Thursday, February 28, 2013

PEOPLE WHO EAT DARKNESS by Richard Lloyd Parry (non-fic)

"People Who Eat Darkness" was one of the notable books of 2012 of the New York Times.  It is a true crime story and not for the fainthearted.  It is a tale of darkness and horror that defies logic. Capable of causing nightmares, it is not a book that I can say I enjoyed reading, and the sadness of it is that it is all true.
Back in the year 2000, a 21 year of British girl, a former flight attendant for British Air, quit her job and went to Tokyo.  It was to be a short term stay.  Her name was Lucie Blackman, and she had gotten herself into debt and had large credit card bills.  Lucie heard there was quick and easy money to be made in Tokyo by taking a job as a Hostess in a club catering to the whims of Tokyo businessmen.  She and a friend easily found work in Roppongi, an area of Tokyo that is respectable enough in the day time, but caters to a different and decidedly creepy element as darkness falls.  Lucie was naive, and like many tourists was lulled into a false sense of safety by Tokyo's reputation as one of the world's safest cities.  And so it is, but not when dealing with the unsavory denizens of the club world which caters to all kinds of kinky types and fetishes.
Lucie came to a hideous end, being drugged, raped and finally dismembered by a millionaire madman whom she had the misfortune to meet and trust.  His name was Obara, and he himself was an outsider though born in Japan.  His family was Korean; they changed their name when they took on Japanese citizenship.  Obara was one of three sons of a hard-working father who built up a business worth millions.
Parry a correspondent for the Times of London, has followed this case from its beginning at the turn of the century right through to present day, when it was finally resolved.  This story isn't just about Lucie.  The characters who were part of her life and background are all equally interesting.  Her father, Tim, whose actions and seeming thirst for publicity, is a case study of its own.  Her mother, Jane, who sought advice from a Medium, is another tale.  Her brother and sister who suffered breakdowns in the years after the murder, have their story.  Worst of all is the murderer, Obara and the mismanagement of the case by the police, who proved to be bumbling and inept in their investigation.  The story of Lucie and her fate carried on for ten years, and Parry doggedly kept on its trail.  The result is this true crime story.  It is not easy to read in its unsavory detail, but is well-written and a fascinating study of human evil, error, greed, and sadness.  Along with this is the overlying misunderstanding between very different cultures.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

THE LADY IN THE TOWER by Alison Weir (non-fic)

Alison Weir is the author of a number of books on medieval royalty.  This time she has focused on Anne Boleyn.  Anne Boleyn is a romantic figure in British history and there have been a number of biographies and novels written about her.  As most know, she was the second of Henry VIII's wives and was beheaded on what appear to be bogus charges.  Because of the paucity of actual facts of these early figures, they are often more suited to romances than biographies.  However, Alison Weir has taken a small window of time in Anne's life and researched it thoroughly, including plenty of original and primary sources.  Weir has concentrated on the four month period when Anne was accused of infidelity with five men including her brother George while plotting against Henry.  All were subsequently sent to the Tower of London and beheaded.
If you have read the brilliant "Wolf Hall" by Hilary Mantel, and are interesting in this period of history, you may wish to check this book out.  Weir is meticulous in presenting all the available sources: letters, legal documents, court proceedings, first and second hand references.  She traces the motives of Henry, who was at that time already involved in a relationship with Jane Seymour and her rapacious family, as well as the wily Thomas Cromwell who was fighting to maintain his own position in the dangerous court of Henry.  Weir debunks a lot of popular myths that grew around Anne who was not a popular figure in her time.  She also tries to cut through some of the whitewashing that was done during the reign of her daughter Elizabeth I. 
All in all this is an interesting and well written book if you are interested in the scholarly aspects of Anne's fall from grace and the horror dangers of finding oneself too close to the throne and Henry's ire. 

Monday, February 18, 2013

GOODBYE COLUMBUS by Philip Roth (fic)

A valued friend gave me a beautifully bound old copy of "Goodbye Columbus" for Christmas this year.  What a treat to read it again after these many years.  Philip Roth announced his retirement from writing this year, and "Goodbye Columbus" being the first book he wrote, made the reading more meaningful.  "Goodbye Columbus" was published in 1959 when he was a twenty something teacher of writing.  It won the National Book Award that year.
If you are a follower of "Mad Men," you may wish to go back to reread this novella, which portrays the same era, all-be-it from the viewpoint of two Jewish kids from opposite sides of Newark. 
Years ago when I first read the story, I was younger than the collage-age characters in the story. Rereading it now is fascinating. Here we are decades later, and we know what is in store for the world and these two students who had a brief summer liaison in a more innocent time.  Neil Klugman and Brenda Patimkin are trying to find themselves, before computers, birth control pills, smart phones and all the other trapping that young adults have today.  It was a time when people took buses and wrote letters and smoked cigarettes and ate lots of meat and potatoes without guilt. They planned weddings in just two months; and it was easy to find a venue and go out and buy  gowns for brides and attendants in a single day.  It was a time when uneducated workers could own businesses like Patimkin's kitchen and bathroom factory, which enabled his daughter to grow up a princess and attend Radcliffe, where the Harvard girls still lived and studied separately from the boys. 
Neil who came from the poorer side of Newark and attended Rutgers University was very conscious of the differences that their upbringings accorded them.  In the end the differences were too great for Neil and Brenda to make a go of it.  The reader feels Neil's pain as he tries to fit into Brenda's nouveau-riche family with their glitzy trappings and material life style, as well as Brenda's confusion in trying to understand a world so different from hers.  Neither came close to "getting" the others needs. 
The era of the 1950s is so very different from ours today, yet the angst of the young searching for love, is just as valid in both worlds.  The story is still good reading.

Saturday, February 9, 2013

KEEPING THE WORLD AWAY by Margaret Forster (fic)

Margaret Forster has taken a conceit, made it her own and fashioned it into an interesting story which fictionalizes real characters.  It is a story that begins at the the turn of the 20th century with an intriguing painting.
Once upon a time there was an artistic family named John with a brother, Augustus who became famous not only for his painting, but also for his bohemian life style. His story is told in a wonderful biography by Michael Holroyd.
 Our story starts with the sister, Gwen, who in a smaller way became known for her paintings, especially those of a series of rooms. The paintings are meticulous in their control of the environment, perhaps reflecting the need of the artist to exert some control over her life.  Gwen John longed for a space of her own, much as Virginia Wolfe wanted "A Room of One's Own."  Her paintings are alluring to the viewer for what is absent from these rooms.  Forster builds her tale around one of these paintings. 
As the painting passes through the hands of various owners, it has an impact on each and affects each life in a different way.  Each woman who owns the painting is trying to keep the world at bay, each having a different need to do so.  The women are connected through a love of art, several attending the famous Slade school.  Many cross paths, though they aren't aware of it.  In this the story is reminiscent of Kieslowski's trio of movies, "Red" "White" and "Blue," in which random people seemingly affect and cross through others lives.
Forster's novel remains interesting all the way through, and I recommend it as a well written novel developed from a true story.  There is much to keep a lively discussion going for a book reading group.