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 



Unpacking, Packing, Unpacking … How Not to Deal With “Stuff”

Unpacking, Packing, Unpacking … How Not to Deal With “Stuff”

We’re back in San Miguel de Allende, back from the beach. It’s always wonderful to come home, but I miss the heat and the sound of the surf. I miss the enchantment of sunsets.


I’m sitting now in my office with my favourite coffee mug on the table beside me and my computer on my lap. I soon must get back to working on Draft 5 of The Game of Hope.

But first: it’s time to go through our photos, is it not? Here’s a panorama stitched together with DoubleTake software:

Panoramic with DoubleTake (smaller)

As I slowly get my office back in order—unpacking, finding the cords, the stacks of Things To Do—I tell myself that now is the time to be selective: throw things out. And so I try: one, maybe two truly-useless things get pitched, but only after great deliberation. Hopeless!

Have you watched this Seinfeld video on “Too Much Stuff“? He’s “congratulating” everyone in the audience for having won a flat-screen TV:


Talk about stuff! Will Self’s writing room: hard to imagine.

Will Self's writing room

Coincidently, I use his book Psycho Geography as a mouse pad.

On Reading, Writing & Taking an On-line course: Getting Things Done to the Sound of the Surf

On Reading, Writing & Taking an On-line course: Getting Things Done to the Sound of the Surf

My husband and I have been staying in one of our favourite spots, a Solecito casita on beautiful Playa Blanca on the Mexican Pacific coast. (Our casita: the one shown above.)

It’s a totally relaxing time for us, and—surprisingly—one of the pleasures, for me, is that I get quite a bit done:

• I edited the 4th draft of The Game of Hope and began draft 5.

Sat Night

• I read a lot, likely because I’m reading on my little Kindle, and not on the Kindle app on my Net-connected iPad.

• I finished THE BOOK OF STRANGE NEW THINGS by Michel Faber (my first Sci-Fi), and am close to finishing THE GIRL WHO WAS SATURDAY NIGHT by Heather O’Neill. (Delightful! I have previously read and very much enjoyed LULLABIES FOR LITTLE CRIMINALS.) I’m still reading and highly recommend Publishing 101 by Jane Friedman as well as various research books.

• I read a pdf of wonderful novel that I gave a rave quote for … I’ll have more to say on this book when it is published in March.


• I listened to a wonderful audible recording of ALL THE LIGHT YOU CANNOT SEE, a novel by Anthony Doerr that was on virtually every “best of 2014” book list. How to Learn

I caught up on the video lectures of a Coursera course I’m taking on how to learn. (You can watch them here.)

Why am I following this course? Because I am determined to become more conversant in both French and Spanish. (In fact, as I go for my daily walk on the beach, I listen to French tapes.)

My research method

This course has got me reconsidering my writing research method. I used to write notes out by hand. Now I prefer highlighting passages on Kindle and sending these to Evernote—knowing that I can always find the information should I need it.

Effortless! Right?

Not exactly. Evernote is great, but the trouble is: when I look for something on Evernote, I find the mass of notes overwhelming. It’s not that functional system for me, in truth, and I’ve long had a hunch that writing down notes by hand was more effective. This Coursera course has confirmed the importance of approaching information through different media.

Another problem I have is resistance to organizing my research. I’m content to cruse the Net, buy new books, read and highlight them, but I’m somewhat scattered and slapdash about it, in truth.


This course has reminded me of the value of the Pomodoro approach: setting a timer for 25 minutes of focussed distraction-free (i.e. Net-free) period of time.

It has also reminded me of the key importance of review: and this is where note-taking comes in.

The course also emphasises how important relaxation is to learning. And so … to the hammock.

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!