BOOK REVIEW: Convenience Store Woman

CONVENIENCE STORE WOMAN
Written by Sayaka Murata

The English-language debut of one of Japan’s most talented contemporary writers, selling over 650,000 copies there, Convenience Store Woman is the heartwarming and surprising story of thirty-six-year-old Tokyo resident Keiko Furukura. Keiko has never fit in, neither in her family, nor in school, but when at the age of eighteen she begins working at the Hiiromachi branch of “Smile Mart,” she finds peace and purpose in her life. In the store, unlike anywhere else, she understands the rules of social interaction―many are laid out line by line in the store’s manual―and she does her best to copy the dress, mannerisms, and speech of her colleagues, playing the part of a “normal” person excellently, more or less. Managers come and go, but Keiko stays at the store for eighteen years. It’s almost hard to tell where the store ends and she begins. Keiko is very happy, but the people close to her, from her family to her coworkers, increasingly pressure her to find a husband, and to start a proper career, prompting her to take desperate action…

A brilliant depiction of an unusual psyche and a world hidden from view, Convenience Store Woman is an ironic and sharp-eyed look at contemporary work culture and the pressures to conform, as well as a charming and completely fresh portrait of an unforgettable heroine.


As a former “convenience store woman” myself (college days), I easily stepped into the world of Keiko Furukura. It was very familiar — perhaps in too many ways. Who hasn’t felt a little off-center from the rest of the world sometimes? Hooray! for Keiko to figure out a work-around that brings her peace and fulfillment. And Bravo! the reader who can welcome Keiko into her/his heart…she is sweet and funny and sad, and living life on her own terms. Happily. — Jen Payne

BOOK REVIEW: How to Be a Good Creature

HOW TO BE A GOOD CREATURE
A Memoir in 13 Animals
Written by Sy Montgomery
Illustrated by Rebecca Green

Understanding someone who belongs to another species can be transformative. No one knows this better than author, naturalist, and adventurer Sy Montgomery. To research her books, Sy has traveled the world and encountered some of the planet’s rarest and most beautiful animals. From tarantulas to tigers, Sy’s life continually intersects with and is informed by the creatures she meets.

This restorative memoir reflects on the personalities and quirks of thirteen animals—Sy’s friends—and the truths revealed by their grace. It also explores vast themes: the otherness and sameness of people and animals; the various ways we learn to love and become empathetic; how we find our passion; how we create our families; coping with loss and despair; gratitude; forgiveness; and most of all, how to be a good creature in the world.


One of my favorite movies as a child was Dr. Doolittle. (The Rex Harrison classic, thank you.) Well, flash forward a few decades and meet naturalist Sy Montgomery and her menagerie of friends—the dog, the pig, the octopus, the spider. And more. From the stunning cover design to the sweet interior illustrations and through each charming story, you’ll get a new look at this world from the perspective of Montgomery and her chance encounters with the animals who have changed her life…and might just change yours. — Jen Payne

BOOK REVIEW: Witchmark

WITCHMARK
by C.L. Polk

In an original world reminiscent of Edwardian England in the shadow of a World War, cabals of noble families use their unique magical gifts to control the fates of nations, while one young man seeks only to live a life of his own. Magic marked Miles Singer for suffering the day he was born, doomed either to be enslaved to his family’s interest or to be committed to a witches’ asylum. He went to war to escape his destiny and came home a different man, but he couldn’t leave his past behind. The war between Aeland and Laneer leaves men changed, strangers to their friends and family, but even after faking his own death and reinventing himself as a doctor at a cash-strapped veterans’ hospital, Miles can’t hide what he truly is. When a fatally poisoned patient exposes Miles’ healing gift and his witchmark, he must put his anonymity and freedom at risk to investigate his patient’s murder. To find the truth he’ll need to rely on the family he despises, and on the kindness of the most gorgeous man he’s ever seen.

 


If you’re a judge-a-book-by-its-covers kind of reader, well, then this book is sneaky and wicked. Wicked good, quite frankly because from the cover you think: “Oh, England and witches. Righto. Harry Pottery.” But no, no, no. WITCHMARK is somewhere else. Somewhere fantastical, populated by Invisibles and Mages and Storm-Singers. Oh my! But wait, there’s more! A murder mystery? Family intrigue? AND a love story? Yup! Yup! Yup! — Jen Payne

BOOK REVIEW: The Essex Serpent

THE ESSEX SERPENT

by Sarah Perry

An exquisitely talented young British author makes her American debut with this rapturously acclaimed historical novel, set in late nineteenth-century England, about an intellectually minded young widow, a pious vicar, and a rumored mythical serpent that explores questions about science and religion, skepticism, and faith, independence and love.

When Cora Seaborne’s brilliant, domineering husband dies, she steps into her new life as a widow with as much relief as sadness: her marriage was not a happy one. Cora leaves London for a visit to coastal Essex, accompanied by her inquisitive and obsessive eleven-year old son, Francis, and the boy’s nanny, Martha, her fiercely protective friend. While admiring the sites, Cora learns of an intriguing rumor that has arisen further up the estuary, of a fearsome creature said to roam the marshes claiming human lives. After nearly 300 years, the mythical Essex Serpent is said to have returned, taking the life of a young man on New Year’s Eve. A keen amateur naturalist with no patience for religion or superstition, Cora is immediately enthralled, and certain that what the local people think is a magical sea beast may be a previously undiscovered species. Eager to investigate, she is introduced to local vicar William Ransome. Will, too, is suspicious of the rumors. But unlike Cora, this man of faith is convinced the rumors are caused by moral panic, a flight from true belief. These seeming opposites who agree on nothing soon find themselves inexorably drawn together and torn apart—an intense relationship that will change both of their lives in ways entirely unexpected.


I did not fall in love with this book right away. It was one of those relationships where you keep asking: should I or shouldn’t I continue? But things change one muddy night in the marsh, and it’s not until then that this book gets moving at an interesting – albeit slow – pace. The themes of religion, science, superstition, and intrigue start to reveal themselves more clearly then, as do the characters. There is a lot to this story, and it’s a good one! But truth be told, I found the supporting characters much more interesting than the main ones. Forget Cora and Will – meh – pay attention to Francis, Martha, Naomi, and Stella. They are much more fun to follow! — Jen Payne

Goodreads: A Year in Books (2018)

Several years ago, actress Lena Dunham tweeted “Let’s be reasonable and add an eighth day to the week that is devoted exclusively to reading.” Would that it were possible, right?

Lacking an eighth day, we’re left to our own devices to make time for reading. For me, there are treasured Sunday mornings — pre-dawn, coffees at the ready, reading side-by-side with my boyfriend Matt. Then good habits, like carrying a book in my purse, weekly visits to the library, and reading before bed help keep the spirit alive through the work week right back around to those quite Sunday hours.

And all of that good reading mojo has paid off…for the first time in six years, I exceeded my personal Goodreads Reading Challenge goal, reading 54 books in 2018! This year’s tally of 15,121 pages included fiction bestsellers and some classics, one cookbook, poetry and nonfiction, along with a handful of self-published books by some amazing local authors.

Following closely in the footsteps of 2017, you’ll find several Young Adult novels on my list again, including Ransom Riggs’ new book in the Miss Peregrine’s Peculiar Children series: A Map of Days. (“Fair warning: you’ll realize about 2/3 of the way in that you’re going to finish the book soon and you’ll have to wait – again – for the next in the series to magically appear! Pace yourself.”)

Another fun find this year was the Penguin Drop Cap Series, 26 collectible hardcover editions of classic works of literature, each featuring on its cover a specially commissioned illustrated letter of the alphabet by type designer Jessica Hische. This year I read H, Siddhartha by Hermann Hesse. My local library seems to have a good selection of these special titles, and it’s fun to try to spot them on the shelves. Click here to see all 26.

According to star ratings, some of my least favorite books in 2018 were Brida by Paulo Coelho (“insipid romance”) and The Book of Hidden Things by Francesco Dimitri (“Nope. Nope. Nope.”). I disliked 1984 by George Orwell so much — “a terribly wretched book” — it completely subverted my attempt to read the 100 books featured in The Great American Read.

Brida was not the only “insipid romance” that earned one or two stars. I was also not a fan of The Atomic Weight of Love (Elizabeth Church), An Obvious Enchantment (Tucker Malarkey), or An Itailan Wife (Ann Hood). Which is not to say I don’t like a good love story. I adored The Course of Love by Alain de Botton — “This should be required reading. For everyone. Period.”

New reads from some of my favorite authors included Keri Smith’s uber-clever book The Wander Society (“Solvitur ambulando!”), Anne Lamott’s Help Thanks Wow: The Three Essential Prayers (“A balm, antidote, inspiration…Wow! and Thanks!”), and Brené Brown’s Braving the Wilderness: The Quest for True Belonging and the Courage to Stand Alone (“We need this kind of thoughtful examination and heartfelt solutions now more than ever!”).

I recently recommended One Thousand White Women: The Journals of May Dodd (Jim Fergus) to a friend, and realized it was one of the most memorable books I read this year. (“we want this to be a true story…and are ever-surprised that it is not”)

Other books that stand out include Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam trilogy (“a clever piece of dystopian fiction”), Her Fearful Symmetry by Audrey Niffengger (“Wonderfully, weirdly delicious!”), and The Keeper of Lost Things by Ruth Hogan (“I savored it slowly… ”).

But if asked specifically, I would put at the top of my list The Bedlam Stacks by Natasha Pulley (“Magically, magically good!!”)

It was, apparently, a good year for reading. But I suspect I’ll run out of superlatives if I don’t stop here. You can read my complete list of 2018 books on Goodreads (click here)…but I want to know about you, too. What were your favorite books in 2018? List them in the commend section below!

HAPPY READING!


A “Best Fiction” List

BuzzFeed News has compiled a list of its favorite novels and short story collections, presented by Arianna Rebolini. Click here to read the full list with reviews.

Have you read any of these? Do you agree with the list?

1. Severance by Ling Ma
2. Freshwater by Akwaeke Emezi
3. Belly Up by Rita Bullwinkel
4. There There by Tommy Orange
5. Circe by Madeline Miller
6. Insurrecto by Gina Apostol
7. A Place For Us by Fatima Farheen Mirza
8. The Deeper the Water the Uglier the Fish by Katya Apekina
9. The Overstory by Richard Powers
10. The Incendiaries by R.O. Kwon
11. My Year of Rest and Relaxation by Ottessa Moshfegh
12. My Sister, the Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite
13. The House of Broken Angels by Luis Alberto Urrea
14. Confessions of the Fox by Jordy Rosenberg
15. The Wildlands by Abby Geni
16. An American Marriage by Tayari Jones
17. Friday Black by Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah
18. Kudos by Rachel Cusk
19. French Exit by Patrick DeWitt
20. Speak No Evil by Uzodinma Iweala
21. Mem by Bethany C. Morrow
22. She Would Be King by Wayétu Moore
23. The Pisces by Melissa Broder
24. The Friend by Sigrid Nunez
25. A Lucky Man by Jamel Brinkley
26. Milkman by Anna Burns
27. Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata
28. The Great Believers by Rebecca Makkai

BOOK REVIEW: Eat Dirt

EAT DIRT
Dr. Josh Axe

From Dr. Josh Axe, a groundbreaking guide to diagnosing and treating an often-discussed yet little-understood condition—leaky gut syndrome—that is dominating media headlines.

Most Americans live a “germ-free” lifestyle, sanitizing and scrubbing every surface, eating processed and pasteurized food, and slathering on anti-bacterial gels. But while our homes and hands may be clean, our health is taking a hit. Starved of actual nutrition and overtaxed by chemicals, stress, and excessive antimicrobial use, we are developing microscopic tears in our intestinal walls.

These tears can lead to a condition known as “leaky gut syndrome,” a deterioration of the gut wall that results in wide-spread inflammation and weakened immunity. In his bestselling book Eat Dirt, Dr. Josh Axe explains the hidden causes and widespread effects of leaky gut syndrome and offers a program to heal the gut and restore health in five easy steps.

Dr Axe offers diagnostic quizzes to help readers assess their gut type, then provides simple regimes designed to heal the gut and eliminate digestive and autoimmune problems. From reducing antibiotic use to eating seasonally, spending more time outdoors, managing stress, and incorporating probiotic-rich foods into your diet, Dr. Axe’s program can help anyone restore gut health and feel their best.


This is a pretty comprehensive book. I got lost in a few places, but it was well worth the purchase and the time. If you are not familiar with the concepts presented, I suspect this might be a little overwhelming. But if are dealing with digestive issues, work with a naturopath or western medicine doctor, and want additional support – do check out this book. There are really good explanations of the whys and hows, instructions on how to make easy – as well as challenging – lifestyle changes, plus helpful food lists, recipes, and website links for additional good stuff from the author. You’ll make yourself crazy trying to follow everything, but even a few of the suggested changes should lead to improvements…and if nothing else, a better understanding of what ails you. — Jen Payne