Project Bungou Stray Dogs: Rashōmon and Seventeen Other Stories, by Ryūnosuke Akutagawa

35206Original Title: 羅生門 (Rashōmon)

Author: Ryūnosuke Akutagawa (芥川 龍之介, Akutagawa Ryūnosuke)

Translator: Jay Rubin

Genres: Literature, Japanese Literature

Rating: ✮✮✮✮

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What happened to the lowly servant, no one knows.


Project BSD

Stories in this book:

  • Rashōmon
  • In a Bamboo Grove
  • The Nose
  • Dragon: The Old Potter’s Tale
  • The Spider Thread
  • Hell Screen
  • Dr. Ogata Ryosai: Memorandum
  • O-Gin
  • Loyalty
  • The Story of a Head That Fell Off
  • Green Onions
  • Horse Legs
  • Daidōji Shinsuke: The Early Years
  • The Writer’s Craft
  • The Baby’s Sickness
  • Death Register
  • The Life of a Stupid Man
  • Spinning Gears

Ryūnosuke Akutagawa was actually one of the few Japanese authors that I knew before I started this project. He’s one of the more well-known ones out there. There was a collection of his stories in my school’s library, but when I started to read them, I wasn’t impressed. The translation was awkward and the story was confusing, and I only finished a couple before I gave it up and returned the book.

It turns out, I am not alone in my opinion. I mention this to emphasize the fact that a good story can be ruined due to a terrible translation, and that it’s better to see which ones are available before picking one up.

This collection is much, much different. The writing is beautiful, and Akutagawa’s creative genius shines through. The tales are morbid, strange, and cynical. Hell Screen, the longest one in the book, was one of the ones that I tried to read previously. The first time, it was like trying to complete a puzzle with pieces that didn’t go together; this time, I was absorbed completely.

Akutagawa has been compared to Atsushi Nakajima on multiple occasions, but to be honest, he reminds me of Osamu Dazai. Both authors committed suicide, and death and alienation are two recurring themes in their work. There are multiple differences in style – Dazai’s No Longer Human felt very sad in a numb, hollow way, whereas Akutagawa’s stories are more dramatic – but both authors suffered in similar ways, and it’s reflected in their writing.

–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 most controversial ones are Akutagawa’s non-fictional work. (Daidōji Shinsuke: The Early Years Spinning Gears.) There is especially criticism regarding The Life of a Stupid Man, Akutagawa’s “autobiography”, told in fragments. Akutagawa’s personal life, though interesting, is inconsequential to me regarding the story’s merit; it didn’t effect how I read it. I loved it because I thought that it was beautifully written, and the way it’s sectioned gives it a poetic feel that I particularly liked. I wasn’t that impressed with Spinning Gears, neither was I O-Gin or Green Onions, but as a whole I think this is a great illustration of Akutagawa’s craft.

Akutagawa was, in a way, tragic. His skills once put him at the top – but changing times, mingled in with his own doubt and other’s criticism, resulted in his decline. That is why although quite a few of his works are considered to be masterpieces, there are others that are far less than that. I don’t think Akutagawa’s work is something that you will always love 100% of the time, but an author is never perfect, and many of his stories are true classics.

Project Bungou Stray Dogs: Japanese Tales of Mystery and Imagination, by Edogawa Rampo

196150Original Title: N/A

Author: Edogawa Rampo (江戸川 乱歩, Edogawa Ranpo*)

Translator: James B. Harris

Genres: Horror, Mystery-Thriller

Rating: ✮✮✮✮

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“The living world is a dream. The nocturnal dream is reality.”

— Edogawa Rampo


Project BSD

Stories in this book:

  • The Human Chair
  • The Psychological Test
  • The Caterpillar
  • The Cliff
  • The Hell of Mirrors
  • The Twins
  • The Red Chamber
  • Two Crippled Men
  • The Traveler With The Pasted Rag Picture

Edogawa Rampo is referred to as “Japan’s Edgar Allan Poe”, and to that there are multiple reasons why:

  1. Edgar Allan Poe was Rampo’s mentor; he was an avid reader of both American and European mysteries, and a big fan of Poe’s work. (Eddie’s swelled head would blow up at that.)
  2. Similarly to Poe being the creator of the modern detective story, Rampo created the first original Japanese mystery story.
  3. Edogawa Rampo is the Japanese pronunciation of Edgar Allan Poe. The author’s birth name was Tarō Hirai (平井 太郎, Hirai Tarō).

These stories are more suspense than mystery. At any rate, those that contain murder are not about whodunit, but how they were caught, such as in The Psychological Test and The Twins. Some of them are horrifying and some are grotesque, but all of them are very, very peculiar.

Take The Human Chair, the first and probably the best story in the entire collection. A man that defines himself as “ugly beyond description” writes a letter to an authoress. In the letter, he recounts how he created an armchair that could inhabit a human being, how he holed himself up inside of it, and his experiences with all of the women that have sat in it – all of them unknowing that there is a man underneath them, caressing their body.

Gives you the absolute creeps, doesn’t it?

Then in The Hell of Mirrors, a man obsessed with optics creates a perfect sphere of mirrors and accidentally gets locked inside of it, and the images reflected cause him to go raving mad. In The Twins, one of two identical twin brothers confesses how he murdered his other half and took his place, then proceeded to carry out crimes as his true self while he continued to pose as his brother. In The Red Chamber, a madman recounts how he caused the deaths of ninety-nine individual people without lifting a single finger.

I was disturbed over and over again.

Another great thing about these stories is that they’re written in a way that feels timeless, like they could take place anywhere, anytime. Though the style of these stories is without a doubt Japanese, the translation gives it a Western feel, and this is due partly to Edogawa Rampo’s love of Western mysteries as well as his contribution to the translation. (According to the translator’s preface, Rampo could both read and comprehend English, but was unable to write it or speak it; the translator could speak Japanese but could not read or write it. Thus a painstaking five-year project commenced, with the translator turning out sentence after sentence until Rampo was satisfied with how it was read in English.) So even though Japanese mysteries are largely unknown to English readers, it’s easy to integrate into Edogawa Rampo’s writing, since he knew how Western mystery stories were crafted.

Today there is a Japan Mystery Writer’s Club, which Rampo founded, meaning that there is a whole vein of writers of the genre that have yet to be discovered. Still, there is no better place to get started than the man who started it all.

*Note: 乱歩 has been romanized as both ‘Rampo’ and ‘Ranpo’.

Project Bungou Stray Dogs: No Longer Human, by Osamu Dazai

Original title: 人間失格 (Ningen Shikkaku)194746

Author: Osamu Dazai (太宰 治, Dazai Osamu)

Translator: Donald Keene

Genres: Literature, Japanese Literature

Rating: ✮✮✮✮

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“Mine has been a life of much shame. I can’t even guess myself what it must be to live the life of a human being.”


Project BSD

No Longer Human is considered to be Dazai’s masterpiece, and it’s without a doubt one of the most depressing books that I’ve ever read. Considering the elements that relate to Dazai’s personal life, including suicide, it’s no wonder that people consider this more of an autobiography than a work of fiction.

The story follows the life of Ōba Yōzō, who feels alienated from other people and creates a cheerful facade in order to dispel his true nature. As he grows older his fears increase and prevent him from integrating into society, and he falls to smoking, drinking, drug abuse, and adulterous affairs with women. He reveals on multiple occasions that he wants to die, and considers a violent death a blessing.

During the course of my life I have wished innumerable times that I might meet with a violent death, but I have never once desired to kill anybody. I thought that in killing a dreaded adversary I might actually be bringing him happiness.

Definitely not a cheerful book.

This is a book where the relationship between the reader and the narrator is not definite. Even though I constantly felt sympathetic towards Yōzō’s situation, there were many times where I was frustrated with him as well. I think that was Dazai’s point, to not make him completely likeable, to emphasize how troubled he is. To create a character that is simultaneously likeable and dislikable is an amazing thing.

Overall, what this book highlights is how some people are unable to cope with everyday life, with the trials of “being human.” As a result, they are isolated and lonely beings who go through life as if in a living hell. In that aspect, although we don’t want to face such things as grief, guilt, and fear, if we avoid them we will only suffer more.

This book was dark and depressing, but a quick read, and beautifully written and translated.

Review: The Five People You Meet in Heaven, by Mitch Albom

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The Five People You Meet in Heaven, by Mitch Albom

Genres: Literature, Contemporary

Rating: ✮✮✮✮

“All endings are also beginnings. We just don’t know it at the time.”

This was a book I had to read for class. I’ve enjoyed assigned books in the past, but to be honest, I didn’t expect to eat through this book so quickly. It’s tiny – not even 200 pages – but it wasn’t so much the length as my inability to put it down.

I am an atheist. I have little to no knowledge about many religions, particularly orthodox ones. I have tried multiple times to stretch my beliefs a little, to believe in a deity, but I can’t. It’s not how I think. Despite this, if there is a heaven, I would want it to be exactly like it is depicted in this book. Many if not all individuals worry about living a pointless life, of not affecting anything, and wondering why they’re even alive, and The Five People You Meet in Heaven is based around the idea that when you die, you meet five different people – some you know, some you might not – that drastically changed your life, and explain to you the significance of their encounters and what they mean. It’s a way of understanding how you mattered during the time you were alive, something we all crave to know.

It’s very easy to see how, from our perspective, we would feel worthless, whereas from an outsider’s point of view, we understand how important we are. Eddie believes he was very insignificant, that due to the war and his leg injury he didn’t live as fulfilled a life as he’d dreamed – but when he glances through it with his five people, he comes to understand that he did in fact serve his purpose, that his life wasn’t as gray as it appeared.

This is such an emotionally-packed book. Many of the lessons that Eddie learns are things that we’ve all heard before, but the way they are woven through adds a deeper sentimentality. There are quotes in here that are worthy of being put in pretty fonts on rainy backgrounds and pasted all over Tumblr.

“Strangers,” the Blue Man said, “are just family you have yet to come to know.”

This is a book that is easy to fly through, that is over and done with in a matter of hours, but might stay with you forever, just because of how deep it is. It’s a tiny reminder that no matter how we perceive ourselves, we are not as transparent as we seem.

Review: The Disenchantments, by Nina LaCour

11699055The Disenchantments, by Nina LaCour

Genres: Young Adult, Contemporary

Rating: ✮✮✮✮

“Things happen for a reason. It doesn’t make sense now, but eventually, it will.”

This past week, I could feel myself sinking into a reading slump. No book was catching my attention at all. I even picked up a book by my favorite author, but I was too out of it to truly appreciate it, so I stopped.

The blame could only be placed on one thing:

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*Heavy breathing.* Fucking volleyball anime.

Anyway. I figured that what I needed was a change of scene. I’d been reading a lot of fantasy lately, so I switched to a contemporary. I needed something fast and light; I needed something easy to absorb.

Nina LaCour was the woman for the job.

Her books are some of my favorite contemporaries of all time. Her writing is low-key and mellow. It’s like sinking into a warm bath, almost. Sometimes there are ripples, but they calm down quickly. You would think that that would make her books rather boring, but it’s just the opposite: the pages fly by so fast, you don’t know what hit you.

“It’s incredible,” she says, “how much damage everyone does to everybody else.”

This story is about an all-girl band and Colby, the protagonist and roadie, who go on a one-week tour as a last pact of friendship before they are all divided by their different paths. Colby and his best friend, Bev, are supposed to be going on a trip across Europe right after the tour, but just as it begins she breaks it to him that she’s going to college instead. This wrecks Colby emotionally and sends him spiraling, wondering what he’s going to do next.

The main theme of this book is, of course, the future. It’s about where you’re going and what you want to do with your life, and also how you’re going to deal with the people you leave behind. The sentimentality in The Disenchantments – as is in every one of Nina LaCour’s works – hits me hard. This book is very hipster-esque and has a lot of emotionally-ridden quotes, but they don’t feel forced. They don’t make the characters seem too wise for their age. Nina LaCour perfectly captures the voice of a teenager struggling to puzzle out their life.

As a chord reverberates through through the tiny room, I decide that it can’t be that hard to be the person you want to be. What’s difficult is finding a place in a world with other people, who want different things for themselves.

I struggled to like Bev. She reminds me of Alaska Young too much for my comfort, but like Alaska, I didn’t let Bev ruin the experience for me. Both characters are distant and mysterious, and it makes me hate them. However, Bev eventually fleshes out and becomes more of a real person instead of something straight out of a cliche. I don’t know if the romance between her and Colby was necessary, but I do think that there would’ve been a lot less going on, so I don’t mind so much. I also love the way Nina LaCour casually slipped in her bisexuality, because nothing makes me happier than an undercurrent of LGBTQIA in a book that’s not about being gay at all.

Perhaps The Disenchantments is more about personal taste. Maybe I’m biased because I’m such a big fan of her work, but I love every book that Nina LaCour writes. Her work is so tender and easy to dive into, making them the perfect thing to read even if I don’t feel like reading. I’m so excited for her new book coming out in February, because I know I’m going to love it just as much.

Manga Review: Black Cat, by Kentaro Yabuki

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Black Cat, by Kentaro Yabuki

Genres: Shonen, Action-Adventure, Science Fiction

Status: Complete

Favorite Characters: Eve, Train Heartnet, Lin Shaolee

Rating: ✮✮✮✮

“I make it a policy not to second-guess my instincts. Life’s more fun that way.”

            Black Cat was the manga that I read when I wasn’t into manga—I mean really into it. I’d heard about it in a book, and when I saw it on the shelves, I decided to give it a shot.

What I like the most about Black Cat is that it has an original twist. Most shonen manga are about demons and spirits, or sports. Black Cat intertwines the mystical powers of the Tao with the science of nanomachines, and it’s full of sleuths and assassins—sort of like a crime novel with a supernatural twist.

The story’s protagonist, Train Heartnet, is a former assassin of the secret organization called Chronos—number 13. Two years earlier, he betrayed Chronos and, though he was supposed to be executed, has instead set up a life as a bounty hunter (“sweeper”) along with his partner, Sven Vollfied, and Eve, a little girl that has been turned into a living weapon thanks to nanomachines. Though carefree and laid-back, Train is actually full of revenge towards Creed Diskenth, the man who murdered his friend Saya Minatsuki. Now, Creed is forming a group called the Apostles of the Stars, who have been granted with the power of the Tao and plot world destruction.

Black Cat is not that deep. It’s not the kind of story that keeps you clinging to the edge of your seat, frantic, desperately hoping that your favorite character isn’t about to die. (*Glances over at Attack on Titan.*) Most of the drama is pretty light, and there’s plenty of comedy to go around (executed mostly by Train), but it is still one hell of a ride. It’s not too wordy, not too dense, but has just the right balance to keep the story from never dragging.

Another thing that I love about Black Cat is Kentaro Yabuki’s art style. He’s mentioned that one of his inspirations is Takeshi Obata, the artist behind Death Note and Bakuman. Takeshi Obata is well known for his semi-realistic style, which also inspired Mark Crilley in Brody’s Ghost. You can see traces of it in Kentaro Yabuki’s work, yet he still keeps hints of traditional manga intact.

I do wish that we could’ve gained more history about the Chrono numbers, because they seem almost like backdrops. I know that since they’re a part of Train’s past, they’re not as important, but they seem more transparent up against characters like Eve and Kyoko.

What I love the most about Black Cat is the cliche, but still important moral to use your powers for good, not evil. When Train becomes a sweeper, not only does he clean up the bad guys, but he refuses to kill them. The same goes for Eve, who was raised as a killing machine. They know that aiming for the kill would make things a lot easier, but they still refuse to – and I love that about them.

Black Cat is a great manga. It has a clean, simple story arc, lovable characters, and fantastic artwork. I know that I’ll remember it, even in the years to come.

“I’ve come to deliver some bad luck.”

Review: The Unbound, by Victoria Schwab

13638131The Unbound, by Victoria Schwab

Genres: Young Adult, Paranormal

Rating: ✮✮✮✮

“Treat all the bad things like dreams, Kenzie. That way, no matter how scary or dark they get, you just have to survive until you wake up.”

New reading goal: read more Victoria Schwab.

I read the first book, The Archived, at the beginning of this year, and it was incredible—a wonderful surprise. It’s about a place called the Archive, where replicas of the dead are stored, called Histories. One touch and all of their memories will be revealed. Mackenzie is a Keeper, who are in charge of returning Histories when they wake up and wander into the Narrows—a dark, foreboding place between the Archive and the Outer. It had action, mystery, suspense, and a twist that I didn’t see coming. It left me craving for more.

The Unbound is pretty different, since it mostly takes place at a school and focuses less on being a Keeper and more about Mackenzie’s dissolving sanity. After the end of the last book, she’s haunted by nightmares that are far too real and struggles to keep her place in the Archive—because, if she’s found unfit, they will alter her memories and cast her out forever. Meanwhile, strange, unexplained disappearances are happening all over town, and they have one connection: her.

What makes this book so great is its balance: it has nail-biting suspense, but it also brings something more light-hearted, brought by probably my favorite love interest of all time, Wesley Ayers.

“Ah, well. Remember the guy who disappeared before Bethany? Judge Phillip? I went back to check on his house, since that’s where he vanished from. And I might have entered the place using less than legal methods.”

            Wes hits the table. “You broke into a crime scene without me?

            “Be glad, Wes, or we both would have been caught.”

            “We’re a team, Mac. You don’t go committing a crime without your partner in crime. Besides, if I’d been with you, we probably wouldn’t have been caught. I could have stood at the door and made wild bird sounds or something when the cops came back. And if we did get caught, our mug shots would look fabulous.”

If you are going to read this series for anything, please, please read it for Wes. He is the most adorable Goth/prep boy in the entire world, and his platonic relationship with Mackenzie that borders on romantic melts my heart.

            His forehead comes to rest against my shoulder. “You sound like thunderstorms and heavy rain, did you know that?” He lets out a soft, low laugh. “I never liked bad weather. Not until I met you.”

That aside, because I had to get that out of my system—he’s just too much oh my god—I love how Victoria Schwab keeps me on the edge. There is never a dull moment, and there’s this haunting aura that lures you in. The plot is unique, drawn out, and there’s this underlying theme of questioning authority: whether the Archive is as good as Mackenzie originally thought it was, or whether it has corrupted; whether she should try to stay in or find a way out, with her memories still intact.

I hope the third book comes out soon—there is going to be a third book, right? RIGHT?—because the way this one ended, I’m intrigued even more about which direction Mackenzie will follow next: whether she’ll play it safe or whether she’ll decide to revolt against the Archive, in her own way.

AND WHAT’S WESLEY’S REAL NAME, ANYWAY!? I. NEED. TO. KNOW.

Review: What Happened To Goodbye, by Sarah Dessen

8492856What Happened To Goodbye, by Sarah Dessen

Genres: Young Adult, Contemporary, Romance

Rating: 

We make such messes in this life, both accidentally and on purpose. But wiping the surface clean doesn’t really make anything any neater. It just masks what is below. It’s only when you really dig down deep, go underground, that you can see who you really are.

I was having a bit of a crisis.

The other day, I kid you not, I started—and stopped—three books in the same hour. Three. None of them were pulling me in, and it was getting me worried that I was entering a reading slump. Reading slumps are my living hell.

So I reached out for the one author I knew wouldn’t let me down. And, sure enough, she didn’t.

One of my goals in life is to read every one of Sarah Dessen’s books. She was there for me in sixth grade after I’d finished Harry Potter and I had no idea what to do with myself anymore. She’s created her own little pocket of universe, with recurring characters and places in every one, and everything feels so familiar to me that opening up one of her novels is like greeting a long-lost friend.

I’m over halfway through that list of her books, and I can’t wait to finish it.

Mclean’s story is all about change. Her dad is a restaurant consultant, and she’s constantly traveling with him, moving from place to place. In every town, she changes herself, from her name to her appearance, too scared to be herself anymore. When she arrives in Lakeview, she expects the same thing—but her plans start to fall through, and she ends up as Mclean again, even though she doesn’t know who that is.

Anyone who has read one of Sarah Dessen’s books before is familiar with how she writes. It’s like a second language. Her writing flows, and it wraps around the story, her characters, and makes them shockingly real. There’s this indescribable spark that makes it so easy to follow along with the characters’ long, aimless conversations.

“When I was a kid, I was crazy for miniatures.”

            “Miniatures?” I asked.

            “You know, dollhouses and such. I especially loved historical stuff. Tiny re-creations of Revolutionary War cottages, Victorian orphanages. That kind of thing.”

            “Orphanages?” Dave said. 

            “Sure.” She blinked. “What? Anyone can have a dollhouse. I was more creative with my play.”

            “Dave was, too,” I told her. “He was into model trains.”

             “It was not trains,” Dave said, annoyed. “It was war-staging, and very serious.”

            “Oh, I loved war staging!” Deb told him. “That’s how I ended up with all my orphans.”

            I just looked at both of them. “What kind of childhood did you people have?”

Her books never fail to make me smile. They’re uplifting, because underneath is an important message: about yourself, about your family and those you care about. Sarah Dessen reaches matters closest to the heart, and she gets there with stories so relatable, you can’t help but picture yourself in them. I had this experience when I read Saint Anything last year, which remains my favorite of her books. If you’re ever searching for a heartfelt contemporary that will bring you comfort, Sarah Dessen is your woman.

Review: What Angels Fear, by C.S. Harris

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What Angels Fear, by C.S. Harris

Genres: Adult, Historical Fiction, Mystery

Rating: 

The world was full of ugliness, Sebastian knew that; ugliness, and ugly people. But you couldn’t let them win, those men who took what they wanted with never a thought or care for the ones who suffered and died as a result. You could never stop fighting them, never let them think that what they did was right or somehow justified. Never let them triumph unchallenged.

This book is completely outside of my comfort zone. I hardly stray from the YA department – because, of course, it’s the one that’s aimed at my age group – and I tend to cling to fantasy and contemporary. So an Adult historical mystery? Not on my radar. At all.

But I’ve been telling myself, over and over again, that I need to branch out more. Because I’m a closeted history geek with a pull towards English history, I knew that’s where I had to start. I pulled What Angels Fear out from the library shelves and saw that it was also a mystery.

That threw me a little. I love mysteries, but I’m not good with them. I’m extremely impatient and when it comes to books, I love a lot of action. Mysteries are a lot of talking and scheming and not much else, and it drives me nuts. I decided to give it a chance anyway, and I’m glad I did.

This is a fantastic book. I pushed myself past the beginning, which I knew would be slow because mysteries are slow, and it proved worthwhile. It all starts with the death of a young actress named Rachel York, who was raped and savagely murdered in a church in Westminster. The flintlock pistol found at the crime scene points fingers at Sebastian St. Cyr, the Viscount Devlin, and after an accident during his arrest that leaves a constable fatally wounded, Sebastian flees for his life and sets out to find who really killed Rachel York.

What he uncovers is a scandal so shocking, so massive, that it’s hard to believe it was all revealed from the death of one 18-year-old woman. Its roots dig deep into the country of England, who is currently at war with the French, and exposes political motives that will change their country forever.

This book shows England’s uglier side. During this period, England was an empire that towered above the rest. Many Englishmen and women looked down on foreigners, and though they were against slavery in America, they used their own children as slaves, making them hypocrites. Plus, the constables of Queen Square are horrible detectives. Horrible. It’s amazing, really: they moved the body, they didn’t do an autopsy, they assumed time of death, they trampled all over the crime scene, and they could think of no other possible reason for Sebastian’s motive besides, “he just did it.” They also don’t mind falsely condemning a man for a crime just to get it out of the way.

It’s these things that lead Sebastian to open up an investigation of his own, instead of running.

I love Sebastian. While many dismiss Rachel York’s murder because she was, let’s say promiscuous, Sebastian grows from wanting to clear his name to wanting to bring her justice. He can be loving and caring, but also cold and vicious when he needs to intimidate someone. Because he has Bithil Syndrome – which heightens his eyesight and hearing, while also giving him cat-like reflexes – and also due to his experience in the war, he is a very, very deadly man.

This was a wonderful read and also a breath of fresh air. This might just open up a new favorite genre for me.