latest example is James Cook. You probably have some vague memory of Cook from high school history, something about how he got killed (and perhaps eaten) by angry Hawaiians? I had ensconced him comfortably in a closet of my brain with other high school lore (the Pythagorean theorem, the Crimean War, frog dissection and the Periodic Table), only to be dragged out while watching Jeopardy or playing Trivial Pursuit. I can say with some confidence that I had not thought of him in years. And then I ran into James Cook three times in the space of a week. Go figure.

The first time was in Newfoundland, where I went on holiday earlier this month. James Cook was (and in some form or fashion, still is) all over Newfoundland. He mapped the entire coast, and spent some five years in that then-inhospitable outpost of the Empire. In the heights above Corner Brook, NL, stands a statue dedicated to the intrepid explorer, overlooking the vast harbor, a harbor that rivals those of San Francisco or Sydney, Australia.

After I got home, I began to attend to a couple of projects that I had postponed repeatedly, one of which was a purge of the bedroom bookshelves. Lo and behold, among my stepfather’s books was a volume on the voyage of the Endeavour, Cook’s first foray into the South Pacific. I haven’t finished it, as it is on the dry side, but I am working a chapter a day into my reading schedule, usually just before bed, as it has a remarkable soporific effect.

Encounter 3:  This week, I am finishing up books for the October Whodunit column for BookPage, and one of the books I will be reviewing is Louise Penny’s brilliant Bury Your Dead. And who should turn up in there but our old friend Captain James Cook, who participated in the 18th century siege of Quebec City, the setting for Penny’s book. It turns out that Cook’s mapping of the St. Lawrence River was instrumental in the victory of the English, allowing General Wolfe to launch his stealth attack on the Plains of Abraham (a battle well known to every school child in Canada, although perhaps less so in the US). Had the English lost that battle, French would be much more widely spoken across North America, of that there can be little doubt.

So where will James Cook turn up next in my life, I wonder? I half expect any day now to see a jaundiced, malarial Captain Cook motoring down the bay in front of my house, standing erect in the prow of a bright red pleasure boat, or perhaps piloting a cantankerous TR-6 down my driveway. Should that happen, it will definitely make it into this blog…


The Sons of Maxwell

August 13, 2010

Three years ago, I attended the Stan Rogers Folk Festival for the first time, and it marked the beginning of a tradition for me, so much so that the campground where I stayed (Seabreeze Campground, in Canso, Nova Scotia, free plug…) is holding a permanent reservation in my name until or unless I do something to change that (like not showing up, for instance, as if that’s going to happen…). Anyway, that first year marked my initial awareness of an East Coast Canadian band called the Sons of Maxwell. Comprised of a duo of brothers (Don and Dave Carroll), who began singing together while in college, and a handful of backup musicians, they made some of the finest music of the festival, with tight harmonies, memorable tunes and thoughtful lyrics. Their songs are drawn from the songbooks of the best Canadian tunesmiths (Ian Tyson, Stan Rogers, and Gordon Lightfoot, to name a few), as well as a fine selection of clever and well-crafted originals. Because of the easy-going atmosphere of Stanfest, audience members routinely have quite a bit of access to the performers; during a chat with Don Carroll, I discovered that the band’s name was derived from their father, whose given name is Maxwell. Don was, and presumably still is, an affable soul, quick with a grin, and happy to autograph a Sons of Maxwell CD (or, as he said at the time, “a t-shirt, or a Tim Horton’s receipt, or pretty much anything else you might shove in front of me”).

The pair, well regarded in Eastern Canada, didn’t make too much of a splash in the rest of the world until July 2009, at which point they released a song, with accompanying video, about an unfortunate experience they had had the previous summer while flying between shows. The song was called “United Breaks Guitars” (the title referring to the offending airline and Dave Carroll’s ill-fated instrument). Undoubtedly you have heard of this, but until last week it had entirely eluded me. While waiting for the newly-painted back bumper to be installed on my Civic, a result of a minor rear-end encounter late last month, the body shop rep and I started to chat about music. I mentioned that I play a Taylor guitar, and he said, “Oh, then you must know the Sons of Maxwell tune about the Taylor, right?” When I responded in the negative, he gave me a knowing “aha” look, pulled up YouTube on his computer, and pressed “Play”. In case you haven’t heard it, you need to, ’cause it’s hilarious; here is the link: http://www.youtube.com/results?search_query=united+breaks+guitars&aq=f

The airline’s negligence, and then its adamant refusal to take responsibility, might have seemed bad luck at the time, but since the incident, the careers of the Carroll brothers have, you might say, taken off. The YouTube video, a hit from its inception, now has had more than nine million views. That’s nine, followed by six zeroes. Throw in major media coverage (including CNN’s Wolf Blitzer), a message of support (and an offer of a replacement guitar) from Taylor Guitars honcho Bob Taylor, and a slew of YouTube imitators (“Northwest Breaks Dulcimers”, etc.), and UBG began to take on a life of its own. Two more United-themed ditties followed, United Breaks Guitars Song Two, on YouTube at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=h-UoERHaSQg , and Song Three, which you can hear at www.davecarrollmusic.com/song3 .

On the feelgood front, four days after the release of the video on YouTube, United Airlines stock took a 10% hit on the stock exchange, costing shareholders a whopping $180 million, according to the London Times (via Wikipedia). That should have made them sit up and take notice.

One last note: as there have been nine million (and counting) views of UBG on YouTube, this is likely to be one of those times where I am not the, um, first boxcar across the bridge. I’m okay with that; it will make me happy even if only one or two of you get turned on to something you might otherwise have missed.


Babies, the movie

August 12, 2010

Because it is a college town, I suppose, Charlottetown, PEI has more to offer from a cultural perspective than many other towns of its size (about 40,000 hardy souls). One of its attractions to locals and tourists alike is the diminutive City Cinema, which occupies a small corner of an office building near the bottom of Queen Street by Charlottetown Harbour. It’s not easy to find, but well worth the search. City Cinema, like others of its ilk, shows foreign films, indie flicks, and movies that might well never make it to DVD, so I (a card-carrying cinema junkie) make it a point to go there regularly when I am on the island.

This past week, one of the two offerings was a French film titled simply, Babies. Directed by Thomas Balmes, it followed the lives of four babies from birth (or just before) to their first birthdays (or, as the trailer says, “from first breath to first steps”). The babies, Bayar (from Mongolia), Ponijao (from Namibia), Hattie (from San Francisco) and Mari (from Tokyo), could scarcely have been less alike in terms of circumstances, the disparity ranging from a mud hut in southern Africa to a luxo-apaato (apartment) in Japan. Despite that, they were remarkably alike in their world view, which was, by and large, sunny.

There is no dialog to speak of, and what little there is, is baby talk (both from the babies and the adults). Balmes films from some remove, via telephoto lens, so as not to be intrusive, and for the most part he succeeds. He clearly has an agenda, juxtaposing as he does the privilege of First World kids with unannounced segues into the hardscrabble lives of the Third World babies. And, I have to say, Balmes is nothing if not persuasive. Bayar and Ponijao appear to be having about as much fun toddling around desert or steppes as Mari and Hattie are having being chauffeured around their respective cities in high-tech strollers. Of course that begs the question, what will their lives be like in five years, or ten, or twenty?

As is the case with all babies, I suspect, there are moments of hilarity and terror, both for the kids themselves, and for those assigned to look after them. There is a scene in which Bayar lies helplessly mute on his blanket, watching cautiously while a thoroughly unpleasant rooster trundles back and forth in front of him, seemingly daring Bayar to raise any sort of ruckus. In another scene, the plucky Mongolian baby ventures forth into the family’s corral, where he meanders between the legs of inattentive cows, engendering a collective gasp from the conservative PEI audience (although one or two guys, including me, were cheering him on!).

Babies is the sort of movie you go to with several close friends; after it is over, you adjourn to the local Starbuck’s and have a lively discussion about what you have witnessed. I can virtually guarantee that the discourse will be spirited, and that you will not forget the experience for a very long time to come.