The Week in Photos

November 30, 2009

Mt. Fuji sunset, as viewed from my bedroom window.

My new friend.

Did I mention that he is kind of enormous?

As we all know, photography is the Japanese national pastime…

…starting from a very early age.

Autumn leaves are at 86%, per the nightly news.

Transportation, version 0.1

The evolution of transportation.

The future of transporation, the upcoming bullet train.

Sobering thought for the day…

An odd subway warning (approbation of strangers is worse than being caught in a door).

Slow shopping, so hurry!

An exceptionally rare photo of mother bus and newborn buslet in their native habitat.

Sadly, no dogs allowed, or perhaps no sad dogs allowed.

Here’s a product we’ll likely not see in the US.

Someday, I want to find out what this is.

And finally, a glimpse of storybook Japan, still there if you know where to look.

The Tube versus YouTube

November 30, 2009

One of the major changes of my life since first coming to Japan several years back has been the availability (or lack thereof) of entertainment options of the televised variety. I have not as yet figured out the logistics of getting American TV on my computer, because it seems that the major services (Hulu, etc) do not operate outside North America. Consequently, I lost track of Jack Bauer after season one, and Tony Soprano was still in ascension the last time I tuned in. Actor/politico Fred Thompson still presided over the “law” portion of Law & Order, with Sam Waterston as his assistant DA; now I hear that Waterston has been promoted to full-fledged District Attorney. Good for him; he deserved it. He has one of the finest legal minds of his generation. Last summer, upon arriving back in Canada, I finally caught the closing season of Six Feet Under. That was a must, as a) I really liked the show, and b) I was afraid that somebody would inadvertently mention the ending and spoil it for me.

Japanese TV is a mishmash of a) odd game shows in which one person eats something, and a panel of observers nod, smile and make presumably sage comments about the mastication process; b) corny musical comedy variety shows (think Hee-Haw with an Asian twist, and you won’t be far off); c) sweeping historical dramas with such lush costuming and cinematography that subtitles are rendered pointless; and treacly tearjerkers about dying grandparents, lovers or dogs (these do not require subtitles either, as I won’t watch them). Once or twice a week there is an American movie, usually in English, and inevitably heavy on special effects of the explosive variety.

The upshot of all this is that I spend rather an inordinate amount of time cruising around YouTube, both the Japanese and American versions. On the American version, I can keep up with current events as recounted by my favorite unbiased reporter, Bill Maher. Japanese YouTube has turned up such luminaries as prodigy guitarist Sungha Jung, ukulele virtuoso Jake Shimabukuro, and Okinawa songbird Rimi Natsukawa, all mentioned in an earlier installment of this blog. My most recent find is a young classical piano player by the name of Aimi Kobayashi. Fourteen years of age now, she has been playing since she was three, and if the results are any indication, she has been practicing, oh, about thirty-three hours per day in the intervening years. Here is the YouTube link for a performance by her when she was four years old:

And another from when she was six:

Is this kid amazing, or what?

A friend of mine from the States emailed me another YouTube link last week, entirely different in nature, but well worth a look if you haven’t seen it. It is titled “Beatles 3000”, and it is a look back at the Beatles’ impact on popular culture from a vantage point one thousand years in the future. It slyly suggests that we don’t always get it just right when we look back at historical milestones, that our understanding might be a tiny bit skewed from reality (in the video, the Beatles are identified as John Lennon, Paul McKenzie, Greg Hutchinson and Scottie Pippen; they achieved fame upon arrival in America for Ed Sullivan’s iconic Woodstock Festival, etc.). It should be good for a belly laugh or two, especially if you were around for the Beatles’ original invasion of the US.

My Crush on Tami Hoag

November 24, 2009

Let me say from the outset, my crush on Tami Hoag is not of the same amplitude (or orientation) as my crush on, say, Scarlett Johansson, because after all, I have seen Scarlett Johannson in countless movies and television appearances, as well as magazine covers and billboards, not to mention an ongoing series of R-rated daydreams rather more explicit than any of her Hollywood films thus far. As of this writing, though, I have no idea what Tami Hoag looks like, how old she is, how she might fare in a one-on-one interview. What fuels my crush on Tami Hoag is that she is one of a very short list of authors who push the buttons that make me reallllly want to skip forward to the end of the book to find out “whodunit”. This has never been more the case than with her current offering, Deeper Than the Dead (Dutton; ISBN 9780525951308; 448pp; $26.95).

October, 1985: Deeper Than the Dead opens as four kids on their way home from school decide to take a short cut through a heavily wooded area of a large town park. As two of them try to make good their escape from the other two, one has the misfortune to literally stumble upon the body of what had once been a quite attractive young woman. The forensic evidence indicates that the cause of death was strangulation, but not before the body was mutilated almost beyond belief: the woman’s eyes were glued shut, and her eardrums punctured, so she could neither see nor hear what was transpiring around her. Her last moments (or perhaps days) were filled with inner terrors that could easily go one-on-one with those visited upon her by her abductor. Stab wounds on her abdomen seem to form a loose connect-the-dots picture, but it will be some time until sufficient clues are unearthed to make a guess at the nature of the design. To make matters worse, this is not the first of this type of ritualistic killing; similarities not released to the general public suggest that there is at least one more unsolved murder on the books, likely perpetrated by the same person. Add one final chilling thought to the mix: another woman, with tenuous connections to the first two, is missing under suspicious circumstances. No corpse has turned up, but it is only a matter of time, in the estimation of the local authorities.

Enter Vince Leone, an FBI agent from Washington, schooled in the then-cutting-edge art of profiling (remember, the novel is set in 1985, when now-common investigative tools, such as DNA sampling, internet criminal databases, and even the handheld cell phone were some years in the future). Leone quickly narrows the suspect base to a small but exceptionally diverse group: a well known local attorney with a reportedly picture-perfect home life; a mild-mannered dentist whose realtor wife is a screeching harpy; the somewhat scruffy owner of an automotive wrecking yard, a convicted pedophile; and a loose cannon cop with a history of exceeding his authority, particularly where women are concerned.

In true Tami Hoag fashion, the identity of the killer is not revealed until the last possible moment, and even then there are some last-minute red herrings to perplex and delight her cadre of fans, among whose number I count myself. And that, in a nutshell, is why I have a crush on Tami Hoag.

PS, stop in at the BookPage website (, and check out the Whodunit? column, this month featuring the latest from John Lescroart and John Burdett, as well as two really stellar debut authors, Belinda Bauer and James Thompson.

The Great Clothesline Brouhaha of 2009

November 22, 2009

Much in the same fashion that Westerners shake their heads at the notion that Asians devour seaweed or wear T-shirts with mangled English slogans, Asian folks from time to time have more than a bit of fun at the expense of Westerners, particularly Americans. Most recently, this took place as a result of the release of a news article about American regulations prohibiting the hanging of laundry on backyard clotheslines. I glanced out my bedroom window in Saitama, a suburb of Tokyo, where on a clear day I can see Mt. Fuji in the distance, and was met with this tableau, admittedly partly of my own making:

A bit later in the day, I took a bike ride along the river that runs a few blocks from my house. The neighborhood is medium upscale, I suppose, the sort of ‘hood where people can certainly afford a dryer, but once again, the colorful bloom of airing clothing erupts from every window ledge, veranda, and deck.

I think it is kind of pretty, especially in the grey winter that characterizes much of the Northern Hemisphere. Saturday was a particularly lovely day, unusual at this time of year; the sky was a deep cornflower blue, not a cloud in sight. Lots of laundry, though.

Apparently everyone had been listening to the weather report, which promised twenty-four hours of crisp clear skies. A brief aside: Tokyo weather reports are remarkably accurate. When they say that a storm front is moving in and will arrive at 2:10pm, you can see the clouds at 2:05, but the rain will not begin until 2:10. It is as if it obeys the orders of the meteorologists. American weather reporters should come here to learn their craft; there would be a lot fewer spoiled picnics and wasted car washes.

Japanese people cannot understand why anyone would restrict hanging laundry to dry. It is cheap (basically free, after the initial investment in clothespins, line and pole), it is ecologically sound, it extends the life of your clothes, and they really smell good (not that chemical-fresh smell of dryer “softeners”). If the wind is up, line-hung laundry emerges remarkably wrinkle-free as well.

It seems there is a groundswell movement afoot in the US, though: some states are enacting laws preventing clothesline prohibition. Florida, for example, has a statute (163.04, in case you care) which says that cities, the state, homeowners’ associations, etc, cannot prohibit the use of energy devices based on renewable resources. Who knew that the simple clothesline would one day be an “energy device based on renewable resources”?

Meanwhile, the Japanese are mightily amused at all the brouhaha. And, I must say, so am I.

Odds and Sods

November 16, 2009

Japan was all atwitter last week when President Obama paid his first official visit to Tokyo. No expense was spared on the ground, as far as I could tell: the police presence, normally much less visible than in any major US city, seemed to increase by tenfold overnight. The blue suits were on high alert in every subway and train station, even ones at some remove from the President’s intended route. All in all, the President seemed to make a favorable impression here, however, scoring big points with his deep bow to the Emperor and the Empress. Dick Cheney, by contrast, shook hands with Emperor Akihito when it was his turn. It kind of says something about the differing styles of Democrats and Republicans; I’m not sure what, but definitely something. 

In the previous paragraph, I mentioned that typically the police are not as thick on the ground here as in other major cities worldwide. This is interesting for a couple of reasons: first, Tokyo has an exceptionally low crime rate, which is a bit counterintuitive when measured against the decidedly moderate police presence; and second, the odds of getting in trouble here for some minor infraction are virtually nil. Except that nobody seems to commit any minor infractions. Cigarette butts cast to the sidewalk? Doesn’t happen, at least not with any sort of regularity. And there aren’t refuse containers to be found anywhere, so basically you have to carry your stash of trash back home with you, and people do this routinely. Spitting, littering, yelling? Nope. Speeding, coasting through a stop sign? Not so much; most smaller intersections are unmarked, and folks entering from any direction slow down appropriately, looking both ways before proceeding, common sense trumping any rule of law. Consider this: in the four years I have been here, I have only once seen a car pulled over by a policeman. Only once. In four years. And I am not even sure that it was for a traffic offense; the driver’s car may simply have broken down and the cop stopped to help out. This set me to thinking, what portion of an average city budget in the US is comprised of traffic fines, because clearly Tokyo’s is next to nil. I Googled this pressing question and was greeted by the webpage of tiny Lincolnshire, IL, incorporated 1957, population 6108 as of the 2000 census. Would you care to guess how much of Lincolnshire’s revenue is derived from traffic tickets on an annual basis? $315,000 (per their website), about the same amount as would be generated if every Lincolnshire man, woman and child received a $50 ticket once a year, plus a bit more for parking violations. And get this, Lincolnshire is not even an egregious example. There are towns throughout the US that generate half their annual budgets (in some cases more) from issuing traffic tickets! 

Personally, I’d rather just pay my $50 “traffic infraction fee” annually, and not have to worry about coasting a stop sign at an empty intersection or going 40mph in a 35mph zone. I think a lot of folks would sign on for a plan like that; it would leave the cops available to deal with serious crimes instead of annoying and potentially dangerous traffic stops, and help with budget planning as well, a win-win for all concerned.

Rittererry Clitic, The Dawn of Whodunit?

November 10, 2009

After a number of years on the job, during which time I penned the preponderance of the BookPage mystery reviews, Lynn Green (who was either my editor or perhaps promoted to uber-editor by then) asked me one day what drew me to suspense novels. I joked that I had been weaned on the Hardy Boys books; she laughed and mentioned that the BookPage management team was considering doing a four-book monthly column devoted to mysteries, at least on a trial basis, and would I be interested in writing it? Four books a month, especially when working a forty-hour-per-week job, was a fairly serious commitment; it basically meant that all my pleasure-reading time would be absorbed by books for the column, so I decided early on that I wanted to read only the best books I could get my hands on, books I might actually (gasp!) pay my own money for (in some alternative reality). I was given remarkably free rein over what I chose; every month I would show up at the BookPage office to peruse the shelves containing the latest offerings. In any given month, there would be thirty or forty choices, from which I would tentatively choose four to review. I say “tentatively” because sometimes a book didn’t live up to its advance press, and I would need a backup selection in that case, so I always took more books than I could possibly review, erring on the side of wretched overkill. Also, I had to pay my monthly visit to the freebie shelves in the BookPage entry hall, just in case I had a little bit of extra reading time due to a sick day or vacation. Every thirty days or so I stuffed the trunk of my diminutive Honda to its limit with books, and soon my downstairs den began to take on the aspect of a small-town public library. I mean, how can you pass up a complete collection of reissues of Waugh, or a boxed set of The Chronicles of Narnia? Not to mention the travel books, business and management books for Cyndi, a pictorial history of steam locomotives, and a photo book of aerial views of Tennessee… In short, I became a book junkie. (Bruce: “Hi, I’m Bruce and I’m a bookaholic.” Group (in unison): “Hi-i-i-i, Bruuuuuce.”)

As with every job, there are days of drudgery punctuated by moments of magic. There are few highs (okay, few work-related highs) that equal interviewing a favorite author (Tony Hillerman, C.J. Box, Michael Connelly, and Janet Evanovich jump to mind) or introducing an unsuspecting public to a major new talent (Martin Limon, Timothy Hallinan, Attica Locke, Sean Chercover, Roger Smith, the English language debut of Jo Nesbo, William Monahan, Marcus Sakey, this list just goes on and on). Next month, in fact, I will be covering John Burdett’s The Godfather of Kathmandu. Title notwithstanding, it is the fourth of his atmospheric mysteries set in steamy Bangkok; his first, Bangkok 8, was the no-contest mystery of the month (and perhaps the year), summed up thusly: “Burdett’s command of the language is superb, and the book is intoxicating on every level, laced with expat insights into the contradictory and surreal milieu that is Bangkok.” I couldn’t have said it better myself.

Rittererry Clitic, The Middle Years, Batting Cleanup (Otherwise Known as “Read the Blog Entries in Reverse Order if You Want it to Make Sense”)

November 8, 2009

After getting my tenderfoot badge as a fledgling reviewer, the powers that be (or in this case, the powers that were) decided to take a chance on me with some one-off weird stuff, in addition to the one-book-per-month regular assignment. One time I remember well, my editor approached me and asked if I did any cooking. Not much, I allowed. “Good,” she said. “That’s just what we’re looking for. We have some cookbooks here and we want fifteen hundred words on how easy they are for a novice to understand and to use.” Well, I certainly qualified as a novice. BookPage ponied up some money to buy supplies, and we made the arrangements for me to stop by to pick up the books. It turned out that there were rather more than the five or six books I was expecting, something on the order of sixty more, as it turned out—two large post office bulk mail boxes full. Cookbooks for delectable cuisines from the four corners of the earth: Brazil, Burma, Portugal, Sweden, Mexico, Morocco, to name but a few. I settled on a Malaysian dish for my first outing, a pork tenderloin in a coconut milk, lime, chilli and cilantro sauce, served over jasmine rice (I could have done a taco salad, but I thought I might as well go for the brass ring). It would have been a smashing success but for one unanticipated consequence: after arriving home on the evening of my culinary debut and smelling the pungent aroma of the roasting pork, Cyndi said, “Okay, from now on, you’re the cook; I am officially retired!” Even now, that batch of cookbooks makes up the core of my cookbook collection, and I use them almost daily (check the pages for remnants of tomato sauce, vanilla extract, olive oil and other more arcane foodstuff remnants).

Three or four times a year, I would get one of these “extra” assignments. Another time it was a home improvement column, where I got to play Bruce “The Tool Man” Tierney, a pale imitation of humorist Tim Allen, although equally inept regarding all things tool. I perused and reviewed a large group of do-it-yourself books on subjects ranging from plumbing to deck construction. Fortunately, there was no budget allotted for my attempts to assemble, disassemble or repair anything around the house, which was just as well. Best to leave these things to the professionals.

Now firmly ensconced as clean-up batter, the one who could be relied upon to take on the oddball projects (to the best of my recollection, I never turned one down), I somehow became the go-to guy for reviewing travel guides and travel literature as well. For a journey junkie it is the best and the worst assignment ever: you get to read about exotic destinations the world over, but you are stuck in your office chair in Nashville. As you might imagine, this was another situation where no budget was allotted for research. I thought it would be kind of cool if BookPage had said, “Bruce, here’s a round trip ticket to (say) Denpasar. Would you take the Rough Guide to Bali with you, and see if it proves useful, and let your readers know how it compares to Lonely Planet and Frommer’s?” Didn’t happen. On the up side, when I was headed off to Bermuda, Turkey, Guatemala or wherever, I always put in an early request for books on those destinations, and then used them as the basis for reviews when the next travel “roundup” came due.

Stay tuned for part three:  the Dawn of Whodunit

Rittererry Clitic, the Early Years

November 8, 2009

Over the years, a number of people have asked how I came to write book reviews for BookPage, some of them just out of passing curiosity, others no doubt entertaining the secret notion of embarking down a parallel path, and hoping for sage advice (or a road map). I have always told the 45-second condensed version of the story, but recently a couple of folks have asked me for greater depth of detail, so here goes (give or take a lie or two): 

One of my good friends is author Michael Sims (Darwin’s Orchestra, Adam’s Navel, Apollo’s Fire). I knew him before he was “author” Michael Sims, or at least before the rest of the literary world knew him by that appellation. We first met when my ex-wife Cyndi, who managed the temporary employment agency at Vanderbilt University, hired him on as a temp. This would have been perhaps 1990 or thereabouts. Cyndi thought Michael and I might enjoy one another’s company, and indeed it turned out that we amused one another immensely. We were both a bit on the uppity side for Nashville (truth be told, we probably still are…), and we took unnatural delight in being the high-minded outcasts, especially now that we each had an appreciative audience for our dubious cleverness. One afternoon, and I am a little hazy on this part, either Michael phoned me to ask for a ride, or we were going somewhere else and he asked me to take a detour, so he could go to BookPage and pick up some books. “What’s BookPage?” I asked. He replied that it was a magazine for which he did some book reviewing, mostly weighty tomes on science or natural history (yawn…). Anyway, I agreed to serve as chauffeur, so the two of us headed over to the BookPage home offices adjacent to the Vanderbilt campus. 

Unsurprisingly, the place was overrun with books. Fiction, nonfiction, review copies, hard cover books, cookbooks, personal fitness books, Lonely Planet guidebooks, reference books of every stripe, religious texts, you name it, it was there. In the entry hall stood a pair of floor-to-ceiling bookcases crammed to overflowing with the newest releases. “Oh, those,” Michael said offhandedly as he made his way upstairs to meet with his editor. “Those are just for the taking, the stuff that nobody else wanted.” A quick perusal of the shelves turned up gems by John McPhee, Amy Tan, John Updike and the like. “Nobody wants these?” I thought. “I want them…” Michael interrupted my reverie by coming back downstairs with a double armload of books and his editor in tow. Her name was Ann Shayne (I didn’t just intuit this; Michael introduced us). He went on to mention that I did some writing as well (thankfully, he didn’t mention that the writing I usually did was in the nature of instructing physician office staff members how to get paid for insurance claims). Ann jumped at the bait. “Really? Because we have a book we are dying to have reviewed, and nobody to do it. Do you want to give it a try?” I believe the book was by Mary Morris, although I can’t seem to find it in the BookPage archives (that should give you some idea how long I have been doing this!), so don’t quote me on that. I took on the assignment, agonizing over every tiny detail, finally turning in something that undoubtedly looked like a tenth-grade book report, earnest and eager, likely to a fault. I still cringe at the thought. Apparently it was okay, though. A) It got published, and B) I got paid for it; and the following month, Ann phoned me to ask if I would like to do another one. Why not, I thought. It didn’t pay a lot, to be sure, but it did gain me unlimited access to those wonderful entry hall bookcases! 

Stay tuned for part two, the middle years, coming soon to a blog near you…

Second Bananas Redux

November 5, 2009

A short time back, when writing a blog column about second bananas, I mentioned Archie Goodwin, able bodied assistant to sedentary sleuth Nero Wolfe, the hero of a multitude of mid-century mysteries by author Rex Stout. Last year, Bantam put out a twofer reissue of Stout’s first Wolfe/Goodwin book, Fer-de-Lance, and the second, The League of Frightened Men. I have been reading it in my spare time, and admiring the pair of novels greatly for their cleverness, their patina of genteel aging, and the insightful introduction by contemporary mystery writer Loren D. Estleman. Estleman brought up a point he felt was central to the success of the series, and I found myself in strong agreement: “Series are seldom read in order. By the time the average reader discovers a continuing character the chronicle is usually well advanced, and except in the case of those dreary series whose titles are numbered prominently on the covers, he has no way of knowing at what point in the saga the book he has just acquired takes place. This can cause confusion, particularly if the next book he reads is an earlier entry in which the hero he knows as widowed appears with his wife, or having quit smoking and drinking is seen puffing and guzzling happily away with no explanation for his relapse. Rex Stout avoided this situation by the simple expedient of never changing his characters. The Nero Wolfe and Archie of A Family Affair, the 46th (and last) book in the epoch of West 35th Street, are essentially the same thought-and-action team we meet for the first time in Fer-de-Lance.” Remarkably, even in the first book, the reader gets the sense that Wolfe and Goodwin have quite the history, with the reader dropping in somewhere in the middle years, and that their relationship of curmudgeonly employer and smart-aleck factotum/narrator has been polished to a fine lustre over time.

The stories are told in the first person by Archie Goodwin, detective by trade but wiseacre by avocation, who takes an inordinate delight in poking fun at his portly and deskbound employer, occasionally to his face (albeit quite obliquely) but more often in the narrative (“He shook his head, moving it a full half-inch right and left, which was for him a frenzy of negation.”). A certain amount of sharp-edged badgering on Archie’s part is called for, to be sure; Wolfe abhors working, and requires constant reminders of the dwindling state of his finances in order to get him motivated to take a case. Left to his own devices, he would while away his time gourmandizing, tending his beloved orchids, and making cranky observations about the progress of technology (“I turn on the television rarely, only to confirm my opinion of it.”).

Many of the references to events or personages are quite dated, of course: the girls are compared in beauty to Greta Garbo rather than Scarlett Johansson; the high rollers drive not Rollers, but powerful Pierce Arrows; a pay phone costs a nickel (although that rises to a dime later in the series). That said, the prose is quite contemporary, and not at all stilted, an easy read for someone weaned on modern-day mysteries, particular those of the wisecracking first-person persuasion. If you think about it, it is a fairly short list of writers who manage to sound contemporary even when far removed from their time, particularly so in genre fiction which tends toward caricature much of the time. Rex Stout figures prominently among the small handful of mystery writers (along with fellow luminaries Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett and James M. Cain) who comprise that elite group.