Convenience Store Woman – Sayaka Murata (2018)

convenience-store-woman.jpgTranslated from the Japanese by Ginny Tapley Takemori.

A very quiet but surprisingly forthright novella about what it means to be “normal”: Who should decide this? How important is being “normal? Should you change to fit the norm or is it acceptable to stay true to who you are (despite how society judges you)?

I’d been wanting to read a book from someone who was from somewhere else (and either about a person of color or by a person of color – preferably both if possible). Despite my steady pattern of integrating POC reading into my book diet earlier this year, I’d rather fallen off the wagon lately, and so was determined to find a title that would fit within those parameters. Sayaka Murata’s short book fit the bill (and more!), so thank you to Kim of Reading Matters who brought it to the fore for me.

This recently published title was a short and punchy read, but its story is told to its completion, being neither over-long or too short, so it was close to a perfect novella read for me. I know – big words, but this title will definitely make my end-of-year list for top reads for 2018. It’s that good.

Living in Japan, Keiko is 36 and has worked at the same convenience story for the past 18 years. She’s perfectly happy with her life of living as a single woman and working in this retail position, but she’s very aware that other people in her life view her as an issue to be sorted out (or a problem to be “cured”).

It seems that in her Japanese world, the choices for women boil down to only two things: either you work a big professional job or you get married to a “salary man”, a guy who frequently overworks and has a position in a high stress field.

However, Keiko wonders why her friends and family see her as a “problem” when, in fact, she’s perfectly happy to be who she is doing the job that she does. She believes that her job is so suited to her, in fact, that it’s in her cells: she was made to be a convenience store woman, no matter what others may say.

One day, getting fed up with being seen as somehow defective, she develops a solution that would please both her fretting friends and family. She asks a former co-worker to move in with her and pretend to be her boyfriend.

In the short term, this answer does get her married sister, her friends and her parents distracted away from her life, but it also brings a whole new set of challenges which have to be addressed.

It’s a marvelous read, written in a very clear and succinct style in an almost deadpan manner. It might even meet the definition of absurdist in terms that it brings a focus on a societal expectation in a fairly rigid society, whilst at the same time, ridiculing the very idea it spotlights…

I think this is best read in one evening, not because the plot is amazingly complex or anything, but because I think you’ll have the best reading experience that way, and can become totally immersed in Keiko’s life and mind.

This is a superficially surface read, but the title has surprising depth and has kept me thinking about it hours after I finished it.

I’m not sure quite why this book is not more well-known (or at least in the circles I have), but I think it’s a wry, witty and profound look at societal expectations and how someone can work around them whilst still staying true to themselves.

Loved it.

 

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The Best We Could Do – Thi Bui (2017)

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Strolling around the shelves at the library (as one does), I saw this new graphic book title, and, having felt a drought on those lately, checked this out to read. It was a corker.

The Vulture’s Abraham Riesman has called this graphic memoir “one of the first great works of socially relevant comics art of the Trump era” and I agree. It’s a very timely topic.

Author Thi Bui had grown up in America (except for her early years) and was the child of parents who had been part of the original “Boat People” group who had fled South Vietnam during the 1970s. Struggling to understand her parents and the difficulties they faced as they started their new lives in America, this book explores their story.

When Bui becomes a mother for the first time, her views on her parents came more into focus and she found that she knew little about their old lives back in Vietnam during the U.S. war.

Her relationship with her parents had been strained as she grew up in the U.S., and her becoming a parent herself was the impetus for her to learn more about each of their own personal stories.

As Bui slowly reveals the pieces of their earlier lives, it fits together with her own life and allows her to see her parents through a new prism — as a daughter and as a mother herself.

It’s a circular narrative that winds through time and geography so it’s a read that you have to pay attention to. It’s not a daydreaming kind of book, but then neither is the immigrant story around which it revolves.

The plot is the fairly typical trope of “family starts in one place, has a tough journey to reach another place, and then struggles to fit in”, but Bui’s art adds a new level of detail to the story, refreshing the narrative arc through her simple but arresting illustrations.

By the end of the book, you (as the reader) can also feel empathy for her parents (including for Bui herself). It’s a really good read about one person’s family, and may well trigger thoughts about your own parents in the same vein.

It can be easy to forget that your mum and dad are people with their own lives and their own histories sometimes, but Bui’s efforts to trace her own family’s evolution is a timely reminder of both that and the immigration debate going on in the administration today.

Good one.

 

500+ Thank you’s…

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Wow. I’ve just noticed that more than 500 extremely smart and very hip readers have signed up to follow this blog.

Having crossed this milestone in relation to blogging may not be that big a deal to some of you out there, but it is to me.

I appreciate every minute that you choose to read the text in each blog post, especially when there are probably one hundred and one other things circling you for immediate attention.

Thank you to all who read these words. I’m having fun writing them, and so I hope you can say the same with respect to reading them.

Here’s to more bookish chit-chat! 🙂

 

The Vampyre – John William Polidori (1819)

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An early cover stating the authorship as Lord Byron, when really it was Dr. John Polidori.

Since it’s October and the weather here has finally started to behave in a seasonal fashion (Rain! Getting dark early! Cooler temps!), I thought it might be a good time to look out for a slightly creepy read. Since I’m not a huge fan of horror and gore, I tend to move towards the “cozy creepy” and serendipitously I came across a mention of this early version of blood-sucking vampires. Ooooh. Count me in!

(Plus – I’m a big fan of the original Dracula by Bram Stoker [1897].)

This title, The Vampyre [link to Project Gutenberg], is a fairly short (in length) short story that first appeared in print in 1819, but was actually written in 1816 by Dr. John William Polidori, a traveling doctor connected with that group of Romantic writers including Lord Byron and his small creative gang which also included Percy Shelley and Mary Shelley (although they weren’t married at the time).

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Dr. John Polidori.

The friends (plus their doc Polidori) had been traveling around Germany and one stormy night, the group decided to see who could write the scariest horror story. Out of this challenge arose the classic, Frankenstein: or the Modern Prometheus (as its title is punctuated) from Mary Shelley and this short story, The Vampyre.

There’s a source on the Wiki page that says that this short story came about due to awful weather during that year’s summer when Europe and parts of North America had lashings of rain and was called “The Year without a Summer”… That’s why the literary group got bored and started to write stories. (Apparently.)

[If you read the Wiki page for the Year without a Summer, it’s actually pretty interesting… Caused by a big volcanic eruption in Indonesia, they think. Well, I never…]

And actually, this close association between Polidori and Byron led to some misattribution as to who the original author when this story was first published. (See the top image of the original cover.)

(Fair’s fair though: Polidori’s story was originally influenced by another piece of writing that Byron had done earlier.)

That was sorted out not soon after, and the familiar trope of the vampire as a high-class fiend with a thirst for the blood of high society maidens was born.

Although the idea of vampires (immortal blood-sucking creatures who relied on other humans for their nutrition) was quite a new phenomenon for English lit at that time, the idea had been kicked around in novels and plays (and even an opera) since the early nineteenth century. The earliest seems to be by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe who published The Bride of Corinth in 1797, which could be the actual first mention of a vampiric character, but Polidori’s is the first mention in English literature…

Warning: An extremely high number of spoilers abound in the text below.

Back to the story: the plot is very similar to the typical vampire trope (although still new to readers at the time), and follows Aubrey, a young English gentleman, who meets mysterious Lord Ruthven at some parties in London. No one seems to know Lord Ruthven very well (although rumors abound), and Aubrey ends up following him to Rome. After Lord Ruthven seduces a daughter of a mutual acquaintance, Aubrey leaves and travels on to Greece where he meets (and is attracted to) Ianthe, an innkeeper’s daughter (beautiful but not really suitable for the lover of a high-society young man such as Aubrey).

However, love is not to be for young Aubrey. Young Ianthe gets murdered (By whom? Would it be Lord Ruthven? Is, in fact, Lord Ruthven a vampire? Daaa Daaa Dunnn…)

Aubrey rejoins Lord Ruthven (why??) but Ruthven is then attacked and murdered by some bandits. Before Ruthven pops his clogs, he makes Aubrey promise not to tell anyone anything about Ruthven’s life (and death) for a year and a day. Aubrey promises (of course he does).

Aubrey goes back to London and is surprised when Ruthven shows up alive and well. Reminded of his promise to Ruthven, Aubrey stays quiet even when Ruthven is working on seducing Aubrey’s sister. Helpless to rescue his sister, Aubrey suffers a nervous breakdown. The happy couple get engaged – on the very day that Aubrey’s promise to Ruthven about staying silent ends. Oh. My. Gosh.

Aubrey goes ahead and pops his clogs, but not before writing a letter to his sister warning her about Ruthven’s evil ways. The sister doesn’t receive the letter in time. That rascal Ruthven marries her, and on her wedding night, she is discovered, bloodless and limp. Ruthven disappears, never to be seen of again.

Spoilers end here.

So – I really enjoyed this read (and the resulting info I found about it.) This was an unexpectedly interesting trip down some Wiki rabbit holes…!

Note: I had thought this story would be under the Victorian umbrella, but apparently not. Her father, King George III, died in 1820, but Victoria didn’t inherit the throne until she was 18 (1837) and until her father’s three brothers had all died with no issue.

 

In this box are all the words I know…

“In this box are all the words I know,” he said. “Most of them you will never need, some you will use constantly, but with them you may ask the questions which have never been answered and all the questions which have never been asked.

“All the great books of the past and all the ones yet to come are made with these words. With them, there is no obstacle you cannot overcome. All you must do is to use them well and in the right places.”

— The King of Dictionopolis, The Phantom Tollbooth.

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The Power – Naomi Alderman (2016)

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A science fiction/speculative fiction read that turns the typical gender power balance on its head and examines a possible result.

What would happen if women were suddenly given the power in this world? How would they end up treating men and each other? Is absolute power corrupting even for the “gentler” sex?

Published in 2016 (but written during 2014/15 during the early days of the Orange Goblin’s ascendancy), this novel is a book-within-a-book about a world that’s just different enough to be off-kilter for the reader of today.

In this near future, women have developed the ability to pass electricity through their fingertips, which over the years leads them to become the dominant gender. How would this would impact the development of world society over a few thousand years?

This is a memorable read that portrays a rather frightening world that’s evolving as the reader travels with the book’s characters. After decades, perhaps centuries, of being told that women are the “gentler” sex, when they are given power to dominate the world’s structure, do they treat the opposite gender as people think women would treat them?

The novel’s main protagonist is Mother Eve, who has grown up in an abusive environment and develops into the matriarch of a popular worldwide religion, and the book follows her development along with three other characters impacted by this change.

The NY Times book critic, Ron Charles, calls this book “our era’s ‘Handmaid’s Tale’” and others have named it “the millennial’s ‘Handmaid Tale’”, but however you categorize it, it’s a gripping plot that moves along at the speed of lightning (or at the speed of the weaponized electricity coming out of women’s palms).

It’s a very believable tale as well. Who is to say that evolution or biochemical pollution won’t bring change in the human species or others? Whatever the reason, this is an adaptation that completely disrupts the world as we know it.

It starts in teenage girls, and as the girls grow up and as they show older women how to use their (sometimes latent) power, the adults start to understand what it is and how to use it. World politics and current events are impacted to create a whole new society.

The set-up means an end result that is much more nuanced than the two genders just swapping places. The plot turns stereotypes on their sides. For example, there are women who start to dress as men to communicate submissiveness, and there are boys who start to dress as girls to seem more powerful. And then there is the question of rape…

This was a provocative read for me.  Are humans the same regardless of gender, or are they really that different due to their gender?

Interestingly enough, Alderman had already established herself as a bright new star on the writing front prior to this manuscript being published, and as a result and through a Rolex-sponsored partnership, Alderman ended up being mentored by Margaret Atwood herself. (She also thanks Ursula Le Guin and Karen Joy Fowler in the acknowledgements so it seems that she was influenced by some very strong writers. Imagine all those conversations!)

(Slightly random aside: It was also one of former President Obama’s favorite reads of 2017… High praise indeed. 🙂 )

This was a thoughtful and disquieting read about a future very different from now. At this time of misogyny and #MeToo, this novel evaluates the power of power itself.

September 2018 Reading Review…

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So another month has passed, and let’s check in with how my reading is doing (just out of interest).

The reads for September included:

Ongoing project: Reading the AP Style Book.

So to the numbers:

Total number of books read in September6

Total number of pages read1,639 pages (av. 273).

Fiction/Non-Fiction2 fiction / 4 non-fiction.

Diversity1 POC. 5 books by women.

Library books vs. books I owned (and thus removed from the home abode): 3 library books, 2 owned books and 1 e-book.

Future plans include instituting a book-buying ban until December, finish up the AP Style Book, and read more off TBR. 🙂

 

Unforgettable Behavior – Rosemary Kidman Cox (2017)

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When I saw this photo (above) of a monkey creature holding a cell phone in a hot pool of water on the cover of this large-format book, I just had to pick it up to look at what was inside the pages. And there, I found a great collection of fantastic award-winning photographs of wildlife from around the world, from tiny spiders in South Africa to giraffes and turtles.

These photos had been recent entries in England’s Natural History Museum’s Wildlife Photographer of the Year competition, and the book’s author/compiler happens to be the editor of BBC Wildlife Magazine for the past 20 years or so, and the long-time judge of Wildlife Photographer of the Year since 1981.

Each two-page spread has an example of astonishing wildlife photography combined with well written and informative text, both explaining what the action in the image represents for the species in question but also delving a little deeper into the background about the animals and insects represented.

It was a feast for the eyes – really. I enjoyed looking at each of the coffee-table sized pages, and even learned a lot about creatures that I’d never heard of: honey pot ants, anyone? 😉

Interestingly, last year a different set of award-winning images were making the rounds of various museums across the U.S., so you may have seen a few of these before if you made it to that exhibition. If not, no worry. The photos here are just as good.

One thing was curious though – there was no image credit for photographer who took that photo of a monkey playing with a phone in the hot tub on front of cover. I searched every page and combed through the index for any mention, but nada. Poor photographer person. Front cover photo and no credit. 😦

Don’t let that deter you though. This was a really fun book to read and look at, and I’ll bet you’ll learn a thing or two about some creatures you don’t know right now. Plus – the photography was delightful!