The Accidental Yakuza
Complete at 100,000 words, THE ACCIDENTAL YAKUZA is an international crime whydunit set in Iraq, San Diego, Tokyo, and Guam.
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When Marine Lieutenant Hiro McAllister sets out to search for his father, long believed dead, he makes a stunning discovery: not only is Dad alive, but he’s rocking it as Oyabun (Godfather) of a notorious Japanese crime syndicate. Hiro confronts the gangster, who adamantly denies paternity, but strangely, invites him to “work” with him. Struggling with life after war, beset by PTSD, and seeking closure, Hiro accepts the Oyabun’s offer, oblivious to the gangster’s real motivation—imminent plans for the organization’s international expansion.
Hiro plunges deep into Japan’s underworld and performs like the best of them. But as the cathartic thrill fizzles, he realizes he’s but a pawn in a violent game, and must craft an exit to survive. An out seems within grasp when he is sent to Guam to reboot the gang’s mothballed hotel development, except that the assignment comes with a steep price—orders to eliminate a former member hiding out on the island.
On Guam, the only light in Hiro’s ever darkening world, is a passionate relationship with the politically connected and charismatic, Carla. Hiro knows his back story endangers Carla, but can’t let her go. Ironically, she embroils him in a local conspiracy run by perps who will kill to keep their scam under wraps. With the walls closing in from all sides, Hiro must play his cards right to redeem himself and save the only person in the world he cares for.
Richard Flanagan’s masterpiece, “The Narrow Road to the Deep North,” is one of those reads powerful enough to move one to tears—more than once in my case. I heard a radio interview in which Flanagan recounted how his research landed him in Japan, face to face with a notoriously brutal former Japanese prison guard known as “the Lizard.” Flanagan’s father suffered at the hands of this very man whose trademark vicious and repeated slaps were much feared. Wanting to experience this for himself, Flanagan finally persuaded the now “courteous, kindly and generous old man” to demonstrate the slaps for him. He reported that the first and second strikes were not unbearable, but that after the third one, he felt as if the whole building was shaking and swaying—because it was, thanks an earthquake that had just hit. Flanagan went on to describe the fear he saw in the man’s eyes and his realization that, generously it must be said, whatever evil was, it wasn’t in the room with them.
My forth grader received a note. A five to six sentence declaration of feelings, slipped into his textbook, discovered at home to the squealing delight of his younger sister. It reminded me that I too, long, long ago, scratched out bold proclamations of affection on small scraps of paper. Paper! Imagine that. For a moment my wife and I wondered whether this was the real McCoy or just a practical joke crafted by his guy friends. Our forensic analysis led us to the conclusion that boys would not have used the origami square upon which the sweetness had been composed nor be nuanced enough to dot the “i” in his name with a little heart. I spent time looking at the note, scrutinizing the penmanship for clues, charmed by the texture of pencil on paper, remembering the courage it took to act on my desires and was comforted by the thought that some things are still the same.
The Russians say there is no free cheese except in a mouse trap. Given the heaps of stuff we get without shelling a cent, like email, a facebook page, messaging, and gobs and gobs of content, it might behoove us to wonder how is it that we are actually paying. Because pay, we do. Every bit of data we generate has value, but we’re fine with giving it away for free. Collectively, we are the inventory by which billions in revenue are generated. We pay in other ways too. Our new found expectation that content be free, means that we get what we pay for, with potentially catastrophic implications. Local news, for instance, suffers because the new paradigm doesn’t support the cost of substantive investigative journalism. This diminished check against both public and private sector shenanigans should concern us all. Support journalism. Pay for a subscription.
NPR’s Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me recently featured Norman Lear, one of television’s most influential writers and producer of 1970’s sitcoms like All in the Family, Sanford & Son, The Jeffersons and Maude. At 94, Lear is still sharp as the proverbial tack. When asked whether there was any secret to his longevity, success and happiness, Lear said it boils down to two words – OVER and NEXT. That is to say, once something is over, it’s over. Time to move on to the next thing. No point in regrets. Brilliant! Incidentally, Lear’s thoughts on Trump are that we “beat his ass so his message is discredited for all time.”
November is fast approaching and with it, the beginning of NaNoWriMo. NaNoWriWhat? If you are an aspiring author or otherwise engrossed with writing, then you probably know that NaNoWriMo stands for National Novel Writing Month. Very simply, the idea is to commit to writing 50,000 words in the month of November. That’s an average of 1666 words a day which may not sound like a lot to someone who hasn’t sat down to pen a novel, but which is to anyone that has. Of course, no one expects to churn out a polished tome under these conditions. With a little luck, you end up with the beginnings of a first draft. The point of the commitment is an exercise in the discipline and routine so necessary to practicing the craft. A cool part of the motivation to get you through this literary boot camp is that you are not in it alone. See nanowrimo.org for a visual of the thousands that have signed up this year. If you look carefully, you’ll see a little circle in the middle of the Pacific 13 degrees north of the equator.
I am reminded of a documentary on a young Algerian (let’s call him Mohammed) who left his nomadic family to get an education in France. With time, Mohammed established himself professionally in Paris. He married a French woman, and together they had a son. When his son turned four, Mohammed brought him to Algeria to meet his grandfather. They spent the summer together, moving from camp to camp in the Sahara desert. Once they worked a whole day under a sweltering sun digging a well. That evening, as they ate around a fire, Mohammed asked his father why they had set up camp so far from the well. Wouldn’t it have made more sense to pitch their tents closer to the water, he wondered? Mohammed’s father laughed, and then explained. “We do that because we would not want a stranger in need of water to feel uncomfortable helping himself to the well. If our tents were too close, he might feel as if he were intruding.” A reminder of the grace rooted in the thinking of others.
The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox, by Maggie O’Farrell, is a beautifully written and haunting tale rooted in hard to fathom English historical fact. That is, that up until about 1952, a man could have his wife or daughter institutionalized in a psychiatric unit as long a general practice physician—who did not even have to examine the woman—signed off on the order. Thousands of women, it turns out, were thus put away for the slightest of aberrations. Taking long walks, not wanting to get married or growing hair too long. Horribly, long incarcerations often meant that questionable or trumped up diagnoses became self-fulfilling prophecies. O’Farrell’s plot is a deftly woven page-turner that takes us back and forth through three generations. Things in the near present really come to bear when Iris, the unknowing granddaughter of the eponymous Esme, gets an out of the blue phone call notifying her that the institution where she has been held for the last sixty years is closing. This is the first that Iris has ever heard of Esme. As the layers of family history peel away, we are reminded that secrets and darkness can lurk in ways never imagined.
The Guardian Books podcast is a go to source for in depth and skilled author interviews. Richard Lea’s discussion with Sean Carroll on his latest book, The Big Picture: On the Origins of Life, Meaning and the Universe Itself, is a perfect example of the edifying banter we can plug into and actually make our smartphones smart.
Carroll, research professor specializing in dark energy and general relativity at the California Institute of Technology, has done a fantastic job distilling hard-core science into language that make deep ideas accessible to most. For example, Carroll compares the difference between statements of scientific facts versus the values we like to peg our morals on. In the case of facts, you are either right or wrong–the universe is either expanding or it is not. We don’t have the same metric for our values. There is no criteria to judge the correctness of what we believe is meaningful or not.
Carroll explains that on average the human heart beats three billion times in a lifetime. That is a big number, but not that big he cautions. We feel our heart beating, slowly but surely towards an end. So short of some overarching transcendent axiom our personal choices to attach value, meaning, and a purpose to our world are important. In fact they are all we have. “This is not a dress rehearsal,” he says, the implication being that we had better make good decisions. As if we needed more pressure.
Wondering why we are here and what it means is a good thing in Carroll’s mind. Of course, this requires going beyond the focus of how to survive and flourish in our material lives. Human life, says Carroll, is at its best when examining bigger, more profound existential questions. When we do that science comes into contact with art and literature and the other ways we have of making sense of the world. For those that need a primer on the big why, it seems that The Big Picture might be just what the shrink ordered.
The noted Austrian neurologist, psychiatrist, and holocaust survivor, Viktor Frankl wrote eloquently on what he identifies as the gap between stimulus and response. He urges careful consideration of the choices we make in this space. Choose well, and one can further our end goals and reap growth and happiness. Choose poorly and things may tailspin unnecessarily. Clearly easier said than done, but sage advice nonetheless.
I heard of this book when Mr. Barrat was interviewed on Matt Miller’s excellent podcast, “This is Interesting.” It is a sobering account of how our own intelligence may ultimately get the best of us. The realization of Artificial General Intelligence (AGI) is more probable than we think with potential ramifications that are mind boggling. Once we develop machines that are self aware and continuously self improving, super intelligence will evolve exponentially. How we factor into this state of affairs is not at all certain. We’ve achieved supremacy over other species because of our intelligence. The assumption that super intelligent systems will deal with us benevolently falls apart when one considers our track record at the top of the pecking order.
Traditional Japanese Ink