The place to be in Japan if you just cannot live without a smork…

February 25, 2010

Smirking, however, is prohibited…

A Couple of Jonathans You Can’t Get Yet (Ya Gotta Wait ‘Til April)

February 25, 2010

Perennial favorite Jonathan Kellerman has to date sold some 40 million books, well over one million per title, on average. Forty million, that’s a four followed by seven zeroes. It is a hard number to get your head around. So, perhaps a bit of perspective is in order here: 40,000,000 represents a sufficient quantity of books to give every man, woman, and child in the state of California his or her own Kellerman novel to read, and that is using the 2008 census figures for the Golden State, before the economy predicated the mass exodus to more affordable locales. It is enough books to donate his entire oeuvre (twenty-five Alex Delaware novels, a few stand-alones, several non-fiction titles, and two children’s books) to each denizen of Philadelphia, and still have leftovers for a number of the Main Line suburbs. Or how about this: if you were to lay all forty million Kellerman books end to end along the shoulder of Interstate 80, they would reach all the way from Boston to Seattle–and back! Plus a bit of sightseeing if the mood strikes you. (I know some of my nerdy friends are going to have to do the math on this, just to see if I am blowing smoke, so here is the basic calculation: I-80 is 3020.54 miles each way, per Wikipedia, for a total of 6041.08 miles; each book is approximately 10 inches in height, or .83 feet; there are 5280 feet in a mile, or 6360 books, give or take, if you prefer; so, multiply 6360 books times 6041 miles, and you come up with 38 million and change, close enough for jazz, wouldn’t you say?)

Kellerman’s latest Alex Delaware novel, Deception (Ballantine; ISBN 9780345505679; 352pp; $28), should do its part to increase that total, as it is a cleverly crafted and suspenseful tale of blackmail and murder (and particularly grisly murder, at that) in LA’s tony enclave of Bel Air. There are plenty of good candidates for chief suspect in the killing of private school teacher Elise Freeman: her ne’er-do-well grifter boyfriend; or possibly the Hispanic scholarship student who claims she made unwanted advances in his direction; perhaps the pair of spoiled rich kids who counted on Freeman to help them ace their SATs, by hook or by crook. Oh, and let’s not forget the duo of sociopathic pole dancers who hover around the edges of the investigation, seemingly always one step ahead of the folks who want to interrogate them. Um, excuse me, I mean interview them. The kicker, though, is that Elise Freeman made a DVD before she died, in which she recounted a lurid tale of sexual predation and abuse at the hands of three coworkers; hmm, that muddies the waters a bit. Deception is much more focused on the plot, and less so on Delaware’s personal life, than some previous entries in the series, and it is in plot development that Kellerman excels. Forty million readers can’t be wrong, right?

Jonathan number two is Jonathan Stride, protagonist of Brian Freeman’s police novels set in the wilds of northern Minnesota. Freeman’s books have been well-placed on my short must-read list for several years now, since I reviewed his debut novel, Immoral, in the Whodunit column of BookPage magazine (, or available in libraries and bookstores throughout the US) close to five years ago: 

“Not since Blake Crouch’s chilling Desert Places has a debut mystery caused such a stir in the halls of BookPage as Brian Freeman’s Immoral. Set in Duluth, Minnesota, Immoral traces the path of a serial killer, a deviant with a taste for teenage girls. The most recent victim is Rachel Deese, by most accounts a rather arrogant and amoral young woman. There is no body on hand, but all indications are that she has met with foul play like young Kerry McGrath, who was killed some 14 months before. Lieutenant Jonathan Stride, a recent widower, is assigned to the case, along with his Chinese-American partner, Sergeant Maggie Bei. Stride is the world-weary veteran of the pair; Bei, for her part, is the wisecracking sidekick. The plot is cleverly crafted, with villains crawling out of the woodwork at every turn. Even the most recent victim is more than a little twisted; rarely has a crime novel casualty been more deserving of her fate. Though a suspect is arrested, his trial resolves little, and raises yet more questions. Fast-forward three years: Stride is now remarried, not entirely happily; petite Maggie Bei has married a retired Olympic swimmer. The scene switches to Las Vegas, and two more lead characters are introduced. Also, there is some compelling evidence that Rachel may not be dead after all. Or is she? Immoral is a slick and savvy offering and the best debut mystery in quite some time.”

Fast forward a couple of years, and Freeman reappeared with the third book in the series, Stalked.

“Two years ago, I reviewed Brian Freeman’s first novel, Immoral, calling it “a slick and savvy offering and the best debut mystery in quite some time.” The book went on to win the Macavity Award. This month, Freeman is back with the third in his series featuring Duluth cop Jonathan Stride, his live-in, ex-cop girlfriend Serena Dial, and his Asian-American partner Maggie Bei: Stalked. All three characters are fleshed out considerably in this latest outing, especially Maggie, whose lurid after-hours life is about to come under scrutiny in ways the average person cannot begin to anticipate. “Dead of winter” takes on a new meaning as Maggie awakens to discover a) that her gun is missing from the nightstand, and b) that it has been used to plant a bullet squarely into the forehead of her husband (with whom, it must be said, she has not been getting along of late). Maggie’s cop instincts take over quickly; she has seen more than her share of dead bodies in her years as a homicide detective. She phones Stride immediately, and both know it goes without saying that Maggie will be considered the prime suspect. But Maggie knows things Stride cannot even guess at, and their convoluted relationship is about to get exponentially more complicated. A couple of clever subplots ratchet up the tension, and the final conflict on the frozen waters of a Minnesota lake is nothing short of inspired—a perfect read for a freezing February night!”  

In the latest installment, The Burying Place (Minotaur; ISBN 9780312562748; 352pp; $24.99), Stride is recovering, and not particularly well, from a fall into icy water from a tall bridge. He came very close to dying, and now he’s not entirely certain what is left to live for. Academically, he knows he has a loving wife, a compelling job, and close friends, but he cannot seem to muster up strong feelings for any of them. And then a series of killings is followed up by the kidnapping of a young child, and like it or not, Stride is back in the game. And in the space of just 352 pages, his life will change dramatically, more than it has in the previous several books put together. The Burying Place is a bit  convoluted compared to earlier Freeman novels, and there are a couple of things I am still scratching my head about, but there is no doubt that it is a page turner par excellence, guaranteed to appeal to his regular readers and to draw in an admiring new crowd as well. 

Lost in Translation Once Again

February 21, 2010

Most likely, the literate crowd tuning in to my rants and raves here in Mysterious Orientations will be familiar with the 2003 movie Lost in Translation. This is a flick that resonates for me on several levels; in many ways, it parallels the story of my experiences in Japan.

For the few who might not know the film, it is about a semi-washed-up actor,  Bob Harris (Bill Murray), who goes to Japan to film a Suntory whisky commercial (for $2,000,000!; okay, this is one major area in which the narrative diverges dramatically from my life story…). In Tokyo he meets a young American woman at loose ends (Scarlett Johansson) and the two strike up a brief yet strangely intimate friendship, a pair of gaijin adrift in a city they cannot begin to comprehend. One of the fun things about the movie in its US iteration is that the Japanese language segments are not subtitled, leaving the non-Japanese speaker in much the same muddled frame of mind as the lead actor. So it was with a good deal of enthusiasm last night that I rented a Japanese DVD of Lost in Translation from my local video store Geo (pronounced “Gay-O”). My plan was to watch it with the Japanese-dubbed soundtrack supplemented with English subtitles, in anticipation of finally getting the unexpurgated translation of the Japanese-only parts of the movie that had gone straight over my head the last time around. The first such scene occurs as Harris is filming the Suntory TV spot (“For relaxing times, make it Suntory Time…”). The director gives him about three minutes’ worth of animated instructions, of which Harris naturally does not understand a word. His helpful but harried female translator listens carefully to the director’s protracted tirade, then turns to Harris and sums it up with “He wants you to turn…looking camera, okay?” Harris looks at her incredulously and asks, “That’s all he said? (pregnant pause…) Uh, okay, does he want me to turn from the right or the left?” The translator turns to the director, asks a lengthy question, and receives another drawn out response from the mercurial young fellow, a response laced with impatience and perhaps verging on anger. The flustered translator turns back to Harris and says “Um, right side…and with intensity.” “Is that everything?” Harris asks dubiously. “It seemed like he said quite a bit more than that.” A classic Bill Murray deadpan to the camera is followed by a resigned shrug; “Okay”, he says, and take one commences. It was an incomparably funny scene if you didn’t speak Japanese, so I could hardly wait to find out what was transpiring on the other side of the language barrier. No such luck, however; I guess it was intended that monolingual English speakers never be privy to that part, for while the rest of the movie’s Japanese soundtrack was appropriately subtitled, the director’s undoubtedly hilarious rant was conspicuously left untranslated, yet another facet of Lost in Translation forever lost in translation. Rats!

I was reminded of a (possibly apocryphal) story I read once about General Westmoreland, the commander of American forces in Vietnam in the final days of the war. At one point in his speech, he delivered a complicated anecdote, a joke of sorts, to an amassed crowd of Vietnamese dignitaries. His translator waited politely until Westmoreland had finished, then took his turn at the microphone; in no more than thirty seconds, he translated into Vietnamese a story that had taken several minutes in its original English. At the end, the crowd erupted in laughter and spontaneous applause. A short time afterward, at the reception, the general cornered the translator and asked how it had been possible to effect the translation so succinctly. The translator replied, “Ah, very easy: I simply said that the general had just told a joke; would everyone please laugh and applaud.” I’d have loved to see the expression on the good general’s face…

Separated at Birth

February 18, 2010

Sometime during my first week in Tokyo several years ago, I was walking down the street in Ikebukuro, a large west-side shopping district, when some random fellow came up to me, made a gun with his fingers, took careful aim at me and said “Hwah! Dubberoh-sebben!” I guess I must have done a double take (dubberu-take-u), because he laughed and said, “You—Jamesu Bondo-san!” Then I got it, and had a good chuckle (and, truth be told, I was more than a little flattered, even though I knew he was referring to the Sean Connery of white-bearded Indiana-Jones’-dad recent years, rather than the debonair young Connery of the Bond era). My companion of the day was enough younger that she didn’t know who Sean Connery was (sigh…); for her, Daniel Craig was James Bond. So, when we got back to my place, we looked up Sean Connery on Yahoo, and we were able to find a few images that bore some passing resemblance to me, especially if the viewer had 20/200 vision or was in the throes of substance abuse.

Less than a week later, the same friend and I were in Ueno, a totally different part of Tokyo, when an older couple approached us on the sidewalk. The man was grinning, animatedly pointing at me and apparently trying to convince his wife of something. They stopped us, and thanks to the help of my trusty friend and translator, it became apparent that they too thought I was Sean Connery. Or at least he did; I think for her the jury was still out.

Over the years, these chance Tokyo sightings of the Scottish actor became more frequent, and on several occasions, pretty amusing. Once I hastily scribbled an autograph for an older woman who spoke no English; she handed me a pen and paper, and she clearly wasn’t about to take no for an answer. I asked her name, one of the few phrases in Japanese that I knew at the time, and wrote: “For Setsuko, Best wishes…”, followed by an illegible scrawl of a signature that I hoped would pass either for Bruce Tierney or Sean Connery, should I ever be called on it.

In one memorable case, a seemingly deranged young guy approached me outside a restaurant, bowed deeply, and exclaimed in broken English: “John Connally, I am you bigmost fan!” (Who would have thought that a JFK-era Texas governor would have had such a following in Japan?) He then assumed a shooter’s stance, pointed two finger-guns in my direction, and started mouthing the staccato theme song from the opening credits of the Bond films. To top it off, when I went into the restaurant, he followed me in, secured an adjacent table, and then practiced his limited English on me for the next half hour. I didn’t get a lot of it, but I understood him to say that he liked Elic Crapton velly much. Eat your heart out, Mr. Crapton, because even though he likes you velly much, he is my bigmost fan.

So, I was getting pretty used to this by Christmas time, when I went to the See’s Candy shop in Omotesando to buy a US-sourced gift for a friend. I was wearing my favorite red lumberjack shirt, just the thing for the Tokyo winter when there is a bit of a chill in the air, but not quite cold enough to call for my leather bomber jacket. As I waited my turn in the line, a half-Japanese little girl of about four or so could not take her eyes off me. I smiled at her once, then looked away. When I glanced back, she was pulling at her father’s pants leg and pointing in my direction. Surely, this kid was not a Sean Connery fan? Her American father nodded in my direction, gave a grin of recognition, and came over. Here we go again, I thought. “Hi,” he said, “This is my daughter Emi; she wants to meet Santa Claus,” he said. Okay, that was not quite what I was expecting. Still, whether your job is secret agent or bringer of holiday gifts, it is critical that you stay in character. I smiled benevolently down at the winsome little face, and said, “So, Emi, have you been a good girl this year?”

The Informer; Craig Nova

February 15, 2010

It was not as if the scar really disfigured Gaelle; it actually made her face somehow erotically appealing. Perhaps it gave her a look of vulnerability, or possibly a slightly dangerous charm. Whatever the case, that allure could be counted on to draw customers and keep them coming back for more. By night, Gaelle sells the illusion of love to clients from all walks of life, often important men from the government or the military; by day, she peddles their secrets, often blurted out in the heat of passion, to whomever will pay the highest price. Neither line of endeavor could by any stretch be called safe, especially in the heady final days of the Weimar Republic, circa 1930.

On the other side of the law, Armina Treffen, a serious crimes investigator for the Berlin police department, is deep into the hunt for a serial killer who preys upon beautiful young women, strangling them and leaving their disfigured bodies on display in the Tiergarten, a favorite trysting place for illicit lovers. It is inevitable that Gaelle and Armina will collide; what neither can possibly envision are the far-reaching implications of that encounter.

This is the setup for Craig Nova’s complex and atmospheric novel, The Informer (Shaye Areheart Books; ISBN 9780307236937; 320pp; $26). It is only the setup, however, and just the bare bones at that, for there are many factors (and equally many factions) at work and play in 1930s Berlin, and Nova utilizes a wealth of them—the uneasy relationships between government and military, Communists and the fledgling organization that would ultimately become the Nazis; a policewoman working at what has traditionally been jealously guarded as a man’s job; the behind-the-scenes jockeying for position and power—all set against a backdrop of political upheaval and financial collapse.

Characteristic both of prewar Germany and the best suspense novels, betrayals abound, and one in particular will shock readers to the core. It is not giving away to much to say that many readers will happen upon the first act of treachery and say, “Aha, he wasn’t kidding,” only to be jolted by the second (and all succeeding) betrayals. Indeed, both Gaelle and Armina realize early on that they are in the soup well over their heads, with little notion of whom to trust or rely upon. Both will suffer costly lapses in judgment; one will live to regret it.

Fans of political thrillers will be in their element reading The Informer, and aficionados of the police procedural will be equally intrigued. Nova melds these two sub-genre forms seamlessly, and offers the added bonus of positioning them squarely in the middle of what was arguably the most complex and influential city of the Depression Era world, at a pivotal time in its history.

Happy New Year, 2008

February 14, 2010

Over the years, several of my relatives, friends and acquaintances have commented (sometimes kindly, sometimes less so) that I act younger than my chronological age. There has been some argument as to whether that springs from joie de vivre or simple immaturity; in the absence of any conclusive evidence, I prefer to go with the former. Two things are for sure: first, a sense of humor is key, and for better or worse, I can find humor in just about anything short of mass murder;  second, I can  be easily (maybe too easily) entertained by the most mundane things: street signs, t-shirts, refrigerators, car names, and the like. So, two years ago, I sent a New Year’s email to all and sundry, going on at some length about the wacky wonderfulness of Japan and its denizens. Here, at the urging of several friends, I have reprinted it in its entirety, complete with pics:

Hi everybody, and Happy New Year! One of my resolutions for 2008 (along with the perennially ignored weight loss rezzie) is to keep in better touch with friends and relatives, so to that end, I offer you my first missive of the year from the Mysterious East. 

It is lunchtime here, a bit before noon on January 1st; the illuminated ball has yet to drop at Times Square, but Yahoo News assures me that it is imminent. Apparently the new LEDs consume a buttload less energy than the previous incandescent bulbs; the electricity required is about the same as what it takes to power ten toasters. Some sixteen million hues are available from the 9000+ LEDs. Color me impressed! 

I have become something of a technology junkie since arriving in Japan, where a myriad of interesting toys exist for the consumer with a chunk of spare change. Last year, during the long-overdue remodel of my kitchen in Canada, I got what I thought was a high-tech refrigerator, a model made by Korean manufacturer LG. It has that “Euro” look, with the curved doors and reconfigurable layout; aesthetically, it is eons beyond the old Maytag it replaced. I was feeling pretty pleased about it until I saw the latest iterations of Japanese refrigerators, which up the ante considerably from anything available stateside. The name brands are all ones you would recognize, although not ones we typically associate with fridges: Hitachi, Sanyo, Mitsubishi, Sharp. One that I quite like, priced at around $1000, has six doors, including one that slides out like a vertically oriented drawer, and which is accessible from both sides, for storage of bottled drinks. Each of the compartments is separately configurable both for temperature and shelving, so if you need more freezer space this week while gearing up for the holidays, no problem, just dial the temperature down; afterwards, you can easily convert the compartment to refrigeration use once again. Best of all, the finish, which replicates stainless steel, is remarkably resistant to fingerprints, an attribute that true “stainless” steel cannot claim.

Another high point of Japanese technology is the lowly commode. In the US, whether you are in a cheesy public restroom, or in the bath suite of a multi-million dollar McMansion, the toilets are basically the same. Sure, there are price differences between the Home Depot cheapie and the designer label offerings, but virtually all American toilets include a) one tank, b) one bowl, c) one seat with cover, and d) one flushing mechanism, and precious little else. Not so in Japan. The charmingly named Toto offers all of the above, plus e) soft touch heated seat, f) automatic up and down of the seat and cover when it senses your approach, g) a pair of heated water jets for rinsing your private bits when you are finished, h) a vacuum-like affair that purportedly deals with untoward aromas, although I have not personally verified that, i) a computer-generated “gently burbling brook” sound that plays the entire time you are seated (I am not sure if this is to help set the mood, or to mask the sound), j) a pair of comfy armrests (and on upscale models, footrests as well), and to top it all off, a built-in sink at the top of the tank so you can rinse your hands with the water that refills the tank after flushing. Just don’t go in with a thick book; you could be gone for hours.

Photography is something of an obsession here, and I have fallen victim to its charms. My camera is very tiny, a Canon ELPH about half the size of a standard IPOD, but it takes passably good pictures. That said, I get serious lens envy every time I visit a park or a shrine, where absolutely everyone has a top-flight Canon or Nikon digital SLR with enough lenses, filters and ancillaries to bring out the inner Ansel Adams of a generation of modern Japanese. I make harumphing noises about the content being the most important part of photography, and how a simple Kodak Brownie camera is all that is needed for good pictures, but the sad fact is that I am hopelessly outgunned by any Japanese photographer over the age of five, and likely by several under that age. 

On the plus side, I amuse myself hugely by taking pictures of things that are largely invisible to Japanese photographers, namely, the unintentionally hilarious signs, product labels, t-shirts, etc., featuring hopelessly mangled English. At a park in Kyoto, for instance, a sign instructed me to “Be Careful of the Bee”. I guess it was not bee season, as I neither saw nor heard any evidence of said bee, but I can only imagine that he (or she) is truly fearsome, if someone felt it necessary to erect a sign about it. Another one I quite liked hung from a museum doorway: “KEEP OFF The Concerned Person Only”. I paid no attention, as I was not on the concerned person, as far as I could tell. In the hallway of my hotel was a map delineating the escape route, with the helpful advice: “Take the low posture with muffled breathing”. Probably my favorite, although such a choice is extremely difficult, is a t-shirt with some pointed commentary about romance novels. On the front it said: “GOTHIC A Little Bit And Avoided The Romance Books”. On the back, well, you will have to have a look at the attached picture, which is worth the proverbial 10-cubed words.

Another minor, but exceptionally cute, Japanese butchery of the English language comes from the misunderstanding of the use of the present participle, a perfectly easy mistake to make, but most humorous in its consequences. Typically, if you are doing something now, you would say, for instance, “I am walking to the store”, or “I am watching tv”. So far, so good. Under no circumstances would you say “I am walked to the store” or “I am watched tv”, right? So, when my friend Sayaka took her first eagerly anticipated ride in a convertible car, she gushed, quite reasonably, “I am so exciting!” Now, most folks who meet Sayaka would agree that she is fairly exciting, I imagine, but still, it doesn’t do to toot your own horn too loudly. The converse of this, of course, is that depressing state of mind in which nothing appears interesting, when you just cannot seem to get motivated, when you want to heave a sigh and say, “I am so boring”. Perhaps the best variation on that theme was the occasion when my friend Saki commented on my cheesecloth memory: “Bruce, you are so forgettable”. 

A few random notes that didn’t fit anywhere else:

1) Until recently, my favorite Japanese car name was the Mazda Bongo Frendee, which narrowly edged out the Honda Life Dunk and the Toyota Ractis. Now, however, the ante has been upped: I just came across a delivery truck called the Mitsubishi Guts. How will I ever beat that?

2) The Japanese name for guys who perform the dreaded combover to cover their bald spot is “bar code man”. Think about it.

3) Auld Lang Syne, sung the world around at this time of year, can be heard daily in Japan; it is the music played to let customers know that stores are closing. It is titled “Hokaru no Hikari”, which translates roughly to “Glow of a Firefly”. The lyrics tell of a student facing hardships in his studies, reading by the light of fireflies when no other light is available. I got to thinking about the song, whose English words usually escape me after “Should auld acquaintance be forgot…”, and looked up the lyrics on Wikipedia. There I found the Garrison Keillor addendum, which should be permanently appended to the lyric sheet:

“I think of all the great, high hearts I had when I was young / And now who are these sad old farts I find myself among”. 

Benediction: May the peaceful spirit and kind intentions of the season be with you, and may you find surprise and delight in the offerings of the new year.

 All the best,   BT

ADDENDUM: I found this place recently, and I don’t even want to guess what goes on in there…

Breathing Lessons, the Healthcare Debate Revisited

February 12, 2010

What with all the brouhaha about healthcare in the US, or more precisely, access to affordable healthcare in the US, I would like to share an eye-opening (and nose-opening, for that matter) personal experience with healthcare in Japan. Each year in early spring, as the plum blossoms explode in a riot of snow-white all over Tokyo, my nasal passages go on strike, refusing passage to even the tiniest trickle of life-giving oxygen. Naturally, when this happens, I take to breathing through my mouth, at which point my throat becomes dry as paper, prompting endless coughing which is rendered “productive” (a medical term which apparently means “viscous”) by prodigious post-nasal drip. This is then followed by a sore throat and aching chest muscles. And, just about the time the final blossoms drop from the plum branches, the cherry trees burst forth in a crescendo of, well, cherry pink, and the whole process repeats itself. For four or five weeks, assuming that I seek no treatment, I look like a zombified drug addict with a bad head cold, and feel as though I am on the verge of pneumonia, or at least what I perceive the verge of pneumonia to feel like.

So, last spring, bleary-eyed and sleep-deprived from allergy, I decided to seek the help of a professional. Before departing for the Mysterious East, I had purchased a travel insurance policy, having been duly warned about the ridiculous expense of healthcare in the Rest Of The World. So, with my trusty policy tucked into my backpack, and a list of English speaking doctors in metro Tokyo, I embarked on the search for a primary care physician who could either treat my allergies or refer me to a specialist. “What is a primary care physician?” one of my friends asked. “You know, like a GP,” I replied patiently. Clearly that was not on her program, and she phoned an ear/nose/throat specialist she had visited on occasion as a child. It turned out he was still in business, and so I asked her if I could make an appointment. No, as it turned out. I could not. Because he didn’t take appointments—you simply walked in anytime during his office hours, and he would see you on a first come, first served basis. Wait a minute, you can do a walk-in to see a specialist? What color is the sky in this strange world?

Later that afternoon, with my friend in tow as translator, I turned up at the doctor’s office, filled out some abbreviated paperwork, and hunkered down for the long wait to see the doctor. Except that it wasn’t a long wait at all; it was only about ten minutes. The nurse ushered me into the doctor’s office, and efficiently dealt with the preliminaries: blood pressure, temperature, was I allergic to any medicines (“No, basically all I seem to be allergic to is Japanese flora…”). Moments later the doctor stepped in, and it turned out that he even spoke pretty decent English. “Looks bad,” he opined drily. He stuck a couple of probes a short distance up my nose, and then twiddled some dials on a magical machine that released the elixir of life into my clogged nostrils. Almost immediately, I could breathe again. It was amazing; I want to buy the home version! I was kept on this fine machine for about twenty minutes, during which time the doctor devoted his entire attention to me; no other patients intruded. Then I was directed to a second machine, where more tubes were put into my nose, and a gentle clean aroma, like cool mountain air, wafted its way toward my brain, clearing out passages that had been sealed off for decades, as nearly as I could figure.

All in all, I spent the better part of an hour in the specialist’s inner sanctum, roughly half of it face to face with the good doctor, to the exclusion of anyone else. When it was all over, he handed me prescriptions for four medicines: eye drops for the smoldering orbs, antihistamines for breathing relief, a strong decongestant, and a nose spray to be used just before bedtime. I went to the front office to pay the bill, having liberated about $500 from my bank account, just in case. The office lady went over the bill, clucking and murmuring in Japanese, then pushed the form across the desk to me: 7900 yen. About $70 at the time, and that included all four prescriptions! Really? Really. A visit to a specialist, with no appointment, a half-hour’s face time with the doctor, two breathing treatments, and four prescriptions, all for $70. Oh, and I never even turned it in to the insurance company, so this was the price for a totally uninsured patient!

How can they do it? No idea. Why can’t we do it? Once again, no idea. But one thing that is quite definitely the case: in a city widely regarded as the most expensive on the planet, reasonably priced medical care is available on a moment’s notice, even to the uninsured. How cool is that?

Epilogue: two weeks later, I needed a follow-up visit, so I went back and repeated the whole routine (see above), including refills of the scrips, and this time it cost only 2900 yen ($25), as I had already done the time-consuming (ten minutes) and expensive (fifty bucks) initial paperwork. I didn’t turn that one in to my insurance company either.

Debut Thriller—Conor Fitzgerald’s The Dogs of Rome

February 10, 2010

One of the great pleasures of a book reviewer’s life (this book reviewer, at any rate) is the opportunity to introduce new talent to the mystery-reading public. Problem is, there is some expectation (and understandably so) that upcoming works by bestselling writers will get ink, and there is only so much room each month in the print edition of BookPage ( Solution: I have no such limitations here, and so I would like to take this occasion to showcase the debut of Conor Fitzgerald in The Dogs of Rome (Bloomsbury; ISBN 9781608190157; 400pp; $25.00; March 2010). The series opener, which takes place in the Italian capital, features world-weary Police Commissario Alec Blume. Blume, you say? Um, that doesn’t sound like an Italian name—and indeed it isn’t, for Blume is an American expat, though a longtime resident of Rome, who has built a career for himself as the city police force’s token Yank. Note: this is a career path not terribly dissimilar to author Fitzgerald’s: born in England, lived in Ireland and the US, now resident in Rome since the late 1980s.

The tale opens with the brutal murder of the husband of a Roman senator, stabbed to death in his apartment shortly after his mistress has left the premises, and shortly before his wife and son arrive home from Padua. The senator is well connected, as senators often are, and she makes it clear at the outset that she intends to drive the investigation in the direction she wants it to go, or at least so it seems to the beleaguered Commissario Blume. The thing is, the whole scenario proposed by the Senatrice and her police force go-to guys seems just a little too pat for Blume, so he conducts his own under-the-radar investigation while ostensibly following the leads offered up by the powers that be. Blume pokes one hornet’s nest after another, probing for guilty reactions; what he does not entirely expect is how expendable he is, both to the criminal element of Rome (who clearly have no compunctions about taking a police officer off the playing field) and his own superiors, who are much too busy pandering to the politicians and covering their own broad bottoms to have a great deal of concern for the safety of a too-nosy police officer.

Blume is a well drawn character, sleep-deprived, occasionally cranky, sharp tongued, by times insecure—in other words, quite human. The story is rapidly paced and thoroughly believable, particularly to anyone who is skeptical that politics and justice can coexist in one arena. Fitzgerald deftly displays the expat’s conundrum (a situation with which I have some familiarity): the expectation that you will stand out (hopefully in a good way) paired with the reality that you will always be a foreigner, no matter how long you stay, no matter how well you absorb the language and culture. Well done! I am looking forward to installment two.

The Puns That Would Not Die, Tom Swifties Yet Again

February 7, 2010

“Can you direct me to the men’s room?” Tom asked gently.

“I seem to have set the rear of the attic aflame,” Tom fired back loftily.

“Henry VIII was very fat,” said Tom unthinkingly.

“It will have to wait until the leap year,” he said lackadaisically.

“The cat seems happy now that he’s been fed,” said Tom purposefully

“Phone call for Mr. Greene,” the waiter said forlornly.

“I didn’t intend to send that telegram twice!” she said remorsefully.

“I’ve never had a filling,” she said precariously.

“Why, I’d love some Chinese soup,” he said wantonly.

“You are so much bigger than you were the last time I saw you,” he said gruesomely.

“It seems to have made the grass wet,” he said after due consideration.

“Thanks so much, Monsieur,” he said mercifully.

And my two favorites for the week:

“Who was the Vice President under Bill Clinton?” he asked allegorically.

“Once upon a time there was a beautiful princess,” he began grimly.

Note: Please feel free to send along any good ones you run across. I will publish the ones that are not too racy, and undoubtedly have a good laugh at the ones that are.



Grocery shopping in Japan

February 6, 2010

I take my camera with me everywhere in Japan; for this reason, I carry a tiny Canon point-and-shoot, rather than the “my-lens-is-bigger-than-yours” SLR camera that shouts “TOURIST GEEK” in capital letters. (I have one of those, mind you, for those times when I want to be obnoxiously creative, snapping close-ups of flower petals or nose hairs or some such, but it doesn’t travel with me unless I have a car at my disposal.) Today, I went shopping for cookie fixings; I have had a hankering for chocolate chip cookies for a couple of days, and I was missing a couple of the key ingredients (chocolate chips and baking soda, in case you were wondering). As Japanese supermarkets offer a seemingly endless assortment of weird and wonderful products, I often find myself wandering aimlessly up one aisle, then down another, to see what new oddities I can unearth. For example:

When you're in a snack mood, howzabout a Cream Collon?

Or how about these Moony Man disposable diapers, each variation featuring a different baby, each with a distinctly different attitude:

That last one is my personal favorite; the kid seems to be saying “So what did you expect, potty training awready? I’m only a year old, for heaven’s sake!”

A while back, a friend of mine, Al Brandt, told me a story that had me in hysterics. I may have a detail or two wrong, but this is the gist of it: Another friend, Bob Berg, had come to Tokyo, and Al agreed to serve as Bob’s guide around the city, showing him things he’d never have found easily, if at all, on his own. Bob, quite grateful, offered to take Al out for drinks. Al demurred, citing a prior engagement, upon which Bob asked if there was anything else he could do by way of appreciation. “Well,” Al replied thoughtfully, “You could buy me a cantaloupe.” A cantaloupe? Well, it turned out that Al had been craving a cantaloupe for a while, and just had not gotten around to getting one. Bob, for his part, thought he was getting off quite lightly, considering that he had planned on springing for at least a couple of rounds of drinks. “Hell,” he said magnanimously, “I’ll buy you two cantaloupes.” Al grinned contentedly, knowing full well what was about to transpire, and they headed off together to the supermarket. I will leave you to imagine what happened; have a look at the picture below, and be sure to note the price (the yen-to-dollar exchange rate is about 90-to-1…)

For the mathematically challenged, the 6500 yen cantaloupe pictured here runs about $72 US!