On the Night Joey Ramone Died by Jim Algie

Rock and Roll Will Never Die

Rock and roll is a country all of its own. It has territories everywhere in the world, each with its own flavor but all governed by the hard-driving rhythm and hard-living life of the founding rockers. Wherever travelers find themselves, they’re certain to find a bass guitar, a drum kit, and a lead who fills a room with words that may be indecipherable but who clearly conveys hot sex.

Rock legends usually die young and the official cause that’s written on the death certificate is almost always drugs. Robbie Robertson of The Band sees it differently and he is a man who would know. His belief is that it’s not the drugs, it’s not the music, it’s “the road.” Like baseball or ballet, rock and roll takes athleticism and stamina, but with a schedule more demanding than many other disciplines. Its musicians never go offstage. Their lives are ruled by the realm that they’ve chosen. In that way they are very similar to priests and the government that most closely corresponds to rock and roll is the Vatican. After those comparisons are made, all bets are off. Priests usually achieve longevity but in rock and roll, there are few Mick Jaggers.

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Thailand is a perfect outpost for rock and roll. The freewheeling lifestyle has been perfected over centuries of diligent practice, the women are beautiful, the alcohol is cheap and deadly, and the climate is ideal for growing poppies. When soldiers showed up during the Vietnam War, they came bearing their own soundtrack and near secret air bases along the Mekong river, kids who were raised on the wild twanging sounds of Thai country music grabbed onto rock and roll and never let go.

Fifty years later it’s still there. And the kids who became its first inhabitants? There are the survivors like Lam Morrison and the ones who died, who are legion, and then there’s the leading character in the new novel by Bangkok writer, Jim Algie, On the Night Joey Ramone Died.

Lek produces albums for syrup-voiced boys whose looks outweigh their talent. His musical heroes are “dying of diseases instead of overdoses” and, as he remarks to a contemporary, “...fifty seems young.” Lek himself rankles under the criticism of his ex-wife who told him “You’re not a punk or a rebel anymore….You’re a businessman in a leather jacket and torn jeans.” His drugs now are cigarettes and coffee, which may kill him but distinctly lack cachet, and his teen-age son Dee Dee is blatantly unimpressed. It would be the perfect Woody Allen scenario, but this is rock and roll and Lek is still “crazy after all these years.” After all, he uses Barbie and Hello Kitty dolls as target practice to let off steam.

Then his son’s English conversation teacher walks through the door, a small blonde Norwegian girl who dresses like Jim Morrison’s girlfriend, swears like a rock star, once lived down the street from Alice Cooper, and is a death metal fan. She’s smart, funny, and dark as hell--and she likes Lek.

Suddenly middle-age doesn’t look so bad,  now that he’s got a cute chick, lines of coke, and lots of booze in the mix. Lek begins writing songs again. But who’s the girl who has come into his life and what lies at the end of this new road?

“Write about what you know,” is the leading cliche of English 101, along with “Show, don’t tell.” Jim Algie knows more about rock and roll, Bangkok, and the enticement of a killer lifestyle than many, and he shows every corner with talent that is almost cinematic. Lek’s nightmare world is one that Martin Scorsese would commit homicide to have, revealed with wit and undertones of Chet Baker, a blood-red place in the ninth circle of hell where Pol Pot links arms with Cannibal Corpse and Death comes out the winner.

Put this one on the shelf with Been Down So Long It Looks Like Up to Me and Beautiful Losers, drink a toast to Janis, Jimi, and the Lizard King, and hope like hell that Jim Algie is working on that next novel. “There’s more to the picture,” and he’s the guy who knows enough to show it all.

Burma: Rivers of Flavor by Naomi Duguid (Artisan Books)

Whether you call it Burma or Myanmar, the country that lies below India, adjoins China, and borders Thailand, is a huge collection of highly diverse ethnic groups, each with their own customs and cuisine. “A cultural crossroads,” says Naomi Duguid, in her latest compendium of recipes, photographs, and stories, Burma: Rivers of Flavor.

Duguid has spent decades traveling through Asia with her family, steeping herself in daily life and learning different forms of home cooking. She first went to Burma over thirty years ago and has spent time roaming around the country, leaving the cities to learn the flavors of the Shan, the Karen, the Rakhine. Her photographs are generous in showing who she met and what she saw; her stories are enticing glimpses of a place that remains largely untraveled. From monasteries to market towns, from the serenity of 15th century temples to the devastation left by Cyclone Nargis, Duguid goes there and takes us with her.

But the glory of her books lies in the food she shares through recipes—and her latest is perhaps the most accessible to the Western cook. In common with their Southeast Asian neighbors, cooks in Burma use fish sauce and chilies and a multiplicity of fresh herbs. But the preparation involved is much easier, with fewer steps involved than in many Southeast Asian dishes—and the flavors encompass the Subcontinent and China too, with a distinctive local flair.

“Classic Sour Soup” is made with a fish stock, tamarind pulp, and bok choi—but “in Mandalay,” Duguid tells us, “…when the tall kapok trees are in bloom, cooks add their velvety, faded-red flowers.” Not a flavor the average cook will employ but will yearn to taste—this is Naomi Duguid’s trademark, to make home cooks long to leave their kitchens and eat in other places.

Bland potatoes become incendiary when a Rakhine cook is finished with them—first she boils them and then tosses them in a fiery shallot oil that’s been pumped up with lots of chilies. It’s a potato salad that will spice up potluck picnics in an unforgettable fashion.

And she tells how to make the country’s most famous dish—mohinga, a fish soup that is far more complicated than most of the other recipes but so very much worth the time and effort that it requires. With her customary generosity, Duguid gives both the Rakhine and the Rangoon versions of this –and tells a story attesting to the regional loyalty toward this “classic breakfast food.” Apparently no region can stomach another’s mohinga, which makes at least one prospective eater want to embark on a mohinga tour of Burma.

Duguid’s new book is a smaller size than her earlier ones, which makes it easier to use in the kitchen—and it is certain to be used. Perhaps more than any other cuisine she has explored, Burma’s is the most user-friendly to the Western cook, with hearty cold-weather dishes of stews and chutneys as well as salads, crepes, and desserts for lighter meals.

But when her book is first opened, it will keep readers going from picture to story to recipe, exploring Burma for hours in the company of a woman who is eager to share it. Burma: Rivers of Flavor may be the cheapest ticket to another country that you will ever buy.

Opium Fiend by Steven Martin (Villard Books)

Perhaps the first sign of incipient addiction is the habit of collecting. Steven Martin provides a story all too familiar to many of us, receiving little packets of coins in the mail when he was a boy, until the day he was threatened with legal collection for unpaid packets. His father returned his entire collection but the damage was done. Martin’s life was dominated by the need to corner the market in objects he loved—and in Thailand, he learned to love opium pipes.

The paraphernalia of the opium user is arcane and lovely, the lamps, the pipes, the scrapers, the boxes, the beds. Martin arrived in Southeast Asia early enough to make the obligatory and occasional pilgrimage to opium dens in Laos, where he became entranced by the objects used in them. His urge to collect something unique and beautiful was fulfilled by the trappings of the opium smoker, and while collecting these things, he became an obsessive expert on the subject.

A large portion of Martin’s book is devoted to the history of opium use in China and the United States, with a wealth of photographs. His collection becomes so exhaustive and valuable that he bequeaths it to the University of Idaho.

Then what has been a dispassionate examination of the art of opium smoking becomes deeply personal. With his life given over to the appreciation of the trappings of opium, Martin meets a collector who smokes in a way that honors the implements and the ritual of the drug. As an aesthete, Martin falls in love with both the ceremony and the sharpened contemplation that comes with opium.

The progression of his addiction and of his altered relationship with the world in general makes compelling reading—and his account of detoxification at Thailand’s famous Wat Tham Krabok, where addicts are subjected to a racking regimen of emetics, is worth a book in itself.

Martin makes a convincing case for high-quality opium, chandu, the liquid essence of the drug. As long as he sticks to that, he functions, he claims, at peak performance. However on a trip to Europe, he is introduced to the dross, the scrapings of the pipe residue, and his experience becomes a ravenous one—harrowing and expensive.

The world of the expatriate in Thailand is very small and Martin comes into the orbit of an American woman who takes over his story, an act that usually occurred to anyone who encountered Roxanna Brown. A tiny woman with a history in Southeast Asia that novels are made of, Brown was a connoisseur of chandu, which she used regularly and judiciously. Martin is horrified by the Spartan paucity of her opium accessories and they strike a deal. He gives her the implements befitting the drug she uses and she supplies him with the drug—for a fee. But Brown is horrified when she learns that Martin smokes between twenty and thirty pipes a day; she smokes no more than six or eight. The rest of the time she resorts to the efficiency of micro-doses—one drop on the tongue is the equivalent to five pipes.

But Martin is a slave to the ritual, his “nightly black mass,” and he succumbs to “nostalgia for the pipe.” But even in Thailand, opium is wickedly expensive. When he and Brown join economic forces to buy a bottle of chandu, his share of the purchase comes to four thousand dollars, or 120,000 baht. Even for a well-paid expat, that would be two months salary, and neither Martin nor Brown fall into that economic category. When Martin begins to sell items of his collection to pay for his opium, his original addiction wins over the hunger for opium and he goes to Wat Tham Krabok, which cures for nothing—but only once..

For Brown, things do not end that well. Eating opium puts a terrible strain on the digestive system, which is “frozen into hibernation by the drug.” When she makes a trip to the states, she is arrested and accused of electronic fraud, allowing her signature to be used for falsified appraisals of Southeast Asian art, a subject upon which she is an expert. A woman with Thai nationality as well as being a U.S. citizen, Roxanna Brown is considered a flight risk and is thrown into an immigration detention center in Seattle. She dies in her cell in agony from a perforated ulcer, an offshoot, Martin says, of opium eating.

On the night of her death, Steven Martin was in Bangkok, “weightlessly suspended as though floating in a warm sea.” Opium had reclaimed him after detox; whether it still dominates his life is perhaps another story, another book.

In the Shadow of the Banyan by Vaddey Ratner (Simon & Schuster)

“Your father may have brought you wings, Raami. But it is I who must to teach you to fly. I want you to understand this. This is not a story.” Raami is a seven-year-old girl with a leg damaged by polio, whose father taught her that words could make her fly and that stories are the gift life brings to those who listen. She yearns to walk with the grace of her beautiful mother, to run as freely as her little sister, but her father, Cambodia’s Tiger Prince, teaches her the power of words and the ability to transform her world into poetry.

And a lovely world it is. Every morning Raami’s father leaves their gated villa, wanders through the streets of Phnom Penh and comes with a poem to write. The family is of royal blood, the descendants of King Sisowath, except for Raami’s mother. “Our family,” she tells her daughter, “is like a bouquet, each stem and blossom perfectly arranged.”

And then the bouquet disintegrates when the Khmer Rouge enter Phnom Penh and send the city’s residents onto the highways that lead into the countryside. Hastily Raami’s family throw what they will need into their car—jewelry stitched into an old pillow, food, Raami’s treasured copy of the Reamker, the Ramayana, and in her father’s pocket his fountain pen and the small leather notebook that goes with him everywhere.

Deep in the Cambodian countryside, the family finds that little they brought is of any use to them. The world is new and inexplicable; only Raami’s mother knows how to survive without servants or the safety of a walled garden. The rules have all changed. Religion and education have been swallowed up by the new force which is Angkar, The Organization. Soldiers in black look for class enemies. When they ask Raami to give her father’s name, she announces it proudly. Sisowath rings in the air like a death sentence.

The Tiger Prince is well-known for his courage and his poetry; even away from Phnom Penh peasants smile when they see his face. He gives himself up, telling his captors that the rest of the family are commoners who are relatives of his wife. Raami hears him writing in the dark, tearing a page from his notebook; the next morning he is carried away in an oxcart while his daughter begs him for one more story.

The remaining family is torn apart. Raami, her mother, and her sister are taken to an old peasant couple who have always longed for children and see the three strangers as an answer to their deepest wish. “Don’t forget who you are,” Raami’s mother tells her as she sees her daughter learn to love the rural life. But under Angkar, happiness is a treacherous state and Raami’s mother is forced to teach her oldest daughter that the only way to survive is to put memories of the past in the farthest reaches of her brain.

Ripped from their peasant family after the death of Raami’s baby sister, she and her mother sink deeper into hunger, exhaustion, and the madness of the Pol Pot years. By the end of the book, their deaths seem inevitable, as Angkar puts them to work excavating what seems to be a gigantic gravesite.

The opening dedication of this novel provides a powerful clue to how it will end. “In the memory of my father,” Vaddey Ratner writes, “Neak Ang Mecha Sisowath Ayuravann.” The name rings like a clear bell. It’s the name of Raami’s father.

This book is a novel because, to tell her own story with the depth that she wanted, Vaddey Ratner needed to create thoughts and speech and feelings that as a small child she could neither remember nor completely comprehend. She has taken lives that were snuffed out and lives that held on in spite of unimaginable cruelty and turned what some cynically call a “misery memoir” to a story that is mythic in its scope and description. The beauty of Cambodia, the courage of its people, and the horror of its recent history is told with the resonance and poetry of Raami’s beloved Reamker. This is an unforgettable narrative and a tribute to the courage of Vaddey Ratner’s parents.

Cambodia is attempting to erase the Pol Pot years. In the Shadow of the Banyan helps to ensure that the world, and the Khmer people, will always remember the years between 1975 and 1979 when a group of Cambodians did its best to destroy their beautiful country, and failed..

The Map of Lost Memories by Kim Fay (Ballantine Books)

From Seattle to Shanghai was a long journey in 1925, especially for an unaccompanied woman. But Irene Blum travels in a world of art trafficking on a mammoth scale. For her the globe is studded with treasures to be bought and sold, the crown jewels of the deposed Russian tsar, a ring that was the Empress Cixi's prized possession, paintings fit for the collection of a Rockefeller, and most of all, the newly discovered glories of Cambodia's Angkor Wat.

"A woman with a calling, now that is a thing of beauty," is how one of Irene's oldest friends describes her, but Irene's calling has turned to an obsession, a means of revenge. Passed over for a coveted position at the museum she has made into a showcase for Asian art in favor of a man with little experience, Irene is out to find a key to the forgotten history of the Khmer Empire, something that nobody else knows about--a set of copper scrolls hidden in the farthest reaches of Cambodia. With these in her possession, Irene will have a place in any museum she chooses and a secure spot in the only world that matters to her.

Irene's mentor, a man who has fostered her interest in Khmer art, has sent her to Shanghai to enlist the assistance of Simone Merlin, a woman who grew up among the Angkorean temples and knows them as few others do. Now married to a man who is devoted to Communist revolution, Simone is reluctant to return to the world she knew and loved, especially since her husband is both possessive and violent.

So begins a story of adventure and mystery, one that is neither predictable nor ordinary. The plot twists alone would make this an intriguing novel but Kim Fay has skillfully added well-researched history, intertwining the story of a vanished empire with the lives of her characters without making one false or stilted move.

Above all, what makes this book outstanding is its wealth of sensory details. Fay's plot takes readers to Saigon, to Angkor Wat, into the Cambodian jungle, but her descriptions give the heat, the light, the color, the smells of these places. This is a writer who clearly knows and loves Southeast Asia, with a gift that makes the region tangible on the page.

Fay does the same for the people in her novel. Even incidental characters take on a fully-fleshed presence, as much as as the eccentric adventurers who form a fragile and almost incompatible relationship as they are drawn together by different motives to reach the same goal. Paying them the compliment of a slightly ambiguous ending, she allows them life beyond their adventure's end, letting them move on without a tidy and conventional conclusion, ensuring that they won't be easily forgotten.

The Map of Lost Memories introduces a new voice to historical fiction, a talented and skillful writer who is a woman to watch. While waiting for Kim Fay’s next novel, readers can explore her travel writing in Communion: A Culinary Journey through Vietnam, and in the To Asia With Love series that she created and edited for ThingsAsian Press.--Janet Brown

A Spoonful of Promises by T. Susan Chang (Lyons Press)

The trouble with a cookbook, any cookbook, is that it arranges food according to a theme—one of the four seasons, one of the three meals, one of the world’s countries or regions, one of the multitudes of weight-loss regimens—and that isn’t the way people think about food. Memory is the province of food. Just ask Proust as he brandishes his madeleine.

The most satisfying way to think about food is during a conversation with a good friend. And when you pick up A Spoonful of Promisesby T. Susan Chang (or Susie as she introduces herself to readers at the book’s beginning) that’s exactly what’s offered—if your good friend happens to be the granddaughter of a Chinese financier, millionaire, and “mobster (probably),” the daughter of the man who practically invented the coffee –table book in all of its sumptuous glory, and an adventurous eater whose tastes embrace the cuisine of every country on the planet.

Approach this book with the advice Susie Chang gives her children—“Try One Bite.” Whether it’s paella or phad thai, scallion pancakes or stroopwafels, you’re going to find something that you’ve never tasted before and certainly never dreamed of cooking, or drinking either. No matter if it’s a Basil Mojito, a Lavender Vodka tonic, or the non-alcoholic Longest Day Tea, this lady is going to convince you to make and sip a “Garden in a Glass.” After all, she’s the kind of friend who confesses to “standing clueless in the pantry at 4:30, thinking wistful thoughts about beer, and walk to the table with a meal for six an hour and a half later.” Sound familiar to you? Oh no,not me either…

At times Susie Chang seems formidable. She’s the kind of mother who has been known to spend half an hour making steamed eggs or a soufflé omelet for a very young son who would eat eggs in no other form until she introduced him to egg crepes with truffle oil. But she becomes less terrifying when she provides no-hassle recipes for apple sauce, pumpkin bread, or a cold mixed-berry soup for those days when cooking is the last thing on anybody’s mind. She admits to almost committing arson with a funnel cake and to succumbing to a mint ice cream addiction—yes, she will tell you how to make both of these indulgences—as well as how to cook pilfered chanterelles with roasted monkfish and garlic chives. “It was good enough to be a last meal on Death Row…amorallydelectable.”

She’s the kind of friend who assumes nothing and tells all—how to clean a monkfish, how to use a knife, how to cook rice, how to make a simple syrup, how to roll jiao zie, the traditional New Year’s dumpling, in three easy steps, with photographs. And she doesn’t ignore her single friends—there are six glorious recipes that will make a number of meals for one solitary eater, including an enticing chocolate mousse that “serves one on a bad day.” I tell you, you have to love this woman.

Hungry for Braised Chinese-Restaurant-Style Spareribs? Daunted by the thought of tracking down ‘the Elusive Red Bean Curd?” Look for it in “the Scary Inscrutable Jars section” of an Asian grocery, and if you “just can’t find it, make the recipe anyway.” Want Thai food without leaving the house? Yam Neua is worth the “tearful complications” of slicing those lethal little bird chiles and the four or five shallots. “Mere flickers of agitation,” Susie Chang warns the unwary cook, “could prove incendiary.”

A Spoonful of Promises offers more than recipes. It is studded with wit—“There’s nothing wrong with canned pumpkin puree, other than it lacks poetry.” An essay about saffron leads to an insightful examination of living with an aging father, and the unfading presence of a mother who died young pervades the page of this book, evoked in tender stories and the fragrance of baked apples. “We are dreamed of by our parents and remembered by our children,” is a sentence that is a gift. There are many gifts in Susie Chang's collection of stories and recipes. Read her words and savor them all.—Janet Brown

This review originally appeared in The International Examiner.

Mumbai Noir (Akashic Books)

If you want to know the innermost core of a city, its hopes, dreams, and fears, read its crime fiction. If you want to explore every facet of that core, revealed by different points of view, read Akashic Books’ noir series, where a number of writers, all well familiar with their city (or in some volumes their state or country), each write a crime story about it.

The latest in this series, Mumbai Noir, is a collection of “all-new” stories by fifteen writers, most of them living, or having once lived, in Mumbai. And that is what makes these stories so compelling—each selection is steeped in a knowledgeable sense of place, and aknowledge of the often grisly criminal acts that occur in that place.

“Between 1993 and 20ll,” the introduction states, “Mumbai has weathered eight terror attacks.” Its over twelve million residents “have become unwitting authorities on all the ways that an ordinary day in the city can turn out to be one’s last.” Small wonder that the opening stories in this book involve bomb blasts, the need to be alert to possible terrorists, the caution and vigilance that turned “the Mumbai evening…into a night that was no longer Bombay.”

The stories that follow argue with that assertion. Going from the shadowed world of the transgendered hijira, to the dance halls where beautiful women command a price perhaps too high, to the streets where an alluring body may not be what it seems, Mumbai certainly still seems to have what one man calls “The Juice.” Within this city, the crimes range from one that will make strong men turn pallid to an almost novelistic story of obsessive attraction told by both the stalker and the stalked, with an ambiguous ending that skillfully teases, puzzles, and evokes arguments.

An affluent woman hides from the world in her apartment that is housed in an “an all-vegetarian building” where her secret fear comes knocking on her door; gothic horror and perhaps the secret of eternal youth lurk in a traveler’s oasis that “disowned chaos” in a city that seemingly embodies it. Murder strikes in a fitness center as efficiently as it does within a motorized rickshaw, and as befits a collection of noir fiction, there are hard-boiled detectives and cynical cops to assess—if not solve —mysterious cases.

The writers of Mumbai Noir are male and female—including a pair of surgeons who write collaboratively to form one author. Contributors to this anthology lead IT firms, make films, take photographs, work at non-governmental organizations. The diversity of their interests leads to the diversity found within this collection, offering a tantalizing glimpse of their city beneath the darkness of their stories.

The wide-ranging ethnic differences found in Mumbai are reflected in the glossary at the back of the book, defining words from Hindi, Urdu, Maharathi, Punjabi, and Gujarati. A few of the terms are obscenities, still more have to do with food, which says quite a bit about this city.

Only the most hardened crime aficionados will read this in one sitting; the rest of us will come back to it again and again, drawn by the stories, the details, Mumbai.--Janet Brown

Coffee Life in Japan by Merry White (University of California Press)

Starbucks has given Seattle a reputation for coffee worldwide, providing standardized espresso drinks and clean restrooms all across the globe. In much of Asia, especially in China, the Pacific Northwest chain has become a chic place to sit and sip—but not in Japan.

Merry White begins her examination of coffeehouses in Japan with memories of “the Vienna, a four-story velvet extravaganza, where kaffe Wien was served with Mozart, amid gilt chairs and filigreed balconies,” of “a neighborhood café, redolent of male friendship, old cigarettes, and smelly feet,” and a “a half-underground, cavelike café” where customers removed all of their clothes, were daubed with blue paint and then were urged to press their bodies against sheets of white paper hanging from the walls. This was in Tokyo in the 1960s, when Howard Schultz was still drinking milk in elementary school and most coffee-drinkers in Seattle still used a percolator.

Japan enthusiastically took to coffee in 1888, when the first coffeehouse emerged in Tokyo, established by a cosmopolite Japanese who had been adopted by a man from Taiwan, was raised to speak four languages, and was sent to Yale University when he was sixteen. Although this initial foray into coffee culture went bankrupt (its founder died seven years later in Seattle), Meiji-era Japan perceived coffee drinking as a modern virtue and the café as an intriguing personal space in a country where this came at a premium. “Coffee,” White explains, “became Japanese quickly…From the early 1900s, coffee, a drink for everyday, became a commonplace and Japanese beverage.”

And the beverage was powered by the places where it was enjoyed. With its ‘dry inebriation,” coffee “was seen also as the drink of thoughtfulness,” providing a way to be “private in public.” While in the West, coffeehouses were gathering places of extroverted sociability, in Japan they became an essential “third place,” spots where pressures of home and work were escaped for a time, where private space could be purchased for the price of a cup of coffee.

As places where people are free to interact or not as they choose, Japanese coffeehouses became “shape- shifters.”  There are cafés for every facet of a personality—places to be anonymous and quiet, places to see art, places to hear jazz, places that serve as classical music venues where patrons request that certain record albums be played as they sit silently sipping their coffee, places where tiny fish nibble the submerged bare feet of coffee drinkers, and of course the neighborhood spots where “everybody knows your name.”

The Japanese café is not a matter of style over substance. The drinking of coffee is a paramount consideration and each cup is often hand-crafted--kodawari., or the art of dedication, is essential. The beans are often roasted in the coffeehouse, with a particular bean often ordered ahead of time by a customer, and are ground for that serving alone, as soon as the order has been placed. The water is poured over the ground beans in a slow and meticulous stream of carefully-placed drips, only after it has been cooled from its boiling point to the proper temperature. The freshly-ground coffee is moistened without the water ever touching the sides of the filter. “Coffee masters” often disdain espresso machines, preferring the time-honored drip from a narrow-spouted kettle over a filter made of flannel. One master is known for evicting from his shop customers who ask for cream and sugar to put in the coffee he makes—“he would have made it stronger or hotter, or with a different bean, if sugar or milk were needed.”

Small wonder that the Japanese art of coffee is spreading throughout the world. Suzuki beans and cafés are found throughout Southeast Asia and Japanese coffee-making methods are being taught in the U.S. from New York City to San Francisco. Perhaps Seattle, with its resurging Nihonmachi, will eventually lead the way for coffee drinkers to experience the full spectrum of public caffeination as it’s described in Coffee Life in Japan.~Janet Brown

Midnight in Peking by Paul French (Penguin Books)

The new year of 1937 had barely begun when an old man, walking near one of Peking’s ancient walls early in the morning, came across the body of a dead girl. Her face had been slashed with a knife, her legs were sliced, and her sternum had been cut open with all of her ribs broken; her heart, liver, bladder and one of her kidneys had been removed. Her body had been savaged by the stray dogs that roamed the city and the only clue as to who she may have been was a blood-soaked membership card for the ice-skating rink at the French Club. Her hair was blonde and on her wrist was a platinum watch that was set in diamonds. Clearly this bizarre murder had not been prompted by robbery.

As the police made a preliminary examination of the corpse and the crime scene, an elderly man made his way to the body, screamed “Pamela” and fell to the ground. E.T. C. Werner, a scholar and former British consul, had lived in China since the 1880s. The night before, his only child had failed to return home and he had wandered the neighborhoods searching for her. When he found her at last, she was in the realm of every parent’s worst nightmare.

Peking was a city that was already gripped in fear before Pamela Werner was murdered. The Japanese had conquered Manchuria six years earlier and now they were advancing upon China’s third-richest city, with troops encamped only miles away. Most of Peking’s two thousand foreign residents were sheltered within the eight heavily guarded iron gates of the city’s Legation Quarter, a spot that was “Europe in miniature.” Terrified by the rumors that Chiang Kai-shek would relinquish northern China in hopes of retaining the south, Westerners were leaving for home—but not the widowed Edward Werner and his daughter.

The two of them lived outside of the protective gates of the Legation Quarter in a luxurious courtyard house, and both took pleasure in roaming the city. Pamela, born in China and fluent in Mandarin, rode her bicycle unaccompanied, ran the household singlehanded when her father traveled, and became so independent that her father found her difficult to control. He sent her off to boarding school where she appeared to be a typical hockey-playing, uniformed, drab teenager. At home in Peking for the holidays, she transformed herself into a glamorous woman in black, wearing lipstick and kohl.

“I am afraid of nothing...Peking is the safest city in the world,” were Pamela’s last words to her friends before she left them on the night of her murder, which took place almost a month before her twentieth birthday. Two detectives, one British and one Chinese, combed the city for clues as to who her killer might have been and discovered Pamela had been pursued by more than one man. Despite her demure schoolgirl persona, her true self was much more the seductress in black.

History was unkind to Pamela. The investigation of her murder was soon supplanted by Japanese tanks in the streets of Peking (a mere goodwill parade, the Japanese Legation assured the city) and the sky was loud with the noise of Japanese Zero aircraft, buzzing overhead. By the end of July, Peking was a conquered city.

Her father however spent all of his money and energy in his attempts to find his daughter’s killer. The decadence and cruelty that he discovered on his own would have shaken and horrified Peking’s expatriate world had the war not intervened.

Much as Erik Larson did in Devil in the White City, Paul French has taken historical true crime and given it the depth and suspense of a good novel. Midnight in Peking is a book that recreates a time and place with vivid accuracy, while bringing a horrible crime to a stunning close, seventy-five years after Pamela Werner was murdered.~Janet Brown

Ghetto at the Center of the World: Chungking Mansions, Hong Kong by Gordon Mathews (University of Chicago Press)

Seventeen stories, three-tower blocks rising from a massive plinth, owned by 920 share-holders, containing a transient population of at least 129 different nationalities who come looking for a cheap place to sleep in the middle of Kowloon’s Golden Mile—this is Chungking Mansions. Avoided by local Hong Kong Chinese, immortalized by Wong Kar-wai in his art-house movie Chungking Express, occasionally used as a setting for Western mystery writers (most recently Michael Connelly and Jo Nesbo), this is more a town than it is a building, housing a community of what Gordon Mathews terms “low-end globalism.”

An American anthropologist who has lived in Hong Kong since 1994, Mathews became drawn to Chungking Mansions in 1983 when he stayed there while traveling. In 2006 he began his project to discover the building’s “role in globalization” and its “significance in the world.” No ivory-tower denizen, Mathews spent “one or more nights a week” in Chungking Mansions guesthouses  as well as “every available moment” for a period of three and a half years. The result of his research is true to his subject and is amazingly readable—his book sparkles with life that is rarely found in an offering from an academic press.

Mathews knows his territory and shares it generously. Chungking Mansion’s history, from an upscale apartment building to a center for “Western hippies and backpackers” to a business center for entrepreneurs from all over the planet is well laid out and the often mysterious details of its present incarnation are carefully explained. Travelers who have wondered about the evening crowds of Africans at the nearby 7/11 or the function of the middle-aged sari-clad women who cluster in the same area during the day will find their curiosity satisfied in these pages. (Unfortunately, to protect the unlicensed premises, Mathews fails to divulge where the elusive African restaurants are in the upper floors of Chungking Mansions.)

People have learned to trust Gordon Mathews and he safeguards that trust by giving pseudonyms to the people who have granted him candid interviews. “I was born here in Hong Kong—I am a Hong Kong person,” a Sikh shop owner says, “I feel like an outsider…but when I enter this building..I feel like I’m home. All countries can enter here. Outside is difficult, but Chungking Mansions is home!”

And all countries do enter here—represented by people who come to do business, along with a number of asylum-speakers. Chungking Mansions is a world-center for inexpensive mobile phones that are made in China and transported to Africa in carry-on luggage, as many as 700 phones per trip, bringing ‘an average profit of US $500 per trip.” Clothing manufactured in mainland China, tires from used cars, DVD players, computer accessories—luggage carts heaped higher than a man’s head are wheeled out of Chungking Mansions regularly. Gold and gems come in from Africa—one man would arrive with a full set of gold dentures and leave with sparkling white ones. These are not poor men and women, except by Hong Kong standards, which are high enough to make many visitors feel poor. Most of the traders who fill Chungking’s elevators are middle-class and higher in their home countries and most of them use English as a common language.

Aside from being an intriguing portrait of a fascinating corner of the world, Mathew’s book challenges accepted definitions of globalization. Multi-national corporations are in some ways being supplanted by cheap knock-offs traded by entrepreneurial individuals. Only a minority of the world’s population can afford Nokia; the rest will happily accept Noklia, if the price is right—and it usually is. “Low-end globalization,” Mathews says, “is not the world’s past; it is, in at least some respects, the world’s future.”

“I predict,” he continues, “that what Chungking Mansions is today, much more of the world will be tomorrow.” And that prediction, at least as Gordon Mathews’ book portrays it, is one to look forward to.~Janet Brown

Seven Reasons to Go Travelling Solo by Chris Mitchell

If there is one quibble I have with this book (and there is only one), it is with its title.

Please be warned: this book is limited neither to solo travelers nor to first-time passport-users. Anyone and everyone is going to find useful information in here, no matter how many visa stamps they may have accumulated over the years or how many companions they have traveled with. This is one of the most useful travel tools that has come down the pike since the compass was invented, trust me.

I was skeptical at first. I always travel alone and have for decades—what could this book tell me? Quite a bit, as it turns out, and I’m willing to bet that every reader is going to come away with more information than they had when they began to read the first of the seven tips. And this is information that’s fun to read, like a chat with the author over an ice-cold Asahi draft (and yes, I am fully qualified to make that comparison.)

“Travel is a jolt to the soul”—this quote from Kevin Kelly sets the tone for this book, with Mitchell later observing that travel can, as the cliché says, broaden your mind but it can also change your mind. He’s living proof of that himself; his travel lust has endowed him with a new home in the world, a new livelihood, and a delightful enthusiasm for seeing new places that permeates every page of his book.

From how to maintain a long-distance relationship while on a trip of some duration to how to travel with a laptop without suffering unforeseen disasters, how to travel in a country without knowing the language and still make friends with the residents, how to budget for a trip without living on ramen for a year, how to survive an airport (keep that ticket stub!), how to make money while you travel without violating the terms of a tourist visa, how to avoid unpleasant last-minute carry-on restrictions—it’s all here. Mitchell provides links to sites that will “monetize” a travel blog, sites that offer “microjobs,” sites that find cheap airfares, and of course a link to TravelHappy at the end of each chapter, along with the site’s cheery and distinctive logo.

Although his title targets the solo traveler, Mitchell assures his readers “you won’t be alone for long.” “Become comfortable with the unfamiliar,” he advises, “Step up and speak to the locals….90% of communication is body language.” An advocate of learning key phrases, most notably “please, thank you and excuse me,” and not being afraid to make a fool of yourself through pantomime when there’s no other way to get the point across, Mitchell makes it clear that lack of language should be no barrier to having a good time.

For all that he knows how to use the internet for fun and profit, Chris Mitchell is in some ways a traditionalist. “Always carry a pen and paper,” he urges—taxi instructions written in the local language can make the difference between enjoyment and disaster. (It’s also true that in some countries, different accents in English can impede communication, while the written word can prove to be completely comprehensible.) And when packing, he reminds readers, “Good old paperback books have no battery problems and are still lightweight.”

Readers are given links to TravelHappy pages where all of the book’s travel resources are listed for easy reference and a place where free updated information will be posted. These alone are worth the price of the book, as are Mitchell’s final words of advice to prospective travelers, “Don’t wait.”

(For how to purchase this book, go to http://travelhappy.info/ )~Janet Brown

My Days, My Dreams : Stories From A Boyhood in Northern Japan by Yojiro Ishizaka [Translated by Hannah Joy Sawada] (Rojosha)

Since I recently returned from a visit to Aomori Prefecture, also known as Tsugaru, I was delighted to find an English translation of a book written by of one of that area’s prominent authors – Yojiro Ishizaka.  I didn’t pick up this book because I was familiar with its writer but because this area is also the hometown of my wife. It may seem a silly way to choose my reading material but I’ve been to Tsugaru often and my love for the place grows with every visit.

Although writers from Tsugaru are quite popular in Japan, only a few have been translated into English.  To give you an idea of how popular Ishizaka is in Japan, there are nearly 80 movies based on his works.

As translator Sawada mentions, most scholars focus on the writings of Osamu Dazai (also from Tsugaru) whose novels give a pessimistic image of Tsugaru, emphasizing the region’s poverty, rough weather, and lack of development.  Another writer from the area, Zenzo Kasai, also portrays Tsugaru in a rather bleak light. However, Ishizakal gives a perspective that’s quite opposite from the portrayals provided by Dazai or Kasai

In Ishizaka’s own words, “I myself do not want to be like Kasai or Dazai, who inflicted pain and sorrow on their families for the sake of their writing.  It is not commendable to ravage private lives for the purpose of drawing a good picture, composing great music, or producing superior literature.”

This is a collection of short stories all set near Ishizaka’s hometown of Hirosaki located in the Northeast of Japan’s main island of Honshu, the area also known as Tsugaru. All the stories are set in a time before the industrial revolution and center around the protagonist  Yuichi Makii, who is introduced in the first story as a sixth grade youth and son of the local doctor.

Yuiichi is excited about the upcoming Neputa Festival, which lasts for one week starting at the beginning of August.  Huge colorful floats parade through the streets while musicians play flutes accompanied by the loud sounds of a taiko drum.  However, the Neputa festival is only a backdrop to the story of Yuiichi’s friendship with the town prostitute Gen on whom Yuiichi has a crush.

Another story features Yuiichi’s first oyama sankei, a Tsugaru tradition of ascending Mount Iwaki, which is called the Mount Fuji of Tsugaru and is considered to be a sacred mountain.  At its base is Iwakiyama Jinja (Mount Iwaki Shrine), a national shrine the locals refer to as Oku Nikko (Nikko in the recesses). Yuichi intends to climb the mountain with a couple of his friends but things don’t go as he has planned. But not wanting to shame himself by going home after his parents had reluctantly consented to his going, he is determined to make the ascent.

Aomori Prefecture is full of interesting places.  There is a place called “Kirisuto no Haka” which translates to “Jesus’s Tomb.” (Yes, there really is such a place and yes, I have been there.)  So I was not surprised to find Yuichi traveling with a missionary and his assistant as they try to spread the word of Christ in Tsugaru.  I can still picture the missionary trying to explain the concept of Hell to the children of the village because most of the adults ignore his sermons—or the missionary getting angry at Yuichi for praying at a Shinto shrine and telling him he is not praying to the true God.

In the final story, a different character, also named Yuichi (but with the last name of Ida) returns to Tsugaru for the first time in ten years.  Although he’s been back on numerous occasions, it was usually only for a day or two and purely for business.  On this latest trip, he decides to stay for an extended period of time, planning to spend his days walking around town, meeting friends, taking naps. But after a week, he becomes bored and decides to visit the hot springs at Dake and spend the night at one of the inns.  While he is wandering around, he notices a woman who reminds him of his first visit to the hot springs.

As the title suggests, these stories are about the everyday life of growing up in Tsugaru: from participating in local festivals, to making a pilgrimage up a sacred mountain; fighting with rival neighborhood kids or trying to get in to a show free at the Yanagi theater.  These stories celebrate the joy of growing up in Tsugaru (Aomori Prefecture).

There is something special about reading stories set in places you have visited yourself.  On my latest excursion to Aomori, I went to the hot springs at Dake.  My first visit to a shrine for the New Year was at Mount Iwaki Shrine, and although the Neputa Festival is celebrated in August, there is a place called Neputa Mura in Hirosaki where you can check out the colorful floats and even try your hand at beating one of the large taiko drums.  With all these places still fresh in my mind, I felt as if I were reading my own diary, except all these stories are set in pre-industrial Japan.~Ernie Hoyt

Kimchi & Calamari by Rose Kent (Harper)

This is a title for all those kids who were adoptees and may have faced having an identity crisis at one time or another from not knowing their biological parents.  Although I’m not an adoptee, I couldn’t pass up this book with its interesting title.  However, on a personal note, I met a friend of my sister’s who was going on her own around-the-world solo tour; one of her destinations was a small town in Korea.  Like the protagonist of this book, she also was an adoptee from Korea and decided to go in search of her roots.

Drummer Joseph Calderaro is one mixed-up kid!  Why is that you ask?  Because he has one serious problem.  Joseph is fourteen and is in the 8th grade and his social studies teacher has just handed out an assignment to the class – to write an essay about your ancestors.

Since Joseph has an Italian-American family, this wouldn’t seem to be too much of a problem.  But he was adopted.  The only thing he knows about his biological parents is that “they shipped his diapered butt on a plane from Korea and he landed in New Jersey.”  How is an adopted Korean boy going to write about his family or ancestors he’s never met?

At home, for Joseph’s fourteenth birthday, his father has given him a Corno, a goat horn that Italian men wear for good luck.  His father explains that it’s to protect against malocchio, the “Evil Eye”.  However, Joseph shows no excitement and refuses to wear it.  He makes up some excuse for his father but really he feels that the guys in his class would think it’s weird. If they knew what a cornois, it probably meant that they’re Italian and would wonder why some Korean kid would be wearing this around his neck.  Ah, the trials and tribulations of adolescence.

Joseph’s friend Nash has a great idea.  He suggests to Joseph to look up his ancestors on the internet.  Joseph thought that might be easier than asking his parents for help.  His dad is not pleased with Joseph’s reaction to the corno and when he tries to talk with this mother about his adoption, she always breaks down in tears.  His parents had told him about the day he became part of the Calderaro family.  But what they never told him, was his “MBA – Me Before America”.  His mother had only told him, back when he was in the third grade, that his biological mother had named him Duk-kee and Park was added by the adoption agency.

While Joseph is still worried about writing his essay, the only thing his friend Nash discovers is that Pusan had a record rain fall on the day that Joseph was born.  Thinking of ways to expand his report to 1500 words, Joseph decides to head to his local library.  At the same time, he runs an errand for his mother, taking towels from his mother’s business, a hair salon called Shear Impressions, to the Jiffy Wash Laundry.  Joseph is surprised to find out the owners of Jiffy Wash have sold their business and will be moving to Florida.  He gets another surprise when the current owner mentions that the new owners are Korean!

There is also a new student at school who is in Joseph’s band class.  One look at the new boy and Joseph just knows that he is Korean too.  The following day Joseph is once again the “towel boy” for his mother and heads to Jiffy Wash.  As he opens the door there he runs into the new kid.  Joseph introduces himself and says that they’re in the same band class.  New Kid says his name is Yongsu Han.

When Yongsu calls his “Uhmma” and a Korean lady comes into the room, Joseph figures that “Uhmma” must mean Mom.  When Yongsu’s mother greets Joseph with “Ahn nyong has seh yoh?”, not only does it make Joseph feel a little insecure, he suddenly feels totally out of place.  It doesn’t help matters any when he’s asked if his mother is Korean.  Once he explains that he was adopted he feels like Yongsu’s mother sees him in a different light – a fake Korean who doesn’t speak or understand the language.  The only thing Joseph wants is to get the heck out of Jiffy Wash as fast as he can, but it also makes him want to know more about his Korean heritage.

Back home, Joseph looks through a book on Korean history that he borrowed from the library.  Although he becomes familiar with Korean history from the Yi Dynasty up until the Korean War, he can’t figure a way to making the history a part of his heritage.  Then he comes upon a picture of a man wearing a Gold Medal.  The caption says his name was Sohn Kee Chung who represented Japan during the 1936 Olympics in Berlin.

A light bulb goes off in Joseph’s head.  He now knows who and how he is  going to write that essay.  Joseph titles his essay “A Medal for Speed and a Life of Honor: My Grandpa Sohn”.  Little does he know, this little white lie will lead to an even bigger problem.  His teacher announces to the class that his essay was chosen to be entered in a National Essay contest!  What is Joseph going to do now?

But I wouldn’t want to spoil the entire story for those who may have had a similar experience.  I think this would be a great story for anyone who was adopted and suffers from having an identity crisis at one point in their life.  Joseph was lucky enough to become part of a loving family and yet, not knowing his heritage seems to have left a little hole in his life.  Although I am not an adoptee, I am the product of a mixed marriage and was brought up bi-culturally, so I can understand wanting to know my own family’s heritage.  Even if you are not an adoptee, it’s a very heartwarming story and you can’t help but feel for Joseph and his growing pains.

星守る犬 [Hoshi Mamoru Inu] by Takashi Murakami (双葉社) (Futaba Sha)

This is a Japanese text only of a graphic novel which has been adapted for the silver screen. It was also chosen as the 2009 Book of the Year by Da Vinci magazine.  The title translates into English as The Dog who Protects Stars, which means wanting something so badly but never being able to satisfy that desire, much like the image of a dog that continues to look longingly at the stars but will never able to grasp them.  (Although this is a manga, the story may be a bit difficult to follow by just looking at the pictures.)

The story starts off with the discovery of an abandoned car in a vast field of sunflowers.  In it, the police find the body of a man.  They also find another body which they at first think is a child but discover to be a dog.  What the police find strange though is that the body of the man has been dead for a year or and year and a half.  However, the dog has only been dead for about three months.

From here, the actual story begins as told through the point of view from the dog.  As a little puppy, the dog is left in a cardboard box.  If it wasn’t for a young girl who takes him home, he might not have survived.  She feeds him, washes him and asks her mother if she can keep him.  Mother says to ask father, so in the meantime, she lets the dog sleep in a basket where they keep their linen.  Dad first meets the dog by getting bitten when he goes to grab a towel.  But even after this beginning, the dog becomes a part of the family.  The daughter who first brought the puppy home names him Happy, plays with him and feeds him delicious treats from time to time.  Mother provides his meals and discipline when he does something bad, but it’s always Father who takes Happy for a walk.

A year passes.  Everyone becomes a little older.  Happy tells us he has aged about seven years.  Happy notices little changes in the family, but Miku the daughter still plays with him,  Mother still feeds him, and Father still takes him for walks.  A few more years pass and the changes become even more noticeable to Happy.  Miku no longer plays with him, lately it’s Father who feeds him but the one thing that doesn’t change is Father taking him for a walk.  But before, Father would always take Happy for a walk late in the day.  These days, Father takes him for a walk around noon.  Happy also notices that they take a different route but the biggest difference Happy notices is that Father doesn’t talk as much as he used to It will be you, the reader, who realizes that Father has lost his job and is also suffering from some illness as the picture in the background shows Father visiting an employment agency and going to the hospital.

More unfortunate news awaits Father when he returns home.  His wife asks for a divorce.  Now Father has no job, no family, no home.  He’s left with a bit of money after the divorce, but his only companion is Happy.

Father says to Happy, “The hell with it, let’s go South.  That’s where my hometown is. Not that there is anything left there.”  And so they are off on a road trip.  Along the way, they meet a homeless boy who becomes their companion for a short while.  The next thing Father knows, the boy has stolen his wallet.  Although, he says to Happy, he’s not really mad about the boy stealing but that they boy didn’t have the humility to ask for help.

Tragedy strikes on their journey.  Happy falls sick.  Father rushes Happy to the nearest vet and pleads with the veterinarians to keep his friend alive. Father sells whatever remains of his belongings and manages to save Happy.  They continue on their journey but run out of gas and money in a vast field of sunflowers.  Father finally succumbs to a sleep he never wakes up from.  Happy lives on and thinks he sees Miku, Mother and Father at a campground and runs to meet them only to be beaten on the head with a stick.  Happy slowly crawls back to where Father is, says he’s tired too and passes away.

Then the story comes back to where it started.  The finding of a body and a dog in an abandoned car in a field of sunflowers.   There is no identification on the body, the license plate of the car is missing, the vehicle identity number has been scratched off.  Finding out who this John Doe is the job of a case worker.  If the man’s identity cannot be discovered, the body will be cremated and the ashes placed in an urn for the unclaimed.  Okutsu-san, the case worker for this job thought it would be a simple matter until he finds a receipt for goods bought at a store.  According to the law, it’s his duty to investigate the matter and so begins Okutsu-san’s own journey on retracing Father and Happy’s steps.

What it comes down to is this--a story about life and all its obstacles, good and bad; of love and loyalty between pet and owner, making us remember why dogs are considered “man’s best friend”.  Although the lives of Father and Happy end in death, who’s to say if they were happy or not. Father and Happy had each other.  They didn’t need anything else.  Truly, a wonderful story that will make you laugh and weep, and wonder about the homeless boy who stole Father’s wallet.  This is the end of one story; however, Happy has a brother…  Ernie Hoyt

Monkey Business : New Writing from Japan Volume 01 / 2011 (A Public Space Literary Projects, Inc.)

Although our blog is titled “Asia by the Book”, I have decided to go against the grain and review a magazine.  But this isn’t just any magazine.  This is the first English language version of a popular Japanese literary magazine called Monkey Business, created in 2008 and named after a line in a Chuck Berry tune.  The Monkey Business Manifesto states that “Monkey Businessis a newly founded journal of new writing from Japan and abroad with a few not-so-new works strategically slipped in.”  It’s my belief that literary magazines deserve as much attention as novels as they are usually full of short stories, novellas, poems, and reviews of upcoming titles.

Published by A Public Space, also a literary journal, Monkey Business is edited by Ted Goossen, translator of Japanese publications into English, and Motoyuki Shibata, known for his Japanese translations of contemporary authors such as Thomas Pynchon, Steve Millhauser and Paul Auster to name a few.  This issue is a compilation of pieces from the magazine’s first year in publication which are now translated into English, including short stories, essays, poems, manga, interviews and more.  Goosen and Shibata do not limit their pieces to Japanese writers, they also feature a few foreign writers as well.

A highlight of this first issue is an interview with popular author and 2010 nominee for the Nobel prize in literature, Haruki Murakami conducted by novelist Hideo Furukawa in 2008, a winner of the Japan Mystery Writers Association Prize and SF Grand Prize for his novel Arabia.  The interview starts off with the two authors discussing writing and where they get their ideas. It follows with Furukawa asking Murukami why he decided to live abroad, about his time spent in the U.S. and writing The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, his return to Japan and writing his first non-fiction book about the Aum Doomsday Cult and sarin gas subway attack.  They also talk about first- versus third- person narrations.  Any fan of Murakami’s works won’t want to miss out on this interview.

One of my favorite stories from this compilation is Sandy’s Lament – from The Memoirs of theSramana Wujing by Atsukshi Nakajima.  This was part of a series of stories based on the Chinese novel Journey to the West by Wu Cheng’en which in turn is loosely based on a true story about a monk named Tripataka and his journey to bring back Buddhist scripture from India.  For you trivia buffs and otaku, you may be surprised to know a popular manga series was also based on Journey to the West – Akira Toriyama’s Dragonball!  In the original story, Tripitaka has three companions – Sun Wukong (alias Monkey), Zhu Bajie (alias Pig), and Xia Wujing (alias Sandy).  In the Japanese translation, Sandy would be a kappa, a water spirit.  This short story is narrated by Sandy as he wonders why he and his two companions continue to follow Tripitaka.

The manga in this issue is A Country Doctor by the Brother and Sister Nishioka and based on a story by Franz Kafka.  In keeping with original Japanese style, the manga is read from left to right which means you have to skip ahead a few pages and read the story in descending pages.  There are also poems by Mina Ishikawa, The Sleep Division; Minoru Ozawa, Monkey Haiku; Shion Mizuhara, Monkey Tanka; Masayo Koike, When Monkeys Sing all translated by Ted Goossen, and short stories by Yoko Ogawa, Koji Uno, and Sachiko Kishimoto.

If your only exposure to contemporary Japanese authors has been to Yukio Mishima, Natsume Soseki, Yasunari Kawabata, Shusaku Endo, or Junichiro Tanizaki, then this literary journal will open your eyes to a whole new world.  Be the first of your Japanophile friends to know who the next up- and- coming literary geniuses are and enjoy some new fiction!  The English language version is currently planned as an annual but as more people become familiar with it, perhaps Shibata and Goossen will turn it into a quarterly.  Let’s keep our fingers crossed.  by Ernie Hoyt

Atomic Sushi : Notes from the Heart of Japan by Simon May (Alma Books)

I admit my title of choice may seem to be in poor taste because of the current nuclear power plant crisis in Fukushima Prefecture, but I assure you, this book was released long before March 11’s 9.0 magnitude earthquake and the tsunami which caused the nuclear disaster.  First published in 2006, this is a collection of essays that British national May wrote while serving as a visiting professor of philosophy at Tokyo University.  As the professor says in his own words when he was unexpectedly invited to teach, his first thoughts were – “The Sushi!”

First of all, we must acknowledge that Japan’s bastion of education – Tokyo University or Todai as it’s locally known—is one of the most prestigious and also the most difficult to enter of all Japanese educational institutions.  It is considered the training ground of Japan’s bureaucrats, the elite of the elite, a closed system that’s virtually impossible to penetrate, especially for foreigners.  May informs us that he was “…apparently the first British professor of philosophy since 1882.”

Since May becomes a part of this elite for the duration of his stay, I must admit that the ordinary traveler and even long standing expats would not be able to experience some of his adventures which were arranged by some of the Todai elites who befriended him.  We are given a glimpse into private “amusement” parlours (you will have to use your imagine as to what you can expect to see there), exclusive sushi shops, luxurious ryokan (Japanese inns) and  kaiseki dining with its price tag  at about $1000 a feast.

What I found most interesting were May’s dealings with the Tokyo University administrators before he was even allowed to teach.  He was expecting a warm welcome but found himself in bureaucratic hell, “…administrators began by demanding that I sign a declaration promising to be a loyal and honourable servant of the Japanese state.”  This seems rather reasonable, however he was soon burdened with further requests: “I needed health tests to certify that my body fluids were unobjectionable and my body solids in good order, a declaration from my landlady about my accommodation costs, a certificate proving that I had attended primary school, a document registering me as an alien, and a diagram to illustrate the exact route I intended to take when traveling from home to university, and then from home to university again.”  It’s an ominous start to his  life in Tokyo.

To illustrate May’s brush with bureaucratic red tape in more detail, you only need to read his response to one of the endless enquiries he had to endure – “When I replied by pointing out that in Britain there is no certifying authority that exists for the purpose of certifying that something is impossible to certify, they asked me to state this with a certificate, certified by myself.”  Perhaps those bureaucrats have just a little too much time on their hands.

However, not all of May’s essays are about the Japanese elite or their exclusive clubs.  He also writes about what he sees: things that may seem ordinary to the average Japanese but strange to most foreigners.  He observes people sleeping while standing or sitting on the trains for their commute home but having the uncanny ability to wake from their slumber at their stop.  He witnesses a man rubbing up his knees against a young girl and wonders what to do; groping in trains is a major problem in Japan which hardly ever makes the news.  May also attends and describes a Japanese wedding and a Japanese funeral—and as I have also been a participant in both, I can tell you it is nothing like what you would expect in the States. But you will have to read this book to find out just how different it is.

This is a must read for any Japanophile.  It will make you laugh, it will make you cry, it will make you want to visit Japan on your own as well.  Even expats will find this amusing – I should know, as I belong to that particular group.~Ernie Hoyt

John Woo’s A Better Tomorrow by Karen Fang (Hong Kong University Press)

As I was walking to work the other day, I couldn’t help but notice the poster for a forthcoming film that would soon be shown at my local theater, a Korean remake of a John Woo classic –A Better Tomorrow.  Sometime in the mid to late 80s, a friend introduced me to the world of Hong Kong cinema.  This was long before John Woo or Chow Yun Fat became popular in the United States, back when the only opportunity to see Hong Kong films was at small independent theaters that would have Hong Kong film festivals from time to time.  This particular film was probably my first exposure to Hong Kong action movies and after one viewing I was hooked.

But this book isn’t just a film review, it is a critical analysis of the New Hong Kong Cinema and its impact on the film industry at home and abroad.   It explains its rise along with the globalization of film, which both occurred over the same period between the mid 80s and late 90s.

Before this movie was released, John Woo was known as a director of romantic comedies while Chow Yun Fat had the lead role in some movies but was known mostly for the TV soap operas he appeared in.   However, with the release of this film, it became one of the highest-grossing the year of its release and shot John Woo and Chow Yun Fat to superstar fame.  This film also sparked a new genre – the action/crime film, or yingxiong pian which translates to a “hero” movie, which the West described as “heroic bloodshed”.

For those of you unfamiliar with the movie, the plot centers around three main characters – Sung Ji-Ho played by Ti Lung, Mark Gor, or Brother Mark, played by Chow Yun Fat, and Kit played by Leslie Cheung (a very popular pop idol at the time).  Sung Ji-Ho is a successful criminal who built his empire upon counterfeiting.  Brother Mark is his loyal partner.  Kit is Ho’s younger brother who is a cadet in the police academy and does not know that his older brother is involved in criminal activities. On a business trip to Taipei, Ho is framed for a crime he didn’t commit. He eludes the police, however, in order to protect his younger brother and Mark, he decides to turn himself in but insists that a rookie member of his gang, Shing, should escape.  The following day Mark makes a trip to Taipei to avenge Ho and kills most of those responsible but is shot and crippled in the leg.

Ho spends the next three years in prison with hardly any contact with Kit or Mark.  Kit, who learns of his brother’s criminal activities, trains even harder with the police force.  When Ho is released and tries to reach out to Kit by telling his younger brother that he has gone straight, Kit shuns him.  However, Mark is overjoyed at being reunited with his friend and suggests taking revenge on Shing, whom they have discovered was the one who betrayed them.  They plan to do this by exposing Shing to the police and to help Kit advance in his career and to prove that Ho has indeed gone straight.

Everything goes as planned but comes at a really high cost.  Mark is killed but before he dies, he chastises Kit for not recognizing the love Ho has for him.  In the end, Kit goes against police regulations and lets his brother kill Shing.  Ho wants to do right by his younger brother so he handcuffs himself to Kit and returns to police custody.

Getting back to the core of the book, Fang describes the different ways in which the film was received by its home audience and its global prominence as well.  In Hong Kong when the film was first released in 1986, it became a record-breaking blockbuster.  The original title in Mandarin is Yingxiong bense or in Cantonese Yinghuhng bunsik which translates to True Colors of Valor or The Essence of Heroes, suggesting that the plot is about chivalry, family ties, loyalty, and honor.  However, with the international English title of A Better Tomorrow,the foreign press suggested that the movie was politically influenced by Hong Kong’s forthcoming return to China.

However, I’m not one for analyzing movies in minute detail.  If it entertains me, then the movie has served its purpose.  After watching this film, I found myself becoming biased, feeling as if these yingxiong pian films made Hollywood action movies seem like Disney productions.  If this film excites you as much as it did me, you will find yourself becoming a fan of John Woo’s other Hong Kong action films which also star Chow Yun Fat such as Hard BoiledThe Killer, and Bullet in the Head.

I may have to make a trip to my local DVD rental store to watch these all over again.  And of course I look forward to seeing the Korean remake as well.~Ernie Hoyt

ぼくのいい本こういう本1 : 1998-2009 ブックエッセイ集 by 松浦弥太郎[Boku no ii hon kou iu hon 1 : 1998-2009 Book Essays] by Yataro Matsuura (DAI-X出版)

I have a standard New Year’s Resolution that hasn’t changed in the past few years.  My goal is to read at least one hundred books.  This year, I have also added to my resolution to read more books in Japanese.  Before you drop your jaws in awe, I must admit, this includes photography books, children’s books, graphic novels, and literary magazines.  But do you ever find yourself between books and can’t decide what to read next?  It’s at times like this when books full of essays about  books come in handy.

For English publications, there’s always the New York Times Bestseller list but I much prefer Nick Hornby’s column, Stuff I’ve Read,  in the Believer, (http://www.believermag.com/)because it has more eclectic offerings.  His book essays have also been collected into three series of books.

However, not being too familiar with the kinds of title that I might find interesting in Japanese, I discovered this title, Boku no ii hon, kou iu hon, which  translates to My Favorite Books are Books Like These. The essays are arranged into eight sections with chapter titles such as “Books for women are not yet an adult but not a child”, “Books that lit the fire of my wanderlust”, “Literature as a friend”, “Books for people who want to live romantically” and of course a chapter is featured with the main title of the book – “My favorite books are books like these.”

Yataro Matsuura is the editor-in-chief of a magazine called Kurashi no Techo which translates to Notes on Living.  He also owns a book store and is a writer.  He got his start in the book business in 1994 by re-selling foreign magazines.  In 2000, he started a mobile (on wheels) book shop and finally in 2003 opened Cow Books,  which according to the website, “specializes in out-of- print books focusing on the 60s and 70s social movements, progressive politics, Protest, the Beat Generation, and first editions of forgotten modern authors.”

His book is the first volume of a collection of his book essays that he has written for magazines. As I read it, I discovered that Matsuura’s taste in books is similar to my own.  He features a vast array of visual books including photography, art, design and interior decoration, children’s books, cookbooks (which are more than just books with recipes) and a lot of books and zines published by small independent presses.

Since this is a Japanese book, Matsuura also features English titles translated into Japanese.  Some of his favorite authors seem to be Jack Kerouac, Richard Brautigan, and Paul Auster.  Kerouac’s Japanese translation of On the Road was a life- changing book for him.  Shortly after reading it, Matsuura became inspired to travel across the USA as well, even though he had no plans on what he was going to do once he got there.  Reading these essays has perked my interest in reading those authors as well (even if a lot of people say On the Road is overrated).

One of the books Matsuura features and which captured my interest is Chairo no Asa or Brown Morning. (I discovered that the original was a French book titled Matin Brun by Franck Pavloff, with  new art by Vincent Gallo for the Japanese edition.  I may have to look for an English edition of that book.)  I also want to go in search of a Japanese children’s book titled Yakareta Sakana or The Grilled Fish, about a grilled fish lying on a white plate yearning to go back to the sea.

Before reading Matsuura, I was between books and couldn’t decide what to read next; now he’s given me so many more titles to choose from that it makes selecting the next book just as difficult!  Perhaps I should read the second volume of Matsuura’s book of book essays before choosing another title?  by Ernie Hoyt

This book is available only in Japanese.

Sushi & Beyond : What the Japanese know about Cooking by Michael Booth (Vintage Books)

What’s the first thing that comes to your mind when you’re asked about Japanese cuisine?  The most obvious answer is found in the title above; I imagine most people would say “sushi”.  But Booth hasn’t written a guide book to sushi and the best places to eat it.  Look at the “& Beyond” and know that there is going to be more than sushi involved in Booth’s exploration of Japanese cookery.

The book starts out with a conversation Booth has with a friend at a restaurant in Normandy called Sa.Qua.Na—but to call this a conversation is a bit tame, Booth trades insults with Toshi, a half-Japanese, half-Korean man who is his fellow-student at the Paris Cordon Bleu.  Booth lightly compares the food of Sa.Qua.Na’s chef to that of Japan’s, knowing that the chef had worked in Japan for a few years.  This sets Toshi off, saying, “What you know about Japan food?  You think you know anything about Japan food?  Only in Japan!  You can not taste it here in Europe.  This man is nothing like Japan food.  Where is tradition?  Where is season?  Where is meaning?...”

Booth’s retort was just as impassioned, if not a bit juvenile – “I know enough about it to know how dull it is…What have you got?  Raw fish, noodles, deep-fried vegetables – and you stole all that from that from Thailand, the Chinese, the Portuguese.  Doesn’t matter though, does it?  You just dunk it in soy sauce and it all tastes the same, right?  Ooh, don’t tell me, cod sperm and whale meat.  Mmm, gotta get me some of those.”

I was beginning to wonder if this was going to be an interesting book after all but my worries were put to rest.  After these two adversaries graduate, Toshi gives Booth a book entitled “Japanese Cooking : A Simple Art” by Shizuo Tsuji.  After reading this, Booth decides to head over to the Land of the Rising Sun to see what all the fuss is about.

His plan is to try a bit of everything there is to eat, from Hokkaido to Okinawa, taking his wife and two young kids with him. Their first stop of course is Tokyo where they rent a small apartment and venture into the culinary heart of Japan in Shinjuku’s famous “Shoben Yokocho.” This translates to “Piss Alley” and it is full of small yakitori shops. Here Booth finds more than just chicken breast on skewers—there’s nankotsu (cartilage), bonjiri (chicken butt), hatsu (chicken hearts).  They go to Ryogoku, Tokyo’s home to sumo wrestlers and also home to an array ofchanko nabe (one- pot stews) shops run and owned by former sumo wrestlers.  Booth interviews Japan’s top chefs and checks out a few restaurants that many Japanese cannot get a reservation to enter. But this isn’t what he really wants. He yearns to make some Japanese dishes for himself and then eat them.

In order to reach this goal, Booth signs up for a couple of cooking classes and also takes a tour of Japan’s two top cooking schools.  The Ecole de Cuisine et Nutrition Hattori, run by Dr Yukio Hattori in the Kanto area which encompasses Tokyo, and the Tsuji Culinary Institute which was founded by the author of “Japanese Cooking” – Shizuo Tsuji— and is currently run by his son in the Kansai area.

But Booth can’t mention sushi without taking a tour of Japan’s busiest fish market – Tsukiji.  He fills us in on the seafood of Hokkaido, the fugu (puffer fish) of Shimonoseki, Kobe beef, wagyu, and how miso is made. He takes a tour of one of Kikkoman’s factories that makes soy sauce, discusses the controversy surrounding MSG, checks out the food- stall culture of Fukuoka in Kyushu, dines on a kaiseki meal in Kyoto and even manages to dine at the extra- exclusive, members- only restaurant called Mibu, “the place that made Joel Robuchon weep and humbled Ferran Adria.”

Anyone who claims to be a “foodie” or a gourmand and sees those two names in the same sentence is definitely going to want to read this book…and will enjoy it.  I know I did!  by Ernie Hoyt

チーズケーキの旅 by 山本ゆりこ (女子栄養大学出版部)  [Cheesecake no Tabi] by Yuriko Yamamoto (Joshi Eiyo Daigaku Shuppan-bu)

This book is available only in Japanese.

WARNING!  This book may cause extreme hunger if read on an empty stomach!

In my opinion, one of the joys of life is eating dessert!  And because my favorite dessert just happens to be cheesecake, I had to read this book, with its title easily translated into English as “A Cheesecake Journey”.  Yuriko Yamamoto is a graduate of the Kagawa Nutrition University who moves to Paris and continues her studies at the prestigious Ritz Escoffier School and Le Cordon Bleu. There she receives Le Grand Diplome, and continues to hone her skills at Michelin three- star restaurants and hotels.  Having spent many years living in France, Yuriko has the opportunity to travel throughout Europe.  Although she always assumed that cheesecake was an American dessert, as she journeys to different countries, she finds that almost every country has their own style of cheesecake and cheese-filled desserts.

First she takes us to the country where cheesecake originated – Greece.  It may come as a shock to us Americans, but the first mention of cheesecake in history was served to the athletes in the first- ever Olympic games, long before our nation was even considered a country. There elderly Greek women tell Yuriko that if she wants cheesecake in Greece, she should come three weeks before Apokries (Carnival) in which the third week is called “Cheese Week”.  Before leaving Greece, Yamamoto purchases a book and reads that in Crete, they make a cheese similar to the ricotta cheese of Italy and that they also make cheesecake there as well.  Perhaps Crete should be her next destination, she decides.

However, instead she finds herself traveling through the Russian Federation and Central and Eastern Europe.  This is where the heart of the book truly shines as she features full color pictures of the cheesecakes and cheese- related desserts she comes across.

This book reads more like an illustrated guide to the cheesecakes of Europe.  We are introduced to the Polish sernik polski, the Bulgarian banitsa, Russian blinisand paskha, Austrian topfenrouladen, just to name a few—including dishes made with the dessert cheese,mascarpone.  And of course, since Yuriko lived in France, much of her book is filled with recipes from that country.

Once you’ve had your fill of this book, you may want to treat yourself to a nice big slice of New York- style cheesecake, perhaps with a raspberry or blueberry sauce topping.  As for me, well, there is the “Cheesecake Factory” in my neighborhood that features an all-you-can-eat buffet…of cheesecakes!  I kid you not. There goes my diet.  Ernie Hoyt