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Banana Yoshimoto Wants You to Feel Again



DEAD-END MEMORIES: Stories, by Banana Yoshimoto, translated by Asa Yoneda

The five stories in Banana Yoshimoto’s collection “Dead-End Memories” — first published in Japan in 2003, it is her 11th book to be translated into English — are strange, melancholy and beautiful. At the center of each is a woman negotiating the quiet fallout of personal history.

In “House of Ghosts,” a young woman encounters, well, ghosts of an elderly couple in the soon-to-be-demolished apartment of her new lover. The ghosts go about their mundane lives, seemingly unaware that they are ghosts. They make the narrator “uneasy,” she says: “Ghosts probably lived in ghost time — time that flowed in its own strange way, somewhere completely removed from our own. Couldn’t mixing in it, even just a little, sap you of some of the vitality you needed to live in this world?” As the living couple’s intimacy deepens, the odd poignancy of the ghosts becomes entangled with their anxiety about the imminent destruction of the building, and with it their temporary relationship. After the narrator and her lover split, their paths meander as they age in a way that makes the reader smile. “This life seemed simple at first glance,” Yoshimoto writes, “when in fact it existed within a flow that was far bigger, as vast as the seven seas.”

In “Mama!” — one of the most brilliant stories I’ve ever read — Mimi, a publishing company employee, is poisoned by a disgruntled co-worker. Running beneath the long, slow current of her physical recovery is Mimi’s parallel spiritual transformation: “Those days — that dream — had exposed something inside of me and changed it. Just like a pet bird that had accidentally ventured out of its cage, the incident had cast me out of the world that I had known.”

The title story follows a credulous young woman who discovers that her fiancé has been cheating on her for months. On her quiet, often funny route to self-discovery she finds a companion in Nishiyama, a desirable bartender who works for her uncle. As they share close quarters, their friendship grows into something like love. “I knew that under our separate skies, Nishiyama and I were both so lonely it physically hurt,” she thinks toward the end of their time together. “And in my mind’s eye I saw once again the view from the upstairs window, and the quiet golden world where ginkgo leaves fell and settled forever on the ground.”

Two shorter entries move away from this warmth and tenderness and into an eerie disquiet. “Not Warm at All” takes the form of a recollection of a childhood friend who was murdered, and “Tomo-chan’s Happiness” follows a young woman trying to love after being raped at 16. Though there might be superficial similarities between the stories — about boyfriends, familial tensions, horrific incidents in the narrators’ pasts — each one feels distinct, rich in its own particular way.

Yoshimoto’s leading women are lonely and blinkered, though not in the way that I have come to expect from the prickly and elegantly severe fictions of writers like Rachel Cusk, Aysegul Savas or, lately, Jhumpa Lahiri, whose narrators tend to experience a failure or a lack of desire to integrate into society. Yoshimoto’s lonely women have more in common with the bachelor characters of, say, Bernard Malamud or Leonard Michaels or Haruki Murakami. They also resemble, in their awkward but striking agency, the characters of Alice Munro’s best short stories about young womanhood, by turns comedic, sad and aching for connection.

The spiky fictions of Anglophone literature of the past decade — staked on the idea of passivity as agency within a violent, dystopian, capitalist hellscape — are cutting and observant; but sometimes they leave the reader wondering: When can books be warm again? When can we have feelings again? Yoshimoto’s protagonists go out and act, they feel, they express, even if only to themselves. Even at their loneliest, these characters are a part of something, whether a relationship, a friendship, a family, a workplace, a society, a world.

These stories made me believe again that it was possible to write honestly, rigorously, morally, about the material reality of characters; to write toward human warmth as a reaffirmation of the bonds that tie us together. This is a supremely hopeful book, one that feels important because it shows that happiness, while not always easy, is still a subject worthy of art.

Brandon Taylor is the author, most recently, of “Filthy Animals.”

DEAD-END MEMORIES: Stories, by Banana Yoshimoto, translated by Asa Yoneda | 221 pp. | Counterpoint | $26


Can You Connect These Memorable Characters With Their Novels?



Welcome to Lit Trivia, the Book Review’s multiple-choice quiz designed to test your knowledge of books and their authors. This week’s installment asks you to identify memorable characters from mid-20th-century novels. After the last question, you’ll find a list of books highlighted in the quiz.

The Book Review Quiz Bowl appears on the Books page every week with a new topic. Click here for the archive of past quizzes.

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In Her Fiction, Ayana Mathis Refuses to Ignore Black History



THE UNSETTLED, by Ayana Mathis

As a novelist and a student of history, I’m interested in the question of whether Black novelists must acknowledge history in our work, or if it is possible, in the name of artistic freedom, to truly set it aside. I, for one, submit that Black history will always hover over American literature, whether or not the author intends it to. As Toni Morrison wrote in 1992, the Black American population “preceded every American writer of renown and was, I have come to believe, one of the most furtively radical impinging forces on the country’s literature.”

Ayana Mathis’s explicitly historical second novel, “The Unsettled” — appearing nearly 11 years after her acclaimed debut, “The Twelve Tribes of Hattie” — makes a strong case for the fact that the past can never truly be shaken off. Mathis follows three central characters across time and geography: the emotionally delicate Ava, a young mother trying to create a sense of home for herself and her son in 1980s Philadelphia; her wonderfully profane mother, Dutchess, who still lives in Ava’s tiny, all-Black hometown in Alabama; and Ava’s precocious son, Toussaint, who is arguably the book’s protagonist. He begins the novel with a short prologue in which he’s 13, has run away from foster care and is heading down to Bonaparte, Ala., to find Dutchess. Ava is now in prison.

The novel introduces these mysteries — Why is Ava in prison? Where is Toussaint’s father? Why is the boy running toward instead of away from Alabama, as so many Black folks have done since the Great Migration? — before jumping back a few years, to 1985, when Ava drags 10-year-old Toussaint into a homeless shelter in Philadelphia. The mother and son have been thrown out of the home they shared with Abemi, Ava’s abusive husband and Toussaint’s stepfather, in New Jersey. What brought them to this point?

Mathis renders Ava and Toussaint’s time in the shelter in poignant, heartbreaking detail. The staff members are at best cold and insensitive, at worst sexually exploitative. Though Ava tries her best, she increasingly loses connection with reality, reminiscing about her past with Toussaint’s father, Cass, in a series of disorienting, fragmented memories. These episodes, along with the residual trauma from Abemi’s abuse, prevent her from nurturing Toussaint, who is left to his own devices, essentially adultified. Her maternal neglect tests the reader’s sympathy as she leaves her child to ready himself for school, forgets to take him to the shelter cafeteria for their meals, doesn’t search for him when he disappears for hours at a time.

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In Defense of Men? Caitlin Moran’s Answer Will Surprise You.



WHAT ABOUT MEN? A Feminist Answers the Question, by Caitlin Moran

Caitlin Moran was giving a speech, and she was annoyed. For years, she’d been on this circuit — talking about her books, her columns, feminism and the state of womanhood. Everywhere she went, she seemed to get the same question: What was her advice for men?

Men, of course, are not her area of expertise. She isn’t one, for starters, though she is married to a man. She hasn’t birthed any, though she has daughters. Her successful writing career hasn’t been about men; she’s best known for her books “How to Be a Woman” and “How to Build a Girl.” Anyway, shouldn’t somebody be asking a man these questions?

Moran dismissed these inquiries with a joke: “My advice to men? I guess, a) please, if you can possibly avoid it, don’t rape us, and b) put the bowls in the dishwasher — rather than next to the dishwasher?”

The questions kept coming — eventually, from Moran’s own teenage girls. But it took a conversation with four boys from one daughter’s school — during a Zoom for International Women’s Day, no less — to really shake her.

“Men are just seen as bad, or toxic,” one boys tells her. “We’re blamed for everything. People just automatically presume we’re all rapists.”

When the call was over, the girls pleaded with her to recommend the boys some reading, a TV show, anything that would help close the gap between the sexes. She couldn’t think of anything. At least not anything that was useful and entertaining.

Moran changed course.

The result is “What About Men?,” an irreverent, albeit anecdotal, dig into the claim made in incel chat rooms, on Reddit and in the so-called manosphere that it’s easier to be a woman than it is to be a straight white man today. And, guess what? She believes it.

No, really.

In part because straight white men are still seen as the “default,” Moran writes, “it’s almost as if the actual details of their lives have become see-through. Invisible.”

That, and they can’t blame the patriarchy for their problems. For women, she writes, “change begins with the delicious moment” when you realize the problem is not your own. “But how can men blame ‘the patriarchy’ when, as a straight white man, you look like the patriarchy? Then you’re just in a ‘Fight Club’ situation, where you’re hitting yourself in the face.”

“What About Men?” is written in Moran’s usual confessional style — except that she’s defending the very people we’ve grown accustomed to her poking fun at.

Moran begins by interviewing men ages 40 to 55 (a hilariously narrow slice of the population), about the messages they received about how to be a man. For instance, many boys learn they “have to hit someone,” and there are apparently rules about this playground violence: Slapping is insulting. Kicking in the groin could be mistaken for “a bit gay.” For those with no physical skills, there’s always humor — “a currency and a power,” Moran learns.

Moran talks to a friend in an eye-opening chapter about being addicted to porn. (This person is not an expert, per se; just someone she happened to chat with. The majority of Moran’s subjects have this vibe.) She takes on unattainable beauty standards for men, who don’t have a “body positivity” movement to flood their Instagram with “rolls, stretch marks, lavish thighs and triumphant wibbly-wobbly bums.” She interviews a friend named Hugo about pickup artists, explores why men don’t go to the doctor (fear of judgment; fear of death; fear of looking weak) and takes on aging.

Moran also dispatches some womanly advice.

About sex: Women don’t really care about size, though “in the weeks, and sometimes months, after a breakup, women will almost always accuse their ex of having a tiny penis.”

About libido: “Women are as horny as men.”

About why women often don’t act on that libido: “The toughest thing about being a heterosexual woman is that the thing that, very often, we love the most — that you are bigger than us; your beautiful strong hands; the solidity of your arms; the weight of your body on top of us … — is also the thing we are most scared of.”

Those hoping for a sociological dig into men and masculinity will be disappointed. Her strength is in writing what she knows, and it is impossible even for the most clever and comprehensive author to sum up an entire sex.

And anyway, “What About Men?” isn’t meant to be comprehensive. It’s meant to be funny. But that at times, without research of any kind to support her clever observations — and no, a stoned conversation with her husband’s balls does not count — she runs the risk of perpetuating the very stereotypes she’s trying to unravel.

Ultimately, Moran seems to approach the world with irreverence. In the case of this book, readers should do the same.

Jessica Bennett is a contributing editor in the Opinion section of The Times.

WHAT ABOUT MEN? A Feminist Answers the Question, by Caitlin Moran | 320 pp. | Harper | $29.99

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