Book review: “Moshi Moshi” by Banana Yoshimoto.

Banana Yoshimoto’s novel Moshi Moshi (translated from the Japanese by Asa Yoneda) tells the story of a young woman struggling to move on with her life while she and her mother grieve over her father’s bizarre death. Yoshie’s father, a prominent local rock musician, was found dead in a car with another woman in what looks to be a murder-suicide (or possibly a double suicide, we never find out for sure). The exact nature of the father’s relationship is left as just as much a mystery to the reader as it is to Yoshie*, but the story isn’t really about his death as much as it affects those closest to him.

The story begins with Yoshie’s mother moving into her apartment in Shimokitazawa as she feels her late husband’s presence in their old home in Meguro. At first Yoshie is reluctant but they both needed each other’s support, not to mention a change of place. Over time the move helps both of them heal from the wound that was dealt to them both. Yoshie works in the bistro across the street, where she meets the manager of the club where her father often played. He frequents the bistro until the two of them start dating. She also gets a couple of visits from a mysterious woman whose first husband also nearly died when having an affair with the woman who killed Yoshie’s father. Throughout the book Yoshie also seeks information and finally solace from one of her father’s former band-mates.

The change that Yoshie’s life goes through is strongly tied to the sense of place, as exemplified by a passage in which she and her mother down an entire cake in the apartment:

I’d never dreamed that Mom and I could do anything as fun as gorging on an entire cake until our bellies ached. We weren’t being hysterical, or depressed. We’d just thought of something nice to do, and done it together. That kind of thing felt wrong in Meguro, but the new apartment somehow made it possible.

In Shimokitazawa Yoshie gets a job at a successful bistro, becoming more or less the owner’s apprentice. She loves her work and the area where she lives and enjoys that she’s seeing somebody. It all has the comfort of a normal adult life. Yet she still dreams of her father. She’s not repressing memories or feelings—she and her mother constantly have conversations about how they feel and memories of times the three of them had as a family. But Yoshie has trouble processing her feelings, and needs all the help she can get in order to work them out as best she can.

Moshi Moshi has a slice-of-life feel throughout the book. It has a plot and it flows well, but it sets itself up in ways that a reader may feel misleading. The death of Yoshie’s father and the visit from the woman whose husband also had an affair with the dead woman implies that this book could have been a mystery. Yoshie’s mother seeing the ghost around the old apartment and Yoshie’s recurring dreams suggest that it could have been a ghost story of some sort. But these end up becoming fact-of-life occurrences, adding to the story but not taking it over.

That is not to say the book is disjointed or jarring. The light atmosphere the book presents with its grim setup may seem conflicted at first, but it only serves to help make the point. Even when struck by the horrifying loss of a loved one, life moves on. We may need some help and a change of place to help it do so, but it moves on regardless.


*Or Yocchan. Characters in the book refer to her with both names. I’m sorry, in the limited time I had to do research before publishing this blog post I couldn’t find out if one is the common nickname of the other, or if there was some other reason why her names were interchangeable. Perhaps somebody could help me in the comments below?

Catching up on some reading, will resume regular reviews this week.

As regular readers may have noticed I didn’t get around to a book review last week, either. I had intentionally skipped the previous week’s review so I could try to get caught up on some other reading. I ended up also borrowing the fifth book of My Struggle by Karl Ove Knausgaard. At over six hundred pages it was an undertaking, but that still isn’t something I have difficulty reading over a weekend. But other things came up and I wasn’t able to finish it until just a few minutes ago.

I’m not going to review Knausgaard’s book. It’s a large, intimidating work and besides,  I wouldn’t feel comfortable reviewing it until the sixth book comes out in English so I can read it anyway. It’s not six books in a series of novels but rather a novel so long that it’s split up into six books. I highly recommend it, but I won’t list my thoughts here… at least not yet, anyway.

I did borrow another book, Moshi Moshi by Banana Yoshimoto in order to review it tomorrow, or possibly Tuesday. I probably won’t get to read it until tomorrow. I still have all those back issues of magazines which I subscribe to that I haven’t read yet. I’m going to try to get at least some of those later today. Right now I want to try some fiction writing of my own, which I haven’t done in a while. I haven’t abandoned the centaur idea, but have settled on a form with which to tell that story. But today I’m going to just try a writing exercise in order to get back into the groove of things.

I identify as the writer of this blog post.

Since when did the phrase “identify as” become synonymous with the label that follows it? (Don’t worry, I’m not going into a diatribe about identity politics, just some of the terminology used.) Why say “I identify as a man” when you could use the stronger “I am a man” despite what you were biologically born as? I’m not making any judgement call about anybody’s alternative lifestyle. I just don’t see the need for the extra words. They feel like a way to soften the blow to others, or even for the person using it—as they’re still nervous about announcing said identity to the world.

I only use the term when I refer to identifying something that I’m not. I’m asexual, but for many years I identified as heterosexual by mistake. (For those keep track for whatever reason, I still haven’t fully realized my romantic orientation, nor am I likely to in the near future.) I’m not saying that I believe that anybody who uses the term “identify as” is using it as a mistake. But in my case, if I use it for the mistake it feels like it weakens the statement about what I am if I use it in that case as well.

There are cases when the phrase is useful. I was just reading an article in The New Yorker about a female lawyer who fought for women’s rights, and about two-thirds of the way through the article mentioned that she “identified as a man.” That’s fine—it was intended to show the contrast between her fight for women’s rights and her biological sex with her identity. In that case, the phrase is almost clinical. I only take umbrage with the way that the phrase gets tossed around a bit too freely.

Don’t mind me. I’m just in a picky mood this morning. “Identify as” could be nothing more than a quirk of contemporary language such as “that’s a thing” or those of use who slip the word “like” into sentences where it doesn’t belong (I’m still working on it, I swear).

Sometimes

Sometimes I feel like I’m achieving nothing
Sometimes I look at my reflection and see endless mirrors
Sometimes I feel desperate for I know not what
Sometimes I get fed up but I don’t know the alternative
Sometimes I tell myself, “This is it!
“I’m going to change my life for the better!”
But I don’t know what’s better

Sometimes I sometimes

And I hold it against myself

Sometimes I’ll hold anything against myself
For no reason at all

[Delayed post] In town for “Metal Night.”

Portland, ME 5/12/17 4:43 PM

I’m in Portland on a Friday yet again to head to the weekly Goth/Industrial night at a nightclub in town. I skipped last week but I had to make this one out of curiosity. Once in a while they have a sort of theme night (as if the usual dark music wasn’t enough). Tonight is “Metal Night.” I find this to be a bizarre one. I spent the better part of a decade identifying as a metalhead—some longtime readers may remember that once upon a time I was a frequent concert-goer and would post concert and album reviews. In recent years, however, I have been transitioning from a metalhead to a Goth, or at least I’ve been embracing my Gothic side more. I haven’t quite made it to the point in which I feel comfortable applying the term to myself. Anyway, tonight feels like a sort of nostalgic bridge for me.

The other curious aspect of tonight’s theme is that the theme is happening in the first place. When you already put together an evening once a week dedicated to one type of music, why would you take one week to play something else? Granted, the promoter of Plague doesn’t promote it so much “Goth/industrial” as much as “dark alternative dance.” Still, it seems weird to cater to a crossover crowd. The night sounds fun, but wouldn’t it only appeal to a limited crowd?

Clearly I’m one of those people. I’m also taking advantage of the fact that I can come to Portland right after work in a band t-shirt and my work jeans instead of stopping at home to clean up, change my clothes and put on make-up. Plus, it’s a nice day and it will be nice to wander around downtown for a while. Aside from bars and restaurants, most places around here close after seven. Plague doesn’t start until nine. The art museum is free on Fridays between five and eight. maybe I’ll stop in there. of course, on the other nights that I get here after they close I’m more appropriately dressed for it.

Am I just wasting my time?

It seems like the only time I have inspiration to write for this blog anymore is when I have a book review. Am I totally devoid of ideas now? Has the well dried up? Is this just a temporary slump? Or am I just getting lazy?

Some regular readers of mine may remember that a few weeks ago I became very ill with food poisoning. I spent much of that weekend in bed, not to mention returning to it after coming home from work for several days afterwards. During that time I did very little productively, aside from writing one blog post as to why I wasn’t writing for a while. I watched television but very little else. I didn’t even bother catching up on podcasts—I instead unsubscribed several of the more “intellectual” ones that I was up to that point listening to on a regular basis.

I realized that there was a lot of more “intellectual” activities of mine… or at least, things that I deemed as such—that felt more like work than pleasure. It wouldn’t be so bad if I felt like I was getting anything out of them. Have I hit some sort of brick wall in my life when I don’t care to expand my horizons anymore? I still keep my toe in the water, as it were, with some podcasts I listen to and some news sites and blogs that I read. But I feel like I’m getting to the point in my life when I would rather enjoy myself through entertainment than learn some trivial thing that I won’t ever use.

I know that looks. You might be thinking that I never know when I might put some of this knowledge to use, especially if I ever do get a job along the lines of my degree (an ever decreasing possibility at this point), start selling screenplays or go back for my master’s degree. I might just be getting lazy and that I’m looking for entertainment than intelligence in the things that I do.

You might be right. But then, is that so bad? Should I stop trying? Should I give up—or perhaps, depending on how you look at it, give in? My writing certainly has improved over the years that I kept up this blog, especially when I kept at it regularly. But in the last few months I fell into a sort of slump. Is this a sign that I’m no longer viable?

Then again, it could just be a sign that I needed to take a break. Perhaps I was overexerting myself. And in any case, that could be true. I could dedicate this blog to just one or two book reviews a week for a while (I don’t want to give up entirely). Then, after a month or two I see if I feel like I want to continue with writing in general, or at least this blog. I know that I’ve already been inactive for a few weeks now, and before that my postings were erratic. But I think I need some sort of change.

This has been a hard issue for me to face. It could be part of that whole “self-discovery” kick I started back in August. I didn’t want to feel like a lazy loser. Then again, I don’t want to feel like a charlatan who’s wasting his own time lying to himself. A few years ago I need a month off after completing an album for the RPM Challenge. Maybe it’s time I do that again.

Book Review: “Universal Harvester” by John Darnielle

John Darnielle’s recent novel Universal Harvester does not belong to the mystery genre exactly, however it does raise a lot of questions that we hope for a big payoff at the end when we realize all of the missed clues scattered throughout the story. Or perhaps the book could leave us with more questions than answers but still be satisfying in the way that it does so while still hinting at its meaning. Sadly, despite the intriguing ideas and tone Universal Harvester follows through on neither promise.

Jeremy Heldt, in his early twenties, works at a video store in the late nineties and still lives with his father. Their mother died six years earlier in a car crash, and her loss still looms over the household. After a couple of customers returned tapes to the store complaining that they contained some home-recorded footage spliced into the videotape that they rented, he examines the footage. It turns out to be incomplete scenes that depict weird moments in a shed somewhere, including people underneath a tarp getting kicked by somebody whose face we never see and a woman whose head is covered in a hood being asked to do strange things such as standing on one leg.

Jeremy, Stephanie (one of the customers) and Sarah Jane (the store’s owner) each try to unravel the mystery of these scenes. Sarah Jane finds the house in a neighboring town (the bulk of the story takes place in Nevada, Iowa) that she identifies from the videos. She meets the woman who lives in the house, Lisa Sample, who at first denies any knowledge of the videos but ultimately befriends Sarah.

We then get Lisa’s backstory, or rather her mother Irene’s, for a good portion of the book. We learn that she becomes disenfranchised with life with her family, having moved away from her familiar church. She gets sucked into a traveling religious sect (possibly a cult) and her husband and daughter search across the country to find her.

The book takes a slow, quiet place despite these strange happenings, giving it a sort of Twin Peaks feel. Amidst the main events of the story we see Jeremy’s father starting to date again and Jeremy’s struggle with future work prospects, not wanting to disappoint Sarah Jane. The book starts off in third person and remains that way for the bulk of it, but occasionally the narrator switches to first, revealing that we’re reading somebody’s attempt years later to piece together the story from multiple sources. Aside from the videotapes, this is the biggest mystery of the book: who is this stranger? How will we find out?

Unfortunately, the ending ties most of the story up too nicely and yet unevenly and the reveal of the narrator is disappointing. The ending is only unpredictable by just how predictable it is. The story up to that point is so intriguing that the end feels like a let-down. It works, it makes sense, but it shouldn’t have to. There’s also something about the narration of first person that really irritates me at the end but I can’t give away my gripe without giving away a major spoiler. (Likewise, one of the big questions of the book isn’t answered exactly but only hinted at—at least Darnielle leaves that one up to interpretation.)

This isn’t to say that Universal Harvester isn’t worth reading. Right up to the ending the book is intriguing and it isn’t exactly a “whodunnit” anyway. But I wish the payoff at the end had more of an impact than it had, in order to drive the themes of the book home more.


This is just a quick note at the end to say that I will be skipping next week’s book review. I have to catch up on too many other projects, including some other reading, that I’m going to take the time to work on those over the next few days and won’t have time to read a new book to review.