Keeping Up With The Penguins

Reviews For The Would-Be Booklover

Category: Recommended

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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In Cold Blood – Truman Capote

OK, folks, let’s jump forward a century or so. My next Keeping Up With The Penguins undertaking was Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, published in 1966 – the first “novelistic true crime book”… probably.

In Cold Blood - Truman Capote - Keeping Up With The Penguins

No one could ever accuse Capote of not putting in the hours: the masochist spent six years researching and interviewing and generally sticking his nose where it didn’t belong, taking literally 8,000 pages of notes, before finally sitting down to write In Cold Blood. Yeah, it’s one of the highest-selling true crime books in the history of publishing, and yeah, it’s bloody brilliant – but still. What an overachiever.

(His hard work didn’t exactly pay off as far as he was concerned. Despite an absolute avalanche of critical acclaim, Capote was reportedly hugely bummed that it never won a Pulitzer. He was desperate to top his buddy Harper Lee, who won the Pulitzer for To Kill A Mockingbird. Male egos, I tell ya!)

So, here’s the deal: Capote reads a piddly piece in The New Yorker about a well-liked Kansas family getting merked in this weirdly motiveless and clueless crime. He figures that’s a good enough basis on which to pack up and ship off to a country town you’ve never heard of – dragging Harper Lee with him, no less! – and figure out what the fuck went down.




He sets the story up in a really eerie way, with super-intimate descriptions of the lives of both the victims and the perps. You learn everything about their love lives and their pets and their phobias and how often they change their underpants. The story’s not a “whodunit” per se, in the sense that you know who dun it right from the outset – he weaves the stories of the killers and the victims together, and tells them side-by-side. You also kinda figure that the bad guys must get caught eventually (because it says so on the back of the book). I guess it’s more a “whydunit” (I call the trademark on that): why this family? How did they become the targets? What did the killers get out of it? Was it worth six lives?

You’d think the arrest would be the climax, but that comes in out of the blue only two-thirds of the way in. You get to watch the bad guys suffer through the prisoner’s dilemma, and finally divulge all of the gory details (tl;dr summary: they rocked up expecting to find a safe with ten grand inside, got pissed off when they couldn’t find it, argued about whether to rape the daughter, then neutralised all the witnesses by blowing their faces off with a shotgun, they scored about forty bucks for their trouble). Capote follows their imprisonment, their trial, their endless appeals and – ultimately – their executions.

You’ll really get out what you put in with In Cold Blood. It can be read as a conservative defence of capital punishment (taking the bad guys’ eyes, just like Jesus would do), or as a scathing leftie indictment of the U.S. incarceration system (every single criminal character is a recidivist of some sort, having left jail only to return a short time later). In that regard, it’s really artfully done. Unsurprisingly, though, you do kinda have to take off your journalistic-integrity hat. It doesn’t read anything like a non-fiction book: it reads as a novel. So, inevitably, there are endless questions as to its veracity, and I don’t think there can be any doubt that Capote was pretty liberal with the ol’ creative license.

I would wholeheartedly recommend In Cold Blood (as long as you’re not a kill-joy that takes things too seriously and gets mad when Capote takes some liberties with the truth). I’ll definitely read it again. Chilling, but fascinating!

My favourite Amazon reviews of In Cold Blood:

  • “It was a cold dud.” – Old Crow
  • “If you’ve already read it, you know how good it is. If you haven’t, I hate you for still getting to read it for the first time.” – Clint Pross
  • “Despite the fact that I bought this on the recommendation of a stupid jerk who acted like I hung the moon until one day he suddenly broke up with me the day after I’d been awake all night in the ER with a sick kid… OVER THE PHONE, NO LESS… WTF?!… it’s a really good book. You can’t blame Capote that there are terrible humans in the world, even if he did write about them really well. Maybe my boyfriend recommending a book about a gruesome family execution should have tipped me off. I dunno. You live, you learn. But yeah, good book.” – Jess

 

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David Copperfield – Charles Dickens

Who would have thought this day would come so soon? Here it is, folks: my first wholehearted unreservedly Recommended novel from The List. It’s David Copperfield, from the master himself Charles Dickens.

David Copperfield - Charles Dickens - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Honestly, though, it was kind of a stacked deck: not just because Dickens is the Grand Poobah of English literature, but also because – for me – he’s inextricably linked to the memory of my late grandfather, who idolised Dickens and practically memorised every word he wrote. Clearly, I was genetically predisposed. This gorgeous two-volume set was plucked from his collection, and I’m sure he would have been damn proud that I finally got around to reading it.

David Copperfield appeared first in a twenty-month serial from 1849 to 1850, before being published as a novel (and, after the mess that was Vanity Fair, that alone was almost enough to put me off). The Introduction didn’t inspire much optimism, either: it was written by J.B. Priestly (who didn’t seem to be all that big a fan, to be honest), and he kindly pointed out that Dickens employed severe Victorian censorship on all sexual matters (booo!).

Priestly can suck it, though, because Dickens is a fucking God. I get it now. David Copperfield is a long book, don’t get me wrong, but I fucking devoured the thing like a drunk woman eating a kebab. Every word is purposeful, every character is a delectable caricature, every element of the story is consistent and compelling, and every emotion beautifully captured and rendered. Priestly hung a lot of shit on Dickens for what he called “supermarket” writing: novels were the primary source of family entertainment at the time (the Netflix of Victorian England, really), so Dickens had to write about politics for the fathers and adventures for the sons and romance for the mothers and daughters. It’s precisely this chuck-a-bit-of-everything style that makes this such an incredible book.




The story of David Copperfield begins with his birth, to a rather mopey young widow, and his early years being raised by her and her housekeeper. His mother remarries early on, but his New Daddy is an abusive son of a bitch; Dave is promptly sent off to a prison disguised as a boarding school. The kid meets some good chaps there, but it all-around sucks, and even his exodus is a bit of a bummer as it comes on account of his mother’s untimely stress-related death. New Daddy fires the nice housekeeper and sends Dave off to work in a wine factory (I didn’t think that bit sounded so bad, but the kid really hated it). Things get increasingly shit for young Dave, with starvation and his landlord going to prison and everything, so he takes it into his head to run away to find his rich old aunt.

Then things start looking up: he finds Aunt Betsey, she takes him in and sets him up for life. She is undoubtedly the baddest bitch in this story, and I adored her. She has no hesitation in telling people to fuck right off when they stick their noses in, and she protects and cherishes this charming old guy Mr Dick (the bloke’s a few sandwiches short of a picnic, but Betsey makes damn sure no one is shipping him off to a home). Betsey sets Dave up in a school without daily beating or torture (fancy!), and sponsors his gap-year to travel and “find himself”.

Dave finally settles down into a respectable profession, and promptly falls in love with his boss’ daughter. She’s a basic bitch in the extreme, but Dave doesn’t seem to notice, and he finally gets to marry her after her father croaks – only, she’s not that great at wifeing, and she dies pretty soon herself. Dave’s mates get into all sorts of trouble with money and politics and love, and there’s some unpleasant business with women falling from grace and turning to lives of prostitution and such – all of the characters weave in and out of Dave’s life, and yet are described so richly and have such entertaining development that you never once lose track of who they are or what they’re about.

In the end, a bunch of his mates ship off to Australia to start over, another bunch of them die (that’s how you can tell the story’s wrapping up – a device I’m noticing is rather common in 19th century literature), and Dave marries the girl who’s secretly pined after him all his life. He becomes a successful writer and spawns a bunch of kids, the good guys live happily ever after, and the bad guys go to prison. It’s fucking great!

My favourite thing about Dickens, though, is that I never once felt like I was missing the point – which is the feeling I get with basically every classic book or poem I read. Dickens was never condescending, and yet his writing never went over my head (despite the 150-year time lapse). I didn’t even roll my eyes that much at the privileged white guy writing about privileged white guys: there was a whole lot less sexism than I expected, and most of the female characters were strong and sassy and ran circles around a lot of the ones written today (hats off to Aunt Betsey!). Of course, there’s a whole stack of issues with lack of representation in this kind of literature, and I’m not blind to that… but it didn’t stop me really fucking loving this book.

Dickens said that David Copperfield was his “favourite child” and I can see why. This has been the best outcome of The List so far, and even if I were to stop right here (which I won’t), I’d be coming out ahead. I strongly recommend David Copperfield to anyone who likes… books. (And, even if you don’t, I hear the audio-book version is excellent, so give that a crack.)

My favourite Amazon reviews of David Copperfield:

  • “Smartly written trash, no doubt – but trash nonetheless. About 1 million words of it!” – Alex Kane
  • “Charles Dickinson is a timeless writer” – thimble19
  • “Charles Dickens won’t read this so it doesn’t matter what I say…” – Katie Barnes

 

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