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: ‘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.

 

Comfort food: Worthy curry tonkatsu found at long last

Tonkatsu in NYC's Midtown, Katsu-Hama Restaurant.
Curry Tonkatsu in NYC’s Midtown, Katsu-Hama Restaurant. It’s heavy and delicious, and tastes better than it looks.

When I think of comfort food, this is one of the things I think of: Japanese curry tonkatsu. It’s somewhat spicy, savory, and crunchy, a pork-based meat-and-potatoes kind of dish (especially if the curry has potatoes in it) that is perfect for a winter dinner. This dish is usually served with shredded cabbage (which is in the bowl that is only partially visible in the upper right hand corner of the photograph).

When I lived in Tokyo, I ate a lot of curry tonkatsu. Only a few restaurants did it exactly the way I liked it (though even when it wasn’t great, it was still good). Lucky for me (though maybe not my waist) was that a restaurant that always had the right amount of crunch on the breaded pork, and the right amount of juiciness of the pork, and just the right amount of spice in the curry was a few doors down from my office in an area of Tokyo between Akasaka and Roppingi, not far from the ANA Hotel.

The cool thing about katsu-curry is that it is such a wonderful hybrid meal. Most people think “sushi” when they think of Japanese food, and not breaded, fried, pork cutlet. Ton, afterall, is the Japanese word for “pork,” while katsu is supposedly the Japanization of the English word “cutlet,” so that part of the meal is a Japanese-Western combo. Meanwhile, curries are more often association with South Asia, though supposedly for the Japanese, their version of curry came from India but via England.

A New York Times article from 2008 delves into the mystery and magic of katsu-curry:

“Indian curry came to Japan from England,” explained Hiroko Shimbo, the Japanese chef and cookbook author. “Roux of course came from France.” It was only natural that someone would put them in the same dish, she added, then paused for a moment and laughed. “It’s perfect for Americans,” she said. “It’s a very American impulse to mix.”

I really like that quote. After all, being an Asian-American hybrid myself, I always found myself feeling more and more American the longer I lived in Japan. (This may be true for many people living outside their home country: I was often put into the position of having to represent America with innocent-ish questions like “What do Americans like to eat?” In those situations, almost all my answers had some mention of how they can be so many different approaches to favorites based on heritage, family, friends, location, etc.)

Thing is, since moving back to the US now more than 20 years ago, I haven’t been able to find a katsu-curry that lives up to what I experience in Tokyo. Until now. The Katsu-Hama Restaurant in midtown Manhattan does the katsu-curry right. I recommend it.

Book review: Yasushi Inoue’s ‘Life of a Counterfeiter and Other Stories’

counterfeiterOne of the dominant characteristics of Yasushi Inoue’s rhetorical style in “Life of a Counterfeiter and Other Stories” (Pushkin Press; 144 pages; $18) in is his use of “hedging” phrases, such as “for some reason,” “I’ll never know” and “I may simply be reading too much into things.”

These phrases could be interpreted as creating a narrator who is so fraught with uncertainty that he can only suggest things with modesty rather than declare them with authority.

These stories — written after World War 2 in the early 1950s, but often looking back through the haze of memory at events that took place long before and during the war — can then be seen as a reaction against the kind of narrative certainty about Japan’s prominence in the world that led the nation into its disastrous overreach in China, Korea, and South East Asia. In that sense, his narrative hedging can be seen as an attempt to be precise about the meaning of things that can’t be known.
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Book review: ‘1Q84’ by Haruki Murakami

1Q84
1Q84 by Haruki Murakami
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The Little People are Watching You

“If something really existed, you had to accept it as a reality, whether or not it made sense or was logical. That was his basic way of thinking. Principles and logic didn’t give birth to reality. Reality came first, and the principles and logic followed.”

Murakami’s imaginative worlds — with preternaturally gifted girls, bewildered young men, misshapen men, magical creatures, violence, and passageways between various forms of reality — all set in a recognizable every-day mundaneness of contemporary Japan are the main element that attracts me to his work.

“1Q84” doesn’t disappoint. And the quote above does a great job of summing up the novelist’s approach to this novel and to writing in general — you have to go with wherever “reality” takes you. In “1Q84” that reality is a strange Japan in 1984, in which some characters can see two moons, and in which strange beings, called Little People, have such extraordinary powers that they help to power a religious cult, which rests at the heart of this really long novel.
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