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.

 

Advertisements

Lucy – Jamaica Kincaid (2002)

book414After reading some earlier work by Jamaica Kinkaid (see review of Annie John), I already knew that Kinkaid was a really good writer, and so when I happened upon this volume, I picked it up with little hesitation as I knew it wouldn’t disappoint me. And it didn’t. Hooray for good consistent writers!

This novella is rather a coming-of-age/bildungsroman recount of how a young woman from the unnamed “islands” (but clearly referring to the Caribbean area) takes her first job as an au pair for a rich white family in the States. Lucy, the titular character, is young and not very experienced, and is excited about this opportunity to travel. Happy to be elsewhere, Lucy strikes out for this new adventure with trepidation and anticipation, but also colored by her having just finished a rather difficult childhood with a complicated relationship with her mother. This mix of emotion is a constant thread throughout this short story, and colors every experience that Lucy has in this new world of au pair-ing.

Being an au pair is a tricky situation. Most families try to be welcoming and include you as “part of the family”, but there is always a reminder that you’re not actually equal to the other family members, and it’s difficult to set up boundaries for both the au pair and the family. When is an au pair really off the clock? How private can his or her time really be? It seems to be fraught with issues, and the situation with Lucy is no different than that.

So this title follows a year of employment for Lucy with her au pair employers, and it’s certainly a year of growing for everyone involved: the children, Lucy herself, the parents… Just like any development, this gradual maturation can be a situation filled with dissonance for all.

Lucy has grown up on a small Caribbean island with her mother and step-father. Her mother is educated and employed as a social worker, but as is quite common, her mum is very patient and understanding with her clients, but this doesn’t carry home for Lucy. It’s curious – her mother is big on her clients growing and learning new skills, but she is resentful of Lucy continuing her education and of spreading her wings. (Perhaps it’s jealousy…)

Stateside, her employer family are having complications of their own, and they can’t help but involve Lucy in these problems as well, since she is with them all the time. As the saying goes, you can never step in the same stream twice, and as the novella continues, the family and Lucy grow and change both as a group, but also an independent beings.

Lucy is a bundle of conflicting emotions: happy to be away from her claustrophobic country, a common vacation choice for the Americans who surround her, Lucy also deeply misses her island and her family. Given the difficult childhood that she’s had, Lucy is relieved to be away from her family, and yet she yearns to be understood as only a family member could do. She yearns to “belong,” but she also wants to be independent from everything that she’s known before, so although this is a short novella, there are a lot of contents to be unpacked when you go through this read.

Considered to be highly autobiographical for Kinkaid (who lived a similar experience in her younger days), it’s a challenge to enjoy Lucy due to her fractious ways, and yet at the same time, I felt sympathy for her at the same time. As an expat from England who also moved away from home to a foreign country at a similar age, it’s true that you do really have a lot of mixed emotions about the first year in your new home. So much is different that, at times, you yearn for it to be more familiar so everything is not a surprise or a puzzle. And yet, at the same time, I’d been wanting to live abroad since I was a young girl ready for a change, so it can be tough to balance those two conflicting views.

This was well-written, but I’m not sure that I enjoyed this particular read that much. 😦 Aah well. Can’t win them all.

Part of JOMP’s celebration of Black History Month.

AfAm_History_Month

The Haunted Bookshop – Christopher Morley (1919)

book375

 “Haunted by the ghosts of books I haven’t read. Poor uneasy spirits, they walk and walk around me. There’s only one way to lay the ghost of a book, and that is to read it.”

This novella is the enjoyable sequel to Morley’s first novella, Parnassus on Wheels  and this one was just as fun and bibliophilic (as the book terms it) as the previous read. Written two years after the publication of the previous installment, Morley here further develops the storyline of the couple who go off to be traveling booksellers across the countryside.

At the starting point of “The Haunted Bookshop,” the couple (now married) are settled and running a fairly successful (but still modest) second-hand bookshop in Brooklyn, but even though the story has moved along, what remains the same is the author’s tender heart for books, bookselling, and all things to do with words. For a book nerd, this read is gorgeous.

The bookshop, now called The Haunted Bookshop (see quotation above for details), is run by Roger Mifflin and his now-wife Helen, and they live a quiet bookish life. Located on Gissing Street (ref: George) and near Clemens Place (ref: Samuel) and Shakespeare Street (ref: you know who), the shop is close to other neighborhood-based businesses including a pharmacy, a few modest boarding houses, and a small café of sorts in a neighborhood of working class people (some of whom are immigrants).

“People need books, but they don’t know they need them… Just give them the book they ought to have even if they don’t know they want it.”

So, what we have here is a shortish novel (longish novella) that is part paean to the love of books and reading whilst also being, rather unexpectedly, a caper novel along the same lines as John Buchan’s “The 39 Steps” (1915) with clear goodies and baddies. (Wow. Bet you weren’t expecting that.)

Being written so close to the end of World War One (which officially ended in 1918), the obvious baddie is, of course, Germany, and so when puzzling events happen, the German pharmacist is the number one suspect. It’s the set up of quiet and unassuming book people vs. a spy ring hiding in plain sight. But who can stop it, and what does it all mean?

Close to the beginning of the novel, the Mifflins agree to host a friend’s daughter, Tatiana (ref: Midsummer Night’s Dream) to give her a taste of being a bookseller, an appropriate occupation for a rich and unfettered bright young woman, and through this apprenticeship is brought in a young inquisitive newspaper reporter (the love interest) and the strange events happening around a particular book titled “Oliver Cromwell’s Letters and Speeches…” by Thomas Carlyle (1845). (Don’t worry – I’d never heard of it either.)

Mrs J Graham Menzies in the role of Titania, Queen of the FairiesAs the story continues, it turns out to have three main threads: the love of books and reading, the love interest of the young couple, and then the potential cloak-and-dagger spy ring (so there’s quite a bit going on). Add to that an impressive array of vocabulary and literary and classical references, and this book is not for sissies. At first, I was taking notes of all the new words and refs that I came across, but there were so many that, in the end, I realized that if I was ever going to finish the read in a timely manner (and also thoroughly immerse myself in the plot) that the note-taking would have to calm down. I’m pretty sure that you can follow the plot without knowing all the meanings, but I think you’d probably miss quite a few of the clever references. Still, you’d have a good idea of what was going on, action-wise, so it depends on how nerdy you’d like to be, really.

(Actually, just noticed that Wikipedia (I know, I know) has a list of all the literary books that are referenced throughout the novel which looks a fun way to spend some time. Or not. :-))

Morley was a writer and journalist who had a maths professor for a father and a literary and musically talented person for his mother. It’s obvious that he grew up in an educated and literate household, and he was awarded a Rhodes scholarship to Oxford where he studied from three years.

He moved in literary circles and, out of his enthusiasm for the novels and stories of Sherlock Holmes, co-founded the “Baker Street Irregulars”, an exclusive and rather prestigious club at the time. By the time that he died, Morley had written more than 100 books and even had a movie made out of one of his novels (Kitty Foyle [1939]) which I’m interested in tracking down.

So, not only does his writing reflect his life, but the book is also quite autobiographical in that his real-life wife was also called Helen, they lived in several of the cities mentioned in the plot, and he really did hang out with a social group that used to spend time at another bookshop in Greenwich Village. This bookshop had the tradition of having all its authors, publishers et al. sign the door as they entered and/or left the premises and in fact, when it closed, the signed door was shipped and sent to the Harry Ransom Center (UT) for safekeeping. “A door to the past” indeed with its more than 240 signatures on it.

So – really enjoyed this read once I understood that this was going to include a caper or two, and would recommend it to anyone who enjoys books about books (and who doesn’t, TBH?)

(With this said, expect a “New Words to Me” post coming up in the next week or so.)