29 October 2007


Lake Charles, Louisiana: 4,597 miles

Here's more pics:

Clarksdale, and for that matter, most of the Delta is pretty run down. Here we have two of the local landmarks: Wade's Barbershop, run for many years by a well known blues singing barber; and the former locale of Stackhouse Records, Clarksdale's most famous blues record shop, now defunct. Cat Head has taken over as the place to go for blues CDs in town, as well as information about local music venues and some very fine regional folk art.

Some places look like they couldn't possibly still be operating, but Bug's Place in Rosedale and Po Monkey's out a dirt road along cotton fields still crank out - canned, but blues - music and attract dancing crowds on some nights of the week. Po Monkey's is usually going on Thursdays and sometimes Sunday. Don't know about Bug's.

An orange moon was rising above the cotton fields across the road from Po Monkey's.

Melvin was sitting in a riverfront park in Greenville, between two casino boats, working up his courage, one cigarette at a time, to gamble. We were waiting around for the place we wanted to go to dinner to open. I walked into one of the casinos, won $70 at blackjack in short order, and we went to dinner.

Dinner was at the original Doe's Eat Place, famous for its steaks and tamales. It was originally a grocery in a black part of town, run by an Italian family. A friend of the family's - a white lawyer - took to coming around by the back entrance to have steaks cooked for him. Word got around, and eventually, the black customers kept coming to the front grocery for tamales and chili and other things, and the white ones kept sneaking in the back for steaks. Eventually the two sides got together and it's now one of the very best steak houses we've ever been to. As a matter of fact, the enormous t-bone that Eva and I ate has taken its place as the third greatest steak I've ever eaten.

After dinner, and after driving past Po Monkey's and ascertaining that, no, it isn't open on Saturday nights, we drove back to Clarksdale and went for a second night to Red's Lounge. There are several operating blues clubs in Clarksdale, the best known of which is Ground Zero that is owned by the actor Morgan Freeman. It's a big place with well known bands and has something of a House of Blues, faux feeling to it - but better. But better yet is Red's. It's the real deal. A run down - the roof literally caving in - tiny little funky place with mostly Budweiser and Heinekin in a nod to the outsiders crowd that shows up there. They have more down home, hill country blues, the sort that you find on Fat Possum records. The first night we saw T-Model Ford, an 87 year old bluesman who plays a very mean electric guitary mostly by himself. The second night, when these pictures were taken, it was Robert Balfour, another 80-something blues guy who really works wonders with his guitar, in a strange, sort of trancelike, heavy bass underpinnings, hypnotic blues kind of way. There was another guy who accompanied him on the spoons. And his nephew Arthur, who fancied himself a dancer. He was more of a staggerer, but entertaining nonetheless so long as you didn't have to sit next to him for long and listen to his ramblings.
Unfortunately there doesn't seem to be much of a black crowd for blues. At least in Clarksdale. Both nights the audience was almost all white. Near as we could tell, the black bars in town were playing either modern R&B or Hip Hop. Sad, sort of. Still, a great time was had.

Even more, later.


Natchez, Mississippi: 4,380 miles

The whole quote is: "The classification of the constituents of a chaos, nothing less is here essayed." and it's from Moby Dick, which I am currently rereading.

A good road trip is something like that. You point your car here or there, pretty much at random but with an abiding sense of where you're headed, and soone or later you've made something of it. What? I'm not sure yet. But something.

And so far something very good.

Following two great meals in Chicago - one Italian and one Thai, a splendid time wandering around the old library building and Millenium Park and a frustrating time in the Art Institute (it was in utter disarray thanks to construction and exhibit installation)and a book event at which one person showed up (the bookstore was great though - The Book Stall of Winnetka - and the people who worked there warm, friendly and smart), Eva and I sat in the car and headed nine hours south to Clarksdale, Mississippi, the heart of the Delta and arguably the birthplace of the blues.

We stayed in a fantastic guesthouse that used to be an ice house. We met many interesting, friendly people, we heard some great, and some not so great, music. I hadn't expected much of interest to be left in the Mississippi Delta. I was wrong. It far exceeded my low expectations and now I'd love to go back and spend a lot more time.

Here's some pictures with captions:

The Chicago skyline seen from the prairie grasses garden in Millenium Park. (I don't know what caused the wacky stuff on the building, but I like the way it looks.)

Eva and me, reflected numerous times in the underside of "The Bean" in Millenium Park.

Back when they really put a lot of money into building libraries.

Art babble in the Art Institute. I think everyone who writes for art exhibits and catalogs, as well as about 98% of all the university professors in the world, ought to be sent, regularly, back to writing boot camp. Sheesh!

The famous "Crossroads" of highways 61 and 49, where legend has it Robert Johnson and a number of other blues phenoms sold their souls to the devil for their musical prowess. There is a great deal of controversy as to which crossroads in the Delta is the "real" one, but this is the only one with a crossed guitars monument. It's in Clarksdale. Abe's BBQ, is here and has been here, run by a Lebanese family since 1924. It's a very nice place with, I'm sorry to say, mediocre bbq. Supposedly, Messenger's on the wrong side of the tracks in downtown, is much better, but we didn't get there.

The Big Pink Guesthouse, on the other hand, is truly splendid. $125 per night for the gigantic King Suite - the whole front half of the building that used to be an ice house, then an ice cream factory, then an ice cream parlor, and now one of the very best hostelries we've ever stayed in.

More later. Right now we've got to hit the road from Natchez to Lake Charles, LA.

19 October 2007


Merriam, KS - 2,186 miles
It's a good thing that my doctor isn't along for this ride. America's heartland hasn't confronted me with much traffic on its highways, but it's clogging my arteries.

Lunch yesterday was at Al's Chickenette in Hays, Kansas. It's famous for its fried chicken. So of course, that's what I had. The place looks great, old neon, been there forever, but alas, the chicken was pretty bland. Nicely cooked but without much flavor.

Dinner was a big salad that might have been somewhat healthful if it hadn't come loaded with bacon bits and cheese and a dressing called "Italian" that was rendered from something very fatty. None of which was mentioned on the menu. I ate it though.

So today, having failed to eat great fried chicken yesterday, I went to Stroud's in Kansas City. I've been there before, to their old location which was a truly wonderful old-fashioned roadhouse. It has closed down, and the remaining location is a sort of sprawling antebellum style manse in the far north of the city. The chicken was good though, although I fear my enjoyment of fried chicken has forever been tainted by having had what is inarguably the finest fried chicken in the known universe - that which is to be found on Soi Polo in Bangkok. But Stroud's is about as good as it gets outside of Bangkok - and, well, Ibu Nyanti's in Central Java where fried chicken was reputedly invented. I was hoping to photograph the kitchen - where a line of 20 or more cooks stand at stoves, each with two large, cast iron frying pans in their hands. But in this fancier set up, the kitchen is off limits. Oh well.

In the morning I stopped off at The Raven bookstore in Lawrence. It's a really great store and downtown Lawrence is just what you would want from a midwestern university town. Beautifully kept up buildings dating from about 1910 to 1940, and nary a national or international chain store in sight. There's a thriving, local, independent business community. It's the kind of place where, sometimes, I wish I'd be happy living. But I'm pretty sure I need a much bigger city to avoid insanity.

My event in the afternoon was at I Love A Mystery in Mission, Kansas. It's another really fantastic, large, comfortable store. There weren't many people who showed up, but I had a good time talking with the people who did and the people who worked there. There were a lot of questions about Asia in general.

So then I went to the downtown Kansas City Hereford House for dinner. By most lights, it's the place to go in KC for steak, and KC is supposedly the place to go for steak.

Well, sorry Ashley, no. It was good, but nothing great. The KC Strip is a fine cut of beef, but it doesn't come close to the Cattleman's Cut that one can find at the Sutton County Steakhouse in Sonora, Texas. Now that is the second finest piece of beef I've ever eaten. (The finest was three small bites of top grade Kobe beef at a ludicrously expensive Japanese restaurant.) I ordered the KC Strip in the recommended manor - covered with melted blue cheese and cracked black peppercorns. That was interesting, but the steak didn't have enough flavor of its own to stand up to it.

Afterward I took my hardening arteries over to 18th & Vine, the historic jazz district of Kansas City, which in the '20s, '30s and into the '40s was among the hottest hot spots in the country. They've been trying to restore some of it's former glory, but it's not quite taking. Still, there are some good places that seem to be doing okay. The National Jazz Museum is there, attached to the Negro Baseball Leagues Museum, across the street from the Gem Theater. The Blue Room jazz club is attached to the museum and it's a fun place for drinks and some good tunes, which tonight were provided by Ida McBeth, a local singing sensation.

I took surface streets back to the hotel. I didn't realize KC had such a large Mexican population. I passed a good assortment of taco trucks and taquerias and dance clubs.

Kansas City is a city I'd like to spend more time exploring. It has some truly great architecture, both historic and modern; supposedly has some great art museums; and I still need to consume a bucket of burnt ends - the local bbq specialty - but I don't think I'm going to get a chance before I need to leave tomorrow morning. Somehow bbq, unlike, say, cold pizza, just doesn't seem like breakfast food, as much as I might cherish the chance to further abuse my cholesterol level.

17 October 2007


Denver, CO: 1,576 miles
Luckily, the two grazing elk I saw along Interstate 25 last night - fleetingly, they flitted by at about 82 miles per hour - didn't leap out in front of my car. It might have been a mercy killing though. Of them, not me. It's hunting season in south Colorado and I couldn't find a motel room in Raton, New Mexico or Trinidad, CO. All the rooms were filled with people looking to bag their quota of elk. I passed by a lot of bars while looking for a room and there were platoons of hunters spilling in and out of them. I wonder how many elk are dispatched mercifully with one swift, fatal shot?

Monday night at Poisoned Pen went well. Now, you gotta realize, by "well," I mean well enough for me at this point. Which is to say that there were a dozen, maybe a baker's dozen of, people who showed up and seemed to enjoy the show and who bought books. And the store had sold even more books before I got there. They sold almost all the books they ordered. Barbara Peters, who runs Poisoned Pen, asked smart questions, and gave me an introduction that made it clear she'd read the book and found it interesting. Fun was had, by me.

The thing is, I like hanging out in bookstores talking with people about books and the issues they bring up. And other writers often show up and then I get to hang out and talk shop with them - which is great, since this writing biz is pretty solitary except when you're out on the road. So I like being out on the road. And at this point, I know a lot of the people at the stores and some of the people who come out to see me, and it's like visiting old pals.

Which is why I didn't mind too much today when there were five people at Murder By the Book in Denver - two of them friends and three of them the women who work there, who I've seen three years in a row now and who feel like friends as well. So it was like sitting around with five friends, showing them my pictures of Cambodia and talking with them about stuff that I'm interested in. Once again, I had fun. Although I would feel better if I could attract a large horde of customers to the shop for them. I guess part of the point of all this is that eventually I hope to do just that.

Earlier in the day I drove to Boulder and signed some books at High Crimes, the mystery bookstore there. Once again, nothing tangible or obvious came of it. But I enjoyed dropping in on the store for a visit and sooner or later, between me and the store we'll sell some books.

So, I guess this is my job, and as jobs go it's a good one. It's what I've always wanted to do. But it's more of an investment really. It doesn't pay worth shit so far.

14 October 2007

The Drive-by Gets a Jump Start

Scottsdale, AZ: 569 miles
Gila Bend, Arizona, where highways 8 and 85 meet, is a place that doesn't seem to have many surprises in store. There's gas stations, motels, convenience stores, plenty of fast food chain outlets. Get off the main street and there's cacti and rattlesnakes, probably some gila monsters (how else was the town named?), plenty of sand and rocks. The Space Age Restaurant is impressive - it has a very large flying saucer parked on its roof.

What struck me as odd was the big banner across the main drag of town for the upcoming, November 3, Gila Bend Shrimp Festival. Unfortunately, I don't think I'll be able to make it. I've got a book event in Tucson that afternoon, which is close enough that I might still be able to get to Gila Bend in time for the shrimp bobbing contest, but it would be close and I probably ought to spend some time with the Tusconians I know. Still, maybe I'll try to show up.

My 38 or so hours back home, between New York and hitting the road on the Drive-by Tour '07, was busy. First I had to do whatever I could to ensure that I didn't bring bed bugs home with me. I don't suppose I'll know until the house is infested, or not.

My first event on Saturday was at Mysteries to Die For, a very nice bookshop in Thousand Oaks. They turned out a good crowd, standing room only, maybe 20 or so people, only three of who felt any sort of obligation to me to show up. It was gratifying, the sort of thing that gives me hope for book touring.

Some big name authors spend all day and never stop signing books. When I attract 10 or more people and sign 20 or more books, that's good by my standards at this point. Then again, I like hanging out in bookstores talking to people. I'd do it even if it wasn't part of my job. Good thing, too.

Then it was off across town to Book 'Em in South Pasadena, another good shop, in a fast developing fun part of the city. 10 people there, pretty much all friends, but it was good to see them and there were a number of pre-order sales of books as well.

I stayed up late getting things ready for the big drive, packed the car, made sure the house was all set and ready for the housesitter, got into the car, turned the key, and.......nothing. The battery was dead. Not completely, but dead enough. Needing to be in San Diego in time for today's event, I panicked.

I called Bill to get him to come over so I could hook my jumper cables up to his battery and my battery. I called AAA in case it wasn't the battery. Luckily, it was the battery and Bill's tiny little red Mini provided the life giving juice that my car required. I hit the road.

I'm keeping track of the mileage at the top of each blog post. The mileage posted above was from driving to Thousand Oaks, South Pasadena, then to San Diego and on to Scottsdale, today. There won't be any mileage tomorrow since I'm being driven around from bookstore to bookstore by a friend of Janet, my agent, and I can walk to Poisoned Pen bookstore from my hotel. Plenty of mileage to come though.

Addendum on Monday morning: The benedryl and cortisone cream wore off and the itching woke me up. When will this go away? I gotta say, I've never been a huge fan of New York City and I'm even less so now. Over the years I have slept in all manner of places: a 35 cent a night hotel in a border town between Spain and Portugal that was overrun with rats; two different chicken coops in West Africa; 10 nights in a huge, wooden, communal longhouse in Central Borneo; a brothel in Bamako, Mali; the $35 a night "Presidential Suite" in the Hotel Cesar in downtown Tijuana, Mexico; a Chinese army jail cell; another jail cell in Quebec that had been converted into a youth hostel; driftwood huts on a beach on Vancouver Island; and more. And yet in none of these places, not one, did I ever leave with any sort of bug bites or infestation that affected me longer than a few hours or at the most the next day. Today is day four and counting. My body is covered with itchy bumps that I got in an "inexpensive" (meaning it cost $200 per night) hotel in New York City.

13 October 2007


Bed bugs, that is. A significant infestation of them. Eva is bit to within an inch of her life. They liked her better than me. Which is good for me, but I still didn't escape. For however long this lasts - I keep hearing different stories - I am going to be on tour as the itchy-scratchy author.

The Gershwin is, by New York standards (which are lower in these matters than standards in the real world), a very nice inexpensive hotel. A standard room runs a "mere" two hundred bucks a night. The best thing about The Gershwin is that it is in a great location, both for the business and the tourism sides of the city. The rooms are small, not quite Tokyo small, but with two people in one it can be fairly cramped.

Following a sleepless second night - thanks to the city government idiot who issued the build to 2:30 am construction permit for the site across the street - we moved to a quieter, inside room. That may or may not have been where the bugs got us on the third night.

The bites tend to appear after 24 hours, so it was inconveniently around an hour before we had to leave to go to an important dinner, that Eva began noticing she'd been assaulted. At that point, there was almost no way we could switch hotels. We called the manager, however, complained, and they put us into a suite. As to whether or not the suite was also infested, I couldn't say. I began to get itchy and scratchy that night, which was well before 24 hours.

The upshot was that we got plenty of bites for free, and the room was free, which saved me over eight hundred bucks for the four nights. I'd have happily paid more than that to not be bitten, or not have to worry about whether or not I brought any of the damn things home with me.

Apparently New York City has been hit with a major infestation of bed bugs. Google it, you'll see, even some of the swankest hotels in town are giving their guests that little something extra. We don't hear about this sort of thing much out here in California. Yet another of the many reasons this is the most populated state in the country.

So if you come to any of my book events, and I'm itching and scratching, please try to feel a bit of sympathy. And maybe buy an extra copy or two to make me feel better.

Here's what one of the nasty little buggers look like when filling up with your, or my blood:

10 October 2007


I will never kill a cab driver in one of my books. I promised Preston. He was my hack yesterday, here in New York City. He was one of those taxi drivers who really make you feel good about being here: bright, funny, opinionated, knowledgeable, an excellent conversationalist. So when he asked what I do and I told him, and then he asked if I'd ever killed a cabbie in one of my books and I told him I haven't, he asked me to promise I never would. And I did.

On the other hand, the construction permit that allows the guys across the street from our hotel to rip things up and pound on them until 2:30 in the morning, then start again four and a half hours later at seven am, is not one of those things that make you feel good about being in New York City. It's one of those things that make me marvel at the fact that nearly everyone in this place is not a homicidal maniac. It's a testimony to something; hearing loss, perhaps.

I once had some upstairs neighbors in Hong Kong who decided it would be a good idea to tear up the concrete floor of their apartment at three am. With a jack hammer. I went up to talk with them. They were in a very festive mood; drinking beer, eating flattened, dried squid that they were grilling on a small hibachi in the middle of the floor they were destroying. They weren't apologetic, but they seemed understanding and they assumed I'd be the same. What else could they do? They had jobs to get to in the morning. When else were they going to be able to do the work? It took them the better part of a week. I moved into a hotel for the duration. One without construction going on across the street. Which wasn't easy to find in Hong Kong in the early 1990s. It was about half the price of this place, and the room was twice as large.

Why doesn't every tourist who comes to New York City become a homicidal maniac?

Maybe I should say, every American tourist. Europeans, Israelis, even Canadians are here in droves, gleefully spending their newly muscular Euros, Shekels and Loonies. I find it somewhat cheering to see many of them displaying the same sorts of arrogant and ignorant behavior that we Americans have been accused of for many years in foreign countries. We are not alone.

Is anyone ever alone in New York? Maybe everyone here is simply too sleep deprived to muster up the energy for homicidal mania.

We did have dinner at the Grand Central Oyster Bar last night. And it is one of my favorite restaurants in the world. And if it hadn't been pouring rain we would have walked back to the noisy hotel, and walking in New York City is one of the greatest urban treats to be had anywhere.

And in the morning you need to walk, long distances, to find a decent cup of espresso. You'd think that with all the exhaustion, the least New York could do would be to provide its denizens with readily available, high-quality caffeine. But good espresso is a rarity here. Even my coffee loving friends in New York are thankful for Starbucks. And that, frankly, is pathetic.

At least there's plenty of cigarette smoke to inhale on the sidewalks. In front of every office building there are knots of smokers, chased out of their offices and down to the pavement to indulge. I imagine a great deal of very real business transpires among the smokers. That, and perhaps skin cancer from standing around in the sunlight's glare reflected off the glass sheathed towers. It is my impression that smokers in New York look healthy - at least in the old-fashioned sense of skin with some color to it. Non-smokers tend to exhibit an office-bound pallor. They don't get outside much.

So, what is it that I'm doing here? Tonight I have my official East Coast Launch Party for GRAVE IMPORTS at Partners & Crime, one of my favorite mystery bookstores. I'm optimistic. I'm expecting as many as a dozen people to show up.

There are five Borders bookstores in Manhattan, each of which has two copies of each of my Ray Sharp books. So I've made the rounds, signing the copies at every store. What I tell myself is that by doing so, the stores will put them on more prominent display, or at least take them out of hiding, slap "Autographed by the Author" stickers on them, and so might have a marginally better chance of selling the books than they otherwise would. If they sell those four, maybe they'll order four more, or even more than that. If that works, and I could somehow do it at a thousand stores or more, I might have a shot at the lower reaches of some best seller list somewhere.

It they can get the books, that is. I'm supposed to drop by Mysterious Books tomorrow. It's one of the best known mystery bookstores in the U.S., if not the world. They haven't been able to get ahold of any of the hardbacks of GRAVE IMPORTS. Many of their customers are collectors who want first edition hardbacks. They have a few paperbacks, is all. I'll go there anyhow, to say hi, chat with the bookstore people (something I enjoy doing in any case) and hopefully if and when they finally do manage to get some books, I might get a bit more consideration than I would otherwise.

It's a very screwy business. New York is a very screwy place. I wonder if they'd let me sleep at a Starbucks?

07 October 2007


Yet another Eric Stone Drive-By Book Tour is getting underway. I've been warming up with events on home ground and am headed for New York tomorrow.

My last book tour, the Disoriented Express with Colin Cotterill, we added up the estimated weight of our assembled crowds. I don't think I'll bother with that this time. For one, I don't have Colin along to help me with the estimates. And unless something truly untoward or special occurs along the way, I'm not sure I want to spend a whole lot of time describing book events. (Although I might post the occasional picture.)

(There really were more than four people at last night's event at The Mystery Bookstore in Westwood Village (in Los Angeles.) There were, maybe, 40 or so. But bookstores are tough places to take pictures. This is me telling the assembled multitudes about prahoc - a Cambodian fish paste that is sort of like the stinkiest, most overripe French cheese you could possibly imagine - only it's FISH. Ray Sharp eats some in GRAVE IMPORTS.)

Suffice to say, I enjoy book events. It's a mighty fine job; showing up at a bookstore to talk about books you've written and about yourself and sometimes about writing in general or other books. I'd even do that if it wasn't my job. I'm strange enough that I even love doing it when no one shows up for a book event. I'm plenty happy just sitting around and chewing the fat with bookstore people. (My first job was in a bookstore. I've loved the places ever since.) Still, I love it even better when a lot of people do show up for my book events. So if you're reading this, take a look at the events schedule and show up when I'm nearby.

Here's what you'll get: Cambodian pop music by Ros Sereysothea (truly fantastic, late '60s / early '70s pop psychedelia.) A slide show of great (if I do say so myself, since I took them) photos of Cambodia - you'll laugh, you'll cry, you'll ooh and aah. Me talking about GRAVE IMPORTS, my latest book, and maybe some about FLIGHT OF THE HORNBILL, my next book, and about myself. Maybe - I'll take a vote - I'll read something from one of my books (no more than five minutes though, I promise.) And you can ask me questions. And I will sign any books you buy - well, at least the ones by me. (A note about that: I have only once, in Anchorage, been asked by a bookstore for ID when I showed up and offered to sign books for them. I usually feel obligated to point out the jacket photo and hold it up to my face, but I suppose anyone could show up nearly anywhere and sign any book they want.) I don't recommend it, though.

Today I'm at Metropolis Books in downtown Los Angeles. It's a brave little bookstore, founded by a fellow writer, in an area that is just beginning to develop. Anyone, anywhere in the vicinity, should support the place. Independent bookstores need us.

Speaking of which - Eso Won Books is one of Los Angeles' great treasures. It is a store that specializes in African-American books and has been a vital part of the Black community around these parts for a number of years. It's in trouble. It might have to close down by the end of the year unless things significantly change. When Bill Clinton came to L.A. to sign his memoir, it's where he went. Eso Won is at 4331 Degnan Blvd. (Just off Crenshaw in Leimert Park, Los Angeles.) Do yourself a favor, do Los Angeles a favor - go there, soon, buy books, buy a bunch of books. It's a great store. It would be a tragedy to lose it.

You can also buy from them online at http://esowon.booksense.com

02 October 2007


I'm home now, in the safety and comfort of Los Angeles where the only dangers seem to be from crazed drivers and taggers who gun down grandmas who suggest they might want to engage in their art elsewhere. Nothing nearly so dangerous as bears and moose and eagles and such like. At least they don't have snakes. In the realm of deadly wildlife, that's one thing very much in Alaska's favor.

I don't have much time to write anything that anyone would want to read at the moment. I'm juggling all sorts of details to prepare for my upcoming gigantic Drive-By Book Tour '07, which kicks off any day now. In just a few minutes, I'm going to go get a haircut. Those of you who come to see any of my events, should appreciate that.

Meanwhile, having promised them once I got home to a computer that is friendlier to the particular 2 GB chip I had in one of my cameras in Alaska, here are the pictures of the famous (word has, apparently, been spreading) gay moose of the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center just south of Girdwood. (You might want to chase the kids out of the room if you don't want to answer any difficult questions about this.)