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The Book Trail: From ‘Kitchen’ to Short Stories

I am beginning this particular Book Trail post with a translated novel I reviewed last month, and very much enjoyed.  As ever, I have used the ‘Readers Also Enjoyed’ tool on Goodreads to generate this list.

 

97805713427231. Kitchen by Banana Yoshimoto
Kitchen juxtaposes two tales about mothers, transsexuality, bereavement, kitchens, love and tragedy in contemporary Japan. It is a startlingly original first work by Japan’s brightest young literary star and is now a cult film.   When Kitchen was first published in Japan in 1987 it won two of Japan’s most prestigious literary prizes, climbed its way to the top of the bestseller lists, then remained there for over a year and sold millions of copies. Banana Yoshimoto was hailed as a young writer of great talent and great passion whose work has quickly earned a place among the best of modern literature, and has been described as ‘the voice of young Japan’ by the Independent on Sunday.’

 

2. Woman on the Other Shore by Mitsuyo Kakuta
‘This compelling novel, widely acclaimed for its perceptive portrayal of the everyday lives and struggles of Japanese women, struck a deep chord with readers throughout Japan. In 2005 it won the prestigious Naoki Prize, awarded semiannually for the best work of popular fiction by an established writer.  Sayoko, a thirty-five-year-old homemaker with a three-year-old child, begins working for Aoi, a free-spirited, single career woman her own age who runs a travel agency-housekeeping business. Timid and unable to connect with other mothers in her neighborhood, Sayoko finds herself drawn to Aoi’s independent lifestyle and easygoing personality. The two hit it off from the start, beginning a friendship that is for Sayoko also a reaffirmation of what living is about.  Aoi, meanwhile, has not always been the self-confident person she appears to be. Severe classroom bullying in junior high had forced her to change schools, uprooting her and her family to the countryside; and at her new school, she was so afraid of again becoming the object of her classmates’ cruelties that she spent most of her time steering clear of those around her.  The present-day friendship between Sayoko and Aoi on the one hand, and Aoi’s painful high school past on the other, form a gripping two-tier narrative that converges in the final chapter. The book touches on a broad range of issues of concern to women today, from marriage and childrearing to being single and working for oneself. It is a universal story about both the fear and the joy of opening up to others.’

 

3. Now You’re One of Us by Asa Nonami 856275
In the tradition of Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca and Ira Levin’s Rosemary’s Baby, here is a new classic about the bride who’s no longer sure what to think. All families have their own rituals, secrets, and credos, like a miniature religious cult; these quirks may elicit the mirth or mild alarm of guests, but the matter is rather more serious if you’re marrying into a household. If its’s a Japanese one with a history, the brace yourself: some surprising truths lurk around the corner.’

 

4. Beyond the Blossoming Fields by Junichi Watanabe
‘As a young girl from a wealthy family, Ginko Ogino seems set for a conventional life in the male-dominated society of 19th-century Japan. But when she contracts gonorrhea from her husband, she suffers the disgrace of divorce. Forced to bear the humiliation of being treated by male doctors, she resolves to become a doctor herself in order to treat fellow female sufferers and spare them some of the shame she had to endure. Her struggle is not an easy one—her family disowns her, and she has to convince the authorities to take seriously the very idea of a female doctor and allow her to study alongside male medical students and take the licensing exam. Based on the real-life story of Ginko Ogino—Japan’s first female doctor—Jun’ichi Watanabe does full justice to the complexity of her character and her world in a fascinating and inspirational work of fiction.’

 

6169535. Salad Anniversary by Machi Tawara
‘In her collection of brief poems, Tawara explores the fleeting emotions and momentary experiences that comprise modern life and love.’

 

6. Astonishments: Selected Poems by Anna Kamienska
‘Kamienska came of age during the horrors of the Nazi occupation of Poland and lived under Communism. These experiences, as well as the sudden death of her husband, led her to engagement with the Bible and the great religious thinkers of the 20th century. Her poems record the struggles of a rational mind with religious faith, addressing loneliness and uncertainty in a remarkably direct, unsentimental manner. Her spiritual quest has resulted in extraordinary poems on Job, other biblical personalities, and victims of the Holocaust. Other poems explore the meaning of loss, grief, and human life. Still, her poetry expresses a fundamentally religious sense of gratitude for her own existence and that of other human beings, as well as for myriad creatures, such as hedgehogs, birds and “young leaves willing to open up to the sun.”‘

 

7. From the Fatherland, With Love by Ryu Murakami 17794325
From the Fatherland, with Love is set in an alternative, dystopian present in which the dollar has collapsed and Japan’s economy has fallen along with it. The North Korean government, sensing an opportunity, sends a fleet of rebels in the first land invasion that Japan has ever faced. Japan can’t cope with the surprise onslaught of Operation From the Fatherland, with Love. But the terrorist Ishihara and his band of renegade youths – once dedicated to upsetting the Japanese government – turn their deadly attention to the North Korean threat. They will not allow Fukuoka to fall without a fight.  Epic in scale, From the Fatherland, with Love is laced throughout with Murakami’s characteristically savage violence. It’s both a satisfying thriller and a completely mad, over-the-top novel like few others.’

 

8. The Oxford Book of Japanese Short Stories, edited by Theodore W. Goossen
This collection of short stories, including many new translations, is the first to span the whole of Japan’s modern era from the end of the nineteenth century to the present day. Beginning with the first writings to assimilate and rework Western literary traditions, through the flourishing of the short story genre in the cosmopolitan atmosphere of the Taisho era, to the new breed of writers produced under the constraints of literary censorship, and the current writings reflecting the pitfalls and paradoxes of modern life, this anthology offers a stimulating survey of the development of the Japanese short story.   Various indigenous traditions, in addition to those drawn from the West, recur throughout the stories: stories of the self, of the Water Trade (Tokyo’s nightlife of geishas and prostitutes), of social comment, love and obsession, legends and fairytales. This collection includes the work of two Nobel prize-winners: Kawabata and Oe, the talented women writers Hirabayashi, Euchi, Okamoto, and Hayashi, together with the acclaimed Tanizaki, Mishima, and Murakami.   The introduction by Theodore Goossen gives insight into these exotic and enigmatic, sometimes disturbing stories, derived from the lyrical roots of Japanese literature with its distinctive stress on atmosphere and beauty.’

 

Have you read any of these books?  Which pique your interest?

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‘Kitchen’ by Banana Yoshimoto ****

I have read several of Japanese author Banana Yoshimoto’s books to date, and have thoroughly enjoyed them all.  I was therefore very much looking forward to beginning her debut, Kitchen, which collects together two novellas – ‘Kitchen’ and ‘Moonlight Shadow’.  First published in Japan in 1987, where it won two of the most prestigious literary prizes in the country and remained on the bestseller list for more than a year, Kitchen was seamlessly translated into English by Megan Backus in 1993. 9780571342723

Its blurb intrigued me immediately, stating as it does that this collection ‘juxtaposes two tales about mothers, transsexuality, bereavement, kitchens, love and tragedy in contemporary Japan.’  The Los Angeles Times Book Review calls Yoshimoto’s debut ‘artless, spontaneous and wonderfully fresh’, and The New Yorker deems Yoshimoto ‘a sure and lyrical author who is unembarrassed by adolescent funk’.

Kitchen begins with a short preface written by the author.  She says at its outset, ‘For a very long time there was something I wanted to say in a novel, and I wanted, no matter what it took, to continue writing until I got the saying of it out of my system.  This book is what resulted from that history of persistence.’

The narrator of ‘Kitchen’ is a young woman named Mikage Sakurai, recently left alone after the recent death of her grandmother, who raised her.  She reflects: ‘My family had steadily decreased one by one as the years went by, but when it suddenly dawned on me that I was all alone, everything before my eyes seemed false.  The fact that time continued to pass in the usual way in this apartment where I grew up, even though now I was here all alone, amazed me.  It was total science fiction.  The blackness of the cosmos.’ At first, the kitchen becomes the only place in which Mikage is able to find solace after she is set adrift: ‘Now only the kitchen and I are left.  It’s just a little nicer than being all alone.’

After some time, Mikage is taken in by the quite unusual Tanabe family, who care for her like a daughter.  This has a positive effect on her: ‘Little by little, light and air came into my heart.  I was thrilled.’  I admired the way in which Yoshimoto has shaped Mikage’s believable character arc, and very much liked her protagonist’s quiet determination.  ‘As I grow older,’ Mikage muses, ‘much older, I will experience many things, and I will hit rock bottom again and again.  Again and again I will suffer; again and again I will get back on my feet.  I will not be defeated.  I won’t let my spirit be destroyed.’  To me, Mikage felt wholly realistic; she is a little reserved, perhaps, but her emotions continue at the right pitch given her circumstances and the shifting situations in which she finds herself.  Her unfolding relationship with Yuichi Tanabe was both complex and fascinating.

I find Yoshimoto’s prose unusual and vivid, and my experience with these stories proved no different.  Much of her writing is searching and lovely.  In ‘Kitchen’, for example, she writes: ‘As I walked along in the moonlight, I wished that I might spend the rest of my life traveling from place to place.  If I had a family to go home to perhaps I might have felt adventurous, but as it was I would be horribly lonely.  Still, it just might be the life for me.  When you’re traveling, every night the air is clear and crisp, the mind serene.  In any case, if nobody was waiting for me anywhere, yes, this serene life would be the thing.’

As with the other Yoshimoto books which I have read thus far, ‘Kitchen’ and ‘Moonlight Shadow’ are told in short bursts.  Both of these stories are very character-focused, and Tokyo appears almost as a character in each one.  However, there are only a few cultural markers – most of which involve food – at play in both stories, and the setting feels almost anonymous in consequence.  Of course, Yoshimoto builds quite lovely descriptions of the physical setting, but in these stories much of the focus has been placed upon light and darkness, and the emptiness which one can feel when in the midst of a metropolis.

Yoshimoto considers the impact which everyday occurrences can have on us, and the comfort which comes from being in a familiar place, even if much of which was once familiar about it has now gone.   Her musings upon the concept of time are particularly interesting, and fitting, in both of these stories.  Some very important topics are discussed here, often in profound and memorable ways.  In both stories, where the young female protagonists have lost someone of great importance to them, the loneliness which Yoshimoto crafts is moving and heartfelt.  Whilst I thoroughly enjoyed ‘Kitchen’, and its sensuous descriptions about food and cookery, ‘Moonlight Shadow’ is a heartbreakingly beautiful tale, and one which I do not feel I will ever forget.  ‘Kitchen’ and ‘Moonlight Shadow’ both deal with bereavement and loss; both are quiet; both have an almost astounding amount of layers to them.  This collection, whilst short, provides so much to think about.

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Five Great… Novels (T-Z)

I thought that I would make a series which lists five beautifully written and thought-provoking novels.  All have been picked at random, and are sorted by the initial of the author.  For each, I have copied the official blurb.  I’m sure that everyone will find something here that interests them.

1. A Game of Hide and Seek by Elizabeth Taylor
“During summer games of hide and seek Harriet falls in love with Vesey and his elusive, teasing ways. When he goes to Oxford she cherishes his photograph and waits for the letter that never comes. Years pass, and Harriet stifles her imaginings; with a husband and daughter, she excels at respectability. But then Vesey reappears, and her marriage seems to melt away. Harriet is older, it is much too late, but she is still in love with him.”

2. N.P. by Banana Yoshimoto
“A powerful story of passion and friendship, the nature of love and the taboos surrounding it. “N.P.” is the last collection of stories by a celebrated Japanese writer, written in English while she was living in Boston.”

3. A Handful of Dust by Evelyn Waugh
“Taking its title from T.S. Eliot’s modernist poem “The Waste Land”, Evelyn Waugh’s “A Handful of Dust” is a chronicle of Britain’s decadence and social disintegration between the First and Second World Wars. This “Penguin Modern Classics” edition is edited with an introduction and notes by Robert Murray Davis. After seven years of marriage, the beautiful Lady Brenda Last is bored with life at Hetton Abbey, the Gothic mansion that is the pride and joy of her husband, Tony. She drifts into an affair with the shallow socialite John Beaver and forsakes Tony for the Belgravia set. Brilliantly combining tragedy, comedy and savage irony, “A Handful of Dust” captures the irresponsible mood of the ‘crazy and sterile generation’ between the wars. This breakdown of the Last marriage is a painful, comic re-working of Waugh’s own divorce, and a symbol of the disintegration of society.”

4. Summer in Baden-Baden by Leonid Tsypkin
“A novel about love, married love, and the love of literature, Summer in Baden-Baden is set partly in the present as the narrator crosses Russia in wintertime on a train to Leningrad (the once and future St. Petersburg) and partly in the past as he reimagines the passionate summer of 1867 when Fyodor Dostoyevsky and his young wife Anna travelled across Europe towards Baden-Baden. Dostoyevsky’s reckless passions for gambling, for his literary vocation, for his wife, are matched by her all-forgiving love, which is in turn reflected by the love of Leonid Tsypkin for Dostoyevsky.”

5. Let the Northern Lights Erase Your Name by Vendela Vida
“When Clarissa Iverton was fourteen years old, her mother disappeared leaving Clarissa to be raised by her father. Upon his death, Clarissa, now twenty-eight, discovers he wasn’t her father at all. Abandoning her fiance, Clarissa travels from New York to Helsinki, and then north of the Arctic Circle – to Lapland. There, under the northern lights, Clarissa not only unearths her family’s secrets, but also the truth about herself.”

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Flash Reviews (11th February 2014)

‘Amrita’ by Banana Yoshimoto (Faber & Faber)

Amrita by Banana Yoshimoto ***
I have read two of Yoshimoto’s books to date – N.P. and Asleep – and have very much enjoyed them both.  Amrita is a far longer work of fiction, and is consequently rather chunky in comparison.  The premise was so intriguing, however, that I did not think it would take me too long to get through.   The Independent on Sunday have called Yoshimoto ‘the voice of young Japan’, and it certainly follows that all of the books of hers which I have read so far are both culturally and socially important within both the context of Japan and the world.

Amrita was first published in Japan in 1994 and translated into English in 1997.  Throughout, what most interested me was the way in which other cultures have impacted upon modern Japan.  The main family in this novel, for example, eat things like borscht, and talk often about the impact of the West upon themselves.  Sadly, whilst I did enjoy the novel overall, I found some of the dialogue a little overworked.  It did not quite read true of a real conversation.  At times, the story feels a little flat, and the entirety seems to be entirely devoid of emotion at its most pivotal points.  The philosophical elements of the plot have clearly been well thought out, but they too seemed a little overworked at times, particularly towards the end of the novel.  Whilst Amrita is enjoyable, it is my least favourite Yoshimoto to date.

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‘The Dogwood Fairy’ by Cicely Mary Barker

Flower Fairies: The Four Seasons by Cicely Mary Barker *****
This is another book which April so very kindly sent me for Christmas.  I have always absolutely adored the Flower Fairies, and it is lovely to have such a beautiful gift book, which includes the entire collection of Barker’s illustrations and poems, in my possession.  Barker’s drawings are absolutely beautiful, and the poems which run alongside them are so enchanting.  Reading them again as an adult made me realise just how informative they are with regard to different plants, and the ways in which a child can recognise them.  Little facts are woven in too – for example, that black bryony ‘used to be thought a cure for freckles’.  Flower Fairies: The Four Seasons is absolutely adorable, and is a book which I will be reading many more times in the future.

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