Saturday, October 31, 2009

The Summer of the Ubume

The Summer of the Ubume

The Summer of the Ubume / Natsuhiko Kyogoku
Ubume no natsu. English
New York : Vertical, 2009
Originally published: 1994
Translated by Alexander O. Smith with Elye J. Alexander
320 p.

A bizarre set of mysteries have befallen the Kuonji household. Kyoko Kuonji is said to be with child for the last twenty months, and her husband Makio disappeared a few months prior to her pregnancy. The odd circumstances have left the family with no one to turn to for help, until a freelance writer asks his exorcist friends to take on the case. The catch -- the exorcist does not believe in ghosts. To Akihiko "Kyogokudo" Chuzenji, the supernatural is as much metaphysical and mental as it is unearthly.

Initially, I picked up this book because it was a Japanese book marked "Mystery/Horror" on the back, so I thought it'd be a cool ghost story with Japanese spirits. And it was to some extent, but not at all the way I expected. There are a lot of good things to say about the novel, but it also has its faults and a certain first-novel roughness.

According to the text before the novel begins, in Japanese folklore when a pregnant woman dies before giving birth, it might give rise to an ubume, the spirit of a woman drenched in blood from the waist down trying to find someone to take her baby. I'd never heard of this before, but it has a lot of great story potential. Then the novel started, and it was about a man who spends lots of time with a sort of friend/mentor/eccentric and their involvement with the case of a man who disappeared from a locked room and the wife he left behind who is said to be 20 months pregnant and unable to give birth.

The eccentric man I mentioned is the driving force of the plot. He is the one who knows about spirits, psychology, and pretty much anything you could want to know, and he pieces together all the clues and solves the mysteries in very long passages of exposition. This book is very talky, and the conversations mostly consist of this character fielding opinions from other characters and telling them why he's right and they're wrong.

That's where this book kind of falters. The character is very obviously spouting the philosophy of the author, like the author had a lot of ideas he wanted to express, so he built a sort of skeleton story around them and used it to illustrate his points. But he makes no bones about it: the author's name is Kyogoku, and the charater who acts as his voice is named Kyogokudo.

But the mystery is definitely intriguing, especially because the opinions of Kyogokudo are so complex and seemingly contradictory. He talks of spirits and works as an exorcist, but he doesn't believe in ghosts. BUT he'll concede that ghosts and curses exist as far as other people believe in them. It's very confusing at first, and the theory he lays out has many holes, but the contradictions work because they leave the reader wondering the whole time whether the story will end with the mundane or the fantastic coming out ahead. The very flaws in the author's worldview give the book a lot of drive, which I don't think was intended.

Either way, since it's a mystery, I can't say much more about the plot. Some parts of the conclusion are extremely far-fetched, but it still makes for interesting reading. If you can suspend your disbelief and prepare yourself for a bit of talky psychological prosthelytizing, you'll probably find this book intriguing. If anything, the authors extensive knowledge of Japanese folklore is impressive, and you'll learn some neat things along the way.

Friday, October 30, 2009

Roald Dahl's Book of Ghost Stories

Roald Dahl's Book of Ghost Stories

Roald Dahl's Book of Ghost Stories.
New York : Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1984
Originally published: 1983
235 p.

Who better to investigate the literary spirit world than the supreme connoisseur of the unexpected, Roald Dahl? Of the many permutations of the macabre, Dahl was always especially fascinated by the classic ghost story. For this superbly disquieting collection, he selected fourteen of his favorite tales by such authors as E. F. Benson, Rosemary Timperley, and Edith Wharton.

Let me start out by saying that this is a fantastic collection of ghost stories. I was very impressed with his selections. The story is that Roald Dahl and some other dudes wanted to create a TV miniseries of ghost stories, so he read hundreds upon hundreds of the things, many of which were crap, and selected his very favorites. The miniseries never happened, so years later he compiled this book.

It starts with a really great introduction by Dahl talking about his experience exploring the genre and some of the things he learned. Definitely not one of those introductions you should skip over. Then come the stories.

There are too many for me to go through all of them, and I even have too many favorite for me to list them all without this going on and on, so I'm going to go the opposite route and keep it very short.

Basically what I enjoy about these stories is something that Dahl points out in the introduction, which is that in most of the best ghost stories, you never actually see the ghost. That's definitely true in most (not all) of these. As a result, while the ghosts are very often disturbing and creepy, the most haunting characters are the living, not the dead. One of the shortest and best stories in this is called "The Telephone" in which a man desperately makes phone calls to the ghost of his dead wife. It's told from the his new partner's perspective, so there's still this distance from the spirit, and the story is primarily about the man.

So not all the ghosts in this story are malevolent. A couple are bent on revenge, but there are also the ghosts of friendly children, lost loves, and a couple of Obvious Metaphor ghosts in the mix. The stories are mostly from the turn of the 20th century through the 1950's, so they've all got a sort of classic feel to them. This is definitely a collection worth owning and one I'll come back to.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

The Murders in the Rue Morgue and Other Stories

Murders in the Rue Morgue

The Murders in the Rue Morgue and Other Stories / Edgar Allan Poe.
Köln : Könemann, 1995
310 p.

The portrait painted by an artist robs his sitter of her life. A jester dwarf takes terrible revengo on the king and his court. The Red Death stalks the chambers of Prince Prospero. The razor-edged pendulum swings lower towards a prisoner of the Inquisition. And Montresor takes Fortunato to a dank Roman cellarage, to taste an Amontillado...

Ten of Edgar Allan Poe's great tales of horror, jeopardy and death, and the four classic tales with which he created a new genre, the detective story: 'The Gold-Bug', 'The Murders in the Rue Morgue', 'The Mystery of Marie Rogêt' and 'The Purloined Letter'.

Ok, so everybody knows who Edgar Allan Poe is, everybody thinks of him as that quintessential creepy author, and everybody can recite the opening lines to that poem from the Simpsons Halloween special. So believe me when I say that it is with great trepidation that I make the following statement:

Wow, guys, I really don't care at all for this dude's short stories.

I'll start at the beginning. The desire to read his short stories was first planted when I was in college taking a course called Opera on the U.S. Stage Since 1950. We watched this crappy old VHS copy of a very cool opera called "Ligeia", which was based on Poe's story of the same name. I loved the opera primarily for the story, which I found to be one of the smartest, most creepy and haunting stories I'd ever known.

So when I came across this collection in a used bookstore with "Ligeia" in it, it was a no-brainer. I finally read it this month, and that was definitely my favorite story of the bunch for all the same reasons I liked the opera.

Of the other stories, I also enjoyed "The Pit and the Pendulum" and "Hop-Frog" quite a bit. And to a lesser extent, "The Cask of Amontillado". The other ones just didn't do it for me. I divided them into two camps: "The Creepy" and "Those Mystery Ones".

The Creepy bunch bothered me because, yes, I understand that Poe was touching on some deep psychological ideas, but that's really all he did... touch on them. These are things that have since been taken and expanded upon such that the original ideas presented so tersely here do not really hold up. And people talk about recurring themes in these stories, one of which is the death and rebirth of a beautiful woman. The stories "Morella", "Ligeia", "Berenice", and "Eleonora" all fit this, but it's not just a recurring theme. It's a recurring plot. I felt like he was telling the same story over and over with minor variation. "Really? She was pretty? How pretty? Wow, that's pretty. Oh, she died? Crap. Don't worry, she'll be back. See, here come her teeth now!"

Those Mystery Ones I had a lot less tolerance for, perhaps because they were at the end of the collection. Spoiler alert, by the way, I'm about to give away the ending to one. Basically Poe would set up a murder mystery and then solve it. I understand that these are sort of proto-mystery stories, but they were so dryly presented. First the scene, then the facts quoted from false newspaper articles and then the solution. Here's the spoiler: The murders in the Rue Morgue were committed by an angry monkey. REALLY, Eddy? A monkey? The best part of these mysteries is how they can be solved in mundane ways. It's like reading a 400-page locked-room mystery novel to have the last page say "MAGIC IS REAL IT WAS SNAPE!"

But I get it. I see why these stories have lasted so long and the impact they've had on gothic and detective fiction. Really. I just don't see them as something I'd ever pick up again with the exception of the ones I mentioned liking.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Sad Destiny

I know I haven't been around much lately. I haven't been reading much. All very sad.

But even sadder is that I was hoping to make a big comeback today by participating in Dewey's 24-Hour-Read-a-Thon, for which I was super excited. I cleared out my weekend, stocked up on easy-to-prepare food, and bought a bunch of short books to read including the first Gossip Girl novel.

But yesterday I got a message. Somebody is visiting from Germany, but at the last second, his accommodations fell through. The person he was staying with had to go on a surprise business trip.

You may not know this about me, but I have a strict personal rule about not letting anyone including my worst enemy stay in a Brooklyn hostel with ten people sleeping in one room and open showers and probably scabies all over. This German is definitely not my worst enemy, but he is also not somebody I've ever met before. So instead of read-a-thoning, I am playing host and tour guide this weekend to a sort-of stranger. On the plus side, so far it's been absolutely great!

Anyway I hope you guys are having a way lot of fun! If any of you are reading Gossip Girl, maybe you can dedicate an hour to me. If 24 of you are reading Gossip Girl and you all dedicate an hour to me, maybe I'll feel like I participated. Happy Reading!

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Wondrous Word Wednesday: Skipped Last Two Months Edition

Hosted by Bermuda Onion, the point of this meme is to share all the new words you came across this week. Yay!


Hi. I'm back.

To start, these are from Roald Dahl's Book of Ghost Stories, which I have finished and will review soon. Specifically, they're from a story called "Afterward" by Edith Wharton.


espalier -- a tree or shrub that is trained to grow in a flat plane against a wall, often in a symmetrical pattern

cote -- a small shed or shelter for sheep or birds

She went first to the kitchen garden, where the espaliered pear trees drew complicated patterns on the walls, and pigeons were fluttering and preening about the silvery-slated roof of their cote.

The next are from The Female Quixote by Charlotte Lennox, review also forthcoming.

assiduity -- constant personal attention and often obsequious solicitude

As the Marquis's Indisposition increased, so did her Care and Assiduity: She would not allow any one to give him any thing but herself...

Yeah, they do the German "capitalize every Noun" thing in this Book and it gets sort of distracting. But I like it.

rodomontade -- pretentiously boastful or bragging

I can't but think, cried Sir Charles, laughing, how poor Dolly must be surprised at such a rhodomontade Speech!

Yeah, and they italicize proper names. Helpful. n.b. Rhodomontade is an alternate spelling.

And the last three are from The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman by Laurence Sterne. Review NOT forthcoming because I'm only 30 pages in and this one is big.

spavin -- enlargement of the hock of a horse by a bony growth (bony spavin) or fluid accumulation in the joint (bog spavin), usually caused by inflammation or injury, and often resulting in lameness

... the upshot of which was generally this, that his horse was either clapped, or spavined, or greazed; or he was twitter-boned, or broken-winded, or something, in short, or other had befallen him, which would let him carry no flesh...

To find out why this is an upshot, you can buy the book and read the impossibly-long sentence yourself.

rectitude -- moral uprightness; righteousness

But there is a fatality attends the actions of some men. Order them as they will, they pass thro' a certain medium, which so twists and refracts them from their true directions--that, with all the titles to praise which a rectitude of heart can give, the doers of them are nevertheless forced to live and die without it.

lambent -- effortlessly light or brilliant

Yorick's last breath was hanging upon his trembling lips ready to depart as he uttered this: yet still it was uttered with something of a Cervantick tone; and as he spoke it, Eugenius could perceive a stream of lambent fire lighted up for a moment in his eyes; faint picture of those flashes of his spirit, which (as Shakespeare said of his ancestor) were wont to set the table in a roar!

Lovely, yes?

Monday, October 5, 2009



Kwaidan: Stories and Studies of Strange Things / Lafcadio Hearn
Boston : Tuttle, 2005
Originally published: 1904
xv, 240 p.

In this collection of unforgettably haunting stories, Hearn brings together "the meeting of three ways" -- the austere dreams of India, the subtle beauty of Japan, and the relentless science of the Western world.

Ok I read this like a month ago, so bear with me through a sort of hazy recollection. These aren't the sort of stories that stick out in your memory because of excessive strangeness or creepiness. These also aren't the sort of strange or creepy stories you'd expect to find in a collection that advertises itself as such. The "ghosts" in these ghosts stories are not always spirits of the departed, but nature spirits, memories, or demons of Japanese folklore.

The stories vary in length and level of engagement. Some, like "Mujina", are a little "Are You Afraid of the Dark?" for my taste. In Mujina -- and I'm paraphrasing here -- a guy sees a scary demon woman on the road. He runs away and then he sees a scary demon man. The end. It doesn't really do much.

Other stories, however, bear themes of tradition, trust, revenge, and loss that make them much more powerful and give them that ineffable "Japanese" quality. "The Story of Mimi-nashi Hōichi" is about a blind biwa player summoned by spirits to sing the passage from Tale of the Heike regarding their emperor's downfall. Like ghosts from many cultures, these spirits were mourning the loss of the past, but not in a selfish or vengeful way. When a priest who follows the biwa player on the second night of his recitation realizes he is in the spirits' thrall, he aims to protect the man by painting him with symbols to ward off the spirits. He neglects to write on the man's ears, however, and so they are the only part the spirits can find, so they rip them off to bring them to the emperor. (Don't ask me why; when I'm a Japanese samurai ghost maybe I'll be able to explain it.) Anyway, the suffering of the biwa player in this story comes from the priest's distrust and negligence. Maybe it's because I've read The Tale of the Heike, but the sympathetic characters in this story other than the biwa player are the departed spirits.

My other favorite story in the collection is about a yuki-onna, a snow spirit woman, who spares the life of a beautiful young man after killing his companion on a snowy night. She swears him to secrecy on pain of death and disappears. Years later, the man marries a familiar-looking young woman, they have babies and live happily, but one day he can keep her resemblance out of his mind, so he begins to tell his wife the story of his encounter with the yuki-onna. Wonders behold, his wife IS the yuki-onna, and now she's pissed he broke his promise. She says she can't kill him because he is raising her children, but she melts into a puddle and disappears from his life forever.

The stories are folktales, which is a genre in which we expect to find fantastic creatures and events. That's why it feels awkward to call them "stories and studies of strange things". But the title is a holdover from the Victorian era when this was originally published, and back then, the entire culture of East Asia was strange and fantastical. These stories and the spirits and creatures they describe have a much less alien feel than I imagine they had a century ago.

Oh, I forgot, following the stories, the edition also contains some essays Hearn wrote on bugs: butterflies, mosquitos, and ants. He talks about their role in Japanese culture and literature. I read part of the butterfly one and got bored. So... whatever.

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