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

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Review: The Opposite of Loneliness by Marina Keegan

18170549Blurb:

An affecting and hope-filled posthumous collection of essays and stories from the talented young Yale graduate whose title essay captured the world’s attention in 2012 and turned her into an icon for her generation.

Marina Keegan’s star was on the rise when she graduated magna cum laude from Yale in May 2012. She had a play that was to be produced at the New York International Fringe Festival and a job waiting for her at theNew Yorker. Tragically, five days after graduation, Marina died in a car crash.

As her family, friends, and classmates, deep in grief, joined to create a memorial service for Marina, her unforgettable last essay for the Yale Daily News, “The Opposite of Loneliness,” went viral, receiving more than 1.4 million hits. She had struck a chord.

Even though she was just twenty-two when she died, Marina left behind a rich, expansive trove of prose that, like her title essay, captures the hope, uncertainty, and possibility of her generation. The Opposite of Loneliness is an assemblage of Marina’s essays and stories that, like The Last Lecture, articulates the universal struggle that all of us face as we figure out what we aspire to be and how we can harness our talents to make an impact on the world.

Review:

I guess one of the coolest things about growing up is that you suddenly have tons of important things to say and people actually listen to you. At age 22 I feel like I’m on the cusp. Of what, I don’t know. To where, I don’t know either. But it’s this fantastic feeling, indescribable really; if I tried, I’d say it’s how you feel after you’ve stepped off a diving board but before you hit the water. Light in the air, but heavy with gravity.

Marina Keegan died at age 22. Her feet never hit the water. But she left behind more than a dozen essays and stories that capture that cuspy young adult feeling better than anything I’ve read before. Throughout The Opposite of Loneliness I had the wonderful privilege to see many of my current hopes and joys and anxieties recounted by a peer because for the first time, my generation is old enough to represent itself. No longer must we suffer the apocalyptic announcements of 50-year-old writers condemning us Millenials for our flightiness and inattention. We are on the cusp, we own the cusp, and we have the right to describe it.

And that’s what Marina does. Reading her essays is like a conversation, but instead of talking at you or about you, she talks with you. There’s the title essay, The Opposite of Loneliness, that highlights her unique ability to live a 22-year-old’s life but reflect upon it with the wisdom of a much older person:

We’re so young. We’re so young. We’re twenty-two years old. We have so much time…What we have to remember is that we can still do anything. We can change our minds. We can start over.

Other standout essays include Stability in Motion, an ode to the modern teenager’s sanctuary—her first car and all the memories made in it, and Song for the Special, an honest admission of the crushing jealousies that haunt a generation of kids told that they were better than normal, destined for awards, success, and celebrity.

Her short stories are even better. The Emerald City is a modern epistolary, a one-sided email chain from a young architect who has fallen from his cusp and finds himself in Iraq, consciously callow and outside his element, which makes his surprising fate even more devastating. Reading Aloud is very mature; it reminded me of an Alice Munro story called Wenlock Edge that I read last year in her collection Too Much Happiness. The masterpiece, however, is the first story Cold Pastoral. Claire, a college student, must decide how much to care when a not-quite-but-almost-boyfriend unexpectedly dies. It asks questions that belong to our generation, like what are the consequences of fleeting, are we or aren’t we relationships? And how can we forge meaningful connections if life is a constant attempt to act casual? In its scant 24 pages I was alternately charmed and horrified by how shockingly honest it was.

In the title essay Marina asks if we have a word for the opposite of loneliness. I say yes, yes we do, and it’s writers like her, writers who express what everyone else around their age is thinking, that give us that feeling, the opposite of loneliness.

4 out of 5 stars

Review: The Lottery and Other Stories by Shirley Jackson

89723Blurb:

The Lottery, one of the most terrifying stories written in this century, created a sensation when it was first published in The New Yorker. “Power and haunting,” and “nights of unrest” were typical reader responses. This collection, the only one to appear during Shirley Jackson’s lifetime, unites “The Lottery:” with twenty-four equally unusual stories. Together they demonstrate Jackson’s remarkable range–from the hilarious to the truly horrible–and power as a storyteller.

Review:

Read this book for one reaction: gasping “whaaaaaat!” or perhaps “whaaaaat?” (punctuation varies) after reading the final sentence of every story.

Shirley Jackson is the indisputable master of the “whaaaaaat!/?” Some stories end ambiguously, leaving you scrambling back through the pages searching for a clue or alternately racing to open Google to read others’ wise analyses. Other stories end completely and absolutely unambiguously, leaving you to question not what actually happened but to wonder how such a terrible ending could come to pass. (“The Lottery,” Jackson’s most famous tale, falls in the second type.) But no matter if the ending is ambiguous or unambiguous, what I want to emphasize is that Shirley Jackson knows how to end. I have now read dozens of her short stories and one of her novels and I am convinced that I know of no author who finishes every piece with such decisive flourish. 

It’s an incredible skill, knowing how to end something. I often find short stories forgettable. Any novel of 300 pages will indubitably engrave itself in my mind by mere virtue of the hours required to read it. A story of less than 20 pages, however, is at a clear disadvantage. A short story must shock to be memorable. Luckily for us, Jackson has one setting: shock the reader. On the last page, or more often, the last sentence. 

But her shocking endings are of the mild, ungratuitous variety. Two of my favorite stories–“The Daemon Lover” and “Like Mother Used to Make”–finish with the protagonists questioning their sanity and autonomy. They don’t run screaming to mental hospitals; rather, they stay quietly and desperately in their homes, wondering who they are and if this is–if this truly can be–their life.  To me, such an ending is much more powerful than any louder alternative. 

There is something so mundane to Jackson’s writing, which makes the fact that most of the stories are categorized in the horror genre more, well, horrifying. Because it suggests that the quotidian is horror. Jackson is wonderfully aware of the fact that the everyday lives of the normalest of the normal are the most frightening things in the world. No need for ghosts or murderers, everything you need is right there inside of us.

For Jackson, horror is the casual racism of a small New England town, the irrepressible distress of a 30 year old unmarried woman searching for a husband, the monotonous daily routine of a department store salesperson, a badly misbehaving child and his oblivious parents, the terrifying anonymity of an individual in a metropolis of millions. In short, horror is real life.

These stories have a rare rereadable quality. I know that I will reread this collection for the rest of my life, and at the end of every story, for the rest of my life, I will say “whaaaaat!/?”

5 out of 5 stars