Hell Screen and Rashomon – Ryūnosuke Akutagawa

hell screen akutagawa ryunosuke
 

A tiny book that packs a punch! This is my first time reading Ryūnosuke Akutagawa, as it was selected for my GR book club. The Penguin grey copy above is actually out of print now, so I almost gave up getting a copy. But I later found the Rashomon and Seventeen Other Stories  – also by Penguin – at the library, and found the 2 stories included in the grey book: Hell Screen and Spider Thread.

The Spider Thread story was very familiar to me, like one of those folk tales I grew up with but never knew the source or author. I wondered whether it was based on an even older tale – retold by Akutagawa (ala Brothers Grimm), or whether this was really the original. But reading the extra notes in my edition, it seems Akutagawa did adapt tales as old as 12th century.

The Hell Screen story was new to me. It uses an interesting technique of “narrator in denial” – which I guess is a variation of unreliable narrator, but for me at least, it wasn’t immediately clear at first reading. I put my full trust on the seemingly genuine narrator, who’s an old officer of a wealth Lord. He gives us glimpses of story between his Lordship, the artist the Lord employs, and the artist’s daughter. And really only at the end I realised he injects his opinions and skewed views a bit too much. Because of the layering, and the multiple themes running through the story, it is perfect for a book group read. I’d highly recommend it.

Mee’s rating: 4/5

rashomon

And because I enjoyed Hell Screen, I decided to go ahead and read the two stories that Akutagawa is probably best known for, thanks to Akira Kurosawa’s film Rashomon (which I have not seen). The film is actually based on the story In a Bamboo Grove, while the story of Rashomon itself only inspired the use of Rashomon – the Kyoto main city gate.

Both stories are less than 10 pages long. I read Rashomon first. The ending gave me goosebumps all over. I honestly think this might be the most chilling story I have ever read. Dark. Very very dark.

In a Bamboo Grove is narrated using the police commissioner’s interviews with a few people on a common incident – a murder. As you can probably guess, everyone tells their story a bit differently. What a great technique. What storytelling! It’s amazing how mere few pages could elicit such visceral responses.

Overall I’m completely blown away by Akutagawa. I may not read all the stories in the Penguin book immediately, as these stories already gave me so much to ponder about, and I like to let them linger for a while. But I definitely intend to read more of his works. I have Kappa on my shelf and from what I gathered it’s also quite dark.

I rated Rashomon and In a Bamboo Grove 5 stars. Stars, stars everywhere.

Rashomon is included in 1001 Books you must read before you die.

The Jungle Book – Rudyard Kipling

I read the free Kindle version, but I'm using this cover for this post because it's one of my favorite Jungle Book covers :)
I read the free Kindle version, but I’m using this cover because I like it. Also Harper Collins version comprises only the first Jungle Book, while the Oxford World Classics for example, while it has a nice cover, comprises both the first and second Jungle Book.

The Jungle Book is a collection of short stories by Nobel Prize in Literature winner Rudyard Kipling. A lot of us probably know The Jungle Book from the Disney cartoon — I did. I remember my dad telling me that The Jungle Book is his favorite Disney movie. And talking about movie, there’s a good reason why I read this now. You may be aware that Disney is remaking a lot of his old cartoons, and that includes The Jungle Book. But in fact, there is not one upcoming Jungle Book movie, but TWO. One will be out in 2016 (the Disney remake), and one in 2017. (I know this very well because yours truly is currently working on one of them :).

The book is now on public domain (Is that the reason why there are 2 movies coming out around the same time?) so you can get it on Kindle or Project Gutenberg for free. There are 7 short stories in total, each story is followed by a poem.

Surprisingly to me, only the first three stories are about Mowgli and his jungle friends (and frenemies). All the familiar characters appear in the 3 stories: Bagheera the black panther, Baloo the bear, Shere Khan the tiger, Kaa the snake, and the monkey people.

I’m well aware that Disney takes much liberty in its adaptations, and how the movies are always quite different compared to their original stories, so I was well prepared and wasn’t easily surprised. There are a couple of characters that didn’t make the cut into the Disney movie: the wolf that takes Mowgli as a baby – Akela, and the annoying figure Tabaqui the indian jackal (for some reason he always appears in my mind as hyena). Shere Khan is a limp tiger, and he’s not exactly brave or honorable.

And if I haven’t been clear enough, the stories are nothing Disney-ish. They’re pretty harsh by today’s standard of children stories, and Mowgli in particular is a lot stronger and more assertive than the Mowgli I remember from my childhood.

The other 4 stories also feature animal characters and occasional humans. The White Seal features a white furred seal who sort of plays Moses role as he searches and finds a “promised” safe land and takes all his seal people there. Rikki-Tikki-Tavi features a mongoose who defends the human family he lives with from a couple of cobras. Toomai of the Elephants is about a boy who’s on his way to become a respectable elephant handler (or mahout). In Her Majesty’s Servants we get a glimpse of a late night conversation among a bunch of camp animals right before an important parade the next day.

I quite enjoyed all the stories — the Mowgli stories in particular, perhaps because of the familiarity and the continuity of characters. I did have a slight reservation when I reached the fourth story and realized that Mowgli stories have passed, and in fact I was taken out of the jungle altogether despite the Jungle Book title for the collection. But overall I found them refreshing and quite charming.

Mee’s rating: 4/5

Rudyard_Kipling_(portrait)

There are more Mowgli stories in The Second Jungle Book and I might go read it at some point, but for now I’m happy to have a taste of Kipling. Fun facts: Rudyard Kipling was the first English-language writer to receive the Nobel Prize in Literature, and he’s also the youngest recipient to date, who was 42 years old when he received the prize in 1907.

Way back when I was a kid I never realized that The Jungle Book was set in India. I guess I instinctively associated animals with Africa. Kipling’s background of having born in India and spent some time there really interests me, so I look forward to reading more of his work, in particular Kim, as I heard good things about it.

 

The Lottery and Other Stories – Shirley Jackson

lottery

I read The Lottery short story a few years ago and found it to be one of the most memorable short story I’ve ever read. If you have not, go read it NOW. You only get the greatest impact however if you go in without knowing anything about it, as I did. So if you’ve been spoilt, it probably wouldn’t be as impressive. Unfortunately I’ve seen a lot of reviews that give the story away in a line or two =/

The Lottery and Other Stories is a collection of 25 short stories, the only collection of stories to appear during her lifetime. It’s divided into 4 parts with an epilogue. The Lottery story is placed almost at the end.

For me it’s nearly impossible to formulate story-by-story thoughts of a collection of 25 stories. I could do it for 10 but anything more than 10 is tough. The stories have jumbled up a bit in my mind, and it’s hard to remember specific stories. But I honestly enjoyed reading this collection. I found the stories to be very readable. Some are more impressive than others, but overall they’re all of high quality.

The introduction by A. M. Homes is a really nice piece, and the back cover summarizes the stories as “equally unusual” (to The Lottery). “Together they demonstrate Jackson’s remarkable range — encompassing the hilarious and the horrible, the unsettling and the ominous — as well as her power as a storyteller.” I don’t think I can say it better.

A few stories are clearly set in New York, which is a nice coincidence again for me, as I mentioned before that I kept bumping into books set in New York after I went to New York for some reason. She also reminded me a bit of Muriel Spark — both female authors writing a good dose of weirdness and all things sinister. Love. I look forward to reading her novels in the future.

Mee’s rating: 4/5

Initially I meant to read this book for Shirley Jackson’s week in July, organized by Reading the End, Things Mean a Lot, and Stuck in a Book. But as it often happens I only got to it in October, and so it’s also a perfect reading for the R.I.P. X! If I could fit it into another event I would :)

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ripnineperilthird

Shirley-Jackson-Reading-Week

How sad is it that October is ending? I grew to love October and its spookiness and falling, yellowing leaves. The days are getting shorter, darker, and colder, but they’re not yet too cold, and not yet too short. I must say I would pick October over the holiday season anytime =/

 

 

Lust, Caution – Eileen Chang

lustcautionI watched Lust, Caution the movie at the end of 2013. It was so good that shortly afterwards I was rushing to buy and read the short story it is based on.

The story is more compact than the movie — Ang Lee took the liberty to add a few details, but the story is clearly Eileen Chang’s, following her recurring themes of emotional loyalty, vanity, and betrayal with the backdrop of turbulent China.

I was very impressed at both the author and director, of how much the author managed to convey in the number of pages (only 30+ pages), and how much the director was able to read so acutely between the lines and regurgitated such a great film. It was hands down my favorite movie from Ang Lee, and possibly the best Chinese movie I have ever seen. I loved it that much.

After reading the main short story in this collection though, I left the book for a while, and only picked it up again to finish the rest of the collection a couple of months ago.

Having read Eileen Chang’s other short story collection Love in a Fallen City, in a way I knew what to expect. I liked her stories then, and I liked them now.

My edition is the Penguin Modern Classics (as pictured above), and I was curious whether the NYRB Classics version had the same stories in the collection. It seems that it doesn’t — weirdly the majority of the stories in the NYRB Classics are in the Love in a Fallen City Penguin Modern Classics version. Just something to keep in mind, if you’re wondering which version to get.

The stories in Penguin version are: Lust, Caution; In the Waiting Room; Great Felicity; Steamed Osmanthus Flower: Ah Xiao’s Unhappy Autumn, and Traces of Love.

In the Waiting Room gives us a peek into social dynamics in a simple setting of a doctor’s waiting room. Great Felicity explores family dynamics of a soon to be married woman with her two future in-law sisters. Steamed Osmanthus Flower: Ah Xiao’s Unhappy Autumn (curiously a mouthful of a title — wonder how well the original title works) took us into the home of a foreigner living in China from the maid’s point of view. Traces of Love follows an old couple, both married other people in the past, who are now married to each other, each for their own reasons.

Chang’s themes felt familiar, in my opinion especially in her seemingly cynical views of love and marriage, and of the binds of society. Love the atmosphere and the settings of her stories. Love the impeccable insight into her characters. I’m curious about her novels now as I’ve only read her short stories so far. My next Chang will be one of her novels.

Mee’s rating: 4/5

eileenchang
She looks so cool. I wish I could look that cool.

Tenth of December – George Saunders

tenth of december

Tenth of December and George Saunders seem to be highly acclaimed everywhere. I had not heard of George Saunders until the appearance of Tenth of December (which felt like it was just published, but apparently it was first published 2 years ago in 2013), but upon reading it I found out that he had enjoyed some literary success prior to this book. His short stories have been picked up by The New Yorker many times over. And in fact, most of the short stories collected in this book are available in The New Yorker.

I don’t know if it’s just me, but I took me a while to warm to his style. I did not read the stories in the book in order (there are 10 in total), but I read the first story first: Victory Lap. Going in I was completely disoriented and did not know what’s going on. After pages, I had to go browse the internet to get a general idea of what the story was about. Three characters: a girl, a man in a van who intends to kidnap the girl, and a neighbour boy who knows the girl and will be the hero by saving her. The story jumps from inside one character’s head to another. I wasn’t completely foreign to this style after reading Woolf’s To the Lighthouse, but to have that style in a short story was exhausting to read. I’d be really surprised if average readers enjoy this story, it seems to be intended for more avid readers, and probably one that has read Saunder’s stories in the past.

The second one that I read was The Semplica-Girl Diaries, which is probably one of his most famous stories, and can be read in The New Yorker. I liked this one, and went so far as to persuade my short story club to read this story for our next meetup (We did and they all liked it – though there were differences about how we interpret/read the story). Again it took me a while to warm up to the style. The story is written in diary format, and in a very colloquial style, as if by someone who really jots down stuff in his diary in a rush manner thinking that nobody would see it ever. As the story is one of the longer ones, you have time to get into it, compared to Victory Lap for example.

To be honest by this point I started to wonder if I would finish the book at all. I decided to jump to the title story, Tenth of December, which is the last story in the collection. There are 2 characters: a sick man who intends to commit suicide by freezing himself to death in the wood, and a boy who happens to explore the same wood at the same time. The narration jumps from one character’s head to another, ala Victory Lap, which was now half as confusing than when I first read the first story. This one was alright, but not my favorite.

Luckily I found my favorite story next called Escape from Spiderhead. This is the story that I expected George Saunders to write: a slightly futuristic world or an alternate world that is exactly like ours, but with a twist. This story is set in a kind of laboratory, where they do experiments on people who’ve been convicted for some crimes and would rather be in the lab and participating in experiments, than being in normal prison.

I seemed to have read all the meaty ones first, because after that I flew through the rest, going at them in order. Sticks is tiny, a few pages long on the oddities of a father. Puppy delves into two mothers and their different style of raising a family. Exhortation is a long letter from an employer to an employee, urging him to do something that he’s reluctant to. Al Roosten is a reminiscence of Victory Lap and Tenth of December, in which the main character struggles to do the right thing. Home explores the experience of a soldier who just comes back from duty. In My Chivalric Fiasco chivalry is questioned, whether doing the right thing is always the best for everyone.

By the end of the book I realized the colloquial style of writing is really George Saunder’s voice, and not of any specific story, as it permeates in ALL stories. It fascinates me that this kind of writing style has won literary prizes, as it does not seem “literary” in its conventional meaning. That just goes to show how there’s no rule for writing style and it can go in all different ways.

Mee’s rating: 3.5/5 – I like some stories more than others. The style took a while to get into (it’s my first George Saunders). Only after reading 3-4 stories (10 stories in total in the book), it started to get much easier to get into a story and I enjoyed reading it more. But at the end of the book I’m still not totally convinced by the choice of style and language. Mmm.

Fictions — Borges / The Ice Palace — Vesaas

Fictions / Ficciones — Jorge Luis Borges

Fictions - BorgesBorges

Last year, I read two short stories by Borges (The Garden of Forking Paths and Emma Zunz), and this time I plunged into his full short story collection: Fictions (Ficciones), while finishing up Coursera’s The Fiction of Relationship course that I started last year. (I have one more book to go out of the 10 units of reading, a bit proud of that!)

My mind was blown away by Borges. I don’t think I’ve read anything like it before. Some parts were a bit hard to read, and some sounded “technical”, but all the stories were so so refreshing, and different. It is definitely not a quick read and I don’t think you can/should rush it. Though Borges wouldn’t admit it, for me Ficciones is a book of ideas. It’s bursting with ideas and imagination. All the stories are only short (few pages long), but they pack a punch.

My favorite stories are: The Circular Ruins, The Lottery of Babylon, and Funes, His Memory. It’s a brilliant, brilliant book, and I can see myself re-reading it in the years ahead.

Mee’s rating: 5/5

The Ice Palace — Tarjei Vesaas

The Ice Palace - VesaasVesaas

The Ice Palace was also something that I read to finish up Brown University’s The Fiction of Relationship (if you want to know, the last book I have yet to read out of the 10 units is Beloved by Toni Morrison so look out for that soon-ish). It is translated from Norwegian, first published in 1963, and considered to be one of the classics in Norwegian literature.

I read The Sibyl by Pär Lagerkvist last year and fell in love head over heels for it, so I was happy to take a stab at another Scandinavian literature (pardon me for grouping all Scandinavian countries together, but I have very limited contact with the region in general). Unfortunately it fell a bit short of my high expectation. I didn’t like The Ice Palace nearly as much as The Sibyl, and even though the book is short I found it almost a slog to go through.

The Ice Palace tells the story of Siss and Unn, two friends who have only spent one evening in each other’s company, and the next day Unn is gone missing. The whole village is looking, and Siss feels extreme guilt that she might be the reason Unn has ventured off her usual paths. The setting here plays a big role, as it is a place that is cold, sparse, and has very short day light. The frozen waterfall (the one called the ice palace) is an important figure in the story, and its foreboding presence seems to be in the center of events and everyone’s mind.

Part of my problem with it was that I never quite figured out what was going on between Siss and Unn, not even after listening to the Prof’s lectures. I don’t understand the whole point of the story, and reading it was akin to an experience of walking in the fog. Or maybe in the snowy cold. It was all a bit blurry, and looking back you’re not quite sure what you just pass by.

Mee’s rating: 3.5/5

Mee’s Summer Reading 2013

Since I am way way way behind in blogging about books read and all bookish things that happened in the past 3 month, I’m just going to write about them in one giant post. And I just realized those 3 months were summer (coincidence?), so I can call them summer reading!

Books Read

Frankenstein — Mary Shelley (England/Europe, 1818,  4/5)

I liked Frankenstein, a lot more than Dracula, which I did not like very much. It seems that most people either like one or the other. I’m definitely on Frankenstein side. Also if you read a little about Mary Shelley’s life, it is as shocking and as interesting as her story.

metamorphosis

Metamorphosis — Franz Kafka (German, 1915, 4.5/5)

Metamorphosis is my first Kafka, finally. Well the first was actually his short story called A Country Doctor, which I read just before Metamorphosis, but it was a 5-page short story. Metamorphosis is rather short too, around 90 pages. I thought it was amazing story about a man waking up as a giant insect. I got the impression that it was going to be depressing, and it was at the end, but overall I thought it was hilarious. I will need to read more Kafka!

The Night Bookmobile — Audrey Niffenegger (US, 2010, 4/5)

An illustrated book by Audrey Niffenegger about a woman who stumbles upon a mobile library, in which there is everything she’s ever read in her life. Wow it’s so dark and depressing at the end, that I’m not sure what the whole point of the book is. The story is just a bit strange. But there’s a lot of work put into the book as she illustrates it herself using various art techniques.

don quixote comic

Don Quixote (graphic novel, vol 1) — Cervantes, illustrated by Rob Davis (Spain, 2011, 4/5)

As I imagine I won’t get into the real Don Quixote anytime soon, I jumped at the chance to read the graphic novel. The illustration is lovely and colorful – I really liked it. The story however seems a bit pointless, about a disillusioned old man and his servant-like mate. I’d probably need to read the real book to get the layers of the story. Don Quixote is still amazingly popular in Spain, as proven by my trips to Spain, so I’m curious.

Watchmen — Alan Moore (fantasy world, 1987, 3/5)

What a DENSE graphic novel! I’m not sure if I’ve read a graphic novel as dense as that. Apart from the comic style pages, there are also pages of writing, in newspaper clip style or letter. It took me forever to read Watchmen, and at the end I speed read it, because I could not stand it not-finished any longer. I know this is a very important graphic novel — it’s in one of Time’s All-Time 100 Novels, but I got impatient. I watched the movie after that and I’d probably recommend most people to just watch the movie. The movie stays very true to the book, and nicely directed (Zack Snyder). Watch the Director’s Cut (around 3.5 hours, while the cinema version is far shorter than that) to get more details from the book, including the meta-comic.

To the Lighthouse — Virginia Woolf (England, 1927, 3/5)

It is my first Woolf, so I’m happy that I finished it, and at least understood most of it. I probably wouldn’t ever be able to get through the book without Prof Weinstein’s lectures on Coursera though, so if you’re struggling, I’d recommend getting his lectures on Coursera’s Fiction of Relationship, and you can sort of read alongside the lectures (there are many of them). My advice is if there’s a paragraph that you don’t understand after reading a couple of times, KEEP GOING! Don’t obsessed and get stuck over one paragraph. In the bigger scheme of things, it really does not matter, and you’ll be glad once you get to the end and able to see the book as a whole.

The Invisible Man — H. G. Wells (England, 1897, 3/5)

Apart from Fiction of Relationship in Coursera, I am also following Fantasy and Science Fiction course, by Prof Rabkin. The reading list is interesting. There are many that I wouldn’t read by myself, so I’m glad to be able to broaden my reading horizon (the same as true for Fiction of Relationship). In one of the weeks the reading list includes all H. G. Wells: 2 novels and 2 short stories. I didn’t know how important Wells was in SF. He is often compared with Jules Verne, as they were from the same era, but as explained in the lectures, Verne is purely entertainment, while Wells questions social and political issues in his writing.

In Invisible Man, Wells created a man that because of a personal scientific experiment has turned invisible. And he can’t go back. Since I read this so close to Frankenstein, I saw some similarity, like how the two main characters are rejected by the society and turn bad as a result. I guess that’s the end of the similarity, because I didn’t enjoy Invisible Man as much. The description of actions tire me, and I kept waiting for deeper discussions of life like in Frankenstein, which does not happen in Invisible Man.

A Grief Observed — C. S. Lewis (1961, 3/5)

I feel the need to say that this book was given by a friend, who asked me to read this favorite book of his, so I felt compelled to read it. I might appreciate the book more if I were at different stage of life, but as it was, it didn’t speak to me in any profound way. I have long left any discussions of God and Christianity IRL, and therefore found the discussion here about God, his intentions and afterlife to be heavy handed.

C.S. Lewis wrote books journalling his thoughts after the death of his wife of 4 years, referred to here as H. I’m just glad that they edited much of it, and left a thin 60-page large-font book, as I wouldn’t have much patience for longer book about wallowing in grief. I feel a bit bad for not thinking higher of the book given the sad subject matter and the circumstances of my reading it, but as I said, in another time I could’ve taken it differently

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The Island of Doctor Moreau — H. G. Wells (1896, 3.5/5)

In the Island of Dr Moreau, Wells plays with the idea of turning beasts into men. Our narrator is someone who got stranded in an island, where he meets two other men, one of them Moreau. Later finding shows how Dr Moreau has been experimenting with animals and turning them into imperfect human that is more half man half beast. Interesting premise, but after reading 2 books by Wells, I’m pretty clear that I don’t fall in love with his writing. His ideas are great, but his writing just doesn’t evoke much in me.

ps: Don’t even look for the movie. It seems to be really bad from what people say. I just some pictures, and the effects don’t impress me too.

Short Stories

Been reading Nathaniel Hawthorne (Before I started I didn’t know he is also well known for his short stories, some are mentioned as early conception of Science Fiction. I only knew he wrote Scarlet Letter prior to this.), Edgar Allan Poe (never quite like Poe. Maybe I’m just not into psychopathic behaviors?), Flannery O’Connor, John Updike,  more H. G. Wells (I kinda liked the two I read: The Country of the Blind and The Star), Gustave Flaubert, William Faulkner, Jorge Luis Borges, Hemingway.

I got little sparks from Borges so I’ll be reading more. Flaubert, possibly. I’m eyeing Madame Bovary.

Currently Reading

Princess of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs (remember John Carter? Also, did you know that Burroughs wrote Tarzan? Yeah, I didn’t know too!)

Great Expectations by Dickens via Dailylit, sent daily to my mail, which I try to read first thing in the morning on the way to work for. I’ve been doing this for a few months now, and I’m over a third in. I’m happy that it works. I don’t think I would be able to do it reading it like normal book to be honest. It is very very long, and in spite of the interesting bits, there are more boring bits.

On the Pipe

I probably shouldn’t mention much in fear that I would jinx it, but if all goes according to plan I’ll be reading Herland — Charlotte Perkins Gilman, The Old Man and the Sea — Hemingway, and the Martian Chronicles — Ray Bradbury.

I can’t believe how much I’m reading considering how little I did for the last couple of years. I think I probably needed more structure and direction in my reading, and I’ve got them, thanks to the Profs and Coursera.

 

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