Reading List 2020

What I’ve read this year. I sample or skim some that aren’t included. Happily, I have lost the compulsion or sense of duty to finish every book I start.

February

Rocket to the Morgue by Anthony Boucher
c1942 Penzler Publishers 2019
clever locked room mystery, cast of Science Fiction writers (thinly disguised Golden Age luminaries), an insouciant, engagingly breezy style
In the lounge car of the Lark, Pullman train from San Francisco to Los Angeles a tall thin man with a pale face and flaming hair sat contentedly with two highballs and a blonde.

The Path To Rome by Hilaire Belloc c1902 Catholic Answers 2015
a charming, eccentric account of a pilgrimage to Rome, walking a straight line (by the map) and writing about whatever he thinks and meets along the way; illustrated with pen and ink sketches by the author

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Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata

At 163 pages, this book invites consumption in two or three bites, like eating a rice ball or other snack food from the store. It’s better, though, to nibble. The protagonist is a very unusual woman and her observations and story are highly unsettling. I read it again immediately and find it lingering in my mind, like the flavor of an exotic food upon the palate.

conven

Keiko, a social misfit from childhood, makes an unlikely heroine. She doesn’t understand why her family is so anxious to ‘cure’ her and have her behave like everyone else. It’s not hard to sympathize with them when Keiko uses a shovel to clobber a classmate on the playground. Everyone wanted him to stop beating up another child so she simply took effective action; the adult reaction baffled her. So it goes until she learns to not speak or act; she no longer stands out. She hasn’t changed internally, though. Stroking the cheek of her baby nephew, she finds it strangely soft, like stroking a blister. When her sister tries to quiet the child’s crying, Keiko looks idly at a knife on the table – it would be easy enough. It’s a chilling moment. She doesn’t act on those thoughts any more but still wonders why people don’t use the simplest means to accomplish what they say they want.

A job in one of Japan’s ubiquitous 24-hour convenience stores is a common temporary job for many, quickly left behind for a ‘real’ job or marriage. The structured routine of the store proves ideal for Keiko, however. Indeed, she feels “reborn” as a worker. She stays on for 18 years as managers (currently #8) and staff come and go. The store manual tells her how to act, other female staff provide models of clothing and speech which she can mimic, and the work gives her a sense of purpose. She thinks she’s finally pulled off being a person. We see that’s not quite the case outside the store environment when her sister pleads with her to go to counseling because ever since you started working at the convenience store you’ve gotten weirder and weirder.

The Convenience Store is both microcosm and metaphor of society. Both are forcibly normalized environments where foreign matter and exceptions are removed. Unruly customers, expired milk, and unreliable workers are expelled from the store. Young adults (especially men) who don’t pursue careers or (especially women) marriage are shunned, culled from the herd. Any oddity in a person’s life is massaged and interpreted until it can be explained and fit into a conventional social pattern.

Nothing is static or uniform, of course, despite the bemused comment of an elderly customer that this place never changes. Keiko reflects that all the units of the store – products, staff, customers – are constantly being replaced with the same but different units, like the cells of her body. The old lady was like one of eighteen years earlier, the eggs sold today are like those of yesterday but different, and she herself is a unit that will be replaced. Problems of the world intrude into this controlled environment too. A recently hired foreign worker, chronic staffing shortages, and a mentally deranged customer hint at the labor and social crises in Japan.

The author is very clever to let Keiko tell her story; a reader almost automatically feels a sympathetic interest in a narrator’s point of view. But the ambiguities and uneasiness created by such a heroine are considerable. Keiko, whose name means “happy child”, is not happy nor does she understand or want “happiness”. She sees society as a kind of hive or herd in which everyone unconsciously copies others’ behaviors – infecting each other like this is how we maintain ourselves as human is what I think. She has admirable qualities as an employee but her complete identification with the store is deeply odd. She is bereft when she leaves her job and can no longer hear its voice caress her eardrums.

The novel is a deft and deadpan satire of that universal human inclination to sort and explain everything/one into familiar patterns and categories. It’s easy to criticize Keiko’s conventional family and workplace for the excessive pressures for conformity that we associate with Japanese society. But I found myself trying to ‘understand’ her too, though in a more enlightened way of course. The English language edition subtly guides our expectations with the translation choice in the title. The title is more properly translated as Convenience Store Human or Person. (The word is also used as urban slang and in Dragonball circles as an insult meaning something like “idiot humanoid”.) “Woman” is a significant change and closes off a more open reading at the outset by emphasizing gender and the individual. My feminist instincts were easily engaged when she’s badgered to marry, or to find a more worthwhile job, or when she’s not promoted despite her exemplary performance in the store. Her return to a store that ‘needs’ her, crying out to her in its distress, feels like a victory and affirmation of personal choice. But really? What will become of her when she’s unable to meet the physical demands of the job, when she’s a worn cog and an unusable tool?

I think “Human” is a more interesting title, as well, as it encourages us to think about those qualities that make us human. Keiko in some respects seems like an AI construct of a human being; she’s a humanoid robot designed to serve this complex structured machine called a Convenience Store. How different, we should wonder, is our own life? how unreflecting our judgments? The career professional never unplugged, the retail worker whose personal life is captive to erratic shift scheduling, social media pressures to have a shiny smiley life – we can see much of contemporary life mirrored in this insightful and entertaining novel.

Moby Dick – Discuss

I met the challenge, I finished reading MD a half hour before Book Group.  In my defense, I was reading in the two weeks available after a long vacation trip.  Everyone in Group finished the novel in similar style except one, and we gave her a pass because she’s working and very pregnant.  Everyone enjoyed the reading experience but there was an occasional struggle.  You can’t make it a quick read no matter how pressed for time.  It really is a most curious novel.  It’s undeniably long, and heavy with facts, and nothing much happens until the final few chapters.  It’s also engrossing, populated with memorable characters, full of striking imagery and language and entertaining digressions into philosophy and political commentary.  This is a book for endless discussion.

Moby Dick continually surprises the reader and defies convention.  Everyone knows the opening, right?  Call me Ishmael is among the most famous of opening lines.  Only it isn’t. There are pages before we read that sentence.  The mock-serious tone is set when we’re given an etymology of ‘whale’ by a late consumptive usher and extracts from literature compiled by a sub-sub librarian.  Only then do we arrive at Chapter One and meet our narrator.  You can say the line opens the story, but attaching this prelude material gives our expectations a little shake out of comfortable convention.

Ishmael is a terrific companion and guide on this journey.  He has many admirable qualities; he’s curious, adventurous, willing to accept people and situations as he finds them.  He is practical, interested in science and facts, and a self-educated independent thinker.  Alone and rolling unattached through life, he is the outsider/observer reporting and commenting on the comedy and grief of life.  I try all things; I achieve what I can.

And he’s so funny!  Why doesn’t anyone comment about how witty Ishmael is?  I loved listening to him talk.Coming to an inn for the night, with anxious grapnels I had sounded my pockets and only brought up a few pieces of silver.   Frightened that night, had not the stranger stood between me and the door, I would have bolted out of it quicker than ever I bolted a dinner.  His philosophical reflections are marvelous and delightful in their unexpectedness.  When Tashtego falls into a sweet spermaceti coffin Ishmael muses How many, think ye, have likewise fallen into Plato’s honey head, and sweetly perished there?

Melville’s writing is richly descriptive.  A face showed a congruent small-pox had in all directions flowed over his face, and left it like the complicated ribbed bed of a torrent, when the rushing waters have been dried up.  Starbuck is a long, earnest man…flesh being as hard as twice baked biscuit…his thinness…merely the condensation of the man.  Moby Dick viewed: the appalling beauty of the vast milky mass, that, lit up by a horizontal spangling sun, shifted and glistened like a living opal in the blue morning sea.  Wonderful language that slows an appreciative reader’s pace like a sea anchor.

I’m trying to imagine where we – Ishmael and I – are as he tells the story of this fated voyage.  Possibly he is sitting alone and writing his recollections for later perusal.  But the narrative has the leisurely discursive quality of conversation and storytelling.  It has the pace of a voyage with long periods of near idleness and of simple repetitive work conducive to reflection or talk.  Perhaps I’m the new hand and he’s filling the days with instruction and tales.  I hope that he’s off the sea and snug in a comfortable sailor’s bar, spinning his tales for a mesmerized audience.

 

 

 

Reading Moby Dick

Every so often, when the interval between meetings will be longer than usual or when a consensus choice for next month doesn’t emerge or when, perhaps, we just feel a bit bolder one of my book group will look around and say, “what’s on your ‘to be read’ stack?” It’s an opportunity to pull out that giant Victorian novel (The Way We Live Now by Anthony Trollope) or serious social novel (The Street by Ann Petry) or unaccountably missed classic (Don Quixote by Cervantes).

One member asked if we were willing to read Moby Dick with her.  Another said she’d never read it either.  I admitted to reading it only a few years ago but had loved it and was eager to read it again.  The others had all read it a long time past and were ready to revisit.  So Moby Dick it is.  

A great book doesn’t require embellishment, of course, but often inspires it.  I had been lucky years ago to find a copy of the beautiful Random House edition (from the Lakeside  Press edition of 1000) illustrated by Rockwell Kent.  It was an extraordinary reading experience.

 

Curious about other fine editions, I learned of a 1979 printing by Arion Press with illustrations by Barry Moser.  I may never see one of the 265 original copies of that hand press edition, but The University of California offers a handsome trade edition.

Andrew Hoyem, the publisher of Arion Press, on the opening page:  “The wave of the ‘C’ of “Call me Ishmael” almost jumps out of the book like a Hiroshiga wave.”

 

Time to dive in…