Rittererry Clitic

July 12, 2009

I have always thought of my job at BookPage as “Book Reviewer”, so when I went to Japan for the first time, I listed that as my occupation on the entry form. Apparently it confused the immigration officer, as he gave me a puzzled look and asked in heavily inflected English “Booku leeviewer? What is this job?” I went on to explain—haltingly—what I do, and he suddenly brightened up. “Aah, rittererry clitic!” he exclaimed, grinning broadly. I am thinking strongly of having that job title put on my business cards.

One of my favorite parts of being a rittererry clitic is that I often get to interact with my favorite writers, by email, by phone, and occasionally in person. As you might imagine, they are a literate bunch, by and large, and endlessly entertaining to swap war stories with. If you are a frequent visitor to this blog, you may recognize the byline of Tim Hallinan, who has added several insightful and hilarious comments to the entries. It seems we share an affinity for unusual Japanese variants of KitKat chocolate bars, so I recently sent him a couple of examples of the most recent flavors, Apple Vinegar and Lemon Vinegar, which he said tasted like room deodorizer, a very apt description. I had the pleasure of reading Tim’s latest book, Breathing Water, on the flight back to Halifax a couple of weeks ago, and it is every bit as edge-of-the-seat entertaining as his last novel, The Fourth Watcher. I will be reviewing Breathing Water in next month’s issue of BookPage, but as a teaser, I have appended my BookPage review of The Fourth Watcher below:

“OK, call me a sucker for thrillers set in exotic foreign locations, particularly ones with rampant corruption, triple-digit humidity and lazily seductive ex-bargirl protagonists. Guilty as charged; please let me serve out my sentence in the Thailand depicted by author Timothy Hallinan in his wickedly atmospheric new work, The Fourth Watcher, this month’s Tip of the Ice Pick Award winner.

Travel writer Poke Rafferty has a clever and popular series going for him: ‘Looking for Trouble In . . .’ (fill in the blank with the exotic Asian locale of your choice). His latest installment about Bangkok is in the works, after which he is thinking seriously about settling down into a line of work a bit less edgy and dangerous, to allow him to spend more time with his girlfriend and their recently adopted daughter (a precocious 10-going-on-30-year-old named Miaow). However, although Poke may no longer be ‘looking for trouble,’ trouble is definitely looking for him when his long-estranged father shows up unannounced, with a box full of rubies and a very large favor to ask. Poke initially wants nothing to do with his old man, but that decision is quickly taken out of his hands: his girlfriend and daughter are kidnapped, along with the wife of his best friend. If Poke ever wants to see them again, he will have to come up with the rubies (and a whack of cash) and turn his father over to a sworn enemy who has been tracking Rafferty Senior without success for a number of years. Well, that’s the setup, but it doesn’t begin to describe the action, the intensity, the pacing, the humor, the dialogue, etc. What words are sufficient to describe a book with chapters titled ‘Ugliest Mole in China,’ ‘Asterisks Would Take Too Long,’ or my personal fave, ‘The Leading Sphincter on the Planet’? Is it enough to call someone a clever wordsmith when they can craft a sentence like ‘He was unevolved; he had one foot in the Mesozoic and the other in his mouth.’? So I ask you, after reading this review, can you think of one good reason not to read this book? I can’t.”

It was admittedly a glowing review, but to be fair, most of my reviews are largely positive. I would prefer to wax poetic about a book I loved rather than waste time and ink trashing one I hated. Many times I have read unkind reviews that revealed much more about the character (or lack thereof) of the reviewer than the inherent quality (or lack thereof) of the book, which I never have thought to be the purpose of a book review. Also, with the volume of books coming my way, I tend not to finish ones I don’t like, figuring that if the author has not engaged me in the initial fifty pages, it is unlikely that he/she will pull out a Hail Mary save in the final fifty. Happily, I get to choose my books for the column, and it is a pleasure to read and review worthy works, particularly when I am able to introduce a new author (or one that is new to me) to the BookPage reading public.

Anyway, shortly after the review came out, I got an email from Tim, the first of many, which I will reproduce in part below. Normally, my editor at BookPage guards my email address as though it were a Homeland Security priority, but Tim must have turned on the charm (and of course she knew how much I liked his book), so she allowed him to pry it out of her.

“Your review of THE FOURTH WATCHER was the nicest thing to happen to me in months. I was sitting in Suvanabhumi Airport in Bangkok at 5:20 AM, having stayed up all night to catch a 6:30 flight, and feeling sorry for myself when I opened my laptop to see that my editor at Morrow… had sent me the PDF of your review. It was better than a quart of coffee.”

Two quick notes: 1) I am reasonably certain that this is the only email I have ever received in my entire life containing the word “Suvanabhumi”, and 2) at some point, I will meet up with Tim for an evening of stories and laughter, preferably in some equatorial expat bar with a lazily swirling ceiling fan. So it is written, so shall it be.


July 10, 2009

Twice yearly I make the trans-global journey between my familial home in Prince Edward Island, Canada, to my adopted hometown of Saitama, Japan, always with the somewhat dichotomous pangs of separation and anticipation. Having just left the Land of the Rising Sun, I will miss my friends, of course, as well as the best sushi on the planet, the ultra-speedy internet connection, a huge grocery store and several restaurants within five minutes’ walk of my apartment; the formal and ultra-polite character of the Japanese people as a group, and the relentless bombardment of color and sound that characterizes all of Asia. I will not miss, even a little bit: the steam-bath humidity of the Tokyo summer; the subways packed past belief by platform agents armed with door-sized flat slabs of fiberglass designed specifically for stuffing commuters into train cars; the nasty fermented soybean treat, natto, less palatable to the western taste than, say, Vegemite, but well loved by the locals; oh, and let’s not forget Japanese popular music, J-pop, about which the less said, the better.

Now happily ensconced in Prince Edward Island, I am reveling in the laid-back pace: the farms overrun with U-Pick strawberries awaiting a dollop of freshly whipped cream; the beaches that will wait another couple of weeks at least until the first hardy tourists are willing to brave the chilly breakers; the top-down midday cruises in my aging-but-still-cute (like its owner, hopefully) Mini Cooper; the chipmunks and blue jays that exercise eminent domain on the grounds and airspace around my house; and of course, evenings catching up with friends and relatives I haven’t seen in the better part of a year. And perhaps best of all, I have so much space: my kitchen / dining area here is bigger than my entire apartment in Japan, no kidding! On the minus side, cable service hasn’t made its way this far out of town, so I still have interminably slow dial-up internet, which you may remember from back in the days of disco. The nearest supermarket is twenty minutes away, so some planning is required to ensure not running out of essentials like chocolate chip cookies or beer. And, while carping, I should mention the unofficial provincial bird of Prince Edward Island, the mosquito, whose size and rapaciousness is the stuff of legends.

Some time back, and I must confess I don’t remember where, I read a great definition of “home”: Home is the place where, if you have to go there, they have to let you in. Another variant: Home is the place where you bring all the stuff you acquired on your last trip, before embarking on your next one. PEI fits the first definition for me to a tee, and Japan the second, although it must be said that I am running out of space for any new stuff in either place. Stay tuned for notices of a bi-continental garage sale of epic proportions!