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

Thailand's Best Street Food by Chawadee Nualkhair (Tuttle)

All over the world people are looking for street food, except perhaps for the people who grew up eating it. They’re often looking for more “sophistication” in their dining choices, which range from McDonalds to sous vide, depending on their income levels. They’re replaced by travelers, whose eagerness to find street food is exceeded only by their ignorance. Where? What? When? (And sometimes)—Why?


Several years ago, Chawadee Nualkhair brought light to the darkness for Bangkok visitors when she wrote Bangkok’s Top 50 Street Food Stalls, which is now out of print but still relevant if you can find one on alibris or at a used bookstore. (I suggest Dasa Books and Coffee in Bangkok.) In its wake, she brings Thailand’s Best Street Food to eaters whose ambition surpasses their local knowledge—or for Thai residents who are overwhelmed by their culinary choices.

It may seem hubristic to the point of madness to narrow Thailand’s street food choices to a scant 160 pages, but that isn’t what Ms. Nualkhair is doing. She has written a sort of eater’s primer, giving a springboard of information that will launch the reader’s own journey of discovery—or, with any luck at all, her own series of street food guides to the regions she introduces in her latest book.

She begins with questions: Is street food dying out? What is a street food stall? How did she make her selections for this book? The question and answer that I loved best in her first book is absent here: How do you determine the hygiene of a particular vendor? Nualkhair’s advice is look carefully at the jars that hold condiments; if they aren’t clean, walk away.

A visual glossary to different kinds of noodles with accompanying ingredients and broth, fried noodles, rice dishes, appetizers and snacks, desserts, and beverages, with names in both English and Thai is almost worth the price of the book. Don’t want ice in your drink? Point to the Thai script for it and shake your head vigorously with a dramatic rendition of “Nononono." The only thing missing is the Thai script for “Where is the toilet?” which just might come in handy.

Otherwise the reader is covered, beyond a doubt. There are maps to each culinary destination; there are names and addresses of the food stalls both in English and in Thai, there are wonderful and tempting photographs (that certainly deserve more space than they have been given), and every so often there is a recipe—Elvis Suki’s Grilled Scallops, anyone? Adventurous eaters are even told which stalls have restrooms and which do not provide bathroom tissue.

The choices range from north to south, with the greatest concentration given to Bangkok. But every region is given careful attention—think quality over quantity, along with information that will help in conducting further independent study.

Really, what more does anyone need? On my next trip to Thailand, this book is going along too.~Janet Brown

Bangkok's Top Fifty Street Food Stalls by Chawadee Nualkhair (Wordplay)


I'll never forget how amazed I was when I first arrived in Bangkok and a friend took me for my first meal. We sat by the side of a road on teetering chairs with friendly dogs waiting to see what we ordered and ate some of the best food I'd ever had in my life.

But I was lucky. I had a friend who lived here who helped initiate me into the wonderful world of street stalls. Even now, sixteen years later, when I go to a new neighborhood in Bangkok, I'm overwhelmed by the food choices and sometimes by the looks of the unfamiliar food carts. I know the food is going to be terrific but where to start and how much will selective blindness play in my decision?

I am a huge fan of eating on the street. Not only is it more fun than a food court, the food is usually fresher, since few food stalls have access to refrigeration. but I often wonder--if I hadn't been guided by a friend early on, would I have ventured into the joys of street food? How do travelers who have only a few days in Bangkok become immersed in this part of Thai culture?

The answer is easy now--they buy this book. Chawadee Nualkhair has made food pilgrimages to neighborhoods that travelers often frequent and has found places she loves there. In a city with "300,000 to 500,000 food stalls," she has narrowed the choices down to a manageable number, with dishes ranging from fish maw soup in Chinatown to samosas in the Sikh neighborhood, from mussel omelets to pork satay--and yes-- phad thai and papaya salad too. She offers a comprehensive glossary of Thai desserts and beverages (butterfly pea juice anyone?) with a dictionary of useful phrases like "Where is the bathroom?" written both in English transliteration and in Thai. (Essential for those of us who find tonal languages daunting.)

Perhaps the saddest part of this book today is her description of Soi 38 on Sukhumvit Road, which was once Bangkok's most convenient "food stall market", offering a splendid variety of choices as evening approaches and the night air turns cool(er). Providing food for the hungry from six at night until three the next morning, this is now gone in the name of progress

Yet there are also sections of this book that still thrive and will keep even those jaded Old Bangkok Hands happy as well, with food in the Hualamphong area and Chinatown--and maps to make the discovery process painless.

The perfect size to tuck into my bag, this book is my new best friend-read it and eat! Its wonderful photographs are sure to jump-start your appetite--and that's a good thing. If you're here for a week, you're going to want to try all 50 of Chawadee's choices. (Just be prepared to eat seven meals a day--and eight on Sunday!)~Janet Brown

Mindfulness and Murder by Nick Wilgus (Crime Wave Press)


What! A mystery set in Bangkok without a bar-girl to be seen, in which the detective is completely Thai and a Buddhist monk to boot? Yes, that's right--Father Ananda is a man who observes all of the 227 precepts that are demanded of Theravada monks, which means no alcohol, no nicotine, no joys of the flesh--not even coffee passes his lips. He's a far cry from most of the crime-solvers in Bangkok--but then authors write about what they know and author Nick Wilgus clearly knows more about Bangkok than what can be seen from a bar stool.

When a body is found inside a large water jar in one of the temple's bathrooms, eyes gouged out, skin embellished with cigarette burns, and a large yellow candle jammed into its mouth, Father Ananda is one of the first to know. Before taking his vows, he was a police officer, a man all too familiar with the smell of death, and his abbot charges him with the task of finding who the murderer might be, working with the police from the privileged position of a monastic insider.

The dead body is that of Noi, one of the temple boys, street kids who find food and shelter on sacred ground. Like many of them, this boy has a past filled with drugs, violence, and sexual abuse. Father Ananda soon discovers that Noi had been part of a drug-trafficking ring within the temple--one that may involve the monks themselves. When one of the monks disappears, leaving a hidden cache of drugs behind, Father Ananda is certain that some of his monastic brothers are not who they pretend to be.

Mindfulness and Murder introduces one of the most intriguing detectives since Hercules Poirot and "his little grey cells." Father Ananda is a complex character who became a monk after his wife and son were slaughtered in an act of underworld retaliation. He carries his grief and anger deep below his Buddhist practice and the ancient prayers he has memorized; he wrestles with the memory of physical affection and his innately Thai appreciation of good food. He brusquely rejects the tender respect shown by Jak, the boy who helps him with tasks of daily living in return for the teaching that a senior monk provides. On the outside, he is an observant monk; on the inside Father Ananda is an emotional minefield.

And he is an analytical detective, well aware of the criminal mind and the world it thrives in. While set in the quiet serenity of a Buddhist temple, Father Ananda presents readers with a knowledgeable view of a Bangkok rarely shown in fiction--its street life, its food stalls, its hidden neighborhoods--all within the framework of a mystery that serves up a macabre surprise in a coffin and a murderous cobra.

Previously published in Thailand, Mindfulness and Murder introduces a series of Father Ananda mysteries, and was made into a critically acclaimed movie that promptly went on the international film festival circuit and now can be seen on Netflix. Weighing in at just a whisper over 200 pages, this mystery packs more excitement and background information than any of its bloated counterparts. Forget John Burdett--Nick Wilgus is Our Man in Bangkok (even if he has moved to the U.S.)~Janet Brown

The Secret of the Nightingale Palace by Dana Sachs (William Morrow)

Yesterday was the sort of Sunday that Seattle loves to inflict on its inhabitants, so dark that my lamps were on all day and the rain trickled on and off in an annoying drip. I picked up a book that I had been meaning to read for a week, fell into it, and stayed there until bedtime--The Secret of the Nightingale Palace is that sort of book.

This morning I woke up haunted by its heroine, simply because I'd never encountered her in fiction before. Surprisingly and originally, center stage wasn't taken by the young widow, but the 85-year-old grandmother.

Goldie pops into life on the first page and it's clear that she isn't the typical matriarch; if Anna "had known it was her grandmother calling, she would not have answered at all." Fortunately she picks up and begins a reluctant adventure, driving her grandmother from Manhattan to San Francisco in a vintage Rolls-Royce.

At the onset of World War II, Goldie was given a portfolio of priceless Japanese prints to keep safe for a friend who faced internment. Now she wants to return them to her friend's brother, who owns a large antique business on the opposite coast--and what Goldie wants, Goldie gets.

What begins as a simple road trip novel is soon usurped by Goldie's story, Goldie's style, Goldie's secret. The story folds back into San Francisco of the 1940s, where a smart and charismatic young woman finds her footing in one of the city's leading department stores. She falls deeply in love with a man she can't have and has the brains to go on with her life without him. She educates herself in deliberate ways. "I made a conscious decision," she tells a friend, "I decided to love Madeleine Vionnet and to hate Schiaparelli."

Much of Goldie's life is pragmatic, but it's always suffused with joy--she never ventures into Scarlett O'Hara territory. She's too smart for that. And she's smart enough to never tell everything she knows--her inner life remains wrapped in Armani and Jean Paul Gaultier until the last page of the last chapter.

Nothing in this delightful novel is exactly what it is expected to be. The Nightingale Palace itself is an elegant joke, Goldie's successful first marriage is based upon an unspoken truth, the reason for her cross-country odyssey with her granddaughter becomes almost irrelevant as the trip progresses. What is always marvelously clear is Goldie's allure, undimmed by age.

"Cognizant" is one of Goldie's favorite words. By the time she is done, everyone who meets her is cognizant of how love of life can keep a woman vibrant, attractive, and a force of nature well into old age.~Janet Brown