Kappa by Ryunosuke Akutagawa

Date of Publication: 1927 (my edition: 2000, Tuttle Classics)

Number of Pages: 141

Description: A mental patient tells his doctors about an adventure he had with the Kappas, known to most Japanese people as mythological creatures who drag children into rivers to drown them. The madman, known as Patient No. 23, tells a remarkable story, of Kappas and Kappaland, Kappa government, Kappa philosophy, Kappa friendships, Kappa culture, and the Kappa’s link to our own human world.

Review: This is an enchanting story, mostly because it doesn’t try to be. The narrator tells the story of his life with the Kappas very matter-of-factly, which is what allows readers to suspend their natural disbelief and accept the reality of Kappaland and its inhabitants. Kappas are as different from each other as humans. Some are shy, some are arrogant, some are friendly, and all are unique. The lone human is accepted into their world readily, and they are all eager to teach him about their world. He is given lessons on Kappa philosophy, Kappa culture and literature, and Kappa relationships. He befriends several of the creatures, experiences loss, and ultimately becomes disillusioned with what at first seemed like a utopia under the ground.

Most people are familiar with Akutagawa’s other works, such as Rashomon, but Kappa is a wonderful place to start if you are unfamiliar with Japanese literature. I enjoyed every page of this book, and recommend it to anyone who loves fairy tales and modern adventure stories. Although the narrator is presented as a madman, it’s really left up to the reader to decide if his experience was a dream, or if it really happened. And if it did, could it happen to you?

Rating: 10/10

Weird Like Us: My Bohemian America by Ann Powers

Date of Publication: 2001, Da Capo Press

Number of Pages: 287

Description: Writer Ann Powers delves into her past and her past relationships to find her bohemia, the one she had always looked for. From Seattle, to San Francisco, to New York City, Powers finds her bohemian America is both likely and unlikely places: record stores, universities, punk clubs, suburban backyards, and pricey New York lofts.

Review: This is a much more personal book than I had anticipated. Ann Powers traces her own bohemianism from her childhood in Seattle to her present life in New York, all the while relating the life stories of friends and acquaintances who have defined their lives by their own versions of bohemia. Some of the ideas presented, like those regarding drugs and drug use, appear to be simply justifications of poor choices and bad behavior: junkies masquerading as bohemians. It’s almost as if one can’t be a bohemian without doing drugs. At the same time, Powers makes allowances for many of the “selling out” behaviors that would normally be scorned by true bohemians, such as working in corporate America.

Powers focuses mainly on her own brand of bohemianism, that of the punk scene of the 1980s. But, she never really delves that deeply into it. After reading this book, I don’t feel like I understand the punk scene any better than before. The punk rockers and bohemians, as presented by Powers, feel superficial and somehow as if they’re trying too hard. Another drawback is how outdated this book is. Powers devotes a whole section to the Speakeasy internet cafe in Seattle, which actually burned down in 2001, the same year my edition was published. Many of the cultural references are old, which some may think is excusable, but in all honesty, a book devoted to any cultural phenomenon or philosophy should be able to transcend time. This book doesn’t do that.

All in all, I enjoyed this book, but there were several aspects of it that disappointed me. But I would still recommend it to anyone interested in counter-culture or music.

Rating: 5/10

Down, but not out!

Obviously, I haven’t been posting up many reviews lately. With everything going on in my life, I hardly have any time to read for pleasure, let alone put time into writing thoughtful reviews. I will still try to post when I can, but don’t be concerned if you don’t see a post for a little while. I’m still here, still reading, and will hopefully be reviewing again soon!

Thank you all!

Girl, Interrupted by Susanna Kaysen

Date of Publication: 1993, Vintage Books

Number of Pages: 169

Synopsis (from back cover): In 1967, after a session with a psychiatrist she’d never seen before, eighteen-year-old Susanna Kaysen was put in a taxi and sent to McLean Hospital. She spent most of the next two years on the ward for teenage girls in a psychiatric hospital as renowned for its famous clientele – Sylvia Plath, Robert Lowell, James Taylor, and Ray Charles – as for its progressive methods of treating those who could afford its sanctuary.

Kaysen’s memoir encompasses horror and razor-edged perception while providing vivid portraits of her fellow patients and their keepers. It is a brilliant evocation of a “parallel universe” set within the kaleidoscopically shifting landscape of the late sixties. Girl, Interrupted is a clear-sighted, unflinching document that gives lasting and specific dimension to our definitions of sane and insane, mental illness and recovery.

Review: First, be warned: this is nothing like the movie. Some of the characters are the same, but this book does not follow the same linear, safe direction as the film. Most of the events of the movie don’t even take place in the book. This is a memoir of the truest sense, in that the author explores simply her own understandings of her experience, her illness, and her surroundings. Kaysen’s diagnosis of Borderline Personality Disorder, although not discussed until the final chapters, is the overall theme of this book. Kaysen, like many of her fellow patients, is straddling the line between sanity and insanity, between the world outside the hospital and the world inside. She identifies with both the other patients and the nurses, who each represent the world they inhabit. Even though she feels a kinship with her fellow “insane” patients, she also longs for the sense of normalcy that the nurses bring in from the outside.

Although she is declared “recovered” upon her discharge in 1969, Kaysen freely admits that once you’re insane, that other world never really disappears. It hovers around the edges, and even affects people who have never been inside a hospital, as if she carries a “crazy cloud” around with her. Kaysen explores the difference between insanity of the brain and insanity of the mind, arguing that each need to be treated differently. She also includes actual documents from her medical records from her time at the hospital, which provide an interesting backdrop for the narrative of the so-called “insane” person. This isn’t The Bell Jar. There is no real mental breakdown, no literary examination of one’s own insanity. Although Kaysen does explore her own illness to a degree, this is mostly an exploration of the dual worlds that mentally ill people must inhabit: the world of the sane, and the world of the insane.

Rating: 8/10

Chosen to Die by Lisa Jackson

Date of Publication: 2009, Zebra Books

Number of Pages: 460

Synopsis (from back cover): Detective Regan Pescoli has worked the “Star Crossed Killer” case for months, never imagining she’s be captured by the madman she’s been hunting. Regan knows exactly what he’s capable of – an avoiding the same fate will take every drop of her courage and cunning.

Regan Pescoli is unlike any woman Nate Santana has met before. But now she’s missing, and Nate knows something is dangerously wrong. The only person who can help him find her is Detective Selena Alvarez, Regan’s partner. As Nate and Selena dig deeper into the Star-Crossed Killer case and the body count rises, the truth about Regan’s disappearance becomes chillingly clear.

In the desolate Montana woods, evil is lurking. And with time running out, the only way to save Regan will be to get inside a killer’s twisted mind and unravel a shocking message that is being revealed, one body at a time…

Review: The story starts out with a bang…literally. As Regan Pescoli is crossing the Bitterroot Mountains, heading toward her ex-husband’s house, her tires are skillfully shot out and she careens off the road. What follows is a frightening imprisonment in the lair of the Star-Crossed Killer. Regan’s disappearance completely takes the sheriff’s department by surprise, and those close to her – her lover, Nate, and her partner, Selena – struggle to unravel the cryptic messages left by the killer with each of his victims.

There was a lot I liked about this book. The pace of the action is excellent, and the small-town characters are vivid and entertaining. Lisa Jackson is able to tell her story not only through action and dialogue, but also through images. The starkness of the Montana winter is expertly described, and even though it’s currently the middle of summer, I found myself growing colder and colder as I read. I could picture each and every scene in my mind with ease, making it seem like I was watching a movie.

However, I did have a few issues with this book. Some of the characters who seem like they’re going to be a significant part of the story are never alluded to again. One example is Grace Perchant, a reclusive woman who talks to spirits. She comes to the police with her psychic intuitions about the killer, never to be mentioned again. The amount of attention that Jackson gives her early on in the story made me expect that Grace would become a central character. However, she’s barely mentioned again. Also, this is apparently the second book in the Star-Crossed Killer series, and some of the characters from the first book (Left to Die), show up again…but for readers, like me, who had not read the first book will remain confused as to their place in the story.

In the end, though, this book is a terrific thriller with plenty of action. The suspense is maintained extremely well, with no slow sections. I did find myself impatient for the conclusion, but that is just more proof of how well Lisa Jackson is able to draw her readers in. I’m definitely going to be reading more of Jackson’s books!

Rating: 8/10

The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath

Date of Publication: 1963, Harper & Row

Number of Pages: 244

Synopsis (from back cover): The Bell Jar chronicles the crack-up of Esther Greenwood: brilliant, beautiful, enormously talented, and successful, but slowly going under – maybe for the last time. Sylvia Plath masterfully draws the reader into Esther’s breakdown with such intensity that Esther’s insanity becomes completely real and even rational, as probable and accessible an experience as going to the movies. Such deep penetration into the dark and harrowing corners of the psyche is an extraordinary accomplishment and has made The Bell Jar a haunting American classic.

Review: Probably the thing that scares me the most about this book is how much I relate to Esther, the brilliantly mad heroine. Of course, it’s not her brilliance to which I relate, but her madness. Sylvia Plath indeed makes Esther’s breakdown seem like the most reasonable thing in the world. Esther is battered left and right by people’s expectations of her, as a woman and as a writer. All of these expectations are burdens, weighing her down until she finally falls into a dark hole. It’s 1953, and for a woman who wants to define her life by her work and her mind, the pressures of marriage and womanhood are immense. Esther is surrounded by talented girls who want nothing more than a rich husband and children. Esther doesn’t fit into that mold, and she is unable to create her own.

Sylvia Plath uses the story of a fig tree to illustrate how Esther sees the many different possible paths in her life. One fig is the talented poet, another is the doting wife and mother, and another is the powerful editor….it goes on and on. Many people have struggled with the same thing. Esther feels pulled in many different directions (as do I). Her descent into madness throws a wrench into her plans, forcing her to deal with the imperfect person she really is. Plath uses an almost causal tone when describing Esther’s breakdown. Everything is stated matter-of-factly, demonstrating how even the mentally ill can think rationally.

The book deserves its place among the best of the American classics. Plath was a literary genius whose own struggles with mental illness gave her poetry and prose a tragic and haunting voice.

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