Buzzed Books #75: Convenience Store Woman

Buzzed Books #75 by Drew Barth

Sayaka Murata’s Convenience Store Woman

There’s familiarity in a convenience store. Safety, even. We walk into a convenience store and have certain expectations about what’s likely going to happen. Familiar drinks, chips, candy, hot dogs rolling away.

Convenience Store Woman

It’s within this familiarity we find Keiko Furukura: thirty-eight year-old part-time convenience store worker at her local Smile Mart. We’re given a glimpse into the life of a woman with thoughts like:

It is the start of another day, a time when the world wakes up and the cogs of society begin to move. I am one of those cogs, going round and round. I have become a functioning part of the world, rotating in the time of day called morning.

Simply the thought of remaining a dedicated store employee keeps her sleeping well at night. It’s a position that’s typically overlooked. But they are brought out into the fluorescent light for us to see.

As a character, Keiko Furukura is fascinatingly strange. She has worked in the same convenience store since eighteen and has no issue with this vocation at all. And it is through the convenience store that she has become a person. With each new employee or manager, she takes on aspects of them as a way to appear more convenient to them. A character, Sugawara, has a particularly boisterous way of speaking in the morning. As such, Keiko adopts aspects of it into herself. Another character, Mrs. Izumi, has a particular taste in fashion that Keiko then slowly begins to imitate after researching certain brands. These subtle mannerisms she picks up only reinforces her own character: Keiko is a blank slate without the convenience store. But as a character, that’s what she wants. Even if the world around her, namely her friends and her sister, scream and cry for her to change, she is incapable of doing so because who would she be without the Smile Mart?

At times, this book can be devastating. The interplay between individuality and conformity, work life and real life, all unwind as we question ourselves. Is my work self just a modified actual self? Do I make these decisions for myself or for the people around me? It’s this constant undercurrent in a novel that is fairly light in tone. It’s as though Keiko herself is so direct in her thoughts and actions that the Smile Mart self is the only self that exists for her. And that’s what makes this book devastating in a good way. We as readers can see something askew in Keiko, but does Keiko see it in herself? Possibly. Or maybe she’s just what she wants: a good convenience store employee.

Drew Barth

Drew Barth (Episode 331) is a writer residing in Winter Park, FL. He received his MFA from the University of Central Florida. Right now, he’s worrying about his cat.


Episode 336: Sean M. Conrey!

Episode 336 of The Drunken Odyssey, your favorite podcast about creative writing and literature is available on iTunes, or right click here to download.

In this week’s episode, I talk to the poet Sean M. Conrey about poetry, religion, trees, and our long ago time at Purdue University.

Sean M Conrey


The Book of Trees

Episode 336 of The Drunken Odyssey, your favorite podcast about creative writing and literature is available on iTunes, or right click here to download.

The Curator of Schlock #245: Wish Upon

The Curator of Schlock #245 by Jeff Shuster

Wish Upon

Whatever happened to Ryan Phillippe?

Wish1What’s up, home skillet? Just your resident non-boomer here, curating the most shocking movies he can get his hands on. I thought I would review a young adult movie this week. We’re all about the young adult movies here at the Museum of Schlock. Heck, we even installed cellular phone chargers up on the fourth floor, free to use for any young patron gracing our establishment. I’m even thinking purchasing some of those super cool Dance Dance Revolution arcade games for our lobby. Super cool, huh? Oh, this week’s movie features that actress who plays Barb on that Stranger Things show you kids are so obsessed with.


Tonight we have 2017’s Wish Upon directed by John Leonetti. It’s all about a 17 year-old girl named Clare Shannon (Joey King). Clare doesn’t exactly live a charmed life. When she was little, her mom hanged herself in their attic, and Clare was the one who discovered the body. To top that off, her father, Jonathan Shannon (Ryan Phillippe), is a dumpster diver. I’m not kidding. He goes through trash and brings home treasures that he hoards away in their house.


Hey, I understand. I was a compulsive DVD collector, but I learned to control myself. All four seasons of Heroes have been removed from my shelf. Plus, I only have three copies of Nightmare City in my collection now instead of four. I got rid of the fourth one when I bought the Nightmare City Blu-ray. Still waiting for the 4K restoration. I want to make out every follicle on Hugo Stiglitz’s beard!

Where was I? Clare’s dad digs up a mystical Chinese wishing box and gives it to her as an early birthday present. I think it’s a special kind of father that gives his daughter trash for her birthday. I can’t get over the fact that Ryan Phillippe is in this movie. Wasn’t he married Reese Witherspoon? The last thing I remember him starring in was that Studio 54 movie, the one with Michael Myers (the actor not the masked killer). I seem to recall Michael York chatting about how great swinging London was. I wish I could go back in time to the London of the 1960s, hang out with Caroline Munro and Count Dracula. Instead, I’m stuck in the era of instant messaging and selfies.

Oh yeah. The cell phones are out in full force again in this one. Oh, and cyber bullying. The resident mean girl at Clare’s high school posts a video online of her beating up Clare while letting the world know that Clare’s dad is a dumpster diver. Clare goes over to the wishing box and wishes that the bully would rot away. Wouldn’t you know it? The bully gets necrotizing fasciitis. In other words, her skin rots.


Awesome! But then Clare’s dog dies from being eaten by rats. Clare then wishes that hottest guy in school would fall for her. He does, but then her estranged uncle drowns in his bathtub. Each wish has a terrible consequence for someone else. Are you getting a Monkey’s Paw vibe from this movie? Think on that.

I have the sudden urge to go wade through some trash.

Jeffrey Shuster 3

Photo by Leslie Salas.

Jeffrey Shuster (episode 47episode 102episode 124episode 131, and episode 284) is an MFA graduate from the University of Central Florida.

Buzzed Books #74: The Only Harmless Great Thing

Buzzed Books #74 by Drew Barth

Brooke Bolander’s The Only Harmless Great Thing

There aren’t that many books I’ve read that include exploding elephants. There are even fewer books that include exploding elephants that have an emotional impact that hits with the force of an exploding elephant. And yet here we are. The elephant in question is an elephant we may be familiar with: Topsy, famous for her public electrocution in 1903. And this is where Bolander sets her alternate history, time-jumping, perspective-switching novella. There’s a lot to take in here in just a short amount of pages.

The Only Harmless Great Thing


We as readers are given eighty-four pages and are witness to the Radium Girls, the after effects of the radium on one of the narrators, another woman in the present grappling with the morality of glow-in-the-dark elephants, and passages from the perspective of captured elephants. A more precarious balancing act I’ve yet to read. And yet we’re given to a deftness of pacing and structural skill that knows when to let a moment linger just long enough before switching perspectives and letting us grip the page in glorious tension. The building of momentum as we switch from an elephant’s perspective to the past and into the present gives the novella a weight and balance. To have all three narratives shown chronologically robs the stories of momentum. We understand the ethical quandaries of glow-in-the-dark elephants as a result of radium poisoned elephants a few paragraphs prior. It’s this back-and-fourth structure that gives  readers the tools to fully build the story in their mind’s eye.

Give me time, and I’ll give you close to eighty-four pages on how precise and expressive Bolander’s prose is throughout this novella. A line like,

the ache in her jaw has gone from a dull complaint to endless fire blossoming from the hinge behind her back teeth, riding the rails all the way to the region of her chin. It never stops or sleeps or cries uncle”

makes me clutch my own jaw for the phantom pain conjured. It is all to perfect effect, pointing the reader toward the pain of Regan, our lens into the festered suffering of the Radium Girls. Each narrator has a voice that is distinct and precise. From a few words, we immediately know which character we’re following. It is prose and character voice done exquisite.

Alternate history stories are a literary blind spot to me. I’d viewed them as simply “what if someone else won the war?” fantasies and not much else. But The Only Harmless Great Thing does something different here. It doesn’t imagine a new world under different war circumstances or different global politics. It gives us a new look at characters and cultural icons. We never got Disney’s Dumbo here, we got Disney’s Topsy. We have elephants utilizing sign language to testify against their treatment by US Radium. It’s small, but significant. And that’s what makes the story so intriguing. It’s the same history, but with a couple things switched around. It never once shies away from the suffering during this timeline either. It is gruesome and crushing, but necessary.

Drew Barth

Drew Barth (Episode 331) is a writer residing in Winter Park, FL. He received his MFA from the University of Central Florida. Right now, he’s worrying about his cat.

The Rogue’s Guide to Shakespeare on Film #76: National Theatre Live: Hamlet

75. Robin Lough’s National Theatre Live: Hamlet (2015)

My recent thesis, that successful stage productions should just be filmed rather than adapted for a purely cinematic version, isn’t being born out as well as I had hoped, even if The National Theatre Live’s 2015 version of Hamlet sparkles with greatness.

HAMLET by Shakespeare,

“If thou hast nature in thee, bear it not,” the ghost of Hamlet’s father will implore him. The play has so much to do with this Cartesian split of the mind and the body, the spirit and nature, which is why it is notable that The National Theatre’s filmed stage production of the tragedy begins with Benedict Cumberbatch, as the Danish prince, listening to a record of the slightly obscure jazz standard, “Nature Boy.”

There was a boy
A very strange enchanted boy
They say he wandered very far, very far
Over land and sea
A little shy and sad of eye
But very wise was he

And then one day
A magic day he passed my way
And while we spoke of many things
Fools and kings
This he said to me
The greatest thing you’ll ever learn
Is just to love and be loved in return

The greatest thing you’ll ever learn
Is just to love and be loved in return.

That Hamlet would obsess over this song is intriguing, framing the play with a mid-twentieth century sense of existential charm. One implication of the lyrics is this Byronic wanderer is encouraging the listener to fall in love, but not with him. But the lyrics also hint at the cruelty of love, how to love someone who will love you in return is a rather difficult thing. Hamlet has to wonder if his mother actually even loved his father, considering how quickly she took up with Claudius after her husband under mysterious circumstances (those damned serpents of Denmark).

And Hamlet must be wondering if Ophelia—whose affections seemgenuine, whose love helps to create his character—can love him any better than his mother.

The melody is haunting, too.

NTLive Hamlet 6

Another nice touch is how director Robin Lough re-arranged the text to de-familiarize us with the most often performed play in the world.

“Who’s there?” asks Hamlet into the darkness, as if ready to be haunted by his father. (The line textually belongs to Bernardo, of the night watch.) After a curdling silence, Horatio (Leo Bill) enters the room (instead of Francisco).

Despite this re-arranging, this production is something close to the whole Hamlet, which means that there is an awful lot to try to de-familiarize us with. The solution to that problem—how long will viewers need to keep their asses in their seats—seems to have been to speed up the performances. The royal court of Denmark is a bit manic, though with Benedict Cumberbatch and Ciarán Hinds (as Claudius), the effect isn’t all bad. But sometimes one wonders whether the ideal audience of this production might be a flock of hummingbirds.

NTLive Hamlet 7

This production’s Ophelia, played by Sian Brooke, is a bit older. Her bangs made her face seem so vulnerable, no place to hide. When she appears mad, a bald patch mars her head.

The textual nature of Ophelia’s love, trying to write her reality around the margins of acceptable speech, gets woven into the play. When Hamlet is berating her, Ophelia attempts to write him a note, to warn him, but he is too self-absorbed to notice. In a scene change, her privacy is violated when Polonius sends a servant to search her letters for something of Hamlet’s to share with the king. When she goes mad, she recites his love letter to her amongst the garbled songs.

NTLive Hamlet 5

The set design of the Barbican Theater is amongst the best I’ve ever seen, almost operatic, but not quite overblown. After the intermission, there is dirt strewn across the floor of this palace chamber, as if Ophelia’s grave belonged to all of Denmark.

Scene changes feature slow, spooky music with sped up action that includes changes to the set as well as dumb shows that deepen the story (as in Polonius stealing Hamlet’s letters to Ophelia).

The sound engineering of the play is also extraordinary, part posh luxurious romanticism, part David Lynch nightmare. The recording is pristine, making one feel like one is sitting in the Barbican Theater, which despite this psilocybin I took probably wasn’t the case.

NTLive Hamlet 3

I am not sure I have ever seen a Hamlet with quite so many original, surprising, and smart interpretations of the text, and Benedict Cumberbatch is Benedict Cumberbatch. And yet I cannot quite elude the feeling that this version falls short of its exquisite promise—too much rushing the text, which makes Cumberbatch explode like champagne. It’s good stuff, but too good to be drunk quickly.


John King (Episode, well, all of them) holds a PhD in English from Purdue University, and an MFA from New York University. He has reviewed performances for Shakespeare Bulletin.

Episode 355: Jane Ridgeway!

Episode 335 of The Drunken Odyssey, your favorite podcast about creative writing and literature is available on iTunes, or right click here to download.

In this week’s episode, I talk to fiction writer Jane Ridgeway about our stories and characters choosing us instead of the other way around, the delicious problem of historical fiction, and what teenagers today like to read, among other topics.

Jane Ridgeway

Jane Ridgeway by Steve Erwin.

Episode 335 of The Drunken Odyssey, your favorite podcast about creative writing and literature is available on iTunes, or right click here to download.

The Curator of Schlock #244: Mandy

The Curator of Schlock #244 by Jeff Shuster


This is some weird shit. 

It’s October, the time of year when your Curator of Schlock becomes the Curator of Shock. Over the next few weeks, we will be showcasing only the most spine-tingling of tales. Last year, I ended October with a review of The Wicker Man, the one with Nicholas Cage. After I sent that review off to my editor, I laughed uncontrollably for about five minutes. Maybe it was that scene of Nick Cage screaming about a doll that got burned or him drop-kicking Leelee Sobieski into a shelf of pottery or that scene with the bees. Point is that it’s performances like this that cause many people to dismiss Nicholas Cage. Those people haven’t seen Mandy.


I am so impressed with Mandy that I’ve prepared a letter of consideration to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences:

Dear whomever it may concern at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences,

This is Jeff Shuster, the Curator of Schlock. Maybe you’ve heard of me. I’m the champion of all those movies you routinely ignore each year in favor of movies everyone pretends to like, but never bother with looking at again in five years. Except for L.A. Confidential. That was a good Best Picture nomination because I got to see Russell Crowe dunking some guy’s head into a toilet. But now I’m getting sidetracked. My point is I have seen the best picture of 2018 and will now proceed to cram my opinion down your throat. The name of the movie is Mandy from director Panos Cosmatos. He should get best director just for having such an awesome name.


The movie stars Nicholas Cage as Red Miller, a lumberjack and devoted boyfriend to Mandy Bloom (Andrea Riseborough).


Mandy is like the coolest girlfriend ever. She reads pulp fantasy novels and listens to Black Sabbath. There’s a tender scene where Red and Mandy are talking about their favorite planets, Mandy’s being Jupiter and Red’s being Saturn. My favorite planet is Uranus. Oh, and there’s this creepy Jim Jones style cult that wants to add Mandy to their congregation at the request of Jeremiah Sand (Linus Roache). He used to be a folk singer before the heavens reached out to him and told him anything in the world was there for his taking.


Jeremiah summons some bikers who got all messed up in the head due to some bad LSD. He offers them a rotund member of the cult (for eating I guess) in exchange for help in kidnapping Mandy. With Mandy firmly in the cult’s clutches, Jeremiah attempts to seduce her by playing one of his albums, but she just laughs at how bad his music is. Jeremiah doesn’t like that one bit so he ties up Red with barb wire, pierces Red’s side with a spear, and hangs Mandy while setting her one fire before the eyes of poor Red. One of the cult members declares that “Whores burn the brightest.” Then they leave Red with the charred remains of his love.

The rest of the movie features Nick Cage going on a revenge tear that makes Charles Bronson look tame by comparison. He makes this wicked axe with a spear tip that he shoves down this one cult member’s throat and you can see the blood gushing everywhere as he mutters how Mandy is burning in hell. There’s a chainsaw fight, Nick Cage lighting a cigarette off a flaming skull, cocaine, LSD, PCP, and just a bunch of righteous kills. Plus, you get to see Nick Cage screaming while sitting on a toilet in his underwear. If that isn’t best picture material, what is? Please consider Mandy for various Award Nominations including Best Picture. Don’t even stick it in that new Most Popular Film category. Everyone knows that’s going to Black Panther.


Jeff Shuster

Jeffrey Shuster 1

Photo by Leslie Salas

Jeffrey Shuster (episode 47episode 102episode 124episode 131, and episode 284) is an MFA graduate from the University of Central Florida.

Buzzed Books #73: Some Hell

Buzzed Books #73 by Aurora Huiza

Patrick Nathan’s Some Hell

Patrick Nathan’s novel, Some Hell, opens with terrible secrets. Colin, a young boy troubled by his queerness, secretly watches his father hold an unloaded gun to his head and pull the trigger. Colin later sneaks into his father’s empty study, finds the bullets, and loads the gun for reasons he doesn’t understand.

Some Hell

The loading of the gun is akin to the way we stand on rooftops looking down dizzy at the ground below, confused by our impulse to jump off the edge. Colin’s father soon, inevitably, commits suicide with the gun that Colin loaded.

Colin is condemned to live with his dark secret. His dawning queerness is his second dark secret.

These hidden afflictions doom him to a painful adolescence and a confused sexual development. The family descends with Colin into uncertain, ugly hell, which causes it to fragment altogether. The people he loves leave, one by one. Colin ends up alone and under the perpetual “excruciating threat of being half-loved” both by his family, and romantically by other men.

The difficulty with the disintegration of Colin’s family is that we lose characters as readers. Many of the relationships that Nathan sets up in the beginning prove unstable. Colin’s mother sends his autistic brother Paul away to a special home, and his sister Heather runs away with her boyfriend. His best friend Andy turns on him after they have a brief sexual encounter, and we don’t see much of him after that. We lose any possibilities of seeing these relationships, and characters, develop further. As a result, we are stuck in Colin’s head for much of the middle of the book.

Simultaneously, we learn extensively about his mother’s equally uneventful therapy sessions. We often crave more real action and less psychology. Grief pushes people apart, especially when relationships are under pressure, but in the context of a novel, this stasis makes us lose momentum as readers. Depression is not in itself a dramatic conflict.

At the end of the book, Nathan sends Colin and his mother on a road trip, where they have countless dinners together and make jejune observations about life and travel. The introduction of strange divine intervention at the close of the novel is jarring.

Some Hell explores depression, suicide, autism and queerness with commendable bluntness and honesty. Some of the prose that Colin’s deceased father writes in his private notebooks is exceptionally striking. He predicts the family’s descent into hell. He overhears someone say they’ve been through “some hell” in a coffee shop and attempts to define it, musing that “perhaps it was some hell of many hells.”

Colin’s sister similarly predicts the family’s tragedy at the very beginning of the book, telling Colin coldly that he will die soon. “It’ll start to snow when it happens.” Colin’s foretold death is tied to his father’s death, which is a beautiful, terrible notion on Nathan’s part. Nathan creates a sense of foreboding throughout, and a central theme that loving is inherently destructive. He writes that Colin’s mother wants to grab Colin’s father and “tear him apart in her hands, just to bring him closer.”

Some Hell is uneven, but some of Patrick Nathan’s risks are dazzling and memorable, lightning flashes in a world sunk in depression and melancholy.

Aurora Huiza

Aurora Huiza is from Los Angeles, California. She is an undergraduate student at NYU studying English and Creative Writing. She writes fiction and creative nonfiction.

Buzzed Books #72: Prism Stalker Vol. 1

Buzzed Books #72 by Drew Barth

Sloane Leong’s Prism Stalker Vol. 1 (Collects Issues 1-5)     

The best kind of science fiction is the kind that blends genres, forms, themes, social issues into a stew that heartily sits in a reader’s stomach. It’s this kind of blending that makes Sloane Leong’s solo Image Comics debut so tantalizing. From panel one we’re given psychedelic fantasy, inter-planetary refugees, and impossible alien forms. And all of this is the plate on which we’re served issues of displacement, individuality, colonialism, and the slow erasing of the self in service to obstinate authority.

Prism Stalker Volume 1.jpg

We begin with Vep, adrift in space. She and the people of her world are refugees of an unnamed tragedy that has made home unlivable. It is only through the intervention of a secretive empire of worlds known as The Chorus that they are able to continue living. It almost sounds like an antiquated pulp premise, but Leong works magic with. Vep is taken from this new home and is started on the process of separation from herself. And this is done in the most colonialist way possible: violence and deception. She has the promise of potentially finding a new home to settle, but not before being trained to forget herself. To exist in the world of The Chorus, there is no individual. Their will supplants all others. They teach an instinct for violence that runs counter to what Vep knows in her world. Her self is slowly erased over these first five issues.

Prism Stalker Vol 1 detail

The synthesis between visual art and story is one of the most peculiar things about modern comic storytelling. If one doesn’t complement the other, the overall effect is lost to the reader. Leong’s methods for storytelling in this visual medium absolutely sing to the story she tells. As readers, we’re shown worlds unlike our own and can feel lost in the unfamiliarity. This is what Vep as a character experiences as well. This is unfamiliar; this is strange; this passion fruit-looking cocoon is not a bed I’m familiar with. The art goes beyond their standard grids while text bubbles disappear into the bleed of the panels to complement not just what Vep sees, but how she experiences.

Prism Stalker Vol 1 detail 2.jpg

It’s technicolor psychedelia while her consciousness is being dismantled because that’s how malleable her mind has become in the story. To see this destruction of her mind reflected in a way that’s jarring yet fascinating is a testament to how well planned each panel and page is throughout each issue.

Drew Barth.JPG

Drew Barth (Episode 331) is a writer residing in Winter Park, FL. He received his MFA from the University of Central Florida. Right now, he’s worrying about his cat.

Episode 334: Ben Gwin & Jared Silvia!

Episode 334 of The Drunken Odyssey, your favorite podcast about creative writing and literature is available on iTunes, or right click here to download.

In this week’s episode, I talk to novelist Ben Gwin about postmodern satire, addiction, whether MFAs ruin or sustain writers, and for some reason I insist that he needs to write poetry,

Ben Gwin 2_photo credit Jared Alan Smith

Photo by Jared Alan Smith.

plus I talk to Jared Silvia about synth music, Woody Guthrie, the vagaries of how folk music gets recorded, and Jared’s annual recording project every Labor Day.



Clean Time by Ben Gwin

Episode 334 of The Drunken Odyssey, your favorite podcast about creative writing and literature is available on iTunes, or right click here to download.