Just Thoughts: Kitchen, by Banana Yoshimoto

I finished this book about a week ago, and I’m still flummoxed.  It’s short, only 152 pages, and is actually comprised of two stories:  ‘Kitchen’ and ‘Moonlight Shadow.’  I didn’t particularly care for it, but I am at a loss to explain why.  So I can’t really call this a review … just a few thoughts:

  • The blurb on the back cover calls Kitchen Yoshimoto’s “best-loved book … an enchantingly original and deeply affecting book about mothers, love, tragedy, and the power of the kitchen and home in the lives of a pair of free-spirited young women in contemporary Japan.”
  • Kitchen is translated from the Japanese.  The writing comes across as unsophisticated, almost juvenile.  I suppose it could be the result of poor translation.
  • Both stories deal with grief and loss.  While I could understand the grief characters felt after losing loved ones, the language felt flat and neutral.  And in ‘Kitchen,’ I knew the kitchen itself, and food, were supposed to be important but the prose didn’t convey the sensuality and power of food and cooking.

I’m taking part in an online conversation about this book and held off for a while hoping to get some new insights that would help me better appreciate this book.  It hasn’t happened, and I’m ready to move on.

Review: To Mervas, by Elisabeth Rynell

Marta has lived a life of hardship, abuse, and self-imposed solitude.  One day, seemingly out of nowhere, she receives a letter from Kosti, her one and only love.  She has neither seen nor heard from him in over twenty years, and his short letter tells very little except that he is now living in Mervas, in a remote part of Sweden.  This awakens long-suppressed feelings:

I knew that the letter I’d received wasn’t much of a letter, but still, the few words he’d written were alive inside me … They’d reminded me of my life and the fact that I was still living it, that I was supposed to live it.  I’d forgotten that.  (p. 6)

Marta quickly decides to go off in search of Kosti, but is almost immediately gripped by fear.  She is forced to examine and piece together events from her past, which include witnessing her father’s repeated abuse of her mother, and giving birth to a severely disabled child who later died.  She tries to come to terms with how these experiences sent her into a life of isolation:

And my thoughts have not been fluffy memories or daydreams of the boy. … It has even struck me that there are similarities between the writing I’ve begun and an archaeological excavation.  The carefulness. You have to be so incredibly careful with the things you find down there. They may for example be positioned in a specific order in relation to one another that mustn’t be changed.  Or they may be fragile and crumble at the slightest touch.  (p. 44)

When summer arrives, Marta is finally ready to make the journey to Mervas.  Her journey is slow and careful, and as she approaches her destination she is both attracted to and repelled by Mervas.  And as she makes her journey, the reader is slowly made aware of the full weight of Marta’s life experiences.  Elisabeth Rynell’s prose is spare and yet poetic, and the emotional reveal is a bit intense.  This is a very short book, but not an easy one to read.  The enjoyment comes not from the characters or plot, but from Rynell’s ability to convey a sense of loneliness and desperation and the promise of something better for Marta.

This book was also reviewed in Belletrista, Issue 5

Review: Faceless Killers, by Henning Mankell

Kurt Wallander is a middle-aged Swedish police detective working in the town of Ystad.  He’s recently divorced, and estranged from his only daughter.  In the midst of these emotional struggles he suddenly finds himself investigating the brutal murder of an elderly farmer and his wife. Before her death, the wife repeatedly uttered a single word:  “foreign.”  Shortly after the double murder, a Somali man is killed at a refugee camp.  It’s up to the police team to determine whether the murders are linked, and the significance of the dead woman’s last words.

Wallander and his crew conduct a thorough investigation, learning more about the elderly farmer’s life and some personal secrets that offer clues.  There’s a fair amount of criminal-stalking, chase scenes, and drama.  But about 2/3 of the way through this novel, the story’s pace flags and the investigative team seems to wander about aimlessly.  And then, just as suddenly, everything is solved and neatly tied up in a bow.

This novel is the first in a series of Wallander mysteries.  I enjoyed the 2008 Wallander dramatizations starring Kenneth Branagh, which are adaptations of later books.  I wanted to read this book before more episodes — including Faceless Killers — air on PBS this autumn.  It might just be this particular storyline, but this book did not live up to the drama and excitement of the TV series.

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Review: Beside the Sea, by Veronique Olmi

From the opening sentence, I knew there was something different about this book:  We took the bus, the last bus of the evening, so no one would see us. I was instantly intrigued and wary.  Why would a mother and her two young sons want to leave home unnoticed?  The bus takes them to a seaside town, to fulfill the mother’s wish that her boys see the ocean.  The nameless mother provides the narrative, and the more I lived inside her head, the greater my fear and trepidation.  It’s clear she loves her sons, and wants to preserve their childhood as long as possible:

he jumps onto my bed and asks me to give him a farty  kiss, that’s a big kiss on his tummy which makes a lot of noise and it makes him laugh so much you wouldn’t believe it, it’s like he’s laughing to hear himself laugh, that he’s making the most of that laughter, having fun with it, and I know that a laugh like that runs away the minute you grow up.  (p. 32)

But little by little, the story reveals a troubled soul.  The holiday is stressful in the way holidays with young children can be.  The weather is horrible, and she must deal with two little boys, cooped up in a sixth-floor hotel room accessible only by stairs.  But she is also overcome by anxiety and paranoia.  Having scraped together all the spare change in the house to spend on treats, she is convinced local merchants are looking down on her for paying with coins instead of notes.  Eventually her anxiety gets the better of her, and she escapes into sleep, leaving the boys to fend for themselves in the hotel room:

I left everything, left that town and myself along with it: my body was weightless, painless, I sank into something soft and I shed my fear and anger, and my shame too. I went to a world where there’s a place kept for me.  Not asleep and not awake, I’m a feather. Not asleep and not awake, but I come undone, I sprawl out look a cotton reel unwinding. Why did I topple over the edge then? Why did I start to dream? (p. 59)

The young family’s loneliness and desperation was so sad, and I was completely immersed in the mother’s unraveling.   But I still gasped out loud when the novella reached its inevitable climax.  This is a beautifully written story, but one that will haunt me for quite some time.

This book was a “new and notable” selection in Belletrista Issue 3

Other reviews of Beside the Sea:

* FTC Disclosure: This book was sent to me by the publisher for review on my blog.

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Review: Eva Luna, by Isabel Allende

“There is no death, daughter. People die only when we forget them,” my mother explained shortly before she left me. “If you can remember me, I will be with you always.” (p. 43)

Eva Luna was born in Chile to a young single woman named Consuela, who died when Eva was only six years old.  Eva’s godmother accepted responsibility for Eva’s welfare, immediately placing her into service.  She spent several years working in one home where she became close to another servant, Elvira, who was like a mother to her.  Elvira taught Eva Luna an important lesson: “You have to fight back. No one tries anything with mad dogs, but tame dogs they kick. Life’s a dogfight.” (p. 69)

Eva Luna took this advice to heart, and grew up a strong and independent woman.  She worked in a variety of situations, from a red light district to a remote mountain village.  Throughout her life she had been an expert storyteller; as an adult she returned to the city and was able to use this talent to make a living.  She reconnected with characters from her past, including a revolutionary named Huberto Naranjo.  Huberto had helped her find shelter as a young girl, and through him she became embroiled in the country’s tumultuous political environment.

There was a lot going on in this book, but it didn’t quite work as well as I’d hoped.  I love Isabel Allende’s writing — her prose is wonderfully descriptive, and brings her homeland to life.  She creates fascinating characters, and situations bordering on magical realism (something I normally hate, but Allende remains safely on the edges).  So I enjoyed reading this book, but at the same time I found the story preposterous, particularly as the once-illiterate Eva begins to make a living as a television screenwriter.  And some of her romantic entanglements seemed far-fetched.

Allende fans will find this a good read, but those unfamiliar with her work should start with a different book, like The House of the Spirits.

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Review: The Housekeeper and the Professor, by Yoko Ogawa

This story of a mathematics professor and his housekeeper is a quiet, thoughtful book about friendship and family ties.  The professor was severely injured in an automobile accident 20 years earlier, erasing much of his memory.  He can recall events before 1975 with precision, but in the short term, can only remember the last 80 minutes.  As his sister-in-law put it, “it’s as if he has a single, eighty-minute videotape inside his head, and when he records anything new, he has to record over the existing memories.”  This presents a number of challenges for his new housekeeper, not the least of which is that he cannot remember her from one day to the next.  To overcome this difficulty he pins notes to his suit, including a drawing of the housekeeper and her son, who he has nicknamed “Root” because his flat head reminds him of the square root symbol.

The novel begins on the housekeeper’s first day of work in his home.  The professor has gone through a series of housekeepers, so she expects a challenging client.  And he is, in a way: he’s a bit of a curmudgeon, set in his ways.  But he also introduces her to his world by teaching her about prime numbers, amicable numbers, and mathematical theorems.  The professor fills a void in the housekeeper’s life, and she in his.  The professor and Root discover a shared love of baseball, and he helps Root with his homework.  Although they don’t live together, they are very much a family.

The story of their relationship is simple, dealing with everyday life and events.   And yet there’s so much meaning in the fine details, and the mathematical and baseball metaphors.  A fine read.


This book was also reviewed in Belletrista, Issue 1

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Classics Circuit Review: Thérèse Raquin, by Émile Zola

Bienvenue á Paris!

Welcome to Paris in the Springtime, on The Classics Circuit!  Émile Zola is our featured author.  Several of us are reading Thérèse Raquin, Zola’s first major work.  Wikipedia describes this book as the tragic story of a young unhappily married woman and her ill-fated affair.  Published in 1867, Zola’s goal was to “study temperaments and not characters”, and he did so with a very detached, scientific approach.  I thought this book would be a good introduction to Zola.  I guess a lot of others did, too, because there are eight people reviewing Thérèse Raquin for this tour.  This is review #5 and while I have linked to previous reviews below, I was careful not to read any of them until I’d finished the book and formed my own opinions.

Thérèse Raquin was pretty well-received by Classics Circuit participants.  I’ll say more about that after my review.

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In the preface to Thérèse Raquin, Émile Zola wrote,

In a word, I wanted only one thing: given a powerful man and a dissatisfied woman, to search out the beast in them, and nothing but the beast, plunge them into a violent drama and meticulously note the feelings and actions of those two beings.  I have merely performed on two living bodies the analytical work that surgeons carry out on dead ones. (p 4)

The book was written in 1867, when psychology and behavioral studies focused largely on the idea of  “temperament.”   Zola chose to examine how two individuals of different temperament would respond to a set of circumstances.  Enter Thérèse, a young woman abandoned by her natural father, raised by her aunt (Madame Raquin), and married to her sickly cousin Camille.  She worked as an assistant in her aunt’s Paris haberdashery, and helped care for Camille.  Life was dull, even stifling.  Camille worked in a railway company office, and soon established a regular Thursday evening dinner with colleagues at his home.  One of the guests, Laurent, was young and virile, and Thérèse was instantly attracted to him.  The feeling was mutual, and they quickly found themselves entangled in a passionate affair.

From this point Zola explored what two people of such temperaments might do to satisfy their desires.  As Thérèse & Laurent’s passions escalated, their actions became more rash, culminating in an unthinkable act.  Zola meticulously dissected the couple’s thoughts and actions, and the impact of the act on their relationship.  Things turned quite dark at this point; the claustrophobia and fear were palpable.  There was never any doubt in my mind how the story would end, and yet there was still an element of suspense.

Zola’s writing style is detached and analytical — like a news reporter or scientist, reporting the facts without judgment — but he also brought 1860s Paris to life, with settings modeled on popular paintings of the day.  Despite the detached style, Thérèse Raquin was an excellent character study.  I actually found Madame Raquin’s character most intriguing.  She’s somewhat of a passive bystander, and yet as the situation escalates her passivity takes on a level of importance that I did not anticipate.   This book was so well-written that I was quickly hooked.

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Four other reviews of Thérèse Raquin have been published so far:

I was a little worried that Classics Circuit readers would tire of hearing about dear Thérèse.  But each of these reviews addresses different aspects of the book.  Some are more focused on plot, and others on style.  Taken as a whole, readers gain a comprehensive understanding of this work.  It was almost like being in a book group, sharing so many different perspectives.  And surprisingly, everyone liked this book!  Bibliolatry wrote, “I was shocked by how graphic and disturbing this short novel was” — a sentiment expressed in different ways by each reviewer.  We liked the suspense, the intrigue, and even the unusual “Naturalist” style so characteristic of Zola’s writing.

But wait!  There’s more!  Thérèse will make three more appearances during this tour:  

I’m curious to see whether their opinions will be markedly different from those expressed so far.  But even if they aren’t, I’m sure each blogger will bring their own unique point of view, and I am looking forward to reading their thoughts.

To learn about Zola’s entire body of work, check out all of the tour stops.  À bientôt!
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Review: A Woman, by Sibilla Aleramo

This novel, first published in 1906, is considered part of the very early canon of feminist literature.  Sibilla Aleramo was married off to a man who worked in her father’s factory, and had raped her when she was 15.  She found work and fulfillment writing for magazines, and raising a son.  Meanwhile her own mother battled severe mental illness, and her siblings were in constant conflict with their father.  Through her writing she met a variety of intellectuals which made her husband feel threatened.  Her feminist sensibilities evolved and were expressed through her work.

Although classified as fiction, A Woman is more like a memoir.  I struggled with the intellectual tone of this book at first, wanting something more literary.  When I realized it was essentially Aleramo’s life story and began reading it as such, its searing emotion was evident.  And when I placed myself back in its time of publication, I realized how radical some of Aleramo’s ideas would have seemed to European society.  At about the halfway point, Aleramo hits her stride as she examines traditional ideals such as motherhood:

But a good mother must not be simply a victim of self sacrifice, as mine had been: she must be a woman, a human individual. But how could she possibly become an individual if her parents handed her over, ignorant, weak, and immature, to a man unable to accept her as an equal, a man who treated her like a piece of property, giving her children and then abandoning her to perform his social duty, leaving her at home to idle away her time – just as she had done as a child?  (p. 114)

And later, as she contemplates taking a dramatic step in search of happiness:

What if mothers refused to deny their womanhood and gave their children instead an example of a life live according to the needs of self-respect? … Perhaps if we realised that relationships founded on domination and seduction originate in selfishness, we would put more emphasis on the responsibilities involved in parenthood.  (p. 194)

Aleramo’s sad life and limited options made this book difficult to read.  It took longer than expected simply because the emotional content forced me to take breaks more often than usual.  However, it’s a thought-provoking book and, I think, an important one for those who value equal rights and appreciate feminist literature.

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Review: The Post Office Girl, by Stefan Zweig

Christine Hoflehner is the administrator of a tiny Austrian village post office in the 1920s.  Only 28 years old, she lives with her sickly mother, attempting to provide for two people on her meager salary.  Her life is confined to her remote village, and varies little from day-to-day.  Then, seemingly out of nowhere, her aunt and uncle invite her to join them on holiday.  Claire (the aunt) left Austria as a young woman, married a successful American business man, and has a lifestyle beyond Christine’s imagination.  Christine travels by train to Switzerland; her first view of the Alps is the beginning of her transformation:

She’s been living as though all this didn’t exist, never saw it, hardly cared to; like a fool she dozed off in this tiny little room … just a night away, a day away from this infinitude, these manifold immensities! Indifferent and without desires before, now she begins to realize what she’s been missing.  This contact with the overpowering is her first encounter with travel’s disconcerting ability to strip the hard shell of habit from the heart, leaving only the bare, fertile kernel. (p. 34)

On arrival at the Swiss resort, Christine feels uncomfortable and out-of-place with all the wealthy patrons.   The status-conscious Claire whisks Christine away to a beauty salon, followed by a shopping spree, and Christine blossoms under the attention.  She begins to assimilate into the resort community, passing as a wealthy socialite and becoming the center of attention both with her contemporaries and some of the older guests.

And then suddenly it all comes to an end, and Christine returns to her village and her monotonous post office job.  Experience with a life of luxury makes living without all the more difficult.  After a few weeks, feeling stifled, she traveled to Vienna on her day off:

She didn’t know why she was going there, had no clear idea what she wanted, other than to get away, away from the village, from her work, from herself, from the person she was condemned to be. She just wanted to feel the wheels turning beneath her again, see lights, see different people, ones with more intelligence and style, … to be a different person, not the same old one. (p. 158)

In Vienna she meets Ferdinand, a young man of the same age bearing horrible emotional scars from the war.  Together they show the impact of the war on everyday men and women. Christine lost loved ones in the war and lived with years of economic hardship. Ferdinand saw the war first-hand; afterward he was unable to afford education, and was equally unable to find work.  They bond out of a shared sense of desperation, and craft a daring, last-ditch attempt to improve their circumstances.

Stefan Zweig paints a vivid portrait of Austria following World War I:  profound loss, widespread poverty, and an overall sense of hopelessness and desperation.  Zweig himself left his native country during the rise of Nazism, and, along with his wife, committed suicide. Published posthumously, The Post-Office Girl offers insight to the motives leading to Zweig’s last act.


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