Archive for the ‘Book reviews and commentary’ Category

A tiny speck of immortality

October 4, 2018

Earlier this year, at my local public library, I was looking for the novel “Ancillary Justice” by Ann Leckie. Unfortunately, they didn’t have it. But there on the “L” shelf I spotted “Country of Origin” by Don Lee. I remembered reviewing this book when it came out in 2005, so I picked it up and – hey! A tiny speck of immortality.

Tiny shard of immortality

I’m sharing this to show that I have been reviewing books for a long time. Over the past 20 years, I’ve written and published about 300 reviews covering somewhere north of 320 books. And I’ve done numerous author interviews on top of that.

The reason for this self-hype is that I will give a presentation called “Anatomy of a Book Review” at the twelfth annual Japan Writers Conference in Otaru, Hokkaido, on Oct. 14. The conference is a free event that would be well worth paying for.

There will be nearly 40 presentations this year, covering an array of writing topics. You can read descriptions of them (listed alphabetically by presenters’ first names) here.

And you can find some of my more recent reviews, and many by my colleagues, at The Japan News’ Bound to Please page.



Vikas Swarup at the Japan Writers Conference

November 11, 2012

Vikas Swarup presented a sneak preview of his next novel, “The Accidental Apprentice,” to the Japan Writers Conference in Kyoto yesterday (Nov. 10, 2012). The book will be published in Janaury.

Swarup’s previous novels are “Q&A” (the basis of the movie “Slumdog Millionaire”) and “Six Suspects” (which Swarup mentioned is also in the process of becoming a film).

Swarup, appearing at the Japan Writers Conference for a third consecutive year, gave a reading of the opening pages of “The Accidental Apprentice” before taking questions from conference-goers.

It begins with a young Indian woman named Sapna Sinha sitting in a jail cell, reflecting on how she came to be accused of murder. She traces her troubles back to the day when, on a lunch break from her sales job at an electronics store, she visited a temple seeking expiation over a death for which she feels responsible. (It sounded as if this was not the death that led to her murder charge, but presumably all will be made clear as the novel unfolds.) At the temple, an old man plucked her out of the crowd, introduced himself as a fabulously wealthy industrialist whose companies produce everything “from toothpaste to turbines,” and said he wanted to recruit Sapna as his heir — if she would agree to undergo seven tests.  It sounded like a fishy deal, so Sapna sensibly refused. At least, she refused at first…

In the question-and-answer period after the reading, Swarup said he believes it is important to start a story with a strong hook, so readers will stick around to see what happens.

In addition to being a best-selling novelist, Swarup is also the consul-general of India for the Osaka-Kobe area. He therefore referred to himself as a “weekend writer” whose day job keeps him too busy to write during the week. But he cheerily remarked that having a non-writing career freed him from some of the concerns that likely burden full-time fiction writers, such as meeting deadlines or trying to guess the tastes of the market.

All three of his novels so far have been set in India. He said that people in this country sometimes ask why he doesn’t write about Japan. He tells them that if he did, his stories would be all about yakuza gangsters — and his Japanese friends might not like that. But his characters couldn’t be ordinary Japanese people, he says, because they are too nice, calm, polite and orderly to write exciting stories about them.

Spoken like a true diplomat.

Coca-Cola adds a word to the Japanese language

July 5, 2012

A few weeks ago, I began to notice that some of the Coca-Cola vending machines I saw on the streets in and around Tokyo had a new word painted on them: Ecoru.

Spelled with the Roman letters E, C, and O plus the hiragana character “ru,” this was clearly a verb that meant something along the lines of “to be eco-friendly” or just “to eco.”

Lots of Japanese verbs end in the suffix “-ru.” For example, eat, think, sleep, run, throw, forget, and live are taberu, kangaeru, neru, hashiru, nageru, wasureru and ikiru.

According to “Zakennayo,” a 1995 book on Japanese slang, the Denny’s restaurant chain was such a popular hangout for Japanese teens in those days that they turned its name into a verb: “deniru,” meaning “to do Denny’s.” I never encountered that word in real life myself, but I get the concept. And apparently so does some clever copywriter at the Coca-Cola company.

It seems that the ecoru machines have been around for a couple of years. They involve such eco-tweaks as LED lighting and non-CFC coolants, and they claim to put less strain on the power grid by charging up in the off hours so they don’t have to draw on the public electricity supply during periods of peak demand.

You can find technical details in Japanese at Coca Cola’s website here. It shows that some of the machines even have solar panels on top. I haven’t seen those yet.

Condsidering what a big business vending machines are in Japan, this looks like a step in the right direction.


“Tomo”: A young adult fiction anthology

July 3, 2012

Since the March 11, 2011, Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami, a number of books have been published with the aim of raising money to help recovery efforts. Charitable considerations aside, one of those I can recommend as a good reading experience is “Tomo,” an anthology of young adult fiction from or related to Japan.

Editor Holly Thompson has put together a collection of impressive breadth and variety, with 36 stories that touch on aspects of young people’s lives in present-day Japan and also in history. Most are prose, but some are told in verse, or in graphic-novel format. Most are very fresh, but there are also contributions from past writers such as literary giant Kenji Miyazawa (1896-1933) and Ainu folklorist Yukie Chiri, whose short life ended in 1922, when she was just 19 years old.

Thompson has divided the book into seven sections, only the first of which, “Shocks and Tremors,” deals overtly with the disaster. It probably come first because it establishes the book’s raison d’etre, but I’d suggest reading it later because the subject matter gets things off to a rather gloomy start.

Other that that, I liked almost everything about this book. Here are some comments on my favorite stories:

“One” by Sarah Ogawa and “The Zodiac Tree” by Thersa Matsuura

Both of these stories, in the section “Insiders and Outsiders,” are told from the point of view of a girl who is an outsider in a small Japanese community. In both, the girl meets a boy we first see engaged in a visibly traditional activity: sweeping the veranda of a temple in one story, practicing kendo in the other. There seems to be great distance between them (plus apparent hostility in one case), but as the stories unfold the gap is at least partially bridged. Not only do these two stories share an archetypical outline, they are both written with the vividness and delicacy of a watercolor painting. The protagonists’ feelings come through as genuine, in part because they are not overplayed. The characters experience real anxiety without any internal or external histrionics. They make tentative overtures, fraught with uncertainty, that lead to a climax that is sweetly innocent yet emotionally satisfying.

“Kodama” by Debbie Ridpath Ohi

This eerie tale, part of the “Ghosts and Spirits” section, also depicts a girl’s encounter with a mysterious boy. But in this case, the boy’s mysteriousness is downright paranormal. “Kodama” is a story that could easily have failed – but succeeds wonderfully. Countless stories have been written in the form of the diary of a person who may be documenting a supernatural occurrence, or who may simply be going mad. The pitfalls of cliché lie all around such a project, but Ohi somehow avoids them.

This is one of the graphic-novel-style entries, but it is not divided into comic-book panels. Instead, we are shown the pages of a notebook filled with sketches. The illustrations are expressive, but still simple enough to believably pass as part of a diary. As for the text, it conveys meaning not only through the words themselves, but also their placement, size and style. The sentences may be straight, slanted or even looping. And yes, there does come a point at which the text trails away toward the bottom of the page in an illegible scrawl, just as you’d expect at the end of a haunted-person-going-mad diary. But wait! This isn’t the end of the story. It’s only the middle. How it really ends I’ll leave for you to discover.

“Staring at the Haiku” by John Paul Catton

This is another supernatural tale, describing the establishment of a ghost-busting club at a Tokyo high school. It contains some effective humor, and is written with a magician’s flair for misdirection. When a group of teenage friends set out to become paranormal investigators, their first case appears to focus on solving the mystery of an enchanted calligraphy paper that gives excitable girls a one-character clue about the names of their future boyfriends. However, as the case unfolds, in ways both funny and spooky, it turns out that something entirely different is going on.

Disclosure: Over the years I have met and become acquainted with a number of English-language writers who live and work in Japan. These include Thompson, Catton, and several other “Tomo” contributors. But I do not know anyone else whose name I have mentioned in this post.

Buy “Tomo” here: Friendship through Fiction: An Anthology of Japan Teen Stories

Tune in Tokyo: Funny because it’s probably true

April 17, 2012

“The reader understands…when reading, say, David Sedaris, that comedy inherently allows room for exaggeration, and even fabrication.”

Hannah Goldfield
Fact-checker at The New Yorker

Tune In Tokyo” is a humorous memoir by Tim Anderson, “a tall, white, gay Southerner who didn’t speak a lick of Japanese” who got a job as an English teacher in Japan because his life seemed to be going nowhere and he “desperately needed a shot of adrenaline.”

There’s plenty of room for Sedaris-like exaggeration in that set-up, but in reading “Tune In Tokyo” I can’t be sure I found any. However, I am sure that I laughed a lot.

For instance, during one of Anderson’s first rides on a Yamanote Line train, he sits down and finds himself eye-to-eye with a 4-year-old boy standing in front of his seat: “He looked at me with an eerie, inscrutable expression, like the one a child forms when he’s about to command dark forces to descend on you. He didn’t take his eyes off me; he didn’t blink. He just stared, cute and creepy. I averted my eyes…”

With his eyes thus averted, Anderson makes some humorous comments about the architectural mishmash of the Tokyo cityscape outside the train’s windows. His description struck me – a veteran Yamanote Line rider – as vivid, amusing and accurate. And I know I’ve met that same creepy little kid. So far, so good.

Then he turns his attention back inside the train, to “the attractive young girl sitting next to me. She was digging through her purse, pulling out mascara, lipstick, tweezers, blush and an eyelash curler…She had more tools than a smack-addled surgeon.”

Again, he’s describing someone I’ve seen. It struck me as remarkable that he encountered so many archetypes on a single train ride – not only the Staring Kid and the Eyelash Curler Lady, but also a wizened obaa-san he refers to as “Yoda.” I began to suspect he might be blending several different train rides into a single anecdote. But even if so, that would fall well within the bounds of what Hannah Goldfield would allow, and I had no problem with it.

In fact, I was delighted with the way he made it pay off when the young woman took out a cigarette lighter and applied the flame to the end of her eyelash curler: “When she believed it to be hot enough, she put the piping apparatus up to her eye and gave herself a set of shapely, luscious, twenty-four hour lashes. I feared she’d put her eye out if the train should make a sudden jerk, but even with the rolling and swaying of the carriage, the girl’s expert grip on her tools and the precision with which she performed her tasks continued uninterrupted. Amazed, I looked over at the toddler. He was still staring at me.”

I laughed out loud when I read this. I laughed out loud again the second time I read it. It’s perfect. Whether or not the Staring Kid, the Eyelash Curler Lady and the Conspicuous White Guy really were all together at the same time, this is exactly what would happen in those circumstances. So maybe it did.

One chapter in which many readers will likely suspect exaggeration describes severely alcoholic “Ron Faust,” a roommate whom Anderson is assigned by his employer, a chain of language schools he winkingly refers to as MOBA. “He looks like he’d been scraped off the streets of Philadelphia and shipped to Japan while still viciously intoxicated – without being told why. My guess: a Philadelphia MOBA headhunter had been desperate to meet his quota, went out onto the street, found Ron drinking from a brown bag and talking to his imaginary friend Crabcake, and thought, ‘Now there’s a MOBA English teacher!’”

Ron staggers around their apartment on a prosthetic leg like a real-life Jack Sparrow. That is, if Jack Sparrow were hostile, paranoid, and given to dropping hints about having been part of a strange sexual arrangement back in the States. His exploits grow increasingly outrageous, and once again I couldn’t stop laughing as I read.

My laughter was brought on partly by Anderson’s skill as a writer. He ratchets up Ron’s craziness on page after page, and ratchets up his own alarmed reactions to Ron at the same pace. This guy knows how to spin a comic yarn.

But I was also laughing because I’ve been there. Just over a decade ago, I worked as an English teacher for an outfit that was probably the one Anderson calls MOBA. The teachers’ ability levels varied from expert to clueless (one of them liked to say the main qualifications for the job were “round eyes and a pulse”), but the majority were good people making an honest effort to help their students. Even so, the teacher population in those days had more than its fair share of nuts, jerks, drunks, and basket cases. I knew one teacher who seemed to have a mild case of Tourette’s syndrome, another who had a speech impediment that made it impossible to pronounce two of the three consonants in her own name, another who rarely bathed, another who broke down in tears on about a weekly basis, and more than one who took malicious pleasure in tricking students into misusing or mispronouncing English words in ways that sounded obscene. None of the people I directly dealt with were quite as extreme as the character Anderson describes, but I cannot say I found him outside the realm of believability.

The archetypical train ride and the Ron Faust adventure were my own favorite parts of this book, but “Tune In Tokyo” has a lot more to recommend it. The chapter titled “The Vagina Dialogue” is a comical story whose title doesn’t mean what you might think it means, but what it does mean is very funny. The chapter on “Gaijin Man” (a character type better known as “Charisma Man,” a phrase Anderson doesn’t use) offers a surprising insight on the phenomenon of unattractive foreign men hooking up with beautiful Japanese women.

Anderson’s humor is sharp, but never cruel. Many of his jokes are at his own expense. Even when describing what an absurd place Japan is – as most places are – he usually does it by way of deflating his own unrealistic expectations of what life in Japan was going to be like.

How much of it is literally true? I don’t know. But it’s true enough, and more than funny enough.

Elizabeth Andoh’s Tohoku cookbook

February 28, 2012

When devastating earthquakes struck Japan in 1995 and 2011, Elizabeth Andoh helped the nation recover in the best way she could. By cooking.

Andoh is an American who has lived in Japan for more than 40 years. In that time, she has run a cooking school, written several cookbooks, and arguably become the world’s leading English-language authority on Japanese food.

When the Great Hanshin Earthquake destroyed much of Kobe in 1995, killing more than 6,000 people and leaving many others suddenly homeless, Andoh went to work in a takidashi soup kitchen to help feed the survivors.

After the Great East Japan Earthquake was followed by tsunami that ravaged the Pacific coast of the Tohoku region, she set about researching and writing a cookbook of traditional Tohoku recipes to raise money to help with recovery efforts. Today (Feb. 28) is the release date for the book, titled “Kibo: Brimming with Hope.” (See details on buying it here.)

Earlier in the month, she held a promotional event for the book, which I attended. I tasted the sample of Tohoku treats photographed below (and also sipped a few different types of Tohoku sake) while listening to Andoh explain her project.

Tastes of Tohoku, from left: Salmon rice topped with salmon roe, kamaboko fish sausage with a tiny bottle of soy sauce, walnut-miso shiso leaf rolls, fall fruits in pine nut tofu sauce, vinegared chrysanthemum and enoki mushroom salad

“What I remember most from [my Kobe] experience was not the first few weeks, not even the first few months,” she said. “It was five years later, it was 10 years later, and there was still so much that hadn’t come together. And for me, [considering] the enormity of what had happened in March [2011], I knew that the world would respond, Japan would respond, to emergency needs and that if I were going to do anything it was going to be more long-term.”

“When the reality of the nuclear accident became real, I knew that for longer than my lifetime we were going to have huge segments of the population permanently displaced. And then what would happen to Tohoku culture? It would all disappear; it would get morphed … into something possibly unrecognizable … I was concerned about someone getting in there and preserving the food culture,” she said.

In Kibo, Andoh set out to “chronicle, if you will, and preserve, put on the record, what Tohoku food culture was.” The $3.99 e-book contains 20 recipes that she hopes will enable readers to “recreate Tohoku food outside of the region,” using ingredients that are locally available wherever they happen to live.

Andoh is receiving no money for her work, and most of the proceeds of the book will be channelled through an online charity clearinghouse called Global Giving to a project called Michinoku Shigoto, which you can read about in English here or in Japanese here.

“What they do is they sponsor fellows, young people with skills and enthusiasm and energy to go up into the Tohoku and make business. It’s less about trying to salvage something that existed prior to the disaster than it is all about start-ups and things that make sense now,” Andoh said.

But enough nuts and bolts. How is the food?

Some of it, such as the salmon rice, is stick-to-your ribs country cooking, as you’d expect from a region known mainly for farming and fishing. And some of it is more self-evidently gourmet, such as the exquisite little dabs of walnut miso wrapped in shiso leaves and pan-toasted on sesame oil. Also toward that end of the spectrum is the fall fruit in pine nut tofu sauce, which the book suggests serving in a hollowed-out persimmon.

Having test-driven two of the recipes at home so far, I can report that the instructions are clear and easy to follow, and the results have been excellent. One dish I at which I tried my hand was the pork soup with “pinched noodles” that reminded me of the dumplings that are sometimes boiled with chicken in southern U.S. cooking. The photo below shows how it came out for me:

The other dish I made seemed like a bit more of a gamble, but it paid off. This was kamaboko fish sausage, something I have often eaten in Japan but never imagined I would be able to make at home.

The main ingredient is of course fish (I used cod), and the recipe calls for only five more items: salt, sugar, sake, cornstarch (I used katakuriko) and an egg white. All you have to do is combine them in a food processor – albeit in a very particular order – and then shape the resulting substance into little patties and grill them.

Andoh said in her presentation, “The amount of salt that’s added is a little alarming, and the timing of it is bizarre. Trust me on it, it’s got to be [done] exactly as it’s written…and the reason why when you look on the labels [of commercially prepared kamaboko] you see so much sugar in the fish sausage is to counteract the amount of salt. It’s 2 percent by weight, salt that you need to get a certain kind of chemical reaction to take place [with the protein of the fish] … There’s an instant when all of a sudden it comes together and it’s suddenly kamaboko.”

And sure enough, when I was blending the fish with the salt, there suddenly came a point when – in the space of about one second – the mixture transformed from a gloopy paste spread around the sides of the container into a smooth foam gathered in the center.

This foam is grilled in the “Kibo” recipe, but it has various uses in Japanese cuisine and can also be boiled or fried. I cooked mine in two batches, one in a toaster oven and one in the fish-grilling drawer of my Japanese stove. As you can see from the photo, my results were not beautiful…

…but they did taste good, and they had what Andoh describes in the book as “a certain degree of danryoku, or springiness, a texture that remains largely unappreciated in Western food culture.” If you’re not already familiar with kamaboko, think of each piece as a chewy bite of fish meringue pie. (I mean that as a good thing.)

The recipes (many with photos, including illustrations of techniques) take up just over half of the book. The rest is filled out with extensive notes on ingredients, a chapter on Tohoku sakes by Yukari Sakamoto, a chapter on a Miyagi Prefecture family getting their restaurant up and running again by Hiroko Sasaki, and a chapter on displaced Fukushima farmers by my coworker Jane Kitagawa.

These writers did all their work for a good cause, but Andoh admitted, “In the meanwhile, very selfishly, I discovered all sorts of wonderful things to eat, and people doing interesting things.”

“Calling All Shadows”

September 29, 2011

This past Sunday night I went to a book launch party for “Calling All Shadows,” a collection of 97 photos by Leigh Norrie with poetry by Adam Touhrig on the facing pages. Leigh is a friend of mine, so I won’t pretend to be an impartial observer.

Nonetheless I will say that I was impressed by the moody quality of his photos, which are mostly black-and-white and were taken in a variety of melancholy places around Japan, plus a few in Britain. Leigh shows us waves crashing on a desolate coast…a cast-off store mannequin lurching zombie-like through a rice field where it was repurposed as a scarecrow…and a couple of nocturnal street scenes from the city of Fukushima, with not a soul in sight.

“Fukushima” is a name most people outside of Japan had never heard last year, but now the emptiness of the streets in Leigh’s photos will be striking to almost everyone.

One of the few color photos in the book is of the Nagasaki peace statue. When personified, “Peace” usually appears as a graceful woman, but the Nagasaki statue is a muscular man in a dynamic pose. Leigh photographed him as a slightly wavy reflection in some rain-slicked paving tiles. In this image, Peace, seemingly sealed off under a blue glaze, looks distant and unreal. Leigh took a concrete representation of an abstraction, and made it abstract again.

Many of the pictures have been manipulated in deliberately noticeable ways, mostly around the edges. In one example, a jumbo roller-coaster car with passengers sitting eight abreast has just begun a steep plunge at the top of the photo. The space around it is bleached as white as the surrounding page, so that the car and tracks seem to be hovering in infinite space. And the tracks below and ahead fade raggedly into the nothingness like the trailing end of a calligrapher’s brush stroke. Where will the passengers be a moment from now?

“Calling All Shadows” is available through Printed Matter Press at

Stay home on “Black Friday” – and after

November 24, 2010

Back in my native land, the United States, nearly everyone will sit down to feasts this Thursday with their families and friends to celebrate the wonderful American holiday of Thanksgiving. For many of them, this will be followed by the decidedly un-wonderful observance of “Black Friday,” a grotesque shopping orgy that kicks off the Christmas retail season.

Black Friday madness is a historically recent development. When I last lived in the United States, in the 1990s, I had never heard of it. (“Black Friday” in those days was widely understood to refer to the 1929 stock market crash at the beginning of the Great Depression.)

Christmas shopping, however, has been with us for as long as anyone can remember. Business school professor Joel Waldfogel has written an excellent little book on the subject, called “Scroogenomics,” in which he argues that the whole shopping season is, from an economist’s point of view, insane.

Here’s my review:

Joel Waldfogel has solved one of the great economic mysteries. Why is there such an abundance of tacky, golf-themed knickknacks in American shopping malls when no one in their right mind, no matter how avid a golfer, would ever buy such things for themselves?

The question contains its own answer. Almost no one buys golf-bag bookends or golfball whiskey decanters for themselves, but they do feel compelled to buy them for other people – especially as Christmas approaches. While year-end retail sales are widely touted as a barometer of economic health, Waldfogel sees them as a bonfire of economic waste. In the wittily written “Scroogenomics: Why You Shouldn’t Buy Presents for the Holidays,” he argues that $12 billion in value is destroyed every holiday season, and he persuasively explains why.

Suppose you buy a $100 sweater and give it to your niece, who thanks you sweetly while secretly thinking, “Ugh, I wouldn’t have paid more than ten bucks for this frumpy thing.” Waldfogel, a professor at the University of Minnesota who was on the University of Pennsylvania faculty when this book came out last year, would argue that you have just wasted $90 by spending $100 to give your niece a mere $10 worth of satisfaction.

What’s worse, this is a deadweight loss for the economy as whole, because your $90 loss is not made up by anyone else’s gain. (The presumably fair price of $100 you paid to the retailer was balanced out by their giving you the sweater in the first place. It is only by throwing the sweater away on someone who doesn’t want it that value is destroyed.)

The problem is that you don’t know your niece’s tastes as well as she does. The market works its magic best when rational, well-informed people spend their own money on their own behalf. But in the case of gift shopping, when buyer and consumer are separate parties, the invisible hand may as well be blind.

Waldfogel has attempted to quantify this blindness through surveys of his students, asking about gifts they have received, how much they probably cost, and how much the students actually valued them. He later refined the survey to measure the money spent on gifts against how the recipients would have spent it themselves. Over the years he has consistently found that “people’s own choices generate about 18 percent more satisfaction – per dollar spent – than do gifts.”

Applying that figure to a conservative estimate of $66 billion spent on holiday shopping each year yields his assertion that at least $12 billion is a deadweight loss.

But if all you really know for sure about the personal tastes of your seldom-seen uncle is that he drinks and plays golf (like millions of other men), then that golfball-shaped decanter may look like your only choice. What are you going to do?

Waldfogel recommends going the gift certificate or gift card route, as it results in purchases that are a better fit for the recipients by letting them choose items for themselves. On top of that, any unused value reverts to the retailer (or to the state, in some cases) rather than simply evaporating. In the true spirit of the season, he also endorses making charitable donations in a gift-recipient’s name. And he looks forward to the day when these two ideas can be combined, with charities allowed to “keep the change” from unredeemed gift cards.

To further show that he is not really a Scrooge, he makes it clear that his recommendations are meant for adults and teenagers. Parents and Santa can still be trusted to do an economically efficient job of shopping for the littlest kids, who are not yet adept at choosing things for themselves. (Participating in an exchange of gifts might help children learn about relationships and social obligations, but this is something the book does not get into.)

Returning to gentle scold mode, Waldfogel includes a brief chapter on how credit cards have supplanted Christmas club bank accounts and store layaway plans – remember those? – as the method by which many Americans pay for their holiday spending sprees. Easy consumer credit is great for dealing with unanticipated emergencies or opportunities, he writes, but there’s little excuse for Yuletide debt. “Christmas arrives on December 25 every year. It’s fully anticipated by even dimly sentient beings…So why would a sensible person need to borrow for it?”

Waldfogel makes sound arguments that will be welcomed by anyone seeking relief from their Christmas shopping duties. But his publisher, Princeton University Press, seems to be hedging its bets. Not only is there a cute photo of a little girl and a wrapped present on its glossy cover, but “Scroogenomics” has been packaged as a petite hardback measuring just over 4 by 6 inches – the perfect size to slip into a Christmas stocking.

Arcade Mania

September 12, 2010

When I was in high school in America in the early 1980s, video games were still a novelty. Arcades full of coin-operated machines had suddenly become a standard feature at shopping centers, but hardly anyone I knew played video games at home. However, in my “computer science” class at school, I got hooked on a very simple geometric game called Qix. I was recently pleased to discover that you can now play it on the for free at the website Arcade Boss. I’m not hypnotized by it like I once was, but it’s still fun for a few minutes.

Nowadays, home video game systems are common in the United States – not to mention portable handheld game platforms – while arcades have largely disappeared. In Japan, however, arcades still survive despite the popularity of home and portable games.

Perhaps game arcades in Japan might serve a social function similar to that of love hotels. They facilitate activities that can be most fully enjoyed outside the small living space that you may be sharing with parents, kids, in-laws or siblings. They are somewhat private but non-home spaces where you can let you hair down.

The 2008 book “Arcade Mania,” by Brian Ashcraft and Jean Snow, documents the Japanese arcade phenomenon. I reviewed it when it came out, and here is an excerpt:

Arcade Mania is a breezy little book packed with color images and peppered with quotes from game designers and champion players. It sheds light on the surprisingly diverse world of Japanese arcades with chapters divided by game genre, including crane games (such as UFO Catcher), photo-sticker games (Print Club), music-based games (Dance Dance Revolution), trading-card games (Mushiking), vintage games (Elevator Action) and more.

It contains a lot of fascinating tidbits of history, such as how “Martin Bromley, Irving Bromberg, and James Humpert had founded the company Standard Games in Hawaii in 1940 to provide entertainment for military servicemen stationed overseas, and…sensed an opportunity in postwar American-occupied Japan. It was in 1951 that the company moved to Tokyo, complete with name change. Standard Games became Service Games of Japan (SErvice GAmes = Sega, geddit?) and the following year began importing pinball machines into Japan.”

Pinball machines may be a thing of the past, but Sega is still going strong.

The book plumbs the depths of otakudom, reporting on a battery-powered vibrating device that hard-core gamers can wear on their fingers. Pulsing at 30 times a second, it pushes a game’s “shoot” button faster than any human finger could. (What did you think it was for?)

A very odd omission in this wide-ranging book is any mention of gambling for money in the brief discussion of pachinko. The practice is technically illegal, of course, but it is not exactly rare…

That last point is my only beef with this book. What it does contain is very interesting. Buy it here.

Barry Eisler’s “Fault Line”

May 1, 2010

Barry Eisler’s novel “Fault Line” was released in paperback earlier this week. Here’s a very brief review I wrote when the book was first published last year:

“Fault Line” is being touted as Barry Eisler’s “first stand-alone thriller.” But its three main characters – estranged brothers Ben and Alex and the woman they are both attracted to, Sarah – must uneasily stand together to survive the attacks of paid assassins who are after the book’s MacGuffin, a truly killer app out of Silicon Valley.

Eisler, a former CIA agent, made a name for himself with a series of six excellent novels about a globetrotting Japanese-American hitman named John Rain. Sony Pictures has made the first of these, “Rain Fall,” into a mostly Japanese-language movie featuring Gary Oldman.

The Rain books were character-driven, with the focus as much on Rain’s tortured psyche as on his deadly handiwork. “Fault Line” is also character-driven, but Eisler shows each of the three main characters through the eyes of the other two, giving readers a 360-degree view of how a mix of healthy paranoia and needless suspicion complicates their already tense relationships.

Alex and Sarah are lawyers for the creator of some revolutionary new software. When the creator is found murdered, Alex turns to Ben, a black-ops commando, for help. Soon the chase is on, with the trio dodging murderous attacks and fighting among themselves in almost equally deadly fashion.

Amid the tradecraft details and family drama, Eisler lets his characters make the occasional political aside. “The left was naïve, thinking you could follow the niceties and still fight effectively against the kind of fanatics America was up against,” Ben muses. “And the right was hypocritical, thinking you could take off the gloves and still occupy the moral high ground.”

For readers on either side of that cynical line, “Fault Line” delivers its twists and thrills in a well-crafted literary package.