Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Bouchercon Hiatus #1: 20 Mistakes to Avoid in Paris

Since so many of us are participating this week in Bouchercon 2015 in Raleigh, North Carolina, we'll be sharing with you some of our favorite posts from the past, starting with this classic from Cara.  Enjoy!

1. Missing the last Metro home
Full taxi's pass you by, you face a long walk home

2. Heels on cobblestones - unless you’re Parisian + have grown up doing this.

3. Sacre Coeur pickpocket petition scams - avoid them and go up the back stairs

4. Bicycling the rond-point Bastille - you value your life, right?

5. Sales clerks on the Rue St Honoré - only if you’re really buying that Vuitton should you face them
6. Demonstrations + strikes - forewarned is knowledge - check before leaving the house or you might have no bus or Metro to catch
7. Side stepping suspicious streams on the pavement/trottoir - you get the reason, non?

8. Les soldes/ The Sales in January and June - only if you’re obsessed, determined + have your game plan in place should you enter the fray at Galleries Lafayette

9. Touching the fruit at greengrocers - just don’t

10. Fishing in the Canal St Martin - it’s very shallow and yet they find bodies once in awhile 

11. Paris Plages - your call if you want to slap on oil and sardine crunch with the Parisians who couldn’t get out of Paris in August 
12. Driving through Sunday manifestations/strikes - again, you value your life, right?

13. Not greeting shop assistants when you enter and leave - an expected common courtesy
 14. Flashing an iPhone at Metro stations - that’s if you want to keep it

15. Puces St Ouen - instead go to Porte de Vanves fleamarket more locals and deals

16. Pigeons - hard to avoid but keep extra cafe napkins in pocket to alleviate those white plops

17. Late night kebab - eh, go for the frites 

18. Sunbaking on the Seine - see #11 Paris Plages + #16 Pigeons
19. Lining up for the Louvre - find the back entrance and enter via the Pyramid

20. Dog deficit - hop, skip + jump 

Any questions?

Cara - Tuesday

Monday, October 5, 2015

Holier Than Thou: My Problem With Orthodoxy

I am a formerly Roman Catholic atheist.  I was born into the faith and educated in it through seventeen years of Catholic school.  I was extremely devout until I was a young mother when for reasons that would seem mundane if I described them here I abruptly lost my faith.   It was as if I had been living inside a soap bubble, and it suddenly burst.  It was gone.  And that was that.

But that is not to say that I lost my interest in religion.   Or my knowing what it felt like to be part of a church that informs, comforts, and restricts a person’s day-to-day thoughts and actions.  My first two historical novels involve devout religious faith as part of the lives of my characters—as would certainly have been the case in South America in 1650 and 1868.  Now I am in the throes of writing a series based on the Ten Commandments along with themes of other evils left out of the Law of Moses.

During the time I was a practicing Catholic, orthodoxy was not an issue for me.  “Catholic” meant that the teachings of the Church were the same all over, so there was no question of sectarian competition.  One accepted it all or not at all.

I was in my thirties before I began to see how—within a sectarian form of religion—orthodoxy might work to narrow what was permissible, what was admirable, how one defined the difference between right and wrong.  In fact it was observing the life a Jewish friend that I began to see what orthodoxy could do to a person.

When I met this particular friend, she was working in a huge insurance company as a management trainer.  Despite serious physical disabilities from an early childhood case of polio, she flew around the US lecturing and training employees.  In her private life, she performed on stage and on the radio with her charismatic persona and lovely singing voice.  She gave inspiring and entertaining lectures that helped people concentrate on their opportunities instead of their challenges.  She was (and remains) irresistible.

But then, after her mother died, her father and her brothers, all rabbis, began to crack down on her activities.   As the years went by, especially after her father also died, her brothers’ ideas of what was right and proper for her constantly escalated.  All of a sudden they declared that it was immodest of her to present herself in public and speak before groups of that included men.  She complied, even though it meant quitting her job.  Not long afterwards they ordered her to confine her free-lance personal appearances to religious subjects.  And then they said she must confine her activities to religious venues.  And then to religious venues where only women were in attendance.  They made her smaller and smaller until she was practically invisible.

Whether in the context of Judaism, Islam, or Christianity, this is how orthodoxy seems to work.  The leader of a sect says X.  His (It’s never a her!) competitor in the Holier-Than-Thou race says 2X.  The rebuttal is 3X.  And off they go, making the rules stricter and stricter and stricter.

This rush to ultra-orthodoxy seems also to be affecting the secular side of life.  In politics, what does it mean to be conservative?  Or liberal?   Nothing seems to be enough.   It is not enough that President Obama has walked an extremely difficult path to get the country on an even keel and keep it there in such roiled waters, that he managed to break the color barrier to the presidency, that gay marriage is now the law of the land, that 36 million more Americans now have health insurance…  I could go on.  Several of my liberal friends rail against him for not doing _______, fill in the blank with whatever their personal pet peeve happens to be.

It is not enough for the Republican Conservatives in Congress that John Boehner has given our Democratic President all kinds of hell to deal with and halted much of Obama’s progressive agenda.  Boehner has not turned the country into a paradise for the right wing.  He has therefore been branded as the enemy of the orthodoxists in his party and has been forced to step down.

It is not enough that Pope Francis has changed the conversation and sought to find common ground where none seemed to exist.  He must be vilified because he has not jettisoned everything about the Church that some people happen to dislike.  He is a “fraud” and a “hypocrite” because he has not taken that aircraft carrier he is steering and turned it on a dime in the direction they want it to go.

What I find astonishing in these people is not that they still have issues.  I do too.  It is not that they want to speak out on what they think is still needed.  I do too.  It is that they become outraged when they do not get their own way IMMEDIATELY.  They seem to think they have a right to judge and DICTATE to the whole human race.

They want to be the head rabbi, the head imam, the head priest, the boss of the entire world and until they get their way, they declare an end to any form of civilized discourse.  They never softly say I disagree.  Shouting and name calling is their knee-jerk response.

A picture is worth a thousand words.  I recently came across a photograph by a splendid artist that says all these nearly one thousand words in one image.  His name is Boushra Almutawakel.  And here is his instantaneous indictment of the evils of creeping orthodoxy.  It is called Mother, Daughter, and Doll.

 Annamaria - Monday   

Sunday, October 4, 2015

A Night in Old Japan

The Great Torii of Isonokami Shrine (looking across the bay toward Hiroshima)

I spend a lot of time in medieval Japan. Since I’m not in possession of a time machine (more’s the pity) most of that time gets spent in my head, or in books, but during my research trip last June I had the chance to spend a night in a ryokan (a traditional Japanese inn) that came as close as I may ever get to the life my ninja detective, Hiro, would have lived on a daily basis. 

The garden in front of Ryokan Iwaso

During my recent research trip to Japan, I spent a night at Ryokan Iwaso on Miyajima, a sacred island off the coast of Hiroshima. 

Miyakima (Itsukushima), seen from the ferry
Constructed in 1854, Iwaso offers a traditional ryokan experience complete with a natural hot spring.

Traditional ryokan (Japanese inns) originated during the Edo period (1603-1868) though even before this, inns existed in Japan to serve travelers and visitors. Many were surrounded by traditional Japanese gardens, where guests could stroll and enjoy an experience in nature. In that, Iwaso is no exception:

Painted Koi in the garden at Iwaso

Upon arrival, the ryokan owner would traditionally greet each guest with a cup of tea and a sweet or savory snack served in the guest’s private room. Iwaso continues this tradition; at check-in, a host in traditional dress escorted us to our room and served us tea and warm, fresh cakes filled with sweetened bean paste (a specialty of the Hiroshima region).

Our room, with welcoming tea and local specialty cakes

Rooms at a ryokan follow a traditional Japanese floor plan: tatami mats on the floor, a tokonoma (decorative alcove) displaying a seasonally-appropriate scroll or piece of art, and a cupboard with a sliding door where bedding (futons and quilts) are stored in the daytime.

The tokonoma (right) and futon cupboard

 Note: there are no beds in a ryokan room.

After dinner, ryokan staff enter the room, move the table against the wall, and prepare the futons, much as they have done for hundreds of years.

Bedtime! (They're quite comfortable, actually)

Iwaso does offer a couple of modern conveniences that guests in a 16th or 17th century ryokan would have appreciated:

Each room had an adjacent entrance and antechamber with a private bathtub and shower, and a separate room with a private Western toilet. (A fact I did appreciate—but didn’t photograph.)

Also, our room had a set of Western chairs and a table, which my son and I used to play hanafuda, a traditional Japanese game involving tiles with different patterns of cards and flowers. The Portuguese introduced playing cards to Japan in 1549—the year the Jesuit Francis Xavier landed—and given that my ninja detective, Hiro Hattori, has a Portuguese Jesuit sidekick (Father Mateo), hanafuda seemed a fitting way to pass a technology-free evening in a traditional Japanese inn.

Our room, and the annex (with lovely view) where we played hanafuda
Medieval travelers would have appreciated the traditional, seven-course kaiseki dinner, which featured local specialties—including pufferfish (fugu) sashimi and other exquisitely lovely dishes prepared to delight the eyes as well as the palate. Ryokan dinners normally feature local ingredients and regional delicacies, prepared in accordance with the seasons. Travelers could expect a delightful and changing variety of foods—at least in the ryokan that catered to samurai warriors or members of the increasingly wealthy merchant and artisan classes.

Our evening ended—as many Japanese travelers’ would—with a walk, followed by a cup of delicious sake. The famous torii gate at the entrance to Itsukushima shrine was not illuminated by night in Hiro’s day, but it did exist (the “Great Torii” was originally constructed in 1168) and I have plans to feature it in a future Shinobi Mystery. 

Great Torii and the lights of Hiroshima across the bay

I’m already looking forward to returning to Miyajima, and to Iwaso. I may have to live my everyday life in the modern world, but I truly adored my night in old Japan.

Saturday, October 3, 2015

I'm Confused.

Could someone out there please tell me what’s really happening in our world?

Put differently, who can you truly believe?  Remember that 1957 movie with Andy Griffith, A Face in the Crowd, in which he played a beloved TV personality who one day unknowingly let his true feelings toward his adoring fans leak out across a live mike to a stunned the nation?   Well that’s sort of how I feel after this week, though I doubt I’ll ever find resolution in the form of hearing the truth from the lips of the many who so confuse me.

Let’s start with Presidential candidate Hillary Clinton’s situation.  She’s been up to her eyeballs spinning out explanations over her private email server and the September 11, 2012 Benghazi tragedy, but was thrown a lifeline this week by the (now less likely) next Republican Speaker of the House, Kevin McCarthy when he boasted on Fox News that the House’s Benghazi investigations were put together to cripple her presidential bid.  I doubt many were shocked to learn politics played a part in the investigation, but I’d bet the ranch virtually all were amazed at the public admission by its claimed architect.

On the side of the more classic form of political behavior, we have Vladimir Putin’s brilliant performance this week in his interview by iconic American television talk show host and journalist, Charlie Rose.   Putin and President Obama have been butting heads (to say the least) all week before the UN and the World over Russia’s decision to provide aggressive boots on the ground support to the Syria regime.  Putin acquitted himself quite well on the Rose show with a masterful command of body language, gestures, and unassuming answers, taking care as he did all week to wrap his intentions in the blanket claim of Russia engaging in Syria for the high purpose of fighting worldwide terrorism in the form of ISIS.

Then, as his nation’s first subsequent military act in Syria, Russia bombed the hell out of anti-Assad government forces having nothing to do with ISIS.  All of which goes to show how very adept Putin is at manipulating his image and the media while doing whatever he damn well pleases.  He gives credence to the quip often credited to Will Rogers that a sure fire way to tell if a politician is lying is to watch if his lips are moving.

I’m not even going to talk about the monumental betrayal of trust and fraud perpetrated upon the world of car owners by Volkswagen.  German industry will reel from that for quite some time.

Then we have the latest rage circulating in Greece. Newly re-elected Prime Minister Alexis Tripras came to New York City this week, along with practically every other world leader, for the opening of the new United Nations session.  He appeared on a video taped interview conducted by former President Clinton (still only one of those) as part of his Clinton Global Initiative.  The interview lasted a little over a half-hour, but what quickly circulated around Greece was a one-minute doctored version of the interview intended to make the Prime Minister look an inarticulate fool unable to speak or understand English.

I couldn’t think of something more ridiculous for his opponents to have done than that. When the doctored tape is compared with the real one, the Prime Minister emerges as a quite different sort of person, with an exceptional command of a language he just recently began to learn.  Whether or not one believes what he said is quite a different issue, but the obvious misrepresentation of his appearance gives unintended credence to his performance.

And the saddest news to me personally came in the form of Pope Francis’s clandestine meeting in Washington with Kim Davis, the Kentucky County Clerk who went to jail for refusing to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples. I do not know what the thinking was behind holding that meeting, but it most certainly changed the thinking of many who learned of it.

These are troubling times for those desperately looking for someone or something to believe in.  Or, at the very least, to tell them the truth. I’m beginning to get a better understanding of why so many have flocked to Donald Trump, and that realization frightens me.

Hope to see you next week at Bouchercon in Raleigh, where I expect you to help me take my mind off all of this.