Wednesday, May 26, 2010

More True Crime: Tokyo Vice

Whoa -- the second post in one week and the third in a month (for the first time since January 2008). I'd better lie down and take my temperature or something...

After writing recently that I rarely read book-length non-fiction, I discover that several of the last posts are on the same. Strange. Anyways, Jake Adelstein's Tokyo Vice is well described by its subtitle: "An American Reporter on the Police Beat in Japan." As the subtitle suggests, much (but not all) of the book is episodic and incidental -- happenings on the beat, learning to be a reporter, etc.

At the same time, I'd note that two of the blurbers are novelists -- George Pelecanos and Barry Eisler: the book has the drama and something of the narrative arc of a novel (or a novella at the start and finish, with episodes in between). If you can ride with this organization -- novel and non-novel, personal narrative and journalism -- then you'll survive fine (as long as you can stomach yakuza threats). It might be a little choppy for some.

For me, the book's greatest strengths are its descriptions of Japanese culture: hierarchy, practices, laws, attitudes toward sex, women, work, etc. For instance, Adelstein spends part of one chapter discussing Japanese "how-to" manuals, such as The Perfect Manual of Suicide. (The best-selling how-to book in Japan offers guidance for arguing with Koreans.)

Another small note: the book might a have been subtitled, "A Jewish-American Reporter..." Adelstein writes a bit about attitudes (and prejudices) toward Jews in Japan. The daughters of his best friend have been told in elementary school that all Jews were killed in World War II, and they want to take him to school for show-and-tell.

Monday, May 24, 2010

The Kindly Ones: Crime and Controversy

It was complicated how I stumbled (back) onto The Kindly Ones by Jonathan Littell. This novel -- narrated by an educated, articulate, gay Nazi SS officer -- was all the talk at the Frankfurt Book Fair a few years ago, and Littell won the two big literary prizes in France in 2006 (the book is written in French; Littell is American by birth, lives in Europe, raised and educated in France (and then Yale)). I forgot about the book, but then someone mentioned it to me; I had just read another WWII epic, The Naked and The Dead (discussed here), so I thought I'd have a look.

First, I'll pat myself on the back: The Naked and The Dead seemed long and harrowing (which it was), but The Kindly Ones is longer and more harrowing -- or at least more transgressive. It is basically a thousand pages (984, to be precise) of death squads, concentration camps, slave labor, urban warfare, Nazi bureaucracy, camaraderie, onanism, and incest. Great stuff, really. The book documents -- deposits readers vividly at -- the worst places and events: Our protagonist, Max Aue, wades among the bodies in the ravine of Babi Yar (where I imagine I had some distant relatives, my grandfather having come from near Kiev); he visits Auschwitz; serves in Stalingrad; survives the destruction of Berlin; confronts (sort of, strangely, laughably) the Fuhrer in the final bunker, etc. The book's greatest strengths are its representations of these nightmarish places. Some critics have called this a "pornography of violence," but that seems unfair. We can estimate the dead at Babi Yar, but that is very different from the experience of herding or being herded. Littell also has Aue describe in pages and pages of detail the Nazi bureaucracy and in-fighting, which belies the mythology of Nazi order and efficiency.

Like other readers, I found the Aue family/personal/psychological story less compelling. This story includes reveries, masturbation, and murder, and Aue is pursued by two Kripo (Reich police) detectives. Thus The Kindly Ones also includes a crime story, though this is a weak narrative thread and relies on fantastical (or action-adventure) coincidence. This weakness -- the artificiality of the crime and pursuit -- arguably ties into Littell's ambitious examination of crime, culpability, guilt, and so on. More important than the crime novel structure is the framework provided by the Oresteia (The Kindly Ones is another name for the Furies (or Erinyes), who pursued Orestes for killing his mother). The most detailed review and the best explanation for the connection to the Oresteia and for the book's transgressive and graphic sex is Daniel Mendelsohn's piece in the New York Review of Books. (Also of note: an interview with the translator, Charlotte Mandell.)

It is easy to be critical of this novel on various counts: it is tedious at times; long-winded here and there; it either falls apart or never quite coheres. And true, the subject matter might have limited appeal for gentle readers. Still, this is a serious, ambitious, complex, detailed historic novel that deserves admiration (even if grudging, which my admiration is not) and notice. It is therefore dispiriting to me (as a reader and writer in the U.S.) to see how terribly panned and dismissed the novel was in major American publications. Kakutani savaged the book in the New York Times; David Gates also reviewed it unfavorably in the Times, as did Melvin Jules Bukiet in The Washington Post.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

True Crime and Public Policy: Dangerous Doses

I don't read a lot of non-fiction books (except the occasional Highsmith biography) -- true crime or otherwise, but I picked up and devoured a really great book recently, Katherine Eban's Dangerous Doses (which is subtitled in hardback, How Counterfeiters are Contaminating America's Drug Supply; and in paperback, A True Story of Cops, Counterfeiters, and the Contamination of America's Drug Supply). I'm always looking for a good heist, and recently in Connecticut, there was a $75 million product theft from an Eli Lilly pharmaceutical warehouse. I read the news story and subsequently, the New York Times ran an op-ed ("Are You Buying Illegal Drugs?") co-authored by Eban, which led me to her 2005 book. Boy, does she have a yarn to tell!

Basically, Dangerous Doses tells the story of the illegal and gray markets of bought and resold prescription drugs. Worse, some very expensive drugs (hundreds of dollars or more per dose) are "uplabeled": 200 U/mL doses become falsely labeled 2,000 U/ml (which means a patient is not receiving the prescribed dose, and the medicine has often degenerated). This would be interesting by itself (and was the source of a 60 Minutes segment), but it becomes riveting because Eban has a great cast of characters: an emotional, larger-than-life cop, an unlikely prosecutor, a do-nothing boss, a shady urologist, an over-the-top criminal, and so on. The investigative team does great work -- a good plug for dedicated civil servants -- though today, apparently, our prescription drug supply is far from safe.