Keeping Up With The Penguins

Reviews For The Would-Be Booklover

Category: Satire

Money: A Suicide Note – Martin Amis

Remember The Catcher In The Rye? Well, Money: A Suicide Note is basically the grown up’s version. If you like your narrators drunk, rich, and horny, then this is the book for you! Amis reportedly based the book on his experiences as a scriptwriter on the film Saturn 3 (remember that classic?). If this is really what the script-writing life is like, then half the residents of Los Angeles could surely give The Wolf of Wall Street a run for his money.

Money: A Suicide Note follows the story of John Self, a successful ad director who lives for fast food, hard liquor, and hot women. Self travels back and forth between London and New York, trying to get his first feature film project off the ground. Now, Amis very deliberately subverts the tropes of the “Englishman abroad” story; for once, a Brit goes across the Atlantic and isn’t horrified by all Americans. Self actually fits right in.

For the first two thirds of the book, there’s not really much plot – Self just eats and drinks to excess, meets with film stars, and makes rape jokes. (Oh, yeah, you’d better be willing to stomach a barrel of satirical misogyny if you’re going to take this one on.) It’s kind of like a day trip into the mind of Harvey Weinstein.

Self also has a stalker, who calls and bitches him out over the phone whenever he’s in New York. Self calls him “Frank The Phone”. When the plot finally emerges, it builds to a big showdown between the two of them, and that’s when shit really starts to unravel. It turns out that “Frank” is actually Fielding Goodney, his film’s producer. (I was kind of disappointed by that particular plot twist – I thought there would be a Fight Club-esque reveal where the stalker turned out to be a figment of Self’s psychosis.) Not only has Goodney been harassing Self, but the whole film project turns out to be a sham – not only does Self lose every penny he invested, he also loses everything he has (and then some) because Goodney convinced him to personally underwrite all debts and losses. Sucks to be him, eh?




There’s also a weird wife-swapping love story that weaves in and out. Self has a girlfriend in London (Selina) who hits him up for cash every chance she gets. Around the same time that his career falls apart, he finds out that she is pregnant to one of his business associates. Self isn’t all that shook up by it though, because (funnily enough) he has a thing for that very business associate’s wife. It looks, for a minute, like Money: A Suicide Note might have a “happily ever after” 9well, as happy you can get when a nice-enough woman, burned by an unfaithful husband, gets together with a hedonistic slob)… but Selina pulls off a crazy scheme to break them up. So, in the end, Self is broke, alone, and – oh yeah – he finds out that his dad isn’t his dad, and his car breaks down. It’s a rough time all around.

Don’t go feeling too sorry for him: Self is anything but pitiable. He worships at the altar of money and self-indulgence. He’s a consumerist, in every sense of the world – food, booze, drugs, and women – and his appetite is insatiable. It’s all a very clever metaphor, of course, for 20th century capitalism and greed, but Self is so grotesque that sometimes you forget that Amis is being ironic. Really, Self’s only redeeming quality as a narrator is that he’s quite funny.

“But that’s the whole trouble with dignity and self-respect: they cost you so much fucking money.”

– John Self

Yes, Money: A Suicide Note is endlessly quotable, and Self’s narration is full of gems. Just about every sentence could appear on the bottom of a demotivational poster. In fact, I took the liberty of mocking up a couple…

Erections - Demotivational Poster - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Addictions - Demotivational Poster - Keeping Up With The Penguins

And another fun little quirk of the story: Amis randomly introduces himself as a character! On Page 71:

“I once shouted across the street, and gave him a V-sign and a warning fist. He stood his ground, and stared. This writer’s name, they tell me, is Martin Amis. Never heard of him. Do you know his stuff at all?”

It threw me a little at first, but it was certainly something fun and different. Amis (the character) ends up being a kind of confidant to Self. Self mocks him for “living like a student” (seemingly under the impression that writers get paid big bucks, ha!), but he begrudgingly respects him. Amis tries to warn Self about his self-destructive behaviour, but of course Self doesn’t listen. It was a nifty little narrative technique that I haven’t seen before, so props to (real-life) Amis for that one!


On the whole, Money: A Suicide Note seems a bit dated. It’s very anchored in the 1980s, when pornography was “widely accessible” on VHS (the notion of pornography “addiction” in a time when you had to leave your house to purchase it in hard-copy seems kind of quaint, now, doesn’t it?). If we were try to transplant Money: A Suicide Note into today’s world, the story wouldn’t work – Self would just stare at his phone the whole time, and have UberEats delivered every hour on the hour. Still, if you liked Lolita for Humbert Humbert (but aren’t too hung up on the “beauty” of your prose), you’ll probably enjoy Money. If nothing else, the book is great for a few laughs – thank goodness the humour carries over!

My favourite Amazon reviews of Money: A Suicide Note:

  • “I got this book on a recommendation from an adult film director who named himself after one of the characters. I found it repetitive.” – nestor bloodyvessel
  • “For the most part, I believe drunks like John Self in this novel, crazy people like the Australian pianist in the movie who’s name I can’t remember, and blow-hards like Citizen Kane don’t make interesting protagonists.It takes a Dickens to create works of art based on characters whose mental life seems so circumscribed and repetitive.” – Charles Dickens Dave
  • “I wouldn’t even give it one star. The best word I can find to describe this book is cheesey. It’s about as compelling as a car wreck. I’m wondering how to get rid of it. I can’t recommend it to a friend. It’s not even amusing, just dumb and kind of annoying, especially a few pages before 78, when the narrator mentions the author, Martin Amis, by name as someone whose stalking him. Just dumb.” – A customer

 

Emma – Jane Austen

Chris Kyle filled up my tolerance bucket to overflowing. By the time I was done with American Sniper, I was desperate to get back to literature that didn’t offend every moral fiber of my being. In my hour of need, I turned to one of the most recognisable female writers of the English language. My sum total experience of Austen beforehand was six aborted attempts to read Pride and Prejudice, and falling asleep during the Keira Knightley film adaptation. I know I’ll have to get around to reading that particular masterpiece eventually (it’s also on The List), but baby steps are the name of the game. So, I decided to start with Emma.

Emma was the last of Austen’s six novels to be completed, after the publication of Pride and Prejudice. A London publisher offered her £450 for the manuscript, and asked for the copyright for Mansfield Park and Sense and Sensibility thrown into the bargain. She told him to get stuffed, and in 1815 published two thousand copies at her own expense. She retained all of the copyright, and (more importantly) all of the bragging rights. Slay, Austen, slay!

Before she began writing Emma, Austen wrote to a friend: “I am going to take a heroine whom no one but myself will much like”. From what I can tell, later critics didn’t dislike Emma as much as they simply acknowledged that she was a flawed character (the horror!). The book isn’t even really about her, per se; Emma is actually a satirical novel about manners, hubris, and the perils of misconstrued romance, exploring the lives of genteel women in the early 19th century and issues of marriage, gender, age, and social status. But all I knew about it before I started reading was that it was the basis of the movie Clueless.

Clueless - You're a virgin who can't drive - Emma - Jane Austen - Keeping Up With The Penguins

So, the central character, Emma Woodhouse (“handsome, clever, and rich”), fancies herself to be quite the matchmaker in her small English village. She’s wealthy enough to get by without a husband of her own, but she takes great pleasure in meddling with other people’s love lives. What else was a girl to do before Tinder? Her pet project is Harriet Smith, an unsophisticated, illegitimate seventeen-year-old girl whose only prospect for social advancement is a good matrimonial match. Now, you can look past this pretty weak and flimsy plot to read Emma as a searing class commentary on the right of the elite to dominate society… but, if that’s not your thing, you should know right now: Emma is basically The Book Where Nothing Happens.

I mean it: nothing really happens. Every scene is a visit or a party where bored rich men and women gossip about who will marry whom. Emma tries to set Harriet up with everyone, but they all fall in love with Emma (or her dowry) instead – boohoo. There’s a lot of whining about rich white-girl problems. Now and then, there’s a dramatic declaration of love or a rejected proposal to keep the wheel turning, but otherwise it’s all pretty bland. Most of the story is told through the gossip of the town of Highbury, kind of like the original Gossip Girl.




 

The most interesting and likeable character in Emma was the uncouth Mrs Elton. Mrs Elton has fat stacks of cash, but lacks the manners and social graces that are expected of her in “polite society”. She commits social suicide almost immediately, calling people by their first names (gasp!) and boasting about her family’s wealth (can you imagine?). Emma describes her as “self-important, presuming, familiar, ignorant, and ill-bred”, but I liked her. She was a whole lot more fun than the rest of them put together. Picture an old-timey Kath & Kim character mixing with the upper crust: hilarious! It is Mrs Elton’s lack of social grace that reveals the hypocrisy and the ridiculousness of the gentility. Good on her, I say!

Things start to heat up a bit plot-wise towards the end (in relative terms, anyway): people get sick, peripheral characters die, there’s arguments between friends, and the very-predictable love triangle comes to a head. There’s a happy ending (i.e., everyone gets married), which pretty much makes it a 19th century beach read.


Emma isn’t a horrible book, and I didn’t hate it. Indeed, it’s quite clever and charming, in its own way. There’s some really funny bits, there’s some interesting class and gender commentary… but the pacing is positively glacial, and (as I said before) nothing happens. In terms of this particular edition, the introduction was fine, but the footnotes were absolutely taking the piss. No kidding, there is a footnote providing the definition of “carriage”, but nothing for the word “valetudinarian” (I had to Google it, it means “a person who is unduly anxious about their health”, just so you know). I gave up on the notes a few chapters in, they just weren’t adding much to my reading experience.

My tl;dr summary of Emma would be this: if you get your jollies dissecting the idiosyncrasies of high society in early 19th century England, and don’t mind falling asleep now and then while you’re reading, Emma will make your day. If you’re chasing action and intrigue and shock-twist endings, you might want to give this one a miss. Fingers crossed Pride and Prejudice will give me a bit more to chew on…

My favourite Amazon reviews of Emma:

  • “Boring, BORING, B O R I N G!” – Cliffgypsy
  • “too many similarities between this book and the much better Alicia Silverstone movie Clueless for me to recommend it to everyone but all in all if you like your teen comedies set in Victorian england and not LA, go for it. Grab it before Hollywood discovers the similarities and gets it yanked off the shelf with a court order. Maybe Austen can write her next one based on the plot of Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure. Set it in South Africa during the Boar war or something” – Walter Rice
  • “Tedious and slow. Too much angst and upstanding-ness.” – Iaswa
  • “Normally, “women’s fiction,” focusing on relationships and family, doesn’t interest me much, but Austen writes so well I was able to read all the way through. That emma, what an interfering know-it-all, but the harm is not irreparable.” – Marie Brack

 

Catch-22 – Joseph Heller

It was quite some time ago now that I picked up a perfectly-preserved copy of Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 from that ever-giving local secondhand bookstore. I know at least one very loyal reader is very excited for this particular review; he’s a former colleague, and for years we shared an in-joke that we would buy a copy of Heller’s seminal work as a Secret Santa gift for a woman on our team who would constantly refer to difficult circumstances as “Catch-42s”. Yes, we’re horrible, petty people, but in our defense it was really, really funny.

Joseph Heller began working on Catch-22 in spare moments at his day job in 1953. The sonofabitch book took eight years to complete, finally published in 1961. Heller died 30 years later. He was the poster child for the uber-precious 20th century white male author, if his introduction is anything to go by. To summarise, he looked back on his masterpiece shortly before his death, stomped his foot, and whined “it didn’t win ANY awards or get on ANY bestseller lists, even though my publisher made some smart people read it and THEY said it was really good! HMPH!“. He was more than a little bitter about the reviews that were less than glowing, even though the book is largely lauded as one of the greatest satirical works of all time. There’s just no pleasing some people…

Catch-22 is set during WWII, between 1942 and 1944. The main character is a bombadier; Heller was also a bombadier during that very period, so apparently he took the whole “write what you know” thing pretty literally. The story follows the life of Captain Yossarian and others in his squadron. They’re all just trying to fulfill or circumvent the requirements of their deployment so they can get the fuck out of Dodge.

I would think that the main reason to pick this one up today is to figure out for yourself the origins of the cultural shorthand “a catch-22”. Luckily, I’m here to save you all the trouble! It’s essentially a plot device: a Catch-22 initially refers to the paradoxical requirement that men who are mentally unfit to fly planes in the war effort did not have to do so, but to claim that you were mentally unfit and did not want to fly made you demonstrably sane (ergo, fit to fly). So, you can’t win either way, it’s a catch-22. Geddit? In the story, Yossarian has a few stabs at getting the squadron’s doctor to declare him mentally unfit (so that he could go home without having to fly any more missions), but he’s stymied at every turn by Catch-22. This “catch” is invoked a lot as the book goes on, with broader and broader applications, until it becomes an explanation for virtually all unreasonable restrictions encountered by the cast of characters.




The ultimate catch, as Yossarian figures out towards the end, is that Catch-22 doesn’t actually exist, except that everyone simply believes that it does – as such, it can never be repealed, undone, overthrown, or denounced. It’s pretty clever, if you ask me. A “catch-22” is now, of course, understood to mean any type of double-bind or absurd no-win situation, but I’d imagine that only a really small percentage of those who use the phrase have actually read the book. (It’s Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde all over again!)

Catch-22 reads like a satirical memoir in that it’s a series of anecdotes cobbled together to showcase the ridiculousness of war and bureaucracy. In a lot of respects, though, it’s all over the shop; as the introduction puts it, the novel has a “distinctive non-chronological third-person omniscient narration”. Basically, the reader has to figure out for themselves what’s going on and where things are at, because it jumps around like a coked-up rabbit.

The first couple hundred pages are really funny. I don’t think you need to have had exposure to military life to appreciate the comedy – really, any experience in bureaucracy will do. It’s a lot like watching any satirical TV show; there’s a cast of exaggerated characters and maybe a thread or two tying things together, but no real cohesive plot.


Even though Heller was pissed off about its critical reception and sales, Catch-22 actually did quite well. It became particularly popular among teenagers in the 1960s, as a kind of manifesto embodying the feelings they had about the Vietnam War. Indeed, “Yossarian Lives!” became an anti-war slogan at the time, and there was a joke about every liberal arts student arriving at university with a copy of Catch-22 under their arm. So, really, Heller needed to calm down – he captured the youth market at a very turbulent time and coined a phrase used by English speakers every day to describe the universal frustration brought on by dealing with bureaucracy in all its forms. Bloody neurotic writers, they wouldn’t know success if it bit them on the arse…

Like I said, Catch-22 is really funny… for the first couple hundred pages. Past that point, it starts to wear a bit thin. I know Heller was probably Making A Point with all the circular reasoning and repetition, but the point was well-made pretty early on. The second half of the book started to get really predictable (read: boring), and then it nosedived at the end into some really dark realities of war. I recommend that reading some of the funniest excepts online is the best way to go, rather than sinking your teeth into the whole thing (Heller’s neurotic tantrums be damned).

My favourite Amazon reviews of Catch-22:

  • “Worth buy.” – Sarah
  • “Great opening but then the story becomes more and more predictable and boring as the characters develop. The jokes for some reason don’t captivate my soul.” – lolly
  • “It’s a great book. I hate it!” – Cullen Forster
  • “First published in 1961, this scathing satire of nincompoops in the Air Force works today about nincompoops everywhere else.” – Gale H. Weir
  • “I’m in the Army.” – Daniel Dobson
  • “Other than the bible, this is one of my favourite books!” – Mr Paul

 

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Vanity Fair – William Makepeace Thackeray

My third undertaking for Keeping Up With The Penguins took the longest so far, and by a long way: trust me when I say that Vanity Fair by William Makepeace Thackeray is one hell of a trudge.

Vanity Fair is “a novel without a hero”, set during the Napoleonic wars. It was originally published as a 19-volume serial, from 1847 to 1848 – and boy, does it show. The title is a reference to John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress: a never-ending fair in a town called Vanity, representing man’s sinful attachment to worldly things (see: old-timey Instagram). The blurb on the back promised a “scandalous tale of murder, wealth and social climbing”, which was a relief after the giant whingeing bummer that was The Scarlet Letter… at first.

See, here’s the thing: the first couple hundred pages were amazing. I was laughing out loud, interrupting my husband cooking dinner to read him passages, delighting in the strong, sassy women holding their own among the vain, sooky fuck-boys of the 19th century. Things started to get a bit bleak once the Battle of Waterloo kicked off (I mean, I get bored during fight scenes in movies, let alone reading about military events) – but at least, 400 pages in, things were still happening…

But by the 600th page, things had become frightfully dull. There were endless character sketches of folks beyond even the periphery of the plot. Thackeray treated us to lengthy (and I mean lengthy) descriptions of people’s living quarters. It’s abundantly clear, by that point, that Vanity Fair wasn’t written as a novel, and Thackeray just wanted to keep getting paid for his serial, even after all the action had passed. Indeed, I found out later that he had only written the first three volumes in advance – the rest he came up with on the fly. It’s like reading an essay where the student has made their point and just needs to pad out the word count.

When you just need to hit that word count - Very Young Small Early Peas - Vanity Fair - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Let me save you a bit of time. Vanity Fair opens in some kind of finishing school for girls, and – having lived in an all-girl dormitory at boarding school myself – I can attest that not much is different from present day. The story centers on two female characters: Rebecca Sharp and Amelia Sedley. Becky was my favourite from the outset: she had “no soft maternal heart”, all of the bitches were jealous of her, and she basically ran around the whole book sorting her husband’s shit out, teasing the fellas and ignoring her kid. She flirts her way into high society, and cons sugar-daddies into paying her debts without ever taking her clothes off. That’s the kind of anti-hero I can get behind!

Amelia, on the other hand, is the polar opposite: a whiney goody-two-shoes who really could have done with a copy of He’s Just Not That Into You. She gets hung up on a dude who condescends to marry her even though her Dad’s poor (what a guy!). Then he trots off and gets himself killed in battle, so it’s back to square one. Amelia mopes around after him for years, keeping his best mate Captain Dobbin shackled to the wall of the “Friend Zone”. Eventually, Dobbin sacks up and tells her off for pining over the ghost of a guy (who had shagged her best friend anyway). She capitulates and marries Dobbin in the end, and they go on to live a life of boredom.


The end of Becky’s narrative arc was far more fun. Her husband abandons her; he tried to have her and her chief sugar-daddy merked, but the sugar daddy came through with a plum job for him on a far-away island, so hubby figures that’s just as good and gets the fuck outta Dodge before Becky can cock up anything else. Becky falls into a life of prostitution and gambling, eventually snagging Amelia’s brother for Husband No. 2, only to top him and run away with the life insurance money. She lives far more happily ever after than the rest of them.

So, with all that, the story does perk up a bit towards the end, but it was well past the point where I was desperate for some murder or adultery to stay awake. At least crappy TV shows have the decency to cram in weddings ruined by car crashes and unplanned teen pregnancies to keep us entertained once they’ve jumped the shark. By the time Vanity Fair got interesting again, my brain had leaked out of my ears reading all those passages about home furnishings, and I no longer cared what happened. If you can bear with Thackeray through the endless dull passages about people you’ve never heard of and houses you’ve never seen, he does have some delightful asides and insights that are still startlingly relevant over 150 years later (e.g., “What’s the good of being in parliament, he said, if you must pay your debts?”). Modernise the language, and Vanity Fair would read like a 21st century blog.




 The big “plot twist” is more of a cute little narrative device: it’s only on page 796 that Thackeray reveals the whole story has actually been written in the first person. The narrator is an actual character, recounting the entire tale as second- and third-hand gossip. The whole time, I’d thought it was just a charming, conversational, Woody Allen-esque omniscient figure, recounting a story designed to make girls scared of getting hung-up on fuck-boys and living lives of excess.

Ultimately, I’m not going to read Vanity Fair again, and I’d recommend that you don’t, either. Just Google a list of Thackeray’s best quotes, and watch a film version (where they’re forced, in the interests of time, to cut out the boring bits).

My favourite Amazon reviews of Vanity Fair:

  • “Great book. Becky is unique I hope.” – Amazon Customer
  • “Ugh, give yourself some time and alcohol; it’s a long one.” – Amazon Customer
  • “I wasn’t smart enough to stay with it – and I read a lot. Good luck.” – julie castleberry

 

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