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It’s been some time since I read something in translation, which longtime bookconscious followers will know is one of my favorite things to do. When I was through with the graphic memoir I wrote about last week, I shopped my shelves and nothing was jumping out saying “read me now.” So I browsed Hoopla, where I had borrowed the previous book, and came across Convenience Store Woman, by Sayaka Murata, which I heard about over the summer and hadn’t read yet.

It’s a short novel about a thirty-six year old woman, Keiko Furukura, who has worked part-time in a convenience store since she was eighteen. She was there when it opened and is on her 8th manager. We learn that growing up, Keiko was different — she reacted to things like a dead pet budgie in a park quite dispassionately, and seemed to have a literal take on the world. Her parents alternately worried and felt mortified that their child was different, and so Keiko learned to fit in by saying very little, and making sure that when she did, she sounded like those around her.

In the course of this novel, Keiko figures out that her untraditional life — living in a shabby apartment alone, not dating or socializing much, working part-time in a job mostly taken by immigrants, people stuck between jobs, or students rather than having a career trajectory — makes other people uncomfortable. People like her sister, who is married and has a baby, or the few high school acquaintances she still knows.

So Keiko tries conforming to society’s expectations. I don’t want to give away details about the way that plays out, but I will say I found myself fearing for her, and so when Keiko makes a strong stand for being herself, it came as a relief. I know that’s all vague, but you really should read this book, and I don’t want to spoil it!

Murata and her translator, Ginny Tapley Takemori, bring the culture of the Japanese convenience store alive — from the regulars and the specials to the management and the manual. I appreciated that bits of Japanese, like the greeting the store workers are expected to call out when shoppers come in, are left in tact. Murata manages to make Keiko both a sympathetic character and a symbol of conformist society’s dehumanizing effects on those who do not choose to be outsiders, but instead cannot fit in as expected. It’s a darkly funny book in some ways, although it did not make me laugh as some other readers have commented it did.

I really enjoy books like this that are windows into lives very different than mine. Convenience Store Woman is that, and it’s also a brief story that stays with you, simple in and of itself but carrying greater truths that may cause the reader to keep turning it over in their mind, wondering, and being thankful to have entered into this little world.

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I first heard about the graphic memoir The Best We Could Do by Thi Bui from reading Bill Gates‘ list of the best books he read last year, and I also heard about it from one of my favorite readers at my last library. Now my book club picked it and I finally got it off my “to be read” list! This was the first book I’ve read using Hoopla. It wasn’t a bad read that way — I downloaded it to my iPad. It beat either paying for it (although I might want to own it someday) or waiting for an ILL.

I loved this book, even though it was a tough subject. The art is wonderful — beautiful, expressive, and somehow both detailed and subtle. It’s a story that lends itself to the genre perfectly. How many times have you read a memoir and found yourself picturing various scenes? With a graphic memoir, the pictures take you into the story.

And this story is both particular and universal. Thi Bui writes about her parents, who are each shaped by the events of mid-20th century Vietnamese history, which they lived through. As a young adult, as she tried to understand her family’s history, Bui discovered the country’s as well, and I have to say, I had only the barest of understandings, so that was interesting to learn. The experiences of her parents and the particulars of their lives are specific to their stories. The universal human experiences, of loss, generational misunderstandings, changing roles and cultural shifts, fears about parenting, about raising a family well, growing up, functioning as both an adult and your parents’ child, understanding parents as people and not just parents, these themes are not only important to Thi Bui’s life and family, but to readers’ own lives and families. As Mohsin Hamid said when I hear him speak recently in Manchester about Exit West, “We all lose everything, eventually.”

He was talking about why authors write about things like the refugee crisis (the subject of Exit West). He also said, and Thi Bui says this in her introduction, that writers often write to answer for themselves some fundamental questions about life and the world. The Best We Could Do describes how we all come to realize as adults that is all anyone can do — our best. And it won’t always work out well, it won’t always solve every problem, we might face challenges and setbacks, but in the end, we love each other as best we can, and go on.

The book ends with Thi Bui reflecting on her relationship with her son. She remarks, “I see a life bound with mine quite by coincidence.” When you think about it, that’s what families are, and this beautiful book is a reflection on family and how we grow to understand those whose lives are bound to ours.

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Last week I went to hear Mohsin Hamid speak in Manchester because his book Exit West was our community wide read. I loved that book and Hamid’s talk was really interesting, so I decided to read his other work, starting with The Reluctant Fundamentalist. I enjoyed it, but not as much as Exit West.

In Exit West there is a narrator who tells readers not only what’s happening in the book but what will happen in the future, which is a little disconcerting. In The Reluctant Fundamentalist there is a first person narrator who is addressing an American man in a cafe in Lahore in about 2005 or 2006. The story he tells is interjected with comments that are directed at this man, which feels a little forced. For example, the narration is peppered with questions that represent the other man’s side of the conversation, like “How did I know you were American?” or “What did I think of Princeton?” or “But you are at war, you say?” At other times the narrator tells us about the man’s facial expressions or what he is looking at.

As a result, we get a very limited view of the other man, who is almost a stage prop. The narrator, Changez, tells us the story of his days immediately following graduation from Princeton, when he vacations with a group of fellow grads and begins to fall for one of them, Erica, and returns home to start work at prestigious finance firm that values businesses. The book traces the time from spring 2001 to winter 2002, when Changez moves back to Pakistan. There are many details about his relationship with Erica, whose life is more complicated than it initially appears, and his work. But at its heart the book is about the geopolitical awakening he experiences in the new post-9/11 world, as the war on terror begins and India and Pakistan seem to be heading for war as well.

Hamid’s structural choice means that Changez gets the last word — and really, the only word, since his monologue filters the other characters’ points of view. I appreciated that; it’s good to have different point of view than the one that dominated print and broadcast media after 9/11 in America. There are also hints throughout the book that the American in the cafe is on “a mission,” has a military demeanor and build, and is perhaps armed. The ending is both tense and nebulous — we’re left not truly knowing what is happening in the final moments of the novel, but suspecting.

The Reluctant Fundamentalist is a good story, of a man who comes of age by realizing that none of the things he’s been raised to believe will help him get ahead — education, hard work, good manners, respect for one’s elders — will matter in the new world he’s thrust into. I’m still not sure if I understand fully the role of his relationship with Erica in that undoing; I’ll have to consider that further. It’s a unique book, and I’m glad I read it, but it’s unsettling.

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I’ve written about a number of Howard Mansfield’s books over the years here at bookconscious. Today on the bus back and forth to Boston I finished his latest, The Habit of Turning the World Upside Down, and I’m pleased to report that like all of his writing, it is both a delightful read and one that will leave you better informed and perhaps pensive. Mansfield has the gift of writing both clearly and intellectually. His topic this time is property, particularly the American concept of property as “the rock-solid part of our creed of individualism.” From the colonies to climate change, Mansfield traces the ways we’ve sought, fought over, bought or taken land, and how we associate land with identity and progress.

I learned some things, as I always do when I read his work. I had not ever stopped to think about who lived on the land where the interstate highways now run. I’ll never pass exit 8 on I91 without feeling for Romaine Tenney, the bachelor farmer who, faced with losing his farm to eminent domain for the highway project, freed his animals, set fire to his barns and house, and killed himself in 1964. I’ll never visit the White Mountains without thinking of the Weeks Act, which I’d heard of but now understand better. I had no idea that New Hampshire’s north country was clear cut and burned, so denuded that Concord and Manchester flooded because the runoff overwhelmed the Merrimack. without the flooding, and the impetus to protect the mills that were big business, national forests might not have been established in the east. Mansfield also tells of the dark side of the Weeks Act, which permitted the government to preserve land but not what’s underneath, which is why mining and drilling can take place on national land.

Although I am very aware of projects which propose to install wind turbines, electric lines, or gas pipelines through private lands, I hadn’t ever really considered the extent to which people’s lives are completely disrupted, often with little compensation, when such a project comes to their neighborhoods. And although I’m concerned about climate change, I hadn’t heard about some of the things Mansfield illuminates, like marshes “walking,” and communities having conversations now about how they will survive sea level rise. Or about how we both care and blithely go on visiting the coast as if it will always be there. I know I do.

The book is definitely about hard things, but Mansfield doesn’t leave us entirely without hope. His suggestion for how to move forward is based in a Buddhist idea of accepting the reality of fragility, and living as if things are already “broken.” It’s interesting, and complicated, and thought provoking. And he lets Tocqueville have the last word, writing about the wilderness he saw as he traveled America, knowing that the American penchant for “progress” would conquer it: “It is this consciousness of destruction, this arriere-pensee of quick and inevitable change that gives, we feel, so peculiar a character and such touching beauty to the solitudes of America. One see them with a melancholy pleasure; one is in some sort of hurry to admire them.”

If you live near a wild place that is transient — as most of us do — that will be developed, or drilled, or dug, or turbined, or covered in rising seas, go on. Hurry to admire them.

** I should add, I realized this morning, that this book has a gorgeous design, and is published by a wonderful NH indie press, Bauhan Publishing.

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I read an article stating that The Last Samurai by Helen DeWitt is the best novel of the 21st century so far, and the stories (both the novel’s and the author’s, who seems to live an interesting life) seemed intriguing, even if I am no fan of declarations like that. So I ordered it on interlibrary loan. I read it this weekend, and I do think it’s original, even though it is the classic story of a young man on a quest. Ludo, the young man in The Last Samurai, is younger than many questers — only 11 — and is looking for his father. Sibylla, his unmarried mother, won’t tell him his father’s identity because the man is a writer who reminds her of Liberace, because like him, the man is prone to “slick buttery arpeggios . . . self-regarding virtuosity . . . And yet he was not really exactly like the pianist, because though he did genuinely have the emotional facility of the musician, he had only the air of technical facility . . . .”

The book takes place in London, where Sibylla has gone after deciding that Oxford, where she had a scholarship, is not for her, not because she can’t do the work expected of her, but because that work seems pointless. She meets a woman who can get her a work permit and a secretarial job in a publishing company, and that’s how she meets Ludo’s father. Around the same time an American company buys the publisher and, realizing her job will go away, she accepts a job typing back issues of obscure journals into a computer, which she can do at home while raising her child.

She answers all the questions Ludo asks and teaches him whatever he wants to know, and by the time he is 6 he knows Greek, Hebrew, and Arabic and is learning Japanese. By age 11 he knows about twenty languages along with a great deal of math and science and he’s read widely, including all the travel writing he can find, since that is one clue he has — his father is a travel writer. He and his mother watch Seven Samurai repeatedly, some would say obsessively. He gets the idea that he can seek and challenge seven men in his quest for a father. These men are well known — writers, an artist, a musician, a diplomat, a scientist. His exchanges with his mother and these men are the bulk of the book.

DeWitt says a lot about life, art, family, love, education (I really loved her send-ups of school), and the irrationality of modern life. It’s a book that refers to art and music and languages and cultures and mathematical principals and philosophical ideals you may not know (I didn’t know them all) but unlike some books that reference other works, The Last Samurai doesn’t condescend. It seems natural that the strange and brilliant Sibylla and Ludo are immersed in this kind of knowledge, and fitting that in London they can be immersed. Despite Ludo’s strange upbringing and Sibylla’s isolation, it’s not an unhopeful book. It’s an unusual story, interrupted by chunks of movie subtitles, passages in one of the many languages Ludo or Sibylla is learning or studying, or books he is reading. I’m glad I read it. I’m not making any declarations, however.

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I wanted to like this book. First, I wanted to like it because it took me two weeks to slog through The Trial. I was ready for a quick, satisfying read. I wanted to like it as well because people I like recommended it and my book club is discussing it.

But, as a fellow librarian told me today, it could make for better discussion since I didn’t like it. Maybe. Anyway, I couldn’t warm to the characters or the story. For the same topic — woman overcomes emotionless  (or damaged) upbringing, allies with desirable man, uses her own talent to launch him and pretends to all the world that she is just a muse and not the real talent — see Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff. Which to me was still a strange story about people I couldn’t identify with, but which seemed both wilder and more complicated and somehow also more likely. I just can’t accept the premise of The Wife. I didn’t dislike the writing, so I kept reading, but in the end, it didn’t work for me.

 

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I haven’t looked at trees the same way since reading The Hidden Life of Trees. So when Richard Powers‘ latest novel, The Overstory, came out, I was immediately interested, because the reviews mentioned how Powers incorporates a lot of what’s in that book — trees have the ability to communicate, to adapt, to care for each other — in this novel. And he does, to amazing effect. 

Reviewers have also referred to The Overstory as “magisterial” and “operatic,” both of which may be code for “really long.” It takes just over 500 pages to tell decades of stories, about characters whose lives don’t even begin to intertwine until about a third of the way through.

But if you persevere you’ll begin to understand, perhaps in a muted and not very clear-eyed human way, how the characters are connected to each other and to the heart of the story — the overstory — of man’s inhumanity not only to man, but to the planet. The message is, there are some of us who see and understand that we’re on a self-destructing over-consuming mission, and some of us who don’t, but if we would just pay attention, trees, with their long memory, learned through thousands of years of interconnectedness and cooperation, could teach us to live. 

I’m still not exactly sure of all the characters’ roles — it may take me some time, and conversation with someone else who has read the book, to get how Ray and Dorothy connect with the others. And whether Patricia, the independent, earthy scientist whose work on tree communication is discredited and decades later, celebrated, is based on a real person. 

But a little uncertainty doesn’t detract from enjoying The Overstory. It’s a work of fiction that incorporates science and philosophy and economics, that digs into the way we and our world works and why, and what we can do about it. It’s a reflection on how much we don’t know, and how many of us live blindly, and might not even choose to know what we don’t know. Powers manages to work into his characters’ lives many of the seminal shifts in our lifetimes — communism, terrorism, globalization, environmental degradation, the computer age. And he works in the history of human threats to trees, which can be summarized as environmental mismanagement and cluelessness.

I love his writing, too. Take this description of Ray and Dorothy’s reading tastes: “Ray likes to glimpse the grand project of civilization ascending to its still-obscure destiny. . . . Dorothy needs wilder reclamations, stories free of ideas and steeped in local selves.” Or this description of two characters with a tenuous relationship: “Douggie steps from the car with that stupid, air-eating, sun-eating grin Mimi has come to enjoy,  the way you might enjoy the yips of a dog you’ve rescued from the pound.”  

In the end, I’d describe this as a literary psychodrama in parts. There is the central thread, about five people who come together as environmental activists and turn to eco-terrorism after being ignored by the public and challenged by corporations and the law. That leads to a cataclysmic event. On the periphery are the stories of the aforementioned tree intelligence scientist, the married couple who seem to me to represent the ability of people to grow and change, and a brilliant computer programmer who creates a smash hit game that he comes to see as reflective of all the worst human instincts.

The programmer and the tree scientist are the people whose legacies may turn the tide. But Powers doesn’t say their work will be enough. He leaves us with a clear understanding of only one thing: it’s not over. Nick, one of the environmental activists, is in an unnamed place using downed branches and snags to create an art installation that consists of a giant word — STILL — on a forest floor. He’s done, ready to move on, when he hears a whisper: “This. What we have been given. What we must earn. This will never end.”

 

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