An Inconvenient Woman

For good or ill, the shopping season is upon us. As you finally find that perfect gift, and this is assuming you actually go out into the world to do your shopping, it is easy to forget about the employee ringing up your purchase. Retail work is not an easy gig, so it seems totally normal to me if a store employee just goes through the motions or does the bare minimum to collect a paycheck. The workers that stand out for me are those who seem super happy with their job, the store, and the whole retail experience. For some reason, that attitude has always seemed a little ‘off’ if not downright creepy. After reading the excellent Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata, however, I think it’s time for me to reassess my reaction.

Keiko Furukura really, really, really likes her job at the Hiiromachi branch of the ‘Smile Mart’ convenience store in a suburb of Tokyo. She enthusiastically greets the customers, makes sure everything is stocked correctly for the season and always adheres to the company’s newest edicts. She is far from a mindless automaton however. She has used her 18 years at the Smile Mart to observe others’ puzzling behavior and learn how to be normal.

From an early age Keiko realizes that her way of thinking and feeling just doesn’t adhere to societal standards. When she sees two students fighting and the teacher orders them to stop, she hits one of them over the head with a spade, stopping the fight but winning no accolades. She simply does not understand human emotions and reactions. Worse still, she finds out that society will single you out and punish you for not fitting in. Her solution? Bury herself in her job at the Smile Mart, learn what is considered normal from other employees, and apply that knowledge in order to be left alone.

This all works pretty well until she reaches the age of 36 and her family begins questioning why she is still working at an entry-level job and has no boyfriend/husband. Enter Shiraha, a fellow employee who is lazy, misogynistic and prone to endlessly spouting out simplistic ‘ideas’ about the Stone Age and modern society. The one thing they have in common: a mistrust of normalcy. Perhaps Keiko can use that to her advantage…

Convenience Store Woman is told using a straightforward, yet elegant style that conveys Keiko’s unique perspective. While the ideas presented might be a bit off-putting for some at first, the author packages them in such a way as to make Keiko ultimately seem sympathetic. You come to see her as a somewhat damaged, by societal standards, individual carving out a tolerable existence in a hostile world. This short novella is well worth your reading time. Plus it will give you a new perspective while doing your holiday shopping.

Attention Hollywood

It’s been a really great year for YA movie adaptations. Simon vs. The Homo Sapiens Agenda was made into the charming and sweet (if poorly renamed) Love, Simon. To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before which took Netflix by storm. And The Hate U Give was a critical hit at a timely moment. It’s a bit of a reach, but I’d even argue that Black Panther was a YA adaptation considering where we shelve the comics. But am I satisfied? Never! I want to see more of my favorite characters head to the screen so I can fret that Hollywood will ruin them and rejoice the few times that they do not. Luckily for all the producers, project developers, and screen writers out there, I’m happy to do the leg work for them. I want Nic Stone’s Odd One Out to be the next big thing.

81A39u7iP5LOdd One Out follows three teens, Courtney, Jupiter, and Rae, each of whom narrates a section of the book. Courtney is the first narrator. A high school basketball phenom, he lost his father to a tragic accident years ago and lives with his single mother. He is well-adjusted, kind, and introspective. He is also secretly, hopelessly, and madly in love with Jupiter, his longtime best friend. Jupiter is  quick-witted, Freddy Mercury obsessed, and an engaged activist and community leader. Though Courtney and Jupiter share almost everything, he can’t bring himself to tell her about his feelings. In addition to risking their friendship, it would be an exercise in futility. Though Jupiter deeply loves Courtney, it could never be romantic. Jupiter is gay.

As the book follows Jupiter and Courtney into their junior year of high school, they are thrown a curveball. Rae is a bright, bubbly, and endearing student who has just moved to town and transferred to their school. She quickly becomes an integral member of their group, but she also creates the friction that might destroy their friendship. From the moment Rae shows up it is clear that Jupiter has feelings for her. And as Courtney desperately attempts to get over Jupiter, he begins to like Rae as well. And Rae? Rae might just be falling for both of them! I hesitate to use the phrase “love triangle” because it feels cheap and hackneyed, but if the shoe fits….

What follows is a fun, dramatic, and sometimes stressful series of adventures and misunderstanding for these three teens, including a strange but emotionally resonant side story featuring a long-forgotten children’s entertainer. I fell deeply in love with all of the characters in this book, and I lived and died with their every triumph and defeat. But Stone’s work is also a deep, moving, and well constructed consideration of identity, sexuality, and the expectations placed on teens. In the author’s note, Stone explains why she wrote Odd One Out:

“It’s a book I needed at twelve, when I was skittish at slumber parties and worried about playing truth-or-dare because I didn’t want the other girls to know about the fire I felt below my navel when I watched them kiss each other and stuff. I needed it at fifteen, sixteen, seventeen, when I would change for cheer practice separate from the other girls because I didn’t want anybody to catch me looking. (Flee temptation! My Bible said.) I needed it at twenty-one, when trying to navigate intense romantic feelings for a female friend. And I need it now as I continue to waffle between labels. (Am I bisexual? Pansexual? Queer? Herteroflexible? All of the above? None of the above?)”

I’m confident that it’s still a book that tweens, teens, new adults, and grown-ass adults still need, whether they’re questioning their own identities or could just use a window into the lives of others to build empathy and be better allies. Of course on top of all that, it is also a fun, satisfying, and smart story that I could not put down. Now someone make me my damn movie.

Star Trek, Soccer, and Ancient Persian Kings

From the opening pages of Adib Khorram’s brilliant debut Darius the Great is Not Okay, it is painfully clear how much truth there is in the title. Darius Kellner, the sweet and immediately endearing teenage narrator, is struggling. For starters, Darius is a target at school. His taste in pop culture gravitates towards the nerdy, he is somewhat obsessed with tea (provided it is properly brewed and unsweetened), his medication makes him gain weight, and he is half-Persian, exposing him to the lamest and cruelest Islamophobic taunts the bullies at school can concoct.

Darius-the-Great-Is-Not-OkayIf these problem aren’t enough, Darius is also feeling isolated from his family. His mother’s side lives in Iran and while his mom and little sister speak Farsi, Darius’s language skills are undeveloped. Whenever they gather around the computer for a video chat, Darius can’t help but feel like an outsider. He also fears that he perpetually disappoints his father. Darius seems to have inherited very little from him: not his fair all-American looks, his math skills, nor his ability to blend-in and “be normal.” They only have two things in common, clinical depression and a love for Star Trek. As the gulf between father and son widens, Darius sadly reasons that his younger sister is his replacement – a chance for his parents to get things right.

When his grandfather’s health takes a turn for the worse, Darius’s parents decide it is time to travel to Iran and meet his mother’s family. Darius is apprehensive about this trip but also eager to discover connections to his family and his people’s history.  In Yazd, the city his family calls home, Darius continues to struggle to find acceptance. His grandfather and uncles tease him about his weight and are puzzled that a healthy young American boy would need medication (antidepressants) to be happy. In Yazd, Darius also makes a friend, perhaps his first best friend, a teen named Sohrab who lives down the street. Sohrab has had his own struggles with intolerance and oppression and he seems to understand Darius and embrace his individuality. His friendship with Sohrab allows Darius to see himself in a new light – as someone who might belong. But he is aware that their time together is running short and he must figure out how to reconcile the version of Darius he has discovered in Iran with the life waiting for him at home.

This is a special book on several levels. Khorram notes in the book’s afterword that he “wanted to show how depression can affect a life without ruling it” and he strikes that balance masterfully. I appreciated that it is just one small part of who Darius is. It does not define him. Novels that deal with mental illness often focus on diagnosis and characters’ struggles to win their lives back. Many of these works are compassionate, essential works for young readers, but it is also important for youths to have books like this one where depression is a detail in the story, not the story itself.

Khorram also skillfully weaves family history and Iranian cultural heritage into his book without ever distracting from Darius’s powerful struggles with identity and self-worth. Like real relationships, those in this book are nuanced, weighed down by past hurts, miscommunications, and words left unsaid. But this book is also about a loving family, determined to reconnect and support each other despite sometimes not knowing how to do so. Rooting for Darius as he bonds with his grandparents and navigates Iranian customs, family politics, and traumas big and small is incredibly rewarding. Darius is a character you won’t want to leave and won’t soon forget.

The Lost Queen by Signe Pike

The Lost Queen by Signe Pike is a work of historical fiction with a lot of real world research behind it.

Signe Pike found a book in England titled Finding Merlin by Adam Ardrey. It presented compelling evidence that Merlin was based on Lailoken, who had a twin sister Languoreth . After doing lots of research, Ms. Pike pieced together the tale of the twins, and their hardships in the sixth century in Scotland. Lailoken became a Wisdom Keeper, and Languoreth was married off to Rhydderch to strengthen the bond between the two kingdoms.

Languoreth became a great Queen of Strathclyde, but history has forgotten her (hence the title of the book). This story shows the intricacies of the politics of the time and all the behind the scenes intrigue that they both had to live with. Parts of the story were heart wrenching, but for the most part it was an exciting and riveting tale. I really enjoyed it and fell in love with the characters.

This is the first book in a trilogy, and I can’t WAIT for the next one!

Wheel in the Sky Keeps on Turning

Philip Tonkin is healing. Fast. It should be impossible, no, it IS impossible because he was smashed flatter than a proverbial pancake. Nearly every single bone in his body shattered and he was in a coma for six months and yet he’s awake now and beginning to move. But waking only fuels Philip Tonkin’s nightmare.

In Josh Malerman’s Black Mad Wheel it’s the 1950s and Tonkin and his band The Danes have had a brush with fame with one of their songs. They’re in a studio helping to produce another band’s music. The Danes met and formed while serving in WWII. They didn’t consider themselves soldiers, just musicians serving Uncle Sam. One day while sitting in a bar in between songs, they’re approached by a man with the government who tells them about a sound emanating from the Namib Desert in Africa. Officials haven’t been able to pinpoint the sound’s exact origin, not even after sending in two other teams who came back empty-handed.

The band agrees to give the sound a listen and back in the studio they watch the GI man put earplugs in. Never a good sign. The reel to reel is set up and PLAY is pressed. The sound begins as nothing at first and then comes out as almost more of a feeling than a sound. The band members begin to vomit and curl in on themselves with pain. The reel to reel is stopped and as the band struggles to recover physically and mentally from the eerie sound, the government man says they’ll each get $100,000 to travel to the Namib Desert and find the sound’s location. They have 24 hours to decide. After that, the deal is off the table. After mulling it over, the Danes decide to do it. If anyone can do it, a group of musicians should be able to hunt the sound down.

Sounds easy peasy, yeah?

No.

They endure the journey to the desert, flying in a military plane. Getting nearer the sound the men begin to sicken, the noise a squeezing thrum of a physical presence. The GI man sets them and all their recording equipment in the desert along with a historian, an old drill Sargent from boot camp who has been mysteriously turned out of the military. The GI man says he will be back to collect all of them in exactly two weeks, he says, and leaves them in the desert.

Then the ‘Black Mad Sh*t’ begins to hit the fan.

A band member is taken by a strange creature that leaves goat like hoof prints in the sand. They begin the search for him but he’s vanished.

In between recounting the band’s mission, Philip Tonkin wakes from his long coma in an Iowa hospital. Ellen, a nurse, has been caring for him for six months and has grown attached to him. He’s shot full of painkillers around the clock and she’s shocked that someone whose body has been nearly obliterated has not only survived but, upon waking, slowly begins to move.

His body is in ruins and his mind scarred from the desert, but he knows the rest of the Danes are still alive somewhere in that desert. But the hospital he’s in is no ordinary hospital and his doctor is ‘off’ in a way no doctor should be. Ellen does as she’s told but has begun to question the doctor’s motives. So has Philip. Something dangerous is happening. And something even worse is about to go down.

Black Mad Wheel is full of shadowy government dealings, a heavy and palpable supernatural presence, and the paranoia that the unknown is going to be weaponized before the ‘good’ guys can find it. Put your earplugs in if you don’t think you can handle it. I bought mine in bulk from Costco.

More Adventure Awaits

I am sorry to say I haven’t read anything by Robert Louis Stevenson (RLS to scholars, Louis to his friends), but I’ve come close by reading Brian Doyle’s The Adventures of John Carson in Several Quarters of the World: a novel of Robert Louis Stevenson.

Doyle, an extreme fan, acknowledges in the preface that his book is a celebration of the man whose writing he admires above all other writers in the English language. Then, writing in Louis’ voice, Doyle goes about conjuring up the four months Louis spent in the winter of 1880 in San Francisco. It was a difficult time for Louis, having left behind a comfortable life of wealth and privilege in Scotland to make his way to California and the woman he intended to marry.

His health is bad and he has very little money. He waits out the impending divorce of Fanny Osborne, who is living across the bay in Oakland with her two children. He rides out the four months staying at a boarding house on the corner of Hyde and Bush streets. This part is all true. The rest is Doyle’s writing skill.

The story is primarily one wild tale after another as told by retired sea captain John Carson and recounted by Louis. Each day Louis, if he feels well enough to get out of bed, gets to know the city and returns to a roaring fire in the fireplace of his boarding house. Just as his host Mr. Carson is getting to the good part of each story, however, boarding house owner and cook Mary Carson calls everyone to dinner in no uncertain terms.

The other character in this tale is the city itself. You will feel the fog on your face and feel the muscles in your legs ache when climbing the stair-stepped slopes of San Fran along with Louis. You’ll feel Louis’s generosity of spirit and the love he was heading toward in marrying Fanny. And you will just feel beautiful writing enveloping you.

Then you’ll wonder more about the real life of Robert Louis Stevenson. And, let me tell you, there is plenty to find out. If you just want a quick but satisfying read with photos of Louis in the South Pacific, I recommend a tiny little booklet in the Northwest room called R.L. Stevenson Poet in Paradise by Maxine Mrantz. Then there is a more complete telling of Louis’ whole life in Claire Harman’s Myself and the Other Fellow: A Life of Robert Louis Stevenson.

To cap it all off, take a quick trip down to the 10th street boat launch road in Everett and stand just a few feet away from what is left of the Equator, the boat that brought Louis to his final destiny, Samoa.

Oh Mother Where Art Thou?

I always enjoy the little surprises that books can provide. Recently, I finished a fantastic book while on vacation. It followed a young man haunted by the disappearance of his mother, grappling with adulthood, identity, and a tumultuous, changing world. It was the kind of book that stays with you, suppressing any desire to begin something new. I needed a book for the rest of my trip but had no idea what I wanted. Luckily I was visiting two friends with strong opinions and great taste. They clued me in to another incredible novel, this one about a young man haunted by the disappearance of his mother, grappling with adulthood, identity, and….you guessed it, a tumultuous, changing world.

Despite this coincidence, these books both feature rich, nuanced characters in very different circumstances. It was a pleasure to stumble into their lives one-after-the-other, and to have the opportunity to discover the links between them as their stories unfolded.

51ru-JNuaDLIn Lisa Ko’s The Leavers, Deming Guo is introduced as a boy living with his mother and her boyfriend in the Bronx. Deming’s life is far from perfect- his family has little money, he struggles in school, and he argues with his mother. But they love each other fiercely and seem to have an unbreakable bond. This makes it all the harder when Deming’s mother suddenly disappears without explanation, leaving him shattered and alone. Eventually Deming is put in foster care then adopted by a well-meaning but aloof white couple who take him to live upstate and, hoping to help him fit in, change his name to Daniel.

The narrative follows Deming both as a child, coming to terms with his mother’s disappearance and his strange new life, and as Daniel, a recent college dropout desperate to make a name for himself among the ultra-cool of the Lower East Side and Brooklyn. As Daniel’s life begins to unravel, the narrative also expands to include the story of his mother, how she came to America, and the real reason she disappeared from Daniel’s life.

The Leavers is a painful but redemptive story of family, immigration, assimilation, and identity. Ko methodically reveals Daniel’s and his mother’s stories, bringing careful attention to their struggles, their triumphs, and their flaws. Daniel repeatedly finds himself on the outside looking in. In upstate New York he feels too Chinese; among New York City’s hipsters, he feels like an impostor from upstate. When he finally visits China, he feels conspicuously and inescapably American. Ko’s narrative may be at its strongest when Daniel is puzzling through his questions about identity, but through Daniel’s birth mother’s story, Ko also deftly brings attention to the cruelty and inhumanity of America’s militarized immigration enforcement system.

saleemhaddad-guapaOn its face, Guapa, by Saleem Haddad, is a very different kind of story. Guapa follows a young man named Rasa who lives in an unnamed Arab country during and after the Arab Spring. Like Daniel, Rasa struggles to escape his memories of his mother, who disappeared when he was a child. Rasa is also facing a crisis point. His grandmother just discovered him in bed with his boyfriend, who is also about to get married. To a woman. Rasa struggles to salvage this romance while keeping his identity under wraps in a society where knowledge of his sexuality is a legitimate danger to his life.

As Rasa struggles through a truly terrible day, his story shifts through time revealing details of his childhood and the circumstances that led his mother to abandon him, his years as a college student in New York where he struggled to explore his sexuality and not be pigeonholed because of his ethnicity, and his traumatic days protesting during a period of revolutionary unrest in his homeland. Haddad also explores generational conflict in the Arab world. Rasa is one of many young people determined to change their country, but frustrated at every turn by a mix of oppression, extremism, and bureaucracy. On a personal level, Rasa struggles to understand his grandmother’s adherence to traditional values, particularly the idea of shame.

As Rasa’s day lurches towards decisive confrontations with the two largest figures in his life, his grandmother and his boyfriend, he contends with his own past, his country’s future, and the nagging fear that he may not have a place in the world around him. Rasa is a compelling character who seems caught in impossible circumstances, with the oppressive constraints of identity, expectations, and cultural norms bearing down on him with heart-wrenching weight.

I wish that Rasa’s New York could bleed into Daniel’s and the two could meet. While they come from very different circumstances, and want different things from their lives, they are both linked by the vacuum left behind when their mothers disappeared. Daniel might understand Rasa’s despair as he navigates his queerness and Arabness in a hostile homeland. And Rasa might understand the way that Daniel feels stretched as he tries to shed his Chinese heritage to please his adoptive parents while remaining desperate to reconnect with his mother and her roots. I, for one, felt lucky to discover these two young men and get lost in the murky, tumultuous years of their youths.