Monday, December 24, 2012

People Who Eat Darkness by Richard Lloyd Parry

I am not a fan of true crime. But I am endlessly by Japan. The subtitle of People Who Eat Darkness is "The True Story of a Young Woman who Vanished from the Streets of Tokyo--and the Evil that Swallowed Her Up." Richard Lloyd Parry, the author, is the Tokyo bureau chief of The Times (London) and has lived in Japan for most of his adult life. His book is extraordinary. Both Publisher's Weekly and Time magazine picked this as one of the ten best books of 2012.

The story begins when Lucie Blackman, a 21-year-old former British Airways flight attendant who was working as a bar hostess in Roppongi, disappeared in July 2000. Months later the Japanese police found pieces of her dismembered body in a cave southwest of Tokyo. By the time they found Lucie's body, they had a suspect in custody and eventually he was tried, a trial that lasted more than five years.

Parry spent ten years researching and writing the book. He interviewed Lucie's parents, her younger sister and brother, her Tokyo roommate, friends of the family, Tokyo police, Roppongi bar owners. We learn about Lucie (she worried about money and thought she could pay off her debts working in Japan), her family (her parents had divorced and had very different reactions to Lucie's disappearance), her sister (who badgered the police and British Embassy to do something), about the Roppongi bar scene, about the history of Koreans in Japan, about Japanese police procedures, and about Japanese criminal courts.

We learn, for example, that because the Japanese regard flight attendant as a high status job, Japanese reporters and the public could not understand why Lucie would give it up to become a bar hostess. We learn that criminals are expected to show remorse and, in fact, if they give their victims financial compensation they may actually be able to reduce their sentences.  

Because it is true, the story is not neat. Parry writes includes events that no mystery writer could get away with; they are too preposterous. The people involved don't follow the public's expectation of, say, how the father of a missing daughter should act in a press conference. At one point, Lucie's father gets sucked into a con by a guy who manages to extract $10,000 from him before the con falls apart. Lucie's mother consults psychics and Parry quotes some of their "information," none of which was close to the reality.

Because it is true, it has no tidy conclusion. Lucie is dead. The man accused of her murder is in prison, but not for that crime. Lucie's sister has attempted suicide. Her mother has remarried. Her father is a pariah. Japan remains one of the safest countries on earth.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Happiness is a Chemical in the Brain by Lucia Perillo

So many books, so little time. So how do you decide what to read next? My answer: Recommendations by friends and family (word-of-mouth); reviews; new book by an author I know; old book by an author I've discovered; a classic I've manage to avoid until I was old enough to appreciate it (I've begun dipping into the Essays of Montaigne); a title related to Japan; and—given this time of year—Top 10 Books of the Year lists.

Which is how I happened to read Happiness is a Chemical in the Brain a collection of stories by Lucia Perillo, her first such collection. It was one of Publishers Weekly's top 10 of 2012. Perillo has published five books of poetry, one of which, Inseminating the Elephant, was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize. In 2000, she was awarded a MacArthur Fellowship. She is married, lives in Washington state, and has MS. She talks about her poetry and her background in a 2099 interview that is available on the web.

Perhaps because she is a poet, Perillo's language is extraordinary and yet she does not seem to be showing off. Her sentences don't shout, "Look at me! Look at me!" But here's the first paragraph of the book's first story, "Bad Boy Number Seventeen":

"Don't tell me about bad boys. I've seen my black clouds come and go. Coming they walk with their shoulders back like they've got a raw egg tucked inside each armpit, and they let their legs lead them. Going, you can count on the fact that their butts will cast no shadow on those lean long legs. You can't compete in the arena of squalid romance if you're one of those guys shaped in the rear like a leather mail sack: you're automatically disqualified. That's just the way it is. I didn't make the rules."

Among Perillo's characters are an addict trapped in a country house who becomes obsessed with vacuum cleaners and their door-to-door salespeople...a young woman whose older sister has Down syndrome...and an elderly surgeon living in an elder housing development whose neighbor commits suicide. Some of the stories sound like downers, but Perillo's humor and insights into (and comments on) the human condition not only redeem them, but make them resonate with wisdom.

The fourteen stories are all so strong I had to stop reading for a time, concerned that Perillo's voice would sneak into my own writing. On the other hand, they were so strong I had to finish the book. Thank you, Publishers Weekly. And I envy those of you who can look forward to the pleasures of Perillo's book.