Keeping Up With The Penguins

Reviews For The Would-Be Booklover

Category: Award Winners

Paper Towns – John Green

John Green is one of only three authors to have more than one book on The List. This week, I’m tackling the first of them: Paper Towns. It debuted at #5 on the New York Times Bestseller List in 2008, it won the Edgar Award in 2009 for Best Young Adult Novel, and just about every YA-reader I know has a major stiffy for Green. So, I figured it was worth a look.

Paper Towns is your standard coming-of-age story. There’s a prologue positioning the two central characters as childhood friends. The nerdy, underappreciated boy-next-door (Quentin “Q” Jacobsen) “loves” Margo Roth Spiegelman from afar for years. She is (surprise, surprise) beautiful, mysterious, and edgy.

Margo goes missing, and Quentin goes looking for her, following her trail of clues. You have to suspend your disbelief for a minute here. I mean, I’ve never met a teenager with enough foresight to leave complex metaphorical breadcrumbs when they run away, and, indeed, why would they? The whole point of running away is, y’know, to not get caught. Still, that’s what Green chose for a plot, and I’m hardly in a position to argue with him.

There were some surprisingly clever and funny bits. I laughed out loud at the story of local figure Dr Jefferson Jefferson, who is actually not a doctor of any kind – he’s just a powerful, wealthy man who petitioned the courts to change his first name to “Dr”. That’s funny, right?! So I keep reading along, chuckling away… until we hit the first speed-bump of self-indulgent teenage wankery. Quentin opines:

“It struck me as somewhat unfair that an asshole like Jason Worthington would get to have sex with both Margo and Becca, when perfectly likeable individuals such as myself don’t get to have sex with either of them – or anyone else for that matter.”

Sound the alarm, guys: our narrator is definitely a Nice GuyTM.


His (brief) moment of redemption doesn’t come until about two-thirds of the way through the novel (by which point I’d already written him off). He realises that Margo isn’t just a vessel for all of his dreams and desires – she’s an actual person, would you believe it? And he’s not subtle about it, either. He really thwacks you over the head with this life-changing realisation.

“Margo was not a miracle. She was not adventure. She was not a fine and precious thing. She was a girl.”

I was just about to score one for John Green – I was pleasantly surprised, I honestly didn’t think he had it in him – but then it all went to shit. And by that, I mean that his selfish teenage arsehole characters went back to acting like selfish teenage arseholes. Quentin skips his high-school graduation (and somehow convinces his friends to do the same), despite the fact that he is an only child and his parents are so excited and proud of him that they bought him a car. He uses that very car to drive across the country chasing after the girl, risking life and limb, with nary a thought to his heartbroken parents… only to find that she’s absolutely fine and, well, that’s kind of the end.

It’s not all terrible, though. I wasn’t a huge fan of the characters or the plot, but the “paper towns” trivia was pretty fun and it made a nice little backdrop for the story. If you’re wondering: the idea of a “paper town” is actually an old cartography trick. Basically, if you’re designing a map (back in the days before Google had street view), you sneakily add in an extra fake town in a random spot. It was an early form of copyright protection. If a cartographer saw their secret fake “paper town” on another map, they could be fairly certain that the designer had copied their design without permission. Clever, eh? Green confirms in his author note that the paper town he references in the book, Agloe, is actually real:

“Agloe began as a paper town, created to protect against copyright infringement. But then people with these old Esso maps kept looking for it, and so someone built a store, making Agloe real.”

But aside from the fun trivia (and the lols in the beginning), I didn’t find all that much to love about Paper Towns. I think Green tried to play with “dark” themes too much. He was a bit heavy handed with the death stuff (that’s him “having his cake”), but then he wraps it up very neatly in an alarmingly benign ending (and that’s him “having it too”)., The monologuing in the closing chapters was extremely tedious; it felt like very lazy storytelling. I had to keep reminding myself that I’m a bit older than the target market; maybe today’s young adults like having everything teased out in dialogue, to feel like the story has a resolution?




Bonus fun fact: Paper Towns was apparently, like all good books, banned from a U.S. school in 2014 because a local parent “disapproved of the book’s sexual content”. A few high-school boys occasionally whined about being virgins, which is enough to make anyone clutch their pearls, I’m sure. The National Coalition Against Censorship had it reinstated shortly thereafter.

My tl;dr summary of Paper Towns would be this: two kids living in no-one-gives-a-fucksville get their kicks running around doing dumb shit, until the mysterious unattainable girl runs away and the boy next door (who “loves” her) chases her across the country. Paper Towns is great for younger teenagers, but will probably grate the nerves of anyone who has already finished high-school.

My favourite Amazon reviews of Paper Towns:

  • “Purchased for my adult son who is a
    Librarian to give to his 13 year old son.” – granny70
  • “This book is complete trash. I would rather read a book about a boy peeling an orange. The characters were flat and the book was just boring in general. Q was a nerdy teen and Margo was a spoiled brat, who cares. This book was a waste of time I could have spent reading The Hunger Games.” – Isabela Underdahl
  • “WOW THANKS JON GREAN U MADE ME CRY IN DIS U HOE GO SUCK A PAPER TOWN” – Xing Lee

 

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves – Karen Joy Fowler

As promised, I’ve broken free of the spiral of novellas written by dead white guys. This week on Keeping Up With The Penguins, we turn our attention to something very different: We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler.

The front of this edition is stuffed with pages upon pages of positive reviews and accolades. We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves has won the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction. It was shortlisted for the 2014 Man Booker Prize. More importantly for most Australians, it made the Dymocks 101… twice. I learned from these pages that it was published in 2013, it was Fowler’s tenth novel, and it had clearly won legions of fans around the globe, but apart from a couple of vague references to “family” in the blurbs, I had no bloody idea what the book was actually going to be about.

It turns out there’s a very good reason for that. But more on that in a minute…

Sitting down to start reading in earnest, I was literally lol’ing before ten pages had passed. Rosemary, the protagonist, narrates a scene from her university cafeteria, watching a couple breaking up at a nearby table. It sounds banal as all heck, but it was beautifully done, and Rosemary’s deadpan humour won me over instantly. I was hooked!

It’s hilarious, but quickly starts foreshadowing some ominous shit. Both of Roesmary’s older siblings are notably absent (one apparently in some kind of legal trouble, the other vanished mysteriously some time ago), and her relationship with her parents stinks. But why? That’s what you’ve got to read on to find out.

Here’s the thing: this is the first time, in the history of this project, that I have hesitated in giving a spoiler. Keeping Up With The Penguins is, after all, one big spoiler. If I’m reviewing a book published over a century ago, I don’t really give a fuck if I’ve “ruined” it for you. Even the newer books I’ve reviewed have been turned into movies that everyone’s already seen, or have plots so hackneyed that they seem impossible to spoil anyway. This book is different. The first plot twist is so (a) unexpected, and (b) central to what makes this book special, that it’s giving me pause. Still, it’s impossible to review this book properly without revealing its “secret”. Don’t get me wrong, the value of Fowler’s writing isn’t completely based on the “big reveal” – it’s just the dawning realisation, the moment of coming to an understanding while being completely bewildered at the same time, is so precious that I’m loathe to steal it from anyone else.

You have been warned. Spoilers from We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves are to follow.

Back out now if you’re planning on reading this one (which you really should, I can’t recommend it highly enough – get it here).

Anyway, Rosemary’s sister is Fern. She adored Fern, they grew up together, but Fern vanished in an instant when they were 5 years old without any explanation or farewell. You’re about 70 pages in at this point, and you’ve really bonded with Fern. You’re gripped by her marked absence in Rosemary’s life, and the scars it has left on her mentally.

Fern is (wait for it) a chimpanzee.

Yeah.

She wasn’t a pet: Rosemary’s hippie ’70s psychologist parents were literally raising Fern The Chimpanzee as a member of their family. I’m big enough to say it: I did not see that plot twist coming. I honestly thought Fern The Human was dead, maybe murdered by the older brother (Lowell) who’s on the run from the law. I didn’t see the twist coming at all, and I’m deeply grateful. The elegance with which Fowler carefully orchestrated the reader’s bond with Fern before revealing her species, how cleverly she forced the reader to examine the line we draw for ourselves between animal and human… I was amazed. I am in awe. Hats off, Fowler!

(Also, hats off to the publicists who have managed to keep this twist under wraps, to this day. It’s not mentioned in the Wikipedia page, it doesn’t feature anywhere in the publicity materials, they might tell me to shut down this review – it’s amazing work in the technological age.)

Anyway: once you get past that, there’s a stack of revelations still to come: How Fern left, why she left, what Lowell did, and why their parents are so batshit crazy. Rosemary and Lowell are briefly reunited at one point, and it turns out he’s been doing a spot of animal activism “work” outside the law. He’s been trying to find Fern, and the stories of the cruelty he witnessed broke my heart. Like, everyone was looking at me, the crazy-lady-crying-over-her-book-on-the-bus broke my heart. I’ll tell you right now that there’s no “happy ending” in this book: the best you’ll get is a resolution, a reconciliation, an atonement, but you couldn’t call it “happy”. There, I’m done spoiling things now!




It’s clear that Fowler did a lot of research for We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, but it wasn’t one long info-dump like, say, Still Alice. Fowler doesn’t just demonstrate how much she knows; it’s all revealed organically through the way the story is narrated. I cannot overstate how clever and masterful it is! What’s more, Rosemary is a somewhat unreliable narrator, but it’s written in a way that’s not frustrating to the reader and doesn’t detract from your empathy for the character or engagement with the story. Fuck, I love this book!

On the animal-rights stuff: Fowler said in an interview “I believe in science and in medical research. I eat meat…. [but] if we can’t bear to look at what we are doing, then we shouldn’t be doing it.” This really closely mirrors my own personal philosophy, which might be why this book resonated with me so much. I kept checking in with myself, asking whether Fowler was maybe getting preachy, or patronising people who think that animal activists are a bunch of smelly hippies, but I don’t think so. The story is heart-wrenching, and the theme of animal rights is inextricably bound with the universal themes of sibling loyalty and guilt. It’s good, regardless of your political or moral vantage point.

I drank the Kool-Aid, I’ll admit. I started recommending We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves to people I barely knew before I finished it. My review cannot possibly do it justice. If you’ve read this far, you’ve already the book, so I’m glad you know what I’m talking about (let me know your thoughts in the comments!). If you read past the spoiler warning without having read the book, you’re maybe a bit of an idiot, but I still love you and you should go ahead and read it anyway. 😉

My favourite Amazon reviews of We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves:

  • “It was a really good story up until she got a monkey. Silly.” – Tracie Gardner
  • “I don’t even remember reading this book so I’m guessing it wasn’t great” – Natasha Smit
  • “Really weird story. Not the sort of nonfiction I enjoy.” – Peggy S
  • “…. About halfway through I had my full of girl loves monkey, girl looses monkey, girl finds monkey. I found the author’s voice annoyingly cute. The writing was good.” – Miami Maid

 

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As I Lay Dying – William Faulkner

As promised, inspired by Cheryl Strayed in Wild, I went ahead and picked up As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner for my next undertaking from The List. I’d scored a copy for the princely sum of $4 – that secondhand bookstore bargain bin strikes again!

My husband chuckled with glee when I told him this one was next. Apparently, I was going to be “so confused”! Well, fortune only favours the brave.

William Faulkner won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1949, and As I Lay Dying is widely regarded as one of the greatest American novels of all time, so plenty of people far smarter than me seem to think that it’s very good. Apparently, he wrote it in six weeks while working night shifts at the local power-station, and didn’t change a word of it after the first draft was completed (what a show-off).

I’m not sure if I was “confused” per se, but a genealogical table (a la Wuthering Heights) sure would have come in handy. Unfortunately, this edition didn’t include one, so I took the liberty of creating one myself…

See, As I Lay Dying is narrated by no fewer than fifteen different characters over the course of 59 chapters, so that’s a bit much. Luckily, the name of each character was used as the title of each chapter in this edition, so that was very helpful. Faulkner virgins should definitely use the guide above to keep track, because I’m going to break the story down as best I can and it’s fucking convoluted (scroll up to review the chart as often as you need).

So, we kick off with a woman (Addie) laying in bed, dying. Seems about right. And her eldest son (Cash) is building her coffin right outside her window, where she can hear. And the whole family is arguing about whether that’s cool or not. And they’re trying to figure out whether they can get $3 together in time to bury her. Then she dies, and everyone’s upset. The youngest son, Vardaman, catches a fish. You following so far?




The story goes on to follow the death and burial of Addie, as described by various members of her family and other hangers-on. They carry her coffin from their bumfuck-nowhere town to some other bumfuck-nowhere town, telling themselves and each other over and over again that it’s “what she would have wanted”. They almost lose her coffin a couple of times, because the rains come and the rivers get fucking hectic in that part of the world. Cash breaks his leg, Darl burns down a barn, Jewel wants to bail on the lot of them because they’re fucking mental, Dewey Dell tries to buy an abortion at a corner store, and Vardaman just wonders what the hell is going on, all the while firmly believing that the fish they caught is actually his dead mother. Papa Anse ends up taking Dewey Dell’s abortion money to buy new teeth, and marrying the woman from whom he borrowed a shovel to bury his first wife. And… um, the end?

It’s all a bit weird, sure, but that didn’t turn me off. I was actually really touched by the description of the family electing to lay Addie top-to-bottom in her coffin, so that the wedding dress they buried her in could flare out and not get crushed. I mean, that’s really sweet (if a little morbid), right? Another highlight was the chapter narrated (posthumously) by Addie herself; it was captivating and beautiful. For me, it puts to rest any argument as to whether it is possible to write from the perspective of a gender or creed that is not your own. Faulkner deftly and skilfully captures the lived experience of a poor woman trapped in a shitty marriage and a small town. I doubt I’ll read As I Lay Dying in full again, but I’ll refer back to Chapter 40 many times.

“In the afternoon when school was out and the last one had left with his little dirty snuffling nose, instead of going home I would go down the hill to the spring where I could be quiet and hate them.” – Addie

Prepare yourself, though: the further in you get, the more Faulkner’s writing sounds like drunk texting. That’s my tl;dr summary of As I Lay Dying: Faulkner drunk texts the death and burial of a Southern woman with a crazy family. I would recommend As I Lay Dying to people who are already familiar with Faulkner, and/or like their stories short and weird.

My favourite Amazon reviews of As I Lay Dying:

  • “…. Faulkner is NEVER light reading, if this intimidates you, save your money, don’t buy this book and don’t leave a useless review of this fine work.” – Dennis
  • “Incomprehensible. At least for the first 1/3, after which I stopped reading. I am sure literature majors love trying to figure this one out, but eventually I had the epiphany that I want to actually enjoy novels – go figure.” – Thor Albro
  • “I did not like the languages written in the book.” – Bob
  • “It took me looking at clifnotes to understand the character relationships and the time skipping back and forth. I was a confused.” – JenRebekah

 

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The Book Thief – Markus Zusak

Remember that bargain bin, where I picked up Lady Chatterley’s Lover? Right next to it was The Book Thief, number one book on the Dymocks 101 of 2016, marked down to just $4. Seemed pretty reasonable!

This is one of the books on The List that I’ve heard plenty of, but not heard much about. I was pretty sure it had been made into a movie starring some not-unheard-of people but, gun to my head, I couldn’t have told you the first thing about the story. Ah well, an EXTRAORDINARY #1 INTERNATIONAL BESTSELLER is probably not to be sneezed at.

I’m not gonna lie: it starts out pretty heavy. Turns out, it’s narrated by Death (how post-modern!). Death tells us we’re in Nazi Germany, it’s cold as balls, a kid dies on a train, and his mother and sister have to bury him quick smart out in Woop Woop before they carry on to dump the remaining child with a foster family. Liesel – the still-alive kid, who turns out to be the protagonist – is freaking the fuck out. She steals a book from the gravedigger, even though she can’t read at all. Clearly, this story won’t be fun for anyone involved.

The story builds up to a rollicking pace rather quickly, but the writing style takes some getting used to – lots of short, bursty sentences that are Laden With MeaningTM. Some of it was actually kind of pretty, but I couldn’t shake my suspicion that Zusak was just trying a bit too hard.




He crams the book chock-full with misery and unfortunate events. The foster family is no Brady Bunch, and just as Liesel starts to settle in they start harbouring a Jew in the basement, feeding him scraps and surreptitiously emptying paint tins of his piss outside. It felt for a minute like the foster mother was being set up as the “bad guy” (nope, that’d be Hitler), but I liked her most of all – she told everyone to lick her arse if they disagreed with her. Liesel develops a close relationship with her foster father (Hans), who starts teaching her to read, then she figures out her mother was taken by the Nazis for being a communist and Hans smacks her for saying she hated Hitler in public. The story continues in much the same vein: people die, people get sent to concentration camps, kids steal food to eat, and places get bombed. Zusak fully takes us through how much the Nazis sucked.

The narration-by-Death is a cute quirk, but otherwise The Book Thief is a super-familiar narrative. I think we’re all well aware that the Nazis were awful and literacy is important, and there wasn’t really anything else new or revelatory. I don’t think I got anything out of The Book Thief (aside from the cool narrative technique) that I didn’t get already reading The Diary of a Young Girl when I was twelve.

On that note, though, we really should keep in mind that The Book Thief – despite its heavy subject matter – is Young Adult fiction. That means it’s not a very laborious read for the grown-ups, which makes for a nice change of pace. I’d say The Book Thief is great for someone on the upper end of the Young Adult age bracket, who’s just starting to learn about WWII… or for anyone who wants to feel smart without having to work too hard for it. 😉

No need to steal it, like our young protagonist: buy it here for the best price instead (and KUWTP will get a tiny cut!):

My favourite Amazon reviews of The Book Thief:

  • “Sentimental rubbish with obvious characters, most of which were stolen from Great Expectations.” – Maurice Lucas
  • “I cold have done without all the cursing. The beginning was plodding and slow; the characters were flat. Deeper character development would have added layers to this story and made it much more interesting. The only one I really empathized with was the narrator, ‘Death’.” – L. H.
  • “Too confusionly written. Jumped around too much. Movie much better.” – Tip Top lady bug
  • “8///(&+;+&:::)___444)==4)))_))&))222gfytrydghjhhfvcbchfgcytrdyfy Guv fffffffffgfffffffffffffffffgfgffffffffffffffffff strategic planning to find the first place for those of you can bring some if the movie and I think the movie and its first place in fact the world is not only the movie was the movie is a lot more to BEEN Isabel” – izzyb0430@gmailIsabel

 

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