Maury Chaykin, RIP

July 29, 2010

Canadian character actor Maury Chaykin passed away in Toronto on Tuesday, July 27th, 2010, on his 61st birthday; according to the Canadian newspapers, he had been suffering from a kidney ailment. He was famous for his “comic roles with disturbing undertones, and disturbing roles with comic undertones”, according to his New York Times obit. Chaykin was a favorite of Canadian filmmaker Atom Egoyan, who cast him in “The Adjuster”, “The Sweet Hereafter”, and “Where the Truth Lies”. His career was by no means limited to Canadian productions, though; he had strong roles in “Dances With Wolves”, “My Cousin Vinny”, and the HBO series “Entourage”.

Far and away his best known role among mystery aficionados, though, was his portrayal of the iconic detective Nero Wolfe, first in an an A&E movie, “The Golden Spiders”, then later in a television series (also on A&E) that expanded upon the film. Timothy Hutton co-starred as Wolfe’s wisecracking right-hand man, Archie Goodwin. It was wildly popular at the time (2000), with the fourth highest viewership of any A&E movie.

Wolfe was, in many ways, the original slacker; among Goodwin’s duties as confidential assistant was the constant goading of Wolfe to drum up new business, as Wolfe’s expensive habits (a Manhattan brownstone, live-in help, an orchid greenhouse, his taste for fine beers, and of course his notorious gourmandizing) routinely nudged the bank accounts to the edge of insolvency. Chaykin played the part to a tee: he was physically suited to play Wolfe, to be sure (Stout once described Wolfe as weighing one-seventh of a ton, about 286 pounds), and he brought the requisite petulance and “sniffiness” to the role. Hutton provided the humorous counterpoint, and the two played off one another magnificently. Critic Martin Sieff, writing for UPI, had this to say about the dynamic duo: “The great veteran actor Maury Chaykin was born to play Nero. And Timothy Hutton is equally perfect as his leg-man and always squabbling employee/amanuensis/Dr. Watson/Captain Hastings sidekick, Archie Goodwin. Hutton, an Oscar winner, and Chaykin are at the heart of it all. They have done many prestigious things in their careers and no doubt will do many more. But it is clear they know they will never have more fun than doing this.”

Never having met or known Maury Chaykin, I can only imagine what a huge personal loss his passing must represent to his loved ones. As an outside observer, though, I followed his career from high spot to high spot; he could occasionally be in a clinker of a movie, but his performances were invariably inspired. Over the years he won numerous awards, but perhaps the coolest (and weirdest) was the 2006 “Career So Far Award” from the Chlotrudis Society for Independent Film. Chaykin had this to say about the award, in the Toronto Star: “I got this strange call from Chlotrudis…I thought it was a disease. It’s a society for independent film, and they said, ‘We’re giving you The Career So Far Award. Not The Lifetime Achievement Award. We hope you will do a lot more indie films.’ They want me to fly down to Cambridge, Massachusetts. Last year’s winner was Philip Seymour Hoffman. I looked up their website and they are legit. Nero Wolfe raised orchids. Maybe he had a rare form of Chlotrudis.”

Sleep ye well, Maury Chaykin.

Whingeing One’s Way Around the World

July 29, 2010

While traveling in Turkey several years ago, I learned the meaning of the verb “whinge” from Mike Andrews, an Englishman with whom I became acquainted on a Mediterranean sailboat cruise (one of the famously inexpensive and fun “Blue Cruises” that ply the south coast of Turkey from Antalya to Fethiye). Although whinge is an English word, it is one that has sadly gained little purchase on the west side of the Atlantic. I say “sadly” because it is such a choice word for describing the discontent of certain privileged American (and British, and German, and Japanese, to name but a few) tourists who find facilities in foreign countries to come up short when compared to analogous amenities at home. (An example, which should be rendered in the snootiest and whiniest English accent you can muster: “It’s just bloody awful, in’ it? The people are so, well—there’s just no other word for it, is there—swarthy.  Nobody speaks a word of English, and try as we might, it is simply not possible to find a scone or a drinkable cup of tea.”) There is, in my estimation, a delicious irony to be found in the notion that the English, of all people, would lodge any sort of complaint about cuisine, except perhaps their own, but that is perhaps another story for another day.

(whinge: to complain or protest, particularly in an annoying or persistent manner)

Anyway, I began to clandestinely observe whingeing, and even to egg it on when the opportunity arose. On one memorable occasion, my Japanese traveling companion became quite pouty and petulant about the lackadaisical Greek approach to timeliness, especially as it pertained to our ferry, which not only arrived late to each port of call, but entirely skipped the island stop where we were to be deposited. As a result, we made a pointless round trip and had to start all over again from Athens twelve hours later. “This would never happen in Japan,” she fumed. “I am going to complain about this (‘to anyone who will listen’, I thought) and write about it in Mixi to warn anyone who is thinking of traveling to Greece.” (Mixi is like the Japanese-only version of Facebook, only more evolved.) I looked over at her from my perch atop a reclining deck chair, where I was basking in the butterscotch glow of the late afternoon Aegean sun. “So, here,” I offered. “Let me help you with your writing. It should maybe go something like this: ‘I cannot believe what an awful experience this is. I am stuck on the upper deck of a luxurious ferry, for an extra dozen hours, a cold drink at hand and Naxos on the horizon; the temperature is a balmy seventy-six, roughly thirty degrees to the correct side of Tokyo’s temperature at the moment. There is a faint sea breeze, and the gentle flapping of the blue and white Greek flag overhead. Waiters come around every so often to attend to our every need, and there is a complimentary stateroom awaiting us when we get tired of sunbathing. Also a pair of meal vouchers and a discount on our next ferry ride.’

I continued: “I can see how your friends in Tokyo will feel quite sorry for you, and be darn glad that they aren’t stuck here as well.” As I waited for her considered reply, she stared at me in a way that could only be described as “baleful”, and with that I realized that I had stumbled upon yet another English word that is woefully underutilized in the New World.

(baleful: foreboding or threatening, filled with ill intent)

The BookPage Assignment That Keeps on Giving

July 26, 2010

In an earlier posting to Mysterious Orientations (Rittererry Clitic, The Middle Years, Batting Cleanup, from November 8, 2009), I chronicled my days as a duffer chef, courtesy of a BookPage assignment to review a batch of cookbooks, an area of endeavor that was well out of my comfort zone at the time. Back then I was capable of making pretty decent coffee, goosing up bottled spaghetti sauce with veggies and ground sausage to give it the semblance of homemade-ness, and cremating any sort of meat on the char-becue, but past that I was pretty hopeless.

All of that changed when I acquired a couple of large boxes of cookbooks from the BookPage office somewhere back in the mid-nineties. There were books from all over the world: Burma; Brazil; France; China; Japan; Africa; the South Pacific (most of which still grace my kitchen bookshelves). Lots of scrumptious sounding recipes as well. I have to say, though, that I was most attracted to books with lush color photographs of what the finished result should look like (this gave me an idea of what I should be striving for), and none filled that bill better than the series penned by noted chef James McNair. There are lots of these books (I have about a dozen and there are at least that many more): salads; soups; chicken; beef; vegetables; rice; corn; and pizza, to name but a few. The directions are easy to follow, and the pictures look like something straight out of National Geographic (McNair, clearly possessed of many talents, is also the man behind the camera).

Naturally, like all cooks, I adhere to the directions only to a point, adding or subtracting according to my taste or that of my audience (backing off on the chili peppers is a must for my mild-food-eating Canadian family members, for example). Two spicy ethnic salads, modified from McNair recipes, have become staples at my table, both in Canada and Japan. The first, a Mexican-inflected bean and corn salsa, goes as follows:

2 cans black beans, drained and rinsed

2 cans Green Giant peaches and cream corn (it’s crunchier and sweeter than other brands, in my experience; not quite as good as fresh corn, but a quick and easy alternative), drained and rinsed

2 large tomatoes, diced

1 bunch green onions, chopped

Cilantro (to taste; I chop up a good-sized handful of leaves)

Cumin (to taste; a dash or two should suffice)

Put all of these in a bowl together, awaiting the dressing.

The sauce or dressing for the bean salad is quite simple: mix balsamic vinegar (50%), oil (25%) and water (25%) in a cruet; add three teaspoons (more or less, to taste) of the adobo sauce from Herdez canned chipotle peppers; shake well, and pour over the bean/corn mixture. Also, if you live in the US and can get Good Seasons Italian Dressing mix, that is a nice addition to the sauce (sadly, this fine stuff is not available either in Japan or Canada, so I have to improvise with oregano, thyme, and so forth, with slightly different results each time). Refrigerate for an hour or two and it will be ready. It is great with tortilla chips, or you can put it in a wrap with spiced chicken or pork; the possibilities are endless.

The second one is a sort of Thai cole slaw, with a dressing that has a bit of a satay flavor about it. Actually, as you first put a forkful into your mouth, it tastes virtually identical to American-style cole slaw, but as the spices reach the back of your tongue, there is a strong flavor of Siam to be savored.

Chopped cabbage (I usually cheat and buy the pre-chopped packaged cole slaw at the supermarket, but you can chop up one whole cabbage if the spirit moves you)

1 cup mayonnaise (Philistines can use Miracle Whip)

1/3 cup smooth peanut butter

3 teaspoons red chili oil

1/3 cup sesame oil

1 lime (squeezed)

3 tablespoons rice vinegar

1 tablespoon oil

1 tablespoon soy sauce

Salt and pepper to taste (perhaps one teaspoon each, then adjust as necessary)

Gently mix all these ingredients (except the cabbage) in a blender or mixing bowl, and pour the sauce over the chopped cabbage (the sauce will be about the consistency and color of a butterscotch milk shake). Chill for an hour or so, and you’re good to go. Oh, and a handful or two of chopped peanuts scattered over the top of the salad is quite nice as well. McNair opts for unsalted roasted ones, but I prefer the salted ones; he will likely outlive me.

I’d like to note here that I have taken some shortcuts with respect to McNair’s recipes; I have no doubt that his are tastier, but mine are definitely quicker, and they garner compliments on both sides of the world. Also, perhaps some improvisation will prove necessary, when (as often happens both in Canada and Japan) key ingredients are unavailable; improvisation is a wonderful thing in any event, and I thoroughly encourage you to add or subtract anything to suit your taste.

If you try these two salads and like them, be sure to be on the lookout for McNair’s books; both the books themselves and the recipes inside will wow you, guaranteed. If you don’t like them, it is likely that any shortcomings in the recipes are mine, not James McNair’s.


The Foreign Duck, the Native Duck, and God in a Coin Locker

July 24, 2010

Friends and regular readers will know that I am something of an “eiga otaku”, which is Japanese for “cinema geek”. When I lived in Los Angeles back in the day, it was not unusual for me to go to the movies several times a week, and even to attend pre-release screenings at the studios, for which viewers were actually paid to critique films before they were released to the general public (what a concept, getting paid to watch movies! It is almost like getting paid to read books…). In Tokyo, however, a night out at the movies is a serious financial undertaking: $20+ apiece for tickets, another $10 for popcorn and Cokes, and perhaps $12 in train fares for two. On the plus side, the theater seats recline, alcohol is available for those in the mood, and the screenings are often IMAX or 3-D, but still…

So, nowadays I get my movie fix one of three ways: on the airplane back and forth from North America to Japan (on my most recent flight, I watched five movies in one marathon viewfest!); rentals of English-language DVDs at my local Japanese video store, which charges only $1 for two-night rentals; and through the purchase of Hong Kong-sourced Japanese-language videos that are subtitled in English, which I watch stateside (or province-side) over the summer. This last works exceptionally well when I have Japanese visitors, which is most of the time, as we can each watch the movie in our respective native languages, laugh or cry together at the appropriate places, and afterwards, over coffee, compare notes about what we have seen. Each summer I stock up on about thirty or so Japanese-language DVDs, strongly leaning toward winners of the Japan Academy Prize (similar to the Oscar). As is the case with American flicks, some are transcendent, and some are real clinkers.

Last night, I watched the 2008 comedy-drama The Foreign Duck, the Native Duck, and God in a Coin Locker, a whimsical (although turning darker mid-film) tale whose title riffs off the fact that the Japanese words for a native duck and a foreign duck (ahiru and kamo, respectively) are strikingly different from one another, although the birds themselves may be virtually indistinguishable. God (inexplicably, as is often His way), in the voice of a young Bob Dylan, sings “Blowing in the Wind” repeatedly via a portable CD player from within a train station coin locker. Over the course of the movie, one encounters a theme of reincarnation (personified by a likably strange kid from Bhutan), a grisly death or two, several versions of a peculiar episode of bookstore larceny, more than a bit of duplicity on the parts of all the major characters save one, and quite a bit of head scratching, both on the parts of the leading character and of the audience. And just when you think you have reached that “aha!” moment, another twist corkscrews reality into an unexpected direction. This is not a film you are likely to find at your local video store, but it is readily available through Amazon or eBay, and well worth the price of admission. For an authentic Japanese experience, sprinkle your popcorn with a dash or two of soy sauce.

Japanne of Green Gables

July 20, 2010

One of the strangest connections between The Land of the Rising Sun (Japan, for the uninitiated) and The Garden of the Gulf (Prince Edward Island, for the uninitiated and virtually everyone else as well) is Lucy Maude Montgomery’s timeless novel Anne of Green Gables. It is but one of a series of Edwardian-era novels featuring plucky red-tressed heroine Anne Shirley, famous throughout the world as the girl whose name is always, but always, prefaced with the words “plucky red-tressed heroine”. For sake of brevity, I will abandon this custom for the duration of this article, or at least I’ll try. Orphaned as a child, Anne came to live with Matthew and Marilla Cuthbert, an elderly brother and sister, in a white farmhouse (with green-trimmed gables, hence the title) in the rural community of Cavendish, PEI. Her curiosity, headstrong stubbornness, and unparalleled sense of mischief conspired to fashion a whirlwind of melodrama and humor around the young protagonist, and about the lives of all she touched as well. Anne is particularly beloved in Japan, especially by thirty-something Japanese women, many of whom read the book as part of their English instruction during their school years, and admired the brashness of young Anne, a commodity not regularly on display among Japanese women. So nowadays they come to PEI in droves, singly and in groups, to wander the halls and the grounds of Green Gables, which, unlike its plucky red-tressed heroine (stop me…) is quite real.

When I first moved to the US as a child, other kids in my New Jersey grade school would ask me where I was from, sensing no doubt from my accent (eh?) that I was not quite like them in some mysterious way. I told them I was from Prince Edward Island, and was quite often asked “What part of the United States is that?” Once a sixth-grader even threatened to beat me up when I patiently explained to him that Canada was bigger than the United States (“Is not, you punk,” he told me in no uncertain terms, poking a finger into my chest), so I set about adopting a generic East Coast accent as quickly as humanly possible, as a matter of simple self-preservation. In Japan, by contrast, when I tell folks that I am from Prince Edward Island, and that I live there part time, they go “Hwaaahhh! Akage no Ann” (“Akage no Anne” being the title of Anne of Green Gables in Japanese; literally, it translates to “Red-Haired Anne”, sans “plucky”). These people know about PEI (quelle surprise…), and react with something more akin to envy than suspicious wariness. They even know how to find it on a map! On top of that, a surprising number of them have visited the homestead, have sat upon the milking stool and “milked” a life-size Plasticine model of Marilla’s cow, gazed through Anne’s garret doorway and dreamt what it must have been like to toss and turn in her diminutive bed, and donned the ubiquitous red-pigtail wigs and jaunty beribboned caps to pose for pictures they will surely regret later in life.

Also, I suspect, lurking somewhere behind the oh-so-composed Asian facades, are teeming hordes of titillating fantasies, all rooted in the visualization of the guilty pleasure of wreaking mischievous havoc upon an unsuspecting husband, boyfriend or boss in much the same fashion that Anne might have done in an analogous situation.

The Chronicle of the Wood Stove

July 17, 2010

I’ve never been a fan of winter, other than as a season one might choose to visit perhaps once a year, and for a very brief visit at that. Creamy freshly fallen snow on a steeply pitched roof, a weekend of skiing in Nagano or the Laurentians, hot mulled cider alongside a roaring fire—lovely. Endless forests of barren trees, slushy (and treacherous) mud-hued roads, steel-grey skies, frigid dampness plumbing the deepest recesses of one’s bones, not so much. One year in the mid-2000s I decided to tough it out in Canada, in retrospect, not one of my cannier moves. In addition to all the downsides enumerated above, factor in a ¼-mile gravel driveway only marginally passable after a snowstorm, even in a 4WD SUV; a relentlessly icy wind blowing in off the bay; short deep-north days when one’s trip to work is in the dark—both ways. Oh, and let’s not forget the propane bill, which totalled a whopping $700 for a month’s worth of what must be gold in its gaseous state. It was a chilly month, to be sure, but I dutifully set the thermostat at 66 degrees, wore a sweater routinely, and still got hit with the mother of all heating bills. I paid it, and then I promply wussed out. I figured, quite correctly, that $700 would go a good part of the way toward my total living expenses, not just heat, in some far-flung corner of the world, so I packed a small bag and a destination-appropriate Lonely Planet guide, and headed off for eastern Turkey, the Mediterranean city of Antalya, to be exact. There, as it turned out, I could spend my days and nights, including meals, a decent hotel, and incidentals, getting by on about $35 a day. For two people! So, to summarize: $1000-odd per month in Turkey, at the beach, in 75-degree weather with cloudless cerulean skies; or $700 just to heat the house in Canada in the dead of winter? Hmm, that takes exactly no brainstorming whatsoever.

What it does not take into account are the shoulder seasons, both of which can be lovely in Prince Edward Island, particularly autumn. The leaves of the birch trees in my front yard turn a stunning yellow by late September, and the maples and oaks are a riot of red and orange shortly thereafter. It is getting coolish by then, however, and I have become very propane-averse over the past several years; still, I am partial to staying at least marginally warm. So, I thought, let’s find a cheaper alternative. A windmill? Nah, too noisy. Pricey, too. Solar heat? Nope; you need the sun for that, and there is precious little of that small orb on view in the winter months in PEI. And solar is pricey as well. All in all, a wood stove seemed the best possibility. The best ones on the market run about $4000 installed, and as fuels go, wood is pretty plentiful and exceptionally cheap. Especially in my case, as I have about 25 acres of woodland here, and enough trees fall on the property every year to keep me in heat at least for the shoulder seasons, without resorting to cutting or buying any extra. Two strapping local lads installed the stove in my living room in about a half day, including cutting holes in ceiling, floor and roof for the chimney, cleverly routing it through a walk-in closet in my upstairs bedroom, with just a minimal loss in closet volume as the only (tiny, and thoroughly expected) issue with regard to the installation.

Naturally, the installation happened on the warmest day of the summer, indeed, the warmest day in several years; so it will have to wait until another day for me to light the inaugural flame. In the meantime, I will look at my handsome new wood stove, occupying its designated space near the entrance of the living room, kitty-corner to the TV, and just across from my favorite reclining leather chair. And my trepidation about the early Canadian onset of cold weather will recede for a while longer.


and After...

The Leavenworth Case; Anna Katherine Green

July 13, 2010

Earlier this summer, Penguin published a book titled The Leavenworth Case, by noted mystery writer Anna Katherine Green. Never heard of her? How can that be? Okay, I confess, I had not heard of her either, the reason being that her books predated my reading of mystery novels by the better part of 100 years. Among hardcore mystery aficionados, however, Green is known as “The Mother of the Detective Novel”; in fact, The Leavenworth Case, her debut novel, was published in 1878, nine years before the first appearance of legendary English sleuth Sherlock Holmes! Green went on to publish thirty-six novels over the run of her impressive career, and upon her death in 1935, at age eighty-eight, Publisher’s Weekly reported that her first book had sold more than one million copies!

The Leavenworth Case was a watershed novel in several respects: it marked the initial installment in what would become the first series of mysteries featuring a recurring main character (Police Detective Ebenezer Gryce), and it launched the first major detective novelist, whose career would span some forty-five years.

My long-time friend and fellow mystery devotee Michael Sims wrote the introduction to the Penguin edition, wherein he noted that even at that seminal stage of the genre, Green was not the first woman to write a detective novel: “Apparently that honor goes to American dime novelist Metra Victoria Fuller Victor, who published The Dead Letter, in 1867 under the pseudonym Seeley Regester.” It was Green who rose to fame, though, eclipsing all other female suspense novelists of her time, and many of the men as well: “Green became so well known that, during his first tour of America in the 1890s, Arthur Conan Doyle sought a meeting with her.” Another Green character, spinster Amelia Butterworth, was credited as inspiration for Agatha Christie’s wildly popular protagonist Miss Marple. Indeed, in later years, Christie’s leading man Hercule Poirot held forth on The Leavenworth Case in her 1963 novel Clocks: “One savours its period atmosphere, its studied and deliberate melodrama.”

To be sure, there is period atmosphere in spades. Anyone familiar with Christie’s early work will feel right at home in the Leavenworth townhouse, with its butler and serving staff, its pair of comely young mistresses (both of whom are leading suspects in the shooting death of their wealthy uncle), and of course the requisite dead body or two. The tale is narrated by a somewhat over-earnest young attorney, Everett Raymond, who has something of an agenda of his own after meeting and becoming infatuated with one of the Leavenworth nieces. Sims notes: “Raymond is an excellent point-of-view character. Driven by emotion but determined to employ his professional brain in the cause of justice, he pays close attention, thinks aloud, and inaugurates what will become a detective story tradition: he regularly summarizes the clues glimpsed so far.”

Don’t be put off by the age of The Leavenworth Case; it is easily as contemporary in style as the Agatha Christie novels that followed it some fifty years later. Also, most if not all of the modern mystery components can be found between its covers: the beleaguered and world-weary detective; the ingénue (or, in this case, two ingénues) identified as prime suspect(s); the beginnings of the first-person narrative; and, naturally, red herrings galore.

Hints From Heloise, via Bruce

July 12, 2010

One of the weird things about being out of the country so much is that I don’t always know what will be new to Americans, and what will be old hat. Every time I make ready to introduce a fresh (to me) writer, artist, musician, place, idea, or some such, I am always a bit apprehensive that I am actually the last to know about him/her/it, and that I will be gushing on about, say, Miley Cyrus (or worse yet, Billy Ray Cyrus) long after the person, place, or thing in question has flamed out stateside. Nowhere is this more evident than with cinema: Japan gets movies half a year later than the US, bare minimum, with the exceptions of presumed blockbusters such as Avatar, Michael Jackson’s This Is It, and the Harry Potter flicks. So, when I saw Invictus, for example, I wanted to let all my friends know how good it was; problem was, all of them had no doubt seen it months before, and it was likely available on DVD already in the US by the time I saw it in the theater in Japan.

All of that to say, I apologize in advance if you’ve heard this before:

When I stopped in the factory outlet town of Kittery, ME, earlier this summer, my intention was to buy a dozen polo shirts of every hue in the rainbow to replace the ones that had worn out over the past year. Polo shirts, khakis, and Topsiders have supplanted jeans, t-shirts, and sneakers in my wardrobe for the most part; basically, if an affair is too formal for polo shirts, it is highly doubtful that I belong there in the first place.

Shortly after donning my first new shirt, a lime green one, I dripped a dollop of bright yellow right below the bottom button. It seemed that the paper wrapping my overly-mustarded hot dog had a cleverly concealed aperture, presumably engineered that way for maximum damage. I dampened a napkin, preparing to dab at the mustard stain, knowing full well that it wasn’t going to come clean. Knit shirts are well known for their tenacity at maintaining a discoloration even after repeated washings. Saki snatched the napkin from my hand and said “Here, let me do it.” Rather than rubbing the stain, she shoved a piece of dry napkin up the inside of the shirt (directly behind the stain), and proceeded to strike the spot with a series of hammering motions, using the napkin I had dampened a few moments before. “What on earth are you doing?” I asked. “Hitting it knocks the stain out of the cloth, and into the napkin on the back side,” she replied.

No way, I thought, preparing to relegate the shirt to a pile of similar articles of clothing to be worn while doing household chores. She finished her ministrations, and of course there was a wet spot, but all of the yellow mustard had seemingly disappeared. Shortly afterward, the dampness evaporated and left only—well, no evidence whatsoever!

“I have never heard of this before,” I marveled, looking closely at the previously affected area; no matter how I turned the cloth against the light, I could not see any trace of mustard. “This is how everybody does it in Japan,” Saki said, (somewhat dismissively, I thought, with an implied “duh” in the tone).

So, as I say, if this is common knowledge in North America, please excuse my beating of the proverbial deceased equus, but if it is indeed news to you, give it a try next time your shirt or blouse suffers from the double whammy of colorful condiments and inexorable gravitational downforce. It is really quite remarkable.


July 11, 2010

The first time I ran across the term “CFA”, I was in the sub-Saharan country of Niger, about to change over a fistful of dollars into the local currency. As it happened, the former French colonies of Niger, Togo, Benin, and Burkina Faso all shared the same currency, known as CFA. This was, in my estimation, exceptionally convenient, as every time I departed one country and entered another, I was getting hosed on the exchange rate, which always seemed to favor the other guy. The initials stood for “Something (I forget what)-Franc-Africaine”; the currency was tied to the French franc (this was in the mid-1980s, before the advent of the Euro), at the rate of 100 African francs to one French franc, as I recall. As there were seven French francs to the dollar at the time, and thus 700 CFA, I was suddenly a millionaire for the first, and thus far the only, time of my life. I merrily spent thousands on hotels, restaurants and gasoline fill-ups, and when I sold my car in Togo (to a local chieftain with a plethora of wives), I had a stack of banknotes that required a valise to carry them from the importation office.

It proved a bit difficult to get all those CFA out of Africa, however, as the rather draconian French currency laws at the time allowed one to cross borders with no more than about $1000 worth of francs. In the end, I bought traveler’s checks and hid them in a secret compartment of my money belt, and crossed my fingers against the possibility of an intensive body search. There was good news and bad news: the good news was no body search; the bad news was that the traveler’s checks were stamped on the back, per French law, “not to be cashed outside the franc zone”, which meant France, French West Africa, and French Polynesia, none of which was I planning to visit in the foreseeable future. Later in the trip, a clever American Express agent in London ingeniously solved the problem by destroying my useless traveler’s checks in front of my eyes, having me fill out a loss form, and then re-issuing a new set of checks without the franc zone limitation verso. I have never been back to Africa since, and over the years, the term CFA slipped into a quiet closet of my memory, only to be dragged out occasionally when comparing war stories with other travelers.

Fast forward twenty-some years, and I was chatting with some friends in the kitchen of their Prince Edward Island farmhouse. There was a knock at the door, and my friends introduced me to the newcomers as a “CFA”, albeit “not a bad one”. The others chuckled and allowed as to how a lot of CFAs had been showing up on the Island of late. Sensing that I was the butt of some obscure joke, I bit the bullet and asked “What’s a CFA?”

“Oh,” the answer came, “it’s someone who’s not from the Island. It stands for ‘comes from away’”, “away” being any place other than this tiny lump of red clay in the Gulf of St. Lawrence.

“Um, excuse me, but I was born here,” I rejoined, possibly a bit testily. All eyebrows raised to attention. It turned out that that made all the difference in the world. It seems that anyone born here is automatically embraced into the fold, fussed over like the proverbial prodigal son, even if he or she has, like me, been absent for most of a lifetime. By contrast, someone who moved here at six months of age will always be a CFA; no naturalization is possible. And so it is that the term “CFA” once again surfaces in my life; for the fleeting few months of summer, I am a native son, before departing for some distant continent where I will forever be a CFA.

Some Random Book Notes

July 10, 2010

This month, in addition to the regular BookPage Whodunit column, I will be reviewing the new Bill Bryson book, At Home. Building on the raging success of A Brief History of Nearly Everything, At Home takes rather a more close-up look at history, as revealed through the rooms of his Victorian parsonage in rural Norfolk, England. As is often the case with Bryson’s books, the subject matter takes him far afield of the original premise, and the book is the better for it. I am only about a third of the way through it as of this writing, and I have already learned much about word derivations (did you know that the word “vicar” stems from the same root as “vicarious”? Thus a vicar is a kind of stand-in for a rector.), the offspring of English parsons (the Bronte sisters, Lewis Carroll, Cecil Rhodes, and Alfred Lord Tennyson, to name but a few), and a smattering of 19th century British history, most of which eluded me in school. The challenge will be to write a comprehensive review in the print edition of BookPage, and keep it to 300-400 words. I may wind up doing something I have not done thus far, and craft a longer and more comprehensive review of the book here in Mysterious Orientations. Stay tuned!

In other news, I just finished Ransom Riggs’ The Sherlock Holmes Handbook (subtitled The Methods and Mysteries of the World’s Greatest Detective). I might have glossed over it but for the fact that I had seen the recent Holmes movie on the flight back from Japan, so once again I was strongly in the mood for a dose of the first super-sleuth and his earnest sidekick.

Many scholarly works have dissected and minutely examined every printed word of author Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, begging the question “Why yet another book on Sherlock Holmes?” The answer is, Riggs attacks it from a slightly different perspective, as a “how to” manual for those who aspire to emulate Holmes and his methodology. In chapters such as “How to Locate a Secret Chamber”, “How to Stage a Dramatic Entrance”, “How to Sniff Out a Hoax”, and “How to Fake Your Own Death”, the author quotes liberally from Holmes various adventures, showing once again that crime-solving is nothing if not “elementary, my dear Watson.”

As Holmes notes in A Study in Scarlet, “There is a strong family resemblance among misdeeds, and if you have all the details of a thousand at your finger ends, it is odd if you can’t unravel the thousand and first.”

In the Appendix, Riggs devotes several pages to the life and times of Sir Arthur (whose epitaph reads “Steel True, Blade Straight, Arthur Conan Doyle, Knight, Patriot, Physician, & Man of Letters), and a short compendium of the wit and wisdom of Sherlock Holmes (“Life is infinitely stranger than anything which the mind of man could invent”, and the oft-quoted, and misquoted, “Eliminate all other factors, and the one which remains must be the truth.”)

Definitely a must for all Sherlockophiles!