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  • Writer's pictureWilma Aalbers

April Reads

The one where Murakami goes too far...

I’m not one of those people who really dig stories that involve time travel or an investigation of the multiverse theory. The premise is always too hard to sustain. But that Into the Spider Verse movie? That was super enjoyable. And A Wrinkle in Time - classic! Plus, we all read and enjoyed The Time Traveler’s Wife, didn’t we? However, I am a big fan of Matt Haig, and in The Midnight Library he takes a stab at creating a meaningful It’s a Wonderful Life-type tale of why it’s important to stay alive, which is, I think, an important tale to tell.

I just wish it were a bit less predictable.

Nora Seed is a deeply sad thirty-five year old woman recently fired from her part time job at a music store. She is estranged from her brother, her cat has just died, and she lives in a world of regret. Having never left her hometown, Nora’s environment is a continual reminder of her many regrets: a broken engagement, the promising rock band that she left, never having a child. One rainy Tuesday night she overdoses on antidepressants and wakes up in limbo which is, in this case, an infinite library curated by Nora’s actual elementary school librarian Mrs. Elm. (You might think there’s a metaphor at work here with the Seed / Elm imagery, but in fact, it is never developed. If you want to revisit high school English class, feel free to see the librarian as a realized version of Nora’s potential and attribute her maturity to reading and books.This librarian approves.) The opportunity being offered to Nora in this magical place is a chance to relive the moments of her life that she most regrets. Each ‘book’ is a different life / outcome; she merely needs to take it off the shelf and will find herself in a parallel life, living out those altered choices.

Nora’s first experience has her married to her former fiancee, living in a small town above a pub that they own together. This was a dream they discussed while engaged, and what Nora finds, once immersed in the life they imagined, is that (dun dun dun) it’s not actually as great as she thought it would be. The problems that led to her breaking off the engagement in her actual life still exist in this version, where they stay together. Turns out that guy wasn’t so great for her after all.

In each chapter of The Midnight Library, Nora selects a different book and lives a different life. That’s pretty much it. What she learns as she goes is that, in fact, her gut instincts were usually correct the first time around, and her life was not so much of a disaster as she thought it was. Not only is it important that she lives for her own sake, but many previously unrecognized others depend on her existence.

Haig has himself struggled with depression, and I know he knows that depression is more than simply ‘regret’ or ‘sadness’. But what this book offers, rather than an exposure of the warped and destructive thinking depression makes your brain do, is a kind of saccharine fantasy about how Nora learns she has the power to find joy in her little life after all. It’s an entertaining read, for sure, but also one that oversimplifies the complexities of mental illness and (yep, I’m gonna say it) time travel theory. As a result, its tone is a bit slippery, and once you’ve become accustomed to the constantly changing lives that Nora explores, there isn’t a lot of tension left to propel the story. Please read some Matt Haig! But make it The Humans, or the very lovely Reasons to Stay Alive instead.

Haruki Murakami, First Person Singular

There are no surprises in this collection of short stories. Except the one that happens when you take off the hideous dust jacket with its weird image of a monkey to reveal a sweet, jazzy, much classier under-cover. Here, I’ll show you and save you the time.

Many of the stories collected here are entertaining in a very classic Murakami way. Unusual things happen; old guys explain the meaning of life; random encounters in bars lead to deep deep questions. It’s all there. But then, Murakami jumps the shark. “The Yakult Swallows Poetry Collection” is about the narrator’s loyalty to and love of an always losing baseball team. While watching the terrible games, he writes poems, including one called “Outfielders' Butts”. It starts like this: “I enjoy gazing at the butts of outfielders. / What I mean is, when I’m watching a slow-going, losing game / From the outfield seats by myself, How else can I enjoy myself besides staring at the outfielders’ butts? / If there’s some other way, I’d sure like to know…” Out of context, I bet it sounds funny. It is kind of funny. But when I hit this poem midway through an already subpar story about baseball, one of my least favourite subjects, I almost pitched the book out of the window. In that moment, Murakami asked a little bit more suspended disbelief of me than I could give.

Your relationship to Haruki Murakami’s writing is a very personal thing, and perhaps it has been less complicated than mine. I hope that’s true. As a longtime reader who has consumed all the stories with their countless unnamed and vapid women, the creatures coming out television sets, the spaghetti making, the lost cats and all manner of Lynchian weirdness, it is the “Outfielders’ Butts” poem that has made it impossible for me to continue reading this man.

One positive outcome of reading First Person Singular (besides the hilarious and progressively drunker conversation my book club had about it at our virtual meet) is that I found this review in the L.A. Times, which led me to explore writing by some of Murakami’s female contemporaries - Yoko Tawada, Sayaka Murata, Yoko Ogawa - and the experience of reading these works has been mind-blowing. We don’t need to be down here trying to figure out if Murakami’s protagonists are actual sexist losers or just people who act like sexist losers (because I ask you, WHAT IS THE DIFFERENCE?) when what we could be doing instead is reading exceptional fiction by and about women who present serious challenges to the masculine status quo of Murakami’s worlds.

Brittney Cooper, Eloquent Rage

Brittney Cooper is on fire here in her mission to expose the racist and sexist nonsense that defines her experience as an educated Black American. You don’t want to miss it.

Sort of a memoir, and sort of a series of essays, this collection follows Cooper through her childhood as the daughter of a single working class mom to a student at Howard University, to the academic and teacher that she is now.

Cooper offers a perspective that is acerbic and smart, not unlike Roxane Gay or a slightly less crass Samantha Irby. She is honest in her struggle with claiming the descriptor “feminist” when it has so historically ignored the concerns of Black women. She explores with, well, eloquence and rage, the deeply embedded injustice of American society, cleanly dismantling stereotypes such as the one that says Black single mothers are a burden on society because they rely on social assistance. “The fact that our society honestly believes that poor women don’t have the right to start families because they may require public assistance obscures the variety of ways that middle-class families do receive public assistance. White families have been the primary beneficiaries of both public and corporate welfare in the form of redlining policies that drove down property values in Black neighborhoods...favorable bank loan terms to help them purchase safe, affordable, quality housing.”

Cooper plays the long game here, systematically calling bullshit on the popular narratives that define Black Americans. Her ability to focus on her own success, refusing to fall into the “trap” of many young Black women before her who become pregnant and have children while still teenagers, means she has, by one standard, “done well” in the world, but paradoxically she is left lonely, since so few Black men are willing to date a woman they perceive as “too smart”. She shares a series of statistics including this one: “single Black women in the prime working ages of thirty-six to forty-nine have a median net wealth of $5. Five whole dollars. Single white women in this same cohort had a net wealth of $42,600...This shit simply is not our fault. Social structures have intimate consequences, and rates of incarceration, employment, and education shape partnering options.”

As I’ve noted before, a great memoir is one that effectively weaves a personal story into a universal truth. Cooper's series of essays, which combines her lived experience with deeply researched social analysis, achieves both a big- and small picture realness that will stay with you for a long time after you finish the book.

I recently watched the film Shirley, in which Elisabeth Moss portrays what I’m going to say is a thoroughly fictionalized version of a summer in the life of Shirley Jackson. Having also watched the mini series version of The Haunting of Hill House earlier in the pandemic, I felt it was time to actually read some original source material. Both viewing experiences were entertaining, but they were missing something that I hoped I would find in Jackson’s writing.

I thought I might start this collection by reading the short stories and then take a pause before diving into the novels. But by the time I finished the very first story, “The Daemon Lover,” I was completely hooked. What the film adaptations will never give you is Jackson’s exacting ability to describe the very specific hypocrisy of 1950s and 1960s middle class white women.

These women lead rich interior lives full of doubt and shame. They are contemporaries of Friedan, in that they are white and middle class, often (but not always) mothers of young children, clearly defined by the WASPy patriarchy of America. They are racists who find nobility in upholding the status quo. They actively shun women who are not like them - those who overtly ignore the social contract - and are surprised to find themselves unsatisfied and full of longing for new experiences. They are complicated bitches!

In the story “Flower Garden,” for example, Mrs. Winnings (!) admires a sweet cottage across the road from the much larger and fancier estate house that she shares with her husband and mother-in-law. She wishes her little family could live in the cottage, imagining how she would design the garden, and what colour she would paint the kitchen cabinets. Her desire for the independence symbolized by the cottage is palpable. Soon, Mrs. MacLane, a young and widowed mother, rents the cottage and moves in. Her son Davey is roughly the same age as Mrs. Winnings’ son Howard, and they become friends. Mrs. Winnings is granted a view of the cottage through her frequent visits with the family, and Mrs. MacLane’s decor choices are exactly as she imagines she herself would make. However, the friendship falters when the young woman hires a local Black man to help with the garden. She goes so far as to befriend this man and his son; their children begin playing together and the gardener is also invited into the cottage for refreshment while on breaks from working.

This Mrs. Winnings cannot abide. In fact, the entire town turns on Mrs. MacLane and Davey, and she finds herself bewildered by the collective freeze out. “What have I done?” she asks Mrs. Winnings, to cause the town to treat her like this? No one will tell her. Eventually she packs up and moves back to the city.

The relationship women have with their homes is central in almost every single piece. In particular, We Have Always Lived in the Castle explores a family of outcasts hunkered down in their ancestral mansion, the location of several murders that occured by poisoning at a dinner party decades earlier. Sisters Merricat and Constance and their Uncle Julian maintain a stringent routine, ignoring the daily aggressions of their neighbours, committed to remaining in the house at all costs, even when it suffers a full-on attack by the townspeople. In this story, and many others, the house represents both freedom and imprisonment; safety but also fear. It’s a genius metaphor for both the 1960s suburbs and the 2021 pandemic shelter.

When Jackson’s protagonists are not uptight judgy housewives, they are, deliciously, the outcasts themselves. Unable to put the book down at any point, I simply read right through the stories and then on to the included novels, The Haunting of Hill House and We Have Always Lived in the Castle. I won’t summarize them here, but will simply say they are masterful, spooky, sharply observant and gloriously weird.

Mieko Kawakami, Breasts and Eggs

I’m going to be honest. The title of this book and its concern with breasts and eggs made me quite uncomfortable at first. I’m pretty sure it’s supposed to.

The novel opens with this zinger of a first line: “If you want to know how poor somebody was growing up, ask them how many windows they had. Don’t ask what was in their fridge or their closet. The number of windows says it all. It says everything. If they had none, or maybe one or two, that’s all you need to know.” Our narrator is Natsuko Natsuke and when the book begins she is expecting a visit from her sister Makiko and her niece Midoriko. Makiko is coming to Tokyo to meet with doctors about having her breasts enlarged. Twelve year old Midoriko has not spoken a word aloud in six months, an act first taken in anger towards her mother, but that ultimately inhibits her communication with Natsuko as well.

Details about breasts, nipples, ova and periods abound in this first part of the novel, and in this way the story delivers what its title promises. And, as I said, my feelings of discomfort in reading this level of specific and visceral detail about the biology of womanhood was at first discomfiting. Why are you so uncomfortable with basic information about the female human experience? The book seemed to be asking. And that’s a very good question.

Part Two, which takes place eight years later, focuses on Natsuko’s life as a writer struggling to decide whether she wants to have a child. Despite being in her thirties, Natsuko has only ever dated one man, Naruse, for a few months while she was about twenty. Ultimately they broke up because she was unable to have sex with him. Physically she found the act impossibly painful. Aware that their romantic future depended on a routine level of physical intimacy, she broke up with him and has not had sex with anyone since.

Intriguingly, it is a reconnection with Naruse that sparks her interest in having a child of her own. He telephones her to catch up and when she fails to be as engaged as he hopes in his recent activism around nuclear safety, he berates her for writing fluff pieces for a magazine about “whatever you’ve been reading, crap like that…” After they hang up she explores his facebook profile and finds images of his newborn child, beginning to wonder whether she’d be the mother of this child had they stayed together.

No one is more surprised than Natsuko herself to find that despite her chosen life of quiet solitude, she feels a desire to have a child. She begins to investigate fertility treatment, but Japanese clinics do not approve of or allow IVF treatments for single women. Through her research she meets a man named Aizawa, the child of a sperm donor, and they become friends.

Rare is the book that is this thoroughly-invested in women’s lives. It’s a gorgeous exploration of our relationships to our bodies, the tension between our intellectual choices and the biological determinism carried by our genes. When Natsuko’s friend Rika speaks about her ex-husband, she says, “Everything men do repulses can be such idiots. They can’t do anything around the house without making a ton of noise, not even close the fridge or turn the lights on. They can’t take care of anyone else. They can’t even take care of themselves. They won’t do anything for their kids or their families if it means sacrificing their own comfort...There will come a point when women will stop having babies. Or, I don’t know, we’ll reach a point where the whole process can be separated from women’s bodies, and we can look back on this time, when women and men tried to live together and raise families, as some unfortunate episode in human history.” Another character, Aizawa’s girlfriend Yuriko, tells Natsuko that having a child is a supremely selfish act, one that inevitably leads to bringing another human into a world built for their suffering. For Natsuko, whose desire to have a child is already not naturally occurring or straightforward, these women offer an uncommonly frank critique of what many of us take for granted as a natural desire to create a family.

The bombast of Part One, with its focus on the boob job, eventually gives way to a more subtle but no less powerful exploration of what it is to be a woman. Not unlike Shirley Jackson, Kawakami has captured a world of female anxiety defined and exacerbated by a world in which there is no acceptance of those of us who fail to conform to implicitly defined gender roles. Luckily, Natsuko finds a way to fulfill her desires on her own terms and it is remarkable.

If you have time for it, I recommend this interview with Kawakami, in which she questions Murakami himself on his inability to create complex female characters. I would not say his response is satisfying.

Convenience Store Woman is another story about a woman who refuses to live the life others expect her to. Keiko Furukura is thirty-six and has worked part time at the same Smile Mart convenience store since she was eighteen. Since childhood, Keiko has had difficulty relating to others in the world. At one point in elementary school, she stops a fight between two classmates by banging one of them on the head with a rock. When a teacher questions her about it, she says, “Well, I stopped the fight, didn’t I?” and is confused that everyone else is so upset by her actions.

The world of the convenience store is perfect for Keiko. There is no ambiguity about how she should behave since her every action and reaction in the store is defined by an explicitly detailed employee manual. She lives alone and spends all of her time ensuring that she is physically and emotionally healthy enough to continue going to work. It is a fulfilling life.

Are people freaked out by Keiko and her commitment to this crappy job? Yes. Yes they are. Friends and family are unable to comprehend why Keiko refuses to seek what they consider more fulfilling (read, more financially lucrative) work. They insist that she get married, so that she can be cared for by a husband (read, true breadwinner). If she were married, it would at least make sense for her to have this sort of job, since her true work would be the maintenance of a home and presumably, family, for her husband.

Keiko is mystified by their criticism of her, and deflects their concern over her future by vaguely referring to the fact that she just “isn’t very strong,” which is why she stays at the convenience store.

As a narrator, Keiko is exceptional. Her literal thinking means she is great at observing human behaviour without judgment. While her co-workers enjoy gossiping about each other, in particular picking on Shiraha, a new hire who is not only unable to complete the tasks his job requires of him, but is consistently critical of the lack of skill required to do the job in the first place. Believe me when I tell you Shiraha is one of the most objectionable characters I’ve ever met - he’s a lazy pontificator who shields his general lack of integrity behind a hastily constructed “philosophy” where he sees all conventional behaviour as simply feeding the status quo. “Society” wants us to be cogs in the machine, he suggests, and when we choose not to comply, it is uncomfortable for them. His life choices seem designed to make “society” uncomfortable, though he’s clearly just an irresponsible loser.

It takes very little time for Shiraha to get canned. Months later, Keiko runs into him and determines within a few minutes of conversation that he is in need of money and a place to live. She offers him both, and he moves into her tiny apartment. Each can potentially benefit from this scenario, since Keiko is now able to say she has a live-in friend (everyone assumes they are romantically involved) and Shiraha is no longer homeless. Despite the fact that Shiraha is clearly taking advantage of Keiko to ensure he never has to get a job, Keiko’s friends and family are not concerned or alarmed, but rather thrilled that she seems finally to be living a ‘normal’ life.

The story’s premise is fascinating, and reminded me a tiny bit of Han Kang’s The Vegetarian, in which a female character decides to become a vegetarian and her entire family and friend group lose their motherfucking minds. Obviously these authors are not asking to buy these stories in a literal sense. But they are inviting us to question the strictures of the social compact and consider how unforgiving it is, in particular to women.

Every episode of my favourite podcast “Anti Racist Educator Reads” begins with a reminder of Glenn Singleton’s agreements for courageous conversations about race. They are:

  1. Stay engaged.

  2. Expect to experience discomfort.

  3. Speak your truth.

  4. Accept and expect a lack of closure.

For months I’ve been listening to the podcast and thinking, “I should read that Singleton book.” Reader, I have finally done it.

This is a great book about what is wrong with typical school approaches to anti-racist education. Singleton “believe[s] that many educators fail to meet the needs of the growing number of students of colour and indigenous students because this challenge is often labeled “diversity work” rather than effective pedagogy.” Singleton has loads of experience working in schools, and here he presents a framework that can be undertaken by school districts to address racism in their systems.

An essential component of the process is first acknowledging the influence of race on our everyday lives and experiences. Yes, even white people’s. Once white folks are able to see that they also belong to a (socially constructed fiction of a) “race” they can evaluate how their whiteness benefits them while limiting the opportunities of non-whites. Singleton frames each step of the process with clear objectives, a process that groups can undertake to explore race in their schools, and a “Racial Autobiography” written by a contributor to the book or a past participant in Singleton’s program. These personal stories ground the learning of the chapters they follow by clearly illustrating true stories of educators and their experiences as racialized teachers in a white supremacist system.

Give this book a go! No matter where you are in your anti-racist journey, Singleton will help you understand what needs to be done. Plus, if you’re one of those cynics who doubts the capacity for large organizations to experience tangible, positive change, his case study of the Minnesota St. Paul Public Schools District in the very last chapter might just change your mind.

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