Review: Kitchen by Banana Yoshimoto

50144Blurb:

Two stories, “Kitchen” and “Moonlight Shadow,” told through the eyes of a pair of contemporary young Japanese women, deal with the themes of mothers, love, transsexuality, kitchens, and tragedy.

Review:

Banana Yoshimoto likes circles: opposing ideas and feelings that turn round and round until you’re so dizzy that finally you can see clearly, the opposites collapse into each other, and you see they are the same. Melancholy and hope fuse together; pain accompanies joy; love is both the origin of and cure for loneliness. Around and around these feelings go, the only certainty being, of course, how difficult this oscillation makes life, leaving us with no choice but to, as one character says in Kitchen, “adopt a sort of muddled cheerfulness.”

There are two stories in this book: the titular Kitchen, about a man and woman who both find themselves orphaned in their early 20s, and Moonlight Shadow, about a woman, again in her early 20s, whose boyfriend dies suddenly. Thus even the collection works in a melodious, circular format. These are distinct works but they blend well together, enhancing each other’s gloominess more and more until it soars with sorrow.

Yoshimoto understands how alluring sadness can be. It is intoxicating and safe. Labyrinthine, with deep holes to get lost in. The allure of sadness is why I read and enjoyed her book. Sadness sharpens: abstract ideas narrow to single points, thoughts become clearer. But Yoshimoto also understands that after a certain moment sadness dulls and blurs. Which is why she allows her beleaguered characters to wallow in their pain but also eventually forces them to find an exit from it.

In both stories love is both question and answer, root and flower, cause and effect. The characters find sadness because of love and finally find happiness because of it too. Yoshimoto has an eye for that perfect moment, the nadir/zenith of sadness before it spins round the circle to joy. In Kitchen that moment is a romantic gesture worthy of a John Hughes film. Moonlight Shadow’s climax would be downright maudlin penned by most authors, but Yoshimoto manages to make it poignant without being cloying.

Really, Yoshimoto isn’t saying anything terribly original. She says that we must let go of lost loves or we stand to lose ourselves. But she says it with just the right amount of melancholy, just the right amount of hope: in short, she says it in a way that I imagine actually feels like letting go.

4 out of 5 stars

Review: We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson

11161779Blurb:

Merricat Blackwood lives on the family estate with her sister Constance and her uncle Julian. Not long ago there were seven Blackwoods – until a fatal dose of arsenic found its way into the sugar bowl one terrible night. Only Merricat can see the danger, and she must act swiftly to keep Constance from his grasp.

Review:

Typical Shirley Jackson, upending narrative conventions and beginning a story with a dynamite paragraph:

My name is Mary Katherine Blackwood. I am eighteen years old, and I live with my sister Constance. I have often thought that with any luck at all I could have been born a werewolf, because the two middle fingers on both my hands are the same length, but I have had to be content with what I had. I dislike washing myself, and dogs, and noise. I like my sister Constance, and Richard Plantagenet, and Amanita phalloides, the death-cup mushroom. Everyone else in my family is dead.

We Have Always Lived In The Castle’s genre is nebulous. How to classify this weird, weird little book? Unlike Jackson’s other famous novel The Haunting of Hill House, Castle is not a haunted house story, but the genesis of a haunted house story. Houses aren’t built haunted; they become haunted. The Blackwood House once stood tall above a village occupied by generations of the well-to-do Blackwood family until one day they are all murdered around the dinner table, killed by arsenic laced in a bowl of sugar, leaving only the surviving sisters Constance and Mary Katherine, fondly called “Merricat,” to live there.

Like all good haunted house stories, between the fall of Blackwood House from respected family manor to a burnt and boarded “castle,” there are plenty of narrative gaps; doors opened only a crack, big black spaces scarcely illuminated by a sliver of light. The history of the Blackwood House and its family is mysterious. Who put the arsenic in the sugar bowl? Why does Constance refuse to leave the house? Why is Merricat forbidden to cook dinner? Gaps in knowledge mean Blackwood House is the perfect target for imaginative village storytellers trying to solve those mysteries. Only instead of seeking true answers for the Blackwoods’ decline, they choose to populate the house with ghosts and witches and cannibalistic old maids.

Underneath its ostentatiously bizarre façade, Castle retreads the same old Shirley Jackson ideas. Conflict is mostly internal, dealing with the choice between being an individual and fitting in with society. Those who choose society fall victim to mob mentality, unable to properly decide what is right versus what everyone else is doing. Here everything is topsy-turvy. Villains can be heroes as long as they have strength of conviction. What is important is not if your actions are right or wrong, but whether these actions are motivated by your own decision-making. Happiness is not other people; horror lurks in a friendly neighborhood too. And happiness can be found inside a castle, inside a rotted old haunted house, because you are alone, isolated, and safe; nobody else can enter.

4 out of 5 stars

Review: A Journey to the Dark Heart of Nameless Unspeakable Evil by Jane Bussmann

18264396Blurb:

After scriptwriter Jane Bussmann moves to Hollywood, she realizes her day job interviewing celebrities sucks. She goes to Africa in search of a dreamy activist and ends up uncovering Joseph Kony’s crimes.

Review:

This is an occasionally laugh-out-loud hilarious book about genocide and the mass kidnappings and rape of tens of thousands of Ugandan children. If you’re still with me after that description, know that it’s also about well-intentioned but misguided Western governmental interference in African affairs, a Useless Person learning how to become Useful, and Ashton Kutcher.

Clearly it’s a bit piecemeal, a collage of assorted ideas with ragged edges sewn together. But its main conceit is Jane Bussmann, celebrity journalist, can barely stop herself from committing suicide mid-interview with Ashton Kutcher, immensely idiotic but almost universally praised actor, and thus decides to pursue real journalism. She tricks her way to Uganda by pretending to be a foreign correspondent and not the author of “Nicole Richie’s Sexy Summer Bikini Bod!” and tries to blow the whistle on Joseph Kony, the leader of a militant Ugandan rebel group that kidnaps children to serve as wives and soldiers, before discovering that the situation is much more complex than simply painting Kony as the “Most Evil Man in the World.”

Here’s the thing: Jane’s background in humor writing and celebrity journalism both makes and breaks this story. Jane is a self-deprecating reader stand-in. She’s just as unknowing as most of us on these topics, just as shocked, and just as horrified that she, as well as nobody else, is doing anything about it. Her affable ignorance excuses our own ignorance while her visceral reaction against what she learns prods us to learn more too. But I think this book was also intended to be read as a decent exposé of Kony and what the Ugandan government may or may not be doing to help prop his rebel regime up. And as far as that goes, Jane fails. She lacks the geopolitical background to tell a cohesive narrative about how Kony came to power and how he’s managed to stay in power so long. She’s able to identify a problem and say, “Hey, hey! That’s not right!” (more than most people in the world, who, willfully or will-lessly, are content to be blind) but she can’t explain how it came to be problematic and possible solutions for it to no longer be problematic.

But honestly if reading about dreadful war crimes and the inefficient meddling of Western charities and governments combatting them was always this fun, I think the general human population would be much more informed about various atrocities occurring throughout the world. And yeah yeah, I hear ya, being “informed” doesn’t necessarily lead to meaningful change, but it’s a start. We may live in what Jane calls “The Golden Age of Stupid,” but I still believe that most of us are compassionate people. Often things that are entertaining are considered unworthy of serious attention. Yet Jane has written an entertaining book about a serious subject, and it’s an approach I’d like to see more of.

3.5 out of 5 stars

Review: East of Eden by John Steinbeck

4406Blurb:

Set in the rich farmland of California’s Salinas Valley, this sprawling and often brutal novel follows the intertwined destinies of two families—the Trasks and the Hamiltons—whose generations helplessly reenact the fall of Adam and Eve and the poisonous rivalry of Cain and Abel. Here Steinbeck created some of his most memorable characters and explored his most enduring themes: the mystery of identity; the inexplicability of love; and the murderous consequences of love’s absence.

Review:

East of Eden was not merely recommended but literally thrust upon me by a few friends. who consider it a masterpiece and a personal favorite. And it’s not just my friends: Steinbeck won the Nobel Prize shortly after its publication, calling it his magnum opus. It’s a decent story, but does it deserve so much praise? Is it truly so spectacular? Not really.

East of Eden is devoted to telling the easiest story, that of good versus evil. Steinbeck’s villains port names starting with C (like Cain, the original biblical murderer) and good guys port names starting with A (like Abel, the original biblical murderee). The crux of this primeval battle hinges on the Cain and Abel story in Genesis and its use of the Hebrew word “timshel.” Timshel translates to “Thou mayest”. So basically, East of Eden is a long, multigenerational family saga devoted to answering the question of good versus evil by telling us that we can choose. No one is born wearing white and no one is born wearing black; no one is born a Cain and no one is born an Abel. These are choices we make.

It’s an idea that can feel vaguely profound until you realize how underwhelmingly obvious it is. Our actions define us? We are not created but formed, molded continuously by our quotidian motions of saying yes or no? Well, no kidding.

So then why do people like it so much? And why am I still granting it three stars? Because we’re humans: simple and lazy, unmotivated to search for grander meanings when the most important sits directly in front of us. We are so occupied by the day-to-day drudgery of saying yes or no to being good or bad, that when we read we want to be entertained, unchallenged, reassured that what we know is all there is to know.

The contemporary world lacks modern epics. We no longer have Odysseys, Gilgameshes, or Beowulfs. In East of Eden Steinbeck tries to mitigate this lack. He writes in booming prose, tallying the passing decades with a hopeful yet wistful voice. It is a book that just feels good to read. It promises a story and delivers. It reminds us of what we already know. It’s surprising, however, that the author of Of Mice and Men could write something so simple. In the Salinas Valley of East of Eden everything is black or white. Where’s the grey we saw in Of Mice and Men’s tragic ending? Where are the tough moral dilemmas? For all the posturing about “Thou mayest” where is the grittiness in choosing?

You won’t find it in East of Eden. Everything comes up Cain or Abel, good or evil. Perhaps Steinbeck is saying that no grey exists: you are this or that, and even though the Bible says “Thou mayest” we’re fooling ourselves if we believe it. That’s a less simple idea and altogether more compelling. Too bad that’s not the story he wrote.

3 out of 5 stars

Review: The Secret Place by Tana French

20967058Blurb:

The photo on the card shows a boy who was found murdered, a year ago, on the grounds of a girls’ boarding school in the leafy suburbs of Dublin. The caption says, I KNOW WHO KILLED HIM.

Detective Stephen Moran has been waiting for his chance to get a foot in the door of Dublin’s Murder Squad—and one morning, sixteen-year-old Holly Mackey brings him this photo. The Secret Place, a board where the girls at St. Kilda’s School can pin up their secrets anonymously, is normally a mishmash of gossip and covert cruelty, but today someone has used it to reignite the stalled investigation into the murder of handsome, popular Chris Harper. Stephen joins forces with the abrasive Detective Antoinette Conway to find out who and why.

But everything they discover leads them back to Holly’s close-knit group of friends and their fierce enemies, a rival clique—and to the tangled web of relationships that bound all the girls to Chris Harper. Every step in their direction turns up the pressure. Antoinette Conway is already suspicious of Stephen’s links to the Mackey family. St. Kilda’s will go a long way to keep murder outside their walls. Holly’s father, Detective Frank Mackey, is circling, ready to pounce if any of the new evidence points toward his daughter. And the private underworld of teenage girls can be more mysterious and more dangerous than either of the detectives imagined.

Review:

I’ve put a bit of time between finishing Tana French’s newest entry in her amazing Dublin Murder Squad series and writing this review. Which is probably a good thing. Because my initial reaction was, “5 stars! Finally a new Tana French book! Callooh! Callay!” while my more measured, 7-days-later reaction is, “4 stars. Still great, but…lacking?”

The problem with the mystery in The Secret Place is, ironically, its lack of mystery. I am notoriously awful at guessing the culprit in mystery novels, but even I, the anti-Sherlock Holmes, guessed the correct killer from the very start. I never swayed in whom I believed it to be, and while I kept waiting for French to pull the floor out from underneath me and show me what a simple fool I had been to eat up her red herrings with gusto, I eventually realized that, wow, these really aren’t red herrings; the killer is justthat obvious.

But no big deal, I don’t read French’s mystery novels for the mystery and I suspect my fellow diehard fans don’t either. Where French has always excelled is with the development of her characters, especially the detectives, and the subsequent complete emotional annihilation of these characters, followed shortly, of course, by the reader’s own personal emotional annihilation. And here, well it’s a strange complaint, but I didn’t feel sufficiently emotionally annihilated? I wanted to feel more pain, i.e., Broken Harbor-level pain that empties you and exhausts you. Basically, Tana French didn’t put my heart through a blender this time, and I’m slightly upset about it!

The story—particularly a final reveal that emerges even after apprehending the killer—still punched me in the gut, just not quite hard enough. The Secret Place is about teenage girls, the magical feel of adolescence, and the apparent invincibility that comes with finding yourself and a group of close friends for the first time. Thematically, it broaches similar questions as my favorite Tana French novel, her second book The Likeness, in that it’s about friendship and belonging. Throughout the story (which impressively unrolls in a 15ish hour period) we observe the evanescence of friendship between the various boarding schoolgirl suspects and the growth of friendship between the two lead detectives, Stephen Moran and Antoinette Conway, who are both too tough and focused on their careers to concern themselves with companionship.

But we also learn that choosing friendship means choosing to be blind, to ignore your friends’ mistakes and to hide your own from them. By opening yourself to others, you also close off parts of yourself and from this choice can come the most exquisite joys and the most devastating pains, particularly when you’re a mere 16 years old. Detectives Moran and Conway forgot that, and I had too. Leave it to Tana French to remember and record it vividly, to see its beauty yet to tell us its truth.

4 stars out of 5