Review: Murder in the Age of Enlightenment by Ryūnosuke Akutagawa

book cover: murder in the age of enlightenment

Murder in the Age of Enlightenment: Essential Stories is a collection of seven stories by Ryūnosuke Akutagawa. While the titular story is my least favorite, its title suits the collection well as each story hinges on death—either murder or suicide. On the whole, it’s an excellent collection of creative and disquieting fiction. The following stories are included.

“The Spider’s Thread”
A short fable with a lesson on compassion.

“In a Grove”
I first read this story in a Japanese Literature course over a decade ago. It had everyone up and chatting at 9 a.m., which is a tremendous endorsement because 9 a.m. classes were always a little sleepy. In this story, a body is found in the woods and multiple people are interviewed to identify the killer. In an unusual twist, each person claims to be the guilty party and each confesses a different motive. This story is the basis of Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon, and is a true classic.

“Hell Screen”
This story is about a painter commissioned to create an image of Hell. The painter, Yoshihide, goes to increasingly disturbing lengths to create his masterpiece. While Yoshihide is a fairly unnuanced character, and the outcome is obvious, I admire Akutagawa’s ability to describe things that are so horrific as to be indescribable. The way he depicts the screen with its graphic depictions of Hell and suffering is genuinely eerie.

“Murder in the Age of Enlightenment”
Despite being the titular story, this was my least favorite. The way its characters are written feels dated and dry, but I don’t think it’s the fault of the writer or translator, per se. It doesn’t help that the action is narrated in retrospect from a letter, in which a man laments his unrequited love and vacillates between love and hate for his rival.

“The General”
I had to read this story twice because it’s so different in style from the others. Rather than a conventional story with a beginning, middle, and end, “The General” is a series of snapshots that gradually reveal a character set against a wartime backdrop.

“Madonna in Black”
Another unsettling story. This story details the curious events around a statuette of the Virgin Mary—Maria-Kannon. Unlike other figurines, this one is carved from ebony and wears a cruel smile instead of the usual look of benevolence.

By far the strongest and most interesting story in the collection. The narrator—who is at least partially based on Akutagawa himself—is invited to a wedding and becomes increasingly unsettled by a number of hallucinations and coincidences. As he becomes more anxious, the parallels that he sees between objects and events grow increasingly tenuous. It’s hard not to connect the narrator’s discomfort and misery to Akutagawa himself because “Cogwheels” was written shortly before his own suicide. Regardless of how autobiographical this story actually is, the last paragraph lands with disturbing weight when set against the author’s death.

Overall: 4.6 (out of 5.0) I don’t think it’s fair to hold old fiction to modern standards, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that women aren’t well-represented here. They’re largely voiceless and often victims. I don’t expect to see women in roles with agency they’d be unlikely to have at the time these stories were written, but it’d be nice if they had more dimension.

NB: This book was provided for review by the publisher, Pushkin Press.

Image credit: Goodreads

20 Books of Summer 2021!

I begin each year with renewed passion for reading and reviewing, but this energy usually craters by summer. For years now, the 20 Books of Summer challenge hosted by Cathy at 746books has been a lifeline back to regular blogging. While I can occasionally read 20 books in a summer, I’ve never succeeded in reviewing 20. So let’s try it again. The seventh time is the charm!

Taking lessons from past years, I’ve pulled books from a variety of lists: Pulitzer winners, Booker nominees, and a few stops on my Reading World Tour. There are also a few from my Classics Club list, which is new this year. In past challenges, I included titles that I wasn’t thrilled about as a way to cross them off my TBR, but found that adding a deadline doesn’t necessarily make a book more appealing.

  1. Bel Canto by Ann Patchett
  2. The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz
  3. Chronicle of a Death Foretold by Gabriel Garcia Marquez
  4. The Crimson Petal and the White by Michel Faber
  5. Dandelion Wine by Ray Bradbury
  6. Death with Interruptions by José Saramago
  7. Ficciones by Jorge Luis Borges
  8. A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain by Robert Olen Butler
  9. Guards! Guards! by Terry Pratchett
  10. Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
  11. Human Acts by Han King
  12. King Solomon’s Mines by H. Rider Haggard
  13. The Lathe of Heaven by Ursula K. LeGuin
  14. The Lodger by Marie Belloc Lowndes
  15. The Mirror Crack’d from Side to Side by Agatha Christie
  16. The Once and Future King by T.H. White
  17. Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller
  18. Super Cannes by J.G. Ballard
  19. A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki
  20. A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan

The total page count is quite high—6,841 according to Goodreads. I gave consideration to length, and waffled on the two longest (The Once and Future King and The Crimson Petal and the White). I read the former as a kid and remember it as quick and entertaining; as for the latter, I’ve read other books by Michel Faber in a single sitting.

I’m continuing the tradition of reading a Miss Marple every summer. And Guards! Guards! made the list because I’ve never read a book by Terry Pratchett, despite everyone telling me to.

I was going to hold a spot for the winner of the International Booker, but decided to wait when I saw The Dangers of Smoking in Bed was shortlisted because there’s a chance I’ve already read the winner. I want a good book to win after last year’s The Discomfort of Evening, which was so awful as to be low-key traumatic.

Happy Reading, and I hope you all have a wonderful summer!

Image credit: Goodreads

Review: There’s No Such Thing as an Easy Job by Kikuko Tsumura

I requested a copy of Kikuko Tsumura’s There’s No Such Thing as an Easy Job because several people likened it to Convenience Store Woman. But there aren’t many similarities beyond the narrators being single, thirty-something women with “easy” jobs in Japan. While Keiko’s convenience store job gives her a feeling of satisfaction and normalcy, the unnamed narrator in There’s No Such Thing seeks out jobs that won’t stir any feelings. She wants a job without stress or emotional investment, and she jumps from one to the next by way of a recruitment agency. read more