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Pickle Me This

April 5, 2011

Wild libaries I have known: The Himeji International Exchange Center

It was one of the very best times of my life, the year and a bit we spent in Japan. The sakura bloomed every day, we bullet-trained our way towards various adventures, lived in a city with a castle at its centre, found our employment immensely gratifying, made lifelong friends, and decided we’d get married. (Not all of this is actually true, though the castle is, and so are the friends, and other things. It was much better in retrospect than it was at the time, but even at the time I knew that we’d treasure it for ever, it was all so thresholdy, and I have never been so young.)

We’d been prepared for culture shock, though that was about as useful as being prepared to have a baby. What I hadn’t been remotely prepared for was the experience of becoming illiterate, of having print disappear from my life. And of having books suddenly be rare. Japan is home to some of the best bookstores I have ever seen, stocked with books so gorgeous you want to stroke them, and I couldn’t read a single one. It baffled me. I kept going into the bookshops anyway, examining these books as though were bound up in a code I might crack– I never did.

I came to Japan after spending two years in England, where I’d buy 3 for 2s at Waterstones on my lunch break multiple times a week. In England, I got books free by buying hearty cereals and using a code printed on the inside of the box. I basically smelled like a charity bookshop, and that was fine with me. And then all of a sudden, I couldn’t read anymore, and it was like the time I was in Austria and the only book I could find was The Assassination of Marilyn Monroe, except this time, I wasn’t just passing through.

Which brings me to the Himeji International Exchange Centre (which I think was called the Himeji International Association when I lived there, just to be pedantic). It wasn’t very wild, actually, and it wasn’t even a library, though it was hush hush, all the time. But it had a library, with an English section that wasn’t particularly large, and it was a treasure to behold. And once again, I don’t remember the books I borrowed from there (except for Orientalism, and Amrita by Banana Yoshimoto, and Underground by Haruki Murakami; okay, I do remember a few), but I remember the joy of the selection, and how much more I valued books and reading when the experiences weren’t so readily available.

It was a same thing with the pile of books at the top of the stairs outside at staff room at the school we taught at. You’d add your pile of books to it when you left the country (unless you were me, in which case you’d spend hundreds of dollars sending battered Penguins home by sea). I remember reading Hope in the Desperate Hour by David Adams Richards (“a bit depressing”, my friend warned me), and Camille Paglia’s Sex, Art and American Culture.

I would have read anything, and I mostly did. (We also bought English books from, and trekked into Wantage Books in Kobe to buy another Margaret Drabble). I read trash, I read Manga, I read nonfiction, I read books I didn’t understand, and ones that lulled me to sleep in their predictability. Any book was always, always better than no book, which is a really interesting lesson to learn, but I am really most grateful for these libraries for keeping me from having to learn it the hard way.


March 27, 2011

Spring Comes Suddenly: Raising awareness and money for Japanese relief efforts

Spring Comes Suddenly is a collection of haiku poetry I wrote from 2004-2005 while we were living in Japan. Stuart and I published 20 copies of this book in late 2005, each one with hand stitched binding and Japanese paper along the spine with a cherry-blossom pattern. It was the first of two publications by Pickle Me This Press, and we sold our entire lot. The digital version of the book came about last year when Stuart expressed interest in learning more about e-publications, but settled for making a PDF version when he learned that e-pub wasn’t great for poetry.

We are now offering free downloads of Spring Comes Suddenly in order to raise money and awareness for Japanese earthquake relief. Because Japan was once our home, it has been particularly dismaying to learn about the devastation the country currently faces. Knowing Japan as we do, we also know that few other nations would be better equipped to deal with and recover from disaster, but we still can’t help wanting to do our part.

Please accept this book as a token of thanks for any donation you may have already made to the Canadian Red Cross Japan Relief Fund, or to the charities highlighted by the Toronto to Japan effort. If you have not yet made a contribution, please use Spring Comes Suddenly as an incentive to do so. I make no claims to be a poet, but the book is a journal of our Japanese year, and a love letter to a country that provided us with so much kindness and generosity.

(Click on the image to launch the PDF of Spring Comes Suddenly, or right click and select “Save Link As” to save a copy)

March 11, 2011

Subarashii kuni desu

Today, thoughts are with Japan, a most wonderful country that was good enough to give us a home for a while.

December 16, 2009

The Post

If I had to pick just one thing about the English novel, I don’t think I could, but if pressed to pick five things, one of them would have to be the post. Much in the same way that cell phones are pivotal to contemporary plotting, the British postal system is essential to the 20th century Englist novel. As are teacups, spinsters, knitting, seaside B&Bs, and the vicar, or maybe I’ve just been reading too much Barbara Pym, but the mail is always coming and going– have you noticed that? Someone is always going out to post a letter, or writing a letter that never gets posted, or a posted letter goes unreceived, or remains unopened on the hall table.

My day is divided into two: Before Post and After Post. BP is the morning full of expectation, anticipation, and (dare I?) even hope. AP is either a satisfying pile on the kitchen table, or acute disappointment with fingers crossed for better luck tomorrow. In my old house I was in love with the mailman, but that love remained unrequited because I was in grad school then and he only ever saw me wearing track pants. When we lived in Japan, I once received a parcel addressed to me with only my name and the name of the city where we lived (and humiliated myself and was given a sponge, but that’s another story.) When we lived in England, the post arrived two times a day and even Saturday, but the only bad thing was that when I missed a package, I had to take a bus out to a depot in another town.

All of which is to say that I love mail as an institution, as much as I love sending or receiving it. I once met a woman who told me that her husband was a mailman (though she called him a “letter-carrier”, I’m not sure if there’s most dignity in that), and I think she was taken aback when I almost jumped into her arms.

So when I read this piece in the LRB by a Royal Mail employee regarding the recent British mail strike, I had mixed feelings. I was troubled by the bureaucratic nightmare that is the Royal Mail of late, the compromise that comes from profit as the bottom line, the explanation of how Royal Mail is part-privatized already, their focus on the corporate customer. “Granny Smith doesn’t matter anymore,” this piece ends with, and they’re not talking about apples, but instead their Regular Joseph(ine) customers. Those of us whose ears perk up at the sound of mail through the letterbox, at the very sound of the postman’s footfall on the steps.

I took some heart, however, from the article’s point that it is a falsehood that “figures are down”. “Figures are down” appears to be corporate shorthand to justify laying off workers, increasing workloads, eliminating full time contracts, pensions etc. Apparently the Royal Mail brass has no experience on the floor, they’re career-managers (and they’ve probably got consultants) who come up with ingenious ways to show that “figures are down”. Mail volume, for example, used to be measured by weight, but now it’s done by averages. And during the past year, Royal Mail has “arbitrarily, and without consultation” been reducing the number of letters in the average figures. According to the writer, “This arbitrary reduction more than accounts for the 10 per cent reduction that the Royal Mail claims is happening nationwide.”

So yes, none of this good news about the state of labour or capitalism, but what I like is this part: “People don’t send so many letters any more, it’s true. But, then again, the average person never did send all that many letters. They sent Christmas cards and birthday cards and postcards. They still do. And bills and bank statements and official letters from the council or the Inland Revenue still arrive by post; plus there’s all the new traffic generated by the internet: books and CDs from Amazon, packages from eBay, DVDs and games from LoveFilm, clothes and gifts and other items purchased at any one of the countless online stores which clutter the internet, bought at any time of the day or night, on a whim, with a credit card.”

This is hope! I do love letters, namely reading collections of them in books (and particularly if they’re written by Mitfords), but I’ll admit to not writing many of them. My love of post is not so much about epistles, but about the postal system itself. A crazy little system to get the most incidental objects from here to there. I like that I can lick an envelope, and it can land on a Japanese doorstep within the week. I like receiving magazines, and thank you notes, and party invitations, and books I’ve ordered, and Christmas presents, and postcards. I like that in the summer, Harriet received a piece of mail nearly every single day.

And I really love Christmas cards. Leah McLaren doesn’t though, because she gets them from her carpet cleaner and then feels bad because she doesn’t send any herself. I manage to free myself from such compunction by sending them out every single year, and in volumes that could break a tiny man’s back. Spending enough on stamps to bring on bankruptcy, but I look upon this as I look upon book-buying– doing my part to keep an industry I love thriving (or less dying). Yesterday, I posted sixty (60!) Christmas cards, though I regret I can no longer say to every continent except Africa. Because my friend Kate no longer lives in Chile, but my friend Laura is still working at the very bottom of the world so we’ve still got Antarctica, which is remarkable at any rate.

I love Christmas cards. I send them because I’ve got aunts and uncles and extended family that I never see, but I want them to know that they mean something to me anyway. And it does mean something, however small that gesture. These connections matter, these people thinking of us all over the world. Having lived abroad for a few years, I’ve also got friends in far-flung places, and without small moments of contact like this, it would be difficult to keep them. It’s impossible to maintain regular contact with everybody we know and love, but these little missives get sent out into the world, like a nudge to say, “I’m here if you need me.”

I also send them because I’ve got these people in my life that I’m crazy about, and I want to let them know as much. Particularly in a year like this when friends and family have so rallied ’round– let it be written that it all meant the world to me, then stuck in an envelope and sealed with a stamp.

But mostly (and here I confess), I write Christmas cards because people send them back to me. I’ve never once received as many as I send, but the incomings are pretty respectable nonetheless. I love that most December days BP, I’ve got a good chance of red envelopes arriving stacked thick as a doorstop. And if not today, there will be at least one card tomorrow. I love receiving photos of my friends’ babies, and updates on friends and family we don’t hear from otherwise, and the good news and the hopeful news, and just to know that so many people were thinking of us. We display them over our fireplace hanging on a string. It is a bit like Valentines in elementary school, a bit like a popularity contest, but if you were as unpopular as I was in elementary school, you’d understand why strings and strings of cards are really quite appealing.

I love it all. That there are people in places all over the world, and they’re sticking stuff in mailboxes
pillared or squared, and that stuff will get to us. That at least one system in the universe sort of almost works, and that I’ve even got friends. And then– this is most important– what would the modern English novel be without it?

November 10, 2009

Dick Bruna and Miffy

I’ve been a fan of Dick Bruna ever since a trip home from England in 2003, where I was up early mornings due to time change and watched Miffy and Friends on Treehouse. As Miffy is quite popular in England, upon my return I was able to indulge in what has since become a pasttime: purchasing Miffy-branded commercial goods of all kinds. This hobby became very well-practised after I moved to Japan, and consequently, my house is full of glimpses of “that fucking rabbit” (as a friend of a friend once referred to Our Miff). Our recent trip to England yielded more opportunities to Miffy-shop, as we had a layover in Amsterdam (the Land of Miffy). Certainly, I voted with my Euros, and Miffy-Chan won. My friend Paul just sent me a link to this “Dutch Profiles: Dick Bruna” video, presuming I’d like it, and he was correct. And indeed, there is more to Miffy than the shopping, and I think this video makes that quite clear.

August 28, 2009


Must admit that fateful day that took Farrah and Michael had me rolling my eyes only, but it does seem a bit much that Wednesday saw the deaths of Ted Kennedy, Ellie Greenwich and Dominick Dunne, each of whom meant a lot to me. Kennedy by virtue of being a Kennedy alone, and there was a time in my life when I lapped up Kennedy bios like they were fiction (and they sort of were). I know Ted Kennedy was both a hero and a dastardly villain, but I’m most amazed by a story I once read alluding to about him having sex with a woman in a crowded restaurant. I could find no further details, but it’s the best story I’ve ever heard. As far as I know, Ellie Greenwich got up to no such thing, but her music has been part of the soundtrack to my life (“I met him at the candy store, he turned around and smiled at me. You get the picture?” “Yes, we see.”)

But since we’re talking literature here, let’s focus on Dominick Dunne. Which means we’re not talking literature with a capital L, but I loved his books. When we lived in Japan, we frequented Wantage Books, a used bookshop in Kobe. Wantage Books was an English bookshop, which was rare and wonderful, and we’d buy at least ten books per visit. (It’s odd to remember what a precious commodity readable books were then, and how easy it was to take them for granted again). It was at Wantage where I found Various Miracles, my favourite Carol Shields book, discovered Margaret Drabble, and bought up every Dominick Dunne novel in the store. Stuart and I were obsessed with them, and remember reading them on my train commutes to work, gripping mass-market paperbacks that fit perfectly into my purse. The Two Mrs. Grenvilles, and A Season in Purgatory (speaking of Kennedys), People Like Us, and besides, he was Joan Didion’s brother-in-law, so I felt better about the whole thing.

There was something about the foreigness of our every day surroundings that made Dunne’s novels like a tonic. American, and glamour, and scandal, and intrigue– we devoured it like the books were bad for us, and perhaps they were, but they satisfied. They were delicious. And then I remember, after a string of Dunne novels, reading something else finally and being confused when there was no fil*tio by page three. I’ve since adjusted back, but I’ll always remember how perfect his books were at the time.

April 29, 2009

Toronto Sakura

January 20, 2009

"Because We Want To" by Alison Smith

The few words that I learn
make reality. No, reality exists.
Words push me
into the moving water.

In the morning
I learn words for Lu Ling
while she brushes her teeth.
She’s said that she laughs
because she is pregnant
and wants to be happy.
Me too, I’ve realised, I do
want to be happy.

Today, I say, are you busy?
She says my Japanese
is good, is good!
I say tonight? dinner? together?
She says pizza?
and I say hai.
This is our common language:
eat dinner tonight yes.
And because we’ve wanted to
we’ve learned how to say next
these have become feast days
and we will not stop
until we are satisfied.

–from Alison Smith’s gorgeous collection Six Mats and One Year, published by Gaspereau Press, which TSR has informed us recently entered the blogosphere.

September 13, 2008

Oishi-desu, ne?

In Japan, one lives to eat, or at least one travels to eat, for every city or region is famed for some kind of delicacy which must be indulged in on a visit. (In our city Himeji, it was conger eel.)

It is also important that when you do travel someplace, to bring back omiyage— a (n often edible) souvenir– for friends and co-workers back home. It is a slight not do so, and every city– and the train station in particular– will have numerous gift shops full of such delights.

When we lived in Japan, I had a co-worker whose boyfriend was working in the city of Nagoya, and she’d often go to visit him on her days off. And though her visits were quite regular, she never dared an omiyage lapse, and she would usually bring us back uiro— the snack for which Nagoya is famed. Uiro is a sweet snack of pounded rice, loaded with sugar. It comes in a block that appears kind of waxy, has a consistency not dissimilar to cheese, and I love it. I am a uiro glutton, which was fine as most people were unable to get past its strange appearance and texture, so there was always plenty for me. I still keep an eye out for it in the Asian shops around the city, but not a sign of it have I seen.

Last month before our neighbours left for their trip to Japan, I’d asked if they’d be going to Nagoya. I was being a bit flippant– their trip would be a whirlwind, wedding and honeymoon all in one– and really I just wanted a chance to reminisce about the pleasures of uiro. But I should have known– Japanese people take omiyage very seriously, and any kind thing a Japanese person has ever done for me has been mindblowingly beyond the call of duty.

They got back this week, and we were hanging out in the backyard last night when I was presented a box of uiro. It turns out that their shinkansen had passed through Nagoya, making a brief stop. My neighbour asked the attendant how long the stop would be, and she said one minute and a half. My neighbour tells his wife, he’s going to chance it. He says that if he doesn’t get back on, he’ll take the next train and meet her at the end of the line. But he makes it. In 90 seconds, he managed to buy my heart’s desire, get back on the train, solidifying all suspicions I’d ever had regarding his superheroism. As well as his wife’s patience, their generosity and all-around infinite goodness.

So we’re savouring the uiro at the moment. Tiny slices, we want to make it last. What a fabulous surprise! It’s as good as I remembered.

June 26, 2008

Poem in the Post

Kawaii. Today in the post was a “Hello Kitty Everywhere! Haiku Postcard” from my sister. Haiku as follows:

Peeking through the soil,
The flowers shyly emerge.
I am their first friend.

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