Monthly Archives: October 2011

A Discovery of Witches — Deborah Harkness

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A Discovery of Witches was sitting in a display stand on the library desk when I dropped off some books so I snagged it. I love historical tales about witches and Deborah Harkness is a professor of history so I settled in for a good long read. I came close to giving up about a quarter of the way in because the witchcraft was pretty thin, the heartthrobs were pretty thick and the male lead turned out almost immediately to be a vampire. Twilight for grown-ups. No thanks. Muttering through the original had been bad enough.

But I persisted because I have to read one book a day and I’d already had this running start. And it got better—but only a little. There is plenty of history sprinkled throughout the text and any one of the threads would be fascinating to unravel but what dominates in this book is the love story. I am so not a fan of interspecies vampire love stories. Puh-leez, what is the romance about a classic abusive boyfriend set-up in which the besotted undead wouldn’t dream of harming his lady love—except for this teeny little problem he has with his appetites and his teeth?

OK, maybe not fair. Romance aficionados will find this a rich romp through a lot of material that never strays too far from the love story and the travails of the passionate but chaste couple and the somewhat heavy-handed argument for mixed species marriage. The heroine, Diana Bishop, is a scholar spending the summer in Oxford doing historical research at the Bodleian Library. She is also an uncommonly powerful witch who, due to the trauma of her parents’ untimely deaths when she was seven, refuses to use or even acknowledge her powers. When she stumbles across an ancient alchemical text that seems to be alive with mysterious spells, she triggers a witch hunt with herself at the center of it.

Diana runs a lot along the paths at Oxford and she goes rowing in the river solo at odd hours in foggy, deserted landscapes. Very tough cookie in the first half of the novel. Encounters sequential near-death experiences throughout most of the second half when she and the handsome, wealthy, accomplished, urbane, oenophile, ice-cold vampire, who stalks and then seduces her, take on the fearsome and murderous bigots of the magical world.

Matthew Clairmont, charming and cultivated uber-carnivore, has been a kind of very bright Forest Gump throughout most of Western European history and owns the tchotchkes from famous figures to prove it. His taste is exquisite and his fortune formidable. He is a distinguished Oxford fellow and a medical researcher of some renown who attends a weekly yoga class at his country estate that has all the groovy vibes of California, although the yogis are daemons and vampires.

All the creatures—there seem to be few actual humans in this story—have hypersensitive olfactory capabilities and spend a fair amount of time sniffing, describing various scents and explaining how that relays valuable information to them about enemies, threats and love interests. Many of the non-human cast want to get their hands on the mystery book, which has vanished as inexplicably as it appeared.

I read the whole novel. It wasn’t bad. I would rather have been reading a thriller with a good historical subplot that was less a hodge-podge of vampire-witchy heavy breathing salted with historical factoids. But, if you like romances that exist for their own sake and enjoy an encyclopedic knowledge of history as a bonus, go for it. If you’re a witch, you’d probably prefer Brunonia Barry’s The Lace Reader—funny, wacky, creepy, full of contemporary Salem witches and not a vampire in sight.

A Discovery of Witches: A Novel   Deborah Harkness | Viking 2011

The Magician King — Lev Grossman

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In Fillory, the magical land of children’s literature and the kingdom of Lev Grossman’s spell-casting slackers in The Magician King, things are starting to go off the rails. Clock-trees are waving their branches wildly, the Seeing Hare is playing hard to get and the Master of the Hunt drops dead in the middle of a soft green grassy circle, heavy with enchantments, in the woods.

The Magician King picks up some time after Grossman’s first fantasy, The Magicians, leaves off. Quentin Coldwater is one of the four Kings and Queens of Fillory as The Magician King begins and he thinks he’s landed in a cushy spot. Although, in typical Quentin fashion, he’s beginning to get just a tiny bit bored with his perfect life. His fellow royals, Eliot and Janet from Brakebills, the magicians college on the Hudson where the three learned their stuff, and Julia, an old high school friend who didn’t get into Brakebills and acquired her magic where she could find it, contemplate the disturbing signs of magical unraveling and agree to a Quest.

The fantasy, a grown-up pastiche of J.K. Rowling, C.S. Lewis and some very Grimm tales, sets sail on a charmed ship in search of answers and adventure. Our hero—still no dashing Lancelot—discovers he is looking for a golden key. Eventually there will be seven golden keys. But not before Quentin and Julia reach the Outer Island, meet a child who draws them scribbled passports they later find useful, locate and try a key with dizzying, disastrous results, continue their quest back in the Earth world, revisit Brakebills to no real benefit, steal some cars, hack an ATM, mess with disenchantments at a magnificent palazzo in Venice and learn about the dissolution of magic and the heroics it will take to save it.

Quentin is less of a jerk in this second half of what is really one long coming-of-age story split into two books. He exhibits some heartening maturity and altruism, along with his burning obsession to find the key to meaning in his own life. His evolution and the rich imaginative world Grossman builds around him make this a much more satisfying read than the first book. There is still an alarming tendency to imbibe hangover-inducing amounts of alcohol as daily fuel and unmagical humans—AKA family—are sloughed off with minimal concern and consequence. Events follow the predictable story template: just when things are staring to look better, they get worse. A lot worse.

The storyline for Julia weaves in and out in alternate chapters and we learn how she acquired her magic—none of it is remotely pretty. Death and defeat are as ugly as they come in this fairytale. The scenes are salted with arcane bits of erudition that lend them authenticity and show Grossman did his homework, a lot of really strong research. But the book seems slightly long and the adventures pale as they double back on themselves in loops of endless action and reaction that start to blur together. This might be a book to savor slowly, over several days, rather than power through in one.

I liked The Magician King far more than its prequel. Grossman has built a convincing world, if a graceless and sour one. His hero grows up and sacrifices himself to save some of the others. Quentin is left sadder, wiser and more hopeful by his quest. But, despite his admirable gestures, and all the powerful magic that slips through, and from, the hands of the Fillory royals and their companions, there isn’t much there there in the end. The magicians are an intelligent and egocentric lot and remain true to form. They are alienated from their roots, their surroundings and each other—it’s still all about them. The magical and mundane realms of Grossman’s books are bleakly existential. They offer a downbeat escape into fantasy for a reader whose sunny life is in need of a few contrasting shadows. The travails of this Quest are not so much an antidote to the gloom, angst and despair of the barren landscape we already inhabit.        

The Magician King: A Novel    Lev Grossman  |  Viking   2011

Longitude — Dava Sobel

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Longitude is the story of a self-educated carpenter’s improbable invention of the marine chronometer, a saga colored by poisonously envious sabotage, heroic feats of astronomy and a lot of really bad shipwrecks. Dava Sobel has turned a dense thicket of scientific inquiry and discovery into a readable, revelatory tale of adventure that traces the interconnections of Captain Cook, Charles Darwin and Sir Isaac Newton and a number of key characters you likely never heard of. Money is a big motivator – no surprise – merchant trade and royal coffers were both impoverished by the uncertainties of the sea. Solving the navigation problem was critical enough to merit a prize worth the equivalent of millions.

John Harrison was a skilled carpenter who taught himself clockmaking and then set out to create a device that would keep such perfect time at sea that it could determine longitude. Latitude was easy enough. Star siting, sun angles, day length — even an unskilled sailor can find the distance from the fixed equator using those. But the long lines that curve from pole-to-pole were harder to pin down and a tiny mistake, an off-guess, could send you and your ship hundreds of miles off-course, onto perilous rocks in the dark or straight to the bottom of the sea.

The search for longitude inspired great observatories, led to advances in astronomy, engaged such luminaries as Galileo Galilei, Edmond Halley and Isaac Newton and produced the British Longitude Act of 1714 with its enticing cash prize. Harrison set himself to win the prize and created four separate “clocks” that were marvels of technology for his time and that still work perfectly today. He succeeded in developing a workable and elegant chronometer, the first, but not in avoiding the backstabbing and manipulation that nearly cost him the prize.

The story tacks back and forth from Harrison and his endless tinkering to astronomers charting the path of the moon and the positions of the stars. Ships are lost, treasure galleons are pirated, men die of scurvy or go blind squinting at the sun to calculate position. It seems so long ago, in this day of GPS talking cars and satellite positions, that setting out from port meant you were as likely to get lost as you were to get lucky. But one determined, unlettered visionary changed all that and Dava Sobel’s Longitude sheds light on an obscure passage in history that produced important nautical instruments we still use today.

Longitude: The True Story of a Lone Genius Who Solved the Greatest Scientific Problem of His Time  Dava Sobel | Walker Publishing Company 1995

The Magicians — Lev Grossman

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It seemed like a good idea to read The Magicians before tackling Lev Grossman’s new sequel, The Magician King. The first book was hailed as a grown-up fusion of The Narnia Chronicles and Harry Potter, with a magical college hidden in plain view in upstate New York on the Hudson and various portals and spellbinding journeys ferrying people to and from the real world. I think the critics left out the heavy influence of Sartre that trumped magic at every point in the book.

The Magicians was a good read for about the first two-thirds of the fantasy and a depressing descent into drunkenness, betrayal, mindless bravado and delusion for the last third. Severed limbs, exploded good and bad guys, miserable weather, horrible death and disfigurement seem to be what magic will produce when mixed with reality. The protagonist was a loser who sort of found himself in Magician U. but reverted to unattractive loser status as soon as he was cut loose. I hate a hero’s journey that’s just aimless bar-hopping, partner-swapping and “Hey, let’s do this because we’re all so fekking bored!” So I’m not too sure I will spend hours tomorrow slogging through the adventures in book two.

Quentin Coldwater is a really really bright high school student who can’t get the girl, reads his childhood fantasy series obsessively and wishes he could live in Lev Grossman’s version of Narnia, a place called Fillory. One day, he gets his wish. But first he wanders through a portal near the toxic Gowanus Canal in Brooklyn and winds up casting spells in Hogwarts-on-Hudson. The college is called Brakebills; it is extremely old and part of a post-secondary international consortium of magical prep colleges. Students are sorted into cliques, wear uniforms, memorize endless magical formulae and occasionally die.

Our hero meets a new girl-of-his-dreams, befriends an odd assortment of fellow magicians-in-training, does his semester abroad in Antarctica after an unusual migratory flight, and becomes a very competent and self-absorbed spell-caster. Upon graduation he embraces a pointless existence as a subsidized lush in Manhattan, wrecks his relationship with his admirable live-in magician girlfriend and sees rescue from the utter ennui of his life in the accidental chance to visit the land of his childhood fantasy books.

In Fillory, things go from extremely bad to a whole lot worse. It’s Narnia on steroids. No Aslan, lots of dismemberment, little charm. Lev Grossman is a fluent writer. He cooks up some plot surprises and he delivers solid characters who are believable, if not especially likable. By the end, that’s what got me counting pages. I just couldn’t empathize with a bunch of brilliant, over-privileged, highly-trained, immature fuck-ups. Quentin had me for a while but he lost me in a boozy Tribeca loft and I was more irritated than sad when the wrong people ended up on the wrong end of dark magic in the dungeon. I need my literary realism masquerading as fantasy to have some redemptive quality—life outside of books is grim enough.

Maybe I’ll read the sequel next or maybe I’ll return it on time to the library instead. New books have a shorter check-out time than books that have been around for a while and there is undoubtedly a long line of anxious readers waiting for this one. If I don’t read it now, The Magician King will be yesterday’s news by the time I get my hands on it again. If I do read it now, I’m in for many more hours of fantastical dysfunction. Scarlett O’Hara had the only possible line here, “I’ll think about it tomorrow.”   

The Magicians: A Novel   Lev Grossman | Viking 2009

Mozart’s Sister — Rita Charbonnier

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Maria Anna Walburga Ignatia Mozart — Nannerl — was a child prodigy who played the harpsichord and eventually the pianoforte, improvised and composed music and sang with astonishing virtuosity. Her brief career as the miraculous young Mozart child ended the moment her brother arrived. Leopold Mozart coldly replaced the daughter with the son, forbidding his eldest child to compose, to play in public, to do much more with her life than support the brother she adored and grew to resent.

Mozart’s Sister is Rita Charbonnier’s fictional recreation of Nannerl’s life, based on the scant details that can be recaptured. Little is known about her aside from the early performances that amazed concert crowds, the great childhood affection that bound the Mozart siblings, the relentless rejection of her talent by a father obsessed with promoting his son, and the fact that she devoted a great deal of her life after Wolfgang Mozart’s death to collecting and publishing his compositions.

In lively epistolary passages, Nannerl recounts her early years to her fiancé, an absent military officer. Her letters disclose a charming young Wolfgang, as personable as he is talented, and two children who create a magical world only they can inhabit. But Leopold Mozart is an ogre, denying his daughter access to the music that pours out of her and relegating her to the role of piano teacher to support her brother’s concert tours by giving lessons. Once she renounces her own life as a musician, any mention of her playing and composing enrages her. Nannerl’s bitterness is tangible and the destruction of her soul and talent is a horror.

Mozart manages to carelessly wreck the shreds of happiness his sister gathers around her; the engagement ends as calamitously as her career due to Wolfgang’s seduction of her favorite pupil, her fiancé’s daughter. Then their mother succumbs to illness in Paris while touring with her son and Nannerl is so badly shattered that she is sent away to recover in the mountains at the country home of the household servant. As she slowly regains her strength and sanity, she is wooed and won by a baron who worships her. Her congenial marriage and household of children and cheerful confusion is abruptly altered by the news of Wolfgang’s untimely and impoverished death. How she reconciles the loss of her brother and the decision to dedicate herself to his legacy is the denouement to a tumultuous existence, touched and wounded by genius at every turn.   

The novel is very readable and presents a world that is easy to understand and enter. Charbonnier is skilled at pacing and creating characters and her Nannerl is sharp-tongued and witty, an acerbic foil to Wolfgang’s sunny appeal. The fact that she finds happiness and purpose in the end is comforting although not entirely believable. The waste of her talent and the dismissal of her music and her self in favor of her brother is infuriating. The story of Nannerl is the story of all women who are wildly gifted and buried alive. I thought, through most of the book, ‘this is why there are men and men and men in the canon.’ What is lost to the world by the suppression of women and the discounting of their work seems an irreparable tragedy, starkly delineated in the dynamic of the Mozart family.

Nannerl may have been as great as her little brother, or surpassed him handily, or fallen behind as his genius emerged. We will never know. If she did ultimately find a measure of peace and a sense of purpose, she deserved it. If her loss haunted her and twisted her life, we have no clear record of that either. Mozart’s Sister has just enough history to be credible and just enough tension at the repression of Nannerl to make you want to scream. Or pound on the keyboard, or burn a few manuscripts. We are fortunate beyond measure for every composition she helped to conserve and catalog. Her kid brother’s music is still divine. Her music no longer exists—and that is a dark coda to the colorful tale of her life.  

Mozart’s Sister: A Novel     Rita Charbonnier    Crown Publishers   2007

We the Animals Justin Torres

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Justin Torres’ slender debut novel, We the Animals, is fierce, raging, intense and searing. Three small boys, half-Puerto Rican, half-white Brooklyn, grow up in a chaotic household of blazing love, drunken rage, gnawing poverty and feral emotion. Manny, Joel and the first-person narrator, a six-year-old who turns seven with no hope of party, cake or even a happy birthday, are a trio of trouble tumbling through misadventures in upstate New York. Ma and Paps, married at 14 and 16, work the graveyard shift, fight, make-up, drink too much, leave, come back and make a home of unbearable, all-consuming need that cages the little animals as much as it embraces them.

The language is as razor-sharp, dangerous and translucent as shards of broken glass. The adventures are all misadventures. Learn to swim by being towed out to the middle of a lake and let go. Punch, hit and use your claws because some days there are no grown-ups in the family and no one has your back. Know that your brothers, schooled to failure upon failure, always have your back, even as they kick your skinny butt and resent you for your good grades. Steal, lie, wreck stuff, learn how love and hate can be the same thing.

This family is addicted to itself and each other, broken beyond repair but stuck together against a world that has no place for them. The kids are exuberant and bursting with life, even as life grinds their hopeless parents to a pulp. The youngest remains slight, almost pretty, as the brothers mature and he discovers the lure of the local bus station with its transients and furtive men’s room. The sudden wreckage that rips them all apart manages to bind them, too, like the twisted metal of a scorched fuselage. They are imprinted on each other, wild animals in a pack that has total recall whether or not it is scattered.   


We the Animals is gorgeous writing and storytelling. Justin Torres is an Iowa Writers’ Workshop graduate, published in A-list literary magazines. It will be interesting to see what he serves up in his next book.

We the Animals: A novel  Justin Torres  Houghton Mifflin Harcourt  2011

The Changeling of Finnistuath Kate Horsley

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Kate Horsley’s The Changeling of Finnistuath throws a harsh light on the quotidian of a dark time in Ireland, that period of western European history with scant records to document its cataclysmic changes. The changeling of the title is a girl-baby passed off as a boy to fool a half-wit goatherd father who has threatened to kill any more female infants in his half-starved household.

The baby is named Gregory for her father as his “first-born son” and nicknamed Grey. She is carefully minded by her mother and the close-lipped village midwife who keeps the secrets of the whole populace. Grey grows up wanting to be a warrior and learning the arts of a son, not a daughter. She thinks she is deformed and cooperates with hiding her true gender from her peers and the adults.

The small Irish village, really a scattering of peasant dwellings around a noble’s manor house, is a backward place of illiterate households, inchoate longings, garbled religion and pagan superstition. A traveling tinker brings trinkets to trade and sell and news of the outside world. A bailiff keeps careful records of the impossible debts people owe that keep them enslaved. The arrogant noble family rides roughshod over the countryside. Grey is eventually traded to the local priest in repayment of the debt for baptizing him/her.

The priest,  who claims bits of cow bone he collects are holy relics, begins the practice of offering Grey as a sexual object to elicit favors from high places. She is veiled and set naked for the noble’s sensitive son to encounter by a sacred spring for the priest’s benefit. She is traded to a botanist-monk from a nearby monastery, again for advantage to the priest. The monk deploys her in the monastery for the same purpose, only now she is passed off as a deaf-mute, blindfolded so she cannot see the monks who make use of her. Grey begins to respond to one anonymous monk whose emotional needs affect her as much as his sexual fumblings.

Plague hits Ireland and England hard and decimates the monastery population. The religious community has already been fatally weakened by a visit from a brutal papal emissary who threatens to close it down. Worse, the abbot is missing a Church treasure entrusted to him by the Avignon pope, a jeweled box stolen by the tinker, containing a handwritten account that could irreparably damage papal claims about the divinity of Jesus. As the abbot’s congregation lies feverish and festering with fatal sores, Grey discovers that her sympathetic lover has been the abbot himself and the power in their relationship shifts.

Pregnancy, plague, motherhood, travel, abandonment, sanctuary, searing loss and disillusion twist Grey’s tale this way and that. Her years as a mis-gendered child have both strengthened her and fatally severed her sense of self. Her child is the first anchor to an identity that allows her some peace.

But life was brutish, nasty and short in that dark age and no one escapes unscathed. The tinker reenters Grey’s life as does the noble’s son—both have a profound effect on her. She endures loss, dislocation, betrayal and confusion and finds solace and security that are tragically short-lived.

The Changeling of Finnistuath is a densely woven tapestry of history and human emotion. The account is disturbing for the inhumanity evidenced by the wealthy and powerful members of its cast and the intolerance of a nascent Catholic Church amassing power and riches as it crafts a religion to serve its worldly ends. Resourceful and resilient peasants adapt, thrive, fall from grace, survive and adapt again. Horsley’s writing is evocative and beautiful and her characters capture the human spirit in all its many guises. Even as it delivers a revelatory history lesson, Grey’s story and the events of her time, make you think about the legacy of that age in our own.    

The Changeling of Finnistuath: A Novel  Kate Horsley  Shambala  2003

Selected Translations 1968-1978 W.S. Merwin

W.S. Merwin at OWS

The book was stained, its pages rippled and dried after a soaking, some of them stuck together. An orange circular sticker had OWSL scribbled on it in black marker and so did the top of the book, across the edge of the closed pages. Whomsoever’s it was before, now it belonged to the Occupied Wall St. People’s Library in Zuccotti Park. Selected Translations, 1968-1978 by W.S. Merwin was still in one piece and I like Merwin’s poems so I picked it up to read it.

I could have taken it home; one guy was worried he wouldn’t have time to finish a Lawrence Block book before he had to return to Phoenix so a volunteer librarian told him to take it with him and donate it to Occupy Phoenix when he was finished with it. I read Merwin on a convenient wooden chair in the park because I thought I might read some of these daily books in bookstores and libraries and Occupy Wall St.’s library has a very nice vibe. 

Merwin has done a lot of translating—Pablo Neruda, Dante, Osip Mandelstam, Muso Soseki, Euripides, Rumi, Garcia Lorca, Basho and others. This book is one of several translation collections, ambitious in its range. He includes poems from Greek, Italian, Portuguese, Spanish, Russian, Swedish, American Indian, Quechua (Incan), Txeltal and Tzetzil (Mayan), Eskimo, Malgache (Madagascar), Korean, Chinese, Sanskrit, Persian, Turkish, and Urdu. There are a few lines from Michelangelo, the loveliest: “…even if I were quite blind, I would find you…”

Nicanor Parra wrote in Spanish:

“I’m sad I’ve got nothing to eat / nobody cares about me / there shouldn’t be any beggars / I’ve been saying the same thing for years…”

Osip Mandelstam wrote in Russian:

“Your thin shoulders are for turning red under whips, / turning red under whips, and flaming in the raw cold.

Your child’s fingers are for lifting flatirons / For lifting flatirons and for knotting cords.

Your tender soles are for walking on broken glass, / walking on broken glass, across bloody sands.

And I’m for burning like a black candle lit for you…”

In the preface to the translations, Merwin says of his work: “Without deliberately altering the overt meaning of the original poem, I wanted the translation to represent, with as much life as possible, some aspect, some quality of the poem which made the translator think it was worth translating in the first place.” 

This was a departure from the advice Ezra Pound gave when Merwin visited him in St. Elizabeth’s Hospital for the Insane where Pound was incarcerated for twelve years as an outspoken and unapologetic political dissident. Pound said to get as close to the original form and language of the poem as possible. Merwin’s ‘possible’ is always infused with the music of the English language he writes in and colored by the music of the poets whose work he translates. The romance languages flow in English; the Mayan translations have the particular rhythm and magic of Mayan myth and syntax; the Asian poets resonate with exquisite imagery and rich symbolism.

A delightful thing about rummaging in tubs of old books for something to read is the inevitable out-of-print gem you will find to taste and savor. Despite the occasional high-energy chants, the constant jazz combo enlivening a nearby circle, the camera-wielding tourists and the difficulty of quiet reflection, you can read in the middle of an occupied park. And the words may make a different kind of sense to you—reading revolutionaries, rebels, nonconformists and passionate poets surrounded by a few yet to find their way into print.

W. S. Merwin  Selected Translations, 1968-1978   Atheneum  1980

In Praise of Libraries

OWS People's Library, Zuccotti Park, October 9, 2011

Libraries are the repositories of the soul of our societies. They hold the wisdom and follies of ages, portraits and snapshots of who we were and are, predictions of who we will become. They are sacred spaces because they are where we keep our stories. Libraries have shelves and shelves of bright keys to imagination and imagination is how we create our worlds.

I have always wanted the entire city of New York to become a library: empty storefronts full of books to borrow with corners for nannies and parents to read to toddlers, book-borrow stands like newsstands on every street, beautiful old buildings like the St. Agnes library in every community, mobile libraries cruising commercial strips and neighborhoods, a free library in every corporate building and condo lobby, library kiosks in the parks. If Gotham dedicated its resources to transforming the city into one huge library, we would be the most literate, intelligent, imaginative, tolerant, peaceful and positive metropolis on the planet–no end to the possibilities.

  

My favorite energy spot at the Occupy Wall St. encampment in Zuccotti Park is its library. The existence of the OWS People’s Library speaks volumes (even Shakespeare had no problem with the occasional pun) about the mindset and motivation of the 99% protesting in the park. You can donate books. You can borrow books. You can even keep books if you promise to pass them along to someone else when you have finished them. You can sit and read a book. So one day, shortly after my first visit to the library, I did.

Kitchen — Banana Yoshimoto

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Kitchen is the novella that made Banana Yoshimoto an overnight sensation in Japan in her twenties and eventually won her accolades internationally. It is a spare, lovely and quirky pair of stories about death and loss that turn extreme pain and depression to beauty and a kind of hopeful resignation. The characters in Kitchen speak in a dialogue that seems too direct and too perfectly crafted to be real conversation. But it works to carry the book along and reveal the inner life of Mikage, who has become an orphan overnight, Yuichi, who rescues her and Eriko, the transgender whirlwind who is Yuichi’s father/mother and Mikage’s salvation.

The unanticipated and the violent deaths in Kitchen and its companion story Moonlight Shadow engage the youthful protagonists in self-reflection and inspire a slightly detached chronicle of mundane activities and the ways they are colored by pain. Existential questions of profound loneliness are contemplated over meals, chance encounters and a restless mobility. Those in mourning change houses, take up running, escape on vacations, travel for work—everything is in motion around the emptiness of being left behind. Quietly, they discover new loves and insightful strangers who point the way forward. Trust in casual acquaintances and complete strangers is taken for granted in ways that are startling to contemplate—behavior that seems unremarkable to these Tokyo citizens might get you a nasty comeuppance and some lurid headlines in Manhattan.

But the prose is lucid and the calm examination of conduct in an effort to find meaning leads to awareness and acceptance. Yoshimoto’s characters are stoic and philosophical—maybe a legacy from the philosopher father she cites as an influence on her thinking. Truman Capote is another influence and that is easy to see. Capote strung details like exquisite beads on a wire to catch your eye and hold your attention. Yoshimoto mixes the rich flavors of a perfectly cooked katsudon, a deep-fried pork dish served over rice, with the comforting late-night hum of a refrigerator and hallucinogenic, clairvoyant dreams to concoct small, satisfying tales that treat death as a primer to teach us how—and why—to live.     

 Kitchen (A Black cat book)   Banana Yoshimoto   Washington SquarePress  1994