Tea Party in Japan

April 29, 2010

Here in Japan we’re all about the tea. Every neighborhood has a tea shop, typically a mom-and-pop operation, devoted to the brewing and drinking of teas from all corners of the world. Hot teas, cold teas, green teas, black teas, herbal teas, medicinal teas, you name it, they’ll have it. There are tea magazines, at least one tea newspaper, and countless books devoted to Asia’s favorite beverage. So it should come as no surprise that when the Tea Party movement began its groundswell movement in the US, Japan sat up and took notice. A Tea Party, wow, how cool is that? Every nightly news program featured conservative talking heads, quoting pithily (and seemingly endlessly) in English, with a Japanese narrative overlaid by the news anchors. There was precious little tea in sight, but presumably it would be served later…at the Party (with a capital “P”).

What was plainly visible, however, was the broad array of disgruntled Americans (or as one wag quipped: “the array of disgruntled broad Americans”), many of whom bore signs airing their particular grievances with the system. And clearly there could be no argument that the system had failed many of these folks, particularly in the education department, and most acutely in the area of spelling. You know how we Westerners always get such a belly laugh out of Asian mangling of English? I think someone could make a fortune printing some Tea Party slogans on T-shirts and selling them in Japan (note: these can all be seen on YouTube, reruns of Jimmy Kimmel, and all over the net, by simply typing into your favorite search engine the words “tea party misspelling”):

“Stundents for McCain and Palin” (this would be a great T-shirt with a Beavis/Butthead logo)

“No Pubic Option” (It’s possible this isn’t misspelled; maybe this is really what they’re so worked up about…)

“I Am Joe the Plummer” (with a head shot of Christopher Plummer)

“Impeah Obama” (as we all know, she meant “impish”)

“Amensty” (with a red circle/slash, indicating that the sign bearer was against it; another sign bearer weighed in against “Amnety”)

“Liberials Are Stealing My Liberty” (I think it should be Liberians, or perhaps Librarians)

“Make English America’s Offical Language” (and by all means let’s start at home)

“English Is Our Language, No Excetions, Learn It” (Amen, brother)

“Get a Brain, Morans” (that just works on so many levels, I scarcely know where to begin…)

“My furture is in your hands!!!” (maybe he means his furniture?)

 “No More Taxs” (I’d like to buy a vowel…)

“Remember Descent, the Highest Form of Patriotic” (I think it should be “patriocity”)

For these and more, here are some links; the first one in particular is hilarious, set to the tune of Sam Cooke’s hit “Wonderful World” (“Don’t know much about history, don’t know much biology, don’t know much about science books…”)

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PZoq3gPTgnE&feature=related

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-qSMWTgLPuA

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ekGhQnXYjgE&feature=related


A flash from the past: Mabel Seeley

April 26, 2010

In the pantheon of venerated mystery writers, Mabel Seeley does not loom large nowadays, although her books are enjoying something of a resurgence in popularity, thanks to the efforts of the Afton Historical Society Press, based in the bustling metropolis of Afton, Minnesota, population 2839.

Seeley was a Minnesota-born writer, who published seven (or ten, depending upon which source you care to credit) critically acclaimed (and strong-selling) mysteries over a period spanning from the late 1930s until the early 1950s. Her fourth book, 1941’s The Chuckling Fingers, reportedly won the Mystery of the Year award, although a moderately intensive search to verify that claim has not proven fruitful. She went on to become an early member of the Mystery Writers of America, and served on its first board of directors. Then, in 1954, she met the man who would become her second husband, lawyer Henry Ross, and retired abruptly from her literary career. Years later, Ross was asked why Seeley had stopped writing. His reply: “She married me. Writing is hard work…and she liked being married better.”

Her mysteries were typically set in the towns and rural areas of Minnesota, or occasionally in towns in “the Midwest”, which could easily be Minnesota as well, of course. There is a bit of the gothic to her work, but it is overlaid with a heartland sensibility that tempers it enough that even hardboiled mystery fans will enjoy her writing. That said, she became associated with the dreaded “Had I But Known…” school of fiction, as her main character often starts out by reflecting on a series of events that transpired not according to plan. And, although you don’t often hear the words “atmospheric” and “Minnesota” in the same sentence, Seeley breathes a moody and distinctive energy into the North Star State (which, by the way, was the Gopher State in a previous incarnation). Consider this snippet from the first chapter of The Crying Sisters:

“Agreeing to go. There’s no getting away from the fact that I went to that resort of my own free choice. Even when I chose I knew something was hidden under the surface of what was offered me. I went of my own volition into those days when I heard death crying in the night, when I saw it indicated by a plantain leaf and discovered in a plaything, when I saw it rising in a muddy bundle from the lake. The time was to come when I felt myself living in the very house of death and eating at its table. And in the end . . .”

Mabel Seeley titles in print include The Beckoning Door, The Crying Sisters, The Chuckling Fingers and The Whistling Shadow, although several others are readily available at used bookstores and online. This may be difficult to envision, but Seeley neatly splits the difference between, say, Agatha Christie and C.J. Box; her novels have a period flavor, without a doubt, but a much more modern vibe than their chronological age might suggest.


Stieg Larsson

April 22, 2010

Like most readers, I don’t always get to read series novels in the order they were written. Sometimes I happen upon a new (to me) author who is actually on his third or fourth book. Then, if he/she is good, I want to acquire and read the entire back catalogue, and as soon as possible while the current book is fresh in my mind. The problem, of course, with starting somewhere in the middle of the writer’s oeuvre is that often oblique references are made regarding events that took place earlier in the series, leaving the reader trying to make connections.

Such is the case with Stieg Larsson, whose Millennium Trilogy I started in the middle, with The Girl Who Played With Fire, which was Mystery of the Month in the BookPage Whodunit column that I wrote for August 2009:

In a month filled with extraordinarily good mysteries, Stieg Larsson’s The Girl Who Played With Fire stands apart from the crowd, a hip post-modern tale of a crusading journalist and an inordinately talented computer hacker caught up together in the aftermath of a lurid murder. Lisbeth Salander, a troubled young woman who can play a computer the way Tommy Emmanuel can play an acoustic guitar, has used her talents, quite illegally and untraceably, to make herself a wealthy woman. It should almost be the happily-ever-after end of the story, except that her fingerprints have been found on a gun used to kill a pair of researchers on the eve of their publication of an expose on sex slavery in Scandinavia.

Respected journalist Michael Blomqvist doesn’t think Salander had anything to do with it. He had a relationship with her some time back, and he knows all too well what she is capable of—or more importantly, what she is not capable of. Blomqvist’s relationship with Salander ended badly, and she doesn’t trust him any further than she can spit, but with or without her help, Blomqvist intends to clear her name, and perhaps in the process figure out just what went wrong between the two of them. Blomqvist’s only ally is an elderly hospitalized man of limited communication capacity, Salander’s onetime advocate. Together, the men launch a investigation parallel to the official one, an investigation without the foregone conclusions that seem to characterize the police work in the case.

Salander is an edgy character, more than a little reminiscent of Robert Eversz’ punk photographer/detective Nina Zero; Blomqvist, for his part, is an urbane mix of relentless researcher and firebrand reformer, always stirred, never shaken. The Girl Who Played With Fire is their second outing together; their first, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, should be on your “do not miss” short list as well.

I grabbed a copy of the first book in the series, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, within days of finishing The Girl Who Played With Fire, shelling out an obscene amount of money for the hard cover version (no paperback was available) at a Tokyo bookstore (English language hard cover books run double to triple US cover prices in Japan; aarrgh!). I plowed through it inordinately quickly, frequently referring to the second book for clarification of some obscure (to me) point in the first book. And then I waited for Larsson to write the third episode, what would turn out to be the final volume of the series. For what I did not know at the time, was that Larsson was no longer writing; in fact, he had died five years earlier, shortly after submitting the three completed manuscripts to a Swedish publisher. He would never see the worldwide phenomenon his books would become (27 million books in print thus far, and counting…).

Larsson’s own story is, if anything, even stranger than his fiction: he was a crusading liberal journalist, not unlike his Trilogy protagonist, Mikael Blomqvist. He was a noted political activist, and founder of the Swedish Expo Foundation, established to counteract the growth of white-power culture among young people. No stranger to death threats, Larsson declined to marry his long-time partner, Eva Gabrielsson, because Swedish law required that the addresses of marriage applicants be posted publicly, and this would have posed an unacceptable security risk. Even in death, Larsson remains embroiled in controversy: his original will, which left his estate to the Communist Workers League, was declared invalid, a result of the fact that it had not been properly witnessed. Thus, his entire estate, including future royalties from his books, went to his father and brother, with whom he reportedly had limited contact. Larsson’s partner has petitioned to gain control of his work, in order that it might be presented in the way the author would have wanted. Among Larsson’s effects were an unfinished manuscript of what would have been the fourth novel of the series, as well as synopses of the fifth and sixth.

A note: the final Larsson book, The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest, will go on sale in the US in July, 2010. Not to give too much away here, but it will not be the BookPage Mystery of the Month. The reason for this is that it will be featured in a stand-alone review, rather longer and more in-depth than usual; it is well deserved.

Here’s how it looks in different editions around the world:

US Edition

UK Edition

Portuguese Edition

French Edition


Clash of the Titans, Redux; a few areas in which North America has it all over Japan

April 21, 2010

A while back, I wrote a column in Mysterious Orientations entitled “A few areas in which Japan has it all over North America”, and I promised to give the New World its props at a later date. Well, that later date has arrived, so here goes:

1)    The size of a normal unit of housing relative to its counterpart in the Land of the Rising Sun: I don’t know anyone in the US who has an apartment as small as my current digs in Japan. Certainly I have never had one this small in North America; hell, I have never had a garage this small. How small is it, you ask? Well, it would fit in its entirety into the kitchen and dining room of my house in Canada, with enough room left over for a coat closet. That said, it is well decked out with storage nooks and high-tech configurable walls, but there is no substitute for square feet (or meters, if you prefer), in my estimation. And this place is a veritable castle compared to my first Tokyo apartment, which was just over 200 square feet plus a small sleeping loft accessible only by an aluminum ladder, big fun in the middle of the night when nature often calls out in earnest to its middle-aged denizens. (If you cannot imagine what it might be like to live in a 200-square-foot place, think of a small to medium motor home, and you would not be far off.) In Canada, I sleep in a king-sized bed, and even the guest room has a cushy queen-sized pillow-top awaiting visitors. Here in Japan, I have what is laughably called a “semi-double”, roughly the size of an American twin bed; this is considered normal for a couple. A single bed is considerably smaller, suitable only for Lilliputians and Munchkins, and only one of those at any given time. For guests, and there have been a remarkable number of them over the past few years, there are a couple of Japanese-style futons, essentially padded sleeping bags, which get laid out on the living room floor for the duration of the visit, then put away again into vacuum sealable bags until the next time. 

2)    The use of the automobile as a regular transportation device: I have not only one, but two cars awaiting me at home, steadily depreciating in the garage, to be sure, but staying in pretty much immaculate condition due to the low number of miles put on them in the run of a year. And more important, they are ready at a moment’s notice to take me to whatever out-of-the-way location I might choose to visit, places well off the beaten track of public transport. In Prince Edward Island I use the car for virtually every movement outside the confines of my house, sometimes (I am ashamed to say) even for the ¼ mile journey to the end of my driveway for the mail. There is a certain Wild West kind of freedom in being able to strike out in search of new frontiers, to cruise the “blue highways” like a 21st century Kerouac. There is no comparable feeling in Japan. There are cars, to be sure, but gas is pricey ($6 a gallon or so), the highways are all toll roads (the toll from Tokyo to Osaka, about 300 miles, is a whopping $120; for one person, it is actually cheaper to take the train!), and the ancillary expenses (parking, insurance, etc) are on the high side as well. The public transport system is so good that many people who can afford a car simply don’t bother, but the corollary to this is that they never get to visit the truly remote areas, perhaps the last remnants of old Japan. It’s kind of sad, in a way, or it would be, if one knew what one was missing. 

3)    Cookies: In the US, at a typical grocery store, you can find a dozen different types of tea, and perhaps 100 different varieties of cookies. In Japan, those numbers are reversed. Even the most basic Tokyo supermarket will have teas of every exotic stripe: jasmine tea, milk tea, lemon tea, sweet tea, orange tea, camomile tea, mint tea (several kinds: spearmint, peppermint, choco-mint), spiced tea, cinnamon tea, crispy rice tea, green tea, black tea, red tea, pepper tea (!), and on and on. For cookies, there are Oreos, Ritz Crackers, Chips Ahoy, and a number of strange Japanese varieties, filled with red bean paste, glutinous rice or something else equally tasty (and believe me, those are every bit as yummy as they sound!). That’s it. There is something fundamentally out-of-synch (to Westerners, at least) with a store where the varieties of fish sausage, pickled daikon, and konyaku handily outnumber the kinds of cookies on offer (on the other hand, it likely speaks volumes about the comparative health and low incidence of obesity of the Japanese). Nonetheless, when I come back to the US, I am going to stock up with a summer’s worth of Vienna Fingers, Nutter Butters, Lorna Doones, and Ginger Snaps (I have really been jonesing for ginger snaps). I imagine I will have to share them with my Japanese friends who will visit over the summer; perhaps they will return to Japan more, um, well-rounded then when they left.


Lies, Damn Lies, and Statistics

April 19, 2010

A saying often attributed to Mark Twain goes: “There are three kinds of lies: lies, damn lies, and statistics.” (Twain, interestingly, attributed the quote to Benjamin Disraeli.) I found myself wondering about the third variety of lie a few days ago as I watched a series (as opposed to a group) of pre-school-aged kids riding the Tokyo subways on their own, during the morning rush hour, no less. These four- and five-year-olds were engaged, for the most part, in more or less the same activities as their adult co-riders: listening to iPods, sleeping, or reading comic books (albeit of a slightly less graphic nature than the adult versions). From the lack of wonderment or excitement on their faces, it was clear that this was an everyday occurrence in their young lives. In the US, if you let your kids ride big-city subways without adult supervision, you would likely face charges of child neglect or endangerment, if not outright child abuse. So this got me to thinking: are kids really safer in Japan than in other places? Are Japanese parents lax in attending to the needs of their children? Or are Americans simply wildly paranoid nowadays, seeing danger where there is little or none? Surely there must be some statistics about this, right? Well, yes and no; it turns out there are a number of variables, not the least of which is different measurements of what constitutes child endangerment (see above example). Still, I was able to glean some interesting stats:

1)    It turns out that Sweden has the world’s lowest child-injury mortality rate, and Japan is well down that list with regards to the developed world, number 18, to be exact.

2)    There are some correlations to be drawn from this, as Japan has a higher incidence of drowning deaths, for instance, coupled with much deeper bathtubs than those used in Sweden; also, choking deaths are far more common in Japan, perhaps a result of dining tables being lower, thus providing easier access to curious youngsters; traffic deaths are rather more prevalent as well, perhaps because mothers often ride bicycles with one or two kids aboard, usually sans helmet.

3)    So, by most measures, it would seem that kids are no safer in Japan than in many other places, but still the parents, on the whole, are nowhere near as paranoid as their stateside counterparts. It seems that the statistics don’t hold them in thrall nearly to the degree that they do Westerners.

Another interesting use of statistics began in the late 1980s as promoters of safe sex (or in some cases, promoters of no sex at all) cited evidence of rising cases of HIV and AIDS worldwide, thereby attempting to influence a generation of young adults to adopt abstinence, monogamy and/or the use of condoms as disease preventatives. The truth of the matter, if you run the numbers, is that today there are fewer than 1,100,000 HIV-positive people in the US, according to the Center for Disease Control. If you accept the census figures that there are some 250,000,000 people in the US, then your chances are in the neighborhood of 1-in-250 that any potential sex partner might be a carrier. If you restrict your partners to non-gay and non-intravenous drug users, that number slides to fewer than 1-in-500. (In fact, only 13% of American men who are HIV-positive acquired the disease via sex.) So, although I am not suggesting or condoning this, the raw statistics indicate that you could merrily (and more or less randomly) engage in unprotected sex for the remainder of your natural life, with a statistically insignificant chance of a lethal outcome. This is a markedly different interpretation of the statistics than that offered by those with a more personal stake in the controversy.

Smoking? Here’s another example. While everyone agrees that smoking is a leading cause of lung cancer, and that 90% of people who die of lung cancer are current or ex-smokers, the numbers begin to get a bit hazy after that. A quote from webmd.com:

“A 51-year-old woman who smoked one pack per day for 28 years before quitting nine years earlier had a less than 1% chance of developing lung cancer in the next 10 years. But a 68-year-old man who has smoked two packs a day for 50 years and was still a smoker has a one in seven chance (15%) of getting lung cancer in the next decade.”

So basically, a guy who has smoked heavily for his entire adult life, and is still smoking, has a less than 15% chance of developing, let alone dying from, lung cancer! The cigarette companies should be trumpeting this statistic from the rooftops: “Smoke two packs a day for life, and you still have an 85% chance of never getting lung cancer!” Once again, I am not condoning smoking, nor am I a smoker myself. I just think that people with agendas to promote don’t necessarily have your best interests at heart, so I am simply suggesting crunching the numbers for yourself pretty much anytime somebody tries to use statistics on you to support their point of view, and see how your risk/reward tally balances out.


It’s Edgar Time!

April 14, 2010

On the 29th of April, the Edgar Awards banquet will take place at the Grand Hyatt Hotel in New York City. The “Edgar” is actually short for the Edgar Allan Poe Awards, honoring “the best in mystery fiction, nonfiction and television”, now in its 64th year. It has been 201 years since E.A. Poe came to visit Planet Earth for an all-too-brief stay (he died at age 40). He left behind some of the early classics of suspense fiction: The Purloined Letter; The Murders in the Rue Morgue; and The Tell-Tale Heart, to name but a few of many.

It should come as no surprise, then, that his namesake awards have honored the best and the brightest in the world of suspense fiction for the last six decades and more; past Grand Masters include: Robert B. Parker, Joseph Wambaugh, P.D. James, Ruth Rendell, Ed McBain, Daphne du Maurier, Ross Macdonald, John D. MacDonald, Alfred Hitchcock, Rex Stout, and Agatha Christie (and I am just scratching the surface here).

Each year, an Edgar is given for Best First Novel, and once again, it is a star-studded list. Past winners include: The Black Echo, Michael Connelly; Postmortem, Patricia Cornwell; When the Bough Breaks, Jonathan Kellerman; Fletch, Gregory McDonald; The Anderson Tapes, Lawrence Sanders; Friday the Rabbi Slept Late, Harry Kemelman; A Time for Predators, Joe Gores; and A Kiss Before Dying, Ira Levin (and, as noted above, once again I am just touching on the highlights).

For 2010, the nominees for Best Novel are: The Missing, Tim Gautreaux; The Odds, Kathleen George; The Last Child, John Hart; Mystic Arts of Erasing All Signs of Death, Charlie Huston; Nemesis, Jo Nesbo; and A Beautiful Place to Die, Malla Nunn.

For Best First Novel by an American Author: The Girl She Used to Be, David Cristofano; Starvation Lake, Bryan Gruley; The Weight of Silence, Heather Gudenkauf; A Bad Day for Sorry, Sophie Littlefield; In the Shadow of Gotham, Stephanie Pintoff; and Black Water Rising, Attica Locke.

In all fairness, I have not read all of these, but three among them were, in my opinion, absolutely first-tier, and I wish their authors all the best: Nemesis, A Beautiful Place to Die, and Black Water Rising. Nemesis, by Norwegian author Jo Nesbo: for its complex and beleaguered protagonist, the unforgettably named Harry Hole. A Beautiful Place to Die, by Swaziland native Malla Nunn: for its atmospheric portrayal of South Africa in the early days of apartheid, and the grief wreaked on black and white families alike as a result of its often brutal implementation. Black Water Rising, by Los Angeles screenwriter and author Attica Locke: for its relentless pace and multifaceted look at race relations in the post-Martin Luther King, Jr. South.


The Week in Pictures, April 23, 2010

April 13, 2010

Giant Insect Day Care Center. Yikes!

Visiting Brit dignitary, by way of California

Strange hair salon names, part 2

Shinobazu Pond, Ueno Park, Tokyo

Another view of Shinobazu Pond

And now for a few Manglish T-shirts:

Frog bodies, moving for the cheerful sound...

Care only down by the love home fireside...

 

chewchew, don't bite, Dawg...

English language lessons gone horribly wrong...