Rittererry Clitic

July 12, 2009

I have always thought of my job at BookPage as “Book Reviewer”, so when I went to Japan for the first time, I listed that as my occupation on the entry form. Apparently it confused the immigration officer, as he gave me a puzzled look and asked in heavily inflected English “Booku leeviewer? What is this job?” I went on to explain—haltingly—what I do, and he suddenly brightened up. “Aah, rittererry clitic!” he exclaimed, grinning broadly. I am thinking strongly of having that job title put on my business cards.

One of my favorite parts of being a rittererry clitic is that I often get to interact with my favorite writers, by email, by phone, and occasionally in person. As you might imagine, they are a literate bunch, by and large, and endlessly entertaining to swap war stories with. If you are a frequent visitor to this blog, you may recognize the byline of Tim Hallinan, who has added several insightful and hilarious comments to the entries. It seems we share an affinity for unusual Japanese variants of KitKat chocolate bars, so I recently sent him a couple of examples of the most recent flavors, Apple Vinegar and Lemon Vinegar, which he said tasted like room deodorizer, a very apt description. I had the pleasure of reading Tim’s latest book, Breathing Water, on the flight back to Halifax a couple of weeks ago, and it is every bit as edge-of-the-seat entertaining as his last novel, The Fourth Watcher. I will be reviewing Breathing Water in next month’s issue of BookPage, but as a teaser, I have appended my BookPage review of The Fourth Watcher below:

“OK, call me a sucker for thrillers set in exotic foreign locations, particularly ones with rampant corruption, triple-digit humidity and lazily seductive ex-bargirl protagonists. Guilty as charged; please let me serve out my sentence in the Thailand depicted by author Timothy Hallinan in his wickedly atmospheric new work, The Fourth Watcher, this month’s Tip of the Ice Pick Award winner.

Travel writer Poke Rafferty has a clever and popular series going for him: ‘Looking for Trouble In . . .’ (fill in the blank with the exotic Asian locale of your choice). His latest installment about Bangkok is in the works, after which he is thinking seriously about settling down into a line of work a bit less edgy and dangerous, to allow him to spend more time with his girlfriend and their recently adopted daughter (a precocious 10-going-on-30-year-old named Miaow). However, although Poke may no longer be ‘looking for trouble,’ trouble is definitely looking for him when his long-estranged father shows up unannounced, with a box full of rubies and a very large favor to ask. Poke initially wants nothing to do with his old man, but that decision is quickly taken out of his hands: his girlfriend and daughter are kidnapped, along with the wife of his best friend. If Poke ever wants to see them again, he will have to come up with the rubies (and a whack of cash) and turn his father over to a sworn enemy who has been tracking Rafferty Senior without success for a number of years. Well, that’s the setup, but it doesn’t begin to describe the action, the intensity, the pacing, the humor, the dialogue, etc. What words are sufficient to describe a book with chapters titled ‘Ugliest Mole in China,’ ‘Asterisks Would Take Too Long,’ or my personal fave, ‘The Leading Sphincter on the Planet’? Is it enough to call someone a clever wordsmith when they can craft a sentence like ‘He was unevolved; he had one foot in the Mesozoic and the other in his mouth.’? So I ask you, after reading this review, can you think of one good reason not to read this book? I can’t.”

It was admittedly a glowing review, but to be fair, most of my reviews are largely positive. I would prefer to wax poetic about a book I loved rather than waste time and ink trashing one I hated. Many times I have read unkind reviews that revealed much more about the character (or lack thereof) of the reviewer than the inherent quality (or lack thereof) of the book, which I never have thought to be the purpose of a book review. Also, with the volume of books coming my way, I tend not to finish ones I don’t like, figuring that if the author has not engaged me in the initial fifty pages, it is unlikely that he/she will pull out a Hail Mary save in the final fifty. Happily, I get to choose my books for the column, and it is a pleasure to read and review worthy works, particularly when I am able to introduce a new author (or one that is new to me) to the BookPage reading public.

Anyway, shortly after the review came out, I got an email from Tim, the first of many, which I will reproduce in part below. Normally, my editor at BookPage guards my email address as though it were a Homeland Security priority, but Tim must have turned on the charm (and of course she knew how much I liked his book), so she allowed him to pry it out of her.

“Your review of THE FOURTH WATCHER was the nicest thing to happen to me in months. I was sitting in Suvanabhumi Airport in Bangkok at 5:20 AM, having stayed up all night to catch a 6:30 flight, and feeling sorry for myself when I opened my laptop to see that my editor at Morrow… had sent me the PDF of your review. It was better than a quart of coffee.”

Two quick notes: 1) I am reasonably certain that this is the only email I have ever received in my entire life containing the word “Suvanabhumi”, and 2) at some point, I will meet up with Tim for an evening of stories and laughter, preferably in some equatorial expat bar with a lazily swirling ceiling fan. So it is written, so shall it be.

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Transitions

July 10, 2009

Twice yearly I make the trans-global journey between my familial home in Prince Edward Island, Canada, to my adopted hometown of Saitama, Japan, always with the somewhat dichotomous pangs of separation and anticipation. Having just left the Land of the Rising Sun, I will miss my friends, of course, as well as the best sushi on the planet, the ultra-speedy internet connection, a huge grocery store and several restaurants within five minutes’ walk of my apartment; the formal and ultra-polite character of the Japanese people as a group, and the relentless bombardment of color and sound that characterizes all of Asia. I will not miss, even a little bit: the steam-bath humidity of the Tokyo summer; the subways packed past belief by platform agents armed with door-sized flat slabs of fiberglass designed specifically for stuffing commuters into train cars; the nasty fermented soybean treat, natto, less palatable to the western taste than, say, Vegemite, but well loved by the locals; oh, and let’s not forget Japanese popular music, J-pop, about which the less said, the better.

Now happily ensconced in Prince Edward Island, I am reveling in the laid-back pace: the farms overrun with U-Pick strawberries awaiting a dollop of freshly whipped cream; the beaches that will wait another couple of weeks at least until the first hardy tourists are willing to brave the chilly breakers; the top-down midday cruises in my aging-but-still-cute (like its owner, hopefully) Mini Cooper; the chipmunks and blue jays that exercise eminent domain on the grounds and airspace around my house; and of course, evenings catching up with friends and relatives I haven’t seen in the better part of a year. And perhaps best of all, I have so much space: my kitchen / dining area here is bigger than my entire apartment in Japan, no kidding! On the minus side, cable service hasn’t made its way this far out of town, so I still have interminably slow dial-up internet, which you may remember from back in the days of disco. The nearest supermarket is twenty minutes away, so some planning is required to ensure not running out of essentials like chocolate chip cookies or beer. And, while carping, I should mention the unofficial provincial bird of Prince Edward Island, the mosquito, whose size and rapaciousness is the stuff of legends.

Some time back, and I must confess I don’t remember where, I read a great definition of “home”: Home is the place where, if you have to go there, they have to let you in. Another variant: Home is the place where you bring all the stuff you acquired on your last trip, before embarking on your next one. PEI fits the first definition for me to a tee, and Japan the second, although it must be said that I am running out of space for any new stuff in either place. Stay tuned for notices of a bi-continental garage sale of epic proportions!


Tokyo Car Culture, Part I

June 21, 2009

Some of the stranger automobiles I’ve encountered on my travels in Japan:

almost a vw van (but really a subaru, i think)

almost a vw van (but really a subaru, i think)

almost a jaguar (but really a pint-sized mitsuoka)

almost a jaguar (but really a pint-sized mitsuoka)

almost a mini cooper s (but really a daihatsu, as far as i can tell)

almost a mini cooper s (but really a daihatsu, as far as i can tell)

almost a 1955 Toyopet Crown (but in fact a 50-odd-year-later Toyota Origin)

almost a 1955 Toyopet Crown (but in fact a 50-odd-year-later Toyota Origin)

a mitsubishi east brain?

a mitsubishi east brain?

almost a car (but it has some growing up to do)

almost a car (but it has some growing up to do)

the all new Nissan Pivo2, whose passenger area can pivot 180 degrees, but not while driving

the all new Nissan Pivo2, whose passenger area can pivot 180 degrees, but not while driving

why do you suppose you never hear of high speed police chases in japan?

why do you suppose you never hear of high speed police chases in japan?


The Mysterious World of KitKats

May 29, 2009

When I first arrived in Japan, I decided to go totally native, eschewing all (or at least most) of the comforts of the decadent West: I moved into a tiny, decidedly non-Western style apartment, rode a bicycle (or used public transport) instead of driving a car, drank home-brewed tea and ate only Japanese food. I even watched Tokyo TV occasionally, a pastime about on a par, entertainment-wise, with gum surgery. I found that I got by quite well for the most part (TV aside), but after a while I got a hankering for something, anything, American. I don’t think it would have mattered much what it was: a movie, an English conversation, an order of chili fries. Just some small tangible reminder of the Western World. What I wound up getting was a KitKat bar, that light and crunchy chocolate-clad wafery confection, one bite of which would cast my taste buds back across the Great Pacific, or so I thought. I unwrapped it with relish, bit in, and promptly yelped “Blecch! What is this?”, making a gargoyle face as though it had been, say, a spoiled-pork flavored KitKat. I handed the package to my Japanese friend, and she looked at it casually and said, “What’s the problem? It’s a red bean KitKat. If you wanted a regular one, why didn’t you get a regular one?” Sure enough, although the package looked virtually identical to the American KitKat box, there were indeed small red beans illustrated, pouring out of the interior of the bar. Go figure, red beans. “They have other flavors too” she continued. “Green tea, white chocolate, pumpkin.” Pumpkin? A pumpkin KitKat? From that day forward, I kept an eye out in the grocery stores, 7-11s, and other venues that might sell chocolate bars, and sure enough I turned up several new flavors: Sakura (cherry blossom), Kiwi Fruit, Fuji Apple, and Muscat (green grape), among others, some of which were pretty tasty.

How did it happen that the US got only original flavor KitKats, but Japan had a half-dozen flavors or more? That was just not fair. By now I was full-on intrigued, so I did an internet search on Japanese KitKats, and found that my “half-dozen” estimate was somewhat low, about one hundred low, maybe more. For in Japan, you can get not only the regular bar, but also (and this is only a partial list):

Cacao, Iced Tea, Caramel and Salt (better than you might think), Kinako (soybean powder, really yummy), Chestnut, Orange, Latte, Strawberry, White Peach, Yellow Peach, Canteloupe, Triple Berry, Double Berry, Mango, Caramel Macchiato, Cinnamon, Milkshake, Watermelon, Mandarin, Hokkaido Blueberry, Luscious Lime, Soy Sauce (definitely an acquired taste), Sweet Potato, Roasted Tea, Hokkaido Red Pepper, Watermelon and Salt, Lemon Chocolate, Black Sugar, Rose, Custard, Jasmine, Tiramisu, Blueberry Cheesecake, Cranberry, Soy Milk, Mild Bitter and Orange, Inside Out (chocolate wafers on the inside, white chocolate outside), Genmaicha (green tea with crisped rice), Mochi, Strawberry Crunch, Passionfruit, Yoghurt, and Maple Syrup.

There are also at least two with alcohol content, Wine and Grand Marnier KitKats, which are not to be sold to anyone under age twenty, the legal age for alcohol consumption in Japan. There are regional-only specialties, like Okinawa Mango KitKats, Kyushu Cider With Pepper KitKats, or Hokkaido Butter Baked Potato KitKats (Japan’s northernmost main island, ever on the cutting edge, also offers Hokkaido Roasted Corn KitKats), so if you are jonesing for one of those, you have to find someone to send it to you, although occasionally you can turn up regional KitKats at the international airport shopping arcades. The weirdest one I had run across, up until today, at least, was Edamame flavor KitKat. Edamame will be well known to Japanese foodies, but for those who are not fans, it is a green soybean, and it tastes like peas, kinda sorta. A fine flavor for a legume, to be sure, but less so for a chocolate bar.

Today, though, I may have found the all time winner, the Lemon Vinegar KitKat. That is such an unbelievable concept that I feel honor bound to include a photo of the package, lest you think I am making it up. I haven’t sat down to savor it yet. I want to think about it for a while first. I mean, how would you even get the idea to put lemon, vinegar and chocolate into one mouth at one time? Soon Nestle, the producer, will have run out of eligible fruits and even combinations of fruits. What then, exotic spices? Meats? How about a Garlic Cilantro or Bratwurst KitKat? I suppose I ought not give them any ideas.

Did you know that there is a KitKat Museum? Or that enterprising amateur chocolatiers sell single bars (i.e., half a KitKat, one of the wrapped sections that come two to a package), for $2.95 and up on ebay? Or that there is a website devoted to KitKats from around the world? An entire planet-wide KitKat Kult, constantly on the lookout for new recruits.

evmay