Book review: Banana Yoshimoto’s ‘Hardboiled & Hard Luck’

The review originally appeared in September 2005 in the Albany Times Union.

99162475_amazoncom-hardboiled-hard-luck-booksSupernatural is a natural in ‘Hardboiled’

Banana Yoshimoto became a literary sensation in Japan with her first book, “Kitchen,” in 1987. Spare prose, novella-length stories and quirky characters combined to make difficult themes, such as sexual identity and death, easily accessible and emotionally involving.

Since then, her books have been translated around the world, but a typical reaction in the United States has been: “Who? Is that her real name?”

Banana Yoshimoto is the pen name for Mahoko Yoshimoto, which she chose because of the beauty of the banana flower. More importantly for American readers, her latest book, “Hardboiled & Hard Luck” (Grove Press; 150 pages; $21; translated by Michael Emmerich) , offers another chance to get to know this talented writer.

The novella “Hardboiled” presents a fascinating use of common tropes in Japanese literature: the power of nature and the presence of ghosts.

An unnamed narrator is hiking in the mountains and seems not to have any cares – or human connections. She believes relationships end not because of feelings, but because “periods in our lives end the way seasons change. That’s all there is to it. Human willpower can’t change that – which means, if you look at it another way, that we might as well enjoy ourselves until the day arrives.”

This attitude, however, doesn’t prevent her from encountering a lover – a woman who could see ghosts – she had left and who died in a mysterious fire a month after she had moved out. Odd things happen to the narrator at a shrine, in a noodle shop and at a hotel, and then she remembers it is the first anniversary of her former lover’s death.

Though “Hardboiled” is a ghost story, it isn’t a horror story. The dead appear as living people or in dreams, and the realms of the living and the dead interact in unexpected ways, with compassion, understanding and resolution.

The narrator of the second novella, “Hard Luck,” is also a young, unnamed woman. She recounts the unreal and heartbreaking period of time in which her family comes to terms with her sister’s vegetative state and impending death.

The narrator, a college student who has put her studies on hold, even calls it “a sacred time set aside for us survivors.” (That sentiment seems so much more appropriate than the media and political circus that surrounded Terri Schiavo, who died earlier this year.)

She finds herself in the midst of an odd flirtation with Sakai, the older brother of her sister’s fiance. The fiance, too grief-stricken to be at his intended’s bedside, has returned to his parents’ home a coward. Sakai takes his brother’s place at the hospital to preserve the family’s honor, it seems. But he later admits his interest in the narrator.

Sakai, a tai chi instructor in his early 40s, is otherworldy and oddly attuned to the narrator. Through their talks, she is finally able to cry. But she knows the budding relationship won’t go anywhere. She even describes him as “weird, and kind of a fraud … cold and unreasonably cheerful, and … no sense of responsibility.”

Yoshimoto’s power as a writer is evident here, with a straightforward description that works to reveal the characters of both Sakai and the narrator.

Throughout the story, strangeness, desire and humor are combined without ever once forgetting the brain-dead sister and the family’s grief. How the narrator sees her situation is also an appropriate description of the story: “And it struck me that if anything was a miracle, it was this: the lovely moments we experience during the small, almost imperceptible periods of relief. The instant the unbearable pain and tears faded away, and I saw with my own eyes how vast the workings of the universe were, I would feel my sister’s soul.”

With these two novellas, Yoshimoto again proves her fame is well deserved. She succeeds in showing the naturalness of the supernatural and in making the peculiar not only realistic, but also touching.

The deft translation by Emmerich (who previously translated Yoshimoto’s “Goodbye, Tsugumi” and “Asleep”) should help Yoshimoto gain a broader audience in the United States.

Book review: Umberto Eco’s ‘The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana’

This review originally ran in May 2005 in the Albany Times Union.

78769-coverMemory, identity evaporate in ‘Queen Loana’

Among life’s great chores is the sorting through of old papers, books, records and magazines long ago left in the attic. Few events combine such tedium with unexpected moments of rich nostalgia, in which a single image can rise from junk and make the past profoundly present and vital.

This is the magic of the intriguing but ultimately disappointing new novel by Umberto Eco, “The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana” (Harcourt; 469 pages; $27; translated from the Italian by Geoffrey Brock).

In Milan, Italy, in late April 1991 (soon after the end of the Gulf war) our narrator has lost his memory. What happened isn’t clear, but all he can remember are things he’s read. The first few pages are filled with references to writers such as T.S. Eliot, Agatha Christie and Arthur Conan Doyle – and those are just the easy ones to spot for someone familiar with English literature.

When a doctor asks the narrator his name, he responds with the first line of a novel by Edgar Allen Poe: “My name is Arthur Gordon Pym.” When the doctor tells him that isn’t true, he tries with: “Call me … Ishmael?”

At once, Eco reveals his smarts and sly humor.

Soon, we learn that the narrator is in his 60s, is an antiquarian book dealer and goes by the nickname Yambo. Yambo is mischievous. Having forgotten his personal life, including his relationship with his wife, he calls himself a 60-year-old virgin, even though he is a father and grandfather. His character raises the expectation of a wonderful tale of memory and identity. Unfortunately, moments of wonder are all too rare.

Yambo returns to his family’s estate in the countryside in an attempt to regain his identity by going through the stuff in the attic. What he describes we see in reprinted lyrics and illustrations from posters, newspapers, comic books and magazines from the 1930s and ’40s.

The time period is fascinating: Italian fascism, war and giddy pop culture. Yambo calls the mix of messages from the media “schizophrenic.” He says, “Allied troops were landing in Sicily, and the radio (in the voice of Alida Valli!) was reminding us that love is not that way, love won’t turn to gray the way the gold fades in a woman’s hair.”

Yambo even finds an essay he wrote that praises fascism, but he doesn’t know if he was a true believer or if he had to play it safe at school. His predicament seems rich with possibility, as if Eco is suggesting that a new, multinational war (the Gulf war) is reminding Yambo’s generation how much of the past they had to forget in order to survive the horrors of war and fascism.

Some of the novel’s best writing occurs in the retelling of Yambo’s adventure with a group of partisans, but what Eco is trying to say about these themes of struggle and violence gets muddled in the abundance of pop culture. The title even refers to a comic book, and the riveting, wartime passages aren’t sustained with the same vitality as Philip Roth’s great reimagining of Newark, N.J., in “The Plot Against America” or even John Dower’s social histories of Japan in “War Without Mercy” and “Embracing Defeat.”

A 16-page section in the back of Eco’s book cites the sources for the illustrations, and a repeated phrase says that many of the images came from the “author’s collection.”

Suddenly, all the illustrations and references are indulgent. They disrupt the novel. The particulars of Yambo’s life don’t point to any general truth of the human condition, they point to Eco. As the novel progresses, this conflation of narrator and author makes one think Eco is no longer exhibiting his pleasure of language, culture and life through writing; instead, he is writing lists about things that brought him pleasure.

In the end, the “mysterious flame” that rises in Yambo’s (or is it Eco’s?) heart from seeing the pop culture of his youth has, unfortunately, left this reader feeling cold.

Perhaps it would have been more enjoyable to sort through my old books and papers.

Book review: ‘Ash’ by Holly Thompson

This review originally appeared in the March 2002 edition of Multicultural Review.

ashAsh

Thompson, Holly. Ash. Berkeley, Calif.: Stone Bridge Press, 2001. 292 pp. ISBN 1-880656-65-5, $16.95.

 

Thompson excels in her first novel at making Japan, from the volcanic-ash strewn streets of Kagoshima to the temples around Kyoto, accessible while conveying her protagonist’s “rootless expatriate world.”

Caitlin Ober, though, is unlike other foreigners. She is an American who returns to Japan 15 years after a traumatizing childhood experience in Kyoto, where her family lived while her father, a scholar, did research. She now teaches English in Kagoshima, but her real mission is to overcome the guilt, sadness and silence that surrounds events from when she was 8. This drama leads to some of the most affecting passages in the novel, especially when Caitlin is reunited in Kyoto with her “number-two family,” the family of her best friend from childhood. The novel is less effective, though, when the narrator, like Caitlin, withholds for many pages a clear explanation of what happened in the past.

Nonetheless, Thompson’s straightforward narrative allows her to map out many fascinating aspects of Japanese life, such as the problems faced by a 14-year-old girl with a Japanese mother and an American father. The teen is bullied at schools and must choose between taking Japanese or American citizenship when she turns 20.

Though the novel, at times, veers toward melodrama, and more could be said about the biracial’s teens problems, instead of having her resolution subsumed by Caitlin’s drama, “Ash” successfully shows a Japan through Western eyes that isn’t the exotic locale of samurai and geisha but a place where an American can have powerful, emotional connections.

 

Book review: ‘The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay’

This review was originally published in May 2001 in the Albany Times Union.

Wonder boys in Gotham City:

Vivid characters inhabit Michael Chabon’s ‘Kavalier & Clay’

12470844666Michael Chabon’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, “The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay,” is a generous journey through the rise and fall of the Golden Age of comic books. It is a history lesson of the highest order: it’s informative but it’s also a humorous and richly entertaining read.

More than the world of comic books, the novel stretches from Prague to Antarctica to the top of the Empire State Building. It includes Jewish mysticism, secrets of escape artists, vaudevillian characters such as the Mighty Molecule and historical figures like Salvador Dali and Gov. Al Smith.

Chabon excels at this kind of literary juggling of vivid, off-the-wall characters and outrageous events, but his true talents lie with depictions of youthful, manic energy.

The title characters are but teenagers when they come up with the Escapist, a comic book hero who frees people from the shackles of oppression. They both desire to make money, but for different ends. Sammy Clay (nee Klayman) is more of a schemer than an artist, his mind full of plots, a deep knowledge of comic books and wild dreams that comics are his ticket to freedom from Brooklyn. His cousin Josef Kavalier, a recent escapee from German-occupied Prague, buys into Sammy’s dreams, wanting money to buy his family’s passage to America.

The cousins experience so many wonderful adventures that Chabon’s sentences overflow with energy. In this example, Chabon captures a feel for New York City and the immigrant’s sense of hope:

“The whole morning, the rattling ride through the flickering darkness under the East River, the updraft of Klaxons and rising office blocks that had carried them out of the subway station, the ten thousand men and woman who immediately surrounded them, the ringing telephones and gum-snapping chitchat of the clerks and secretaries in Sheldon Anapol’s office, the sly and harried build of Anapol himself, the talk of sales figures and competition and cashing in big, all this had conformed so closely to Joe’s movie-derived notions of life in America that if an airplane were now to land on Twenty-fifth Street and disgorge a dozen bathing-suit-clad Fairies of Democracy come to award him the presidency of General Motors, a contract with Warner Bros., and a penthouse on Fifth Avenue with a swimming pool in the living room, he would have greeted this, too, with the same dreamlike unsurprise.”

Chabon’s writing is lyrical and evocative, such as “gum-snapping chitchat,” but his words sometimes betray his slight of hand and draw attention away from the story. For example, in one scene Josef doesn’t roll a cigarette, he “prestidigitated a perfect cylinder.”

Nonetheless, bringing together Kavalier and Clay allows Chabon to examine greater themes such as the immigrant experience, the promise of the American dream, and the modernist diffusion of high and low culture. Josef, for example, was educated at The Academy of Fine Art in Prague, whereas Sammy sold things such as shoelaces, seeds and candy bars door-to-door since the age of 6. Together they create comic books that are often, especially by Anapol, referred to as trash, though the Escapist and their other titles are recognized as standing out from the rest.

Set against the backdrop of World War II, the cousins’ adventures take on greater importance – showing the vital creativity of Jews in America at a time when Hitler was intent upon killing all Jews.

This importance points to one of the weaknesses of the novel, the uneven treatment of Josef and Sammy in the latter parts of the book. Though the title suggests the novel will be about both Josef and Sammy, it may be the nature of story telling to allow only one main character.

As suggested by the name Kavalier, Josef’s story is more of a hero’s tale, filled with urgency and romantic drama. After all, he wants money to save his family from Hitler. His story is even mystical in his connection to the ancient Golem of Prague. And unlike Sammy, he confronts the futility of his creativity, recognizing that defeating Hitler in the plots and pictures of comic books does nothing to stop the Nazis. He signs up to fight in the war.

Sammy’s story lacks that kind of narrative sweep, but he still has moments of heartbreaking drama, especially in Chabon’s sensitive portrayal of him as a young man filled with wonder and fear at his own homosexuality. However, Sammy’s issue with his sexuality doesn’t seem to be resolved even though it seems to be one of the most important aspects of his life. He never comes to terms with his sexuality as an adult. Rather, it seems Chabon is using his sexuality as a pre-text to include information about a 1954 Senate committee on the role of comic books in juvenile delinquency. Though this information is interesting in terms of art and government censorship, it lacks the same dramatic energy as Kavalier’s story.

Nonetheless, Chabon shows himself moving in a wonderful direction with his fiction, with broader landscapes, long time periods and an adherence to historical realities.

Through the rise and fall of the Golden Age of comic books, Chabon shows us the joys and limits of creativity, the difference between art and real life, and the enduring human dilemma between duty and the desire to escape.

 

Book review: ‘The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao’

This review originally ran in the Times Union in September 2007.

oscarwaoWow! Or should I say “Wao”?

Junot Diaz‘s long-awaited debut novel “The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao” (Riverhead Books; 335 pages; $24.95) is the best book I’ve read this year.

The story traces a fuku, or the “Curse and the Doom of the New World.” Oscar, an overweight first-generation New Jersey kid, is way into J.R.R. Tolkien,Japanese anime and science fiction (he’s writing aspace opera). But he and his family are cursed.

His grandfather, a respected doctor in the Dominican Republic in the 1950s, feared his beautiful teenage daughter would catch the eye of dictator-for-lifeRafael Leonidas Trujillo Molina. Trujillo ruled from 1930 to 1961 and was known to rape the daughters of prominent citizens.

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