"A room without books is like a body without a soul." - Marcus Tullius Cicero

Friday, 31 May 2013

The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman

The Yellow Wallpaper is an unsettling, creepy and alarming short story with commentaries on the treatment of mental health, controlling husbands and womankind’s right to freedom. Our nameless narrator has been commanded by her physician-husband to rest, and for the most part she is confined to her bedroom which is covered in ugly yellow wallpaper - wallpaper she begins to obsess over, thinking the pattern looks like a woman trapped behind bars.

The narrative takes the part of clandestine diary entries by the protagonist; she longs to write but is prevented from doing so by her husband, who thinks this would be too stressful for her. The diary entries reveal a gradual descent into insanity as she is kept in the house, her insistence that she is genuinely ill being ignored by her husband who is certain that her blues will dissipate if she has some rest. As such, the situation escalates to a shocking finale. One way in which her deteriorating mind is exemplified is the way that she starts the novella with a strong hatred of the wallpaper, but grows to like it:

“The color is repellent, almost revolting: a smouldering unclean yellow, strangely faded by the slow-turning sunlight.”
“I'm getting really fond of the room in spite of the wallpaper. Perhaps because of the wallpaper.”

The Yellow Wallpaper is an excellent, brilliantly written short story which has a powerful message about feminism, the ignorance of mental health issues, and the importance of freedom. It is often viewed as feminist work, but it is just as much about psychology. The narrator’s deterioration is unsettling and poignant, and her communication to the reader through rushed diary entries is effective in demonstrating her mental state. This is a disturbing, intelligent story that everyone should read. 

Rating: 9/10

Monday, 27 May 2013

Grotesque by Natsuo Kirino

Grotesque is a bleak Japanese crime novel set in Tokyo. Our unreliable and unnamed narrator (the closest she gets to a name is “Yuriko’s older sister”) recounts her childhood with Yuriko - her unnervingly beautiful younger sister and enemy - and a school friend, Kazue, both of whom had turned to prostitution. The pair has recently been found murdered, separately but presumably by the same killer. 

I loved Grotesque; I liked it even more than Out, Kirino’s better known and more popular novel. Grotesque is an intelligent, dark and angry novel, with an intriguing story and complex characters. I disliked all of the characters in Out, although the plot was a little more action packed and exciting. Grotesque has a lot to say about the role of women in the very business-oriented man’s world of Japan; this book definitely has a strong feminist aspect, focusing on the concept that the only way women can advance in the world and gain power over men is to use their beauty and sex: 

“For a girl, appearance can be a powerful form of oppression. No matter how intelligent a girl may be, no matter her many talents, these attributes are not easily discerned. Brains and talent will never stand up against a girl who is clearly physically attractive.” 
“In order to induce the process of decay, water is necessary. I think that, in the case of women, men are the water.”

“Yuriko’s older sister” is not a nice character – she’s cold, complicated and bitter. She’s unhinged but this makes her a fascinating narrator. As readers, we are not held hostage by the protagonist’s warped view of the world for the entirety of the novel; it changes to the perspectives of three other characters, which helps to shed light on the character of the protagonist, as well as allowing us to piece together the mystery of the murders. Near the beginning we have Yuriko’s diary entries, then later an account written by the so-called murderer, a Chinese man named Zhang, and towards the end we are made privy to Kazue’s diary.

Grotesque is well worth a read for anyone who enjoys crime novels and thrillers, as well as those with an interest in Japanese culture. It’s a touch slow in some parts, but other than that is a well written, intriguing, poignant and intelligent novel. Grotesque’s conclusion is dark and bleak; it left a profound sense of hopelessness hanging over me which both astounded and saddened me. 

Rating: 9/10

Saturday, 18 May 2013

Christine by Stephen King

“The thing in the street no longer looked like a human being; it looked like a scattered bundle of rags.”

Christine follows the slow degeneration of geeky 17 year old Arnie Cunningham after he purchases a beat up old ’58 Plymouth Fury named Christine. Everyone around Arnie can sense the evil emanating off of his beloved new car – everyone except for Arnie himself. But you don’t want to upset Christine, or you might just end up as little more than dog food.

When I read Christine for the first time a few years ago, it really surprised me. The idea of a demonic car driving around murdering people sounded very cheesy and a bit stupid to me, and so I avoided reading Christine for a long time. However, the novel manages to appropriately balance outlandish supernatural elements with convincing portrayals of teenage life, to the point where the ‘alive’ and murderous car doesn’t seem silly at all. Christine’s saviour is that it is about so much more than the Plymouth Fury and the evil lurking within. It focuses on the breakdown of relationships – between boyfriend and girlfriend, parents and children, and most of all between best friends. The Plymouth Fury could be replaced by any corrupting influence that might lead someone astray, such as drugs, and although you wouldn’t have the awesome and gruesome car murders, the essence of the story would remain intact. It is this realistic and relatable aspect which grounds the novel in reality and prevents it from becoming an over-the-top supernatural gore-fest.

Christine is a character focused novel, and the characters are believable and very well written. Arnie is a stereotypical geek; he has acne, he’s a member of the chess club, he lacks self confidence and is a prime target for the school bullies. He’s very sweet and lovely though, making the transformation of his character throughout the novel heart-rending. Dennis is Arnie’s best friend and our narrator for the majority of the novel. He is typical jock character – handsome, popular with women and good at sports. He is realistic and flawed, making mistakes due to his youthful exuberance. Arnie’s parents are brilliant at portraying the heartbreak over the distinct change for the worse in their bright, college-bound son.

The narration is somewhat unusual. Parts one and three are narrated by Dennis, who is recounting the events of 1978-79 four years later. Part two is a third person perspective, meaning you witness first hand Christine’s grisly murders, and are able to get inside the heads of the other characters. This might sound odd but it works very well and the switch to third person is necessary – mainly, of course, in order to witness Christine turning people into mulch; these parts are very well described and gory.

Christine is my favourite Stephen King novel and quite possibly my favourite horror novel. The writing is exceptional, the characters are authentic and although it is quite long (my copy was 749 pages but with rather large text) a good pace is maintained throughout. I’m not normally one for pervasive supernatural overtones but the delivery in Christine is pitched just right, never once overstepping the mark into the ridiculous. Furthermore, it is actually scary – when Christine sets her sights on someone, they are not going to survive; her heavy body will churn you into lumpy mincemeat (and don’t think staying indoors will save you!). If I saw a red and white ’58 Plymouth Fury in the street, I can safely say that I would swiftly turn in the opposite direction.

Rating: 10/10

My other Stephen King reviews:

Wednesday, 8 May 2013

Almost Transparent Blue by Ryu Murakami

Written when Ryu Murakami was still in college, this dark, stomach-churning and more or less plotless novel won him the prestigious Akutagawa prize in 1976. Almost Transparent Blue follows a group of disillusioned Japanese youths burning themselves out in a dangerous sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle near an American army base, watching their lives go by in unnerving passivity.

The quote on the cover of Almost Transparent Blue claims that the novel is “a Japanese mix of A Clockwork Orange and L’Étranger.” Since A Clockwork Orange is one of my favourite books, this statement encouraged me to read it. However, it is nothing like either of those intelligent novels; I’ll grant some similarity with L’Étranger in the protagonist’s existential realisation that there must be more to life than orgies and heroin - it sure takes a genius to figure that out, right? However it does not have the same punch in this area as L’Étranger, which explores existential philosophy in a much more intelligent manner and is not plagued by an abundance of graphic sex, vomit and drugs. 

I really like Ryu Murakami; I have enjoyed all of his novels that I’ve read so far - In the Miso Soup, Coin Locker Babies, and Piercing. However, his debut novel is a piece designed to shock and disgust, with little of value hidden beneath the grime and filth. The first event which transpires is that the protagonist - Ryu - nearly dies from a heroin overdose, and the first half of this short novel (it is only 128 pages), is a crazy mess of orgies described in painstaking, nasty detail and incessant drug use, and every activity usually ends in the violent expulsion of various bodily fluids. On top of this, attention paid to dead insects and festering food lend the novel an overall feel of dirtiness and poor hygiene. It is so disgusting that I felt nauseous reading some of these earlier parts; it is gratuitous to the extent that once the initial repulsion abates it becomes tiresome to read such scenes.

The second half is better: it’s very dreamlike and the language Murakami uses changes (for the most part) from focusing on the precise recollection of vomit and semen to rich descriptions of bizarre details that Ryu notices around him; for example he is preoccupied with the various colours of blood that leak out of bugs when squished. Sometimes it’s a little hard to know what is real, and some speech isn’t contained within speech marks; both of which add to the hallucinogenic quality of the writing which is actually quite beautiful. 

If you have already read Almost Transparent Blue and were similarly repulsed then don’t be put off trying some other of Ryu Murakami’s works. He is a great author and his other novels aren’t as relentlessly gross as this one; he does a brilliant job of tearing apart the idealistic image of Japan that many people hold to reveal the dark underbelly. Nonetheless, there is something about Almost Transparent Blue which prevented me from completely disliking it. It has a certain power and Murakami’s skill with language is astounding. It has a lot to say about the American influence on post-war Japan and is at its core a brutal tale of lost youth which is rather poignant. Unfortunately this deeper side to the novel is a bit lost behind the murk of debauched sex, dirty needles and bodily fluids; the shock factor overpowers the deeper meaning of the book, making it a difficult novel to like.

Rating: 4/10

My other Ryu Murakami reviews: