Keeping Up With The Penguins

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15 Powerful Memoirs By Women

There’s something particularly powerful about memoirs, the way they engage us and put us in another person’s shoes. I recently tried to put together a list of truly great memoirs, and quickly ran into a problem: there’s funny memoirs, niche memoirs, memoirs that make you think, memoirs about travel, celebrity memoirs… I had to narrow it down somehow! I’ll bring a bunch of these recommended memoir reading lists to you over the next few months, but for today, I thought we’d start with 15 powerful memoirs by women.

15 Powerful Memoirs By Women - Keeping Up With The Penguins

The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion

The Year of Magical Thinking - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Joan Didion

Joan Didion is kind of the Madonna of writing. Just when you think her moment has “passed”, she re-invents herself and finds a new way to push boundaries for a new generation. The Year Of Magical Thinking is the book for which she is best known in my own generation, an account of the year she grieved after her husband’s very-sudden and very-unexpected death. The way that Didion manages to remain balanced, contemplative, and measured in her writing, all the while showing the reader the true depths of her horror and despair in the depths of tragic loss… truly a masterclass in how memoirs should be written.

Stay Sexy and Don’t Get Murdered by Karen Kilgariff and Georgia Hardstark

Stay Sexy and Don't Get Murdered - Karen Kilgariff and Georgia Hardstark - Book on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Stay Sexy and Don’t Get Murdered is the dual memoir of the hosts of the My Favorite Murder podcast, Karen Kilgariff and Georgia Hardstark. Their radical honesty and complete transparency about their past bad decisions is completely disarming and so refreshing; it makes this memoir double as a here’s-how-not-to-make-the-same-mistakes-we-have guide to life. Here are two fierce women who have faced their fuck-ups and come out all the stronger on the other side, and they generously share their hard-won wisdom with us. Read my full review of Stay Sexy and Don’t Get Murdered here.

In The Dream House by Carmen Maria Machado

In The Dream House - Carmen Maria Machado - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

In The Dream House is an intimate, horrifying, beautiful, defiant, heartfelt, multi-dimensional account of Carmen Maria Machado’s formative – and abusive – love affair with a partner she calls only “the woman in the Dream House”. It honestly changed my understanding of what a memoir could be, the ways in which one can tell their story. I think this book is destined to become a pillar of the queer literary canon, and on just a single read it became one of my most highly Recommended Reads here on Keeping Up With The Penguins.

I Choose Elena by Lucia Osborne-Crowley

I Choose Elena - Lucia Osborne-Crowley - Keeping Up With The Penguins

You don’t need to be familiar with Ferrante (or any other of the dozens of writers Osborne-Crowley references in I Choose Elena) to find yourself deeply immersed and irrevocably moved by this story. It’s not often that a book will bring me to tears, even less so an extended literary essay/memoir, but this one did (more than once): tears of anguish, tears of fury, tears of gratitude. It has taken me down a rabbit hole of learning more about how our bodies react to, process, and accommodate trauma. I am endlessly indebted to Osborne-Crowley for sharing her story so generously.

Wild by Cheryl Strayed

Wild - Cheryl Strayed - book laid on wooden table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Before I opened the cover of Wild, I assumed (from what I’d heard about it around the traps) that Cheryl Strayed was a late-30s suburban mother with a mortgage on a three-bedroomed house in the ‘burbs who abandoned it all to “find herself” on the Pacific Crest Trail. Turns out, at the time of the book’s events, she was actually a mid-20s divorcee with a heroin habit and a transient lifestyle, still reeling in grief from the death of her mother. Strayed defies the cliche with her radical openness and vulnerability about her fuck-ups and mis-steps, as well as with the circumstances of her life. Read my full review of Wild here.

I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou

I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings - Maya Angelou - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Maya Angelou had the kind of childhood that would turn most of our stomachs. She was sent to live with her grandmother as a young child, and struggled to reckon with the sting of abandonment at the same time as navigating the horrifically racist waters of the deep South. Then, finally returned to her mother, she was attacked by a much older man. You’d forgive her for being bitter and twisted, but instead this incredible woman turned to love and kindness, and wrote a series of autobiographical books – this being the first, I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings – in which she demonstrates to us the true power and resilience of the human spirit.

Your Own Kind Of Girl by Clare Bowditch

Your Own Kind Of Girl - Clare Bowditch - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Up until a couple of years ago, I (and, I assume, most of the world) knew Clare Bowditch as a singer. Specifically, I knew her as the singer who transitioned into acting for a role in the Australian drama Offspring. Little did I know that inside her was a burgeoning writing talent, and a determination that one day she would be “brave enough – and well enough” to tell her story. That day came with the publication of Your Own Kind Of Girl, Bowditch’s memoir of the forces that shaped her life: anxiety, grief, shame, and compulsion. She shows us how the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves matter, and what happens to us when we believe them.

The Hate Race by Maxine Beneba Clarke

The Hate Race - Maxine Beneba Clarke - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Maxine Beneba Clarke’s memoir, The Hate Race, starts before she is even born: with her parents’ arrival in Australia. They’re confused by the liquor store manager directing them to the boxes of cask wine. They’re startled by the display of C**n cheese at the local supermarket. When Clarke is born, she’s raised in the middle of white-bread suburbia, complete with Vegemite toast breakfasts and Ford Falcon road trips. Her family is just like all the others that surround them… except for the inescapable fact of their black skin. This powerful memoir will show you the ways that race and racism infiltrate even the presumed safest spaces in our community.

Wishful Drinking by Carrie Fisher

Wishful Drinking - Carrie Fisher - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Vale Carrie Fisher. I still can’t quite believe the world has lost her spark. Most actresses, once catapulted to international fame off the back of their hyper-sexualised role in one of the most successful movie franchises of all time, would probably spend most of their lives trying to distance themselves from their on-screen persona. Not Fisher. As you can see here, on the cover of one of her (multiple) memoirs, she appears with her trademark Princess Leia braids, slumped over holding a martini glass. Wishful Drinking is based on her one-woman stage show about life in the spotlight and addiction in the shadows, told with punchy humour and self-deprecating wit.

Eggshell Skull by Bri Lee

Eggshell Skull - Bri Lee - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Bri Lee is one of those scary-smart young women, the kind that you know would kick your arse in any kind of argument (and make you like it). She’s a former law student, a former judge’s associate, and she turned that soul-crushing mind-numbing experience into an incredible memoir, Eggshell Skull. She simultaneously reckons with the ways in which the Australian justice system works against survivors of sexual and gendered violence, and coming to terms with her own experience(s) of assault and harassment. Just when she might’ve been done impressing you, she also released a follow up – Beauty – about the immense pressure she felt and faced while promoting her memoir, to be Thin and Beautiful(TM).

Reading Lolita in Tehran by Azar Nafisi

Reading Lolita In Tehran - Azar Nafisi - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Every book-lover can surely relate to remembering and understanding periods of their lives based on what they were reading at the time. For Azar Nafisi, those recollections are perhaps more incredible than most. In Reading Lolita In Tehran, she describes living, teaching, and resisting under the Islamic Republic of Iran government in the late ’80s and early ’90s, framing the story through the books she read with seven other women in a book club she formed. They met at her house to discuss forbidden works of Western literature, Lolita (obviously) among them, as well as Gatsby, and other iconic books and characters.

The Argonauts by Maggie Nelson

The Argonauts - Maggie Nelson - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Few writers have mastered the talent of writing books intelligible to both academics and the average reader, weaving the intensely personal with the deeply abstract and theoretical, putting philosophy into practice, like Maggie Nelson. In The Argonauts, she uses her own experiences of family, gender, queer identity, motherhood, and personal politics as a prism through which we can collectively examine queerness, gender theory, and sociology. I dare you to find a queer feminist who doesn’t have a copy on their shelves (or who hasn’t been given at least three as Christmas and birthday gifts).

I Am, I Am, I Am by Maggie O’Farrell

I Am I Am I Am - Maggie O'Farrell - Keeping Up With The Penguins

If the title of I Am, I Am, I Am sounds familiar, that’s probably because Maggie O’Farrell borrowed it from Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar (“I took a deep breath and listened to the old brag of my heart: I am, I am, I am.”). It is a strange contrast, but also oddly fitting, that O’Farrell took an immortal line from a book about the desire to die as the title for her memoir about her own brushes with death, seventeen in total. These near-misses have punctuated and defined her life: the childhood illness, the encounter with a bad man, the birth of her own child… Nothing makes you more grateful for your next breath than O’Farrell reminding you how easily it could be your last.

Reckoning by Madga Szubanski

Reckoning - Magda Szubanski - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Magda Szubanski is one of Australia’s most beloved performers, an icon of our screens and of our hearts. She is funny, she is wise, and she never seems to quit: not in the face of endless trolling about her weight, not under the public pressure to stay in the closet, not even when this country was divided over whether or not we should allow same-sex couples to marry (Magda became the beacon of the Yes vote, and won, by the way). But, as the title of her memoir suggests, her strength is born of a serious Reckoning with her past, the trauma and secrets inherited and buried, and what it’s like to be faced with no other choice but to carry on.

Educated by Tara Westover

Educated - Tara Westover - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Have you ever walked into a room and found yourself gripped by fear, knowing that you didn’t “belong”? That’s happened many a time in many a room for Tara Westover. Rather than letting it cripple her, she has turned her experiences into a perennially popular memoir and book club-favourite, Educated. From being raised by her survivalist Mormon family, largely cut-off from the rest of the world and “home-schooled” in their religion, to being the best and brightest at the world’s top universities, Westover has the kind of grit, determination, and passion for life and learning to which we should all aspire.

Have you read any particularly powerful memoirs by women lately? Add to this list in the comments below!

Good Talk – Mira Jacob

In case you’re new around here, let me give you the skinny: Keeping Up With The Penguins is all about trying new things. Even if it’s a book you don’t think you’ll like, even if it’s an author you’ve never read before, even if it’s a genre that you’ve written off as “not for you” – you (and by “you”, I mean “I”) have to give it a go anyway. That’s the deal. I’ve never read a graphic novel before. I never even read comics as a kid. But when my dear friend read and recommended Good Talk by Mira Jacob, I had to walk the walk.

Good Talk is “a memoir in conversations”, promises the blurb, “a bold, wry, and intimate graphic memoir about identity, interracial families, and the realities that divide us,”. Those conversations began for Jacob when, aged 6, her son became obsessed with Michael Jackson, and an innocent line of childish enquiry turned tricky.

“Sometimes, you don’t know how confused you are about something important until you try explaining it to someone else.”

Good Talk, PAge 20

Her son’s questions about race, and identity, and politics, led Jacob to re-evaluate her own life experiences and conversations from her past. She reproduces those memories in Good Talk, from her parents’ migration to the United States to the election of Donald Trump. They include being mistaken for “the help” at her in-laws’ party, being put in the position of telling her husband that their son had asked if he was afraid of brown people, and being overwhelmed with joy when Barack Obama was elected as President shortly after her son’s birth. She has spoken about how she never set out to write a memoir because she didn’t feel she was up to the level of vulnerability and transparency it requires, but boy. Oh, boy.

Let’s cut to the chase: Good Talk is a damn good book. It’s not just a “good graphic novel”, it’s not just a “cult classic”, it’s good without a qualifier. So good that, at a recent (COVID-safe) gathering of friends, I pulled a friend away from the merry-making and forced her to read Chapter 6. That’s the chapter where Jacob describes winning a Daughters Of The American Revolution essay contest, only to have the women running the contest try to dissuade her from presenting her essay at their luncheon when they realised she was brown (luckily, she had a kick-arse teacher who backed her up and got her on that stage).

Jacob’s recollections, images, and dialogue are deceptive in their simplicity (and, let me be clear, I mean that in the best possible way). What, on its face, might look like a speech bubble actually contains the weight of hundreds of years of systemic oppression and the gritted teeth of resilience. Jacob’s language is frank, her presentation is enticing, but her message is searing. If you’re white, like me, and the beneficiary of a system that means your skin colour hasn’t kept you out of room, you’ll need to sit with it a while to fully comprehend its meaning.

The beauty of Good Talk, in my view, is that it works on multiple levels. In a remarkably accessible way, Jacob has written a book that will make people of colour feel seen and heard, and make people who are white or white-passing re-evaluate their conversations and interactions (the way that Jacob had to when her son started asking questions about Michael Jackson).

Other reviews of Good Talk have emphasised that Jacob resists “people of colour” becoming a monolith in the U.S., as though there is some unique experience shared by all, and I wouldn’t want to speak over her on that front (obviously), but I still think there’s some incredible universal resonance here. What shines through – and what will unify all readers, regardless of racial or cultural heritage – is the fierce love that Jacob has for her son and her family. “I can’t protect you from becoming a brown man in America,” Jacob rhetorically laments to her son on page 346. Even as a child-free white woman, my heart broke when I read that, and my eyes got a bit watery.

I could’ve read this book quickly, if I wanted to. I probably could’ve knocked it over in a single afternoon. But I took my time, in an effort to really, truly, fully appreciate its content, and the generosity of Jacob in sharing it with us (and by “us”, I mean “me”). If all graphic novels are as good as Good Talk, consider me a convert.

My favourite Amazon reviews of Good Talk:

  • “Literally hugged this book to my chest after finishing it, unwilling to put it down. It felt like hanging out with a brilliant, funny, sad friend.” – EN
  • “Anyone and everyone, especially mixed race Americans looking for people like them, should read this.
    The build up and the tension and release ebbing and flowing throughout the pages is incredible and so perfectly captures many of the internal and external tensions for mixed race families in modern America.
    (Having the same name as the author only makes me slightly biased!)” – Mira L
  • “This book is for you. A version or part of everyone you know is probably in this book. You’re in here. Even when you don’t want to see it. I learned a lot about myself, my family, our friends and the world we live in. Mira and her family are my heroes.” – B. Healy
  • “I really did not like the cartoon reading format. Past that book was good.” – Becky

My Ultimate Lock-Down Author Share-House

One of the things that’s been bringing me joy during, y’know, all of this is The To-Read List podcast. Today, I’m drawing inspiration from one of their episodes (which, in turn, was inspired by a Tweet from LitHub). The idea is to come up with a list of authors you’d want to be in lock-down with, or in quarantine with. You might love Virginia Woolf’s writing, but could you really stand living with her 24 hours-a-day for weeks on end? Ernest Hemingway might be brilliant, but what would it be like to share a bathroom with him? I put my thinking cap on and came up with my very own list (technically two, one for living authors a la The To Read List and one for dead authors a la LitHub): my ultimate lock-down author share-house.

Ultimate Lock-Down Author Share-House - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Important note: this isn’t about the authors whose work I love the most. I had to scratch a whole bunch of brilliant writers for various reasons: I’d be too nervous to talk in front of Helen Garner, I’d be too intimidated by Sally Rooney (and only a little bit sour that we’re the same age), I figured I’d be cheating if I chose Elena Ferrante so that I could be one of the select few who know her secret identity, and I’d be scared of distracting Carmen Maria Machado or Roxane Gay from writing their next book. This is about the authors I reckon I could live with for an extended period under share-house circumstances.

Living Author Lock-Down Share-House

First thing’s first: I’m going to want someone around who can make me laugh. Someone who can find the funny in the mundane, someone who can make fun without being cruel, someone who will regale me with entertaining anecdotes when the days get too long. I can’t think of anyone who fits the bill better than David Sedaris. Read my full review of his essay collection, Me Talk Pretty One Day.

Next up: I’m going to need somebody who won’t judge me if cocktail hour comes early. No one likes to drink alone, and I’m no exception! I reckon Susan Orlean and I would make for brilliant drinking buddies (if her Twitter feed is anything to go by). Plus, we could discuss niche true crime to our heart’s content, even if the others got sick of us.

I’d also want someone around who can teach me some stuff, and I reckon Colson Whitehead fits the bill. The guy didn’t get the MacArthur Genius Grant for nothing! He’s written about everything from history to Harlem to politics to poker. If we were in lock-down together, I’d struggle not to constantly pepper him with questions…

It can’t all be bookish types, though. We’d need someone with some aesthetic sensibilities to brighten up the place – and maybe draw us, just for lols. That’s why I’d call Mira Jacob up to the plate. I never thought of myself as a graphic novel reader until I read Good Talk. I’d happily take all of her dish-washing and laundry duties if she captured our lock-down conversations in return.

Dead Author Lock-Down Share-House

Whenever something crappy happens in my life (and I reckon getting locked down in a share-house during a global pandemic would count), I hear Nora Ephron‘s voice in my head, saying: “Everything’s copy”. I reckon she’d be the queen of making the best of a bad situation, and she’d get us all working on collaborative creative projects to release once regular business resumed.

And, it’s a combo deal: I’d love to have Anita Loos (sans her shit-head husband) in my author lock-down share-house, because I’m sure she and Nora would get along. Sure, I’d probably end up the odd-one-out, watching them write brilliant screenplays while I sipped my wine in the corner, but it’d be worth it to get them in the same room and watch the magic happen. Read my full review of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes here.

Speaking of entertainment: I reckon Anaïs Nin would be captivating. She was adventurous, generous, and by all accounts, fun! I mean, anyone willing to write gloriously literary smut on commission has got to be worth talking to. And, if we didn’t get along, I’d feel less guilty about sneaking into her room and reading her diary… (I mean, I’d never do that. Ahem. Probably.)

And, finally, I’d want George Eliot in the share-house, and I’d want to ask all manner of questions, about writing and politics and life… but the one that’s front-and-center in my mind at the moment is: have we been mis-gendering George all this time? This has come up as a result of the “Reclaim Her Name” project, for which Baileys (the major sponsors of the Women’s Prize) is re-publishing a collection of works they’ve determined were written by women under masculine pseudonyms, including Middlemarch. In the (inevitable) backlash that ensued, I came across a couple of accounts that suggest George might have adopted the name that more accurately reflected their identity, rather than purely bowing to the patriarchal constraints of the time for publishing writers. Essentially, I’d want George to have the opportunity to decide for themselves, with today’s sensibilities and understanding, how they wish to identify. And then I’d start digging for dirt, like the gossip-hound I am deep down, on all their high-falootin’ Victorian friends…

Who would you want in your lock-down author share-house? Living or dead, dream big! Let me know in the comments below.

The Curious Incident Of The Dog In The Night-Time – Mark Haddon

In your standard murder mystery novel, a hard-boiled detective sorts clues from red herrings to track down the murderer of a young woman. The Curious Incident Of The Dog In The Night-Time is different. It is a self-proclaimed mystery novel, with the requisite crime and investigation format, but the victim is a neighbourhood pet and the detective is 15-year-old Christopher, a young man who perceives the world differently.

Let’s get the obvious out of the way: Christopher is read (by most readers, anyway) as having Asperger Syndrome, or having some kind of autism spectrum disorder. As a character, he describes himself as being “a mathematician with some behavioural difficulties”. Haddon, the author, insists that The Curious Incident Of The Dog In The Night-Time is “not specifically about any specific disorder” (which makes the choice to give Christopher so many traits commonly associated with Asperger’s and other developmental disorders very strange). I feel like it’s an “easy out” for Haddon to say that Christopher has “no specific disorder”, because – as he admits – he is neurotypical and has no expertise in this area.

“I have to say honestly that I did more research about the London Underground and the inside of Swindon Railway Station, where some of the novel takes place, than I did about Asperger syndrome. I gave [Christopher] kind of 9 or 10 rules that he would live his life by, and then I didn’t read any more about Asperger’s because I think there is no typical person who has Asperger syndrome, and they’re as large and diverse a group of people as any other group in society.”

Mark Haddon

He’s right, of course, in saying that people with Asperger’s – and other types of mental and neurological disorders – are a large, diverse group who cannot be adequately captured in or represented by a single fictional character. It’s good that he didn’t try. But I think his lack of expertise and experience explains why his characterisation sometimes felt so… flat. Christopher didn’t jump off the page to me, the way that other neurodiverse characters have (I’m thinking of Zelda in When We Were Vikings as an example). Christopher’s “no specific disorder” seemed to be the only remarkable characteristic he had, and it coloured every description or insight we may have had into his mind and his life.

But let’s leave that alone for now, and get back to the story. When Christopher discovers his neighbour’s dog dead in her backyard (yes, I cried, dog deaths slay me – RIP Wellington!), he takes it upon himself to find the culprit. He decides to write down (i.e., narrate) the details of his investigation in the form of a murder mystery novel, and that’s the frame for The Curious Incident Of The Dog In The Night-Time. Christopher continues his investigation, interrogating neighbours and collecting evidence, despite his father’s express instruction to stay out of other people’s business.

His home life, he slowly reveals to us, is a bit screwy. His mother is dead, and his father – Ed – probably isn’t going to win any trophies for parenting. Ed has been raising Christopher as a single parent for two years when the story begins, and yet Christopher seems to have more affinity (and respect) for Siobhan, his paraprofessional and mentor at school. She takes the time to explain behaviour and rules to Christopher in a way that makes sense to him, and he relies on her guidance to help him navigate the world.

Christopher solves the case in the end (of course), and uncovers a whole bunch of other mysteries and adventures along the way. That makes it sound a bit cutesy, but trust me, they’re sometimes dark and sometimes horrifying. I won’t give them all away, other than to say that most readers will find the story very moving. If I’m honest, the dog murder was the most upsetting bit for me (and you can keep any analysis of what that says about me to yourself, thanks!).

To circle back around to what I was saying earlier, Christopher’s character just didn’t quite pull me in the way it seems to have pulled in others. Perhaps I’m simply spoiled for having read other, brilliant representations of neurodiverse characters in the seventeen years since this one was first released. For me, The Curious Incident Of The Dog In The Night-Time was fairly good… but not great, and certainly not as great as I’d hoped.

See, I’m fairly lonely in my lukewarm reception of this one. Haddon won the 2003 Whitbread Book Of The Year award for it, the Guardian Children’s Fiction Prize, and a whole stack of others – it was even long-listed for the Booker! Its popularity endures, too. The Curious Incident Of The Dog In The Night-Time has been translated into over 35 languages, transformed into a stage adaptation, rights sold for a film adaptation (though no movement at that station yet), and named as one of the Guardian’s 100 best books of the 21st century. So, don’t let me put you off!

My favourite Amazon reviews of The Curious Incident Of The Dog In The Night-Time:

  • “This book is aggressively ok. I mean that as a compliment, honestly. Christopher is a really enjoyable character and I feel he tells his story with just the right amount of enthusiasm to keep you going. The militant atheism wears on you a bit, and I say that as a devout agnostic.” – The Professor
  • “Got as I gift but when the book arrived I kind of wanted to keep for myself.” – Amazon Customer
  • “Christophar was lit.” – daiyan ahmed
  • “What was the point? Just to tell a story of one’s life? Totally narcissistic in my opinion Not a fan Should have disclaimer” – Shelley

6 Breathtaking Books by Hispanic Authors

I’ll admit: being Australian, I’ve been a bit deaf to and detached from Latinx issues in the U.S. It’s not that I don’t care, it’s just that it’s not something I encounter in my day-to-day life. And where do I turn when I uncover a gap in my knowledge? Books, of course! I did a bit of digging, and pulled up a bunch of Hispanic authors that other readers recommended. Now that I’ve had the chance to fully immerse myself in them, I’ve distilled a list for you, in the event that you need to undertake your own adventure: six breathtaking books by Hispanic authors.

6 Breathtaking Books by Hispanic Authors - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Paula by Isabel Allende

Paula - Isabel Allende - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Isabel Allende is one of the most popular living Hispanic authors. She might be better-known for her best-selling magical realism novels, like The House Of The Spirits or Of Love And Shadows, but I started with her memoir, Paula. I first heard about it on the TV show Jane The Virgin (which I highly recommend as well, by the way!), and my curiosity was piqued. It is a memoir written in tribute to Allende’s daughter, who passed away in 1991 (in fact, it was written feverishly by Paula’s bedside, as she struggled to recover from a coma). Obviously, given the content, it is heart-wrenching – on par with Joan Didion’s memoirs of grief and loss – but it’s also strangely uplifting, a tale of resilience and a beautiful way to honour life and the human spirit.

The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho

The Alchemist - Paulo Coelho - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

I’ll be the first to admit that I’m not into hippie-dippie stuff. I tend to roll my eyes when a stranger brings up crystals or star-charts in conversation. When I first read The Alchemist (mostly at the urging of my one remaining hippie-dippie friend who puts up with my scoffing), I wasn’t impressed. But maybe 2020 has changed something in me, maybe I’ve drunk the Kool Aid, maybe I just realise that we all need a little something to cling on to when nothing in our world seems certain. There’s a comfort in this book’s message, that your fate will find you no matter where you are, and that persistence and resilience are all you need to overcome the obstacles that are thrown in your path (for a reason). Or something like that… Read my full review of The Alchemist here.

Her Body And Other Parties by Carmen Maria Machado

Her Body And Other Parties - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

There is not a word that Carmen Maria Machado has written that I won’t devour with glee (seriously, if you’ve come across any that I haven’t covered yet on Keeping Up With The Penguins, let me know and I’ll be on it like white on rice). Her career is just beginning, she has just two full-length books to her name, but her future is bright. You heard it here first. I’ve chosen to include her debut on this list (mostly because I’ve waxed rhapsodic about her follow-up elsewhere). Her Body And Other Parties is a collection of short stories that portends what’s to come of her work: a strange hybrid of all genres, all forms, that terrifies and delights in equal measure. Read my full review of Her Body And Other Parties here.

Love In The Time Of Cholera by Gabriel Garcia Marquez

Love In The Time Of Cholera - Gabriel Garcia Marquez - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

You’d be forgiven for thinking that I was going to recommend One Hundred Years Of Solitude for my Gabriel Garcia Marquez read (because it’s not a list of Hispanic authors without Gabriel Garcia Marquez), given that I reviewed it earlier this week. But given, y’know, the state of the world, Love In The Time Of Cholera just seems more… fitting, doesn’t it? It is, as the title suggests, a love story, with at least one character driven by the pursuit of a cure for an infectious illness that disproportionately affects people living in poverty. You can be sure that a clever adaptation (“Love In The Time Of COVID”) is coming, but before it hits (if it hasn’t already), check out the original.

Clap When You Land by Elizabeth Acevedo

Clap When You Land - Elizabeth Acevedo - Keeping Up With The Penguins

I’m a bit of a Johnny-come-lately when it comes to novels in verse, but I feel that puts me in a unique position to recommend entry points for other newbies. Clap When You Land is a great start. It tells the story (yes, collections of poetry can tell cohesive stories, did you know?) of two sisters who share a father, but have entirely unique relationships to the man who ties them together. They are separated by distance, and circumstance, but they connect through their grief and uncovering their family’s secrets. It’s an emotive, contemporary story that offers a window into other worlds – for both the characters and the readers.

Hurricane Season by Fernanda Melchor

Hurricane Season - Fernanda Melchor - Keeping Up With The Penguins

After the American Dirt controversy earlier this year, I was eager to pick up more #ownvoices books by Hispanic authors. That’s why I was overjoyed to receive this copy of Hurricane Season by Fernanda Melchor (translated into English by Sophie Hughes) from the wonderful team at Text Publishing. It’s a murder-mystery, of sorts, set in rural Mexico and inspired by real events (including an honest-to-goodness witch-hunt near Melchor’s hometown). I’m not going to lie: Hurricane Season is not an easy read. I feel obligated to offer trigger warnings for literally everything you can imagine. But, if you think you’ve got the stomach for it, it’s written in beautiful, long, lyrical sentences that will pull you in and keep you there.

Which Hispanic authors would you recommend? Let me know in the comments, so we can grow this list!

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