The Mekong: Two For One

Photograph by Roy Hamric  The Mekong River near Chiang Khong. Laos is on the far shore.

The Mekong River near Chiang Khong. Laos is on the far shore. Photograph by Roy Hamric

Joshu’s Dog in East Texas

empty_circle_&_dog copy         Photograph copyright Roy Hamric

     Does a dog have Buddha nature?
This is a matter of life and death.
If you say yes or no,
You lose your mind and body!

  – Mumon

Ry Cooder’s No-Border Music

Flaco Jaminez and Ry Cooder

Flaco Jimenez and Ry Cooder

Ry Cooder has  a mystical connection to Tex-Mex border music and his original songs and themes for movies such as Paris, Texas; The Border and Alamo Bay raised the visual images to another level. Here’s a live concert he did with Flaco Jimenez and others at the Catalyst in Santa Cruz in 1987. It’s not Tex-Mex, but it sorta is; it’s not rock, but it sorta is; it’s not soul, but it sorta is; it’s not gospel, but it sorta is, it’s not blues, but it sorta is, it’s not folk, but it sorta is. It’s no-border music, everything together guided by Cooder’s sense of what drives music at a fundamental level. Flaco is wide open in this concert: you can see him feeling the music.

The lyrics to  Across the Borderline (from The Border, staring Jack Nicholson) are great (Buddhist/Zen) poetry. Here’s Cooder’s version of Across the Borderline, and Freddy Fender’s version (who sang it in the movie) and the lyrics:

There’s a land, so I’ve been told / Every street is paved with gold / And it’s just across the borderline / And when it’s time to take your turn / Here’s a lesson you must learn / You could lose more than you ever hope to find / And when you reach the broken promised land / Every dream slips though your hand / Then you’ll know it’s too late to change your mind / ‘Cause you pay the price to come this far / Just to wind up where you are / And you’re still just across the borderline / Up and down The Rio Grande / A thousand foot prints in the sand / Reveal the secret no one can define  / The river flows on like a breath / In between our life and death / Tell me who the next to cross the borderline / And when you reach the broken promised land / Every dream slips through your hand / Then you’ll know it’s too late to change your mind / Cause you pay the price to come this far / Just to wind up where you are / And you’re still just across the borderline

Thank you John Dycus for reminding me about Cooder’s amazing work and recommending this concert film by Les Banks.

Are You Ready For Tex-Mex Music?: Doug Sahm

Bob Dylan and Doug Sahm

Bob Dylan and Doug Sahm



It’s a good day to spark some neurons.

Listen to this concert by the late great Doug Sahm, Freddy Fender, Augie Meyers and Flaco Jimenez, The Texas Tornados.

Peter Matthiessen’s New Novel






In Paradise, the name of Peter Matthiessen’s new novel, will be released soon, and it could be the last book in his one-of-a-kind outpouring of fiction and nonfiction. A beautiful tribute to him in The New York Times magazine can be found here.

Photograph copyright Damon Winter/The New York Times

Red Pine Has Two New Books Coming Out






Red Pine has two new books coming out in the next couple of years, in addition to Yellow River Odyssey which will be released sometime this summer. The first is based on the poems of Stonehouse, and the second, Finding Them Gone, is the story of his pilgrimage to the graves of Chinese poets. Both will be published by Copper Canyon Press.

William Empson: Let it Go



Let It Go

It is this deep blankness is the real thing strange.
The more things happen to you the more you can’t
Tell or remember even what they were.

The contradictions cover such a range.
The talk would talk and go so far aslant.
You don’t want madhouse and the whole thing there.

– William Empson

Collin Cotterill’s Novels Set in Laos

An earlier version of this review originally appeared in The Bangkok Post on January 29, 2008.

By Roy Hamric

slashandburnNot many novels are set in Laos these days, but Colin Cotterill is fast changing that with his series of crime novels set in the former Southeast Asian kingdom. The first novel begins just after Laos fell to the Pathet Lao Communists in 1975.

The unlikely hero, Dr. Siri Paiboon, is a sharp-witted, 72-year-old former jungle surgeon and Communist Party member. He’s surrounded by a cast of loveable characters.  He wants to be left alone in his old age, but, to his chagrin, he’s appointed the national coroner of Laos – which really means he’s the only coroner in Laos. A unique twist is Siri’s ability to commune with powerful spirits who dwell in Laos, one of whom has entered his body.

The novels’  tone – read colourful, warm and smart – hit a home run with The New York Times’ reviewer, who called his first book “a perfect balance between the modern mysteries of forensic science and the ancient mysteries of the spirit world”; The Washington Post reviewer said it was “an impressive guide to a little known culture”; Entertainment Weekly cooed “magically sublime, tragically funny”; and Kirkus Reviews called the series, “an embarrassment of riches.”

For Cotterill, who lives in a small village south of Bangkok on the coast of Thailand, it’s been a rollercoaster ride, with each novel followed by glowing reviews – a writer’s dream come true. His gift as a novelist is that he makes it all look so easy. The fluid prose, the intricate plotting, the exotic Laotian setting and the earthy, wry, characters are all far superior to the average crime novel – or almost any novel for that matter.

Before his Siri novels, he apprenticed himself by writing two novels that were published only in Thailand. They were flops, in terms of attracting readers. Evil in the Land Without (2001) and Pool and Its Role in Asian Communism (2002) earned “a total of about $500 in royalties,” he said. Little did he know that international success was waiting just around the corner.

To find an agent for the first Laotian novel, “The Coroner’s Lunch,” he sent a short letter and a few pages of the first chapter to 120 US agents. He got several nibbles. Then an email appeared from a New York agent who asked to see the manuscript. He wrote back, “I can sell this for you.” Suddenly, it felt like fate had adopted him. Before long, he had a contract with Soho Press for a series. “I think getting published is a quirk of fate – getting to the right person at the right time,” he said, in his typical, self-effacing way.

Other novels in the series include Thirty-three Teeth, Disco for the Departed,  Anarchy and Old Dogs, Curse of the Pogo Stick (“That’s my Hmong book.”), Slash and Burn and The Woman Who Wouldn’t Die

Born in Wimbledon on the outskirts of London, he arrived in Southeast Asia in the early 1980s and started a series of NGO jobs, at one point working with refugees from Burma, Laos and Vietnam. He met a circle of Laotian ex-royalist and refugees who had vivid stories about the Communists, the fate of ordinary Laotians, the ethnic groups and the mass education and propaganda campaigns.

In 1990, Cotterill joined a Unesco project, working with the Laotian government to train English teachers at a college in Pakse, where he lived for two years. “It’s different to live in Laos and know what’s really happening,” he said. He learned, for instance, that one group of Laotians who wanted to study English used an East German language textbook, requiring them to first learn German to learn how to speak English. His notebooks filled up with stories, anecdotes and character details. But then he tripped up badly, ending up on the wrong side of a dispute with the military over who should be allowed to take English training classes.

“I went out of the country, then found out the government wouldn’t let me back in,” he said. “I didn’t really know who to blame. It took me a little while to get over it.” Starting in 1994, he began revisiting the country. “Every time I went, I thought, ‘I’m going to write about this.’”

In the late autumn of each year, he goes to Koh Samui to write a first draft of a new Siri novel in about four weeks. “I don’t like to know where the story is really going,” he said. “I know some of the things that occurred during the year I’m going to write about, so I get a few ideas and then just put Siri into a situation and ask, ‘How do we get out of this?’”

The spirit world plays a key role in each novel. Spirits are engaged in a sort of Manachean battle, inflicting their power for good or bad on lowly humans.

Within Cotterill’s exotic, mysterious world looms every-present bureaucracy, Communism, corpses and death. For Siri, death is but the beginning of the story. He uses his brain like a scalpel to cut through the mysteries of strangulation, stabbings, shootings, drownings, poisonings—and possessions.

On the serious side, one feels the crushing weight Communism has had on one of the most gentle, sublime cultures in the world. Siri is determined – what else is there to do? – to undermine the Communist ideologues whose mission is to discourage free-thinking and individual initiative––the exact traits possessed by Siri’s flesh-and-blood gang.

Another pleasure is Cotterill’s ability with dialogue. Many readers have commented that it’s the first time they feel as if they are hearing the way Asians really talk and think. “I had to defend the way my characters talk,” said Cotterill, who speaks Thai and Laotian. “If I have a character call someone a ‘bubblehead,’ well, there’s no exact Laotian equivalent for that English expression, but there are many similar Laotian expressions, so I feel I’m actually giving a closer approximation of the way my characters really talk.”

Cotterill has drawn cartoons and illustrations since he was a child, and he still enjoys working as an illustrator and cartoonist. He published a cartoon book, “Ethel and Joan Go to Phuket,” in Thai, and his unique website features his drawing.

“I write very visually,” he said. “I’m walking through the scenes with the characters. I’m seeing the characters, the weather, the land. I think I write more as an artist than as a writer.”

Two unpublished non-Siri novels sit on his desk; One is set in New York and Vietnam in 1952; the other is a contemporary thriller set in Chiang Mai involving the search for a 13th-century buried treasure.

A River Runs Through It: The ending

imagesThe ending, and especially the last two paragraphs, of Norman Maclean’s masterful A River Runs Through It echo the Bible and the true American idiom:

“Now nearly all those I loved and did not understand when I was young are dead, but I still reach out to them.

Of course, now I am too old to be much of a fisherman, and now of course I usually fish the big waters alone, although some friends think I shouldn’t. Like many fly fisherman in western Montana, where the summer days are almost Arctic in length, I often do not start fishing until the cool of the evening. Then in the Arctic half-light of the canyon, all existence fades to a being with my soul and memories and the sounds of the Big Blackfoot River and a four-count rhythm and the hope that a fish will rise.

Eventually, all things merge into one, and a river runs through it. The river was cut by the world’s great flood and runs over rocks from the basement of time. On some of the rocks are timeless raindrops. Under the rocks are the words, and some of the words are theirs.

I am haunted by waters.”

A River Runs Through It

Emerson’s scandalous ideas

In The Woods; a photography by Robert Crosby

In The Woods; a photograph by Robert Crosby

Whoso walketh in solitude,
And inhabiteth the wood,
Choosing light, wave, rock, and bird,
Before the money-loving herd,
Into that forester shall pass
From these companions power and grace.

Emerson– Woodnotes II

Modern transcendental idealism, Emersonianism, for instance, also seems to let God evaporate into abstract Ideality. Not a deity in concreto, not a superhuman person, but the immanent divinity in things, the essentially spiritual structure of the universe, is the object of the transcendentalist cult. In that address to the graduating class at Divinity College in 1838 which made Emerson famous, the frank expression of this worship of mere abstract laws was what made the scandal of the performance. – William James, The Variety of Religious Experience


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