Banana Yoshimoto is one of my favorite authors at short story or novella length. I haven’t liked any of her novels as much as her work at shorter lengths.

Yoshimoto excels at the vivid depiction of all things hard to describe: relationships that don’t fall into standard categories, emotional states that are momentary but deeply felt, and the fine line between memories, dreams, and ghosts.

Her work is frequently fantasy or on its borderline, the sort of mainstream-friendly work which features spirits and psychics and curses but not, say, vampires or magical girls. A lot of her characters have unconventional love lives, sex lives, gender identities, gender expressions, or all of the above. Her style is very simple, very easy to read, but with a great deal of depth below the surface.

Her novella “Kitchen,” in the two-novella collection of the same name, is one of the most uplifting and beautiful stories I’ve ever read: love, grief, healing; family, gender identity, and a whole lot of delicious food. If you’ve never read Yoshimoto before, start there, and don’t miss her afterword. Click here to buy it from Amazon: Kitchen (A Black cat book)

I also really like her short story collection Lizard. One story in that, about magical meetings on the subway, was originally serialized in subway posters! Click here to buy that from Amazon: Lizard

Asleep, the one I just read, is a collection of three novellas about love and loss and sleep.

"Night and Night’s Travelers" is about three young women who loved the same man, one platonically (his sister) and two romantically (his former lover, an American, and his cousin.) His sister and cousin try to help each other through their grief after his death, and his American ex-girlfriend hovers around the edges of the story, in recollections, letters, and mysterious phone calls.

In "Love Songs," a young woman is haunted by a voice she hears singing to her as she falls asleep. She thinks it’s the voice of a woman she used to know in a complicated relationship halfway between polyamory and a love triangle, and visits a psychic to have one last conversation.

In Asleep, yet another young woman (Yoshimoto’s main characters are almost always young women) is in love with a man whose wife is in a vegetative state after an accident, and she falls under a spell of sleep herself.

My favorite of these was "Love Songs," though I also liked "Night and Night’s Travelers." I didn’t like "Asleep" as much, largely because the main relationship seemed too dysfunctional to survive. I overall enjoyed the collection, though. Click here to buy it from Amazon: Asleep

Another set of Yoshimoto novellas is Hard Boiled and Hard Luck, the first a ghost story, the second a better take on the themes of "Asleep." I liked them both quite a bit, especially the classically spooky atmosphere of the first. Click here to buy it from Amazon: Hardboiled and Hard Luck
A group of at-risk kids are the unknowing subjects of an experiment intended to maximize their potential. But the experiment goes horribly wrong, as such experiments inevitably do. One daycare center becomes the subject of a notorious trial when all its kids start having violent and sexual nightmares; none of them recall any actual abuse, but the center goes under anyway. Journalist Renny Sand covers the trial, and is surprised by the wise-beyond-their-years self-possession of all the child witnesses.

Years later, someone is methodically murdering the children involved in the experiment. Renny starts researching, and finds that the entire story leads back to Alexander Marcus, an African-American legend who might have become President, but was mysteriously assassinated long ago.

The middle is a bit draggy and also features a scene so homophobic that I almost threw the book across the room. (Dude! Just because they’re gay bodybuilding thugs does not mean they are rapist gay bodybuilding thugs!) However, after that moment of massive fail, the scattered narrative threads start twining together in such a compelling manner that book-throwing became impossible, at least for me. If the homophobia isn’t a dealbreaker, I recommend this for its extremely suspenseful climax, a cool and original twist on the old “build a better human” idea, a very believable sixty-eight-year-old action heroine (former Secret Service), and, of course, my favorite thing, (almost) psychic kids. The prose is much better than in Blood Brothers, too.

One of the central plotlines, which I won’t get into too much detail on due to spoilers but which becomes clear in general terms early on, is that the dead hero Marcus might have had a very nasty secret. This is one case in which the author’s race did affect my reading of the book: if Barnes was not black, it would have been hard not to read this as “of course the African-American heroic legend is really [something awful].” But since Barnes himself is African-American and can be presumed to be conscious of those sorts of stereotypes, I read it as a take on the classic nightmare of any member of an oppressed minority: that the person held up as the great hero of your race will turn out to have feet of clay, and then, because you don’t have the privilege of being judged individually, everyone else will take that as a commentary on your entire race.

Like Woody Allen’s “Jew eat?” bit in Annie Hall (a joke about seeing anti-Semitism everywhere, even in the inquiry "Did you eat?"), which is self-deprecating humor coming from a Jew that would be plain deprecating coming from a gentile, some things come across differently depending on who’s saying them – if for no other reason than the presumption that at least the author is aware of what the stereotypes are, and so is presumably deliberately trying to do something with them. Though, of course, intent is not a guarantee of success, unconscious stereotyping can affect anyone, and I’m sure some Jews did find “Jew eat? No? Did’jew?” offensive regardless of the author. Anyway, that was my take on Marcus; yours may be different.

I note with regret but without surprise that there are no black people on the cover, just a pair of disembodied eyes.

Click here to buy it from Amazon: Charisma
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