Rashomon & Other Stories

Today I am recommending Rashomon & Other Stories by Ryunosuke Akutagawa. This collection holds six short stories by Akutagawa. The title story “Rashomon” has become widely recognized because of the movie of the same name first released in 1950. However, the movie follows the storyline of a different short story titled “In a Grove,” which is also found in this collection. Akutagawa was considered the “Father of the Japanese short story.” Many of his works have inspired movies and he wrote well over 100 stories before his untimely death in 1927 at the age of 35.

The six stories in this collection are: “In a Grove” “Rashomon” “Yam Gruel” “The Martyr” “Kesa and Morito” and “The Dragon.” I first encountered Akutagawa’s work during my MFA program. We read “In a Grove,” which I think is the stronger story in this collection. It is a great example of Akutagawa’s work and sets the tone for many of the other stories. It is also a great example of what fiction can do and I recommend it to all writers who may be unfamiliar with his work. After all, it is used in many educational settings and has inspired several movies with it’s simple yet complicated storytelling.

These stories are not traditional stories that follow a structured plot and have happy endings. The main characters tend to be the forgotten or downtrodden who are overlooked or mocked despite holding high positions. Though I wasn’t alive at the end of the 19th century (though I did get to see the end of the 20th), I can see through these stories the strife Akutagawa felt during his own time. I believe a great short story keeps you thinking long after it ends. Most of these do just that. Despite their often strong critique of humanity and status quo, some of them end with a tinge of hope.

Some of these stories may not sit well with you. Others may make you wonder what times were like 100 years ago, and yet others may make you see that certain societal problems have existed for a long time. These six stories span roughly 100 pages and can be read all at once or picked up here and there. This may be outside of your usual reading bubble, but that’s a good thing. Give it a try. You may love it or you may hate it. You will probably learn something nonetheless.

Happy Reading.

The Once and Future King

Today I am recommending The Once and Future King by T.H. White. This book is actually a collection of four books. The first being The Sword in the Stone which was turned into and animated film by Walt Disney in 1963. This first book was originally published in 1938 (Beyond the first book, I’d say this novel is not particularly for kids as war and fighting and sex and death are, for the most part, shielded from the eyes of children). The collection of all four into The Once and Future King was published in 1958.

This recommendation does come with a few reservations. I enjoyed the lengthy novel (roughly 650 pages and nearing 300,000 words) which is centered around the Arthurian tales, but I’m afraid I may have come to it with a slight case of expectations. I know, I know, it is best to remove all expectations prior to experiencing a story so as to allow yourself to form your own opinion of it. I was planning on doing just that but seemed to have caught the little bug, which flew to me upon the words of Ursula K. Le Guin and Neil Gaiman as well as others who provided blurbs or introductions to this book. People whose opinions hold weight with me.

I understand their love for the book. The wit-filled pages that recount Arthur’s education and inauguration as king to his formation of the round table and the era of chivalry and through the years beyond where if falls into ruin. The story is interesting and entertaining. Some areas drag while others are captivating. It stays true to what is known about the legends (which most of us know of but may have never really read about) and White often refers to Mallory or other sources of the Arthurian legend. I felt that White relied on the reader having previous knowledge of the legend during certain passages.

The more I think about the story the more I like it, but I was not enthralled while actively reading it. White was funny and whimsical while also covering the darker story-lines and allowing tragedy. There are no detailed descriptions of fights or battles or hardships. Many are written without providing action but do provide some detail about the aftermath. The result is no blood and gore (which is perfectly acceptable and not really essential to the story) but plenty of description about scenery and the lands of England. The story of Arthur and his knights has captivated the world for centuries. I believe his story and legend will survive for a long time and White’s telling of it will continue to entertain. After all, it is written for modern audiences and doesn’t take itself too seriously.

The greatest thing about this book is its arching storyline of how England, through Arthur, was shifted from the “Might is Right” society to a more civilized land of laws. The tragedy of Arthur is in his good deeds. He transforms England into a peaceful land by channeling baser human instincts into a morally superior lifestyle. The new lifestyle is what ultimately causes the personal turmoil of the aged Arthur because he ties his own hands against saving the ones he loves.

If you are interested in, or already love, the Arthurian tales, then this book will likely be of great interest to you. If you know a little but would like to know more about these tales, then this book is a great place to start.

Happy Reading.

Book Recommendation – Good Omens

Today I am recommending Good Omens by Neil Gaiman & Terry Pratchett. The story (subtitled The Nice and Accurate Prophecies of Agnes Nutter, Witch) follows approximately three main characters: the angel Aziraphale, the demon Crowley, and the Anti-Christ aptly named Adam. Crowley has been tasked with ensuring the Anti-Christ is raised to accomplish what he was born to do. However, Crowley has grown quite fond of Earth and humans and decidedly isn’t 100% behind Armageddon. Neither is Aziraphale, who has also grown quite fond of Earth and humans as well. Crowley and Aziraphale have both been on Earth since its beginning and long ago came to an agreement not to prevent the other from doing their jobs. An agreement that would make them something close to friends. The result is a delightfully humorous book about the end of the world.

This book is technically the first book of fiction I’ve read by Terry Pratchett (I’ve read many of Neil Gaiman’s books). I have yet to read any of his Discworld books and have only read one collection of non-fiction that came out shortly after he passed away, but I’ve always known Terry as a fantasy-comedy writer and he does not disappoint in this collaboration.

I was recently lucky enough to see Neil Gaiman in person where he read an excerpt of this book and talked about how it was written and the agreements he made with Terry regarding the adaptation of the book into film. You can tell that Neil misses him terribly as any good friend would miss another good friend. The book came out in 1990 and has been adapted into a television series scheduled to premiere later this year, so I’m sure you will be seeing more about it in the future.

The characters of Crowley and Aziraphale were incredibly fun and, though fundamentally at opposition, they make the business of influencing humans toward good and evil extremely entertaining. They have fun and you can’t help but have fun too. Yes, there is some absurd moments, but you must have a little absurdity to have a comical Armageddon. After all, they are discussing the ineffable.

Though I am not a religious man, I am curious about the “powers that be” in the bible and the supernatural elements of the stories it contains. If you like to laugh and aren’t put off by two English guys telling a witty, rapturous story that borders on blasphemy, then you will absolutely enjoy this book. I know I did.

Happy Reading.

 

Last Book Recommendation of the Week

This week’s book recommendation is The Time Machine by H.G. Wells. I thought it fitting to make this the last recommendation of the year (and last of the weekly recommendations). The book is in itself a time machine as most books are. It was originally published in 1895, but holds up well in 2018. Of course, the language is a little dated but not so much to cause difficulty in reading. It may even increase your vocabulary as several words in it aren’t commonly used anymore.

It is still an entertaining book. Enough so that it has been made into movies as recently as 2002. I’m sure in 1895 this book would have been considered outlandish, entertaining, and even frightening, but today I’m afraid it would seem just another story. There is an enormous amount of science fiction today that includes time travel. However, this story is the first mention of the concept (I would be more than happy if someone proved me wrong here). It is always interesting to go back and read books like this that seem to be an integral building block to one of today’s most popular fictional subjects. As a writer, it is also interesting to read what had inspired other writers throughout the years. You begin to notice similarities the more you read whether they may be intentional or not.

Time travel has always been of interest to me because it is very hard to pull off in terms of making it believable or at least practical. There is always a chance missing a small incongruity that ends up debunking the whole concept. These are often in the form of paradoxes but sometimes can just be continuity errors. Either way, they bring in doubt which greatly weakens the story.

H.G. Wells was very clever when he wrote this story because he made it simple with no complicated processes that could easily have initiated such an error. He introduces the machine itself without diving into the technical aspects about how it works (a technique often used by Christopher Nolan in many of his films). He does so in a way that makes it simply believable. We don’t need to get to the nitty-gritty. We just want to see what happens next. Wells then has the traveler go so far into the future that no one could ever refute what happens in the story. Too many time-travel stories make the mistake of setting the future to within one or two generations which quickly dates them, such as Back to the Future. In this book, the character travels hundreds of thousands of years. The world we see through the time traveler (since that is all we know him by) is one that is, for all we know, plausible.

Through clever writing and an engaging narrative despite several dated terms and a standard Victorian structure, The Time Machine holds up for modern audiences. It is shorter at around 120 pages and broken up into 12 chapters, which allows you to break up the reading if you don’t want to read it all in one go.

Happy Reading.

Burden of Prominence

Sashi was growing tired of her reputation. Even in her self-imposed exile she was visited by a new challenger once a week, and every week she dug a new grave. Becoming the greatest swordsman, in her case swordswoman, was her dream since she was a child. She’d practiced throughout her life, defying her family’s wishes, until she achieved it. Her sword became a part of her. She could survive on her blade alone, and she has done so for the past twelve years.

The emperor’s tournament was where her dream began to sour. Her reputation as a swordswoman was vaguely known in her village, but it was enough for her nomination when the messengers came. She traveled to the capital with excitement, ready to show everyone her swordsmanship, but she was ill-prepared for what was to come. She watched the first match from the fighter’s box. She remembered trying to focus on the fight, but kept stealing glances at the emperor and his elaborate throng of guards. She imagined herself among them. A round of applause had returned her attention to the fight or rather the end of it. The winner was bowing to the emperor while the other lay dead as servants came to drag him away and clean the blood before the next fight. Sashi never looked at the emperor again.

She had entered the tournament believing it would follow the rules of sparring and not decided on fatal blows. After all, what was the purpose of a tournament of swords if only one skilled warrior remained? It was a waste. Sashi had not yet drawn her blade with the intent to kill, but she now knew she must if she were to survive.

Many of the other fighters wielded swords or axes. A few fought with weapons she had never seen before. Many wore armor of either leather or wood. Sashi wore only her grey kimono. She had brought nothing else believing only her sword was needed for these fights. She still believed this but was thankful she had forgone the more elegant kimono she considered wearing in the emperor’s presence. Her grey kimono allowed her full range of motion.

The large men in the fighter’s box believed she was lost and threw her out. She continued watching the tournament with the local peasants in the standing area until her name was called. She entered the fighting ground and was greeted with silence before laughter erupted. Her heart swiftly, as a bird’s after a long flight. The laughter died at the emperor’s gesture and her contender was announced. A large boulder of a man entered wielding a flail nearly as big as she was. One spike would be enough to end her.

The fight began. Sashi dodged the flail and delivered her first cut on the man’s waist just below his armor. It was shallow, barely drawing blood. He grunted and swung again as he turned on her. She was caught off guard and had to dive to escape being impaled. She dodged again and gained her footing. Her enemy was slow but powerful. She would need to rely on her speed and her reach to sneak beneath the man’s armor if she were to stand a chance. She had to draw out the fight and use her superior stamina to her advantage. She used her small cuts to instigate the large man into attacking. He grew tired as the seconds went by. She maintained her efforts and delivered cut after cut. Each one increased the man’s rage and efforts until he was thoroughly spent. Her final cut, though shallow, was still enough to sever the carotid artery.

She fought six more men before she was proclaimed champion in the silence of the arena. The emperor did not acknowledge her victory, and the crowds left disappointed. Sashi went back to her village with the fortune awarded to her hoping to leave the tournament behind. Then the first challenger approached. He came to the village claiming to be the brother of one of her victims int he arena. He further claimed dishonesty was the only explanation for her ability to defeat her brother. She dismissed the claim knowing the truth but accepted his challenge. She defeated him in three blows. When he failed to yield, she delivered a fourth and made his men carry his body back to be buried with his brother.

Three months passed and five more warriors challenged her. Sashi moved to the outskirts of her village where she could face the challengers without causing further trouble for her family. Her reputation spread across the country with every warrior she defeated, and more came to test her skills and prove her reputation was a deceit. Two years passed before her blade proved her reputation as genuine. Then the number of challengers increased. Each one hoping to defeat the greatest swordsman and claim the title for themselves. It was then that she moved to the island of the crescent moon in the southern sea.

Twelve years passed and countless challengers still made their way to her small island to claim their glory. She defeated every one of them. At times she felt her island held more graves than grains of sand. She was alone and surrounded by death. She was growing tired. Her dream had become her cage. Then the emperor’s messenger came.

A new tournament was to be held. As the greatest swordsman, she was expected to attend and again prove herself. She left her island for the first time in over a decade. She wore a grey kimono and brought only her wooden training sword. Her steel blade remained behind on the island where it would become its own legend.

She entered the arena to a hushed silence. No laughter followed this time. Only a deep respect and a tinge of fear filled the air. Her first opponent was eager but fear undid him as her wooden blade cracked his skull and he fell. She fought again and again without rest and without defeat. It seems the emperor had hosted the tournament with the sole purpose of usurping her reputation and grant her title to a new warrior, even if he did not prove worthy of it.

When no warriors remained, she returned to her island expecting many new challengers to approach her. A month passed without a single one. Then a year. She hoped one might come who would want to learn from her. Someone she would pass her title to. She spent the rest of her days waiting for a warrior who would best her. None ever came.