The Most Dangerous Place : Pakistan’s Lawless Border by Imtiaz Gul (Penguin Books)

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There was a time when I was fascinated by the drug trade and would buy and read all sorts of books on the subject. I would read books about the “Golden Triangle”. I would read about the leaders of the drug smuggling trade - General Khun Sa of the Shan State in Burma, Pablo Escobar and Jorge Ochoa, the founders of the Medellin Cartel in Columbia, just to name a few major figures.

Then I read the news of the Rwandan Genocide in 1994 and saw the photography books by Magnum photographer,Gilles Peress. This spawned my interest in reading books about crimes against humanity. The Holocaust during World War 2, the rise of Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge, ethnic cleansing in Kosovo, the Tigers of Tamil Eelam recruiting children to fight in their wars. Sometimes I would imagine what it would be like to travel to such dangerous places. This led me to read Robert Pelton Young’s book The World’s Most Dangerous Places which is currently in its 5th edition.

My interest in the drug trade and crimes against humanity would be shelved after the rise of terrorism, Al Qaeda, and Osama bin Laden. However, most of the books I would read on the subject were by Westerners who are not the most objective voice when talking about the rise of Islamic militants and whom I believe were just as ignorant about the countries of Afghanistan and Pakistan.

While the U.S. increased the “war on terror” and put a bounty on bin Laden’s head, our country was having an even more difficult time getting the cooperation of another country - Pakistan. That’s the main focus of this book. Our government believed that bin Laden was hiding out in the country’s tribal region of Waziristan which shares the border with Afghanistan. Our government were also weary of the Pakistan’s intelligence agency, the ISI or Inter-Services Intelligence because they believe many members supported the militants and let them handle problems in the area as proxy agents.

In this book, we get an even better insight into the rise of Islamic militancy from a Pakistani native who is also a journalist and has been reporting on the area for over two decades. Gul not only interviews Pakistani government officials and members of ISI, he also interviews militant leaders and their followers. You will learn more about the tribal areas and get a better understanding of how ultra-conservatism and a lack of wealth and education contributes to the rise of militancy. Gul also informs us why the Pakistani government is complacent when it comes problems arising in these lawless areas.

The appendix in the book gives you a list of militant leaders, the group they are a part of, and what tribal region the strength is located. We may not hear much about Al Qaeda in the news after bin Laden’s death, but Islamic militancy continues to grow and expand and now the most current threat against democracy is Isis or the Islamic State. I can only wish for a future where we really will have world peace, but as long as there are extremists, Islamic, Christian, or otherwise, we need to stay vigilant and learn as much as we can to strive to make a better world.

Rain Fall by Barry Eisler (Signet Books)

Author Barry Eisler, who gained the rights back to all of his books, has changed the name of all of his titles that feature his character, John Rain. This, the title of the first book, was changed to “A Clean Kill in Tokyo”. It is the beginning of one of my favorite series featuring a protagonist who is half-American and half-Japanese. As a half-American, half-Japanese myself, I couldn't help but be biased towards liking this character. Also, the story is set in present day Japan, mostly in a neighborhood that I called home for over twenty years – Tokyo.

Meet John Rain, a half-American, half-Japanese hitman for hire based in Tokyo. He specializes in making his targets die as if by natural causes. He doesn't care who or why but he does have some rules of his own. The target must be guilty of the crime he is accused of. The target must not be any women or children, and most important, Rain works alone.

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Rain was a former operative in covert operations during the Vietnam War. It is where he learned his current trade. He also continues to study judo at the prestigious Kodokan International Judo Center to keep his body fit, especially necessary in his line of work. His lastest target is a government official. Using his mode of operation, Rain conceives of a way to have the man's pacemaker short-circuit while riding the subway, making it look as if the man suffered a heart attack. While the man is dying, Rain notices a Westerner frisking the man's coat as if in search of something.

With the death of a government bureaucrat, not only do the Japanese police get involved, but the information the man was holding is also wanted by the Yakuza and the CIA. What both groups are after is a disk the man was carrying which would expose the corruption of many other politicians. And he was about to hand over this sensitive information to the press. As Rain was also spotted on the subway through security cameras, the police are searching for him as well. Once Rain delves deeper into what went down on the subway, it leads him to the bureaucrat's daughter, Midori Kawamura, a Julliard-trained jazz pianist.

Rain befriends Midori, who has no idea that he is the man who killed her father. At first he keeps his distance but when he sees intruders enter her home and that her life is in danger, he goes against his own principles and involves himself in saving her. As the mystery deepens, Midori also wonders what it is about John Rain, this man who appears out of nowhere into her life and saves her from thugs breaking into her home.

This is one exciting ride from beginning to end. As you read the story, it makes you feel as if you are in the heart of Shibuya where the action happens. It is fast-paced and very character oriented. The friendship that blossoms between Rain and Midori makes for a romance that's bound to go awry but you can't help hoping that things will work out. The story just sucks you in and leaves you wanting more.~Ernie Hoyt

The Winter Station by Jody Shields (Little, Brown & Co.)

The time is 1910. The place is the small Russian settlement of Kharbin located in Manchuria which is still governed by the Chinese. There is a very unstable truce between the Chinese, the Russians and the Japanese. In this small and nearly forgotten city, Jody Shields weaves a story that was inspired by the actual incidents of the times. People are dying from an unknown cause and before the Baron, a Russian aristocrat and also the town's medical commissioner, can examine any bodies, they have mysteriously disappeared.  He also finds it troublesome that he has not been notified of the deaths. When the casualties keep mounting, the Baron realizes the town is suffering from an invisible enemy – the plague. Although he is determined to eradicate the sickness, he encounters hostilities from other doctors and government bureaucrats, including his own, to share information with each other.

The Baron does have a few allies who try to help him. A French doctor named Messonier, a smuggler and black market dealer named Andreev, and a Chinese dwarf named Chang. As the invisible death continues to take lives, the Chinese who at first wouldn't accept help from the Russians are forced to do so. The Russians blame the Chinese for the plague claiming they are dirty and uncivilized while the Japanese stick to their section of the city, isolating themselves from the others. But as each government official can no longer hide the fact that there is a serious health problem, only then do the doctors unite to come up with a strategy on how to fight the disease.

Some of the Baron's colleagues want to autopsy the Chinese bodies. This leads to more strenuous relations between the parties involved as Chinese custom forbids the desecration of the deceased. Adding to the dilemma is the cold winter which forces many people to gather in small spaces huddled together. If only one person is affected, the others would soon follow. With the epidemic in full force, the newly appointed young and arrogant Chinese doctor has received permission from authorities in Beijing to conduct autopsies on the dead. However, the local population believes the Russian are stealing the bodies and cutting up the bodies to sell the organs.

To establish some type of order and to combat the increasing death toll, the government of China with the help of Russian soldiers has ordered some extreme measures such as confining people on a train. If they show no symptoms of the disease after five days, they were free to leave. Victims and bodies of the dead are being picked up by the “plague wagons” and transported out of town where the bodies were burned. People suspected of having the disease are forced out of their homes and taken to makeshift hospitals while their homes and businesses are burned down to cleanse the area. Families fearing for their children and loved ones often hide the bodies of the dead making finding a solution even more difficult than it already was.

The deeper you get into the story, the deeper your worry gets for the Baron, his Chinese wife and his associates and friends. The Baron and other foreign doctors are working virtually without rest but the city is losing over a hundred citizens a day and their seems to be no end in sight. Will the doctors be able to find a cure? Will they be able to find the cause? Will the Baron even survive this epidemic? What will happen to the city?

Curiosity got the best of me and I had to research what really happened in Manchuria in 1910. As Shield's narrative states, there was an outbreak of plague. However, it wasn't bubonic. It was a pneumatic plague. People in the medical profession believe the plague was spread by disease-carrying marmots that were hunted for their fur. The locals knew to avoid killing sick animals but as the demand and price went up for marmot fur, many migrants and inexperienced hunters would kill and sell diseased animals as well. I couldn't help but see the news about an Ebola outbreak in the Congo where history is repeated itself because of poor hygiene, illiteracy, and a belief in old superstitions.

This book is a fascinating bit of history I was unaware of until now. If you enjoy a good medical thriller with a historical background, then this is a story for you.~Ernie Hoyt

Ekiben : The Ultimate Japanese Travel Food by Aki Tomura (IBC Publishing)

I am an army brat. My father was in the army. My mother is Japanese. I spent most of my elementary years living on a base in Tokyo, Japan in the early '70s. We lived on a base called Grant Heights which was located in Itabashi Ward, near Narimasu station. Every summer, my brother and I would look forward to going to my grandmother's house in Maizuru, a small coastal town on the Sea of Japan that was located in Kyoto Prefecture. ot get there, we would take the “bullet” train, commonly known as the shinkansen, where we would look forward to sitting in the dining car and having a bowl of curry rice.

I moved back to Tokyo, Japan as an adult in 1995. After settling into my new job and surroundings, and saving a bit of money, I was able to visit my grandmother's home in Maizuru again. This meant I would be taking the shinkansen from Tokyo to Kyoto. I was so looking forward to sitting in the dining car and having a bowl of curry rice again. It was over twenty years since my first shinkansen experience--imagine my shock when I found there was no longer a dining car on the route from Tokyo to Kyoto. It had been replaced by a moving cart, similar to what’s found on the airlines, except you had to pay for your own drinks, snacks, and food. But then, I discovered something else. I discovered the world of the ekiben. (Eki is the Japanese word for “station”. Ben is a shortened form of bento, the ready-made box lunch.) 

This book, Ekiben, has a  subtitle that’s direct and to the point, The box lunch you buy at the station and eat on the train. The book also provides a short history of the ekiben which I wasn't familiar with. When the railroads were being built during the Meiji era (1868-1912), bentos were made available at every station. They are still available but they have evolved quite a bit. The ekibens are usually eaten on a long train journey and there is an incredible variety of the types of ekibens you can buy.

This book provides you with just the tip of the iceberg concerning ekibens. It can be used as a guide to show you at which station the ekibens are available, providing a full color picture of the package and its contents.

The book is divided into seven regions, starting with Hokkaido and the Tohoku area (which includes Aomori, Iwate, Miyagi, Fukushima, Yamagata, and Akita Prefectures), the Kanto region (which includes Ibaraki, Tochigi, Gunma, Saitama, Chiba, Kanagawa Prefectures and the Tokyo metropolis), the Hokuriki region (which includes Niigata, Toyama, Ishikawa, and Fukui Prefectures), the Chubu region (which includes Aichi, Gifu, Nagano, Shizuoka, Yamanashi, and Mie Prefectures), the Kinki region (which includes Osaka, Kyoto, Hyogo, Nara, Wakayama, and Shiga Prefectures), the Chugoku region (which includes Shimane, Okayama, Yamaguchi, and Hiroshima Prefectures), and ending with the Shikoku and Kyushu regions (which includes Kagawa, Tokushima, Ehime, Kochi Prefectures in Shikoku and Fukuoka, Oita, Miyazaki, Kagoshima, Kumamoto, Nagasaki, Saga, and Okinawa Prefectures in Kyushu).

For every ekiben, each page will show you the name of the bento, the type of bento it is (there are about nine different types introduced), the name of the railway, the name of the station where its available, the package appearance, an image of the box, an image of the contents, and at the bottom of the page, a description of the bento.

These days, you don't even have to go to a particular station. There is an ekiben specialty store inside Tokyo station, where you can buy ekibens from all over Japan. Many department stores have ekiben campaigns from time to time as well.

Although I miss eating curry rice in the dining car on the shinkansen,  I still look forward to long train journeys which gives me a chance to try the different types of ekiben. When visiting Japan, eating an ekiben should definitely be on your list of things to do!~Ernie Hoyt

So Sad to Fall in Battle by Kumiko Kakehashi (IBC Publishing)

I was very impressed when director Clint Eastwood made his two movies about the Battle of Iwo Jima. One was seen through the eyes of the American soldiers, based on the book Flags of Our Fathers by James Bradley. However, I was even more impressed with Eastwood's portrayal of the Japanese soldiers as seen through their eyes for his film Letters from Iwo Jima. In the movie, it shows that a lot of letters were found on the island after the war. However, before the American invasion, the Japanese soldiers had sent many letters home. Author Kumiko Kakehashi wrote this book based on survivors’ testimonies, families of the survivors, and also on the letters that the families gave the author access to.

Most Americans will be familiar with the iconic photograph of the six Marines raising the American flag on Mount Suribachi which also won the Pulitzer Prize. What most Americans probably don't know is that the U.S. Military thought the capturing of the island would only take no more than five days. But it was not as easy as they first thought.

Much of the book centers around the letters written by the commander of the Japanese forces, General Tadamichi Kuribayashi. Unlike other commanders, he did not believe in the Japanese strategy of a beach landing assault, as he had already seen the results in Guam and Saipan and other places and knew it would be futile. In fact, in his letters, he was already resigned to losing the island, but not after putting up a fight until the death of every soldier.

What makes this different about other books about the Battle of Iwo Jima, is how human the general and his men were when sending letters home to their families. Kuribayashi, as a general, managed to write a few lines criticizing the war and his superiors which went against the grain of the times and even managed to pass some of the Japanese censors.

When reading the letters from the General to his wife and children, it's almost hard to picture this nice family man commanding over 20,000 soldiers to defend a small island in the Pacific from a nation with a far superior force. He writes to his wife about the smallest details: how she should not send him anything, or how to fix a draft on the floorboard of their home, complete with pictures on how to do so.

We learn how Kuribayashi motivated his soldiers to defend the island at any costs. We know this from the letters that were found or shared by survivors and the survivors’ families. We know they defended the island to the best of their ability, hoping to delay or to try to change the mind of the American army in invading their homeland. Another truth we learn about Lt. General Tadamichi Kuribayashi is that he was a great strategist and a thorn in the American force’s side. What was to be a five day mission lasted for more than thirty, and came with the high cost of casualties. For American and Japanese soldiers alike, the Battle of Iwo Jima can really be considered a living hell. For those of us who don't know war, this can be an eye-opener that war should never  be glamorized.~Ernie Hoyt

おもしろい! 進化のふしき 「ざんねんないきもの辞典」 今泉忠明 (監修者) Encyclopedia of the World's Most Unfortunate Animals edited by Tadaaki Imaizumi

Sometimes I love to challenge myself to read a book in the language of my adopted country – Japanese. Although it takes me a while to finish, I find that it helps me improve my vocabulary and my comprehension. Recently I picked up a book titled Zannen na Ikimono Jiten. Zannen can be translated as “too bad”, or “unfortunate”. Ikimono directly translates to “things that are alive”, thus “animals” and jiten translates to “encyclopedia”. The English title would be The Encyclopedia of the World's Most Unfortunate Animals.

My wife, who is not an avid reader, was also interested in reading this book. Upon its release, it shot up the Japanese bestseller lists in a very short amount of time and is enjoyed by both children and adults. The writing is easy to understand,  incorporating a lot of humor, and the book is filled with cute illustrations.

The book is separated into four parts. The first part gives a little history about evolution, how animals have evolved or changed to survive as a species. One of the examples given is the giraffe.

One of their ancestors was born with long legs which helped them run away from predators. But the giraffe with long legs had a hard time drinking water and once again became easy prey for the carnivores. Then, another one of their ancestors was born with an extremely long neck. This made drinking water easier and the species survived.

The second part talks about how many of the animals have evolved. There were many that evolved in a most unfortunate way or at least, we as humans, may find strange. Did you ever wonder why hippos spend most of their time in the water? As large as they are, the skin of the hippo is quite sensitive, even more so than a human baby. They can get sunburnt just by standing out under the sun. Or did you know that the brain of an ostrich is smaller than its eyeballs? Or the tuatara (a type of lizard), which has a third eye on its forehead, but can not see out of it clearly – most unfortunate!

Part Three explains how some unfortunate animals evolved to stay alive. For example, the stinkier a skunk is, the higher its probability of finding a mate. Or how about the sea cucumber that spits out its intestines to protect itself from being eaten by larger fish? The sea cucumber has the ability to regenerate its innards – a most unfortunate way of staying alive.

And finally we have a section about the unfortunate abilities of various animals. For example, consider the stink bug whose own smell can be so overpowering, that it will faint from its own odor. Or a flea which has the ability to jump very high, however cannot stand on its own feet – most unfortunate.

There are so many tidbits of interesting animal information which not only makes for great reading but can be used as great conversation starters! You can tell your friends or people you just met, “Hey, do you know why koalas spend most of their time sleeping? Because they eat eucalyptus leaves which contains a lot of toxins. But toxins are toxins and the eucalyptus leaves have almost no nutritional value so they need to store up energy. They do that by sleeping all day.” Even if you are not an animal lover, you will love reading about the “unfortunate” evolutions of many of these living things!~Ernie Hoyt


Where the Mountain Meets the Moon by Grace Lin (Little Brown)

This is a fairy tale inspired by the author's travels through Hong Kong, Taiwan, and China. The hero of our story is a young girl named Minli. She lives in a small house with her mother and father in the shadow of a large mountain. All the villagers call it Fruitless Mountain because nothing grows on it and no animals or birds make their home there. Minli's family is very poor, as are most of the villagers.  

Although Minli is a child, she is always smiling and ready for adventure. The villagers thinks her name (which means quick thinking) is well suited to her. Sometimes her mother thinks it suits her too well. What makes Minli happiest is hearing her father tell her stories of far away lands, of magic and dragons, of imagined worlds where anything is possible. One of her favorite stories that she likes to have her father tell is how Fruitless Mountain got its name. Minli loves this story and always asks her father what could be done about the barren state of the mountain to which her father always answers, “That is a question you will have to ask the Old Man of the Moon.”

Minli believes her father's story and asks him where she can find the Old Man of the Moon. He tells her that it’s been said he lives on the top of Never-Ending Mountain. Then Minli has a great thought. She tells her father that if she could find the Old Man of the Moon, she could ask him how to change the family's fortune. This time the mother scolds the father for putting such ridiculous thoughts in their daughter's head.

The next day is not an ordinary day. A goldfish seller walks through town calling out “Goldfish. Bring good fortune into your home.” Minli asks the man how a goldfish can bring good fortune to which the man replies, “Don't you know? Goldfish means plenty of gold. Having a bowl of goldfish means your house will be full of gold and jade.” Minli has two copper coins given to her when she was a baby and without another thought, runs back home and offers them to the goldfish man. He only takes one coin and gives Minli a bowl with a goldfish in it. When she brings it home, her mother is not pleased, saying it’s just another mouth to feed.

Minli thinks about what her mother said and sneaks out at night to set the fish free. She sighs just like her mother and says out loud if she can only go to Never-Ending Mountain, then she would be able to ask the Old Man of the Moon how to change her family’s fortune. As she is about to head home, the fish speaks  and says it can show her the way to Never-Ending Mountain.

This is how Minli's true adventure begins – starting with a talking goldfish, then meeting a dragon that can't fly, and having to solve riddles to find her way to Never-Ending Mountain where she can ask the Old Man of the Moon her question. Will she get there? Will her family's fortune change? Are there really talking goldfish and dragons? Only one way to find out--finish reading the story!~Ernie Hoyt


Return to Tsugaru : Travels of Purple Tramp by Osamu Dazai (Kodansha International)

As a fairly recent transplant from the metropolis of Tokyo to the Tohoku area of Japan, also known as Tsugaru, I have become more interested in exploring the literary history of my newly adopted home. When my wife and I explored our new surroundings last summer, I couldn't help but notice the number of monuments dedicated to one of the area's most prolific writers – Osamu Dazai. I did not know he was originally from Aomori Prefecture. I also didn't know Dazai was a pen name he used. (His given name was Shuji Tsushima.)

I decided to introduce myself to Dazai by reading a book he had been commissioned to write. One of his friends in the publishing business had repeatedly suggested he write a travel piece about his hometown and he willingly accepted. It was meant to be a special volume in the New Fudoki Series.  (Fudoki 風土記means the records of the culture and geography of a province.)

Dazai spends three weeks exploring Aomori Prefecture and says, “Though I was born and brought up in Tsugaru and lived there for twenty years, the only places I knew were Kanagi, Goshogawara, Aomori, Hirosaki, Asamushi, and Owani. Of other towns and villages I knew not the least bit.”

This book was originally published in 1944 by Oyama Shoten and titled Tsugaru.  The English edition was translated by James Westerhoven (who had taught English at Hirosaki University for about ten years) and was published in 1985.

It was by pure coincidence, or maybe it was fate, that my travels with my wife around Aomori Prefecture last year seemed to have followed in the footsteps of Dazai's own wandering. Almost every chapter Dazai wrote was about a village or town we had also visited. Aside from his hometown of Kanagi and the closest large city, Goshogawara, Dazai takes us through towns with names like Kanita, Yomogita, Imabetsu, Minmaya and Cape Tappi.  He also has another goal in mind when he sets out on his trip: to see Take Koshino, the woman who raised him, whom he hasn't seen in thirty years.

What was intended to be a travel guide turns out to be more of a personal journey as Dazai shares with us not only his thoughts about the small towns and hamlets but also offers his opinions on the people of Tsugaru as well. Dazai's novels may have a reputation for being bleak and depressing but this travelogue and reminiscences  take the reader on a journey that's more fascinating than just reading facts about an area’s culture and geography.~Ernie Hoyt

The Good Son by You-Jeong Jeong (Penguin Books)

This psychological mystery and suspense novel by Korean author You-Jeong Jeong is one of the most disturbing books I've read in quite a while. The story starts with twenty-six-year-old Yu-jin waking up to the smell of blood. He has been off his medication and thinks he may have passed out after having an epileptic seizure. But that smell of blood...

He is also covered in what he thinks is mud, his clothes are crusty, and his hair is matted. He wonders if he fell in the mud on the way home the night before.  As he slowly tries to remember the details of what happened, the phone rings. It is Hae-jin, his good friend and adopted brother. Hae-jin asks about their mother who had called Hae-jin in the middle of the night. This is so out of character for her that it makes Yu-jin a bit worried. He seems to recall his mother calling his name but wonders was she calling for help? Or was she begging for her life?

He thought he had heard the voice of his brother as well. Yu-jin had a brother named Yu-min. When they were children, they would play a game called “Survival” with their BB guns that shot small plastic pellets. They would shoot each other and the one who got hit the most would win. He remembers a time when he almost lost his BB gun along the bridge of a railway track. He bumped his elbow and dropped his gun. At the same time he could see the train coming towards him, but he didn't want to lose his gun and ran back for it. Although he managed to get his gun, his uniform was torn and his face covered in dirt. He remembers how Yu-Min covered for him at school and he wishes Yu-min were here now to help him. However Yu-min has been dead for a long time.

Yu-jin comes to realize that his clothes and his body aren't covered in mud--he’s covered in blood! He knows he has to deal with the situation himself. He is still unsure of what happened. But he finally has the strength to check on his mother. He finds her lying on the floor with her throat cut from ear to ear. The shock is overwhelming. What to do now? He believes that maybe he should call the police. He think she may have tried to fight off a burglar in the night. He dials the emergency number only to come to realize what the police would think--“a dead woman with her throat cut, lying in a pool of blood next to her dazed, bloodied son.”

This is only the beginning of the mystery as we learn of another murder. A young woman was found with her throat cut, dumped into the sea. She was found in an area where Yu-jin would run at night.

The deeper you read, the deeper you are pulled into the mind of Yu-jin. More mysteries begin to unfold. Why was Hae-jin adopted? Exactly how did Yu-jin's brother Yu-min and his father die? And if he doesn't have epilepsy, what is he suffering from? Fast-paced and at times more graphic than any slasher film, this book makes it impossible for you to do anything more than read it to get to the bottom of its mystery.~Ernie Hoyt


The Quantum Spy by David Ignatius (Norton)

I'm not a science nerd or should I say I am cyber-impaired? This thriller about a race to make the first working quantum computer, which in theory would be able to decipher any encrypted messages in a short matter of time, is a book that I found fast paced and exciting. The race is between the U.S. intelligence community (aka the CIA) and China's Ministry of State Security, (MSS) who seem to be one step behind the Americans every step of the way. The CIA has discovered that there is a mole in their own department but have no clue as to who it is and how to catch him or her or them. At the same time, Chinese-American field agent Harris Chang is sent to investigate a small company in the US that the CIA believe has been contacted by a front company of the MSS and has been compromised by a Chinese informant.

We next find Chang in Singapore with a Chinese national, one Dr. Ma Yubo. Dr. Ma has been on the take, accepting bribes to support a mistress in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada, to keep his daughter in school at Stanford University in the U.S., and to keep his relatives off of his back as they ask him for money and help. Dr. Ma is a scientist who, the Americans know, works for the MSS. What they don't understand is why.

Ma agrees to meet with Gunther Krause, a private wealth advisor for a company called the Luxembourg Asset Management. However, Krause shows up with Chang, much to Dr. Ma's disapproval. Ma soon learns that Krause and Chang work for the same company --the CIA-- and the CIA is determined to get Ma to help them find the mole in the Company. As Chang meets with an unwilling Dr. Ma, he alerts some of his colleagues to search Dr. Ma’s hotel room to find his mijian, a small diary where he wrote his private thoughts. Most Chinese officials have them as they were deemed safer than electronic devices and were to be used to protect the Ministry, but officials knew the diaries were kept for their own protection.

Chang manages to get Dr. Ma to submit to become a CIA “asset”, as they have his mijian. Ma is told if he doesn't cooperate, the notebook will be sent to those authorities in China who investigate corruption within the system.

The CIA had gathered enough information to confirm that there was a mole who had access to top level security items and how the contacts were established. They learned of a Chinese program called Xie (Scorpion) and found that the Chinese asset's name for their mole is Rukou, (Doorway). What they didn't foresee was that Dr. Ma realizes he is not in a win-win situation as Chang has suggested.  Before any of the CIA operatives could prevent him, Dr. Ma hangs himself. Now, with such little information and no way to make contact, how will the CIA find their mole?

David Ignatius is a writer for the Washington Post who has been covering the Middle East and the CIA for over twenty-five years so his descriptions of assignments and covert actions make you feel as if you are really in the story itself as well. Anybody interested in a thriller will enjoy the twists and turns of the novel as it deals with ethics, racism, loyalty, and betrayal in a modern day setting where real change is happening in the world of technology.~Ernie Hoyt

Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata (Grove Press)

My wife has been a convenience store worker for over ten years of her life so I couldn't resist reading this book. Fortunately for me, my wife is nothing like Keiko Furukawa, the protagonist of this story. Keiko seems to be different even as a child. When other children cry over a dead bird, Keiko doesn't feel the same emotion and asks her mother if they can take it home and use it to make yakitori (grilled chicken on a skewer). She says to her mother, “Father likes yakitori so we should make it for him.” She can't understand why all the other children are sad because to her it's just a bird. (I'm glad to say that my wife would not think of making yakitori from a dead bird for me either.)

When Keiko grows older, she knows that she isn't like other people. However, all she wants to do is fit in and be a “cog in the machine”. So when a new convenience store opens near her university, her sister suggests that she should work there. For Keiko, it's the perfect opportunity to be the kind of person everyone expects her to be. All she has to do is follow the job manual, as if the manual was her bible of how to live and act. It tells her exactly what she has to do and what she should say.  Looking at her co-workers, she begins to copy their speech patterns and the way they dress because she thinks that will make her a normal person who will function in society for everyone's benefit.

Flash forward eighteen years:  Keiko is still working part-time at the convenience store. She has never had a boyfriend, she has few friends, she doesn't have any hobbies but she really enjoys her life. She has no complaints. However she knows she's not living up to other people's expectations, certainly not her mother’s nor her sister’s. Still she continues to do her best to live her life as they expect her to.

When the manager of the convenience store hires a young man who feels that working at a convenience store is below him and that people who work there are “losers”, Keiko takes it upon herself to try to show him how things are done. However, the manager and other employees can’t tolerate his unwillingness to do anything and he's eventually fired.

When Keiko meets her old co-worker a few months later and finds that he has no place to stay, she offers to let him stay at her apartment. As she has no experience with men, she calls her sister, who of course is overly excited at the prospect of Keiko finally finding a man. Her co-workers and even her boss, who up to now hasn't shown much interest in her life outside the convenience store, are curious about how the two got together.  Everyone wonders if they're going to get married, have kids, and do everything else one would expect of a couple living a normal life.

Sayaka Murata's first book kept me intrigued;  I couldn't stop reading until I found myself at the end of the story. The author is still a part-time worker at a convenience store which inspired her to write this novel. It also won her the prestigious Akutagawa Prize in Japan, which is not an easy accomplishment. If you want something new and fresh to read, then I recommend that you read about the life of a Convenience Store Woman.~Ernie Hoyt


Pretty Good Number One : An American Family Eats Tokyo by Matthew Amster-Burton (Viaduct Music)

I never get tired of reading about other people's experiences in my adopted homeland of Japan so this month,  I chose something close to my heart. It’s a  story about traveling, food, and Japan by an author who happens to live in my hometown of Seattle! I didn't realize this was Amster-Burton's second book after Hungry Monkey : A Food-Loving Father's Quest to Raise an Adventurous Eater, which I have yet to read but I must say, this is one entertaining romp through one of the world's best gastronomic capitals, Tokyo.

Pretty Good Number One.jpg

The book I chose to review may have a strange title to Americans maybe, but if you have ever been to Nakano, where Amster-Burton's family stayed for a month while experiencing the culinary life of Tokyo, it would not surprise you. Japan is full of English signs that don't seem to make any sense to native speakers. Amster-Burton covers what every novice or first time visitor should check out--ramen, sushi, okonomiyaki ( a Japanese style of pancake which is savory, not sweet) and of course takoyaki (octopus balls which are a staple in Osaka). All of this he accomplishes with his 8-year- old daughter in tow (and a wife who actually suggests living in Tokyo for a short spell).

You will be captivated not only by him and his daughter satisfying their palates, but also finding joy in the way they find everything about Japan fascinating--riding on the bullet train, browsing the depa-chika (the food section in the basement of department stores), the convenience stores, and other everyday things most expats take for granted.

It reminded me of all my solitary food excursions I used to take when I first moved here, but as the author only spent a short time here, he missed out on a variety of food festivals that are held almost weekly throughout the summer at Yoyogi Park. Still, even a long time resident of Japan will be able to “gobble” up this food and travel memoir.


[Arukashira Shoten] Shinsuke Yoshitake (Poplar Publishing)

If there is one type of book I can't resist, it’s a book about books. I enjoy books filled with book reviews, of course,  and I also enjoy humorous books about books such as 90 Classic Books for People in a Hurry by Henrik Lange.

Then along comes this book, a comic essay about a particular bookstore which is located on the edge of town. The title translates to Do You Have This Bookstore. Customers of all ages come in and ask the manager if the store if he has a book on "_____" He answers "Of course" and disappears into the back of the shop to bring out a few titles that might interest the them.

The customers ask, "Do you have some interesting rare books?" and the owner/manager disappears and bring back titles such as How to Raise a Writer's Tree. The book explains that first you must put a seed in one of your favorite books and bury it in the ground. You must read to the planted book tree every day. At the end of the year, the tree will sprout books. If you raise the book tree properly, a great book is sure to ripen. However, if you praise one book more than the others, the tree will have a high chance of dying.


Any book lover will enjoy the books about working with books. One of my favorite chapters featured books with titles like A Day at the Charisma Bookseller's Training School or Investigator of the History of All the Books that Have Been Read. The titles and summaries are humorous and will make you think about what kind of book you would be looking for at this store. There are so many other fun and unusual books carried in this shop that I truly wish there were a store like this in the real world. However, there is one type of book that the store does not carry. But that's something I can't tell you. You will have to find out for yourself. ~by Ernie Hoyt

(Available in Japanese text only)


「あるかしら書店」ヨシタケシンスケ (ポプラ社)








Taiwan Tattoo by Brian M. Day (ThingsAsian Press)

Jack, a university-educated Canadian slacker with an overly protective and enabling older sister, finds himself fired by his brother-in-law from a job he hates. With no plans for his future, on a whim he takes a job in Taiwan teaching English.


His story is quite similar to a satirical comic strip written in Japan, Charisma Man. This comic pillories the young Western men who come to Japan to teach English and find that their new stature is elevated far above the one they enjoyed in their home countries. At home, they're nothing special but in a foreign country they find that local women want to date them, their pay is usually good so they have money to spend, their rooms or apartments are subsidized so they pay low rent or no rent. All of this gives them a false sense of being someone with clout.

Jack is like many of these Charisma Men, fleeing ordinary life, thinking that teaching English in a foreign country will be a breeze and that success will be had without any effort. But as the days turn into months, Jack begins to question himself about the meaning of success. He had rushed into this job only because he did not respect his brother-in-law who gave him a job at his company only because Jack's sister insisted upon it. Jack who has never left his home country of Canada, Jack who has no knowledge of Taiwan and cannot speak Chinese, Jack who is in dire need of growing up! Jack at first is not a very likable character.

But as the story develops, we see Jack begin to gradually change. We see him overcoming his failures. We see his desire to do things better. Suddenly he wants not only to be a better teacher but to be a better person. We see him overcoming many of his insecurities, and we may even begin to like Jack and root for him.

This story is written by a man who also left Canada and went to Taiwan to teach English for a year. He found himself living in that country for the next nine. I am sure the author has incorporated many of his own experiences into the life of Jack and his descriptions of Taiwan and of the classes make you feel as if you are there as well. As to the title of the book itself? A reference to scars achieved from having an accident on a scooter in the notoriously dangerous traffic. This novel is entertaining as well as educational for any of those readers who might considering teaching English in Asia. ~by Ernie Hoyt

Liberace's Filipino Cousin by David R. Brubaker (ThingsAsian Press)


One of my favorite genres to read is the travel essay. I love to travel and to share stories about where I've been and what I've experienced, so it should come as no surprise that I’m also an avid armchair traveler. The destination where I recently found myself traveling was through the eyes of David R. Brubaker in his collection of essays on his life and adventures in the Philippines.

Forget the Lonely Planet guide. Brubaker takes us even further off the beaten path to places we would never have considered, much less known about, without his amusing and entertaining anecdotes. His narrative ranges from stories of the "all-rounders," the Filipina maids and nannies who virtually raise the children of elite foreign nationals, to his quest to find out the members of a mysterious group called "The Lucky Buggers Club."  Brubaker discovers the club consists of the male "trailing spouses" of expat wives, a group who spends all its time playing golf, drinking beer, and not having to work.

In common with Brubaker's wife Marilyn, I did find one of his chapters quite disturbing, in which he writes about a Filipino local named Tony. No matter how you try to rationalize this man’s trade, the bottom line is his story is about a man who is proud of hooking up young Filipina women with older foreign gentlemen. Yes, the man is proud to traffic women and defends his practice by saying he is providing a service to help these women and their families flee the poverty of their nation. (Unfortunately, I don't believe this is a problem confined to the Philippines as it is a widespread issue throughout Southeast Asia.)

But there is no doubt after reading this book that you will  want to make plans to visit a country that’s so varied and colorful with its lush green vegetation, islands still ripe for development, friendly people who may be poor but are happy, sunshine, and beautiful beaches. However, Brubaker doesn’t shun the reality of the crime and poverty of Manila or other areas of the nation even as he makes clear that if you use your common sense there are hundreds of adventures to be had in the Philippines.

I thoroughly enjoyed my adventures in the Philippines as seen through the eyes of Brubaker and believe that anyone who reads Liberace's Filipino Cousin will enjoy it too.~ Ernie Hoyt


Swimming in Hong Kong by Stephanie Han (Willow Spring Books)

In a skillful and ambitious short story collection, Stephanie Han proves that grouping people as “Asian” is an artificial and lazy way of blurring distinctive  cultures that have only a continent in common. Han, with roots in Hawaii that go back for more than a century, bypasses her heritage in Swimming in Hong Kong; the ten stories that comprise her book have settings that range from Seoul to Nantucket, told in the voices of Hong Kong scrap collectors, a Korean-American journalist waiting for her husband in the bar of an exclusive club that aspires to colonial grandeur, a KoreaTown manicurist who abandoned her young child when she left Seoul to work in the U.S., an aging Hong Kong swimmer who helps an African-American expatriate gain confidence in the water and in her life. She explores the sexual Orientalism of Western men and the feelings of the women who succumb to that particular fetish, skewers the ways of WASP preppies on the Eastern seaboard, and examines the difficulties of being a Korean-American girl with “the freedom of pocket money and an American life awaiting” at the end of time spent with her grandparents in Seoul.

Han illuminates these different worlds and voices with language that is vivid and crisp, descriptions that are precise and evocative. Her characters blaze with the heat of their common humanity, while clearly showing the cultural divides that yawn between each of them. If these people were ever brought together in one room, language would be the least of their differences. It’s a tribute to Stephanie Han’s talent that they convincingly populate the pages of her extraordinary debut. Their well-told stories, whether they take on the form of an insightful vignette as in “Hong Kong Rebound” or the shape and scope of a novella as in “The Body Politic, 1982”, make Swimming in Hong Kong a book to own and Han a writer to watch.~Janet Brown



「ギョッ」(Gyo) by 安藤正子 (Masako Endo) and illustrated by 岡本順 (Jun Okamoto) (Iwasaki Shoten)

Wanting to improve my Japanese reading skills, I went to the library to check out some books. My reading ability is still at a beginner level so I browsed the children's section and came across a book with an enticing cover that looked promising. The text is in Japanese with no English translation but has furigana (a Japanese reading aid which shows the simple way of reading kanji characters), which is helpful for children and people like me who still know far too few kanji characters.


The story is about a newspaper reporter named Mr. Mizuno who is thinking about what to write for his next article. He’s out fishing when he spots a young boy who helps him make a catch. As Mr. Mizuno takes the hook out of the fish and gets a good look, he sees the the fish's eyes look like binoculars. The boy drops his fishing net in surprise, and the fish escapes. Mr. Mizuno makes friends with the boy, Masashi, and then catches a normal-looking fish. The two of them grill the fish on the beach but Mr. Mizuno drops it on the sand when it’s fully cooked and their lunch becomes inedible. Instead they open cans of beer and juice, have a drink and prepare to leave.

Masashi takes his juice can to the nearest trash bin and can't believe how full the garbage can is and how dirty the beach is. He throws his can in another empty bin but Mr. Mizuno tosses his can away, hitting their abandoned grilled fish.

The next day Mr. Mizuno sits at a table in a coffee shop faced with a looming deadline and no story. He looks out the window and sees what looks like a man dressed as a giant fish is driving a jeep. He hurries out of the shop, flags down a car and convinces the driver to follow the jeep. They lose sight of the jeep but suddenly Mr. Mizuno finds himself out of the car, on the road, face to face with the giant fish!

“Is there something I can do for you?” asks the giant fish, “It seemed like you wanted something from me so I fished you out of the car with the antenna from this jeep.” Mr. Mizuno’s shirt is torn by a fish hook and he can’t believe his eyes. This isn’t a man wearing a giant fish costume, it’s a genuine talking fish who’s  as large as Mr. Mizuno himself.

When Mr. Mizuno asks the fish where he came from, the fish replies, “ I came from all the smaller fish that humans toss aside without a thought.” He adds that he’s hungry. and  Mr. Mizuno suggests that they have lunch but when the fish stops the jeep, there’s no restaurant to be found. The fish explains that this spot is his own personal restaurant. Mr. Mizuno looks around, sees a mountain of aluminum cans, and realizes this is where he was fishing when he met Masashi.

In the meantime, Masashi has found a small fish in a puddle and takes it home. It’s covered in mud so Masashi washes it and sees that it’s rainbow-colored. He wants to show  his mother and goes to look for her. But Masashi's fish starts eating everything it can get its mouth on and becomes as huge as the fish whom Mr. Mizuno has encountered. When Masashi comes home to find the giant fish, he tries to call for help, the fish eats the telephone before he can use it.

Mr. Mizuno’s giant fish had been nourished by many little fish that were discarded as waste. Those small fish had eaten all the accumulated garbage on the banks – the aluminum cans, the beer bottles and other assorted trash. And now what's to become of Masashi? Will the whole town be taken over by giant fish eating everything in sight? Somebody needs to do something, but what can be done?

This story is a warning to humans about what could happen if they let every little thing go to waste and don’t take better care of the planet.Entertaining from start to finish with a surprise ending, this book should be read by adults as well as children in order to make them think about how they treat their environment.~Ernie Hoyt



Are You an Echo? The Lost Poetry of Misuzu Kaneko by David Jacobson (Chin Music Press)

“Are you an echo?” is the haunting, provocative question posed by the title of the first children’s book to come from Seattle publisher Chin Music Press.  It is also the title of a poem that helped to rally and inspire the Japanese people after the tsunami of 2011 claimed many lives, demolished homes, and left wreckage in its wake. Broadcast as a public service announcement, these words moved hundreds of thousands of volunteers to join in rebuilding the devastated regions of their country.

The poem was written by a young woman almost a hundred years earlier, a woman whose brief life lasted for only twenty-six years but who left a lasting legacy of 512 poems. Born on Japan’s seacoast, Misuzu Kaneko was the daughter of a single mother, a girl who was brought up within a bookstore, and whose life was filled with words and images. By the time she was twenty, Misuzu was a published and popular poet. She continued to write even after she was drawn into an unhappy marriage and became the mother of a cherished daughter. Long after her tragic and untimely death, in 1982 her poetry was published in six volumes and is included in the curriculum taught to students in Japanese primary schools.

Misuzu’s poems are reminiscent of both Basho and Emily Dickinson, while having a vivid and humorous flavor that is distinct and original. Their simplicity captures and celebrates the world of childhood, while their underlying wisdom and precise imagery issues a clear and irresistible call to adult readers. Are You an Echo? provides a generous sampling of these poems, both in English and in Japanese, accompanied by soft and tender illustrations that intertwine seamlessly with Misuzu’s words.

Author David Jacobson was “thoroughly charmed” when he first encountered Misuzu’s poems and he has woven them into the story of her life in a way that is both captivating and revealing. In his skillful hands, Misuzu’s brief existence of art, fame, unhappiness, debilitating illness, and suicide takes on the beauty of a fable or a fairy tale, a story that children will easily understand and will not forget.

Are You an Echo? is an unusual achievement, a labor of love that has emerged from four separate talents in three different countries. In the United States, Jacobson, a man fluent in Japanese, first read these poems in their original language when a Japanese friend gave him a volume of Misuzu’s work. Struck by their clarity and beauty, he wanted to make them available in English, along with a brief story of the poet’s life that would be suitable for children. Jacobson has had a long association with Chin Music Press, who agreed to work with him on a picture book that would combine a collection of Misuzu’s poetry with the story of her life and work.

Jacobson’s research for his book was both scholarly and rigorous, leading him to read two Japanese biographies of Misuzu’s life as well as all of her poetry. Despite his competency in the Japanese language, he believed the poems deserved “a literary translator, particularly one adept in poetry.” In his search, he found two translators who were already deeply immersed in the life and work of Misuzu Kaneko.

Canadian poet Sally Ito and her aunt, Michiko Tsuboi, a translator living in Japan, had been working collaboratively on bringing Misuzu’s poems to English for more than a year before they were asked to work with Jacobson and Chin Music Press. “We felt called, in a way, to be a team in bringing Misuzu’s poetry and spirit to life in English,” Ito explained, adding that it was emotionally wrenching for both women, each of them a mother,  “to grapple with the fact of a mother committing suicide to ostensibly ‘save’ her daughter,” as Misuzu had felt compelled to do. Working across continents and time zones, Ito and Tsuboi sent emails back and forth in their commitment to bring Misuzu’s “depth and compassion” to another language and a new audience.

Their translations and Jacobson’s story have been wonderfully illuminated by the paintings of a thirty-five-year old Japanese artist, Toshikado Hajiri. Working with pencil and acrylics, Hajiri moves from the delicate pastel shades of a mother and child at sunset to the soft darkness of a star-filled sky, from the flames consuming a tsunami-ravaged village to the weary figure of a woman writing her last words beneath the radiance of one small lamp and a single white butterfly. The loveliness and sensitivity of his illustrations, blending masterfully with the text, put Are You an Echo? on lists of possible Caldecott nominees weeks before the book ever hit bookstore shelves.

“Are you just an echo? No, you are everyone,” Misuzu tells us in the poem that gave the title to Are You an Echo? And everyone is exactly who will love this book, “this unconventional “mash-up’ of biography and poetry,” as Jacobson describes it, served up with elegance and craftsmanship.~Janet Brown

This review was previously published in the International Examiner.



Miss Burma by Charmaine Craig (Grove Atlantic)


On a hot and airless afternoon last summer, I stayed inside and read Miss Burma, a strange book that took on the fictional-biographical shape of Vaddy Ratner’s In the Shadow of the Banyan, but much less successfully. This is a quasi-novel which is bogged down by its history, while the author should have stuck with the phenomenon who was her own mother, the legendary Louisa.

The book only flares into life when Louisa, Miss Burma, is on stage and again when she faces the future tragedy she has yet to know when she takes on the leadership left by her dead husband. But there is all too little of Louisa, far too much of her parents' history, and this sinks the novel.

An extraordinary woman who used her beauty wisely, Louisa remains legendary among the Karen, who claim that she is still alive, riding through the jungle on a white horse. Half-Karen herself, she grew up dominated by the politics of separatism and nationalism, a child whose life was war-torn and uncertain, who quickly learned that only her beauty could save her.

She covered her courage and her brain with the advantages given to her by her face and figure, until a general saw through her stunning mask and married her for the qualities that the rest of the world was eager to overlook. And that is the story of Miss Burma, padded much too generously with Louisa's mother’s life story and her father's role as a device to convey the country's history. As a novel it fails. It turns Louisa into little more than a footnote and thus it barely works.

But even so it sent me to the Internet to learn more about this woman and that means the author achieved at least part of what she wanted to do. Although Charmaine Craig's choice to focus on the efforts of her grandparents more than she did on her mother was a bad mistake, she probably thought it was the nobler approach. Her attempt to honor a wide panorama of history rather than the story of a beautiful freedom fighter who led guerrilla soldiers as a young widow, eventually married an American, and continued her struggle from the U.S. is praiseworthy but mistaken. Her passion lies with her mother and Louisa is the life of the book.

But it was a brave attempt and Craig deserves points for trying. I’ll keep the book for awhile and reread the ending that I raced through last night, history-bogged as it was. The final paragraphs are perhaps the most gripping of the entire novel but are also the most flawed. We know Louisa lived because she gave birth to the author, but we have no idea in what manner she survived her  crossing of the Salween River and her time of fighting alongside a brutal leader of men. One more chapter that took those last paragraphs and expanded them would have made such a difference in the entire work. It's a pity that Charmaine Craig didn't do it.~Janet Brown

Defiled on the Ayeyarwaddy by Ma Thanegi (ThingsAsian Press)

Defiled on te Ayeryarwaddy

Of course it wasn’t Ma Thanegi’s fault that I found myself risking my life trudging beside a busy highway on the outskirts of Penang’s suburbs. Just because I was reading her latest book Defiled on the Ayeyarwaddy when I overshot my bus stop, so immersed in her longing to play the drums at a Kachin festival that I was half-way to the airport before I looked up and realized my error, I have no reason to blame that on her. God knows I’d been eager enough to rush downtown to get her book and bring it home—and it was my greedy curiosity that made me rip the package open before I even left the post office.

Just because I was still thinking about the stones she had found at the beginning of the Ayeyarwaddy River, which she had someone polish into smooth, cool beads and string into necklaces and bracelets, and was feeling blessed that she had given one of each to me, and wondered what they had looked like when Thanegi found them and crammed her pockets full—this was no reason to mentally castigate her while I walked cautiously along a little grassy strip as cars whizzed past me.

I tried hard not to let my mind wander to the prospectors who dredge one of the rivers that becomes part of the Ayeyarwaddy, looking for gold, wondering how similar they were to Alaskan gold panners, and forced myself not to think about the woman with the baby strapped to her back whom Thanegi talked to, the one who dreamed of finding lumps of gold as big as peanuts in the round wooden tray that served as her gold pan.

But as I realized my trek was taking me into the territory of a freeway and retraced my steps to find a less hazardous route, I began to think about the quiet villages and rock-strewn roads and the ice-cold, clear water that began Ma Thanegi’s 1300-mile trip down the Ayeyarwaddy river and felt envious. I roamed past squat, ugly, cement “link houses” with a strong pang of gratitude that I didn’t live in one of them and wondered why some women find themselves wandering in search of a bus stop while others boat-hop their way down one of the world’s great rivers.

When I found a bus that would take me home, I refused to allow myself to go any further with Ma Thanegi until I had entered my apartment. After all, it’s not as though I hadn’t read it before, I scolded myself, I’d edited it, for God’s sake. But even though at one point a year or so ago, I practically knew every page of this book by heart, I couldn’t wait to plop down on my couch and keep reading.

A whole day shot to hell, I thought happily as I sank back into Thanegi’s verbal company. Drat the woman, I echoed her long-suffering pal, Ko Sunny, here we go again…

Ma Thanegi is my friend; I am her editor at ThingsAsian Press. I can’t review this book. But I can lose myself in it, I can get lost while reading it, and I can tell everyone I know that if they want to meet one of my favorite people in the world, take a trip with her down the Ayeyarwaddy. Just don’t begin your journey while you’re still on a bus.~Janet Brown