Kitchen by Banana Yoshimoto
Banana Yoshimoto is just wonderful – I love everything of hers that I’ve read so far, and naturally I loved this book too. Kitchen is actually made up of two novellas – Kitchen, which is in two parts, and Moonlight Shadow – linked through their shared preoccupation with love, loss and grieving. But despite the heaviness of the subject matter, the language feels fresh and light, with a very natural, quiet kind of sentiment. Although it’s hard to comment too much on the language itself, as it is a translated text, there is something incredibly beautiful and affecting about its sparseness, and the details Yoshimoto picks out create a vivid and natural picture.
The first story centres around a young woman named Mikage, who is unsure how to move on in her life after the death of her grandmother, who had been her only remaining relative. Moving in with her friend Yuichi, she becomes a part of his small family, becoming close to his mother Eriko, a dazzling, enchanting transgender woman who instantly embraces Mikage as her daughter. Moonlight Shadow similarly centres around a loss – this time, the narrator is a young woman called Satsuki, whose boyfriend of many years has died. She meets a strange woman on a bridge who seems to know something about how Satsuki can see her lover again, and here the surreal and the ordinary intertwine in that particular way that makes so much contemporary Japanese literature so enthralling.
Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh
I loved the first section of this book, which centres on the relationship between the narrator, Charles, and the incredibly alluring, charming, drunken Sebastian, who he meets while they are both students at Oxford. This early part of the novel has that wonderfully nostalgic feel that grand, romantic university settings tend to evoke, and beautifully memorable details, like Sebastian’s rather adorable quirk of carrying around a teddy bear named Aloysius and acting as though the bear has thoughts and feelings.
I started to lose my enthusiasm in the second part, where Sebastian’s alcoholic condition worsens and he goes AWOL abroad somewhere, while Charles remains involved with Sebastian’s family at Brideshead as he establishes himself as an artist. Without the most interesting character no longer present, the story started to lose some of its pull for me. Then the third section, which jumps ahead a few years, felt like a completely different book altogether. I lost some of the warmth I felt for Charles, and I kept feeling like I had missed something.
But even though this all sounds kind of negative, I did enjoy the novel on a whole. And more than anything, I feel like it’s the sort of book that I would grow to adore if I thought about it a bit more and reread it a few times, so it’s definitely one I will return to.
Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman by Haruki Murakami
Sometimes I read a short story and I think, “Yes, this is why I want to write short stories”, and quite a few of the stories in this collection gave me that feeling. This book offers plenty of examples of the things Haruki Murakami does best – creating richly imaginative worlds, writing characters whose headspace you can instantly enter and become apart of, and seamlessly weaving the strange and outherwordly into scenes of ordinary life.
There are themes and motifs that will be familiar to anyone who has read other of Murakami’s works, but it each story feels unique and compelling. Some are stranger than others, and some are much better than others, but on the whole this is a solid collection of stories that I found engaging and inspiring. Basically, whether or not you enjoy this collection will most likely depend on a) whether you like short stories or not, and b) whether you like Murakami or not. If you do, you will.
The Women in Black by Madeleine St John
This is a fun and charming little book set in Sydney in the late 1950s, following a group of women working in the Ladies’ Cocktail Frocks section of F.G. Goode’s department store. At the centre of the novel is 17-year-old Lesley, a thin, shy, sheltered girl who is trying to reinvent herself as the more sophisticated and worldly Lisa. She expects to receive good results for her Leaving Certificate, but her father thinks women have no business going to university, so she spends the summer working as a sales assistant and trying to emulate the older women at the store while she waits, anxiously contemplating her future.
Then there’s the glamorous Magda, who works in Model Gowns and takes a particular motherly liking to Lisa, Fay Baines, who at 29 is in danger of becoming a spinster, but keeps meeting all the wrong men, and Patty Williams, who is trying to hide her marital trouble from the other women in black. The story meanders amongst their different stories, creating a witty and (knowingly, I think) frothy snapshot of the lives of middle-class urban Australian women in that era. There’s nothing life-changing about this book, but it’s light and easy to read, and on the whole quite enjoyable.
The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern
Le Cirque des Reves is a strange kind of circus. It’s a circus that arrives in town without warning and departs in the same way. It opens only after nightfall and closes before dawn, and during the day, a sign announces that “trespassers will be exsanguinated.” Inside, it’s a spellbinding wonderland all in black and white, with magicians and contortionists and strange creatures and unexplainable illusions. Everyone who sets foot in there is mesmerised.
Against this backdrop, Celia, the illusionist, and Marco, the proprietor’s assistant, have been pitted against each other in a seemingly endless competition that neither one of them quite understands. All they know is it’s some kind of showcase of their magic skills, but the terms and consequences are unclear. And naturally, it becomes even more complicated when they fall in love.
This is a charming and magical story filled with colourful characters – the flame-haired twins Poppet and Widget, the enigmatic contortionist Tsukiko, Celia’s famous magician father, who has performed a trick on himself that he can’t undo – and rich with descriptions of gorgeously imaginative illusions that make you want to stay in this world forever.
On Writing by Stephen King
I’d been recommended this book by several writer-friends, and I’d echo their recommendation to any writer – especially one who struggles with motivation and routine. It’s easy to dismiss how-to-write books in general, and even easier when it’s written by someone like Stephen King, who most “literary” writers would probably assume they have little to learn from. But you don’t have to like Stephen King or want to write the sort of things he does to get something out of this, because it’s more about the process of writing than anything else. Whatever you think of King’s books, he’s undeniably very prolific, and his dedication and work ethic are pretty impressive. As he describes his own writing process, he offers practical tips and guidelines for getting into a routine and producing work every day – and as hard as it is to bear when someone says you should be spending six hours a day writing if you want to be a writer, it is kind of inspiring.
Anyway, his voice is entertaining and engaging, and the book is quick and easy to read – I read most of it in one night – so there’s definitely nothing lost in checking it out.