In Praise of Japan

In Praise of Japan

My husband and I took a long trip this fall, to Japan for three weeks. It was fantastic! We are culinary travelers, and Japan was a treat.

A tempura restaurant in Tokyo, Japan.

We often chose to sit where we could watch the cooks at work.

Dragon melon.

We discovered many new foods. This is dragon melon.

I had spent two summers in Japan as a teen, staying with my aunt and uncle (who flew for Japan Airlines) and my two cousins. My cousins and I traveled the country from top-to-bottom, traveling on trains and staying at youth hostels, which were wonderful. The following summer, my mother, my two younger siblings and I returned, again staying at hostels. I never wanted to leave.

My family forged strong bonds with Japan over the years. My father, an airline pilot for PanAm, flew to Tokyo regularly, bringing back intriguing treasures. My brother and his wife became importers of Japanese antiques, and their son Robert is carrying on the family business. After my father retired, my mother and father went to Japan many times with my brother and his wife in search of antiques, becoming passionate restorers of Japanese antiques and enthusiastic flea-marketers.

I wondered, returning, how much Japan would have changed in over fifty years. It turned out: not that much. It was more built up, certainly, and more modern (in delightful ways), but it still had that sense of aesthetic beauty and gracious charm I remembered so well.

I remembered being surprised as a teen at how clean, tidy and lovely the houses were that backed onto the train tracks. Were there no slums in Japan? It turned out that same is true today.

We saw few trash bins, yet not a speck of litter — or graffiti, for that matter. Japan has near to full employment and no homeless (that we could see). All this was also true fifty years ago.

Japan was remarkably safe in years past. My mother left her purse on a train — it was returned within a day. It had been handed back person to person through two trains and taken to where we were staying in a rural youth hostel. Imagine that! In our three weeks in Japan, we saw very few police, yet the country is orderly and safe.

(In fact, Japan has the lowest rate of gun violence in the developed world. Annual gun deaths are often in the single digits, compared to 33,000 annually in the US. I posted an info-video on how they manage this to Facebook here.)

But most of all, I fell in love with the Japanese aesthetic all over again. As a teen, I read Japanese writers in translation and I’m looking forward to revisiting those books once again. There is something about their spare, understated prose that I continue to aspire to. This was a trip that will stay with me for many years to come.SaveSave 



Home again

After over four weeks of travel research with only a carry-on suitcase, we’ve landed in our winter home in lovely San Miguel de Allende, Mexico. (I’m leaving my suitcase out: in exactly two weeks we’ll be going to California for U.S. Thanksgiving with my soon-to-be 95-year-old dad and the rest of my family there.)

Today I’ll tackle getting my office set up so that I can Get To Work. It’s urgent! I’ve “the last revision” to make on The Next Novel for my wonderful editor Melissa Danaczko at Doubleday before it goes into copy and line editing. Deadline: early January, but best before if I can manage it, well knowing how little gets done over the holidays.

And also knowing that I have two Young Adult novels about Josephine’s daughter Hortense to get to work on!

We had a wonderful trip to England, France and Switzerland. One of the highlights was going to Arenenberg, Switzerland, to see Hortense’s last home and the Napoleonic museum there.

{Arenenberg, Hortense’s last home overlooking beautiful Lake Constance in Switzerland, now a wonderful museum.}

I got an enthusiastic welcome! Everyone had read the Trilogy and loved it. They sell quite a few of the German edition in their gift shop and I signed many, many copies for them.

The museum was astonishing. I got a wonderful tour from Christina Egli, Deputy to Dominik Gügel, the Director. I will have details to report on my research blog, but for now I’ll just leave you with a photo of the lovely statue of Hortense that’s in the chapel there:




Writer on the road — traveling without a computer


My husband and I are one week into a three-week European trip. We’re each traveling with only a backpack and a carry-on size suitcase: a bit of a challenge.

Traveling without a laptop helps. Instead, I’m using my iPad and wireless keyboard. The combination makes it possible to answer emails and write blogs. Sort of. (In writing this post, I lost one draft, and sent out an unfinished one.)

Apps that have been useful: Kindle (of course), Google, Google Maps, Skype, Dropbox, Evernote, Notebook (by Circus Ponies: I use this software at home). And 1Password. I’ll soon try out Pages and 1AWriter for word processing.

My travel-to-Europe-in-October rule of thumb: always pack silk long underwear!

Travel gremlins beware!

It snowed here yesterday, and so it seems only right that we’re heading off for the winter tomorrow.

Even so, it’s so beautiful, it’s always wrenching to leave. It’s said that home is where your books are, and leaving my books is hard. 

It’s going to be a long trip. We’re going to London, Paris, Burgundy and Switzerland before returning to Toronto and heading down to Mexico for six months. It’s a complex transition to pack for, a complex trip to plan! 

But by tomorrow mid-day, the items on my To Do Lists (note: more than one list) will have been ticked off, and those things not … tant pis! 

I believe in Travel Gremlins … don’t you? They’re a playful sort of spirit that will throw a surprise catastrophe in your path just when you’re about to step out the door. A basement flood, a child walking into a hornet’s nest, the cat having kittens—these are the more memorable tricks they’ve played on me in the past. I’m on guard! 

Going over one of my lists, I noted an invitation from the owner of The Red Wheelbarrow in Paris to stop in for a visit. She’d posted a lovely review of Mistress of the Sun on her blog. A few quotes:  

Mistress of the Sun was a thoroughly enjoyable read.”

“Rich descriptions aside, what elevates this book from romantic fiction … is the portrait Gulland paints of Petite. As portrayed under Gulland’s skillful hands, Petite is a conflicted person who struggles to do her best according to her convictions. While she loves the King greatly, she is unable to reconcile this love with her religious convictions.”

I’m looking forward to meeting the proprietors of The Red Wheelbarrow on this trip. Anyone who names a bookstore after a poem by William Carlos Williams is “thumbs up” in my mind. From the photo above, it looks like my kind of bookstore.  

My travel reading has been selected: The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce. Have you read it? 

Reader letter of the week

I get the most wonderful mail. Here’s one:

I hope this email finds you well. My name is Kristin and just this past week, I have just finished reading your Josephine B. trilogy. I read all three books within a week and wanted to let you know of the impact your writing has made on me.

You see, I am planning a celebratory trip to Paris this fall with my mother. Paris has always been a city that has intrigued me, mostly for the tragic and romantic notions that surround it. Over the past several months, I have been conducting research on the places that we would like to visit. It is very easy to become overwhelmed, due to the city’s rich history that contains so much allure, stories, and sights. I honestly didn’t know where to begin. Once I did begin, I became lost very quickly in choices, guidebooks, travel websites, reviews, etc.

A friend, after hearing of my travel plans, recommended your books. The timing could not have been more perfect. As I was reading your books, I found myself keeping my laptop right by my side. I have probably used Google and Wikipedia more in the past week than I have in the past year. Without realizing it, I have given myself a “mini-education” on various aspects of the French Revolution and of course, Josephine and Napoleon. My next order of business is to read as much as possible on that time period, using many of your recommendations (from your website).

Our trip in the fall now has a better sense of purpose, as we will plan to visit many of the sites from the novels. I am particularly drawn to Malmaison, and hope to spend some time there during our visit. I plan on giving the first book in the series to my mother this weekend, I’m sure she will be just as charmed as I was.

I just wanted to express my thanks for your wonderful work. I am very much looking forward to buying your other books. I should probably save one for the airplane ride but I know that the temptation to read it right away will be too great!

Kristin and her mother will be celebrating two milestone birthdays together: she will be turning 30, and her mother 60. I can’t imagine a lovelier celebration.

Be sure to try to see David’s The Coronation of Napoleon in the Louvre, Kristin: the room it’s in is not open for viewing every day, so you have to find out when to go. It’s well worth it. I wept when I last saw it.

Enjoy Malmaison! And thank you so much for writing.

Readers: what places have you traveled to after reading about it in a book?