REVIEW: Rashomon & Other Stories

I have been wanting to get a hold of some of Akutagawa’s short stories for a while now, and finally got my hands on the Tuttle collection that contains six stories. Considering I started reading this on March 1st (Akutagawa’s birthday) and finished it on the third (an important date in the final story), it seemed like fate brought this collection to me.

As much as I would have loved to have bought a larger collection, Tuttle Publishing always has really quality translations and I love supporting a company that does so much work producing educational material and language studies books (like 90% of my self-study Japanese textbooks are from Tuttle). Of course, that being said, I think this is a great edition for anyone who wants to get a taste of not just classic Japanese literature, but also a taste of Akutagawa in general. The stories in this edition include In The Grove, Rashomon, Yam Gruel, The Martyr, Kesa & Morito, and The Dragon.

I primarily wanted to read this collection for Rashomon and In The Grove as they are the most famous of his work due to the Kurosawa Akira film adaptation of the latter (although it was called Rashomon). Both stories were exactly as I expected them to be. Rashomon is a story of morals and while being short and cynical, really forced readers to question what they would do if they were starving and the choice was between your own survival or the survival of others in the same situation. In The Grove was a classic murder mystery with nothing but unrealiable narrators and the lack of closure is so interesting and unique as it leaves the decision up to the reader. The lesser known stories in the collection were are so different from each other while keeping that cynicism towards human nature and human desire that gives Akutagawa his edge.

What I found the most interesting is how, despite the difference in translators, I can see where Akutagawa influenced the works of my personal favourite, Dazai Osamu. Dazai held Akutagawa in a high regard (the two even died the same way) and I can see where their questions towards human nature crossover. That was my main reason for wanting to read these stories and I’m so happy I was finally able to. I look forward to tracking down more of Akutagawa’s work in English and – hopefully with some help from my textbooks – Japanese when translations are not available.

Happy [belated] birthday, Ryuunosuke.

REVIEW: Dune Messiah

After closing 2020 by re-reading Dune for the second time in the year, I opened 2021 by jumping right into Dune Messiah.

Set 12 years after the war with the Harkonenns, Paul as very much unwillingly followed the path of the Jihad he feared and is struggling with the aftermath as well as the consequences. This second book is heavily about the fate of the those who are stuck on the path of a future they don’t want and the pain that comes with power. It’s also about humanity; losing it, struggling with it, finding it again. It’s about sacrifices and love. It is not a happy book.

At the same time it makes a lot of really strong point about blindly following along with fate and the important of knowledge.

You can’t stop a mental epidemic. It leaps from person to person across parsecs. IT’s overwhelmingly contagious. It strikes at the unprotecte sie, in the place where we lodge the fragments of other such plagues. […] The thing has roots in chaos.

Syctale the Face Dancer in Dune Messiah

In this book having knowledge is useless unless the one who possesses it knows what to do with the information. And even then, will doing anything change the outcome? Does knowing the future mean it can be changed or will the attempts to change it only lead to greater suffering? As Paul struggles with the losses he has faced and the ones yet to come, the reader is forced into his position. The ending of the book – which I will not give away – is an ending that is easily predicted but as unchangeable to the reader as it is to Paul. It needs to end the way that it does, but that doesn’t make it any easier to swallow.

This book made me sad. It made me angry. It thrust forward a lot of very complicated thoughts and feelings and I appreciate a book written in the 60s still being capable of eliciting such strong emotions. I also enjoyed seeing possible inspiration points used by more recent series such as Game of Thrones, Star Wars, and a handful of others.

With four books left in the series I look forward to what is to come for everyone involved, especially Alia and the children.

Mrs. Dalloway Double Feature

With wanting to go back to school this fall, something I decided to do over my two-month leave from my day job for quarantine was to try and read at least a handful of books listed on the English course reading lists I was looking at. With my mother being an English Major, she decided to join in and we read Mrs. Dalloway together with the intention of watching the film The Hours (dir. Stephen Daldry, 2003) when we finished it.

Mrs. Dalloway was a tough read for me. It’s a really dense story that follows several characters over the course of a single day with flashbacks to various points in time throughout. As someone who has never really had to do a close reading before, I found it difficult looking for things that I don’t even think were there to begin with (like a point), and it made for a very long time spent pushing through the dense prose. While Virigina Woolf has some seriously great quotes in the book, and an interesting look at female independence in that time period, I found the number of characters and the muddled paragraphs very difficult to follow. I get that it’s “stream of consciousness” writing, but I found myself re-reading things several times and – at moments – entirely giving up and just continuing on with the book whether or not I understood what I was reading. When I finally finished the book I was more annoyed than anything else because I seriously felt like I missed something.

While waiting for my mom to finish reading, I learned that The Hours film is based on the book of the same name by Michael Cunningham. Having read one of Cunningham’s books in the past and enjoying it, I jumped on trying to read The Hours.

In three days, I finished reading one of the most beautiful books I’ve come across this year. The Hours follows three women over a single day: Virginia Woolf as she plans on writing Mrs. Dalloway, Laura Brown as she fights depression while planning her husband’s birthday, and Clarissa Vaughan as she plans a celebratory party for her friend that has won a significant literary award. The storyline that I loved best was Clarissa’s as the involvement of the AIDs pandemic fallout of the 90s and the harsh reality of the suffering AIDs patients went through… It’s heartbreaking and raw and beautiful. With so many context cues to the source material that is Mrs. Dalloway, adding AIDs on top of the tragedy of the adaptation of Septimus’s life makes so a heartbreaking and layered reason for the horrible end.

I definitely enjoyed The Hours and I feel like I picked up on a lot more nuances having read Mrs. Dalloway first. Of course, the film was a different story (for a different day but… how do you ruin a movie that stars Meryl freaking Streep?!) and I honestly hated it, but I’m so pleased to have picked up Michael Cunningham’s novel. It was an interesting exercise reading both of these books with my mom as well and really reminded me how much I enjoy talking about books with people.

REVIEW: And The Hippos Were Boiled…

The lives of the Beat Poets are something I’ve been in love with for ages. I just can’t resist the romanticized tragedies of their lives and the film Kill Your Darlings, certainly made me love them even more and tossed me headfirst into reading everything I could find about Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, William S. Burroughs, and – of course – Lucien Carr. When I learned that Kerouac and Burroughs wrote a fictional retelling of when Carr killed David Kammerer, I was all over that. I was even more excited when the fancy second-hand book store in my neighbourhood had a first edition copy of that same book.

And The Hippos Were Boiled In Their Tanks is the story of Will Dennison and Mike Ryko, the two narrators written by Burroughs and Kerouac respectively, as they go about their bohemian lives in New York and deal with their friends’ troubles. When one of their friends, Phillip Tourian, decides he is desperate to get away from the affections of Ramsay Allen, he and Ryko make a plan to ship out with the war relief and run away to Paris. For those who know what happened in the true story, I don’t need to remind you that this plan doesn’t exactly work out.

What I wanted from this was Kill Your Darlings. I was hoping for more about the murder, more scrambling during the aftermath. I was really hoping for a fun insiders look at what happened even if it was only a functionalization. Sadly what I got was a bunch of drunken youths for 80% of the book and then maybe twenty pages at the end involved the murder.

The writing style was interesting to see because this was written many years before Burroughs and Kerouac truly became famous but published only in more recent years. Knowing how the two authors came to write, it was kind of cool to see how they grew and developed as writers. Honestly though, the best part about this book was the afterword by James W. Grauerholz, who broke down more of the history behind the events of Kammerer’s death. I’m sad to say I was disappointed in it, but I think that might result in being too connected to the original story.

Ginsberg and Carr honestly mean so much to me, so – again – I think that had something to do it with. Either way, I’m happy to have read it and learn even just a little bit more from the afterword.