Every Bitter Thing

November 24, 2010

I just finished Leighton Gage’s latest Brasilia-based thriller, Every Bitter Thing, unfortunately too late for inclusion in the December Whodunit column in BookPage magazine. Gage’s name sounded familiar to me; perhaps I had read one of his books before? The milieu didn’t seem familiar, though; I’ve read any number of mysteries set in South America, even some from Brazil, but none (to the best of my admittedly moth-eaten memory) set in Brasilia. So, I went online and Googled myself and Leighton Gage just to see if we had had some previous connection; lo and behold, we showed up on the same website, namely this blog! It turns out that Leighton Gage had submitted a comment on one of the posts, and we traded emails a couple of times last year. He shares a blog, Murder is Everywhere (murderiseverywhere.blogspot.com), with a group of other mystery writers from far-flung corners of the globe: Timothy Hallinan (Thailand and Santa Monica), Yrsa Sigurdursdottir (Iceland), Cara Black (France), Michael Sears and Stanley Trollip (South Africa), Dan Waddell (England), and Jeffrey Siger (Greece).  Although the binding agent for the blog is the authors’ love of mysteries, the posts tend to be eclectic; the last several entries include a bio of a wartime Resistance fighter, a look at a clown (literally a working clown) elected to political office in Brazil, an op-ed piece on the state of Thai politics, a photographic tour of deserted Mykonos after the summer tourists have gone home, the upcoming cricket series between Britain and Australia (in which the winners walk away with an urn full of ashes), a glance at the wildlife of the Okavango Delta… you get the picture. And I thought I was all over the board!

Anyway, back to Every Bitter Thing, the fourth in the series featuring Brazilian federal police inspector Mario Silva. This time out, Silva is called in to handle the sensitive investigation into the murder with international political ramifications. The “sensitive” part comes in to play because the victim was gay, and to all indications his father, the Foreign Minister of Venezuela, was unaware of his son’s “batting for the opposing team” (to borrow a line from Priscilla, Queen of the Desert). Silva is astonished to find that the slaying bears certain similarities to several other murders in recent memory. The only seeming connection among the victims, however, is a tenuous one indeed: all apparently arrived on the same flight from Miami. There are other folks, numerous others in fact, who were passengers on the same flight; if Silva’s hunch is right, all of them are potential suspects—and potential future victims as well. Every Bitter Thing works well on many levels: as a tense police procedural; a political thriller; and a look at the juxtaposing of the haves and have-nots in a society not far removed from its Third World roots.

Sadly, I won’t have time to order the first three Silva books before leaving for Japan, and thanks to limited availability (and stratospheric prices) probably won’t have the opportunity to acquire them there either. That said, they will be on my short list for reading materials to unearth upon my return to North America next spring.

Every Bitter Thing; Leighton Gage; Soho Press; ISBN 9781569478455; 388pp; $25


500-Odd Words About Snow

November 22, 2010

In an apparent celestial thumbing of the nose to the notion of global warming, the heaviest early-season snowfall in recent memory blanketed the Maritime Provinces last night and all throughout today. I haven’t had the radio or TV on to get the official stats, but I shoveled close to a foot of the white stuff off my front steps earlier today, and once again they are covered to a depth of several inches. My car, parked in the driveway, was unidentifiable as a Honda Civic unless one was enough of an automotive geek to recognize the top 2/3 of the factory-issue alloy wheels.

Conveniently (as opposed to presciently) I had stacked my newly-received load of firewood in the garage earlier in the day, paying no attention to the gathering clouds. In the days before electronic communications, farmers and other such country dwellers knew instinctively when adverse weather was about to descend upon them, or so it is said; apparently that intuition was systematically bred out of my gene pool sometime prior to my arrival, as I had no idea whatsoever until I opened the front door and was greeted with a Currier and Ives calendar scene, minus the red horse-drawn sleigh full of happy townsfolk.

When I first moved up here, I had an all-wheel-drive SUV, but after one winter I realized that my frail LA-acclimated constitution required a good deal more cozy warmth than Canada typically offers up in the wintertime, so when it came time to replace that car, I didn’t bother getting another winter-capable vehicle (instead, I opted to park the vehicle and light out for warmer climes at the first signs of frost). That said, the Civic acquitted itself quite well, both in my unplowed driveway, and on the somewhat slippery country roads around my house. And I don’t even have snow tires on it, just the euphemistically named “All Season” tires, designed for year-round use in the harsh climate of, say, Phoenix.

The house is staying toasty, thanks to my parents’ attention to insulation when building the place, to the double-pane windows, and to the new-this-year wood stove, which can be adjusted from “placid subtropical” to full-on “Helsinki sauna” with the flick of a lever. I have opted for the lowest setting, which seems to be getting the job done, and which bodes well for the capacity of the stove if the temperatures should spiral downward before I leave.

One of my favorite things about a fresh snowfall is that it provides a crisp white backdrop for the woodland creatures whose coats so often blend in with their surroundings. Today I have seen several chipmunks, a few squirrels and a totally fearless red fox, none of which stuck around long enough for me to snap pictures, but all of which imprinted upon my Prince Edward Island winter mindscape.

I leave for Japan in a little over a week; once there I can doff my sweatshirt and parka and revert to my typical autumn upper-body attire of T-shirt and (perhaps) fleece vest. A few days ago it was close to 70 degrees in Tokyo; at that rate it will likely be a while before the first snowfall. Last year there was no snow at all in the city, and I had to go to the mountains near Nagano, the site of the 1998 Winter Olympics, to get a brief dose of the powdery stuff. It’s a bunch more fun when you are not the one responsible for shoveling it.


November 10, 2010

One of my favorite things about living in Asia is finding examples of badly mangled English at every turn: t-shirts, warning signs, product labels, advertisements, menus, you name it. Over the years, I have catalogued numerous examples, documented with pictures; if you have a look through early posts of this blog, you’ll find several along these lines: “No Smorking” (so I didn’t smoke, but I did smirk); “Beware of Tourism” (always good advice); “I really don’t know how to apologize to you; please move to another cash register” (abject apology at the checkout line); “Reisure and Lest” (that old L/R issue again); “Attention: because I do not have a tissue always ready in this rest room, please buy used one.” (some things are just not meant to be recycled).

While I was in Japan last year, I read a newspaper article about preparations for the upcoming Shanghai Expo. It seems that the Chinese authorities in charge of signage had been dispatched upon a mission to eliminate every example of mangled English they could find, and they were bringing in native English speakers to aid in the cause. According to the article, platoons of these folks were to be dispatched throughout Shanghai, armed with clipboards, indelible markers, and citations (that is “citations” in the sense of a traffic ticket, as opposed to a civic award). Presumably these folks would have to go out in groups of at least two, one of whom was fluent in English, the other in Chinese, as the possibilities for miscommunication would be manifold otherwise. Several of my friends suggested that I should apply, given my extensive credentials both in English and in Manglish, but there were two problems I could foresee: 1) there would be quite a number of signs that would be so good, I would really hate to see them go away; and 2) the warugaki (mischievous child) in me might well choose to “improve” some signs to maximize their humor potential. In the event, I didn’t wind up applying, and the cleanup program (or pogrom) took place without me. Happily, it made not one whit of difference, as I can personally attest that the signage in Shanghai is as bad (or good) as ever, for which all Anglophone expats (or at least those with a warped sense of humor) can heave a collective sigh of relief.

As it happens, there is a website whose entire raison d’etre is the cataloguing of such things: www.engrish.com. Don’t even go there: 1) if you have fewer than two hours to spend meandering your way through the site; 2) if you have just had surgery, and belly laughter will cause your stitches to burst; and 3) if you will be offended by unintentional Asian lapses into what Americans might call bad words (like the delightful menu offering “Fried Horse Crap with Lime”). There are sections on business establishments (how about the food stand that offers “Fried Needles”?), menus (“The Palace Oil Explodes the Duck”), greeting cards (“Hey HO! It’s Christmas Time!), labels (“THIS IS NOT A TOY AND SHOULD BE KEPT AWAY FROM CHILDREN MADE IN CHINA”), warning signs (“Fall into the water carefully”), and so much more. There are oodles of pictures, of which I have included a couple as teasers. Truly, one of the do-not-miss sites of the internet!

Go-Kekkon Omedeeto Gozaimasu!

November 10, 2010

It is a big time for weddings among my Asian friends, it would seem. No fewer than three are tying the knot in fairly short order. I would normally offer the tongue-in-cheek suggestion that it was something in the water, but the strange fact is that one of the weddings will be happening in Japan, one in Korea, and one in Germany, assuming that I have all my facts straight from my none-too-accurate translation program.

Kil-sun, a Korean woman I have mentioned in these pages on a couple of occasions, just sent me an invitation to her wedding in Suwon, a city an hour’s ride south of Seoul. There are pics of Kil-sun in earlier posts of this blog, the ones dealing with my shivery travels to Korea in the dead of this past winter. We’ve been friends for several years, having met in Canada where she was “WWoofing” (working for room and board through the auspices of World-Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms) at a restaurant operated by a friend of mine. She, Saki and I braved the mosquitoes and the downpours to go to our first Stan Rogers festival together, where Kil-sun discovered in herself quite an appreciation for English folk-rock music, particularly a band called the Strawbs. I thought it showed remarkably good taste on her part, as I have been a Strawbs fan for almost as long as she has been alive.

On a couple of occasions thus far, I have visited her family home, partaken of the best Korean food I have ever eaten (hand prepared by Kil-sun and her mom), and been thoroughly stymied by a traditional card game in which the cards have geometric and floral designs rather than numbers. I suspect that quite a lot of the evening’s laughter was at my expense, but if that was the case, everyone was much too polite to let on.

My friend Masumi, whose picture you can see in an earlier Mysterious Orientations post called Japanese Women on Walkabout, has either just gotten married or is just about to, depending on which translation program one uses. She is in Germany, studying German, and marrying a German man. I met her when she was a cashier at Inageya, the grocery store closest to my house in Japan. I was going through her checkout line at a slow time of the day, and she asked me a tentative question or two in English. Her English was not great then, but it has improved over the time I have known her (rather more than my Japanese has, I’m afraid).  Anyway, she managed to convey that she would like to be friends, a notion with which I wholeheartedly concurred, and we have met and exchanged emails numerous times since.

Then there is Akiko. Of the three, she is the one I know the least well, but two things drew us together early on: first off, her English is really excellent, not just vocabulary but also nuance. It is a rare occasion when we have to pause in a conversation to explain or regroup. Secondly, we are both serious cinema fans, and we spent numerous evenings at my house in Prince Edward Island watching movies both in English and Japanese, then discussing and critiquing them afterward (once a critic, always a critic, I guess).

Akiko, more than any other woman I know in Japan, really does not like the work-centric lifestyle of the Japanese. In fact, she would much prefer to live abroad. Oddly, her German boyfriend is in Japan nowadays (as is she), working at a language school, I believe. She has spent quite some time in Germany over the time I have known her, though, and she sent me a most excellent postcard featuring a color photo of a classic BMW, for which I was most appreciative. I am not sure when her wedding is set for, but I think it is in the near future. And I imagine that if Akiko gets a say in where the newlyweds will live, it could be anywhere at all, so long as it’s not Japan.

So, I would like to offer my congratulations to these three wonderful women, and wishes for long and happy lives together with their significant others. In Japanese, that would be rendered as: “Go-kekkon omedeeto gozaimasu!” (assuming of course that the translation program can be believed…)

PS, to my other friends of marriageable age (Ayaka, Kazuko, Hitomi, Noriko, Miho, and Shiho jump to mind), if any of you are getting married or have gotten married, or have done something else wild and wonderful, I am eagerly awaiting an update!

The Nevil Shute Memorial Library, Part One (of three, I think…)

November 3, 2010

When I was a teenager in California, we had a huge built-in bookcase in the family room of our house; basically, only one side of the room featured a standard-issue wall, one side was entirely glass, one side was a brick fireplace, and the fourth side was floor-to-ceiling bookcases, stuffed to capacity and beyond with all manner of reading material. In addition to the Encyclopedia Americana, there were numerous other reference books on aviation, history, and sciences of all manner; National Geographic illustrated coffee-table tomes, Reader’s Digest condensed books, and even a copy of Emily Post’s Etiquette, a slightly catty gift from my aunt to my mother one Christmas, which touched off (or at least fueled) a years-long family feud.

The fiction on offer tended toward war stories (Ernest K. Gann, Herman Wouk, James Michener, et al), mysteries (John D. MacDonald, Ross Macdonald, Richard S. Prather), and a whole bunch of books by some guy I had never heard of, by the name of Nevil Shute. Because my parents were huge Shute fans, I knew with the surety of my advanced sixteen years that his books would be lame beyond belief; there would be no steamy love scenes, no swear words, and pathetically little action. Even when I heard the plot outlines, I was left unmoved, and the one time I actually picked one up, I put it down after just one chapter.

Of course a certain amount of reading was required in high school: The Red Badge of Courage, Great Expectations, Moby Dick, The Scarlet Letter. I remember thinking at the time that it was a wonder that we all didn’t voluntarily poke our own eyes out with sharpened sticks, rather than have to read aloud from these books every day in English class. So in the evening, faced with the desperation that stems from only one television in the house, which was typically tuned to something I didn’t want to watch, I raided the bookshelves for something a little less weighty than the school curriculum choices. Choosing to defy conventional wisdom, and prejudge the paperback books by their covers, I was naturally attracted to the mystery novels, with their lurid jackets featuring sultry babes en deshabille (hey, I was sixteen, what do you expect?). By contrast, the Nevil Shute books were mostly hard cover, with the dust jackets long gone, so they were something of an unknown quantity to be dealt with at a later date.

Long story short, I went through the mysteries like the proverbial hot knife through butter, never realizing that I was laying the paving stones for a later-life career. Lew Archer, Travis McGee, Mike Hammer, Shell Scott—these guys were what I wanted to be, or at least be like, when I grew up. When I finished all the “hardboiled” mysteries I could get my hands on, I turned my attention to the likes of Rex Stout, Agatha Christie, and Dorothy L. Sayers, from whom I learned a bit about the elements of romance (as applied to a detective novel) as well as arcane ways to murder someone (I believe it was Professor Plumnose, in the drawing room, with the ampule of curare…). Finally, however, I worked my way through the entire selection on hand, and all that was left was…Nevil Shute.

(to be continued…)