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Reading Group Guide

  1. Book ImageThe Strangeness of Beauty

    Lydia Yuri Minatoya

    "Minatoya offers a tenderly packaged gift. Unwrapping it is a pleasure." —Austin Chronicle

Discussion Questions

  1. The narrator of The Strangeness of Beauty announces at the book’s opening that she is writing an “I-story.” What is the significance of the I-story in Japanese culture? How is autobiographical writing especially important for immigrant cultures in the United States? What are some other outlets for the “confessional angst” that the narrator says drives the writer of an I-story? Why do you think the author has chosen to write a novelization of an I-story?
  2. Kobe is an old port city with a history of art and international culture. Seattle is an upstart city in a young country. We tend to associate old cities with provincialism and young cities with dynamism. Yet is this always the case? Compare the cultural life of Kobe in the early part of the twentieth century to that of Seattle.
  3. Hanae is born an American but is viewed as a Japanese alien by American culture. When she travels to Japan, she is seen as too American. Think about the complex relationship that children of immigrants have with America and with the original culture of their parents.
  4. Consider the idea of kata, or form. Etsuko identifies the Japanese importance of form, and explains that the Japanese have a proper way of performing each action, a proper mode of behavior for each situation, even a proper language for each kind of literature and each social interaction. She considers kata to be the most alienating aspect of Japanese culture to Americans. Consider what might be particularly “American” attributes; how might some of these characteristics clash with kata? Another way of thinking of kata is as ritual. Think of rituals you practice; could these be considered katas? Would you like to incorporate some elements of kata in your life?
  5. The author has said that one of her intentions was to blur the boundaries between ideas of “us” and “them.” How successful do you feel she was? In what ways did you identify with these characters? Were you able to identify with parts of characters you initially may have found unappealing? With characters who seemed different from you? Was there a point when you began thinking of Hanae (or even Etsuko) as American or Japanese American rather than as Japanese?
  6. The Strangeness of Beauty is, in many ways, a self-reflective book. As the narrator constantly steps outside the narrative to comment on her writing or the book, we become aware that the characters we are reading about are being actively created and changed as we read. How do these constantly shifting characters affect the way we read this book? What is the reader’s relationship to the narrator? To the author?
  7. Etsuko wonders if being a woman “hinders” her writing. She says she can’t create traditional “heroes” engaged in large epic acts. Do you think this is true? Consider the role of gender in literature—the speaker’s gender as well as the author’s gender. Are there certain kinds of writing best limited to one gender? What about certain subjects?
  8. When main characters provide a perspective from outside mainstream American culture, they often do two things for the reader. They may provide views of the outside culture (its values, customs, systems of thought) that are fresh, interesting, and illuminating and that may show it as less confusing, mysterious, or alien than we had thought. They may also provide a fresh perspective on American culture, showing how values, customs, and systems of thought that we may have assumed were universal can be seen by outsiders as confusing, confounding, and humorously idiosyncratic to American culture. Can you find instances in this book where you enjoyed learning something about another culture and where you enjoyed learning something about your own?
  9. Etsuko’s cooking may be seen only as comic relief. It may also be seen as a way for the author to comment on the ideas of creativity, the determination to create one’s own world, and the courage to risk public failure. What other behaviors does Etsuko exhibit, what actions does she take, what people does she admire, that support the idea that her cooking is more than a joke?
  10. Think of the women’s political group. What tactics did they use to find information and distribute it? How did the “female-ness” of the group help them?
  11. Masao compares Etsuko’s peace pamphlets to parents chanting prayers over their babies, or the women who sew “bulletproof” belts for their enlisted sons. Is this a fair comparison, or a cynical one? In what ways are pamphlets, prayers, and rituals expressions of hope even as they acknowledge larger, more powerful forces?
  12. The Japanese word for “the strangeness of beauty” is myo. How does Etsuko come to understand the role of myo in life? What is the relationship of myo to Chie’s comparison of a baseball game and a tea ceremony?
  13. The Strangeness of Beauty may be seen as two interwoven tales: one a story of character, family, and culture; the other a meditation on how art—literary, visual, culinary, of professionals and amateurs, of kite makers and kimono weavers and housewives—informs and enriches our lives. At what points do these two tales intertwine and how do they culminate in the concept of myo?

About Lydia Yuri Minatoya

Lydia Minatoya won the Pacific Northwest Booksellers’ Award and notable-book citations from the American Library Association and the New York Public Library for her memoir. She lives in Seattle, Washington.

Books by Lydia Yuri Minatoya

  1. Book CoverThe Strangeness of Beauty

    "Minatoya offers a tenderly packaged gift. Unwrapping it is a pleasure." —Austin ChronicleMore