Divine Encounters: Sacred Rituals and Ceremonies in Asia by Hans Kemp (Visionary World)

Human beings, from those at the beginning of time to the inhabitants of today’s technology-ridden planet, are constantly driven by an overwhelming need to improve their luck, to establish connections with distant forces who can make this transformation take place. Many depend on the quaint ritual of casting votes into ballot boxes to choose new leaders who will help them. Others rely on an invisible agency--the world of the spirits and the chosen mortals who can muster supernatural help. Who’s to say which is more primitive and ineffective? 

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Certainly not Hans Kemp, who has explored the latter option with deep respect and artistry. From the jungles of Papua New Guinea to the highly modernized nation of Japan, he has been allowed to witness holy ceremonies and has portrayed them carefully and beautifully in Divine Encounters: Sacred Rituals and Ceremonies in Asia.

This is not a book to place on the coffee table and skim through at leisured intervals. Whoever opens it will go on a journey that may well take several days, moving through different worlds and into the dark corners of the viewer’s own consciousness. In some ways, Kemp has created a visual version of a psychedelic experience, one that evokes fear, reverence, and new ways to look at life.

In Kerala oracles draped with wreaths of marigolds and clad in scarlet draw blood from their foreheads with special swords, leading vast numbers of pilgrims in “a riotous expression of divine unity,” at temples devoted to the Mother Goddess. In a ceremony that’s equally ancient, the Japanese city of Inazawa turns to Shinto exorcism by choosing one man who will absorb the ill fortune of his community as the lunar new year begins. Chased and grabbed for an entire day by thousands of men who are desperate to hand him their bad fortune, the Shin Otoku, is symbolically cast out, returning later as an honored God-man. Christians in the Philippines show their devotion on Good Friday by carrying crucifixes along the Via Crucis in the Stations of the Cross. Flagellants whip at open wounds that have been cut into their backs and there are men who become Kristos, volunteering to be nailed on a cross, where they remain for as long as fifteen minutes. 

These images are shocking at first view: the blood, the nails driven through flesh, the faces locked into ecstasy and frenzy. But through the lens of Kemp’s camera, it becomes clear that what’s being revealed is belief propelled by hope, a common thread that links all humans. When the young men of Papua New Guinea have their skin cut and abraded, with their scars taking on the appearance of crocodile scales, they are not only connecting themselves to the legendary power of that animal, they’re embarking upon an intensive six-week period of education that will usher them into manhood. Immediately thoughts of male circumcision come to mind, a process that has become so engrained in developed countries that male infants routinely undergo it, with few people questioning why. The young men along the banks of the Middle Sepik River know quite well why they are submitting to this ritual; it connects them to knowledge and power. 

Kemp ends his journey with words from P.D. Ouspensky’s In Search of the Miraculous:But I had seen myself, that is, I had seen things in myself that I had never seen before.” Within Divine Encounters are myriad ways for us all to see ourselves, if we open our eyes and minds.~Janet Brown

A War Away by Tess Johnston (Earnshaw Books)

During her seven years in Vietnam, Tess Johnston was both immersed in the war and removed from it. As a USAID employee, from her arrival in 1967 until she finally left in 1974, she worked as a secretary and lived in government-provided housing. She shopped at U.S. military commissaries and had a flourishing love life. When reading the opening pages of her memoir, it’s easy to dismiss it as an echo of Bridget Jones’s Diary, but that’s far from the truth. 

Johnston’s powers of observation and spirit of adventure take her miles away from chick-lit territory and into a corner of history that’s relatively unexplored: the life of a female office worker in a war-ravaged country.

Soon after arriving in Saigon, Johnston attends a lecture given by a man who would later be immortalized in Neil Sheehan’s classic A Bright and Shining Lie, John Paul Vann. 

Vann had come to Vietnam as a Lieutenant Colonel in the U.S. Army. By the time Johnston encounters him, he’s a high-ranking civilian military adviser, “either the most hated or the most respected man in Vietnam,” who’s famous for his knowledge and candor. When he tells the truth about the war, people listen, whether they agree with him or not. Johnston not only listens, she decides that she’s going to work for him. Soon she leaves the comforts of Saigon to live outside the village of Bin Hoa, close to Vann’s headquarters and near army and air force bases. This will be her home until Vann’s death in 1972.

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Johnston’s description of her new home are vivid and captivating. “I marveled that any place could be so unlovely,” she remarks, while clearly reveling in the life and vitality of  Bien Hoa with its constant parade of GIs, bar girls, street vendors, and traffic that includes “the occasional oxcart,” “like a small and dirty Rio in carnival time.” 

It’s impossible not to speculate that her enthusiastic acceptance of her new home is influenced by Vann’s wholehearted embrace of the world he dominated. “He loved gutsy females” and when visiting dignitaries balk at accompanying him on a helicopter surveillance trip, he barks at them, “Hell, my secretaries go out with me all the time.” When Johnston is stranded on a locked-down air force base after an ill-fated party that ends with an attack during the Tet Offensive , she calls Vann to say she won’t make it to the office anytime soon, only to be told “get the hell back to work.” And she does, because he sends a military officer who has enough clout to breach the locked gates of the base and who’s able to bring her safely back to her responsibilities.

“I was later and often accused of having developed the “Intoxication with Cordite Syndrome,” when “you truly believe that you’re not going to die.” “After...that first night of Tet I was never seriously afraid again,” Johnston says, and backs up that assertion with stories of refusing to hunker down in a ditch under enemy fire because she doesn’t want to ruin a favorite dress. She’s blithe about the lengthy and potentially dangerous “commissary runs” that she makes to Saigon for food supplies; she’s as untroubled by driving “under random gunfire” as she is by attending a graphic striptease show. And she confesses that one of her favorite things to do is to direct Saigon newcomers to a Southern-style diner where the waitresses serve breakfast while clad only in skimpy aprons.

Johnston’s perspective is unique; the story she tells about her wartime life is tragic one minute, delightful the next, unfailingly irreverent, and, from beginning to end, well worth reading.~Janet Brown


The White Devil's Daughters by Julia Flynn Siler (Knopf)

Tien Fu Wu had no idea how old she was when her father took her from her Zhejiang home and sold her.  She later estimated that she was between six and ten when she entered the U.S. in 1892 as a “paper daughter,” falsely identified as a relative of an established  Chinese merchant in San Francisco. 

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Upon arrival in that city she was sold to the owner of a Chinatown brothel to work as a servant and then to a family where she took care of an infant while still a small child herself. After two years of labor and mistreatment, she was rescued by a missionary, her body covered with burns and bruises that had been inflicted upon her by her owner.

Tien was so small that at first her rescuer overlooked her since the child was reported to be twelve years old and Tien seemed far too tiny to be that age. She was taken to the Mission Home, a refuge for Chinese women and girls who had been sold into prostitution and domestic servitude. 

Established by Presbyterian women in 1874, the Mission Home was established to provide sanctuary for Chinese women who had been brought to San Francisco as prostitutes. In the late 19th century, prostitution was still legal in that city but slavery and “involuntary servitude” had been banned by the Thirteenth Amendment in 1865. Even so, Chinese women were removed from ships to public auctions, where they stood naked in front of potential buyers. Some of them were as young as twelve. 

In 1871 the first prostitute to escape a brothel and ask for help started a small revolution, as other Chinese women learned that missionaries would give them a safe place to stay and would help them find other ways to live their lives.

When San Francisco became affluent, its demand for servants was almost inexhaustible and traffickers turned to the importation of Chinese children to fill that demand. In response, the Mission House, in the company of police officers, turned their attention to the rescue of the mui tsai, the “little sisters,” who had been sold as domestic slaves, as Tien Fu Wa had been.

A year after Tien became a resident of the Mission Home, twenty-five-year-old Donaldina Cameron arrived to work there as a teacher. By 1900 she had become the superintendent, a position she held until 1934, when she turned sixty-five. Through the years, Tien became her closest friend and colleague; Cameron was known as Lo Ma or Old Mother to the residents of the Mission House while Tien was called Auntie Wu. When Tien retired in 1951, she and Cameron lived next door to each other and were buried close together in the same cemetery. 

Throughout the bubonic plague that ravaged San Francisco’s Chinatown from 1900 to 1908, into the destruction of the 1906 earthquake and the fire that left Chinatown “in smoldering ruins” with its “entire population...homeless,” these two women spearheaded a crusade against human trafficking and immigration issues, to the extent that Cameron was known as the “White Devil of Chinatown.”

The Mission House still stands at 920 Sacramento Street, under the name of Cameron House. It is said to be haunted, and as Julia Flynn Siler says, it “has a haunted history.” Through her careful research and brilliant use of narrative, that history breathes again in a work of nonfiction that holds more excitement and heroism than many novels.~Janet Brown


Hong Kong Holiday by Emily Hahn (Doubleday & Company, out of print)

Emily Hahn was an American writer who came to live in Shanghai in 1935.  She remained there until 1941, leaving it for Hong Kong only after she fell in love with Charles Boxer, a British Army officer. During her two years in the Crown Colony, Hahn chronicled her stay in articles for the New Yorker, which were published as the essay collection, Hong Kong Holiday.

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The title is obviously a sardonic choice. What begins as a respite from the war in China takes a grim turn after the first four essays. Hahn came to Hong Kong after spending time in the “beleagured” capital of Chungking; her opening essays describe the bliss of living without air raid sirens, the pleasure of living on the Peak with her gibbons, enjoying cocktails, gossip, and the soothing ministrations of a good hairdresser. Then the Japanese bombers come to town, Boxer is wounded in a fight against the invading Imperial Army, and Hahn, who recently had given birth, begins a long battle for survival in a fallen city.

With Boxer in a prison camp, Hahn is focused upon keeping herself and her baby out of an internment center and with keeping everyone in her extended family fed as well as possible. Hong Kong becomes unnaturally silent; its people have “the drawn, false anxiety of a starving man’s face.” “I lost the energy for pity,” Hahn says, and she is ruthless in her drive to safeguard the people she loves.

But  it’s impossible for her to lose the energy for  writing. The New Yorker had hired her to be their China correspondent in 1935 and Hahn can’t afford the luxury of writer’s block. She chronicles her Hong Kong years with an offhand touch that almost disguises the hunger, the extreme cold, the fear, and the rage. 

A Eurasian friend whose husband is missing in battle says, “The Eurasian boys were the ones who fought best. Almost all of the good ones were killed...I ask myself what my husband died for.” Another tells what happened after Japanese soldiers took over the hospital where she worked. “I got away from them in the dark and hid under a cot. The other girls had to go with them.” She tells the story over and over until Hahn realizes the truth and tells her “If a thing isn’t in your mind, don’t you see, it never happened.”

With a mixture of understanding and deep contempt, Hahn tells stories of the Hong Kong collaborators. She herself benefits from teaching English to members of the Kempeitai, whom she terms the Japanese Gestapo, and those students supply her with necessities of life: bags of rice, flour, wheat. When her daughter reaches her first birthday, a Japanese soldier brings a tin filled with sugar for Carola’s birthday cake.

Hahn shows how war creeps in almost imperceptibly before it explosively announces its arrival, illustrates how determination and ingenuity are more valuable than gold in an occupied city, and reveals the core of spun steel that still exists within Hong Kong’s glittering and privileged exterior. Hong Kong Holiday, 73 years after it was first published, is a testament to the strength of the Region and an assertion of its ability to remain alive.~Janet Brown

You Gotta Have Wa by Robert Whiting (Vintage)

I will be the first to admit that I have absolutely no interest in baseball. However, my older brother loved the sport and often forced me to play. This would have been in my elementary years when we lived on a military base in Japan. But I did enjoy watching the sport back then with my brother and we would often root for the home team, the Yomiuri Giants. One of my fondest memories was seeing an actual game between the Yomiuri Giants and the Hanshin Tigers at Korakuen Stadium.

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As an adult, I moved back to Japan and saw how baseball is still popular as ever, maybe even more popular than the traditional Japanese sport of sumo. That is when I came upon Robert Whiting’s book which renewed my interest in finding out more about how the game became so popular in Japan. 

Robert Whiting writes an interesting story about the history of baseball in Japan. How Japan took an American sport and made it into their own national pastime. In order to really enjoy this book, you need to understand what wa is. To put it simply, wa is a Japanese word that means unity or harmony. It’s a concept whereby a team or group of people act as a whole and where individualism is frowned upon.

This book was first published in 1988, more than thirty years ago but is still relevant today. It is not so much about baseball as it is about Japanese culture as seen through the sport. A culture that is very resistant to change. The concept of wa isn’t limited to professional baseball players but to high school and university players as well and in most businesses too.

This is what Reggie Smith, a former Major League Baseball player had to say about playing for the Yomiuri Giants in Japan for two seasons, “This isn’t baseball….it only looks like it.” Those sentiments were shared by other American players and even some Japanese players as well. 

Suishu Tobita, considered to be the “god of baseball” said,  “Student baseball must be the baseball of self-discipline. It must be much more than a hobby. In many cases, it must be a baseball of pain and baseball practice of savage treatment.”  

From this American’s perspective, their training seems to be very intense verging on abusive. Choji Murata, who played for the Tokyo Lotte Orions, which changed their name to the Chiba Lotte Marines followed the strict regimen and believes that “pitchers should pitch until their arms fall off”. He threw over a hundred pitches during practice and even more during a game. He then continued to pitch with a torn ligament in his elbow for a year and a half. I don’t know if that’s dedication. It seems more like he was brainwashed into believing it was the right thing to do, 

I think Japan has been making progress though. I recently read a news piece about a high school baseball manager who benched his star pitcher, Roki Sasaki,  for the final in a tournament game because the player had threw 129 pitches the day before. The team would lose ending their chances of going to the prestigious Koshien tournament which is the World Series of Japanese High School Baseball. The manager was criticized by many for thinking about the pitcher’s health instead of focusing on winning. Current Major League Baseball player Yu Darvish of the Texas Rangers praised the manager’s decision saying, “In my opinion, those people saying things like why he (Sasaki) didn’t pitch are not giving a single thought to the kids.” 

Even if you are not a fan of baseball, Whiting will make you interested. You will be fascinated by the history of Japanese baseball and of the cultural comparisons between Japan and the U.S. The book has made me appreciate Japanese baseball more but not enough for me to become an actual fan of the sport. ~Ernie Hoyt

Beijing Payback by Daniel Nieh (HarperCollins)

Victor Li is a typical American twenty-two-year-old, more interested in what he can do on a basketball court than in a college classroom; he smokes weed once in a while, and was just busted for a DUI. But unlike any of his buddies, Victor is trying to cope with his father’s recent murder. Vincent Li died from  “two precise stabs in the chest and a clean slash across,” leaving his son a peculiar legacy: an attache case filled with stacks of cash, a Walther PPQ, and a Chinese passport bearing Victor’s name. 

Then a stranger from China shows up, revealing the business Victor’s father was enmeshed in before he emigrated to the States, in conjunction with three men who remained in China, and claiming Vincent Li’s murder resulted from a disagreement among partners. The stranger knows; Sun worked for Victor’s father since childhood in “China America trade,” a smuggling business that became so murky that it led to murder. And, as both Sun and a letter written to Victor by his father make clear, this murder leads to a clear-cut need for revenge against the partners who arranged the death.

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Suddenly Victor is on a China-bound plane with a newly acquired passport, a PPQ, a hefty pile of cash, and Sun.  In Beijing Sun leads Victor to the luxurious underground bunker that belongs to the one partner who can be trusted, a nightclub that’s a Chinese version of Star Wars’ Cantina Bar, an upscale coffee shop “filled with solo expats and their MacBook Airs.”  Within this bizarre and twisted labrynth Victor encounters a mosaic of separate puzzle pieces: a gorgeous woman who uses her body as a trap, a French journalist who willingly sacrifices bodily harm for career success, and a bag of ketamine lying near a corpse with a long incision running down the side of his stomach.

In a stunning first novel, Daniel Nieh takes the format of a conventional crime thriller, turns it inside out, and slowly divulges its intricacies and its plot twists bit by bit. His richness of detail threatens to swamp his narrative but Nieh is always in control, ending an impenetrable puzzle with a surprise that’s impossible to anticipate, yet makes perfect sense. Beginning as a quick and forgettable beach read, Beijing Payback becomes the story of a rite of passage, as Victor Li moves from a bright California boyhood into Beijing’s underworld. Wading through crime, blood, and death, he discovers who his father really was and what his own future may hold.

And yet not all is gloom and slaughter--the book is lightened with the sardonic humor of Victor’s college friends and his older sister, given depth with its precise and vivid descriptions of the American Dream and the Chinese Miracle. Best of all, its open-ended conclusion leaves room for more at least one more exploration of Victor’s odyssey into adulthood, showing why he’s on that bus, heading north. 

Although it’s only a possibility that readers haven’t seen the last of Victor Li,  it’s a certainty that Daniel Nieh will come up with another smart and riveting novel. The only flaw is it can’t come soon enough.~Janet Brown




Tabloid Tokyo : 101 Tales of Sex, Crime and the Bizarre from Japan's Wild Weeklies compiled by Mark Schreiber (Kodansha International)

I’m a long time resident of Japan. I have been living in Japan for over twenty years. When I first moved here, I had the same image as most people do about Japan. It’s a safe country. I can leave my wallet or bag on the train and nobody will steal it. People are very kind and helpful. Women can walk the streets alone at night without fear of being molested or raped. Drunk salarymen do not need to fear having their wallets stolen and so on. Most of this still holds true today. 

When I first moved to Japan in January of 1995, three days later, one of the largest earthquakes hit Kobe and over five thousand lives were lost. Only three months later, there was the sarin gas subway attack on a line I frequently used, committed by a doomsday cult which called themselves the Aum Shinri Kyo. So much for my image of Japan being a safe country.

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As with most countries, even Japan has its seedier side. There is the Yakuza, the Japanese version of the Mafia which are involved in organized crime. The host and hostess clubs, known as mizu shobai in Japanese which are usually run by the Yakuza as a legitimate business. There are places called Pink Salons where men can go and legally pay for oral sex. There are image clubs which have rooms set up to fulfill clients fantasies such as being groped by a woman on a train or the room will have an office setting and the client can play boss and secretary. There are also health clubs and soap lands where a woman will bathe you and provide some type of sexual service for a small fee. 

This book is a collection of articles that were selected from a variety of Japan’s weekly publications by three reporters - Geoff Botting, Ryan Connell, and Michael Hoffman and compiled into this one book by Mark Schreiber. The original articles were translated into English with the reporters own interpretation of the stories. The articles appeared in the “Tokyo Confidential” column of the Japan Times and the “Waiwai” section of the Mainichi Daily News online site. The articles were taken from many different tabloids which are similar to the National Enquirer and World Wide News but do not include stories about alien abductions or coming back from the dead.  

The publications have such titles as Friday, Shukan Jitsuwa, Shukan Post, and Flash, just to name a few. The articles have such colorful titles as “Parasite Couples Drain Parents Dry”, “Panty-Gazing Research Revealed” or one of my favorites, “Ugly Women Draw Men Like Flies”. They’re a collection of articles where the cliche, “truth is stranger than fiction” may be applicable. These stories give you a glimpse into a part of contemporary Japan that the Japanese probably do not want you to know about. However, as to the actual facts of the story, well, as with most tabloid publications, the stories are highly embellished and is best to read them with a grain of salt. Keeping that in mind, the stories are funny and entertaining and may get you to thinking what exactly is the “real” Japan. ~Ernie Hoyt

The Unpassing by Chia-Chia Lin (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)

“My father liked to declare he had moved us to Alaska so we could be closer to the stars.” Taiwan was a “junk island,” a place he’d left because there he had nothing, “no family and no land.” His wife carries a different story. She has a village, a father, a home that waits for her across the Pacific Ocean. Standing on mudflats that border a Pacific inlet, she tells her ten-year-old son Gavin “if you cut a slanted path through the water, you could end up on the eastern shores of Taiwan.”

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Gavin’s father brings the stars close enough that sometimes they feel like “a rope of warmth in the cold air.” He carries home books from library sales that he buys for a dollar a crate, and fantasizes about the neighborhood that will spring up around the isolated house he’s rented for his family in the wild country that borders Alaska’s largest city. As he spins dreams, his wife mounts sentry against the moose that invade her front yard, guarding her children “with a piece of steel pipe in her hand.” She salvages whatever she can to feed her children: lily bulbs, bloody pork bones, a broken fishing net.

Buffeted between a dreamer and a survivor, Gavin drifts, unanchored. He has no memories of Taiwan and no footing in a place where the ground under his feet “could turn watery...like quicksand.” Stricken with meningitis, he comes back to recovery with the knowledge that his baby sister Ruby has died from the disease he brought home from school. “It’s no one’s fault,” his sister Pei-Pei tells him but he doesn’t believe her. When his baby brother Natty asks where Ruby has gone, their mother replies “Ruby is still lost. She can’t find her way home.”

Ruby’s unexamined death clings to the family’s house like a thick fog; Gavin, Pei-Pei, and Natty find refuge outdoors, following a long path through “the endless white spruces,” discovering a house with two other children. While Pei-Pei and Gavin each find a different form of friendship with these new comrades, Natty roams through the woods alone, looking for his lost sister. 

Within their own walls, the silence grows heavier with new dangers that only Pei-Pei understands. A family “vacation” ends with a return to a locked house that is no longer theirs and slowly Gavin understands that his father’s dreams can’t protect him, that his mother’s talent for scavenging is the children’s only lifeline.

“It was a kind of violence, what my father had done,” Gavin realizes when he finally travels to his mother’s village in Taiwan. “He had brought us to a place we didn’t belong, and taken us from a place where we did. Now we yearned for all places and found peace in none.”

With deep sadness and language of shimmering beauty, this haunting debut novel shows how the danger of an Alaskan wilderness pales next to the savage wilderness of a displaced family and the universal wilderness of unspoken loss, undeserved luck.~Janet Brown



The Salaryman's Wife by Sujata Massey (Harper Books)

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I’m a product of a bi-cultural family. My father is American and my mother is Japanese. So whenever I come across a story that features a main character with the same ethnic background as me, I cannot help but be biased towards liking the story. Sujata Massey, a British national, who has taught English in Japan, has created such a character in Rei Shimura. The only difference between me and her character, Rei Shimura, is her father is Japanese and her mother is an American. 

This book is Massey’s debut novel and is also the first in a continuing series featuring Rei Shimura. It was published almost twenty years ago but the story does not seem dated at all. Set in a rural town of Japan at a traditional Japanese inn. A story full of interesting characters and even more interesting interaction among the characters, Japanese and foreign alike.

Rei is a twenty-seven year old woman who was raised in the U.S. and is currently living in Tokyo, Japan teaching English. She lives from paycheck to paycheck on her meager salary. Her parents want her to come back to the States and she does have a one-way ticket home that she can use at anytime, thanks to her parents. However, that is the one thing that Rei doesn’t want to think about. She loves her independence and going back home not only means giving up that independence but means she failed at living on her own.

Rei is also interested in Japanese antiques and travels to an old castle town called Shiroyama, located at the foot of  the Japanese Alps. It is there where she finds the dead body of a woman lying in the snow close to the inn she’s staying at. The local police arrive on the scene and ask Rei for her help in translating to question the other Western guests staying there. She discovers that the woman is the wife of a guest who is also a very influential businessman. The local police want to wrap up the case in a quick and timely manner.

Rei is not fully satisfied with the lack of effort in her mind, of the local police that she decides to continue to try to solve the mystery on her own. She does this by crashing a funeral, pretending to work as a hostess which endangers her life as well. Not only is she upsetting the police and the locals as well, she is now being chased by the police, the Yakuza, and a paparazzi! In the midst of all this activity, she also finds time for romance with a Scottish man named Hugh Glendinning. 

If you love mysteries and find the concept of cultural clashes interesting, then this is a good place to start. Rei Shimura tries to fit in as a Japanese but she cannot help but let her American side dominate as she clashes with conservative Japanese and is determined to solve the mystery to its conclusion. Exciting scenery, great character development. Once you have plunged yourself into the world of Rei Shimura, you can’t help but to want more and fortunately, other mysteries and adventures await in following novels. ~Ernie Hoyt

The Shanghai Free Taxi by Frank Langfitt (Public Affairs)

 Before college, Frank Langfitt’s summer job is driving a taxi. Later, as a National Public Radio correspondent in Shanghai, he resumes his old job because “everyone talks to a taxi driver.” 

When he discovers that foreigners can’t drive cabs in China, Langfitt finds a way out. His taxi is free, exchanging transportation for conversation. “In a cab,” he reasons, “no one else can hear what you say.”

Even within the glittering affluence of Shanghai, the Free Taxi is irresistible and Langfitt’s radio stories become popular. Within the cab’s privacy, passengers can be candid. Some become his friends.

When Langfitt offers a free journey during the annual migration of Chinese New Year, the five-hundred-mile drive brings him close to Ray, a young lawyer. While waiting for customers, he meets Chen, a man whose wife has a green card in California, where he hopes to join her and his daughters someday. Max, a barber who owns his salon, rides with Langfitt regularly to a senior citizen complex where he gives free haircuts to the residents. From Michigan, Crystal, a Chinese woman who follows the free taxi on NPR, asks Langfitt if he will help her find her missing sister, who disappeared near the lawless border country of the Golden Triangle. And when Langfitt, realizing the parallels between The Great Gatsby and contemporary China, uses social media to find Chinese readers of Fitzgerald’s classic, he meets Ashley, a management consultant with a privileged background.

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Tracing the lives of these passengers and many others. Langfitt is given insights into Chinese society on a multitude of levels and in a variety of geographic areas. The conclusions that he draws aren’t his own but ones he has been told by the people he’s come to know. Chen, successful in his dream of reaching America, welcomes the opportunities he sees for his daughter; “America was so accepting of differences...while being a less competitive environment than China.” Ray after Trump’s election, praises the United States while saying of China, “We don’t want to tear up the system. We just want to play a more important role.” Crystal, after a fruitless search into the world of sex and violence that claimed her sister, returns to a comfortable middle-class American existence. “I never thought I would live like this. I’m the happiest I’ve ever been in my life.” Ashley rejects an enviable life in the U.S. to live in Shenzhen and work in Hong Kong, pointing out the flaw she’s found in democracy. “I think if you give people power, you have to prepare for stupidity, because most people are ignorant. That’s just the truth. They’re very easily manipulated by politicians.” 

In a rich and sometimes confusing mosaic of stories, Langfitt makes one thing clear: the Chinese Dream and the American Dream are dazzlingly similar, while the cultures of each country are separated by a yawning chasm of differences. It’s going to take more than one Free Taxi to achieve the understanding that just might bridge that gap.~Janet Brown

Women's Work by Megan K. Stack (Doubleday)

When Megan K. Stack  decides that it’s time to have a baby, she looks at this as a type of sabbatical. A war correspondent for the Los Angeles Times, a Pulitzer Prize finalist for international reporting, and author of Every Man in this Village is a Liar, which was a National Book Award finalist, she anticipates a quiet domestic life with her infant by her side, giving her ample time to finish her novel-in-progress.  She has no idea that “the immediacy of domestic life and the desperation of small humans” can be as all-consuming as time spent in a battle zone.

Faced with a baby who screams for hours with colic and takes his sleep in random snatches, Stack becomes “crazed and haggard.” When her husband, whose journalism career mirrors her former life, walks out the door and “vanished back into work,” Stack is overwhelmed with panic and envy. Although his job supports them all, his morning departures feel like a form of abandonment, and Stack finds her only refuge in a phrase she’s often heard from other expat wives, “Help is affordable.” An affluent American living in Beijing, Stack knows help isn’t only affordable, it’s a fact of life. She soon acquires employees of her own, in China and later in India, when her husband’s job takes the family to that country.

This should be the perfect solution but Stack is still swamped in domesticity. Housekeeping is a prime example of Parkinson’s Law, expanding to fill all available time, and Stack’s time is filled, even when she has two “helpers” in Delhi. Her novel falters. When it’s finally completed, it receives a tepid reception and she abandons it. But writing is the core of her existence, the one thing that keeps her from becoming an expat June Cleaver, so Stack decides her next book will be about the lives of domestic help in foreign countries.

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Although this is a book that many would like to read, they won’t find it in Women’s Work. This is a highly personal memoir of the travails of a fortunate and oddly oblivious woman, one who refuses to use the pejorative term “maid,” but who is blithely unaware that an employee who lives in servant’s quarters behind her house is surrounded by filth and squalor. When her husband suggests installing an air conditioner in the “helper’s” sweltering room, Stack has to be persuaded that this is essential. When a later occupant of the same room is ill for a week, Stack never thinks to extend any concern beyond fulfilling the woman’s request for diarrhea medicine. She regards another employee’s sick child as “a horror I hoped would simply blow over.” The women who work for her are appliances, in place to make her own work possible--until she finally decides they can be useful in other ways.

In the final eighty-one pages of Women’s Work,  Stack attempts to harvest every detail of her employees’ lives, posing intimate questions, asking to see their domestic circumstances, even stalking one of them on Facebook. Her failure to achieve her goal is a triumph for the women she has employed; after all, they sold her the right to their labor, not a license to invade their privacy.  

Women’s Work stands as a document that clearly defines white privilege. It’s a How Not To manual for any employer of household help, be it at home or in another country. Read it and try not to hurl it against the nearest wall.~Janet Brown



大家さんと僕 by 矢部太郎 (新潮社)

*Japanese Text Only

“The Landlady and Me” by Taro Yabe (Shinchosha)

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I have been living in Japan since 1995. For the first twenty-one years, in Tokyo, and for the last three years, in Aomori City. A city that’s located in the northernmost prefecture on Honshu island and is also called Aomori. In Tokyo, I worked for a large record store chain that also housed a large English language book section. We carried everything from novels to computer books, self-help books to language books and of course we put a lot of effort into carrying books about music. I had access to a variety of materials that were available in English. Then I moved to Aomori City. Access to English books became scarce. I know I could order books off the Internet but I’m still very weary about making online purchases. In order to fulfill my desire to continue reading, I started buying books in the Japanese language. Many novels are still beyond my reading and comprehension ability so there are oftentimes I would  purchase a manga (comic book) or a graphic novel of which this is one.  

Taro Yabe is one half of a manzai combi nearing his forties. Manzai is the Japanese term for stand-up comedians performing a comic dialogue. His partner’s name is Shinya Irie and they call themselves Karateka. Japan’s manzai profession is very competitive in which the upper echelons of the manzai shi or stand-up comedians make a lot of money and are often seen on television. They may also host their own television or radio shows and are often one of the commentators on news variety programs. However Karateka is not one of the them. Their appearances on tv are minimal and usually not during prime time but are either on after midnight or are on cable.

Due to an episode on a late night television program which Yabe’s current landlord had seen and said was funny, the landlord still asked Yabe not to renew his apartment contract and to find another place to live. Having no choice but to move, Yabe goes to a real estate agent. The agent informs Yabe that there is a room available at a house in Shinjuku but includes an unusual condition - it comes with a landlady in her eighties who lives on the first floor. The low rent and the house’s location are two things that makes Yabe sign a contract. When he meets his landlady for the first time and she asks him about his job, he explains that he sometimes appears on the stage and on television. The landlady then asks if he’s an actor and he tells a little white lie and says, “Yes.”

This comic is based on actual events as seen through the eyes of Yabe. Having lived with his landlady for a while, Yabe decides to chronicle some of their conversations and adventures they have, in comic form. After receiving permission from his landlady, the comic gets serialized by Shinchosha. The publisher then compiled the comics into a book and published it in 2017. It surprisingly became a bestseller, selling two hundred thousand copies within three months of its release. It also won the 22nd annual Osamu Tezuka Cultural Prize for Short Work Prize and turned Taro Yabe into a household name almost overnight.

The story begins with Yabe moving into the landlady’s home on the second floor. His landlady was born and raised in Tokyo. She is a very classy lady and always greets Yabe with gokikenyou, a very dignified way of saying “hello”. Her favorite place to shop is Shinjuku’s Isetan Department store and she enjoys watching NHK, Japan’s public television broadcasting network. Yabe’s writes and draws many episodes of his conversations with his landlady. Some of my favorites being when Yabe asks her, “What kind of man is your type?” and she solemnly answers, “General Douglas MacArthur”. The landlady fills Yabe’s days with stories of her life before and during the war. One of her wishes before she dies is to go to Churan in Kagoshima Prefecture. Yabe gladly says he will take her, not even knowing where Churan is. Other episodes include going to a local udon shop and not noticing the fast food restaurants that are in the same neighborhood. She tells Yabe she used to come to this udon shop before the war because it was the only place that had a telephone. She tells him how you could see fireflies by the river. She also tells Yabe how she would one day like to eat cotton candy as her father was very strict and she wasn’t allowed to go to festivals. She also had Yabe take pictures of all her possessions so she could write the names of who should get what item. Yabe thought it was strange that she was already preparing for her death. She tells him, she’s even made funeral arrangements already so if something were to happy to her, everything would be taken care of.

The simple fact that a not so popular middle aged comedian shares a nice friendship with his elderly landlady in her eighties and enjoys her stories enough to put it to print is refreshing and heartwarming. The story shows us that two people, generations apart, can live together under one roof, albeit living on different floors, and have a relationship with mutual respect for each other and become friends in the process. The landlady was proud and happy for Yabe that he found success in the publication of this book. This is one of those few books that actually makes you laugh out loud. One should be careful of where one decides to read this.

On a sad note, in August of 2018, the landlady passed away. As she was not a celebrity, the cause of her death was not made public. ~Ernie Hoyt

おもしろい!進化のふしぎ 「続ざんねんないきもの辞典」by 今泉忠明

*Japanese Text Only

English translation: Encyclopedia of the World’s Most Unfortunate Animals 2 edited by Takaaki Imaizumi

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From the man who brought us Zannen na Ikimono Jiten or “The Encyclopedia of the World’s Most Unfortunate Animals” in English, comes the much anticipated sequel Zoku Zannen na Ikimono Jiten or “The Encyclopedia of the World’s Most Unfortunate Animals 2”. As a reminder to non-Japanese readers, zannen can be translated as “too bad”, or “unfortunate”. Ikimono directly translates to “things that are alive”, thus “animals” and jiten translates to “encyclopedia”.

This book begins by introducing us to the different types of evolution many animals have gone through. Evolution of the body. For example, the crocodile may have the strongest bite in the animal kingdom but the strength to open their jaws is really weak that an elderly gentlemen can hold it shut. Evolution of the way of life. A fine example being the dolphin. If the dolphin was to sleep, it would drown. How unfortunate! Evolution of abilities such as the scorpion that shines a blue-green color due to ultraviolet rays but has absolutely no meaning and the scorpion itself doesn’t realize that it is shining.

The first chapter discusses the unfortunate evolution of peculiarities. For example, the meal of the vampire bat. This animal only feeds on the blood of living animals. However, because blood is a liquid, it readily digests and the bat remains hungry so continues to suck more blood. Usually more than half of its body weight. But then the bat becomes too heavy to fly and hops its way back home. How unfortunate! Or the least weasel, which is a very small rodent but will willfully prey on another animal fifty times its weight and sometimes may be eaten in the process.

Here’s something interesting on the evolution of bodies you will learn. Did you know that in a group of clownfish,  the largest one will change genders and become a female? Or that the flapjack octopus has very short tentacles and cannot spit any ink? More interesting yet is the nautilus which may have sixty to ninety legs but can’t walk! My goodness, how unfortunate for these animals! One of my favorites is the marine iguana that’s indigenous to the Galapagos islands. They are the world’s only lizard that spends time in the ocean and will “sneeze out” salt after being underwater for a period of time.

Then the book focuses on the evolution of different lifestyles. We all know that squirrels bury acorns so they will have something to eat later. What we are not told is that the squirrel usually forgets where it buried its treasure. We are also taught that koalas only eat eucalyptus leaves. What we learn from this book is that koalas were not born with this ability. Their ability stems from eating the feces of its mother! WHAT?  REALLY? It’s their baby food. Apparently, the baby food poop has no odor. But still, poop is poop. What an unfortunate animal.

What about some unfortunate abilities? The pronghorn can run really really fast but doesn’t have a predator to run away from. The little tern is so small that to drive away their enemies, a flock of them will shower their foes with bird droppings! Then there is the armadillo. The strength of its armor can deflect the bullet of a gun. If they manage roll up into a ball, they can protect themselves from all kinds of enemies. But of the twenty or so species of armadillos only two types can actually roll up into a ball. How unfortunate for the other eighteen species. However, this abilitly also makes it easier for humans to catch and to carry home for later consumption. Once again, most unfortunate!

What I learned from reading this series is that life is one continuous evolution. Change may be gradual but necessary in order to survive. Who knows how we as humans will evolve next. Perhaps with global warming, we will evolve to have thicker skin to protect us from ultraviolet radiation. Along with us humans, more animals will evolve and change. If not, they will go extinct and is probably something all animals, us humans included, want to avoid. ~Ernie Hoyt


On the Other Side: 23 Days with the Viet Cong by Kate Webb (out of print)


Kate Webb was twenty-three when she came to Saigon in 1967 as a journalist.  By the time she was twenty-eight, Webb was the UPI bureau chief in Phnom Penh, taking the position after the former chief had been found lying dead in a paddy field.

Cambodia was “a different war” from the one Webb had reported in Vietnam. Reporters drove down highways to the front lines of battle and returned to a graceful colonial city when the day was over. When Webb made that trip in April 1971, going only thirty miles down the road from Phnom Penh, it was three weeks before she came back.

She and her Khmer colleague were walking near the front lines when they and four other journalists took shelter in a ditch as bullets whizzed past them. Running on all fours, they found a safe spot in the jungle where they spent the night. In the morning, they were captured by enemy rifles. Two Vietnamese soldiers removed their shoes, tied their arms behind their backs, and gave them tree branches to carry as camouflage from passing aircraft. “You will be taken to a pleasant place for food and drink,” a soldier told them.

At first the journalists felt “like cattle,” sticking their faces into jungle waterholes and gulping down black water. Their feet became infected and a soldier closed the cuts on the soles of one of his captives by stitching them shut with a needle and thread. Within a few days they were given flip-flops, “from Highway Four,” they were told. Walking in the shoes of dead men, hiding from U.S. bombers, they marched slowly toward an undisclosed destination, accompanied by a group of Vietnamese soldiers.

Slowly a weird camaraderie developed between captors and prisoners. During interrogation sessions, Webb assessed the different personalities of her questioners and gave them private nicknames. “We were always hungry,” Webb says, but they were given the same Spartan nourishment as the Vietnamese ate themselves. Webb began to have vivid fantasies of eating oranges while she marched, and savored every cigarette she was given.

After their first week, the journalists were given new clothes, the men green fatigues and Webb  the black pajamas worn by Vietnamese women. She felt a stab of terror when she put them on; now from the air she would be just another black figure running through the jungle, another target.

“We combed our hair, did not cry, joked…”

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Webb found a silent rapport with a man she called the Carpenter and another soldier teased her for being unmarried at her advanced age. A field doctor treated the prisoners’ infected feet with Mercurochrome and crumbled bits of penicillin pills, “like a very serious Boy Scout.”

Webb’s biggest fear was that the statements she was told to write would be taken out of context and read over Radio Hanoi as support for North Vietnam. During her interrogations, she struggled to clarify the role of journalists as impartial reporters, a concept her questioners found hard to believe.

And yet, after twenty-three days, all six prisoners were released, unharmed, and were guided to a place where they were found by government troops. “Miss Webb,” she was told, “You’re supposed to be dead, “ and Webb discovered her obituary had appeared in the New York Times.

“We will miss so much your soft voice,” Webb was told as captors and prisoners said goodbye. That night in a Phnom Penh apartment, after three hot baths and “fifteen or sixteen” glasses of iced orange juice, while lying in a chilled air-conditioned bedroom Webb missed her hammock. Thinking of her captors, she wondered if there would ever be a time when they would meet again, “sitting down and talking--over beer, not rifles.”~Janet Brown

Tour Bangkok Legacies by Eric Lim (available at Amazon in paperback and on Kindle)

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With all the information that’s available online, who needs a guidebook? Looking for a hotel, a good restaurant, sightseeing attractions? It’s all on the Internet. But what if you’re a traveler who wants to see the heart of a place, the spots that go beyond the Eiffel Tower or the Great Wall of China?

You have a choice. You can wander on your own, absorbing the life around you in neighborhoods not mentioned in the big fat guidebooks or you can turn to another sort of travel guide, one that takes you to places never mentioned by the big books.

Eric Lim is an urban explorer who’s found parts of Bangkok that many of its inhabitants don’t know. Bypassing the crowds of tourists whose phones are busily sending posts to Instagram, Tour Bangkok Legacies makes its mission clear right from the start: “...we won’t be going down Yaowarat Road; almost everyone visiting Bangkok’s Chinatown has done it.”

This sets the guidebook’s tone. Lim’s passion is history and he has spent over a decade tracking down the places in Bangkok where its history hasn’t been packaged and commodified. He gives just enough background detail to add an essential dimension to what’s being seen, and he provides careful directions on how to get there. From temples to street markets, from quirky museums to the homes of artists and craftsmen, Eric Lim reveals a side of Bangkok that’s irresistible and almost invisible to the casual traveler--or the clueless resident.

Carving this confusing city into coherent sections, Lim includes the stories behind the life that swirls around the visitor along with essential information--where to stop and have something to eat. Within the wild confusion of Chinatown, he points out an old shophouse that serves traditional porridge, and explains exactly what should to be added to it for the best flavor. Hungry for seafood? He tells how to reach Bangkok’s five-kilometer mangrove forest that is the city’s only seafront and the name of a restaurant perched on a pier that’s only accessible by boat. He recommends relaxing at a floral museum, where tea and local desserts are served on the terrace or in the garden; having lunch in an artist’s house by the side of a canal, where vendors sell food from their boats; or eating at one of the city’s floating markets while watching a Thai boxing match..

Lim doesn’t ignore the universal yearning to shop but he believes in going straight to the source: where to buy paintings from the artist, where to find the makers of bamboo flutes, khon masks, Thai bronzeware, and silk by going to the communities that these craftspeople live in.

Best of all, Lim tells how to get to these places on local transportation: buses, passenger pickup trucks, the subway, skytrain, and, the supreme choice, the boats that travel the Chao Phraya. Yes, these options take time but they’re frequently faster than a taxi in Bangkok’s traffic-clogged streets--and for people-watching, they can’t be beat.

For an unforgettable journey, dust off your passport, pack your suitcase, pick up Tour Bangkok Legacies, and get ready to explore a secret city. ~Janet Brown

The Blind Earthworm in the Labyrinth by Veeraporn Nitiprapha (River Books)


Once upon a time two sisters lived in a house of infidelity and bitter silence. Chalika, the oldest, could remember when the house was filled with the noises of daily living but her sister, Chareeya, was born into quietness and only knew a world of sound when she went outdoors. In this loveless home, the two sisters depended on each other for support and affection, but they differed in the other forms of solace that they turned to. Chalika escaped into novels while Chareeya took refuge in nature.

When the girls were still young, their father died and their mother soon followed him with the same spiteful possessiveness she’d bestowed on him when he was alive. Orphaned, the sisters were joined by their uncle, who broke the silence of their home by filling it with European classical music.

Long before this, while out walking with Chalika, Chareeya had seen a little boy, sitting all by himself. Pierced by his loneliness, she decided to take him home with her. When Chalika told her it was impossible to adopt the boy as if he were a stray dog, she forgot all about this solitary child. When she was older, Chareeya dove into the river that flowed past her home, certain she’d find an undiscovered city beneath its surface. That same boy saw her disappear, thought she was drowning, and came to her rescue. Although Chareeya was furious that he ruined her exploration, her uncle, in gratitude, welcomed Pran into the family and gave the boy a home.

The children all grew up searching for love: Chalika in romance novels, Pran in Chareeya, and Chareeya in a passing stranger who ran away with her.

Years later, in a nightclub, Pran saw a girl who looked familiar, one who recognized him immediately. Happily reunited with the man she thought of as her brother, Chareeya took him home to a refuge that she had made delightful with music and flowers. Enchanted, Pran fell back in love with the girl who only cared about men who didn’t love her.

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Returning to his childhood home, Pran took comfort in Chalika’s affection, but his true passion refused to go away. Tied together but following separate pathways, Chalika, Chareeya, and Pran drifted toward unavoidable tragedy.

This novel carries the familiar conventions of fairy tales into the realm of myths and legends. With the languid, seductive pace of a tropical afternoon, its story is folded into intricate shapes, skillfully introducing characters who are given unforgettable life; describing flavorful meals that readers can taste while devouring the words that convey them; evoking the essence of grief with the truth, “Forgetting is hard, but in the end, anyone can forget.”

Veeraporn Nitiprapha’s style is subtle and lyrical, reminiscent of Gabriel Garcia Marquez but steeped in a delicate sensibility that is completely Thai. Winner of the 2018 Southeast Asian Writers Award, her novel, in a graceful and seamless English translation, introduces Western readers to the gleaming radiance and magic realism of Thai literature at its best. ~Janet Brown




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