Friday, September 11, 2009

Yakuza Moon: Memoirs of a Gangster's Daughter by Shoko Tendo

Reviewed for Front Street Reviews

I read this book in one go; considering I have never done that before, it says a lot for the intensity and breathtaking reality of the memoir. Though relatively short, it packs a powerful punch, an amazing debut. I was drawn into her story until I felt I was a part of it. The essence of a good writer is to be able to make that connection between reader and character, and Shoko Tendo has certainly done that. Way out of my usual genres, I was completely absorbed in her heart-wrenching memoir, an emotional rollercoaster told in a straight-forward, no-holds-barred manner. In the version I read, photos and a foreword have been added to the original publication. These contributed to the personality of Shoko.

Unfamiliar as I am with yakuza society (somewhat like a Japanese mafia), this book brought me into lifestyles I knew nothing about; I also learned to see a tattoo as a complete work of art, which in Japan it truly is. These tattoos are full-body canvases, extremely detailed and historical art. Shoko was the middle child in a family of three girls and a boy, her father a yakuza, in a life of plenty. Fearful of her father's rages, bullied at school, discriminated against and insecure, Shoko's lifestyle had already begun to change at the tender age of twelve when her older sister took her to a club and passed her off as 18. The next several years of her life are spent in drugged out sex, used and abused. When all goes wrong at home, her father resigns as a yakuza and is pursued by yakuza loan sharks. Shoko falls into the trap of one man, a former friend of her father. His false promises to help her father with his financial problems and his Jeckyl and Hyde personality drags her deep into his net. Misguided in what is expected of her, she sinks deeper and deeper.

Shoko does not try to lecture in her book, but is faithful to her memories. She does not dwell on her situation but writes with an honesty and thoroughness that through her worst times I could feel the disassociation she finally reaches. Intense, poignant, numbed and broken, she lays it all on the line. Her emergence from this darkness is wonderful to read and shows the strength of her true character. This memoir is a real eye-opener of horrendous abuse and the intimidation that denies escape. Exceptionally well-written for a debut. I highly recommend this book.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

The Sky Rained Heroes: a Journey from War to Remembrance by Frederick E. LaCroix

Reviewed for Front Street Reviews

This is a true story of two families, American and Japanese, and the fateful moment in WWII when they literally met head on. One lived, one died. At the beginning, I found this book to be a bit of a disappointment as far as the basis of the story goes. There is little said about the actual event of returning the Japanese flag to the descendants I was expecting. Rather, this event in the first half of the book felt more like an episode running in the background. I was mistaken in my judgement. It is a well-meaning story, certainly informative, and written in a consistent manner albeit switching time and location. This does not seem to hamper the flow.

Putting my erroneous perception aside, what we have is a very well-researched and constructed history of Japan and China, dynasties, culture, and methods and thought processes in the training of their military, written in verbose prose. I have not read so many convoluted words in a sentence since I retired from working for professors and typing manuscripts. I often use these overblown words of an earlier style myself, but rarely find it in books written today. This could deter some readers from carrying on, but it is well worth reading even if you might need an older dictionary alongside.

We also have a very well-researched history of American culture, approach to the war, and the training and thought processes of the military of the time. It is amazing to me that they were so far behind technically in 1939 and I got a new slant on why they entered the war so late. The speed at which they trained and improved is amazing. The use of personal letters, written home by the author's father, was brilliant, and definitely picked up the pace. I learned so much about the making of an American fighter pilot in these chapters, more personal and real to me than in other books.

The letters must be taken in the context of the time. The arena is the war in the Pacific. LaCroix has interspersed them with his research into each event or series of events, and this is where the original concept begins to take form and grows right to the end of the book. Some fascinating coincidences appear throughout the book, adding more personality. The author has invested time and self in the construction of a story before, during, and after the historic and disastrous meeting of the two men, Japanese and American. The reverberations of this event have affected both families an ocean, indeed a world apart. I felt that the final chapters of the book were very comforting and a fitting closure, and the Afterword is personal and enlightening.

Rich with historical research, there are many cites as endnotes. I chose to view these after reading the book as I didn't want to interrupt the flow. I believe this book has a lot to offer the reader.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

It Can Happen to You by Lynn Crymble

A very unique style of writing in this debut novel. At first I had a feeling as though I were reading a screenplay, then thought it was more like a voice-over on a TV show for the blind. I will say I found it a bit unnerving originally, but the style remained consistent and I think it was important for the author to give the reader a feel for the character in the early part of the book in order to see the changes in her character later. For that alone, this reader felt a connection with Penny, the main character, which continued to grow.

A woman who has gone through life without really living it for herself is about to undergo many changes, some planned and directed, while other changes have been waiting in the wings, so to speak, for Penny to discover, and discover she does. Not only that, she grasps life and runs with it. As the plot went along I was drawn in and rooting for her toward the end. There are some humorous highlights in the book, as she fights to remain who she has been for so many years. Married to a much older man who is a philanderer is great fodder for a writer but the author chooses not to allow it to play a major part and it remains pretty much ignored by Penny. This is important to the cocoon she has built for herself. She has insulated herself to the point that she doesn’t even realize she has.

The subject and style are not the easiest for a debut, but the author has presented a smooth and compelling piece. My first impressions were blown away the more I read. It takes talent to build the framework of a fictional life and I felt I really knew this person. There are several characters in the book, all well-defined, individual, and focused (with the exception of Penny, who is definitely focused by the end of the book). I must give credit to Haggis, the Irish Wolfhound, a real hero and the prime mover to get Penny out of her rut. I think we could all do with a Haggis in our lives! Great job, Lynn! I enjoyed my trip into Penny’s life.