Keeping Up With The Penguins

Reviews For The Would-Be Booklover

Category: Young Adult

The Catcher in the Rye – J.D. Salinger

Because I’m a masochist, I chose another 20th century stream-of-consciousness novel for the next read. I picked up a never-read copy of The Catcher in the Rye at my favourite secondhand bookstore, from a stack of identical perfectly-preserved copies – assumedly donated by some closed store or failed online retail venture. An auspicious beginning, no?

The Catcher in the Rye - JD Salinger - Keeping Up With The Penguins

J.D. Salinger’s 1951 novel was originally published for adults, but has since (apparently) become popular with adolescent readers for its themes of teenaged angst and alienation. I say “apparently”, because I’m not sure that anyone’s actually asked the adolescents; sure, there’s around 1 million copies sold every year, but I’m pretty sure most of those are mandated reading for high-school book reports. How I myself managed to escape that particular rite of passage is beyond me…

(The book’s also quite popular with murderers, as it turns out, so there’s that.)

The Catcher in the Rye has received basically endless critical acclaim, and also has the honour of being the most censored book in U.S. high schools and libraries throughout the sixties and seventies. Reasons for censorship include its frequent use of vulgar language, sexual references, undermining of “family values”, encouragement of rebellion, promotion of drinking, promotion of smoking, promotion of lying, and promotion of promiscuity. This excited me to no end! My apprehension about its style aside, any book that undermines so-called family values is one that I can get behind.




Straight off the bat, I actually liked the narrator (Holden Caufield). He’s a bratty, rebellious teenager with a tendency towards profanity, tangential thinking, and wild exaggeration. Salinger’s characterisation was superb; it sounded like the diary of a teenage boy, you’d believe one had written it. I spent a lot of time wondering why I found The Catcher in the Rye so much more gripping and so much less annoying than My Brilliant Career. All I could come up with was the gender differential: characters that sound exactly like the type of person you know are so much less confronting than characters that sound exactly like the type of person you are.

Be warned: The Catcher in the Rye is mostly internal monologue – not a whole lot of plot. You just follow this wayward kid around new York for a few days while he drinks and smokes himself into oblivion (and chickens out of losing his virginity to a prostitute). You find out, on the final page, that he’s relating this story to you from the confines of a psychiatric hospital. Not that it’s a shock twist in the end or anything like that; you kind of get the vibe that this kid is bonkers right from the outset.

Holden’s got some interesting insights, though, and I laughed out loud more than once:

“So, I don’t know about bores. Maybe you shouldn’t feel too sorry if you see some swell girl getting married to them. They don’t hurt anybody, most of them, and maybe they’re secretly all terrific whistlers or something. Who the hell knows?”

I was surprised by how much I enjoyed The Catcher in the Rye, given my initial reservations about its style and the shell-shock of Mrs Dalloway (and, if I had to compare, I’d say that Mrs D was far more likely to make me want to kill someone, so all those murderers who loved Catcher should probably have read a bit more broadly).

Still, I’m not sure I’ll bother going back for seconds. I’d recommend The Catcher in the Rye to anyone who wasn’t forced to read it in high-school – you’ll probably enjoy it all the more for having avoided it for so long, as I did.

My favourite Amazon reviews of The Catcher in the Rye:

  • “DISCLAIMER: I only made it into the first bit of the book. There might’ve been some amazing twist I never reached, but I couldn’t bring myself to continue, it was just so boring. The interactions take forever and say almost nothing at all, and when they do get a point across, it’s a depressing point.” – Jesse Gibson
  • “I’ll be honest, I’m not sure if the author knew this or not, but the teen in this book does quite a bit of drinking and I’m pretty sure it’s illegal to drink under 21. Now sure, we’ve all done it but does that make it right? Maybe. So I guess the real question here is, should we lower the drinking age? I don’t know. Ask JD Salinger.” – JACOB AND SUMMER
  • “Spoiler alert!! Book is not about a baseball player stuck in a giant loaf of bread.” – solomon glowitz

 

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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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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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