Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata

(translated from Japanese by Ginny Tapley Takemori)

Writing/Translation: 3/5 Plot: 3/5 Characters: 4/5

An odd book about an odd woman who is trying to survive in a world she finds confusing. As a child, she proposes eating the dead bird found in the playground. This seems practical to her, as her father loves yakitori and she can’t see the difference, but the other children and mothers are appalled. She never manages to get more “normal” or accepted than that.

When she gains part-time employment as a convenience store worker at 17, she feels reborn — a successful part of the “machine of society.”  19 years later she is 36, still in the same part-time employment, and has never had nor wanted a sexual relationship. She tries to be normal, mimicking facial expressions, manners of speech, and even clothing items from those around her, but she is getting messages that it is still not enough. So she tries something very, very, different.

This is a book about conformity and fear of expulsion from the herd — a Japanese version of Eleanor Oliphant, The Rosie Project, or The 600 Hours of Edward. The author did a good job of getting us inside Keiko’s head and there are some masterful portrayals of other characters as seen through her eyes.  I always appreciate a book that can describe the world through a differently structured brain.  I liked the ending — it wasn’t a typically happy ending (as in the books I just mentioned) but it was an ending that was happy for Keiko.

Small Country by Gaël Faye

Thank you to Crown Publishing Hogarth and NetGalley for an early review copy of Small Country by Gaël Faye, which will publish June 5, 2018.  All thoughts are my own.

Writing: 4.5 Plot: 4 Characters: 4

A powerful coming-of-age novel in the politically charged climate of Burundi in the 1990s. Gabriel (Gaby) is the son of a French father and Rwandan mother living in Bujumbura, the capital city of Burundi. He is 10 years old when the country — filled with hope and expectation — holds its first multi-party election in 1993. This is a personal and humanistic version of the ensuing events in both Burundi and nearby Rwanda. Told from a the perspective of a child, it blends observations of surroundings, tensions, and shifts in the interactions between people who used to simply be “part of the neighborhood.”

Told through the memories of an adult Gaby who is visiting Burundi after living in France for 15 years, the novel is imbued with nostalgia for the innocence of childhood and the beauty of the home he remembers, while simultaneously mournful at the irreparable damage done. Beautiful descriptions of the landscape, childhood diversions, and familial relationships. The story is necessarily sad, but not depressing or hopeless.

I hadn’t heard of the author before, but apparently he is a well-known French rapper and hip hop star. Originally published as Petit Pays in France in 2016, the book is the winner of five French literary prizes. You may enjoy listening to his song of the same name – I found it absolutely beautiful: