Sayaka Murata, Convenience Store Woman (2016)

This is my second encounter with Sayaka Murata, and my first oriented my reading of the second. Convenience Store Woman (in Japanese, Konbini Ningen – Human of the convenience store) is a strange literary object. We see the world through the eyes of Keiko, a 36yo single young woman who has worked as a lowly store clerk of a convenience store for 18 years, when most of her coworkers and managers pass before getting something better. Keiko has some difficulty to react the way other people expect her to, to read other people’s emotions or double-entendre. Keiko is probably neuro-atypical or Aspergers or something on the autistic spectrum, as Americans define, but nothing of the sort is ever expressed. Contrary to many American reviewers, I would argue that this is not important.

Sayaka Murata’s novella is a darkly sarcastic attack against Japanese conformism – a theme that was also strongly present in Life Ceremony. People are expected to marry, to get on with their career and onto the property ladder. People who don’t conform have no space, they are criticized by all and shunned by their own family. Keiko’s sister is so desperate for her to show a normal behavior that she pleads and cries out, but when Keiko pretends to have a boyfriend (in fact, an arrogant loser that would probably qualify as an incel in the US and a freeloading roommate), the whole family is relieved.

But to say that this book is only a scathing social criticism would miss the full point, and I even find disturbing that many reviewers on Goodreads find it funny. This is depressing and disturbing, some scenes really crept me out and I rather feared that the story would go off rails into violent or gore territory! Sayaka Murata’s Keiko walks a very fine line between being an odd, quirky, shy character who finds comfort in the ultra-codified little world of the convenience store, and being a perfect doll who interpret humans the way a bot sometimes makes mistakes. In my opinion, the microcosm of the convenience store is also a portrait of soul-grinding capitalism that make employees wear a smiling face and live like machines until they are discarded.

Having read her collection Life Ceremony, I know what Sayaka Murata is capable of: her Convenience Store Woman is certainly not to be underestimated, and if I were you, I’d quickly finish my shopping, not refusing to buy the onigiri she advertises on sales and not linger there after dark.

Pod Review May 21-27

This is Friday evening over here, and I hesitated till the last minute if I’d write my regular Friday post. A close relative passed away early this week, and we’ve been over-busy with preparing the funerals arrangements for the next few days. A lot of readers of this blog are in the US, where the news of the recent tragedy (again) makes me speechless. Gun culture is something that really sets the US apart from Europeans, and probably from much of the rest of the world too. Enough said (time is for action, but not in my hands). I still want to write a few lines about podcasts and the window on other worlds that they offer to me.

Earlier this week I finished the mini-series Tiffany Dover is Dead, and the result is mixed feelings. I’ll probably spoil the podcast a little by saying that the NBC journalist didn’t eventually manage to convince any antivax conspirationist that the nurse Tiffany Dover was alive, but… duh. I’d have been really surprised if she had. And she also mentioned that Tiffany Dover’s family complained that the podcast investigation just reactivated the interest into the case and that the harassment returned once more, making me feel so sorry for this family.

Earlier this month I’d read a column in Nick Quah’s podcast newsletter “1.5x Speed” about the rise of the “cool girl podcast” trend. It mentioned Normal Gossip, which I’m a big fan of, and so I really listened up when other podcasts were mentioned in the same category. That’s how I came to the series Once upon a time at Bennington College“, created by another “cool girl” Lili Anolik. It speaks about 3 writers who attended this decadent Vermont college in the 1980s: Bret Easton Ellis, Donna Tartt and Jonathan Lethem. I only read the first one of them, but I’m interested to learn more about this particular era. I have terrible memories of reading American Psycho, but there is something to “Rules of attraction”, and I’ve always felt bad that I misunderstood something important. I’m 4 episodes into it and it’s really juicy. Also, I’d never considered the influence of Joan Didion’s books on Bret Easton Ellis but I want to know more.

Have a peaceful weekend!

Modiano, La place de l’étoile (1968)

I was recently reminded that one of my goals for 2022 was to read more books by Patrick Modiano (and also, randomly, by Emily St John Mandel, Claire Keegan, Margaret Atwood and Sylvia Townsend Warner). Modiano seemed appropriate for a mellow mood, and I borrowed several from the library, to read together during the same period. But I was in for a shock: this book is nothing like typical Modiano, and in fact, I checked several times that he was the author on the cover, instead of controversial writer Louis-Ferdinand Celine.

This novel is the first Modiano published. I have no idea how young he was (I checked and he was 22), but he must have been one troubled young man. Having read several of his later works I can now trace in this chaos some of his obsessions: World War II, French Nazi collaborators, Jewish identity, Paris locations… But it’s also bizarre, utterly unlikeable, made to shock readers with strong Antisemitic language (coming from a self-loathing Jew). I really struggled to finish it (more like, get rid of it as fast as possible) and I wouldn’t recommend it, especially as a first taste for Modiano.

I understand that it’s the first book of his Occupation Trilogy for which I had already unwittingly read the second, The Night Watch, which was published a year later. The Night Watch is better in my opinion, because both are chaotic, but where the second seem the result of an increasing frenzy, the first only seems random, neurotic and outrageous. I’m not sure what kind of reaction Modiano expected from the reader, but it didn’t make me laugh.

As I researched Modiano’s age, I found an interesting analysis in the New Yorker by Alexandra Schwartz in 2015 (when several of his books were translated):

Modiano never wrote another book like “La Place de l’Étoile.” That’s a good thing. The novel burns out on the high heat of its own aspiration; its frenetic, syncopated style is as deafening as that of Schlemilovitch’s play. (You want to applaud the translator, Frank Wynne, for sheer endurance.)

I’m glad that I’d already decided to read several books in parallel by Modiano and that I had two others on my nightstand ready to use as a palate cleanser, so I wouldn’t stay for long on a bad impression. I wonder what the reception of the book was and what the Nobel prize team thought of this one.

Pod Review May 14-20

I got plenty of podcast time this week, due to commuting time, walking-as-sport time and also, wait for it, a ride to Paris to attend a concert I had tickets for since 2020… I know it doesn’t mean anything for the future but these tickets (several times postponed, reissued and almost cancelled) had almost become the symbol of the end of the pandemic. I rarely go to concerts anyway, but being in the crowd (with a mask, still, for me and a few others) with such a joyful energy all together brought me some closure: Post-Modern Jukebox touring Europe, the feeling was incredible!

I finished the mini-series The Ballad of Billy Balls. It started like a mystery and true crime, then it turned out to be something quite different, about a daughter with a heavy history of trauma, desperate to save her mother in spite of herself, and about finding closure for a tragic event even if other people don’t want to make peace with it. The last few episodes are gut-wrenching.

I started the mini-series Tiffany Dover is Dead, and I’m interested, but not fully convinced. Tiffany Dover is a nurse that conspiracists are convinced died because of the Covid vaccine. In fact, it’s very clear that she’s alive and well. The journalist wants to prove the conspiracists wrong, but they’re kind of hard to convince. Duh. It’s a weird endeavor, almost guaranteed to fail (also, what would be the measure of success? one conspiracist changing his mind, or two, or ten, or hundred?). It also makes me a bit uncomfortable because the journalist, in her quest for proofs, is almost stalking Tiffany Dover, just as bad as conspiracists themselves. The series is short so I’ll probably continue, but with a pinch of salt.

I also started the mini-series Twin Flames, about a relationship guru and all the bad advice he gave to people, who sadly followed it despite all good sense. Like all sect and guru stories, you can’t help but wonder how the people fell for the manipulation, scam, brainwash and the rest. It’s easy to feel superior and think “I would never”, but the first episode in particular is quite good at explaining how normal one victim was and how every time she almost stopped, the guru convinced her to continue…

Some feel-good episodes to boost your mood (should you need it, just in case… We’re not talking about the state of the world right now):

  • Will we ever get back to normal from What Fresh Hell podcast.
  • Sorta Awesome: The things that are making us happy (#390)

I learnt a lot by listening to No Stupid Questions: Are women really less happy than men? One nugget of information that I will leave you to ponder is that unhappiness is not the opposite of happiness. In fact, scientists have calculated only a correlation factor of only -0.3! I also learnt about the “female happiness paradox”: It’s the notion that women are happier than men in happiness equations, but also more unhappy than men in unhappiness equations. I don’t know about you, but this blew my mind.

Happy weekend to you all, regardless of your gender!

Jacqueline Winspear, To Die But Once (2018)

My first encounter with Maisie Dobbs was in 2018, when I plunged headlong into the saga at volume 13, just like some people jump all at once in a deep swimming pool, without putting a toe first. I knew the water wasn’t going to be cold, because the series came warmly recommended by lots of readers. Maisie Dobbs saga starts with World War 1, but volume 13 is set in 1939, and the whole arch is to follow the long term ripples of trauma on several generations. I thought it was a good idea to revisit Maisie, and so I downloaded book 14.

Four years had passed in my life (and a pandemic) and I can’t say I thought a lot about Maisie in the meantime. In fictional terms, only a few months had passed and it was 1940 and the catastrophe of Dunkirk. But I was expected to know everything about a whole cast of characters… and it was all too much.

Maisie’s world is a crowded one: Maisie’s close or distant relatives, numerous friends and their own spouses, kids and own relatives, staff of her private detective agency and associated spouses and kids, staff of the wealthy relatives and friends, neighbors (you guessed it, with spouse ans kids)… when it came to pets (luckily no spouse and kids mentioned), I was lost with all those names and story lines. All those characters have their own lives, as it should be, and their own mysteries, as the genre dictates… and by the time the novel started to come to an end, all of those story lines needed to find their own resolution.

What I enjoyed is clearly the historical setting and the fact that with such a large chorus you’ve got an almost representative slice of the British population. The book was interesting and entertaining, no mistake! But it required an effort of concentration and memory that I was not quite ready for. I would really recommend the publisher to put a character list for the exhausted readers. And for pity’s sake don’t attempt this book as a standalone.

Carla Valentine, The Science of Murder: The Forensics of Agatha Christie (2022)

I’m sure I’m not the only one to have quickly dismissed the cozy crime novels for being not scientifically accurate. We read cozy crime novels rather than police procedurals or darker subgenres because we don’t want the blood, the gore and the awful realistic details of a human death. We just want the fun and the plot – and a happy ending. But was Agatha Christine inaccurate in her novels? That’s the question that Carla Valentine, a mortician and certified autopsy technician, sets out to answer. I love all things Agatha Christie, and beyond her own novels, I also read books about her books and about her life: her notebooks, her complex views on dysfunctional families, or even a new take on one of her most famous novels, And then there were none. So when I stumbled upon this new book on Netgalley, I had to read it.

In short, I was not disappointed, although the book was a lot more exhaustive than what I expected. Agatha Christie is known for her fictional use of poisons, a qualification she got while being a nurse in a pharmacy during World War 1. But she was not a chemist behind a desk, she saw a lot more action than what I’d thought, and so she had practical experience of the blood and gore and all those pesky, dirty, often smelly details. All of which were not considered suitable for literary consumption, and one can conclude that she omitted all of them in order to make her books fun, not because she didn’t know.

Carla Valentine examines one by one all the forensic aspects of deaths in Agatha Christie’s novels. There is even a full list of her novels and stories with the method of death(s) in each one! Valentine is very didactic, and I learnt a lot (but didn’t retain everything). In short, Christie was interested in all the famous crimes of her time, as well as the forensic techniques and even firearms (although she made some rookie mistakes in her early books, she got better with them along the way). Valentine examines famous crimes similar to Christie’s books, even some cases where the criminal seemed inspired by the books, and other cases where reading the books actually prevented some murders (when people recognized telltale signs of poisoning, in particular).

You’ll need to be interested in science and forensics and have read a number of Agatha Christie’s books to enjoy it, but Valentine does the utmost to avoid spoilers, and rarely has a science book been more entertaining.

Thanks to the publisher and Netgalley. I received a free copy of this book for review consideration.

Pod Review May 7-13

This week went by in a flash. Strawberry season is in full swing. It’s not quite the end of the school-year over here but the agendas start to fill up with summer-y plans and invites. All the more as it’s unseasonably dry and warm, as if we were in July already! On one hand, it’s great to wear dresses and T-shirts again, on the other hand, climate change is weighing on my mind. I know that there are podcasts on this topic out there, but so far, I haven’t found one that didn’t raise my anxiety level, and so I’m very much avoiding this topic for now. If you have any non-depressing recommendation, don’t hesitate!

Do you know the story of the geek who becomes a bitcoin-millionaire against his will? Head to This American Life #769 The Reluctant Explorer. Is it a scam or not? Your answer might vary between the beginning and the end of the show.

How do you call the last living member of a species? Head to Radiolab: “Hello, my name is” (last part of the show). There’s a rather moving reflection on what heritage might look like when you don’t have kids but don’t feel you’re “the last”.

Should you keep a grudge or not? What Fresh Hell podcast (episode Let it Go or No?) has a hilarious take on this recurring question. The definite sentence I learnt from this (deeper than you’d expect) show is “You can’t get pizza from a Chinese restaurant”. The hosts definitely should make a T-shirt with that one.

Why on earth did the US expect volunteers to compile Covid tracking statistics? This story from 99% Invisible (489. Pandemic tracking and the future of data) had me shaking my head in disgust and disbelief. Sorry, I don’t mean to gloat, but I’m glad my national healthcare system has been built on more solid grounds (not to say that everything’s perfect, by far).

Do you want to learn the real story of turning dog shit into gold? This happened in Taiwan, friends, and it really worked. I learnt this interesting factoid (that will make my kids lol) by No Stupid Questions: Which is more powerful, reward or punishment. I also learnt there that the US had the highest prison population rate of the world, but that’s not lol matter at all.

New podcasts: I have only tried 1,5 episodes of “Truthers: Tiffany Dover is Dead”, and I will reserve my opinion for next week. (Hint: I like it!)

Daphne du Maurier, The House on the Strand (1969)

I’m not sure what I expected from this novel when I stumbled upon this irresistible Amazon Kindle offer. Dare I say that at 2$, I don’t really stop to question my expectations? The author’s name is twice bigger than the title, you’ll notice, and the cover is all blurry. I think I expected something darkly romantic. Well, there is that, but the rest was a complete surprise.

This novel is one of the latest works of Du Maurier, and that should have given me some hint. 1969 is not known for being the year of sobriety, right? The book actually revolves on the idea of taking some new drugs that are addictive and induce you in a state of… time travel! And where else than the 12th century? Psychedelics and damsels in distress, what an implausible mix!

There are so many layers to this book. A man, Dick Young, struggling in a midlife career crisis and in a fledgling marriage, is invited to stay at his old best friend’s Cornwall home in his absence, and teased into trying some drug that his friend has discovered. When you drink it you find yourself at the same place but in the 14th century, able to see and hear people back then, but unable to interact with them. Dick’s present life is not satisfying, and his relation to his friend, Professor Magnus Lane, is also fraught with heavy context, because Magnus is more successful, and a sort of bully. On the other hand, Dick is totally mesmerized by the 14th century world, and he becomes obsessed by a particular woman.

In retrospect, I vaguely remember a few stories in the Don’t Look Now collection that were in the same vein. It has the same heavy atmosphere bordering on science-fiction, some psychic experiments and a strong sense of foreboding. The collection was published in the early 1970s so that’s probably themes that were on Du Maurier’s mind at the time. I read on the internet that the story The Breakthrough was a first version of some scenes of The House on the Strand, although the novel is much more enjoyable.

In the book you can see how much Du Maurier loved Cornwall, its villages and landscapes shaped in a long history. As for me, I am very ignorant of the political context of 14th century England, and this was a bit frustrating. Yet the suspense is really strong (after a rather slow start) and when all the plot lines, past and present, came to a head, I could hardly put the book down.

It’s not a perfect book, but it is fascinating and makes me want to read more books by Daphne Du Maurier.

Stephen King, Misery (1987)

What could I possibly add to the 17,840 reviews (current figure on Goodreads only) already written on this book? I don’t think anyone expects me to give a recap of the story. Writer, super-fan, writing block, isolation, creative process. Plus lots of gore, blood and drugs. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, I’d say you’ve been living in a cave for quite a while. Of course I had to read Misery at some point, but I waited quite some years (and I absolutely didn’t want to read it in translated version… Stephen King’s French voice is all weird to me, and I somehow can’t take it seriously). As for the movie, I’ve seen pictures of it, but I’m not ready. Not yet. Or more precisely, even less ready now that I’ve read the book. Sorry Kathy Bates.

I am no fan of the horror genre, but I have come to enjoy and respect Stephen King for the great entertainer that he is. Man does the guy know how to grab your attention and not release it! I didn’t sleep much during the few days it took me to read Misery. And I’m glad it was less of a door stopper than other of King’s books, or I would have been even more tired. I knew it would work its magic (its nightmarish powers) on me, but still I was surprised, over and over: it went beyond my expectations (although I have expectations of a newbie in the genre, meaning that I have a limited imagination). Reading Misery is really about experiencing the turn of the screw, like Henry James described, but I don’t think good old Henry would have tolerated the level of horror, craziness and despair.

Also, this has been said countless times but you feel that the book is also raw and personal when it speaks about addiction and the creative process. King manages to say a few serious things he cares about, while keeping a tight lid on the pressure cooker of his plot, inserting some humor and making sure you’re properly scared!

Now there are good reasons why this is a classics, and if you’re ready for a wild ride and a few sleepless nights, then it comes highly recommended, by most of the 17,840 reviewers… and me.

Pod Review May 1-6

Returning to my usual Friday schedule to report about my latest pod discoveries. After I complained of a glitch last week, I magically got access to all remaining episodes of The Ballad of Billy Balls, which I hurried to download (just in case)… and to binge. I’m now at episode 8 and I’m obsessed! It’s great to recreate the atmosphere of New York in the late 1970s. The song of the podcast is a bit obsessive too (it’s called Dark Allies by Light Asylum, in the post-punk style – or so I gather, because I’m not knowledgeable in those current trends with weird names – I grew up in the 1980s and 1990s…). I’m already convinced that Billy Balls was up to no good, but I really want the team to learn the truth and for Rebecca to get some sort of closure.

Except for this podcast, I hardly listened to anything else, and whatever I tried wasn’t as convincing!

I tried a new podcast: Midlife Matters, that I discovered through the Sorta Awesome Facebook group. The show is hosted by 3 women, Julie, Mindy and Marie, whose kids are teens or even adults now. I should be in the target audience of this show, but the 2 episodes I tried weren’t really for me. It was too Christian-centric and I couldn’t relate to what they were sharing. (It might be Billy Balls’ nefarious influence). I might try again for another episode as they have a large catalogue.

Lined up for next week, I have a podcast recommended by Laila of Big Reading Life: Truthers: Tiffany Dover is Dead, and I’m also intrigued by the mysterious podcast Twin Flames. What have you been listening this week?