Banana Yoshimoto; Grove/Atlantic, 180 pages, $18
I read Lizard over the course of two lunch breaks at work. After day two, I couldn't wait to rush home, log on and command a certain group of boys I know to go out and read it that very minute. It's short, I said, you can read it in the store.

I think most of them ignored me.

But they really should've listened. This book is beautiful enough for each of us to take something from it: To learn to be alone, to be with another or to be fine either way.

Don't read Lizard for the six short stories themselves -- not that there's anything wrong with them. In fact, Yoshimoto puts together fine tales, each with a quirky center, an uncommon circumstance. Encountered singly, each story stands nicely on its own, a perfectly-formed, perfectly ripe and unutterably juicy piece of your favorite fruit.

But the stories are all the same, after a fashion: The quirks differ, but there's an underlying emotion that holds the book together, making it consummately powerful. I pulled a sense of tranquility, of well-being, from these words; in the afterword, Yoshimoto defines this as hope. And hope, she tells us right there, we come to through epiphany. It is not something we're born with. Which is a whole mess of worldview from such a little book.

The people walking through the pages are youngish urbanites, meeting and mating and doing what youngish urbanites do. Nothing too groundbreaking, but Yoshimoto tweaks each character, each situation, in a way that protects them from the slide into banality.

Mostly, though, I'm thrilled to death at what her characters are thinking, and she lets us know, as she brings them to their epiphanies, exactly what road they're taking. Here's what I mean, in the time-honored tradition of "Show, don't tell," from my most favoritest story, "Blood and Water":

Only after I met Akira did I truly understand what they mean when they say all you really have is yourself. That's a terribly lonely realization. Despite my mother and father and the village, despite the apartment I share with Akira, I am the only one in the world who knows what's best for me. I'm just here, deciding things I need to decide for myself.

It's difficult for me to explain.

I am my own home, and this is where I belong, and things keep going forward, endlessly, just as the blue of the sky before the dawn soon turns into a bright sunrise, each with its own beauty. That kind of thing.

At the risk of sounding high-mindedly flaky, Lizard takes the squirmy, ineffable essence of human relationships and pins it down for all of us to look at, repelled, yet strangely fascinated.

-- Maureen McClarnon

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