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Staff Book Reviews

Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata

A book review by BPL team member, Christian.

While going through some literary articles recently, I stumbled upon one by The Japan Times that discusses the idea of the new Japanese literary golden age. This article debates the merits of whether Japan is experiencing a new literary golden age and how Anglo-saxon translations funnel that to a Western audience. While the outcome of a contemporary literary Golden Age for Japan is left open-ended, it is certain that the voices of women authorship has significantly grown. However, an aspect of it, as mentioned previously, is determined by translation. For instance, one of the books shortlisted for the International Booker Prize in 2020, The Memory Police by Yoko Ogawa, was initially published in Japan in 1994. A lot of writers that are defining the contemporary Japanese literary landscape have yet to make their impact in the Western world, but with the recent translations of authors such as Hiromi Kawakami, Hiroko Oyamada, Yukiko Motoya, and many more, that is slowly changing.

While virtually unknown to a Western audience, Sayaka Murata has become a well-respected author in her home country, winning multiple literary prizes, including most recently becoming a recipient of the Akutagawa Prize in 2016, as well as selling 600,000 copies for Convenience Store Woman alone. Serving as her first English-translated novel, Convenience Store Woman tells the story of a 36-year old convenience store worker, Keiko Furukura. Having spent 18 years working in a convenience store with no ambitions of pursuing another career or finding any romantic partners, Keiko is viewed as an outsider among her circle of friends, family, and coworkers.

Keiko is an enigmatic person, almost alien-like, as she displays a mimicry of others around her (speaking, dressing, and acting based off her coworkers), living outside the boundaries of social norms, but pretending to others as if she isn’t. In actuality, her view of the world treats the convenience store as the epicenter–all her thoughts, energy, and dreams gravitating to her workplace. She expresses ecstasy from the moment she greets customers in the morning, exclaiming, “I love this moment. It feels like ‘morning’ itself is being loaded into me. The tinkle of the door chime as a customer comes in sounds like church bells to my ears. When I open the door, the brightly lit box awaits me–a dependable, normal world that keeps turning. I have faith in the world inside the light-filled box.” The way she describes and articulates herself comes off as an extraterrestrial expressing thought and desire–something Keiko is almost aware of when she thinks about how she feels in the world outside the convenience store: “The normal world has no room for exceptions and always quietly eliminates foreign objects. Anyone who is lacking is disposed of.” Keiko’s alienation showcases the inconveniences of social expectations and constructs. Keiko’s only desires are to stick to the routine of the convenience store, as she’s already familiar with it–questioning why anyone thinks it’s strange why she doesn’t move on from that job. Even when she goes through a fraudulent relationship with an ex-coworker, which results in herself being recognized as a normal member of her social circles, she ends up coming to terms with that fact that her place in this world is to serve in a convenience store.The novel is a beautiful exploration of defying normality.

Similar Reads:The Memory Police by Yoko OgawaEvil and the Mask by Fuminori Nakamura
Me by Tomoyuki Hoshino

Categories
Staff Book Reviews

The Power by Naomi Alderman

A book review by Bexley Public Library team member, Debbie.

Some of the most thought-provoking and compelling science fiction asks the question ‘What would happen if?’  In Naomi Alderman’s The Power across the world young women (and only women) start manifesting a mysterious ability to give electrical shocks – anywhere from light shocks to killing bolts.  The Power is a smart, fascinating look about how the world would change if the power balance literally changed overnight. The novel follows four characters as they discover their power and then navigate the changing world.  Roxy, a tough London girl, shocks and kills a man attacking her mother, Allie, a young woman living in an abusive foster home, shocks and kills her abusive foster father. A politician, Margot Cleary, has her power woken up by her daughter, Jocelyn and Tunde Edo is a young man who is the first to document the ‘Power’ phenomenon.  But as women come into their power those who have been running the world feel more threatened.

The Power is not only a book that will make you re-examine the world you know but it is also a thrilling, fast-paced novel with great characters.  I found the book to be both a gripping science fiction novel and a profound look at the nature of power and society that I’m still thinking about.

A warning to readers – The Power is well worth reading BUT is not a utopian book and has some very disturbing depictions of war and atrocities.

For bookclubs:

Debbie found Book Club questions from the great folks at Litlovers: https://www.litlovers.com/reading-guides/fiction/11206-power-alderman?start=3

The Power is also in the works to be a show on Amazon Originals!

Categories
Staff Book Reviews

My Dark Vanessa by Kate Elizabeth Russel

A book review & accompanying Book Club Discussion Guide by BPL team member, Beth.

(Content Warning: The review discusses abuse of a teenager by an adult.)

My Dark Vanessa by Kate Elizabeth Russell is a literary fiction novel about a teenage girl and her relationship with her forty-two-year-old high school English teacher. Vanessa Wye is the protagonist and the narrator, and the novel jumps between her memories of high school, her college years, and the present. In the present, another survivor of the same teacher’s abuse writes of her own experience in a social media post that goes viral. A journalist is writing an article about this woman’s story and how the school enabled the predatory behavior. Vanessa is being pursued by both to come forward and share her own story. While Vanessa wants to take no part in the article for the sake of her own privacy, she also is adamant that she was not abused: she was a consenting party in the relationship, and her so-called abuser, Jacob Strane, actually loved and cared for her.

This is perhaps the novel’s greatest strength: its ability to expose the psychological tension Vanessa faces as she relives and reevaluates her relationship with Strane. The novel expertly depicts Vanessa as a teenage girl, as she struggles to deal with her conflicting emotions towards Strane and their relationship. As readers and third-parties to the relationship, we can clearly see the abusive and predatory behavior. But by witnessing the situation from Vanessa’s perspective, we also learn how Strane groomed Vanessa to see the relationship as one grounded in love and concern. Even as an adult looking back, Vanessa struggles to see the abuse for what it was.

So while the novel’s exploration into Vanessa’s psyche is its greatest strength, it is also its most important cultural contribution. In extensive and disturbing detail, the novel reveals how an abuser picks and manipulates a victim. Vanessa knows that children get abused by adults, but we see the process Strane uses to convince her that he didn’t choose her, how he convinces her that she was the one who initiated the relationship and manipulates her to believe that she is the one who has all of the power. Using her loneliness and vulnerability against her, he is able to convince her that she is the exception to the rule of adult-child relationships: it is not abuse, it is love. And in this exploration, the novel reveals to its readers why so many victims of abuse do not come forward: they’ve been manipulated to believe they’re not being abused at all.

While the novel does have some weaknesses (it could have been edited down to a shorter length, most of the other characters aside from Vanessa and Strane aren’t developed to the degree that they could or should be), overall I would recommend the book. The book is difficult and disturbing to read, but it has a lot of cultural import. It is controversial, and some may find the depictions of the sexual elements of the abuse gratuitous. However, because the book is thought-provoking, it would make a great choice for a book club discussion (with sufficient content warnings to discussion members ahead of time). It stimulates a lot of discussion and debate; albeit around a difficult and sensitive topic. Though, as is often the case, these sorts of debates and discussions tend to be the ones we most need to have.

Book Club Discussion Guide (SPOILERS)

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