Fish Swimming in Dappled Sunlight

If you enjoyed Riku Onda’s previous mystery translated into English, The Aosawa Murders, you’ll find many of the same attributes in her new psychological thriller, Fish Swimming in Dappled Sunlight. It offers that same dreamy feeling and a quality of uncertainty about the characters’ perceptions. It’s almost as if the story were told by those very fish, trying to make sense of the light and dark around them through a veil of water.

The short chapters of this new book are related alternately by Chiaki (Aki) and Chihiro (Hiro), who met in the tennis club at college and were immediately attracted to each other. Paired up to play doubles, it seemed like they had played together their whole lives. When their parents learn about their friendship, they reveal that the young people are, in fact, brother and sister, twins separated when their mother could no longer take care of them both and gave daughter Aki up for adoption. Since age three, they were raised as only children.

To recapture the lost years of siblinghood, Aki and Hiro decide to share a flat in Tokyo and are very happy for a time. The relationship falls apart after a mountain hike when their guide is killed in a fall, and they are each wracked by suspicion that the other somehow engineered the tragedy. The novel takes place on their last night together.

Every chapter peels away another layer, as each of them is intent on extracting a confession about the guide’s death from the other. It turns out that the guide is connected to the twins in a way that might provide a motive for murder, but did it? Author Onda spreads out the revelations, and in large part, they’re the siblings’ differing impressions of the tragedy.

Unexpected fragments of memory find their places in the puzzle of their lives, as the deepening mystery flashes, twists, and turns much like the eponymous fish that Aki at one point describes.

The translation by Alison Watts effectively conveys this sense of gradual discovery—about the guide, about the siblings’ relationship, about their un-twin-like misinterpretation of the other’s state of mind, about the past, and, perhaps even about their futures. Onda has a lovely, slow-moving and relatively unadorned style of writing. But beneath the placid surface is a tidal wave of emotion. She minimizes physical description in lieu of emotional nuance, resulting in a complex and memorable story.  

Onda is a well-known Japanese novelist, whose works have won numerous top awards and been adapted for both film and television there. The Aosawa Murders was the first to be translated into English. It won a Best Novel award from the Mystery Writers of Japan and was selected as a 2020 Notable Book by The New York Times.

Unexpected Synchronicities

If you’re a frequent reader, sometimes the parallel threads from several books get all tangled up. Characters with the same/similar names in books by different authors. Intersecting plot lines. Or you read one book that gives you interesting background about something (Daughters of Yalta), and soon you read another dealing with the same events (Gods of Deception). You feel like you turned a corner and ran into a mirror.

Two books I’ve read recently were set in Venice—thankfully at totally different time periods (1612 on one hand and 1928, 1938, and 2002 on the other)—but identical geography and modes of transport, and—OK, this is a stretch—the third, a contemporary mystery about life on a canal in England.

The Gallery of Beauties by Nina Wachsman is a new historical mystery featuring an unlikely pair of protagonists—Belladonna, a famous and wealthy courtesan, and Diana, a rabbi’s daughter who lives in the Jewish ghetto. These beautiful women come to the attention of an artist creating portraits for a “Gallery of Beauties.” Intrigue is high in the city’s Council of Ten, whose mistrustful leaders vie with each other for power and prestige, and leading citizens’ fear of poisoning is so great they employ official tasters. Diana must slip out of the ghetto to pose for the artist, but the chance to wear beautiful clothing and mix with the city’s elite, including her new friend Belladonna, convinces her to ignore the curfew imposed on ghetto residents. Out in the city, she could be challenged at any time. When the subjects of the Gallery of Beauties begin to be murdered, the two women must unravel the mystery for their own survival. An indelible portrait of Venice in the 17th century.

The Venice Sketchbook by Rhys Bowen, narrated by Barrie Kreinik, is mostly set during the days leading up to World War II, when English schoolteacher and artist Juliet Browning begins a romance with the wealthy and devastatingly handsome son of a leading Venetian family. As the Nazis close in, Juliet delays her return home until it’s no longer possible to leave. Without papers and out in a city patrolled by fascists, she could be challenged at any time. (!) Sixty years later, when Juliet dies, her niece Caroline inherits her Venice sketchbook and keys to she doesn’t know what. It will be up to her to discover Aunt Lettie’s mysterious past. This book was too formulaic for me, in terms of the plot and the relationships. But again, Venice.

Idiot Wind by Michael Broihier is set on the Oxford Canal, which runs some 70 miles between Oxford and Hawkesbury in central England. The protagonist, Mac McGuire, with his 60-foot narrowboat, Idiot Wind, delivers food and fuel to boat owners up and down a central portion of this canal. The countryside is beautiful, the boat dwellers are quirky devotees to an idiosyncratic way of life, and it’s a peaceful one—that is, until dead bodies turn up in the canal waters. There’s a lot of mechanics involved in opening and closing the canal’s many locks, repetitive actions I actually found quite soothing. It gave a certain controlled rhythm to the story. No wild car chases, just going with the flow. For me, Broihier’s portrayal of life on the canal was a memorable one. But then, any story with boats is OK with me, and this was a dandy.

Broadway Babies

Two plays in two days hardly competes (except in price) with our five plays in four days sojourns at Niagara-on-the-Lake’s Shaw Festival. Still, last weekend we were on the go!

The room in our hotel near Penn Station was technically larger than the bed, as long as you crabbed along sideways. We didn’t plan to spend much time there, so hardly cared, until the middle of the night when . . .

Our first stop was the Museum of Arts and Design at 1 Columbus Circle. In its exhibits on now–“Garmenting” and art jewelry–some of the jewelry could technically be worn. The garments, probably not (see the teepee dress). Afterwards we had some time to kill so sat a while in Central Park. After several big inhales there, it’s possible we were stoned.

Off to our first play: Tracy Letts’s The Minutes! If you’ve ever sat through a public officials’ meeting that’s struggling to stay on track, you’ll totally get the humor in the play’s first hour. A new member of the Big Cherry City Council is trying to find out what happened at a meeting he missed and why a fellow-councilman has mysteriously been removed. No one wants to tell him. Once they do, the last 15 minutes could be from another play altogether. On the whole, it was entertaining, well acted, and we were glad we saw it. (Tracy Letts is in it.)

Lovely dinner at Trattoria Trecolori on 47th Street, very crowded with the pre-theater seating, but quieted as curtain time approached. Husband Neil has a broken toe, so we couldn’t walk to the restaurant and decided to grab a pedicab. We’d never ridden in one. I think he’s at the bank now trying to negotiate a second mortgage. We chalked it up to a nice “experience,” which, on such a lovely warm evening, it was.

Sunday morning, we saw the special Winslow Homer exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum. Really, really wonderful. Lots to like, including Maine seascapes you could drown in. As you probably know, he’s considered a greater artist with watercolor than with oils. On one occasion, he produced a watercolor, and when the buyer was told the price, he said, “But it only took you an hour to paint it!” “An hour to paint, a lifetime to learn how.” (Now you know my full repertoire of artists’ quips.)

Next up, the matinee of The Music Man with Hugh Jackman and Sutton Foster. When the railway coach full of traveling salesmen appeared for the opening number, such an excited din arose, I thought I’d teleported to a high school football game somewhere in Texas. Then, when Hugh Jackman stood up at the rear of the train car, it was, wow, must be the championship game! Excellent singing, lively rendition of the score, choreography fresh and inventive, I liked the sets. The whole show is an exceedingly pleasant package.

During intermission, the drama continued in the long line for the men’s room. A belligerent man behind Neil complained loudly and incessantly, as if he were the only person who had to wait his turn. The usher tried to settle him down, but the man totally lost it. When Neil got back to our seats, he started to tell me about it, but I’d already heard the whole story from the two guys sitting behind us. Never a dull moment!

We topped all this off with a sushi dinner, made a 7:14 train. Arrived home, greeted by cats.

Weekend Movie Pick: Elvis

You’ll hear a lot of divided opinion about this movie. When the Washington Post reviewer said watching it was like spending two hours inside a washing machine, I was uncertain, and while I sorta see what she meant in my opinion, it’s terrific!

There’s a lot in there(trailer). There’s some fast-cuts and jumping around in place and time, but it’s not difficult to follow. The film comes at you head-on, just like those times. The late 60s had the Civil Rights movement, men on the moon, the British invasion, the assassinations, the Vietnam War, Woodstock. A Lot Going On. Society was changing, and the film captures that upheaval.

I am a big devotee of the American Song Book—Gershwin, Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, all of them. But as much as I love their music, it doesn’t bowl me over with nostalgia the way the songs of my growing up do. And in this movie, you hear a lot of them.

It’s also fun seeing Tom Hanks be given the chance to stretch his acting chops. No surprise, he’s brilliant as the manipulative, self-serving Col. Tom Parker. Elvis desperately needed a business manager who was on his side, but he’s hardly the first creative talent to be ruthlessly taken advantage of. (Leonard Cohen and Al Pacino are two others who immediately come to mind.)

Director Baz Luhrmann shot the film in an interesting way. He gets very close in on Elvis (Austin Butler) and shoots his face in a dreamy, idealized way that you might associate with female film actors of the 1930s. In other shots, he leaves no doubt about what aspect of Elvis’s performances were the main draw. The energy that Butler brings to the role will leave you breathless. Olivia DeJonge as Priscilla is quite nice too.

Of course, in the end, it’s a sad tale. Unlike the many biopics of musicians who get hooked on drugs, then finally suffer through recovery to have a much longer career, Elvis (like Judy Garland) never got past it and died at 42.

If you’re looking for an authoritative biography, this isn’t it. If you’re looking for the complete story, this isn’t it (though, apparently, there IS a four-hour version rattling around). This is an artistic interpretation of a life, and, inevitably, choices were made. But if you’re looking to be reminded of the roots of rock-and-roll and to have some sympathy for a musical change-agent, see it and decide for yourself. Who wants to be persnickety when the sheer entertainment value is so high? The credits are pretty spectacular too.Rotten Tomatoes critics’ rating: 78%; audiences: 94%.

Reading Lesson: Bonnar Spring’s Disappeared

Bonnar Spring’s new thriller, Disappeared, is without doubt an exciting read, a heady combination of romance and menace. Romance, that is, in the “heroic and marvelous deeds” definition, not the “falling in love” one.

American sisters Julie and Fay, both adults and married, are together in Morocco for a girls’ getaway. Fay suggested it, in fact, insisted upon it. In Ouarzazate, she slips away on a mysterious errand. She leaves Julie a note explaining that she’s visiting a distant village, she cannot say why, and will be back in two days. But she doesn’t return. Julie vacillates between anger at Fay for having a hidden agenda for the trip and worrying herself sick. With no help from the US Consulate, and with the barest clues to go on, she sets out to find her sister.

In unraveling the reasons this book appealed to me so (aside from the confident, skillful, and evocative writing, which I don’t for a minute discount), I hit upon several.

First, the setting is somewhere a little mysterious, more exotic than, say, central London. It’s a place where there are unknown possibilities, where the outcome of situations is unpredictable (deftly exploited by the trailers for the new Ralph Fiennes/Jessica Chastain movie, The Forgiven). I’ve visited Morocco twice myself and both times felt my senses overwhelmed by so much—so much strangeness, so much to look at, smell, and taste, so many new sounds. Even in a metaphorically far country, Ouarzazate is even farther, located on the opposite side of the Atlas Mountains from the more cosmopolitan cities of Marrakesh, Casablanca, and Rabat. It’s back of beyond country, the gateway to the Sahara.

The setting teems with inherent dangers. The general ones that face a woman alone in Morocco’s southern and rural areas, where women are typically veiled and isolated. And the specific ones linked to Fay’s strange disappearance, as well as the bad advice Julie sometimes receives. Whom can she trust? The safeguards we take for granted—including social norms, charitable institutions, people we can ask for help—are simply not there. Unease operates at multiple levels.

Another source of the book’s appeal is the search for the sister itself. Looking for a missing sibling is a believable quest, one Julie is totally dedicated to. The story—her story—never loses its strong sense of mission.

Finally, there’s the complete unpredictability that’s part-and-parcel of any standalone thriller. For me, a good bit of a story’s tension is dissipated knowing protagonists will live to see another book. It takes the edge off the dangers they face. I know other readers are drawn to series—especially as they’ve become attached to or self-identified with a protagonist. Perhaps the attraction is partly because the tension is more manageable. In a one-off, anything can happen. And sometimes does.

Look It Up!

Colleagues who heard University College of London professor Dennis Duncan was writing a book about indexes regarded him skeptically, saying, “Isn’t that a bit . . . niche?” He described the experience in a recent American Ancestors Webinar.

His cleverly titled Index, a History of the, turns out to be livelier than those people may have anticipated. Its significance was underscored when it appeared on the front cover of the New York Times Review of Books last February. What’s more, the history of the index is still developing. When we do a Google search, for example, we are not searching the entire Web, we are searching Google’s index of the Web. The possibility that such an index could be manipulated to provide or obscure certain results has thrust indexing into the political arena.

Having an index was such a good idea, Duncan says, that monks invented it simultaneously in two different places, around the start of the 13th century. One of them (Hugh of St. Cher, pictured; the glasses are an anachronism) was based in Paris, and the other (Robert Grosseteste—“big head”) was in Oxford.

St. Cher wanted to index the Bible by recording the occurrences of every word in it. Starting with “a  a  a  a,” which appears four times, the list was alphabetical and was created to facilitate preaching. As long as monks used their Bibles to read and meditate, an index wasn’t necessary, but once they started preaching they needed to navigate the Bible more efficiently. This type of index was like using Control-F, Duncan says.

Grosseteste, by contrast, created an index much more like the ones we’re familiar with. It was a subject index. But he went far afield with the concept, including in his index all the books he’d read. It was a parchment Google.

For the next approximately 150 years, every copy of every book was still hand-lettered (manu-script, manus being Latin for hand). And the copy was not necessarily the same size as the original. As a result, the page numbers and index were copy-specific; what’s on page 50 in the original may be on page 70 in the copy, if the pages are smaller. Once printing was invented, copies were duplicates, page numbers were consistent, and scholars referring to specific content could be sure they were “all on the same page.”

From the beginning, naysayers criticized people for being “index-readers,” rather than working their way through an entire text. This questioning of colleagues’ scholarly rigor reminds me of today’s critics of Wikipedia users and headline-scanners (guilty).

Several well-known battles between intellectuals broke out in indexes. “Brown, Jeremiah, his dullness, 24, 40-45, 213” and the like. A more recent tweak in an index resulted after Norman Mailer refused to let William F. Buckley quote from his letters in Buckley’s book, The Unmaking of the Mayor. When the book came out, Buckley sent Mailer a copy and in the index, next to Mailer’s name, he wrote “Hi!,” knowing that would be the first thing Mailer would look for and calling him out on it.

Books on Exuberant Display

It takes more than a some Ikea bookshelves to make a memorable display. A beautiful, thoughtfully designed library or bookstore incites the imagination. People who love to read are certain a beautiful display of books–whether bookstore or library–holds unknown, but discoverable treasures of knowledge and imagination.

We recently visited Manhattan’s beautiful Morgan Library to see the Hans Holbein the Younger exhibit and were equally intrigued by the exhibit on Woody Guthrie. Two more different experiences are hard to imagine, except with the common thread of explaining and reflecting their times, separated by five centuries. The accompanying photo shows the library behind an open copy of the Gutenberg Bible.

One library that turns up on every list of “world’s most beautiful” is the Admont Abbey Library, (above), part of a Benedictine monastery in Admont, Austria. The gold-and-white library is a confection of baroque excess. Not only is it the world’s largest library in a monastery (about 70,000 volumes), it looks like it belongs on a dessert plate.

We’re visiting Portugal later this year, and the bookstore, Livraria Lello, in the city of Porto is something I hope to see. Porto is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and the bookstore is more than 115 years old.

This neo-Gothic structure, with its pinnacled grey exterior, is one of the oldest bookstores in the country. Not only does it contain a wealth of history, but keeps one foot firmly in the modern era.

JK Rowling once lived in Porto and reputedly frequented the store while she was working on the Harry Potter series. You now need a paid voucher system to enjoy this exuberant architecture.

One of my favorite bookstores is the Poisoned Pen in Scottsdale, Arizona. As its name suggests, it mainly features the crime, mystery, and thriller novels I enjoy. Plus it offers an ambitious program of conversations with noted authors. A Rogues’ Gallery of past presenters is tacked to the ceiling beams, and, if you like this genre, you’ll find many favorite authors pictured, some from their early writing days. We heard Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child talk about their most recent work there. Someone in the audience asked Preston, whose background is in science, about his predictions about the likelihood—even the inevitability of—a major pandemic. Barely a month later, we were in lockdown.

The Chinese Lady

The Chinese Lady, by Lloyd Suh, is on stage through April 10 at The Public Theater in Manhattan, directed by Ma-Yi Theater Company artistic director Ralph B. Peña. The play premiered in July 2018, but disturbing events over the past year have made it poignantly timely.

Based on real-life events, the story centers on Julia Foochee Ching-Chang King, called Afong Moy (played by Shannon Tyo). In 1834, Moy was brought to New York by a shipping magnate named Carnes who bought her from her parents. She was 14 (or so) and arrived at a time when few Chinese men and no (known) Chinese women had been seen in this country. Carnes put her on display, in order to promote the exotic trade goods he imported from the Orient. The exhibit was popular, and Moy was the first Chinese person to receive wide public acclaim and recognition in this country.

The room where Moy gives her performances is outfitted in “Chinese style,” and she describes her life there and her reaction to the New World. She demonstrates eating with chopsticks and the tea ceremony, and part of her act is to walk around the little room to show her audience how the practice of foot-binding inhibits her ability to walk. (The real-life Afong Moy toured America as a “living exhibit” for decades.)

Of course, in the beginning, Afong Moy cannot speak English, so she has a translator named Atung (Daniel K. Isaac), who is her servant and, as she says, “irrelevant.” He brings the food for the chopsticks demonstration and takes it away, he brings the tea service, and he shows audience members various artifacts that Carnes hopes they will buy. She is charming and funny.

Because the two of them talk naturally to each other, you don’t have a sense of how limited Atung’s English is until they meet President Andrew Jackson. You hear Afong Moy’s heartfelt sentiments about crosscultural communication and understanding and Atung’s translation (this is not word-correct, but you’ll get the idea), “She like it here.”

Afong Moy grows up before your eyes, evolving from a lively, optimistic teenager into a world-weary mature woman, now performing in P.T. Barnum’s American Museum. As time passes, the play references the anti-Chinese laws and violent attacks on Chinese in America of the late 1800s. It isn’t necessary to dwell on the sad irony that these prejudices still generate violence, especially against Chinese woman and elders, despite the determination of the first Chinese Lady to reach out and teach.

(Watching Moy, in her beautiful blue-and-white costume, and seeing how her life and dreams shattered reminded me of a 2015 Metropolitan Museum exhibit, “China: Through the Looking Glass.” One of the costumes from that exhibit, similar to the one pictured, was fashioned by contemporary artist Li Xiaofeng from pieces of Chinese porcelain, simultaneously beautiful and broken.)

Theater production credits to Junghyun Georgia Lee (scenic design), Linda Cho (costumes), Shawn Duan (projections), Jiyoun Chang and Elizabeth Mak (lighting), and Fabian Obispo (composer, sound design). Contact the box office.

Photo credit for The Chinese Lady: Joan Marcus

Sherlock Holmes at the Grolier Club

This week my friend Nancy and I visited Manhattan’s Grolier Club, founded in 1884, a bibliophile’s paradise. On view there (until April 16) is the special exhibit, Sherlock Holmes in 221 Objects. Every mystery-lover will recognize the significance of that number.

Especially remarkable is that the 221 objects were selected from the riches of one obsessive collector, Glen S. Miranker, and a number of them are one-of-a-kind. His is a collection “rich in bibliographic rarities, manuscripts, books, correspondence, and artwork, all with intriguing stories to tell beyond their significance as literary and cultural landmarks.” Seeing Doyle’s small, careful handwriting as he makes notes about possible stories, or pens his drafts and writes to his publisher and Gillette, is truly a thrill.

If, as the Grolier Club flyer says, Conan Doyle’s creation became “a literary juggernaut,” it was a theatrical one, as well. London’s theater world wasn’t interested in the possibility of staging versions of Conan Doyle’s stories, but U.S. actor William Gillette (pictured) was, and he made it happen, playing the role of Holmes on US stages from 1899 to 1932.

The artwork from theater posters and programs, as well as the book covers of the many editions in which the stories appeared—both legitimately and pirated—often indelibly captures the Great Detective, sometimes in contemplation, pipe in hand, and sometimes on the hunt across the moors. And sometimes just in the Art Nouveau designs in vogue around the turn of the last century.

If you’re in New York in the next month, visit The Grolier Club, 47 East 60th Street. Call ahead for a timed reservation, because the number of visitors at any one time is controlled. Masks required.

“How Fun!” Language Evolves

Today, on International Mother Language Day, we pay tribute to our first languages, the ones our mothers cooed to us in our cradles. Why I didn’t grow up with a West Texas accent is a mystery. As Visual Thesaurus writer Orin Hargraves says, the term “mother language” also suggests “the source, inspiration, or protector of something”—in this case, the valuable developmental skill of communication.

Lots of online commentary—snarky Facebook posts, helpful grammar websites—tackle the topic of “correct” language. But what is correct, under what set of rules? For writers of fiction, not just the grammar characters use, but also the word choices, diction, and rhythm of speech support development of distinctive voices.

S.A. Cosby’s wonderful Razorblade Tears meticulously captures the small-town Virginia speech patterns of the Black protagonist, Ike, as well as his down-and-out white partner in crime, Buddy Lee. Stephen Graham Jones creates a pitch-perfect rendering of the rhythm of Blackfeet tribe members’ speech in The Only Good Indians. (I read audio versions of both these memorable books, in which the language was further elevated by the quality of the narration.)

In Anglophone countries, “Standard English” is what educated white people speak. But even in England, many people don’t speak it. Just ask Henry Higgins. Like him, critics of people who speak nonstandard English are affronted by perceived lapses. “The ways in which some white speakers feel licensed to disparage black speech,” Hargraves says, “is not different in kind from the way the Britons, starting in the 1600s, disparaged the speech of Americans.”

Like all languages, English evolves. Reading novels from the 18th, 19th, and even the early 20th century demonstrates how vastly different are today’s ways of expressing ourselves. My story “The Adventure at Sparremere Hall” is a Sherlock Holmes pastiche, and part of the challenge of writing itwas to immerse myself in the loquacious, roundabout style of John Watson who “wrote” more than a hundred years ago. Here’s a short paragraph. “This looks promising, I thought, and with a breath of anticipation, I slit the envelope with my paper knife. The letter was indeed intriguing, and when I came to the end I was quite uncertain how the great detective would react to it.” Today, we’d say, “There’s an intriguing letter here, Holmes. Listen up.” This is to say, what is the “correct” or “ideal” English speakers should aspire to? The expression “how fun!” first struck me as awkward and ungrammatical. But it’s useful, and everyone understands what I mean.

Although many people decry nonstandard English, Hargraves points out that dialects and vernacular speech do follow rules, just a different set of them. The people who speak those variants know their rules, which is essential in order for them to communicate with others who share that dialect. Consensus wins out in a population of speakers, Hargraves says, and “the way most people in a community speak has a way of becoming the way that everyone speaks.”

From a writer’s point of view, it isn’t possible to merely throw in a few “ain’ts” or drop a few “g’s” in order to establish a rural character. You have to develop an ear for it, to feel it, like Cosby and Jones do. Then the reader will feel it too.