Keeping Up With The Penguins

Reviews For The Would-Be Booklover

Category: Popular Fiction

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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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.

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves - Karen Joy Fowler - Keeping Up With The Penguins

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. I could have easily stayed up ’til sunrise to finish it in a single sitting. 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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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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