Book Review Rewind: Kitchen by Banana Yoshimoto

Japan Lit Chal 7 - DolBelDolce Bellezza is currently hosting the 7th incarnation of the Japanese Literature Challenge.  As this challenge started in June and runs through January 30, 2014, I’m quite unfashionably late to the party.  But as I am currently reading (or rather, rereading) a Japanese work, the time seems right to get involved.


I originally read and reviewed Kitchen in 2012, and I found it both engaging and emotionally satisfying. Currently, a book group I am part of is reading/discussing the book, so I’m re-reading – something I don’t often do.  I am loving it all over again and will post an update with any new thoughts I have on this second go-around.  This is my original review from my first read, so I have something to compare with my thoughts with after the re-read.


KitchenTitle: Kitchen
Author: Banana Yoshimoto
First Published: 1988 (Japan; English translation 2006)
Reviewed: 2012 (original; rereading now & will update with thoughts on 2nd read)
Rating: 4.5/5

Reading this brief duet – a novella and a companion short story – brought me a breath of fresh literary air. The emotions were so authentic and the characters so delicately-drawn that I felt cleansed by my reading. After many heavy, word-thick reads, Banana Yoshimoto’s clean, bright prose was refreshing and heart-lifting, and she never veers into the maudlin or the saccharin.

The novella, Kitchen, is the real star here, and the paired story, Moonlight Shadow, serves to follow up on related themes. In Kitchen, we meet Mikage, all alone in the world after losing her parents as a child, her grandfather as a young teen, and finally her grandmother now that she is in her university years. Her path crosses with that of Yuichi, who trains in biology while working at the floral shop Mikage’s grandmother loved to frequent, and Yuichi’s mother, who has led a colorful, many-layered life. Together, they explore several shades of grief, regret, longing, and hope, and woven through it all are kitchens, both literal and symbolic, which are where Mikage truly feels at home.

This book could have been a terrible downer, but Yoshimoto somehow manages to make a study of grief and loss feel hopeful and uplifting, with a strong sense of rebirth. The effect is actually a bit magical, and there is a touch of the sort of quirky, bittersweet magical realism that graces the movie Amélie and the other works of director Jean-Pierre Jeunet. There is also some kinship with the quiet side of Haruki Murakami’s work. The story’s form takes shape on a framework of the sort of placid strength and quiet resilience that is to me, if not uniquely, then certainly distinctly Japanese.

Taking Kitchen together as a pair with the short story that shares the volume, Moonlight Shadow, my overall rating would be  4.5 out of 5. I didn’t love the hard jolt of the transition between the novella and the paired short story. I would grant the novella Kitchen 5 stars as a standalone work and Moonlight Shadow 4 stars as a self-contained entity. The story – of a girl whose lover died far too young and who has a strange, transformative experience – also deals with loss and grief and longing, but the abrupt stop between the two story worlds, which do not share characters, didn’t fully work for me.

All in all, I highly recommend this quick read, and I will enthusiastically seek out more of the author’s work. There is something indescribable at play between the lines of Yoshimoto’s prose, and I find its pull irresistible.


Book Review Rewind: Breakfast at Tiffany’s by Truman Capote

Recently, I mentioned that although I can’t seem to get into the review-writing vibe, I do have a backlist of older reviews originally posted at Goodreads, my local library’s summer reading reviews board, or elsewhere.  As I am not really feeling much love for Goodreads at present, due to the recent reviewer censorship drama (in which I was not involved) I am slowly pulling my reviews from the site, and as I’ve never posted my non-speculative fiction reviews on a blog, this seems like a good time to do so.


First up is Breakfast at Tiffany’s by Truman Capote (1958,) which I originally read and reviewed in December 2011.  Although I went in with low-to-moderate expectations due to the fluffy movie adaptation, I ended up very pleasantly surprised, giving the book 5/5.

This was really entertaining. As many others have noted before me, it is quite different from the movie adaptation. It is not only much darker, but more believable. The movie is a fun romp, but the book is another animal, and I feel it is a much deeper, nuanced, and all-around better story than the one told in the movie, as well.

In the film, Holly Golightly is quirky and likable. Audrey Hepburn has that effect on a role. In the book, Holly is certainly quirky, but hardly likable. She is a user of people, a habitual liar, deeply selfish, and often a bitch. The unnamed narrator falls for her like the domino he is (although he seems to have little romantic interest in women…Even he loves Holly G.) and is as readily swept off the board, with all the other easy, disposable pieces.

Holly isn’t exactly a classic femme fatale, as she doesn’t seem to actually wish her victims ill. She is simply so…careless and uncaring. She inspires in others (especially men) a desire to protect her, to care for her, worry over her, worship her. Holly uses men for money or security (physical and emotional,) sleeps around with no care for the emotions of anyone, mistreats her female pal (who mistreats her right back), abandons everyone who trusts her… There is very little to like here, but oh, she’s certainly pretty! And charming! And surprising in her talents and ability to morph into whatever a person wants her to be…for a while. She wraps the world around her little finger and then is dismissive when it takes offense. The irony is that she honestly believes she’s a good egg and a misunderstood soul; she’s convinced even herself, charmed even herself into believing she’s always honest with herself. She is fiercely loyal to one person only: herself, and the rest of the world be damned. This is the story of the world’s most charming and adorable psychosis. (I’d cast Zooey Deschanel for the lead in a true-to-the-book modern reboot. Can she play full-of-secrets-and-broken-to-the-core? I’ll bet she could.)

So…an interesting character study from a truly stellar writer. Truman Capote has a laser-like ability to expose the hidden layers of his characters, and considering when this book was written, his frankness must have been a bit shocking to many a reader. Is it any wonder Hollywood used Capote’s scaffolding to fashion a completely inverted story for the film? The original story isn’t very “feel-good”. (An example: In the film, one famous scene shows a boiserous party at Holly’s apartment, couples carousing and having fun, quirky situations ensuing. But in the book, the party is Holly and a bunch of men, competing for her attentions, each man thinking he alone had been invited to her rooms. She sets herself up as a queen on a tenuous throne and lets the boys sweat it out. In the book, her female acquaintance shows up and steals some of the boys’ attentions…so she spreads cruel innuendo to turn them off the competition. In the film, this same pal is a drunken, pushy, classless lout…no competition at all, and no need for Holly to show her cruel side. Example 2: Can you envision Audrey Hepburn’s Holly screaming at a kitty cat to “Fuck off!”?) And what a good name he’s chosen for his creature: Golightly, as she moves flittingly, fleetingly, almost ghostlike through others’ lives, coming and going again with the changing winds.

I think Capote would agree that Holly must always have the last word when telling her story, so I’ll close by letting her tell her tale as only she can:

“I’ve thrown away my horoscopes. I must have spent a dollar on every goddamn star in the goddamn planetarium. It’s a bore, but the answer is good things only happen to you if you’re good. Good? Honest is more what I mean. Not law-type honest – I’d rob a grave, I’d steal two-bits off a dead man’s eyes if I thought it would contribute to the day’s enjoyment – but unto-thyself-type honest. Be anything but a coward, a pretender, an emotional crook, a whore. I’d rather have cancer than a dishonest heart.”

Barbara Pym Reading Week


I have a confession to make:  I have never read Barbara Pym.  That feels like such a heinous thing to admit!  Well, I shall shortly be rectifying this gross oversight, because between June 1st and June 8th, the bloggers at My Porch (who designed the lovely banners for the challenge) and Fig and Thistle (who also has set up a neat Pym-themed Pinterest page) are hosting Barbara Pym Reading Week, in honor of what would be the author’s 100th birthday on June 2nd.

As I will have the house to myself all day and night June 7th and most of the day on the 8th, I’m thinking of having a bit of a stay-up-too-late reading marathon in which I will try to inhale the entirety of something by Pym.  I have both Excellent Women and Quartet in Autumn from the library and will simply try the first chapters/goodly chunk of pages of each and let each book speak its case to decide which I wolf down for my marathon read.  I thought to try Excellent Women, because besides coming highly recommended,  it’s written in first person.  I go weak-kneed for first-person narratives!  Quartet in Autumn has also repeatedly been suggested to me, and both books will help with my Classics Club and 1001 Books projects.   So I think either will do nicely as My First Pym.

I originally learned about the BP Reading Week event via Heavenali, who is also hosting a Barbara Pym Virtual Tea Party on Facebook.  As I don’t “do” Facebook, I can’t link directly to Heavenali’s FB event page, but you can find all the details on her blog.  As I can hardly go a few hours without tea, I will definitely brew up a pot in Pym’s name during my marathon read.

Finally, in Pym’s honor, I’d like to share a link to a lovely article on Pym which was posted yesterday at The Awl, written by Awl contributor Carrie Frye. There are many juicy and amusing bits about Pym and her life and career, and it definitely made me curious to read more both about and by her.

The Classics Club: Classics Spin Selection


The Classics Club recently posted that Monday morning, May 20, we would see the announcement of our selection number for the second installment of The Classics Spin, and as promised, they’ve just posted the much-anticipated Spin Number:  #6.

In my case, this means I’ll be reading Julien Gracq’s The Opposing Shore, which I’m terrifically excited to read.  Originally published in France in 1951 as Le rivage des Syrtes, this work is considered a prime example of elegant and subtle surrealism as metaphor and social commentary.  Wikipedia says of The Opposing Shore:  “A novel of waiting, it is set in an old fortress close to a sea which defines the ancestral border between the stagnant principality of Orsenna and the territory of its archenemy, the mysterious Farghestan. Its lonely characters are caught in a no man’s land, waiting for something to happen and wondering whether something should be done to bring about change, particularly when change may mean the death of civilisations.”

This title is included on both the 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die list and Le Monde’s 100 Books of the Century and garnered the author the coveted Prix Goncourt, which he declined.  It is not always an easy book to find, and copies can be rather expensive, but my local library surprised me by having a copy deep in their stacks.  I need to finish the book by July 1st, I can hardly wait to get started!