Tuesday, December 1, 2009

True Tales

Through the years, I've flitted across all sorts of categories in books (and as I've said before, I have my mother to thank for my love of reading). Espionage tales, fast paced thrillers, historical sagas, techno adventures, horror and even some romance novels have found their way into my hands, and mind (though I'll claim amnesia covering the titles for that last one). More recently, I've become a mystery/crime fiction junkie of sorts. However, for as much as I've enjoyed getting lost in fictional tales and characters of whatever category I've read (or listened to via the audiobook form), there remains one constant pull that's never left me, or been ignored. And that written work is of the non-fiction variety--again going back to my childhood and school experiences. I can never claim to have been an exemplary student. I cruised too often, studied only when I absolutely had to and routinely tried to get by with an elephantine memory of lectures. Only later in college did I learn my lesson. Needless to say, these are the things I watch out for in my children so they don't fall into those same woeful habits. (Nag, nag, nag...)

Fortunately, the kids have inherited their mother's smarts and work ethic (see, there's another reason her nickname is she-who-must-be-obeyed). And while American Lit was just an okay subject by this so-so student, history has always fascinated me (for some strange reason). Add to this, my mom read everything... including history and true tales. From one particular P.E. course, my college judo instructor had a saying that I've never forgotten. He said after the first few weeks of basic instruction (paraphrasing):
If you haven't learned how to fall properly by now, don't worry about it. When we start teaching you (judo) throws, you'll learn it by osmosis.
Meaning, out of sheer survival you'd learn how to fall when you hit the mat enough times (the wrong way). My college career in a nutshell--even to this day, it's how I learn best. So between my mother and my own proclivities, no matter what genre I was into, history and various true tales would continue to find their way into my reading selections. For some reason, I connect easily with these. Perhaps, it's due to the real (and all too human) people and their examined situations (along with their unfeigned repercussions) on paper that grab hold of, or tear at, me. For whatever reason, they keep me coming back for more.

With that in mind, it's two non-fictions that are the subject of this post. I'm lucky, as well, that the bloggers I follow will read and review both fiction and non-fiction works. And, that they're so good at what they write, I can't help but be influenced by their selections and assessments. Besides whatever is in my TBR pile, I have the one rule where I allow myself to throw a book to the front of the line (without reservation) because it's caught my fascination by either word of mouth or review by those I've noted in a previous post. And it's two specific bloggers that I owe for my last two true reads that I found a reason to write this. To say I was thoroughly engrossed, and haunted, by both of these after finishing them, would be an understatement. The first to do this, Where Men Win Glory: The Odyssey of Pat Tillman by Jon Krakauer, I have Elyse (of Pop Culture Nerd fame) to thank. In fact, she clued me in to it just prior to its release. We even read it at the same time (she with the actual book and me listening to the unabridged audio format - read by Scott Brick without too much flamboyance). The author had access to and drew upon Tillman's own journals and letters (along with family/friends memories and reflections) to build an extraordinary examination of an extraordinary individual. I'd love to say more about this work, and its affect upon me, but it's been done already, singularly, by Elyse herself. Read that, instead.

The second, which I completed just this morning (and that kicked me into gear), came by way of Corey Wilde (he of the marvelously named The Drowning Machine). Tokyo Vice: An American Reporter on the Police Beat in Japan by Jake Adelstein (the author did his own audio narration, in fact), is another remarkable work and is an account of a gaijin finding a newspaper/crime beat niche in the land of the rising sun. It's a memorable true tale of true crime in Japan. All of this amidst the world of a foreigner seeking a reporter's profession inside that society's insular and tribal culture. It's funny at times, heartbreaking at others, but it offers some gripping journalism tales. The author's candid (warts and all) exploration of his own culture shock and experiences makes it compelling, as well. Since it starts and ends with a astonishing inside account of a story many here in L.A. are familiar with (the Yakuza liver transplants performed at U.C.L.A.'s Medical Center), it had me instantly, and never let go. Corey's review, without giving away too much, is another thing of beauty with his concise appraisal of the book, and his ability to hook the reader into the work:
From cultural adaptation to an expose of crime, corruption, and social decadence, to personal moral and ethical dilemmas, Adelstein's story covers ten years of his life; ten years that made his life, in a world few Americans can ever hope to see or understand.
Although the books are nothing alike, and 180〫apart from each other, I recommend both (and each of the respective reviews by Elyse and Corey). Keep in mind, though, both are affecting works. Neither of the books are perfect, nor are their subjects. But, then again, great ones seldom are. In looking back at both of these non-fictions in my head, I couldn't help but recall a quote from Ernest Hemingway (but please, don't let it put you off from either of these books):
All true stories end in death.

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  1. Great quote from Hemingway. And many thanks for the kind words. I keep meaning to read Krakauer. I've not heard anyone say a bad word about his books.

  2. Well, I need to thank you, my friend. This is, oh I don't know, the umpteenth time you've lead me to a book that I thoroughly enjoyed and am still thinking about. Thanks, much, Corey.

  3. Now I'm REALLY suspicious of your continued kindness. How can you be so nice? What is your endgame? I'll get it out of you yet.

    Meanwhile, serious thanks for your generous words about my review. You nailed it on the head when you said the book haunted you; it did me, too. TOKYO VICE also sounds fascinating because I used to be a news reporter and studied Japanese language and culture in college.

    On another note, you know judo?!

  4. Moi? Agenda? (well... there is that future Senate run where I'll need a good, smart campaign manager). No, not really. I wrote the post, after I finished T.Vice, realizing how affecting the last two non-fictions were, and both of you deserved credit for bringing it my way. Think about the audiobook for T.Vice, if you decide to read it. Adelstein's narration, you can tell his fluency with Japanese, added to his memoir.

    Yes, at one time, I knew some judo. It's a really rough sport. I use to have bruises, in all sorts of age and color, on my legs and arms because of it (mom hated it). Decided to leave it after a concussion.

    Thanks, Elyse.

  5. Plus, Elyse, your review of that book was best I read (bar none). :-)

  6. I really struggled with that review because I wanted to do the book justice so your saying that means a lot to me.

    Funny stories about your judo experience. When I was taking tae kwon do (like Elvis!), I had many bruises and minor injuries. I wore them proudly, though. Every time someone asked where I got a certain bruise, I'd say, "In a fight" and felt like a badass!