"Kitchen" by Banana Yoshimoto

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Translated from the Japanese by Megan Backus

Plain and simple, touching and hopeful, Kitchen has philosophical asides sprinkled throughout that give it depth and charm. This charm emanates from Mikage, the young woman who loses her beloved grandmother, and from Yuichi, whose mother passes away a few months later.

These philosophical asides have the virtue of being spoken very plainly and grow out of the normal thoughts and emotions of our heroine, Mikage. So unadorned and succinct are they that they frequently achieve a poetry reminiscent of Basho, or other masters of haiku. They even at times approach a Zen state in propounding newly discovered, or newly obvious, truths as Mikage encounters them.

Mikage is a university student in Tokyo when her grandmother’s death unmoors her. She misses her classes, withdraws, and sleeps great clumps of her life away. When invited by Yuichi and his radiant mother Eriko to stay at their apartment indefinitely, her life turns around, and her relationship with Yuichi takes on a complicated, so-many-things-left-unsaid quality.

Ms. Yoshimoto resolves this relationship satisfactorily, but Mikage’s growth in maturity and wisdom constitutes the true treat in Kitchen. This is a brief, uncomplicated read, but its marbling of a young, appealing woman’s reflections and yearnings commend it to the discerning reader. Recommended!

"The Perfume Collector" by Kathleen Tessaro

Saturday, August 15, 2015

Grace Munroe, an attractive young London socialite, receives a letter one day in 1955 that not only changes her future but alters her past, as well. In The Perfume Collector we learn of these changes through separate narratives, one from the late 1920s and ‘30s, the other in Paris during the spring of 1955. The book contains the stories of several intelligent, resourceful women who get by on their wits, sometimes their charms, and some of whom are simply bullied into lives they cannot escape.

The two narrative strings proceed quite independently of each other, until Ms. Tessaro’s meaning and intent become clearer. And as they do, the pace and our interest pick up concomitantly. The drawing of these two streams into a cohesive whole constitutes a lovely performance, very skillfully managed by the author.

I found the characters somewhat less skillfully handled, however. The earlier story belongs to Eva, whose sudden transition from 14-year old ingenue to debauched vamp at 15 I found quite jarring. She wields her newfound sexual power and glamour like a seasoned veteran. Where did she learn it so quickly, unless it was under the tutelage of the high-priced prostitute, Miss Waverly? We never see allusions to such tutelage, but we apparently must assume it.

In Grace’s case, she has violent reactions to what she learns of her own past, and the reader has to interpolate emotions rather that read about them - why is she so vituperative, what exactly is she crying about, why did she faint? These flaws are far from fatal, and more sensitive readers may not find them flaws at all. For me, these flights had no foundation in her story or emotional makeup.

I usually enjoy and appreciate open, non-conclusive endings, which this book has, and the potential for Grace’s pleases and gratifies the reader. I did become stuck wondering about French property law, though, and how it will affect Grace and her soon-to-be-estranged(?) husband.  The Perfume Collector is a pleasurable read, nonetheless. The beautiful plotting and the wise, balanced conclusion carry the day.

"Mrs. Dalloway" by Virginia Woolf

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

One learns in special relativity of the absolute elsewhere - that region outside past occurrences and also outside of future occurrences. One feels that the consciousnesses of various characters of Mrs. Dalloway to be absolutely exclusive of each other: specifically here I mean those of Septimus Warren Smith - a minor character suffering from madness which had its origins in the Great War - and Mrs. Dalloway herself. That these two universes should actually intersect is the great miracle of this very idiosyncratic novel.

With their sudden tangents, nested phrases, and occasional trop de longueur, its sentences remind one of Henry James’s. But here, the effect is more stream of consciousness, because we follow the fears and memories and self-doubt of the eponymous heroine, her most intimate associate, Peter, and the harrowing delusions of a suffering war veteran. Taken together, these thoughts and feelings cut for us a cross-section of post-World War I England and hold it up for inspection. The author is rather pitiless with her subjects: she knows the fear and doubt which undercut the lives and level the emotional landscape of 1920s London.

It is the great democratizer: Mrs. Dalloway's own doubts and terrors show her surprising affinity for those less fortunate:

“Then (she had felt it only this morning) there was the terror; the overwhelming incapacity, one’s parents giving it into one’s hands, this life, to be lived to the end, to be walked with serenely; there was in the depths of her heart an awful fear. Even now, quite often if [her husband] Richard had not been there reading the Times, so that she could crouch like a bird and gradually revive, send roaring up that immeasurable delight, rubbing stick to stick, one thing with another, she must have perished. But that young man had killed himself.”

The last sentence refers to Septimus, whom we encounter at abrupt moments through the book, who panics in the face of the medical establishment and leaps to his death. How does Mrs. Dalloway hear of his demise? At her party the evening of that fateful day, when the distinguished Doctor’s wife tells her of it.

This episode, which Mrs. Dalloway hears second-hand, affects her deeply. It generates a terror which she must suppress so that she can play hostess at a glittering party. And so: personal histories will trail behind us and ensnare us in the end. Woolf shows us this truth: it  crosses class lines, lines of sex and social position. At length she portrays London poised on a precipice, holding Mrs. Dalloway in its arms with everyone else, ready to plunge into an epic, swallowing darkness.

This is a very effective psychological novel, with its close, sometimes disjointed retelling of the terror and delusion that we feel. The author manages all this with a careful, almost fussy, diction that nevertheless results in a kind of bluntness. The hurt feelings, the desperate hopes, the entrenched animosities, all see the light of day. It’s a distinctive achievement, memorable and affecting, and I’m certainly glad to have made Miss Woolf’s acquaintance.

"Alice Fantastic" by Maggie Estep

Tuesday, August 4, 2015

In a charming piece that manages to be touching in spite of itself, Maggie Estep spins the story of how Alice Hunter, her sister Eloise, and their mother navigate their way through very challenging lives. It’s a hysterically funny piece, full of gallows and self-deprecating humor. Novelist Jonathan Ames says Ms. Estep “is the bastard daughter of Raymond Chandler and Anaïs Nin.”

So yes, the sisters are so abrupt with each other and their mother, both in thought and word, that their outward, gruff exteriors may be described as hard-boiled. And though the author portrays the ever-present inclination among all three to express and act upon their erotic desires, this inclination never intrudes on the story; it always serves it as an integral feature that at times brings the three women closer and at other times drives a wedge between them.

This novel is about the growth of all three women, who are closer in age than most mother-daughter combinations. The women grow in fits and starts, through painful episodes, like the incarceration of a lover, and an unexpected pregnancy. Ms. Estep knows her subject, and doesn’t let any of her narrative decay into sentiment (which is warded off by wise-cracking and verbal bullying), or rancor, because eventually we know it’s no more than skin-deep. This is the growth that’s on offer. It will affect you; it gratifies with its balanced treatment and realistic conclusions.

I enjoyed Alice Fantastic more and more as I got into it. I’m glad I stuck with it because 40% of the way in, I wasn’t sure I would. Give this a go. Maggie Estep’s book is bright, clever, very well paced, and surprisingly affecting.

"Hotel Moscow" by Talia Carner

Thursday, July 30, 2015

Talia Carner, like her heroine Brooke Fielding, traveled to Moscow in the early days of that city’s emergence from decades of communism. She apparently went with the intention of training Russian entrepreneurial women in basic business practices, also as in Hotel Moscow. I hope like crazy she didn’t face all the same threats from Russian men, the Russian Parliament, and chauvinistic Russian attitudes as her heroine.

For these threats and grave dangers fill Hotel Moscow from beginning to end. Brooke is detained for no reason at Sheremetyevo airport when she first arrives; she is injured when Russian mafia thugs destroy a small clothing factory; and she suffers further injury in the artillery exchange when Parliament rises up against Boris Yeltsin.

These bruising episodes stand in for the systemic bias against women, and especially against Jewish women, in Russia as it struggled to shake off decades of government by paranoia. Ms. Carner does an exceptional job of bringing these prejudices clearly into focus - that’s one chief accomplishment of this book.

The author attempts an inward journey for her main character; she pulls this off with less success. She shows her heroine looking at herself unblinkingly, and finally comes to own and acknowledge past misjudgments and mistakes. Perhaps there was too much going on in Brooke’s life, as in our experience while reading of the confusing, threatening whirlwind of her visit. This inward dialog falls short - we want a deeper, less stereotypical Brooke.

Be warned though: women suffer rape and other tortures in this book. Ms. Carner has chosen not to spare us these details, and they serve her fiction - they are not gratuitous scenes at all. I admire her all-encompassing recitations of these evils.

Overall the book left me glad to be done. I tired of Brooke and her disjointed visit, honestly. Scenes that I thought would climax in some heart-pounding suspense just petered out. The result was uneven. I applaud the clarity and comprehensive storytelling the author employs to describe the range of abuse heaped on women by Russian men, but not the unreliable structure supporting it.

"Flash Fiction International"

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

 Very Short Stories from Around the World

Edited by James Thomas, Robert Shapard, Christopher Merrill

Flash Fiction International contains 86 stories in 182 pages, an average of about 2¼ pages per story, and for me, that average feels a little high. This remarkable collection also has a section called “Flash Theory,” from which I will quote Lia Purpura:

Why are miniature things so compelling? …
The miniature is mysterious ….
Miniatures encourage attention ….
Miniatures are intimate ….
Time, in miniature form, like a gas compressed, gets hotter.”

These thoughts help describe the appeal of these extremely short, “sudden” pieces of fiction. They are invariably jolting: they condense character, emotion, confusion, wonder, and disappointment in a few short paragraphs, and as varied as the effects are, one can always say, “Oh! That took me in a strange direction.” As short as they are, it’s impossible to get a feel for where the next piece will pick you up and subsequently drop you off. It happens so fast and so frequently that one becomes more and more impressed, bemused … happy is the only word that’s accurate. I adore the moment of finishing a work of fiction, when all the thoughts provoked by it assemble and mix and reverberate with and against each other. The stories in this lively and lovely collection generate this aesthetic frisson over and over again. They’re very dependable that way; it’s an excess of joy and wonder.

Here’s a quote from Chen Yizhi from the same “Theory” section:

“The flame of complete combustion has a blue tinge. It is a beautiful color; it is a ferocious color. A piece of writing is powerful if its words are “completely combusted.”

This concept of gas heated, compressed, and combusted captures the character of these snippets perfectly. In a few short paragraphs, as I said, characters are introduced, they interact and conclusions, either open-ended, or final and abrupt, or simply ambiguous, are reached, and the point and the pace and the tone vary from page to page, literally. There are pieces here by Sherman Alexie, Naguib Mahfouz, Czesław Miłosz, Franz Kafka, Petronius, Shirani Rajapakse, Ron Carlson, and let’s see, 81 other authors who are unknown to me.

What a tonic! As much as I love and admire full-length fiction, these little marvels have had such a salutary effect on me. I highly recommend them for you, too. Take and enjoy. The doses might be small but they are always bracing!

"Excommunicados" by Charles Haverty

Monday, June 29, 2015

Charles Haverty has become conversant with the intricacies of a strict catechistic Catholic upbringing. And it seems to this lapsed Catholic that there’s only one way to be that familiar, that intimate with that particular mindset: you have to earn it. So one way to experience Excommunicados is as an in-depth review of such an upbringing, a series of war stories of the state of mind and its lasting effects.

And let me say at least near the outset that this year’s John Simmons Short Fiction Award winner is a highly deserving recipient. The stories plumb the depths of faith and lust, innocence and disillusion, and the ineradicable distances people place between each other. The stories which feature the conflict between one’s devout childhood and everyday adult realities focus on this schism, this disconnect between indoctrination and the world. This dichotomy lives at the center of these tales, generates much of the energy in them, and its principle gives its name to the collection.

There is the 6th-grade boy, agog at the beauty of his friend’s mother, and her irreverent attitude toward the parish pastor. There is the unscrupulous lawyer, who allows his client, who is his wife’s annoying brother, to go to prison wrongfully. A college freshman ends up after a long, harrowing day of driving at his high school buddy’s house, only to face a perplexing comeuppance. There are severe fractures in these stories, but there are also touching glimpses of redemption, unexpected shows of grace, that make these stories worth your while. They are uniformly excellent. I must have said that before about short fiction coming out of the University of Iowa, but I see no way around repeating myself.

Like all excellent short fiction, the events in these pages have a high clarity; motivation is clear and powerful and denouement brings that unsurpassed frisson of work exceedingly well wrought. The twelve entries on offer here show a master at work, and encountering such mastery is just a joy. Very highly recommended.

"Night in Erg Chebbi and Other Stories" by Edward Hamlin

Sunday, June 21, 2015

In Night in Erg Chebbi and Other Stories, Edward Hamlin demonstrates in nine dazzling selections an uncanny insight into human grief and guilt and expiation. On his way to a very well-deserved Iowa Short Fiction Award for 2015, Mr. Hamlin has produced a series of vivid, highly varied, and completely convincing pieces - they’re stunningly clear in their emotional depth and uniformly excellent in execution.

They range from a tenebrous midnight in the Moroccan desert, to the parched aridity of an isolated town in the western U.S., to the backwoods of fundamentalist cruelty and familial abuse in the Ozarks, to murderous and frozen New York at its worst. The collection leads off with "Indígena", a gratifyingly balanced account of a woman whose father was a fugitive Irish revolutionary and assassin. Her familiarity with weapons and understanding of the true meaning of being on the lam may have saved her from drowning in the raging Amazon River. This memorable story sets the tone for what follows: swift pacing, unexpected plot turns, and reverberant finishes that generate questions as often as they answer them.

The cover story follows, a simply beautiful, clear, and wrenching story about a woman who finally begins to come to terms with crushing guilt, desperately firing an assault rifle in the middle of the Moroccan midnight, naked and screaming. "Light Year" and "One Child Policy" take up the terrible outcomes for two very different American women, a professional photojournalist who is losing her eyesight and an frightened Chinese immigrant trying to make her way in a New York populated with bigoted thugs and a blizzard. The author fills these stories with effective background, as he does with every entry here, with a minimum of language and a maximum of effect.

"The Release" is the most emotionally affecting story among a lot of strong entries. In it a woman tries to balance her interests with those of her recently deceased husband’s ex-wife, and the emotionally handicapped daughter from the first marriage. How she succeeds at this is one of the truly surprising results in this collection full of surprises. In "Not Yet", "Head Shy," and "Clemency," we witness men whose variety of misdemeanors come from their wildly different backgrounds and personalities, but in which death is a constant, but the movement toward redemption is not.

Even in these brief stories, Mr. Hamlin reveals character only gradually, as the disastrous, or unfortunate, or careless, or simply misguided, events and impulses become clear and overtake the action and resolution. I have not been so impressed by a collection of short stories in quite a long time. These are all splendid, each with their multiple attractions, and deserve as wide an audience as we can muster. Without a doubt, take these up!

"The Journey Home" by Olaf Olafsson

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

An Icelandic chef travels from London to Reykjavik in The Journey Home - she travels in a literal sense, and as in quality fiction, her journey takes on a metaphoric dimension as well. Her journeys meaning is revealed to us in the course of her first-person narrative, and along the way the author treats us to some remarkable effects. This is a bewitching book, with its low-key diction and its high-strung, independent heroine. 

Her name is Asdis, and is called Disa for short. In her life she goes her own way, to the chagrin and frustration of her family, her mother in particular. After an expensive course of training in clerical work, she opts for a career in cooking. She falls in love with and agrees to marry a German Jewish man just as World War II is starting, and this too, irks her family. In fact she and her mother become estranged. The present-day part of her story occurs long after these events, however, and although she has spells where she strongly doubts the success of her mission, she pushes on in spite of herself.  

Olaf Olafsson manages this portrait with a very different but highly affecting scheme. Disas telling of her story has the feel of a long, one-sided conversation, drawn out through a single, talk-filled night. She bounces around in time as she weaves her tale, but dont be fooled: none of this ever approaches aimlessness. Mr. Olafsson has a very distinct, very touching story to relate, and he bends his heroine and his style to its ends very surely. I found the whole very effective and very memorable. 

Disa has her dark moments and her author deepens them with perfectly striking imagery and blunt-spoken philosophy. About 80% through the book our narrator avers: 

"You grow up, people say, as if they have attained some higher wisdom, and will even put on a solemn face if they are sufficiently dishonest with themselves, or else mutter the assertion in low tones, avoiding looking in the mirror.
 And a few sentences later:

"Hope is the sister of self-deception and I have learned to avoid those sisters as far as I can. Their smile is fawning and their manner false The truth demands accuracy and concentration which sometimes makes it hard to handle. 

The accuracy and concentration here are undeniable. Mr. Olafsson gives us an unblinkingly honest heroine, one who savages herself when she feels she deserves it you will not always agree that she does deserve it. She can be prickly at times, and a hard partner to live with; this is a complete portrait: intricate, nuanced, realistic. 

I recommend this book highly to the readers who happily lose themselves in intimate psychological dramas. The author approaches his subject in a unique way, and we the readers benefit: Disas emotional journey deserves a wide circulation. Take this up!

"But is it Art?" by Cynthia Freeland

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Cynthia Freeland, Chair of the Department of Philosophy at the University of Houston, came out with But is it Art? in 2001. It’s an excellent introduction to various theories of art, particularly for an abject layman like me. In it, Professor Freeland expounds on competing and converging beliefs held by critics and philosophers, and she does so in a logical, concise, and accessible way. The book is a slim one, bolstered by References, Further Reading and an Index, like any scholarly book will.

However, as I say, the body of this book contains no stuffy jargon, no obfuscating phrases; its points are painstakingly made, and highly accessible to the average adult reader. Her own preferences and beliefs are no mystery, but she handles the presentation of competing thought processes with commendable fairness and even-handedness.

You will get a very convincing and non-judging assessment of some of the more shocking art which has been presented in the last 25 years. You will encounter deep discussions on such thinkers as John Dewey, Arthur Danto, the anthropologist Richard Anderson, Marshall McLuhan, and Jean Baudrillard, among numerous others.

This book is required in an aesthetics class at a local university. I have taken copious notes from it, but won’t bore you with them. Suffice it to say, I found this brief, direct, and accessible book a commendable starting point in discussing art. The flow of the ideas reach other media besides graphic art, but those media are its main focus.

"A Peculiar Grace" by Jeffrey Lent

Sunday, April 26, 2015

Jeffrey Lent’s heroes face challenges out of the run of the mill. Some of these, as in In the Fall and Lost Nation, face an onslaught of outside forces strong enough to bow or break even the strongest protagonist. In A Peculiar Grace, hero Hewitt Pearce’s toughest tests result instead from his own past and his not-always-healthy ways of coping with it. In this book, Mr. Lent has shrunk his canvas down from the sweeping, heroic backdrops he used in Fall and Nation, to the emotional life of one stubborn yet searching man, who trusts his emotions and views of life maybe a little too much. And he succeeds beautifully again, the author does.  This book makes me feel many things; however, surprise at the author’s skill is not one of them.

Vermont blacksmith Hewitt Pearce was lucky enough as a teenager to feel the desperation and euphoria of deep love. When this affair ends unhappily for him, he lets it sink him into an alcohol-soaked despair which he survives only through the last-ditch efforts of his friend Walter. Twenty years later, he’s essentially a hermit with a good blacksmith’s practice, and a tractor for getting to the store. Suddenly twenty-something Jessica crashes onto his property and into his life.  She’s a fugitive from life’s vagaries, somewhat in the mold of Hewitt himself. Their quirky exploration of each other’s boundaries, beliefs, and personality form - and charm - the bulk of the book. This is the “peculiar grace” of the title. Although Hewitt’s life and heart become torqued up again when his onetime great love is widowed, he cannot revert to form - to chase her and/or pine after her - because of the new presence in his life.

I did what I very seldom do after finishing a book. I went back to re-read scenes of especially well-done dialogue, because they are some of the great charms of this charming book. We sink neck-deep into Hewitt’s psyche, and watch him

take his painful steps toward a more balanced emotional outlook. Mr. Lent grants his hero the capacity to give and also gives him the knack of communicating, through a forthright and laconic way - almost a shorthand - that captivates. His writing captures this perfectly. 

I wasn’t sure what to expect from A Peculiar Grace, after the previous heroic entries I mentioned. What I got demonstrates Mr. Lent’s mastery. He remains one of the very best practicing the craft today, as his every book amply proves. Take this up. It’s also one of the few that I definitely plan on rereading, even with my reading time at such a premium. 

"The Empty Throne" by Bernard Cornwell

Friday, April 17, 2015

So. When last we saw Uhtred of Bebbanburg, he was fighting a desperate battle against extremely long odds, even for him. Overwhelmingly outnumbered, fighting for his life, he is savagely wounded in the same instant that he kills his enemy.

And at the outset of The Empty Throne, the eighth entry in Bernard Cornwell’s Saxon Tales, Uhtred is indeed gravely wounded, limping as he walks, stalked by agony if he simply turns his body or mounts his horse. Aethelred, the puppet ruler of Mercia, dies from wounds himself relatively early in the story, and the jockeying for lordship over Mercia begins. Uhtred is just as good at royal politics as he is at fighting, and maneuvers the assembled nobles into accepting Lady Aethelflaed as the now-famous Lady of Mercia. I invite you to look up her legacy and exploits.

Mr. Cornwell consistently brings us to the middle of 10th-Century Britain. The sights and conflicts, the smells and superstitions, envelop us as always. And the indomitable Uhtred lives to plot and scheme and bully his way to victory yet again. I confess I more than half expected this to be the final chapter in this riveting saga, but the author concluded once again with a note that unmistakably indicates that at least one more book is coming in the series. And I am betting that two more books will follow The Empty Throne. I know I hope it’s at least that many.

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