Keeping Up With The Penguins

Reviews For The Would-Be Booklover

Category: Books Made Into Movies

The Girl On The Train – Paula Hawkins

I picked up a copy of Paula Hawkins’ commercial breakthrough novel, The Girl On The Train, in a poky little Tel Aviv bookstore of all places. I was on my honeymoon, and I’d been searching desperately for a public bathroom. I stumbled upon this little gem instead, and paid the grand sum of 18 shekels, which converted to about $7 back home, I think. (Note: I found a bathroom shortly afterwards, never fear.)

The Girl on the Train - Paula Hawkins - Keeping Up With The Penguins

The Girl On The Train was released in 2015, and debuted at #1 on the New York Times Fiction Best Seller list. It went on to hit a bunch of similar success benchmarks over the next few years, not the least of which was an edition run with those five magic words printed on the front cover: “Now A Major Motion Picture”. Of course, I haven’t seen the film, but conventional wisdom suggests that reading the book first is always the best idea anyway.

Even though there is only one girl on the train, this one is told from the perspective of three different narrators. Hawkins flicks back and forth between their perspective, each providing different pieces of the puzzle. It was a nice change – refreshing even, reading the stories of fictional women that were actually written by a woman. You forget how important diversity is until you find yourself reading through a List written almost exclusively by old white guys.

If Women Wrote Men The Way Men Wrote Women - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Don’t get me wrong: The Girl On The Train is hardly on the front-foot when it comes to feminist literature. The title is the first clue (referring to grown women as “girls” in titles is one of my pet peeves), but I also took personal issue with the fact that the only reason given for the titular girl’s spiral into alcoholism was her apparent infertility *eye roll*. Chalk that up as another example of a female character’s only depth being her distress over the status of her womb.

I know I’m being snarky, but I can’t help it. The girl (Rachel is her name, by the way) wouldn’t have found herself in this mess if she weren’t so concerned about being barren. To cope with her depression, she self-medicates with alcohol, and stares creepily from the window of a moving train into the backyards of her ex, his new baby-mumma, and their neighbours. She lives out this routine of black-outs and creepy staring every day until one day she witnesses something kind of dodgy, and then the action kicks off.




Infertility and alcoholism aren’t Rachel’s only issues, if I’m being fair. Hawkins’ publishers probably should have included a major content warning on the cover of The Girl On The Train. I can’t imagine there’s many women out there who aren’t nursing some sore spots on domestic violence, gaslighting, abortion, addiction, mental health… Thematically, it’s a really heavy read. I managed to chew through it fairly quickly, but I was in a good place mentally at the time. I’d imagine reading this one when you’re already feeling dark is a one-way ticket to the bottom of a bottle of tequila.

The Girl On The Train is scary in parts. There are show-downs and confrontations and dark alleyways to get your heart racing. Plus, every character could be the “bad guy”; they’re all fucked up in profoundly disturbing ways, and yet they are all recognisable. Any one of them could be your friend or your partner or your neighbour or your family, which is really the scariest part of all. The whole way through, you need to bear in mind that your experience as a reader is filtered through the (very subjective) lens of an incredibly unreliable narrator. You’ve got to keep a close eye on the dates, too – even within chapters, the stories aren’t told chronologically. It’s very cleverly (deliberately) done to disorient the reader, and it’s probably the most masterful element of the book.

My tl;dr summary of The Girl On The Train would be this: barren drunk stalker “girl” witnesses what could be a clue to what could be a crime, and you’ve got to swim through some very choppy waters to get yourself back on solid ground after that. I would only recommend this one if you’re in the mood for an easy read with heavy content. If you’re a thriller aficionado you might find it cliche, and if you’re in a dark place it might trigger some stuff for you: you’ve been warned.

My favourite Amazon reviews of The Girl On The Train:

  • “How boring and cliche. These days, the hand that rocks the publishing cradle is the extra money in the bank just about anyone who is on the bestseller list has to drink coffee at bourgeois cafes whilst waiting for heir manuscript to be picked up and published. Barf.” – Amazon Customer
  • “This train took me nowhere.” – Sactomike
  • “BAD AND BORING” – snqrene
  • “Not for blokes! Way to introverted and boring.” – Amazon Customer
  • “Silly women’s book” – frances
  • “If you are male, this book makes you feel like a dirty shirt. I don’t recommend it for anyone with hope for any relationship to succeed.” – Michael O.

 

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The Great Gatsby – F. Scott Fitzgerald

The recent Keeping Up With The Penguins trend of reviewing short-novels-by-dead-white-guysthat-got-turned-into-movies ends (promise!) with The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald.

The Great Gatsby - F Scott Fitzgerald - Keeping Up With The Penguins

This is a beautiful Penguin edition of the 1925 novel; I picked it up from my favourite secondhand bookstore (as always), and yet it looks brand new, never read. In the front they’ve printed Fitzgerald’s original dedication, to his wife Zelda. I thought that was really sweet… until I later learned that she was quite a piece of work, and would probably have kicked up a royal stink if he hadn’t dedicated the book to her.

Fitzgerald began planning The Great Gatsby in 1923, but it was a long and laborious process to get to the finished product. In his first year of writing he pumped out 18,000 words, only to scrap it all and start again. There were stacks of revisions, even entire chapters re-written, before it went to press. Fitzgerald also changed the title more often than he changed his underpants. His reported favourite was “Under The Red, White and Blue”, but it was vetoed by his publishers (and his wife, ha!).

The Great Gatsby, in its final form, received mixed reviews and sold “poorly” – just 20,000 copies in its first year. Fitzgerald died in 1940 believing himself to be a failure (boohoo). Shortly after his death, the book experienced a strong resurgence, thanks in large part to the Council on Books in Wartime that distributed 155,000 copies to American soldiers fighting in WWII. It is now considered a contender for that ever-elusive accolade: The Great American Novel. It has been adapted for film, television, literature, opera, ballet, radio, and even computer games. I vaguely remember seeing the 2013 movie at some point, but my memories are mostly just glitter and sparkly costumes. The only concrete fact that my brain saw fit to retain was that Leonardo launched a thousand memes.

Leonardo Di Caprio as Jay Gatsby - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Anyway, what’s the story? Well, a young Yale graduate slash Great War veteran (Nick Carraway) moves to Long Island to work as a bond salesman and basically sort himself out. He ends up with a rich neighbour – Jay Gatsby – who throws a lot of fancy parties. (He’s really rich, okay? It’s very important that you know that.) So, Nick just kinda hangs out there a bit; his only other social outings are visiting his flapper cousin and her philandering husband, they live just up the road. Already, as I was reading, I couldn’t stop asking myself: what’s the point? I mean, a swotty young guy discovers that he likes drinking and pretty girls, and he hangs around his rich neighbour’s hectic parties – so what?

Later, we find out that Gatsby is actually in love with Nick’s beautiful cousin, and has quasi-stalked her for years (but we’re supposed to think that’s romantic, not creepy). He uses Nick to engineer a rendezvous, and finally gets into her pants. They continue hooking up on the sly for a while, until her husband Mr Philanderer finds out and gets all jealous (ironic). There’s a crazy show-down at a hotel in the city, and the beautiful cousin runs over her husband’s mistress in Gatsby’s car (yes, shit really escalated, but it’s not over yet). Because of the car, everyone assumes that Gatsby is the one who was driving, and it’s all very I Know What You Did Last Summer. The mistress’s husband avenges her death by killing Gatsby, and then himself. The beautiful cousin gets back with her husband, and they run away together. Nick tries to throw a funeral for Gatsby and nobody comes. The end.




Fitzgerald famously drew inspiration from the parties he attended in Long Island in the early 1920s, and many true events from his life are reflected in the plot (he fell in love with a girl and needed to “prove himself” with material success before he could marry her, among other plot points). You don’t have to try too hard to pick apart the Very Important Themes in The Great Gatsby, a lot of stuff about the façade of class mobility in America and the excesses of wealth and the recklessness of ambitious youth. Blah, blah, blah… It all boils down to a cautionary tale, and a pretty boring one at that. How many times do we need to expose the “underbelly” of the Great American Dream? It is a myth, we get it. I mean, maybe they didn’t back in the 1920s, but we’ve all seen American Beauty now, so I’m not sure how much The Great Gatsby adds to that narrative.

I fail to understand how this has become a staple of the high school English syllabus. Is it because it’s a “classic” that’s short enough to squeeze into a teenager’s limited attention span? Do the grown-ups think it’s “relateable”? The characters do all talk and act like rich, indulgent teenagers I suppose, like an old-timey version of The OC. I know I’m not an authority, but I think there are better choices for reading assignments. I mean, as far as the literary merit goes, to me Fitzgerald sounded like a wannabe poet trying too hard to write romantic prose. He told a friend that he wanted The Great Gatsby to be a “consciously artistic achievement”, but it came off sounding like desperate, over-reaching wank half of the time.

So, in conclusion, no. Not for me. No, thank you. My tl;dr summary is this: a shady rich guy gets taken in by a slapper, and owning a fancy car comes back to bite him in the arse. I really didn’t care about the characters or the story at all, and finer examples of American literature abound as far as I’m concerned – but by all means, check this one out for yourself if you want to see just how far it falls short of its reputation.

My favourite Amazon reviews of The Great Gatsby:

  • “Hated this book. It was a total waste of time. If I wanted to be depressed and read about unfaithfulness in marriage, I would read the court records. Don’t know why this is a classic.” – Amazon Customer
  • “Wow, even better than the Cliff notes I read in High School.” – Marc Reeves
  • “I had to buy this for my son for school. He did not like the book but that’s not Amazon’s fault…” – D. Basuino
  • “One star is too many, but it is the minimum.
    The only reason I read this was for a class. I gave the teacher a stinker review as well.The book is a pointless exercise in futility about pointless stupid people. The only point to the story is that people with money are just as trashy, if not more so, than people without. The characters have no development, are barely two dimensional, do stupid things for no reason and face no consequences for their veniality.This books is the literary equivalent of being stuck in a window seat on a airplane for 14 hours needs to a drunken, smelly creep with bad breath and smelly gas who talks at you for the whole flight about his pointless job. For being such a thin book, it is the hardest reading I have ever had to do.Of course, it is even more aggravating that the kindle edition costs $11 for a book you can get at a bookstore for less than a dollar.” – Heinrick Ludwig von Mencken

 

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Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde – Robert Louis Stevenson

I’m on a bit of a roll now, with books that have been turned into films, and – as it turns out – novellas written by dead white guys. This week, it’s Robert Louis Stevenson’s Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde.

Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde - Robert Louis Stevenson - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde was published in 1886 (and, yes, the original publication intentionally and infuriatingly left out the preposition that would have made the title grammatically correct, ugh). Stevenson wrote the first draft in under three days, but then – the story goes – his wife told him it was shit, so he burned it and started again. He was (allegedly) coked up during the re-write, which probably wasn’t such a wise idea for a guy with a history of hemorrhages. In sum, Stevenson conceptualised and completed the work in less than ten weeks; it sold 250k copies in the U.S. by 1901, and achieved far greater commercial and critical success than the novel he spent five years perfecting, which just goes to show. Stevenson’s popularity declined hard after his death – his wife and son apparently went around publishing every half-finished scrap of work that they could find to keep the money coming in, which put a bit of a dent in his literary reputation – but that doesn’t seem to have deterred today’s fanboys and fangirls at all.

The fact that he pumped it out so quickly is not quite as impressive once you figure out that it’s only 66 pages long – closer to a short story than a novella. It’s the shortest undertaking on Keeping Up With The Penguins so far, and I’m pretty sure it’s the shortest one on The List. I’m clearly a bit thick, because – even knowing how short it was – I was surprised that it was over so quickly!

That said, Stevenson managed to cram a lot into those 66 pages, and literary types continue to analyse Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde to death. The introduction to this edition (which is almost longer than the book itself) goes deep into a critical analysis. Apparently, a psychoanalytic reading of the text reveals that Stevenson had a tonne of Daddy Issues. My eyes kind of glazed over once it started talking about its handling of metaphysical confusion… but then it turned to queer theory and the reading of Jekyll as a closet homosexual, and I was back on board! (Incidentally, I also learned that Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde is the prototype of a sub-genre called “doppelgänger lit”, which is just so niche, I laugh every time I think of it).

So, the story: London lawyer Gabriel John Utterson hears a story about a creep named Hyde, who beat up a kid and paid the family off with a cheque drawn in the name of his mate Dr Jekyll. Utterson is a bit freaked out by that, because he knows that Jekyll recently rewrote his will to name Hyde the sole beneficiary. He figures Hyde is blackmailing Jekyll for reasons unknown; he asks a few nosy questions around town, but he doesn’t actually do all that much about it.

“‘If he be Mr Hyde,’ he had thought, ‘I shall be Mr Seek.'”

Hyde continues to stomp around London having a grand old time doing awful things, until he cocks up and murders an actual member of parliament. Everyone is understandably upset. Utterson tries to get Jekyll to snitch on Hyde, but Jekyll tells him to fuck up. One of Jekyll’s doctor mates tells Utterson that he knows what Jekyll’s been up to, but it’s so bad that the poor prick literally dies of shock before he can spill the beans.

Jekyll starts acting really weird, and his servants freak out when they don’t see him for a few days; he’s apparently holed up in his mysterious laboratory, but they get it into their heads that Jekyll’s actually been murdered and an imposter is living there in his place. Utterson breaks in to Jekyll’s secret room… only to find Hyde dead on the floor, wearing Jekyll’s clothes. This seems strange, so Utterson finally gets around to reading the letter left behind by their dead doctor friend, and a letter-slash-suicide-note from Jekyll himself. Turns out, Jekyll had gone full mad scientist and found a way to temporarily transform himself into a degenerate alter ego so that he could indulge all of his sicko fantasies without besmirching his own name… only he lost control, and couldn’t stop the transformations happening, so he offs himself in order to kill the monster. The End.




Unless you spent the 20th century (and then some) living under a rock, that “twist” ending won’t come as a shock to you. Still, I’d imagine at the time of publication it caused quite a stir. The biggest problem with a contemporary reading is that it’s really hard to enjoy organically when the “twist” has been part of the cultural zeitgeist for over a century. There have been at least 120 film and stage adaptations – I have seen exactly none of them, and yet I’ve still used “Jekyll and Hyde” as shorthand in conversation. Like Vader being Luke’s father, or Bruce Willis being a ghost, you end up reading this one as an academic exercise, picking apart the layers and metaphor rather than letting yourself get lost in the story.

That doesn’t mean there’s no fun to be had! I quite the queer reading of Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde – there’s lots of fodder in the imagery of Hyde standing over Jekyll’s bed, Jekyll having to atone for unspeakable sin, etc. When you look at it that way, you can see Hyde as a vehicle for the closet-homo Jekyll to indulge his vices without getting busted. (This was the end of the repressed Victorian era, after all.) Eventually, of course, Jekyll loses all control and his gay sex urge runs rampant – love it!

Much like Wuthering Heights, there are so many layers to this story that the debate about Stevenson’s “true” meaning will probably rage on for another century yet. As I said, my preference is the queer reading, but I certainly wouldn’t begrudge anyone their own interpretation – there’s plenty to go around! I hear some folks read it as a commentary on Scottish nationalism versus union with Britain…

What I would say is this: if you assume you’re familiar with the Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde and you don’t need to read the original, you’re really missing out. I’ll definitely read it again; I’m not sure it rises to the ranks of “recommended” here at Keeping Up With The Penguins, but it’s short and accessible and familiar enough to be enjoyed by almost anyone.

My favourite Amazon reviews of Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde:

  • “Puerto Rico. Puerto Rico. Puerto Rico. Puerto Rico. Puerto Rico. Puerto Rico. Puerto Rico. Puerto Rico. Puerto Rico. Puerto Rico. This is the best place” – mary gagliardo
  • “Not what I was hoping for. I was expecting less ‘Old English’ and more human struggle. Dr. Jekyll is trying to achieve something, but there’s no description of why. Mr Hyde was described as complete evil. Other than bumping into a kid and killing a man, what else has he done? I’m disappointed.” – Kevin Palmer
  • “Ending was abrupt, liked the musical more. Wish there was more detail in the murders and perhaps a love interest….” – Chanebradshaw
  • “Although it is fantasy, I couldn’t accept the physical change in size between Jekyll and Hyde, regardless of the symbolic intent.” – R. L. Riemer

 

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A Clockwork Orange – Anthony Burgess

Given that I’ve pulled together a List of mostly popular and classic books, I’ve stumbled across a bunch that have been made into movies. I only mention that here because this is one of the very few times I’ve actually seen the film adaptation prior to reading the book, so I had some idea of what was up with A Clockwork Orange before I read it.

A Clockwork Orange - Anthony Burgess - Keeping Up With The Penguins

A Clockwork Orange, the novella, was published in 1962, but reached peak saturation after the Kubrick film adaptation was released in 1971. I saw the movie sometime in my mid-teens, fancying myself a bit disaffected and angsty, but hadn’t read the book until now. In terms of genre, it’s a hard one to pin down. I’ve seen it referred to as science fiction, which almost fits, but I would describe it as truly dystopian (as opposed to the cutesy Young Adult type of dystopian to which we’ve all become accustomed). Burgess wrote the whole thing in three weeks, and by all accounts he thought it kind of sucked, and yet it remains the work for which he is best known.

Shit gets very real, right from the outset. The narrator is Alex, a hardened juvenile delinquent with a passion for classical music. He spends a night with his friends, stealing cars and beating the living daylights out of unsuspecting civilians. The next day, he lures two very young girls home from the record store, and brutally rapes them in his bedroom. At this point, we’re only forty pages in. I mean, I’d heard that the book depicted a “subculture of youth violence”, but when this is the starting point… well, that description doesn’t seem to cut it, does it?

As A Clockwork Orange unfolds, Burgess just flat out makes up his own words. He called it “Nasdat”, a kind of Anglo-Russian slang. I’d imagine it’s a lot like reading a book written in a language in which you’re almost fluent – it gets easier and easier, but you still find yourself stumbling on a word now and then. It’s less like reading and more like a jigsaw puzzle, piecing together the context clues to work out what the hell is going on.

For some reason reading about the violence, delivered rapid-fire in this nonsense language, is a lot more confronting than seeing it on the screen. All of the nonsense language in the world can’t cloak or soften it. Perhaps I’m desensitised to violence in film and television (aren’t we all?), but not so much with book; in fact, I don’t think I had ever read a truly violent book… until now. I like to think I’ve got a fairly strong stomach for this kind of stuff, but Burgess really put it to the test. “Anti-hero” doesn’t quite suffice in describing Alex – he is unsympathetic in the extreme. I didn’t think I could dislike a narrator more than I disliked Nabakov’s Humbert Humbert (from Lolita), but here we are.




Anyway, Alex gets caught by the authorities about a third of the way into the book, which is the first indication that something’s a bit hinky. In a traditional goodies-catch-the-baddie story, you’d expect him to get caught at the very end, after a bitching chase scene or something. In A Clockwork Orange, the actual story isn’t Alex’s crime(s), it’s his punishment.

The only bit of Burgess’ story that I didn’t quite buy was the politics of Alex and his “droogs” (translates roughly to “homies”, I think). Alex only gets caught because one of his droogs beats him with a bike chain and leaves him unable to escape from the cops, after an earlier leadership squabble. The cops don’t believe Alex’s bullshit story (about being led astray and lured into crime by a group of violent thugs), so he goes to prison. He gets by inside by cozying up to the prison chaplain and snitching (sometimes honestly, sometimes not) on his fellow inmates. His droogs inside end up dogging him too, blaming him for the death of a cellmate (when really they all got a few kicks in). He bitches about their hypocrisy and wails about their violent perversions, but doesn’t count himself among them. None of this seems like it would hold up in the real world of gangland violence. Snitches get stitches, after all, and a little bitch like Alex would be wearing concrete boots before long. It felt like maybe the only mechanism that Burgess had to drive Alex first into prison, and then into an experimental punishment/”cure”.

“In a sense, choosing to be deprived of the ability to make an ethical choice, you have in a sense really chosen the good.” – Prison Chaplain

Ah, yes, the punishment. As a psychology graduate (yes, I studied psych in a former life), it was both fascinating and (frankly) offensive to see old, basic concepts of behaviourism bastardised by a desperate government. Burgess called it the Ludovico technique – a form of aversion therapy, where the authorities injected Alex with nausea-inducing drugs while forcing him to watch violent films (the logical conclusion being that he becomes physically sickened at the thought of violence). In that sense, the book really takes aim behavioural psychology, but that’s just one thread of the ugly sweater vest. Is goodness still “good” if it’s not a choice? Given that we’re all exposed to persuasive powers on a daily basis, do any of us really still have “choices”? Is violence still violence when it is perpetrated by the State? Unraveling the philosophical questions raised by A Clockwork Orange would take a decade. For now, I’ll just get on with it, because thinking about all of this for too long really bums my flow.

Alex gets out, apparently “cured”, but finds himself homeless, rejected by his parents and looking for a way to end it all. He is attacked by a former victim, the police who rescue him turn out to be former droogs who just beat him further, and when he stops at a house to end it all – guess what – the resident is the husband of a former victim, too. Alex is really shit out of luck. It’s all very convenient, but at least the story moves quickly and there’s no bones about what Burgess is doing.

Alex ends up in the hands of a political group who are highly critical of the current government, and want to turn Alex into a symbol of police brutality. Facing a life as a cautionary tale puppet, and realising that his “cure” has also made listening to his beloved Beethoven unbearable, he figures now is as good a time as any to execute his suicide plan. He cocks it up, winding up in hospital only to find that he seems to have been “cured of the cure” in recovery. He can go back to a life of violence and orchestral music without enforced illness and revulsion. Lovely!

In the original American publication, the story ended here, but there’s actually a 21st chapter, which was included in my edition. I guess this true ending is “happy” in a sense – Alex decides to give up his life of violent crime to seek a wife and have a child. Only, he acknowledges that – try as he might to renounce his life of crime, he won’t be able to exert any control over his hypothetical son who will go on to fuck everything up the way that he did, and have a son who goes on to do the same. So everything’s fucked, and none of it will get any better, even if Alex redeems himself in a life of domesticity (so maybe not that “happy” after all). The book is arguably more realistic without this closing passage, and Kubrick famously refused to include it in his film adaptation.

A thought that struck me in the final chapters: is this what The Catcher In The Rye could have been, or tried to be? Funnily enough, A Clockwork Orange – undoubtedly more violent and confronting in basically every respect – didn’t face anywhere near the same level of censorship. Removal of the book from a handful of schools and libraries in the U.S. only happened after the release of the film, which was substantially more controversial. Really, it’s the ultimate case of literary one-upmanship; Burgess took the disaffected youth trope to its logical extreme, and forcefully confronted his readership in places that Salinger only gently poked.

I couldn’t possibly argue that A Clockwork Orange is an enjoyable read. I don’t think that I could bring myself to recommend that somebody read it, but simultaneously I wouldn’t discourage anyone from reading it either. My tl;dr summary would be that everyone is evil, there are no good guys, and everything sucks. If you can accept that reality with a heaping serve of extreme violence, then this might be the book for you.

My favourite Amazon reviews of A Clockwork Orange:

  • “…. If the book had been written using the King ‘s English, it certainly would not have been a candidate for the Book of the Month Club. However, as I read the last page, I felt as if I had stopped to eat at an ethnic restaurant in this ethnic neighborhood where I ordered my meal from a menu written completely in this bizarre language, but I knew precisely what I wanted to eat.” – Barbara Moore
  • “I cannot like this book. How did this become a classic? The gibberish throughout hurts me. I feel dumber just attempting to read this ‘book’. My feelings are the characters are stupid. They beat people up, smoke, and cause trouble all in a language that is not English. Not fun to read. Not engaging. Not anything worth recommending. If I wanted to read nonsense I would find Dr Seuss books, at least those make sense.” – Amazon Customer
  • “the negative actions depicted in this book are not a good thing… duh. that was tony’s point! ‘no good, no bad’ idiocy makes tony barf his other lung. take responsibility for yourselves!!! (read that again!) try shock therapy if you’re still watching sports on TV. help someone today!” – A customer

 

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Still Alice – Lisa Genova

You know what? We’ve been buried in the classics for a while – let’s jump forward to a contemporary New York Times bestseller. Still Alice by Lisa Genova was another great bargain bin find ($5!). I must say, the review excerpt from Australian Women’s Weekly on the cover was almost enough to give me pause, but I bit the bullet.

Still Alice - Lisa Genova - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Lisa Genova self-published Still Alice back in 2007. She had tried for years to get an agent or a publisher interested in the novel, but went on to have great success off the sweat of her own brow. It’s one of those Cinderella-publishing stories that struggling, neurotic writers hold close to their hearts late at night, when the demons come…

The language and rhythm of Still Alice was a big shift from Moby Dick, and it took me a minute to re-orient my dish. However, much like The Book Thief, despite the really heavy content the book is actually very digestible. I powered through it in less than 24 hours. I did notice as I sped through that some of the editing is a bit rubbish (which is unsurprising for self-published work), but I can still understand how it made the Dymocks 101. It isn’t a timeless classic, or a work of art, but it’s an interesting story rooted in heart-wrenching subject matter, and it’s told in a very engaging way.

Still Alice focuses on the onset of dementia, specifically Early Onset Alzheimer’s Disease. Alice (the protagonist, duh) begins experiencing symptoms, and the story follows her diagnosis and mental disintegration as the disease advances. I was initially kind of disappointed to find that it wasn’t written in the first person – I thought that would have been a really cool and interesting technique given the subject. I came to eat my words, though. The limited-third person narrator still captures Alice’s internal world, but that coupled with the objective perspective on her symptoms (we see her repeating herself in the dialogue, acting in ways that clearly demonstrate she’s forgotten what she’s supposed to be doing, etc.) is really jarring in an oddly delightful way.




Genova has worked really hard to give the reader a special-access pass behind the scenes of what is unfortunately a very familiar set of circumstances. She makes a point of privileging the perspective of the patient, rather than the caregiver. In subsequent interviews, Genova talked about this a lot; she notes, sadly, that almost all of our existing stories about dementia are caregiver-centric. Personally, one of my pet peeves is medical professionals and family members talking about a person with dementia as though they’re not in the room – so Genova’s focus on avoiding that really got me on side. As a result, Still Alice is honest and provoking, without being preachy.

It’s clear that Genova has Done A Lot Of Research, and she wants you to know it. She uses all the proper scientific words and everything. There’s a massive acknowledgements section (at the beginning of the book, no less, so you can’t overlook it) with the names of lots of doctors and scientists. But the family relationships are clearly the central focus on the story. We delve deeply into Alice’s terror on behalf of her children (the genetic mutation that caused her Alzheimer’s is genetic), and her ongoing difficulty managing her husband’s emotional reaction to her diagnosis, while simultaneously trying to navigate her early symptoms. Much is also made of Alice’s youth, which is a point of difference to other Alzheimer’s narratives; Alice is in her 50s, still working and running and living a full life, setting her far apart from the stereotype of an 80-something nursing home resident becoming more forgetful and clumsy.

I did have a bit of a teary moment towards the end, but not when you’d expect! Alice’s failure to execute her own suicide plan, and her inability to recognise her newly-born grandchildren, didn’t touch me in the slightest. It was her final student writing down his words of gratitude for her, so that she could re-read them every day when she inevitably forgot how much she meant to him, that got me in the end. Turns out I’m not made out of stone, who knew? 😉

I find it really hard to criticise Genova, and Still Alice: not because the book is so brilliant that it wouldn’t warrant criticism, but because basically every review out there hammers home the same perceived shortcomings. They talk about the limited access to the caregivers’ perspective, and the repetition of scenes – but I think it’s those same “shortcomings” that were the most valuable and deliberate parts of the book, they set it apart from others on this subject. If I’m being brutally honest, I’ll tell you again that the writing and editing isn’t great (it’s kind of a non-smutty 50 Shades of Grey style), but hell, it was Genova’s first go, and she did it all on her own without a publishing house dumping a truckload of money and resources on her doorstep. Given all of that, it’s a perfectly fine book.

I’m probably not going to read it again, but I might give it to my Mum or something, and I would definitely want to shake Genova’s hand if I ran into her in a cafe.

My favourite Amazon reviews of Still Alice:

  • “the story is an eye-opener about Alzheimer’s. Heartbreaking but revealing. My biggest complaint is it is fiction.” – Barbara
  • “I chose predictable because it wasnt a surprise I didn’t read it.” – Joey M
  • “The reason I hated the book is because I hated what happened to the person in the book. I realize that is not very mature, but I am the reader and in this instance, I will say what I like. I think what Alzheimer’s does to its victims stinks…” – Linda Layne
  • “dog ate before i could read” – kro

 

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Wild – Cheryl Strayed

For the first time since starting this project all those weeks ago, I’ve decided to go with a decidedly contemporary selection from The List. I’d been looking forward to reading Wild for a while, especially since listening to Cheryl Strayed’s appearance on Liz Gilbert’s podcast. I was well set, at this point, for a memoir about losing and finding oneself in trying times.

Wild - Cheryl Strayed - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Wild was published in 2012, a memoir about Strayed’s 1,100-mile hike on the Pacific Crest Trail, following the traumatic death of her young mother in the mid-90s. I knew all of that going in. What I didn’t know was how young Strayed was herself when all of this went down. I’d been picturing her as a late-30s suburban mother with a mortgage on a three-bedroomed house in the ‘burbs, abandoning it all to find herself. In reality, she was a mid-20s recent divorcee with a heroin habit and a pretty transient life, subsisting on the few dollars she could scrape together from waitressing jobs, and that’s where the story begins.

Strayed sets out on this grueling undertaking almost entirely unprepared; she had essentially no prior hiking experience, figuring – like we all do, I think – that hiking = walking, and what’s so hard about that? There are two stories that weave together across the memoir: her mother’s death (and we get all of the weren’t-we-so-poor-and-dysfunctional-but-we-loved-each-other-so-much backstory, gratis), and the at-times comical dire realities of a haphazard trek through the wilderness.

Strayed devotes a lot of air time to the heaviness of her pack and the weight that she’s carrying, which is a clumsy metaphor but it’s somehow forgivable. As I was reading, I noted that, as a novel, this story would be annoying and trite and cliché. Strayed’s story derives all of its value from being an actual lived experience. She is brutally honest, in every sense, relaying her self-awareness in a way that I deeply admire.




I must say, though, I wasn’t sold on the “beauty” of the wilderness in Wild – I’m not a country girl at all, and those descriptive passages sounded like my own personal hell. I’d much rather hike 1,100 miles in a concrete jungle CBD any day (and, indeed, I often do, when a water pipe bursts on Pitt Street and the bus timetable is fucked).

I was fully prepared to cry reading Wild, but I didn’t. It was good – it didn’t change me as a person, but it enjoyed reading it. It made me think a lot about survival and determination. Getting by. Sometimes you’re under-prepared and things go wrong (you lose a hiking boot, you find yourself with just two pennies to your name, you run into a bear), but you cop onto yourself and you keep going anyway. For a time, it became a sort of mantra for me: “if Cheryl Strayed can hike a million miles in too-small boots that are giving her blisters, then I can walk home in the rain”. Having a dream isn’t enough, after all: you have to actually do the thing.

There was a film adaptation released in 2014, which I’d love to see – not because I think it make a great movie, necessarily, but more because I’m curious as to how a book about a mostly-solo hike, driven entirely by internal monologue, could be adapted for the big screen.

Tl;dr? Wild is Eat, Pray, Love meets Survivor. I would recommended it to mid-20s fuck-ups like me, who don’t mind clumsy metaphors.

My favourite Amazon reviews of Wild:

  • “I haven’t actually read it – the one star is for Amazon charging 9.99 for Kindle (paperless) and 8.35 for paper – basically incentivizing cutting down trees to read their books. Bad form Jeff, very bad form” – R1952
  • “… the author seems to be the typical liberal feminist – no recognition of the greatness of God, everything should be handed to her, everything is centered around her and her feelings. Especially her feeling – feelings to her are the most important aspect of her life. Bottom line – do not waste your time reading this book unless you are a flaming liberal. Than you will probably love it.” – Seventh Son
  • “I did not appreciate the use of the f- word. Especially in a prayer.” – Janice Wester

 

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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!

The Book Thief - Markus Zusak - Keeping Up With The Penguins

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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My Brilliant Career – Miles Franklin

I chose a considerably shorter and more recent local novel for my fourth Keeping Up With The Penguins read (I was gun-shy after the mammoth undertaking that was Vanity Fair). I was sure that My Brilliant Career would be knocked on the head far more easily, and I was right (as always).

My Brilliant Career - Miles Franklin - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Published in 1901, My Brilliant Career was written mostly for the enjoyment of Franklin’s friends – until she took a punt and sent it to Aussie literary giant Henry Lawson. He took such a fancy to the story that he added his own preface and forwarded it on to his publishers. That preface itself is notable in that he famously refused to comment on the “girlishly emotional” parts of the book – I mean, I think the story would have been hella boring without them, but I would think that, being an emotional girl and all… Anyway, Franklin ultimately withdrew it from publication until after her death. Apparently it bore just a little too much resemblance to her real life, and the ignorant bush peasants took offence to being described as such (can’t imagine why).

So, a 16-year-old girl living in the bush writes a story about a 16-year-old girl and the trials and tribulations of living in the bush: shocker. The opening chapters could be summarised as “I have no time for romance, and this book is all about me, so strap in, fuckers!”. Franklin captures the mind of a teenaged girl (Sybylla) perfectly, but that’s really no significant achievement, seeing as she was one at the time of writing.




Teenaged me would have hated this book. I would have found it condescending, and rolled my eyes at the well-meaning adult who handed it over saying they thought it would give me “perspective”. The thing is, angsty teenagers will automatically reject any intrusion on their belief that they are uniquely misunderstood little snowflakes, and Franklin’s book demonstrates pretty clearly that angsty teenagers are all the same and haven’t changed much over the last 100+ years. My Brilliant Career is full of dramatic hand-wringing and tear-soaked pillows and teenage strops. I’m actually kind of surprised I never had to read it in school; it seems right up the alley of an English teacher trying to provide “relatable content” on “teen issues” (à la The Breakfast Club, which we watched approximately four hundred and seventy two times).

Even though My Brilliant Career is determinedly not romantic, there’s a lot of flirting and teenage girl wish-fulfillment. Beecham, the primary love interest, is nice enough to be flattering without being creepy or boring, he doesn’t put up with Sybylla’s shit (but in a flirtatious way, not a main way), he’s persistent and charming despite falling on hard times, and he wants to marry her even though she’s ugly. Can you imagine? There are no truly dirty bits, but plenty of impassioned exchanges and a random BDSM scene where Sybylla goes all weak in the knees over bruises and horse whips. Never fear, there’s no sentimentality in the ending at all: Sybylla ultimately chooses a “brilliant career” over marriage, and ends up with neither. Franklin reportedly suggested the title as “My Brilliant(?) Career”, which is laughably more pat, but the publishers vetoed it.

“At the time of my departure for Caddagat my father had been negotiating with beer regarding the sale of his manhood; on returning I found that he had completed the bargain, and held a stamped receipt in his miserable appearance and demeanour.”

– Sybylla, My Brilliant Career (oh, snap!)

The main highlights of My Brilliant Career are the language and Franklin’s turn of phrase, which often made me think of my grandmother (makes sense, given the shared time period and geography). On the whole, though, I found writing this review a little tricky, as I didn’t develop a strong feeling about the book one way or another. It’s okay. I probably won’t read it again, but I wouldn’t tell anyone else that they shouldn’t bother. Just avoid giving it to your 16-year-old daughter: she’ll hate you for it and go back to looking at memes on Tumblr.

My favourite Amazon reviews of My Brilliant Career:

  • “… I understand that at 16 we are all fairly self-absorbed although hopefully not quite so nasty. Nevertheless, while I can appreciate the beautiful writing I really got to the point where I was waiting for someone to take Sybylla over their knee and give her a corporal lesson in manners…” – Sharon Wilfong

 

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The Hunger Games – Suzanne Collins

And here we are! If you’re new to Keeping Up With The Penguins, you might need to check out the About page to work out… well, what this is all about.

This is the first cab off the rank, the book that finally got me using my commute for something other than reading work emails and tagging friends in memes on Facebook. I started with The Hunger Games simply because I already owned it; a few years ago, I picked up at a Big W for the princely sum of $2.37… and then never looked at it again. Until now.

The Hunger Games - Suzanne Collins - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Released in 2008, The Hunger Games is a New York Times bestseller, and the first in a trilogy of young adult dystopian novels (it’s definitely the only book to which that sentence could ever apply, right?). Also, I don’t know if you’ve heard, but they made a few movies out of it.

To summarise the plot and get that out of the way quickly, in a post-apocalyptic North America, a wealthy evil dictator makes each of the poverty-stricken districts surrounding a luxe capital supply a boy and girl once a year to fight to the death in a reality TV show. Winners get spoils and riches (like food, and not-dying). The social commentary is probably a revelation to the teenaged target market, and has already been discussed at length elsewhere I’m sure (in many a high school book report, at least).

The Hunger Games - President Trump Can't Do That, Can He? - Keeping Up With The Penguins

It’s no great shock that Collins is cited as saying that modern reality television served as a source of inspiration (clearly referring to The Bachelor). She recounts an almost-too-good-to-be-true story of channel surfing and flicking between scenes of people competing for a prize, and footage of the Iraq war. It’s not the most believable origin story (J.K. Rowling had the idea for Harry Potter while staring out the window of a delayed train and watching cows in a field, after all), but it’s nice and neat, isn’t it?

The story begins with the narrator – Katniss, the very-average-teen-girl-who-is-very-obviously-going-to-have-greatness-thrust-upon-her – insisting that “there’s nothing romantic between her and Gale”. Ergo, there’s definitely going to be something romantic between her and Gale before the credits roll. Sure enough, by page 453, it’s all “I can’t explain how things are with Gale, because I don’t know myself”. HA!




As it goes on, I literally laughed out loud on several occasions at the characters’ nonchalant descriptions of rather graphic violence. I’m kicking myself for not writing down an example (and too lazy to go back searching for one), but it’d be something to the effect of: “Oh, that guy? Yeah, the other guy beat his head in with a shovel, so he’s no problem *shrugs*”. I know it’s a comment on our culture’s desensitisation to brutality (particularly that inflicted on or by people of colour), and how it’s all perpetuated by the 24-hour news cycle… but it was also really funny. Other highlights included the narrator’s repeated descriptions of delicious lamb stew on rice, which were enough to trigger an intense craving for Indian food in this reader.

The story ends on a glorious cliffhanger – which, in the age of dime-a-dozen young adult trilogies, we all know means $$$. I can just imagine Collins putting an early draft – with a more resolute ending – on her editor’s desk, and getting an immediate “nuh-uh”. The Hunger Games would have stood perfectly well on its own, with a few tweaks in the final pages, but who cares about “perfectly well” when there’s a goldmine to be dug in the pockets of millennials?

My impressions of the book were definitely coloured by the film – and, in an unexpected plot twist, I actually thought the film was better. It was somehow more complex, perhaps because the viewers weren’t exposed to the keep-it-simple-stupid train of thought of a teenage girl narrator. The film had a subtlety that you just can’t get when the protagonist is spoon-feeding to you her every supposition.

On the whole, I think I enjoyed it, in a way that makes me sound (and feel!) like a condescending arsehole. I had a few chuckles. I didn’t get lost or confused (though the plot did randomly accelerate in places). It was light enough to ease me into this whole project without making me regret the idea entirely. I probably wouldn’t read The Hunger Games again, but I’d happily give my copy to a 13-year-old cousin who needed something to do on her Christmas holidays.

My favourite Amazon reviews of The Hunger Games:

  • “Loved the book, but it is dumb to make me review with minimum amount of words. Sometimes there just isn’t much more that needs to be said.” – Gretchen B. Hitchcock
  • “Just not my kinda book my daughter got it” – Carol Paulen
  • “I read the whole thing” – Teo

 

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