Convenience Store Woman

A teal blue cover features a plastic fish full of a dark liquid, with a red stopper. All text is on a slight diagonal.

“And so, believing that I had to be cured, I grew into adulthood.”  

-Keiko 

Keiko, the protagonist of Convenience Store Woman, is pretty wild. Author Sayaka Murata created a wonderfully singular protagonist with piercing and sometimes bizarre insights into life. Have you ever thought that the best way to break up a fight is to knock both combatants out with a shovel? Keiko has. Have you then proceeded to knock them both out? Keiko has. Hence, the wildness.

Keiko experiences life differently than the other characters in Convenience Store Woman and that leads to trouble for her. The things that her family and friends want for her, she does not want for herself. All Keiko really wants is to work at the convenience store. As she ages, she faces increasing pressure to quit her job at the convenience store and do something normal for a woman her age.

This book is ostensibly about the conflict between an individual and society, but it is also a love story between a woman and a convenience store. Keiko and the convenience store are star-crossed lovers, just trying to stay together. On her first day as a convenience store worker, she feels that she has finally found a niche: “At that moment, for the first time ever, I felt I’d become a part in the machine of society. I’ve been reborn, I thought. That day I actually became a normal cog in society.” The tragic irony of Keiko’s story is that society doesn’t consider her choices acceptable even though she makes them in order to fit into society.

But back to the love story part. It’s basically Romeo and Juliet without dead bodies or one-off Queen Mab* references.

Keiko’s challenge, in this love story, is to escape society’s expectations. To that end, she cultivates a fake relationship that allows her to continue her romance with the convenience store. I won’t spoil it, but her fake relationship doesn’t exactly end like Daphne and Simon’s faux courtship in Bridgerton. 

Sayaka Murata’s awesome book about the experience of living a life that others can’t understand is full of quirky humor and serious questions about economics and culture. The writing is zippy and fun. The minor characters are memorable, and the convenience store is described in amazing detail. If you’ve ever worked a job that overlaps in any way with a convenience store, you’ll recognize Keiko’s feelings and concerns. Feeling that you are not positioned well for the impending lunch rush will be familiar to anyone who has worked in food service. Noticing that the display is not optimized to showcase seasonal specials will be a familiar feeling to anyone who has ever worked in retail.

I would recommend Convenience Store Woman to anyone who has ever been frustrated by societal expectations. I would recommend it to anyone working a “dead end” job. I would recommend it to anyone. (also as an eAudiobook via Libby/OverDrive)

Murata’s books are slowly getting translated into English, so keep your eyes peeled for future titles. If you know Japanese, you can read them all right now. As an interesting final note, Murata worked at a convenience store for years, including during the writing of Convenience Store Woman!

*Act I, Scene 4

Ben Hamilton works at Project Literacy, Howard County Library’s adult basic education initiative, based at HCLS Central Branch. He loves reading, writing, walking, and talking (all the basics).

Revolution or Counter-Revolution?

Black and white print of slave revolt with a man wielding a sword and disarray around a table.

“Above all, he was flabbergasted by their constant prating about liberty while continuing the enslavement of tens of thousands” 
Gerald Horne (writing about Samuel Johnson’s feelings about the colonists) 

If you’ve ever wanted more information on the events leading up to the American Revolutionary War, Gerald Horne’s got you covered. His 2014 book, The Counter-Revolution of 1776: Slave Resistance and the Origins of the United States of America, will help you fill some of those gaps.  

Horne argues that the strongest driver of the revolutionary war was the African slave trade. He further claims that the American Revolution was not, in fact, a progressive victory for the good guys, but rather a regressive counter-revolution to the constant revolutions of the rapidly growing number of enslaved Africans on the continent and in the Caribbean. Through a mountain of primary source material, Horne documents the macro- and micro-events in the mainland colonies, Jamaica, and Barbados in the years leading up to 1776. 

In my opinion, Horne’s only flaw is his love of outrageously long and convoluted sentences. Horne is clearly of the Miltonian school of prose and sometimes seems to be attempting unmatched feats of sentence length: 

Perhaps, rather than seeing these men as having novel conceptions of allegiance to London or even as ungrateful hypocrites, it might be better to see them as ‘premature’ U.S. patriots; that is, economic logic was impelling them like a swift river current toward secession; while London was seeking to restrain their business dealings driven by the luscious bounty of African enslavement, Paris and Madrid had burst the dam and were more than willing to encourage settlers’ shady bargains, and, thus, these mainland men chose not to fight this trend but embrace it, along with the pretty profits it delivered (160).

Nestled within that labyrinthine sentence is the heart of the book: colonists were driven to war with England by the economic logic of slavery. The book is well-researched, well-argued, and compelling. In many cases, Horne uses the colonists’ own words to illustrate how the immense wealth they could accumulate from the enslavement of Africans drove them to madness. Horne writes, “Africans, in short, were a major antagonist, but mainlanders were reluctant to curb the seemingly ceaseless flow of Africans who were arriving, which was raising searching questions in London about their judgment, if not their sanity” (154). In my opinion, this book provides crucial historical context and should be required reading. 

Ben’s suggested pairings: 

Stony the Road: Reconstruction, White Supremacy, and the Rise of Jim Crow by Henry Louis Gates, Jr. Gates deals with the same theme of powerful men doing whatever they can to keep unjust systems in place.  (also available as an ebook and eaudiobook)

We Were Eight Years in Power: An American Tragedy by Ta-Nehisi Coates. Coates touches on many of the same themes as Horne. The sections on the “invention of racecraft” will be particularly interesting to readers of Horne’s work.  (also available as ebook and eaudiobook)

How to Be an Antiracist by Ibram X Kendi. Kendi’s book provides the reader with suggestions for how to move forward. (also available as ebook and eaudiobook)

Ben Hamilton works at Project Literacy, Howard County Library’s adult basic education initiative, based at HCLS Central Branch. He loves reading, writing, walking, and talking (all the basics).

Girl in a Band by Kim Gordon

Photo of Kim Gordon in a subway, with duotone wash in red.

By Ben H.

“it’s hard to write about a love story with a broken heart” – Kim Gordon 

Girl in a Band is a breakup memoir and it’s a good one.  

It is also much more than a breakup memoir. It is a pretty killer Künstlerroman* (Gabrielle Hamilton’s Blood, Bones & Butter is a good comparison); a brilliant memoir of place(s) (like Joan Didion’s “White Album” essay), and a behind the music for music nerds (I don’t have a good comp, but I need to keep the parallelism going). Kim Gordon was the eponymous “girl in a band” with Sonic Youth, a band that made loud noisy rock records. She was married to her bandmate, Thurston Moore, for 29 years until she learned of him having an affair. Neither the couple nor the band survived the affair. My review isn’t necessarily for the Sonic Youth fans out there, because they’ve probably already read this and devoured the middle section where Gordon highlights her favorite tracks and gives them biographical context; my review is for the people who need another reason to read a memoir about a girl in a band. 

Gordon writes beautifully about the places she’s lived. From her childhood in L.A. to her adulthood in New York to her motherhood in Massachusetts, Gordon excels at remembering tiny details and writing gorgeous descriptions of the distinct phases of her life. L.A. is a maze to be escaped and returned to; New York is chaotic and fertile like an overgrown garden; and Massachusetts is suffocating, domestic, and tense.

Gordon’s L.A. is a Janus-faced landscape of “rustic hillsides filled with twisted oak trees, scruffy and steep, with lighter-than-light California sunshine filtering through the tangles,” and flat neighborhoods of “freshly mowed green lawns camouflaging dry desert-scape…everything orderly but with its own kind of unease.” The places Gordon writes about become characters through her tapestry of vivid vignettes. For me, she does her best writing about places. If you still aren’t convinced, the vintage photographs Gordon uses for each chapter, like the one of her standing with her arms around Iggy Pop and Nick Cave, are reason enough to read this book. 

When I think of Sonic Youth, I don’t necessarily think of the awesome sheets of sound they made as a band. I think of the husky and wild vocals of Gordon. Her delivery is one of a kind. She drones. She growls. She talks. She screams. She sings. As an author, she might not possess the same kind of singular voice, but she knows how to tell a story and set a scene. At the risk of sounding adolescent, she is also very cool. Speaking of cool, Gordon references William Gibson’s thriller Pattern Recognition – she named a song after it. His cool-hunting protagonist Cayce Pollard is totally cut from the same cloth as Kim Gordon. Listen to any of the tracks off Gordon’s solo album, No Home Record, and tell me she isn’t very cool.

I won’t review the details of her relationship with Thurston Moore, but I think she does a marvelous job writing about the arc of their relationship. The passages describing them falling in love are lovely. The passages describing Thurston’s increasingly erratic behavior in Massachusetts are heartbreaking.

Kim Gordon, band aside, has led a fascinating life. My wife recommended this book to me and now I’m recommending it to you. Take a trip back in time to when CDs were the only way to listen to music and request Sonic Youth’s Daydream Nation while you’re at it! 

*artist’s book about growing into maturity

Ben Hamilton works at Project Literacy, Howard County Library’s adult basic education initiative, based at HCLS Central Branch. He loves reading, writing, walking, and talking (all the basics).