Reading Round Up 1

Foreword: In an effort to expand the scope of this blog into a cross-media review of my personal consumerist tendencies, I’m going to record thoughts on what I’ve been reading. My goal is to go at least a layer deeper than, “this was interesting and I liked it” but we’ll see where I end up with that!

Friday Black by Nana Kwame Adjei Brenyah

This collection of short stories examines a range of human experiences, using magical realism, surrealism, and speculative fiction to reflect American society’s dark and paradoxical moment. The stories start out somewhat mixed in terms of impact–tales focused on family’s role in poverty and aborted children haunting a man are a touch soft. However, the collection picks up with the titular “Friday Black” wherein a retail worker has to contend with an extreme, exaggerated version of the Black Friday shopping frenzy. The story is told in a surprisingly human and empathetic way, and through exaggeration makes a statement on how absurd consumerism in America has become.

Friday Black‘s stories continue strongly from here on, featuring a few more told through the lens of that same mallfront retail shop that examine consumer capitalism from different angles, a number focused on the black experience in America–particularly impactful was “Zimmer Land” in which the concept of a Trayvon Martin-esque situation has been coopted into a violent theme park in a twisted reflection of the endless commercialization of everything in America–and culminating in the stellar story “The Era”, which sees a neighborhood of characters living a Groundhog Day wherein the day being repeated is the final day before the bombs fall and some characters gradually mutate in dramatic ways. “The Era” ends on a surprisingly positive note, as if conveying to the reader that even in the face of literal doom, good turns can be made and a positive face can be put forward. I really loved a lot of these stories.

Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata

A short novel (novella? where is the delineation?) that tells the story of Ms. Furukura, a late-30s unmarried woman who has worked at a convenience store for the past 18 years. Unbelievably skilled at her job, she intimately understands the beating heart of the convenience store retail experience. On the other hand, interpersonal interaction, social cues and expectations, and a drive to fit in with society are all completely oblique to her. Repeatedly throughout the story, Ms. Furukura finds herself unable to understand what others want and wishing they’d simply tell her what to do. As a result of her inherent strangeness to others, she exists as something of an outcast–but completely unknown to her, as she is so far from comprehending others she doesn’t even realize she isn’t understood by them, either.

The central driving plot action is Furukura meeting a fellow outcast, Shiraha, a man around her age who briefly works at her convenience store. Unlike Furukura, Shiraha does not fit in with the rhythms of retail, and also unlike her, he is embittered by the fact that he doesn’t have society’s acceptance. (I’m not sure if Murata meant to write the guy this way, but he’s basically an incel without violent tendencies.) Shiraha rants and raves about his lack of acceptance, and at one point turns his anger onto his fellow outcast, noting that Furukura is, like him, unaccepted by others. She asks him to move in together in order to cast a veil of normalcy over both of their lives, but Furukura is dismayed when her friends and co-workers inadvertently reveal how strange they truly thought she was when they rejoice at her decision to move in a more normal direction.

Shiraha is a truly detestable character, driving Furukura to find a new job to support both of them so he can lay around all day. It feels like a victory for Furukura as a character when, en route to an interview, she enters a convenience store and immediately syncs with the rhythm of the store and decides to ditch Shiraha, take up another convenience store job, and fully embrace who she is: a cog in the system, a piece of the retail engine. Taking a step back, however, it was less clear whether this is a happy ending. Sure, the character has a place she belongs, but the underlying causes of her discomfort–society’s conformist imperative–left me feeling uneasy in a good way. I really enjoyed this novel, it was truly fascinating.

“How Anna Nicole Smith Became America’s Punchline” by Sarah Marshall

This was a really interesting article. I was coming of age when Anna Nicole Smith was experiencing her miserable, final spirals downward but I was only dimly aware of who she was. This article tells the story of the entire arc of her life, revealing a truly sad life that began in abuse and abject poverty, was raised up through essentially selling her body, then was decimated at its peak by the rapacious nature of the tabloid industry. Anna Nicole Smith’s life is a visceral reminder of the way fame in some contexts (women, particularly those who become successful due to their looks) makes people targets for vitriol, hatred, and mockery. Although all of the information about her life was relatively new to me, none of it was surprising. This story of a tragic life ruined due to the public’s reaction to fame is a familiar one, unfortunately.

“A Suspense Novelist’s Trail of Deceptions” by Ian Parker

On the other side of the Anna Nicole Smith story is this article about perfidious editor-turned-novelist Dan Mallory. This article was a fascinating read supported by two absurdist pillars: the ridiculous lies Mallory told to people and the fact that he continuously failed upwards through and despite their telling. Contrasting the life of Anna Nicole, Dan’s train only seems to be gaining steam–or at least had until this story released–and his perpetual success seems all but guaranteed at this point. It’s a dismal truth to face: Anna Nicole Smith was destroyed by her fame despite working for it and being relatively deserving of it, while Dan Mallory will likely only continue to grow in fame and power despite his complete fraudulence.

Afterword: I enjoyed writing up this first edition of the Reading Roundup, and since I’m the only/primary consumer of this blog my hope is that rereading this entry in the future will be a fun exercise. That said, we’ll see how frequently I churn out one of these–the amount I read in a given period is dependent on life circumstances and whether I can find interesting stuff to read. (Then, on top of that, the frequency with which I blog has always been inconstant at best.)