Fiction

Rashōmon and Seventeen Other Stories by Ryūnosuke Akutagawa

Date of Publication: 2006, Penguin Classics

Number of Pages (including notes): 268

Description: Considered to be one of the greatest national writers of Japan, Ryūnosuke Akutagawa had a short but brilliant career in the early twentieth century. This collection includes some of his best known short stories, such as “Rashōmon”, “Spinning Gears”, “Loyalty”, and “The Nose”, as well as some of his lesser-known works. The stories range from humorous, to historical, to agonizingly autobiographical. The Penguin Classics edition also includes a wonderfully insightful introduction by Haruki Murakami.

Review: For much of Akutagawa’s early career, he delved into Japan’s literary past. The story “Loyalty” is a complex tale based on a true event that took place during the Tokugawa period, when the young head of a noble family went insane, creating a crisis among his samurai retainers. Samurai were meant to be loyal to the death, but that loyalty also extended to the Shogun. If one’s master posed a thread to the Shogun, where should your loyalty lie? This is the problem that faces two very different retainers, each of whom must make an almost impossible decision. The story explores not only loyalty, but the issues of sanity, respect, obligation, and shame.

Some of the more humorous stories include “Horse Legs” and “The Story of a Head That Fell Off”, both involving dead men who suffer terrible humiliations, one at the hand of some spiritual bureaucrats, and the other because of a medical miracle. But the final section of the book, which include those selections that tell Akutagawa’s own story, is possibly the most moving and compelling. Akutagawa’s childhood was difficult, as his mother went insane shortly after his birth. He was afraid of mental illness for the remainder of his life, and the final story of the book, “Spinning Gears” tells the tale of his last months spent in depression and constant anxiety. He suffered from insomnia, hallucinations, and constantly worried about his own sanity. It is the final passage of the story that conveys Akutagawa’s overwhelming despair:

I don’t have the strength to keep writing this. To go on living with this feeling is painful beyond description. Isn’t there someone kind enough to strangle me in my sleep”

The story was published posthumously in 1927, the year Akutagawa took his own life. The story progresses toward that inevitable conclusion, and gives us an insight into Akutagawa’s tortured mind.

Rating: 10/10

Rock Bottom by Michael Shilling

Date of Publication: 2009, Back Bay Books

Number of Pages: 371

Synopsis (from back cover): Once upon a time, Blood Orphans were the next big thing. They had a fat recording contract, the swagger of the gods, and cheekbones that could cut glass. They were the darlings of the LA music scene. They were locked and loaded for rock-and-roll greatness.

And then everything…went…wrong. The singer became a born-again Buddhist who preached from the stage. The bass player’s raging eczema turned his hands into a pulpy mess. The drummer, a sex addict tormented by the misdeeds of his porn-king father, was losing his grip on reality. And the guitar player – the only talented one – was a doormat cowed by the constant abuse of his bandmates.

Set in Amsterdam on the last day of Blood Orphan’s final tour, this novel tells the raucous story of a band – and their heroically coked-out female manager – trying to get in one last shot at fame’s elusive bull’s-eye. Rock Bottom is a pitch-black comedy, a wild ride on the crazy train of outrageous misfortune, and a bighearted paean to the power of dreams.

Review: This book is simply fantastic. The members of Blood Orphans, a disgraced heavy metal band, each have their own bitterness and and misfortunes that they are forced to deal with on this last day of their tour. Bobby, the bass player with the diseased hands, spends his day fighting off his feelings of inferiority and struggles to believe in the affections of a beautiful Dutch girl. Adam, the insanely talented guitar player, finds himself believing in a future without Blood Orphans. Shane, the evangelist singer, spends his day covered in rancid peanut butter, struggling with the dying embers of his once white-hot faith. But it is Darlo, the sex-addicted drummer, who goes through one of the biggest transformations. While the other band members think of him only with hostility, he reveals a troubled, pained soul while dashing through the streets with Joey, the band’s drug-addicted manager. Darlo’s life changes with one phone call from the family lawyer, and he is forced to face the demons of his past.

Each chapter is told from the point of view of one of the characters, which give readers a glimpse into the extreme mental and emotional anguish and journey of each band member. By the end of the book, the band has morphed into something completely different…but I will leave it to future readers to discover what that is! I would recommend this book to any fan of rock-and-roll, or to anyone who has watched and loved This is Spinal Tap.

Rating: 10/10

The Hours by Michael Cunningham

Date of Publication: 1998, Picador USA

Number of Pages: 226

Synopsis (from back cover): Passionate, profound, and deeply moving, The Hours is the story of three women: Clarissa Vaughan, who one New York morning goes about planning a party in honor of a beloved friend; Laura Brown, who in a 1950s Los Angeles suburb slowly begins to feel the constraints of a perfect family and home; and Virginia Woolf, recuperating with her husband in a London suburb, and beginning to write Mrs. Dalloway. By the end of the novel, the stories have intertwined, and finally come together in an act of subtle and haunting grace, demonstrating Michael Cunningham’s deep empathy for his characters as well as the extraordinary resonance of his prose.

Review: I had several reasons to read this book. First, Mrs. Dalloway is one of my favorite books and the film adaptation of The Hours is one of my favorite movies. So, I was prepared for something profound, but I was not expecting a book that would speak to me the way this one did. Michael Cunningham has a way of describing his characters’ thoughts and feelings that makes me feel like he’s inside my own mind. The fears, sensations, and oddities of Virginia, Laura, and Clarissa are so much like my own and it forced private feelings that I have never really acknowledged to come to the surface. Reading this book was a a very personal experience for me, but I believe that any reader will be able to enjoy it. Cunningham explores an incredible variety of emotions and demonstrates a unique understanding of human nature. I would recommend this book to pretty much everyone I know.

Rating: 10/10

Two Women by Marianne Fredriksson

Date of Publication: 1999, Ballantine Books

Number of Pages: 195

Synopsis (from back cover): They meet on a spring day in the local garden center: Inge, a native Swede, lovely and refined, a woman ruled by reason and her own deeply held moral beliefs; Mira, a Chilean immigrant who still feels out of place in the cold Scandinavian north. Through many shared afternoons in Inge’s garden, Mira slowly reveals the horrors of a shadowed past and the heartbreak involving her beloved daughter. As Mira and her family begin a wrenching journey of discovery, Inge unwittingly uncovers secrets in her own life that make her question the very order of her world. An elegant novel of time and memory, love and distance, and the wounds they create and conceal, Two Women is Marianne Fredriksson’s most affecting work of fiction to date.

Review: There are many novels out there that deal with relationships between women, but Two Women is unlike any of them. This book deals with extraordinary issues, like rape, torture, and incest, as well as the usual issues, like marriage, sex, and trust. Inge and Mira are very different. One is restrained by her logic, while the other is caught in a web of violent emotions stemming from her tragic past. Important questions arise early: Should the past remain buried? Or should it be sought? How easily should we trust other people? At what point does love become a burden?

Like all Fredriksson’s books, love is dealt with openly and frankly, almost unrealistically. There’s none of the common coyness that one usually encounters, both in books and in the real world. Instead, people are heartbreakingly honest with each other, if not entirely honest with themselves. Lessons are learned by everyone, and often in unexpected ways. One character finds his true self by learning  to paraglide, while another finds rebirth in a violent storm. In the end, the two families are strengthened by their connection, yet their imperfections persist, making them believable. Any reader will find themselves relating to these characters, despite their sometimes extraordinary circumstances.

Rating: 8.5/10

Aberrations by Penelope Przekop

Date of Publication: 2008, Emerald Book Company

Number of Pages: 241

Synopsis (from back cover): Twenty-one-year-old narcoleptic Angel Duet knows her father harbors secrets. he loves and protects her, but his suspicious refusal to discuss her mother’s death drives Angel to worship as image created from the little history she does have: her father’s sketchy stories and her mother’s treasured photography, studies of clouds that have hung in their foyer for more than twenty years.

When her father’s girlfriend moves in, the photographs come down, and Angel’s search for truth becomes an obsession. As she struggles to uncover the past and gain control over the narcolepsy that often fogs her world, Angel descends into a dizzying realm of drugs, adultery, and confused desire that further obscures reality.

When Angel exposes a history that she could never have imagined, she discovers her entire life has been anchored in lies. Accepting the truth, once found, is the key to understanding herself, her family, and her life. To truly awaken, Angel must realize that sometimes the gifts we receive are not what we want – and only with time do we see the truth.

Review: I have read quite a few books this year already, but this has to be the best to date. I was immediately pulled into the story, from the very first page, and was completely engaged until the end. The characters are fully developed and quite original, as is the idea behind the story. Not knowing much about narcolepsy, I found the treatment of this condition in the story very satisfying. There’s no medical jargon to deal with, and everything is dealt with on an emotional level. Angel seems to channel Sylvia Plath’s Esther Greenwood in her torment and she is surrounded by friends who either aid her or hamper her in her quest to find the truth about her mother.

Przekop manages to seamlessly weave two stories together: her relationship with her father as she searches for her mother, and her relationships with others as she struggles to deal with her narcolepsy. As a bridge between these two stories, Carla, Angel’s father’s girlfriend, is the great mover of the story as she forces Angel to see truths about herself which motivate her to keep going. Although their relationship is strained, Angel and Carla are really the two seekers.

In the end, I found this book to be extremely satisfying. Przekop is an immensely talented storyteller with the ability to create unforgettable characters. As a first book, Aberrations is an amazing accomplishment, and I can’t wait to see more from Przekop.

Rating: 10/10

The Holy Terrors (Les Enfants Terribles) by Jean Cocteau

Date of Publication: 1929, New Directions

Translated by Rosamond Lehman (1955)

Number of Pages: 183

With original illustrations by Jean Cocteau

Synopsis (from back cover): Miss Lehman was able to capture the essence of Cocteau’s strange, necromantic imagination and to bring fully to life in English his story of a brother and sister, orphaned in adolescence, who built themselves a private world out of one shared room and their own unbridled fantasies. What started in games and laughter became for Paul and Elisabeth a drug too magical to resist. The crime which finally destroyed them has the inevitability of Greek tragedy.

Review: Having never even read Jean Cocteau’s poetry, I was completely unprepared for this disturbing story. It starts out innocently enough, with a childhood snowball fight, but the reader is soon enveloped in the fantasy world created by Paul and his sister Elisabeth. But as they grow older, and their competing magnetic personalities enslave their friends, they find themselves almost completely removed from reality and heading toward disaster. Paul and Elisabeth and neither likable or unlikable…they seem to be completely above our likes and dislikes.

This book is a fairly quick and easy read, but it’s still rich in its language and with unforgettable characters. It should also appeal to a wide range of readers. Anyone who enjoys French literature, psychological drama, Shakespearean tragedies, or fantasy fiction will really enjoy this book.

Rating: 9/10

Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman

Date of Publication: 1996

Number of Pages: 370

Synopsis (from back cover): Richard Mayhew is a plain man with a good heart – and an ordinary life that is changed forever on a day he stops to help a girl he finds bleeding on a London sidewalk. From that moment forward he is propelled into a world he never dreamed existed – a dark subculture flourishing in abandoned subway stations and sewer tunnels below the city – a world far stronger and more dangerous than the only one he has ever known…

Review: This book starts out at a perfect pace, introducing the reader to the main character’s ordinary life, and swiftly sweeps both the reader and this ordinary man into a dark reality from which there is no escape. By the end of the book, I had a real affection for the bewildered Richard, and for his friends in London below: the curiously powerful Door, the conniving marquis de Carabas, and even the single-minded bodyguard, Hunter. It’s easy to become concerned in their fates, and they are all unique and likeable characters, each in their own ways.

This story is easy to relate to, as it follows a familiar plot: average person gets swept up in mysterious goings-on, meets allies, they have a quest to follow, with powerful enemies popping up now and then to interfere…or worse. This doesn’t mean that the story is stale. Indeed, it constantly surprised me with its twists and turns, and its utter originality. But what makes the story familiar makes it comfortable; otherwise, the alien world in which Richard finds himself would be too cold and unknowable. Richard, being from London Above, gives the story its dose of reality, which of course makes the book all that more unnerving.

All fans of fantasy and modern thrillers will enjoy this book. This is the first book of Gaiman’s that I’ve tried, and I’m looking forward to reading more!

Rating: 9/10