Tuesday, February 28, 2023

Happy Days in Coughing Hills


Ovidia-every other Tuesday

I live on the Western side of Singapore, in Bukit (hill) Batok (cough) so literally, 'Coughing Hills'. And yes, it was a very good district to spend the Covid shut down!

In the old days pre-World War 2, this place was known as 'Sleepy Valley': more peaceful but less interesting... and I must confess I only learned this recently, when I was scouting it out as a potential history mystery murder site! And yes, it certainly looks a good place to hide a body or two...

It seems there's no consensus on how the name came about. 

I've been told the colder air here (we're on the edge of the central mountainous area) makes people prone to coughs and colds. Personally I don't believe this--we've definitely become healthier since moving here because it's possible to walk and walk outdoors without seeing office blocks or housing estates!

Another explanation is that in the old days, dynamite blasts in nearby quarries made it sound as though the hills were coughing. 

The lake in the photo above is 'Little Guilin' a former granite quarry.

Gombak Norite was mined here. This norite tests as over ten times stronger than concrete and in the old days there were nine quarries in the area.

Mostly, the Gombak norite rests on top of Singapore's granite core though in places the granite has pushed up into the norite formation. Some of the these rock formations are millions of years old. 

Photo (without me) of the top of the rock.

Little Guilin is 133m tall--making it our second tallest hill after Bukit Timah Hill (another huge block of granite) at 163m.

There are stories about these quarries being haunted, either by the spirits of minors who died working there (mining was a risky business with rock falls and dynamite blasts...) or by the nature spirits who were discombobulated by humans moving in. 

Stones from these quarries were used for public housing, to stabilise roads and canals and even to build the Istana (the president's official residence) and the old airport. Fancier stones were reserved for grave stones and cemetery markers because they would last 'forever'. 

But this being Singapore, even the old graveyards have since been dug up and the dead relocated in government managed multi-storey columbaria! 

Walking around the area you'll often see offerings of flowers, sweets, fruit or rice. Growing up, I remember being told these makeshift shrines with offerings 'means that something bad happened here'. It's hoped the food will comfort the wandering spirits till they are ready to move on. 

The birds, bugs, bats and monkeys take care of any leftovers!

This is the quarry in the Bukit Batok Nature Reserve, just across the road from where I live.  


I love the greenery that still flourishes here, along with the wildlife it attracts and supports.

But though it looks peaceful now, some of the fiercest fighting (that resulted in the British surrendering us to the Japanese) took place near here. And the Japanese Army's headquarters was located in the Ford Motor Company Factory (now an exhibition gallery showcasing life in Singapore under the Japanese) just down the hill and to the left. 

During the Japanese Occupation, a 40 foot tall Syonan Chureito was erected here to commemorate the Japanese soldiers who died. This memorial was destroyed by the Japanese before they surrendered, to prevent it from being desecrated. 

Today all that remains is 120 steps leading up to the red and white transmission tower that stands where the shrine once was.

This place makes me think about ugliness morphing into lush greenery and vegetation and how the apparently ephemeral seems to survive manmade monuments designed to last 'forever'.

Like the jungle fowl and the mushrooms--it's always a joy to spot new mushrooms obviously related to some you've seen weeks or months ago!

The oldest rocks here, at Pulau Tekong’s Sajahat Formation, are an estimated 300 million years old. Compared to that, we with our wars and memorials are as evanescent as the angsana tree blossoms that last only one day.

Yes, I was trying to anchor the setting for my next history mystery but now I'd really like to research and write something about the trees and plants and fish and bugs here--along with the spirits trapped in the quarry lakes! 

Monday, February 27, 2023

Madrid: First Glance

Annamaria on Monday

These five days in Madrid were inspired by an opportunity to meet up with my life-long friends Francoise and Jean-Claude, who planned to be here to attend a contemporary art fair.  My friend Nicoletta and I jumped on the band wagon.  

We are enjoying cold, but sunny weather.  With lots of long walks to admire the grand and glorious architecture.  Here are some highlights of our first couple of days.

Many European churches have bronze doors, but these on
the main cathedral of Madrid were not created until the 
1980s, the the finishing touches were added to the structure.

I loved the bronze image of the Bishop in his specs

Some of the stained glass is ancient and some is very 80s!


Two of my top picks from the Thyssen Collection:


Thyssen owned his own Bernini!?!?

Blue skies, smiling on me!  More Madrid next week!

Sunday, February 26, 2023

Zao Onsen: Tasty Ramen, Ancient Ryokan, and Monsters Made of Snow

 -- Susan, every other Sunday

Last weekend, my friend (fellow author Jonelle Patrick) and I hopped a train to Yamagata Prefecture, three hours north of Tokyo, in the hope of seeing the famous "snow monsters" of Mt. Zao--a forest of heavily corniced trees created by freezing winds blowing down from Siberia and across the sea to Japan.

The monsters only exist for a few weeks each year, and between the screaming winds and winter storms (which sometimes shut down the gondolas you ride to the top, where the monsters are) it isn't always possible to see them, even if you make the trip.

The entrance to Takamiya Ryokan Miyamaso

Although the forecast looked promising when we booked the trip, Jonelle and I arrived at our traditional inn--Takamiya Ryokan Miyamaso--in the midst of a freezing rainstorm that had shut the gondolas down for the day, and it looked as if we weren't going to see them at all this trip.

We were both pretty bummed, but Miyamaso turned out to be an excellent "consolation prize." The inn has been in operation since 1716, and its hot spring baths are fed by a volcanic spring that comes up underneath the inn itself.

The volcanic hot spring that feeds the baths at Miyamaso

Our room was really three rooms, including a main room, a Japanese-style sitting room, and a funky step-down "lounge" with post-war couches--along with a separate en-suite toilet and bath, an entry hall, and a changing room.    

It was so large, we looked at one another and asked "how many people do they think we brought with us??"

The private sitting room (one of two)

Since the snow monsters were "no monsters" for the day, we wandered back through the little town (which was established during the second century (around 110)) and renovated after Zao Onsen became a popular retreat and resort during the 1950s, had excellent ramen at a local restaurant, and shot some pictures of the steaming hot spring rivers that run through town.

We also stopped in a local sake shop and bought a bottle of umeshu (Japanese plum liquor), which we brought back to the room and mixed with hot water for a delightful cocktail, before heading to try out the famous hot spring baths.

Umeshu - a great way to warm up on a chilly day.

The town was covered in snow (the freezing rain didn't make a dent in the snowbanks).  Steaming rivers run through Zao Onsen, fed by the many volcanic springs for which the town is famous. 

Steaming hot-spring river

Dinner was a many-coursed feast, accompanied by a tasting flight of local sake.

Local Yamagata Sake - every one, delicious!

The first of many beautiful and tasty courses

That night, the rain turned to snow, and we woke to a fresh, clean blanket of beautiful white, with more flakes falling all around. The innkeeper said the gondolas still weren't running, so we left our heavy gear at the inn and walked through town to take a few last photos before departing.  

Except, when we reached the gondola, we learned it WAS running after all! We didn't want to risk returning to the inn for our gear, so we stood in line in our standard winter outerwear--a two hour wait, outside, in the snow--and rode the gondolas up the snowy slopes to the summit, where we faced -15 temperatures (below -25 with wind chill) . . . and saw the monsters, after all.

The frosty beech-covered slopes of Mt. Zao

Snow monsters! At last!

A fabulous end to an already amazing winter trip - and another item checked off my (admittedly, pages long) "must-do" list for Japan.

Saturday, February 25, 2023

It's the Dog Days of Winter


02252023 MIE It’s the Dog Days of Winter




It’s been an exhausting but beautiful week.  My soon-to-be-ten granddaughter and her mother (aka my daughter) spent the week with us at our farm.   We were prepared for very bad weather here in the US Northeast, but aside from one rainy day, we missed the bad weather… though a few harsh bursts of wind brought down a large spruce tree along the driveway. But I have a new chainsaw and got to use it to the delight of my granddaughter. She liked it so much that if I didn’t know better, I’d have thought she willed the tree to fall just so that we could get to remove it!


Happily, we didn’t catch extremely cold weather, but unhappily my granddaughter did catch a bad cold that kept us indoors on otherwise perfect hiking days.  A couple of days of bed rest, reading, painting, chicken soup, and marathon Monopoly games, had her back to normal. 


Is this a Unicorn!

And pining to resume her avowed mission for the week of finding the perfect puppy; a journey that began on our first full day together.


Puppy searches are complicated explorations. Especially when one family member adores Golden Retrievers, Jack Russell terriers are a second’s favorite, and another adores the Yorkie size.  It’s not just a matter of the size or temperament of the grown-up pup, but of the lifestyle changes each choice will bring to the family.


And yes, it’s been suggested, “Grandpa has a farm, so why don’t we get all three!”


With Barbara being the dog-portrait artist and lover of all breeds that she is, I shouldn’t have been surprised at that suggestion getting as much traction as it did. Indeed, the jury is still out on that proposal.


There is another proposal circulating, one that I find particularly appealing.  My granddaughter will head off with her parents to their hometown rescue shelter in search of the perfect puppy possessing the traits of all the breeds the family favors. Barbara has volunteered to go with them…for purposes I dare not venture to presume.


After all, barking up the wrong tree—chainsaw in hand or not––can be hazardous to one’s bliss.




Jeff’s Appearance Schedule


Friday, March 17 @ 9:00AM

Left Coast Crime

Tucson, AZ – El Conquistador, Turquoise 1

Participating in Panel moderated by Alice Volpe titled, “Crimes Around the World,” with co-panelists Connie Berry, Juliet Grames, Carlene O’Connor.


Saturday, March 18 @ 9:00AM

Left Coast Crime

Tucson, AZ –  El Conquistador, Presidio 1-2

Moderating Panel titled, “Both Sides of the Law,” with panelists Curtis Ippolito, Margaret Morse, Karen Odden, Michael Sears

Friday, February 24, 2023

Abbey Books

This is a guest post today as I was doing my bit on Wednesday instead of Friday. And it's Friday again, so this is going out before  we head of to the airport.

This blog is all about bookshop life.

If I wasn't doing what I was doing and I still hadn't won the lottery to open my rest home for disabled donkeys, I thought that I'd like to open a bookshop. Or a coffee shop. Or a bookshop that sells coffee and muffins, because that must be a great job.

Then I meet people who say 'Oh it must be so relaxing to run a therapy centre, so Zen and calming,' while I'm on the betablockers and the Pinot because the council are taking three years to do something that should take 10 minutes.

So meanwhile, here's Brian at the bookshop!


                                                                           A happy camper

Brian, you are a sucessful editor and non fiction writer, why have you decided to start running a book shop?

I’ve not had what you’d call  traditional career. There’s probably a link between being a journalist, editor, magazine editor and PR but it’s a fairly big leap to events management, running a hotel, setting up an association for chefs and owning a cookery school. After I retired I had started working a day a week in the bookshop. I was a regular customer and the owner was short-staffed. Last August, he decided to retire and asked if I wanted to take on the job full-time. It’s not quite full-time as I have someone else working one of the five days we open. It wasn’t exactly a conscious decision but it probably helped that I’d been bedded in by the part-time work, knew my way around the shop, and, more importantly, enjoyed it.


                                                                           Books and more books

 How does the day to day running work? Or do you find yourself not pulling the shutters up because you're reading something interesting?

It’s hard to resist the siren call of the books. Usually, I’m too busy shelving or re-shelving books, or answering the phone, unpacking boxes of new stock, dealing with customers, organising a window display, or posting on Instagram to have much time left for reading. We have 40,000 books and no computerised stock system so sometimes I’m annoyed to discover a customer has found a book that I would have loved to read. But I get first dibs on anything that comes in, so I’ve been recently reading a booking on the 'Indian' Wars in America and I’ve plundered the art section for anything on William Turner, a recent passion.
It's a treasure of pre-loved books. How does that differ from running a shop selling new books?

Well, we don’t usually know what we’ve got whereas the other kind of bookstore has a massive computer system to keep them posted. But it does mean we can’t dictate to our customers what books we’ll stock. We stock what we’re given, not what head office dictates. Which does mean – never mind the number of books in stock – that we have a far wider range than most bookshops. At last count we had over 120 categories. And we’ve got signs up – “shelf talkers” in bookshop parlance – to point people in the right direction. We do, however have a small stock, of new books - classic novels and modern classics and some philosophy – that we sell at half-price.  We've got some new books at full price written by local historians. And we’re just launching a range of dual language books for primary school children in Polish, Latvian and Lithuanian because customers asked us to get them in.
Who are the best characters that come in to your shop?

There’s no shortage of fascinating customers. Harry used to be a coal merchant and retails us with stories of working with horse and cart and selling eggs alongside coal. Philippa is an artist with a particular interest in sheep. Jim used to work in the museum and can generally be counted on to tell me anything I need to know about local history. Some people are known by their interest, always buying books on aircraft or buses or World War Two or religion or art. We have one guy who collects Folio Books, of which we have a small collection. If someone buys a lot of books or an interesting item they end up on our Instagram page. I wouldn’t be running an Instagram page if it wasn’t for Felicity and Hameedat, two young customers, who encouraged me to try it and taught me how to work it.

                                                              A very happy customer from Sri Lanka, who facetimed his family in Oz
                                                            about the great bookshop he'd found.

What future plans do you have for the book shop?

We started a Readers Club. Not a Book Group. In a book group you get told what to read like you’re still at school, in a readers club you tell us what book you’re reading, so it’s an evening full of people bursting with enthusiasm and still enthralled by books rather than people moaning about a book they didn’t like but had to read. I’d like to get better at doing the window displays. But mostly I’d like more customers, thank you very much, and with such a tiny enterprise we don’t have the budget for the marketing we would need to get the word out that Paisley has a second-hand bookshop that’s the match of any in Scotland and well worth a visit.

Do you have a best find you can tell us about?

Too many. Commercially, the best we had so far was signed copies of the four Douglas Adams books. They went to auction on ebay and did very well. But now I’m so excited about a notebook of the playwright and artist John Byrne (The Slab Boys) that I’m trying to work out how to best use – not for sale, I’m afraid. We’ve got a Bayeux Tapestry in a slipcase and a giant book from 1860 with engravings by famed Scottish artist Joseph Paton, a Debretts from 1837, a Walter Scott first edition from 1827 and an Uncorrected Proof of A Plague of Sailors by Brian Callison. Also, I’m fascinated by what drops out of books, postcards, letters, evidence of lives – and sometimes loves – lived. We are often donated books in a will, by a former customer or someone who knows their collection will be well looked after. We had to find two extra bookcases to take care of the collection of books by a professor from Strathclyde University and a noted classics lecturer at Edinburgh University.
Does it serve any social purpose? - refugees, information point etc?

Yes, we get a lot of customers from Eastern Europe who are trying to make a new life. They are trying to improve their English and meet people who have a fellow enjoyment of reading. The Dual Language books are an attempt to help improve language skills. If we don’t have a book in stock we will generally be able to help source it or offer an alternative. Local libraries are running down their stock and charity shops have nothing like our range so we fill a vital role in providing access, and cheap at that, to books. Recently, there was a dyslexic customer who bought plays that we were able to direct to screenplays as an alternative. It’s quite different to a new bookshop. There’s a big sense of adventure. You never know what you’re going to find, some fabulous treasure, a long-lost book that a Waterstones would not stock and so long out of print you can’t find it on ebay. There’s a fabulous bustle on a busy day and on a quiet day you get the chance to chat to customers. Win-win.

It is harder or easier than writing a book?

Nothing is harder than writing a book and writing a book affords you little simple pleasures like the look on someone’s face when they espy a book they know they are going to enjoy or can walk out of the shop with a dozen books that cost them less than £30 - around 98% of our stock is in the £2-£2.50 range.  
Where do you see yourself in 5 years time?

I’m looking no further ahead than next year when we celebrate our 40th anniversary. I wouldn’t be surprised to discover we were the oldest retailer in Paisley and certainly one of the oldest bookshops in the country. Hopefully, by then we’ll have run down our stocks because we’ll have a lot more customers.

Cheers Brian, every success with the venture!
Ps, Abbey Book Shop has a very large crime section!

Thursday, February 23, 2023

The Masters

 Wendallevery other Thursday

As an author, this is a difficult thing to admit: I’m hard on books. 


This is the state of my original university copy of The Portrait of a Lady.

If I love them, I reread them. A lot. I carry them in my backpack, I read them on buses while trying to balance a coffee, they fall on the floor when I fall sleep in the middle of a page, and if I think the line or the paragraph is something I want to remember, yes, I will star or underline. I was a huge underliner in college.


The shocking inside of the book, above.

For old hardback books, I do use Levenger’s gold page markers, at least. 


These Levenger page tabs are a lifesaver when you just can't bear to desecrate a book.

When a beloved paperback starts falling apart, though, I have been known to hold it together with a rubber band, a trick I learned from my advisor, Bob Bain, as I don’t want a new copy—I would lose all my notes!


Two that I just can't abandon, despite the state they're in.

I hope that I read widely (I may be deluded, see below), even though there are hundreds of thousands of works I still need to get to. There are certain books that had a huge influence on me as a child that I revisit once a year, including Harriet the Spy, Alice’s Adventures Through the Looking Glass, and David Copperfield.


But there are three American authors I find most helpful when I am stuck, who offer inspiration and a way to understand the writing life, and who remind me of why I do this at all. Their books are especially beloved. And battered. Henry James, Flannery O’Connor, and Sam Shepherd.


John Singer Sargent's portrait of James. I visit it in the National Portrait Gallery every time I'm in London.

One of my favorite photos of O'Connor.

Vintage Shephard, in a photo by Herb Ritts.

They may seem a strange combination. They are certainly different in style. But to me, they all write about the same thing: the ways we delude ourselves. All of their works examine the fine line between having an imagination and flat-out lying, and the disconnect between the way people are perceived by others and the way they perceive themselves. 



James’s Isabel Archer is one of the great “lying to herself” characters of all time, O’Connor reveals layers of tragic delusion through the grandmother in “A Good Man in Hard to Find” or Mrs. Shortley in “The Displaced Person,” and every character in Shepherd’s Buried Child is lying to themselves and everyone else, until they’re forced to face the truth in their backyard.


This is a topic that fascinates me, partly because, as a writer, our job is to make things up. So we have to be good at it, but can that spill into our own, personal narratives? Trying to understand this has certainly helped me as a writer, particularly in learning to hint at the subtext in every situation, and to show the way characters try to cover things up in dialogue, while unwittingly revealing everything. Their dialogue has especially influenced me as a screenwriter.


I also think all three of them are, in their own ways, hilarious. I am in the preliminary stages of a new mystery series that features Henry James and he completely cracks me up. If I were casting him, I’d choose Bill Murray. The layers of irony and sarcasm in his work always take me by surprise, but they’re everywhere. Here’s an exchange from one of my favorite, more obscure stories, “The Beldonald Holbein.”

“What’s the matter with her?”

“Well, to begin with, she’s American.”

“But I thought that was the way of ways to get on.”

“It’s one of them.  But it’s one of the ways of being awfully out of it too.  There are so many!”

“So many Americans?” I asked.

“Yes, plenty of them,” Mrs. Munden sighed.  “So many ways, I mean, of being one.”

Bill Murray. From Dr. Venkman to HJ?

O’Connor, of course, is famous for her zingy one-liners. “Everywhere I go people ask me if I think universities stifle writers. I think it doesn’t stifle enough of them.” When told that author Caroline Gordon did most of her writing while she did the dishes, O’Connor’s response was “I think there should be a complete separation between literature and dishwashing.” And this sentence from “Good Country People” delights me: “Besides the neutral expression she wore when she was alone, Mrs. Freeman had two others, forward and reverse, that she used for all her human dealings.”


Shephard’s characters are so often defined by absurdist, darkly comic lines like True West’s “There's gonna be a general lack of toast in the neighborhood this morning.”  Or Buried Child’s “You should take a pill for that! I don’t see why you just don’t take a pill! Be done with it once and for all. Put a stop to it. It’s not Christian but it works.”


Of course, for all three, the humor is one gateway to the serious topics they’re taking on. This is probably why all three of them are also famously cranky. As someone who was taught it was impolite to be cranky at all, but especially in public, I adore that they snap at people and never suffer fools gladly. This always gives me a vicarious thrill.


I love this photo of HJ. What writer hasn't had this kind of day?

But maybe I love them most for their other writings—letters, notebooks, interviews, introductions—because they offer a window into the way they work. They certainly all suffered from doubts and missteps, but from what I can tell, all of them learned to trust that they were a conduit for art, that if they showed up, the words would come through them. As a “pantser” I find this comforting.



O’Connor: “I sit there by the typewriter for three hours every morning and if something comes, I am there to receive it.”


Shepherd: “I felt kind of like a weird stenographer. I don’t mean to make it sound like hallucination, but there were definitely things there, and I was just putting them down.” 


James: “Well, that is my start—and the rest ought to go. I can trust myself.”


My particular favorite places to find these writers’ thoughts include The Complete Notebooks of Henry James, O’Connor’s collection of letters, The Habit of Being, and Conversations with Flannery O’Connor, and a new work which astounds me, Two Prospectors: The Letters of Sam Shephard and Johnny Dark.  


All underlined like mad, of course.

I just hope I live long enough to rubber band these three.