Keeping Up With The Penguins

Reviews For The Would-Be Booklover

Vox – Christina Dalcher

The last four years brought us something I think we can only just now begin to appreciate: a resurgence in The Handmaid’s Tale-inspired feminist dystopian literature, one of the few things actually made great again. I wonder if someday we’ll look back on this particular time as a literary category or movement all of its own (I’d suggest calling it Trump lit, but I don’t want to give him the satisfaction). Vox was one of the ones that came mid-way through in 2018: not quite early enough to be prescient, but not quite late enough to be retrospective, and with a weight of expectation on its shoulders.

Vox - Christina Dalcher - Keeping Up With The Penguins
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Note that the man himself is never actually named in Vox: he is simply alluded to, the president elected after a black man’s historic term in office, plunging the United States back into a totalitarian regime with the backing of the country’s Bible Belt. The new government forces women out of the workforce, freezes their bank accounts, takes away their passports – it all sounds familiar, right? What makes Vox different is one additional catch: women and girls are restricted to speaking just 100 words a day, monitored by “bracelets” capable of delivering sharp electric shocks to those who exceed the limit.

If you’re like me, your mind has probably jumped to all of the alternative methods of communication that women could use to resist. Dalcher is one step ahead of you. Pens and paper are forbidden, along with books and mail and all other iterations of the same. Anyone caught using sign language is hauled off and subjected to unspecified but undoubtedly horrible punishments. Even a nod is enough to make a woman feel self-conscious. This is all part of the plan, the Pure Movement, to throw America back to a bygone era (that, really, didn’t exist in the first place) of men at work and on top, women at home and silent.

The narrator, Jean, sums it up on page 1: “I’ve become a woman of few words”. Her husband, Patrick, is a high-ranking White House official. They have four children, three sons and a daughter. Their eldest son, Steven, has been lured into the Pure Movement via a religion class at his school. The ascendancy of the Pure Movement, and the family’s descent into fear and mutual distrust, are revealed through Jean’s recollections as her own story unfolds in the present.

Jean has been forced to give up her career as a neuro-linguistics researcher, studying aphasia (loss of language), under the new regime. She devotes a lot of time to blaming herself for not taking a more active role when the first warning signs of impending doom emerged. She, and most others, thought that the “hysterical” feminists were being “over the top” when they warned of what was to come.

Dalcher does a good job – for a debut novelist – of depicting Jean’s complicated relationships with her children. The middle two (twin boys) get kind of lost in the shuffle, but she resents Steven for bringing the prying eyes of the Pure Movement into their home, and fears for the future of her youngest, a daughter. There’s one particularly terrifying moment when Jean wakes in the night to hear her daughter shouting words in her sleep. She tries desperately to reach the girl before she hits her limit (at which point, she’ll be shocked), but when she does Jean has no words of her own left to comfort the girl. It’s heartbreaking, and probably the one scene from Vox that truly stuck with me. I also liked that Jean’s character was unabashedly angry (who wouldn’t be?), remorseful (that she didn’t do more before it was too late), and an imperfect wife (mostly indifferent to her weak-willed but otherwise-loving husband, and carrying on an illicit affair with a co-worker).

The rest of it, I’m afraid, was a bit of a let down. The dystopian world imagined in Vox is okay, but quite derivative (it’s The Handmaid’s Tale with a couple of technological gizmos). That world has already been created, written to (many times), surely we can come up with some other way to comment on and critique society? Jean’s role is also just a bit too convenient to swallow. She just-so-happens to be married to a White House official, and just-so-happens to be a leading expert on neuro-linguistics in a world where women aren’t allowed to use language. I mean, come on! Really?

About two-thirds of the way through, Vox goes from feminist dystopia to hackneyed crime thriller. The “big twist” of the government’s “secret plan” was obvious a hundred miles away; I actually got a bit impatient waiting for Jean to figure it out for herself. One-dimensional “bad guys” hold Jean and her research hostage (one of them, I shit you not, actually says “don’t do anything stupid, Jean” at one point). This whole dystopian future was imagined and put down on the page just so that there can be a gun-fight at the OK Corral and a couple of blokes can swoop in to save the day. Ugh!

Just to cap it off, there’s a melt-in-your-mouth happily ever after (yes, I’m going to spoil it, not sorry even a little bit): the loser husband dies in a sudden fit of heroics, and Jean falls into the arms of her lover (to whom she is, conveniently, pregnant). Every “bad guy” is knocked off, and a whole new administration sweeps in overnight and puts right everything that went wrong. As we have all seen by now: it don’t work like that! Double ugh!

One final overarching concern: I really felt a bit icky about the way Dalcher “borrowed” (i.e., appropriated) longstanding symbols of oppression – internment camps, electrical torture, chemical warfare – to build up stakes for a bog-standard thriller. She didn’t even mention trans rights or the “problem” that non-binary people would undoubtedly pose for the Vox regime – a glaring and unforgivable oversight, in my view, one I can’t believe made it all the way to publication. Dalcher clearly had her blinkers on writing this one, and working in two (2) lesbians and one (1) black woman to remind the white narrator about her privilege wasn’t enough to overcome the fundamental flaws in her approach.

As a blurb, Vox is great: I’d love to understand what might happen in a world where women are literally silenced! But it’s a premise in search of a plot that could do it justice. Dalcher would have done better to let this one marinate for longer, maybe come at it with a broader view and a bit more distance from the realities of the past few years. All said and done, if you’re looking for a fresh feminist dystopia, I’m afraid this ain’t it; it might scratch your itch for a crime thriller though, if that’s what you’re after, and there’s a couple of moments with the kids that will pull on your heartstrings.

My favourite Amazon reviews of Vox:

  • “This book was recommended to me by someone, I wish I knew who, because it was not a pleasant read. It was actually rather horrifying.” – Gwen B
  • “It’s not even bad enough to be good.” – Amazon Customer
  • “Am not a big fan of mystery or suspense and the abuse of all females disturbed me tremendously.
    There wasn’t an issue of the book being written badly or anything like that. Just hated the story.” – Straightshoota

Book Stocktake 2021

I don’t know what came over me, but in January I felt a sudden and overwhelming need to clean house. Not literally, of course (if you ever hear of me vacuuming the curtains, it’s a cry for help), but bookishly. Maybe I was just sick of tripping over piles of books that had appeared above, next to, and between the shelves that line my hallway. Maybe I felt worried about inaccuracies in my to-be-read and to-be-bought lists. Whatever the case, I took the plunge: project Book Stocktake 2021. I thought I’d put together a little post on how I did it, and what I learned…

Book Stocktake 2021 - How and Why I Catalogued Every Book On My Shelves - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Book Stocktake Step 1: Starting Point

I didn’t start my book stocktake from zero, exactly. I had pretty much all of my books in one place (the hallway), excluding those on loan to trusted loved ones, and those in the URGENT stack next to my couch. The shelves were in at least rough alphabetical order, by author surname. I’d kept track of new acquisitions over the past couple of years with a spreadsheet, but I was very sure that there were gaps (and, in my brain, if it’s not accounted for in a spreadsheet, it doesn’t exist – thus, the need for a book stocktake).

Book Stocktake Step 2: Actually Start

Hilariously, I thought Book Stocktake 2021 would be something I could knock over in an afternoon. I was planning to maximise my efficiency by (a) simply taking a photo of each shelf, and using that to plug the particulars of each book into a brand-new spreadsheet, instead of pulling each book out individually, and (b) not actually cleaning or tidying as I went.

Two weeks later, I was still going. Turns out, there was quite a bit more to it than snap-photo-type-details-repeat. Even without any actual cleaning.

Book Stocktake Step 3: Separate Wheat from Chaff

I quickly realised that not every book needed to be… stocktaken (is that a word? stocktook?). For starters, all of my husband’s books had been merged in with mine; his collection is paltry by comparison, but still larger than the average booklover’s. I decided to pull all of his books – the ones I had absolutely no interest in reading and would not even notice if they disappeared – out of my shelves, and find someplace else for them. No wonder I’d run out of space! I didn’t want all of his junk cluttering up my shelves or my spreadsheet (and I don’t want to know what this says about me, thank you).

And then came the REALLY hard part: deciding which books to… send quietly into that good night. I almost never part with a book. I can’t actually remember the last one I donated or gave away. But faced with the mammoth task of a book stocktake, I was forced to admit it is time. I set aside a box, and as I went through each shelf, I pulled out any book that I could be 80% sure I would never read or use again, and put it in the box. Only two or three came back out upon later reflection, which I think is a pretty good hit rate!

Important note: it is much, much better if you do these things before you actually start entering books into your spreadsheet. The alternative is only thinking to do them once you’re half a book-case in and a little wine-drunk and having to scroll back through and delete all the entries that are no longer needed. Hear it, learn it, live it, Keeper Upperers!

Book Stocktake Step 4: Keep Going

As soon as I realised this book stocktake was going to be a larger and longer project than I had hoped, I decided to do a few shelves a day and just force myself to persevere. I’m a big believer in the magic of incremental effort; every little bit you do adds up to a whole lot in the end. The trick is not to focus on the finish line, but just the bit you’ve got in front of you. Plus, I tried to keep it fun, getting folks on Instagram to guess how many books I’d have in my final tally and so on. (Answer at the end of this post!)

Book Stocktake Step 5: Put Your Data To Work

Even once I’d entered the details of Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief, I wasn’t “done” with my book stocktake. Yes, it felt good to have a complete list of every book I owned, but that data means nothing if I didn’t put it to work. The first thing I did (actually, I started doing it as I went, which made the process much quicker) was to mark off all the books I had read already. I was actually pretty impressed with myself: 41%! That was far more than I was expecting, given the rate at which I accumulate books…

Then, I went through my to-be-bought book list, and made sure I didn’t actually already own any of the ones I was intending to buy. That saves on any wasted money and time/space with double-ups!

And finally, I copy and pasted all of the unread titles – my official, complete, to-be-read list, into a different spreadsheet (please don’t judge), the one where I keep track of everything I’m doing for Keeping Up With The Penguins. Because you should know by now I can’t read a book without sharing all my thoughts with all of you!

Book Stocktake 2021: Results

My shelves are now far neater, and more orderly. I feel like I have a better grip on my collection, more able to recall at the drop of a hat whether I own a particular title and where it’s located. There are still a few piles where shelves overflow, but for the most part, I’ve got my shit sorted. There’s far less tripping, now, too.

I have learned that I am a huge nerd. Okay, that wasn’t exactly a secret – let’s say I affirmed my identity as a huge nerd. I found this process so rewarding that I’m thinking of making it an annual event. (Oooh, maybe if I saved all of the previous stocktakes, I could take note of the changes from year to year, and… oh heck, there I go again.)

But, of course, the most important thing I learned was exactly how many books I own. Are you ready for it?

Book Stocktake Final Tally: 710 books

Not bad, eh?

The Kiss Quotient – Helen Hoang

For a while now, I’ve been thinking I should really seek out an #OwnVoices alternative to The Rosie Project. I settled on The Kiss Quotient by Helen Hoang, a book about a woman who lives with an autism spectrum disorder written by (dramatic pause) a woman who lives with an autism spectrum disorder. It was first published back in 2018, and it made quite a splash – mostly for the no-holds-barred steamy scenes and the awesome diverse cast of characters…

The Kiss Quotient - Helen Hoang - Keeping Up With The Penguins
Buy The Kiss Quotient here.
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Meet Stella: our protagonist, a successful woman who loves her work as an econometrician and is generally happy with her life. Cue inciting incident: her parents tell her they want grandchildren, ASAP, and they think it would be good for her to start dating – specifically, dating Philip, the office lech.

Stella isn’t particularly fussed on men and dating. Her previous experiences have been decidedly lackluster. But, she figures she lacks practice, and what’s the most rational way to go about improving her skills (social and… otherwise)? Hire an escort, of course! She hires Michael, a gorgeous escort she finds online, to teach her how to date and fuck with the best of them.

Michael isn’t the kind of two-dimensional manic pixie dream boy we’ve become all-too-accustomed too. He has A PAST (which is alluded to, lots, before it finally comes out). But aside from that, he also has interests (martial arts), a day job (at his mother’s dry-cleaner), and a family he loves more than anything.

The Kiss Quotient is effectively a gender-bending Pretty Woman, and it makes for a surprisingly sweet and romantic story – the perfect blend of endearing and sexy, a combination that’s difficult to get right. I think Hoang nailed the balance between romance (i.e., sexy times) and plot, which made it all the more enjoyable to read. It’s a perfect step up from your penny Harlequins about princes and pirates, without the ick factor of a Fifty Shades.

Stella is hypersensitive, to smells and touch and sound, which means Hoang’s writing is really rich in descriptive detail that goes beyond the visual. From the texture of Michael’s jacket to the sound of a nightclub, Hoang paints a really vivid portrait for the reader. And, I must say, this dedication to description extends to the sexy fun times Michael and Stella have together. The door is WIDE OPEN, folks. Hoang isn’t here to fuck around. The Kiss Quotient is steamy as heck.

The dangling mystery of Michael’s past – only revealed at the climax – is actually kind of annoying, though. Hoang drops constant hints, never letting us forget for one second that this dreamboat escort has a “dark side” or whatever. The upside is at least Stella’s autism wasn’t the main/only obstacle keeping them from being together. The dynamics and balance of the romance are really pleasing, in that both the parties to it have their own baggage and their own power. Neither is faultless, and neither is helpless. Their affection for each other feels genuine and intimate, despite the commercial aspect.

Stella is particularly relatable – even for readers who don’t live with/aren’t familiar with autism – for her simple but powerful desire to be loved. That’s something we’ve surely all experienced, at one time or another. Her autism is not the only facet of her personality, nor is it the only interesting thing about her; she ever feels like a token or a stereotype.

It seems a shame, then, that Hoang has used a few problematic sex worker tropes with Michael’s character. The sex-worker-with-a-heart-of-gold thing is tired and yucky. I’m also not sure how I feel about the implied idea that autism-related intimacy issues can be magically cured by a sex god (but then again, I’m neurotypical, so it’s probably not for me to say whether that’s okay or not).

All told, I’d say The Kiss Quotient isn’t perfect, but its flaws are forgivable for the fact that it’s a step up from the alternatives and it’s real fun to read. It’s perfect for fans of The Wedding Date (the Debra Messing movie, not the Jasmine Guillory book, though that recommendation would probably hold up, too). It’s a solid summer read if you’re looking for something sexy to take to the beach when the warmer weather returns.

My favourite Amazon reviews of The Kiss Quotient:

  • “Cute but wasn’t what I expected. Easy read but also very sexually graphic and reminded me how very single I am.” – Kindle Customer
  • “Sex: multiple scenes, including oral
    Language: 68 F words, 20 Lord’s name in vain, 34 S words
    Violence: forced kisses, black eye
    Cliffhanger: no
    Do I need to read books before this one: no
    Would I read more of the series: YES” – dncall
  • “Half of the book is used to describe how the couple has sex in details.” – wilson

17 Best Epistolary Novels

For longer than I care to admit, I nodded along blankly whenever someone talked about “epistolary novels”, because I had no clue what that meant. Turns out, it’s just a fancy word for novels written as letters, journals, or other documents. You’ve probably been reading epistolary novels all this time, and not even known it! I think the best ones draw from real life documents, or use the form in a new and interesting way. Here are 17 of the best epistolary novels…

17 Best Epistolary Novels - Keeping Up With The Penguins
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A Room Made Of Leaves by Kate Grenville

A Room Made Of Leaves - Kate Grenville - Keeping Up With The Penguins

A Room Made Of Leaves is an epistolary novel in the form of a memoir, imagined by Kate Grenville as that which might have been written by Elizabeth Macarthur. Her husband, John Macarthur, was a notorious Australian wool baron early in our colonial history, and his is the story most often retold in history books. But what of his silenced wife? She left behind a small collection of letters, and in those Grenville sensed another story, perhaps a truer story, that could be read between the lines.

A Tale For The Time Being by Ruth Ozeki

A Tale For The Time Being - Ruth Ozeki - Keeping Up With The Penguins

A Tale For The Time Being is an epistolary novel told largely through the diary entries of one of its protagonists. Nao is a sixteen-year-old Japanese American girl, dismayed and disgruntled by her parents’ choice to return to Tokyo and drag her along with them. She feels displaced, but finds comfort in her diary… which the story’s other protagonist, Ruth, finds washed up on the shore of British Colombia, inside a Hello Kitty lunchbox. She begins a desperate search to find out what became of Nao, a presumed victim of the 2011 tsunami.

The Absolutely True Diary Of A Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie

The Absolutely True Diary Of A Part-Time Indian - Sherman Alexie - Keeping Up With The Penguins

As the title suggests, The Absolutely True Diary Of A Part-Time Indian is written as the (alright, more semi-autobiographical than absolutely true) diary of a Native American boy who attends an all-white school off the reservation on which he lives. It tracks Junior’s school year, and includes many funny and insightful drawings from the pen of the budding cartoonist. The book has been subject to countless challenges and bans because of its unflinching insider’s take on the real-life struggles facing teenagers, especially teenagers of colour and those who live with disabilities.

An American Marriage by Tayari Jones

An American Marriage - Tayari Jones - Keeping Up With The Penguins

An American Marriage is an epistolary novel written in the most heart-wrenching style of letters you can imagine: those to and from a wrongfully imprisoned man’s wife. Tayari Jones’s novel takes us beyond the cliches of black men behind bars, and pulls us in for a closer look. How much do we owe, to each other and to ourselves? How much is too much to give? There are no good guys or bad guys in this novel, only human hearts with human stories to tell. Read my full review of An American Marriage here.

Bridget Jones’s Diary by Helen Fielding


Bridget Jones’s Diary was probably the first epistolary novel I ever read (though I didn’t know it at the time). It started as a newspaper column, styled as diary entries from a thirty-something self-proclaimed Singleton, living in ’90s London. It became such a sensation that the columns were compiled and conflated into a whole book: a diary of a year in the life of Bridget Jones, beloved but bumbling, humble and huggable, in search of a happily ever after to call her own.

Clarissa by Samuel Richardson

Clarissa - Samuel Richardson - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

One of the earliest examples of the epistolary novel can be found in Clarissa by Samuel Richardson. Published in 1748, it is a cautionary tale hiding behind the thin veneer of a supposed romance. A young lady, Clarissa, seeks to live a quiet and virtuous life, only to be thwarted time and again by her family’s plans for her to marry and the unconscionable conduct of her would-be suitor. The sorry tale unfolds in letters to and from the lady in question, with a few asides here and there. Read my full review of Clarissa here.

Daisy Jones and The Six by Taylor Jenkins Reid

Daisy Jones And The Six - Taylor Jenkins Reid - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Epistolary novels aren’t all diaries and letters. Take Daisy Jones and The Six, for instance. This worldwide best-seller is written as a transcript from a Behind The Music-style documentary. In it, each member of the titular band tells their version of events, from their formation to their smash hit album to their abrupt disbandment. This fly-on-the-wall style, and the contradictory stories each contributor swears to be true, makes for compelling reading. Read my full review of Daisy Jones and The Six here.

Dracula by Bram Stoker

Dracula - Bram Stoker - book laid on wooden table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Some epistolary novels mix it up, with a variety of stylised documents. Dracula is one such novel. Through a combination of letters, diary entries, newspaper articles, and other scribblings, Bram Stoker depicts the emergence, chase, and ultimate demise of one of the 19th century’s most terrifying villains, Dracula. Sure, you might find yourself wondering where Van Helsing and co. found the time to do all this letter writing, when they were chasing the vampire up and down the country… but asking too many questions ruins the fun. Read my full review of Dracula here.

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society - Mary Ann Shaffer - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Almost all of the action in The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society is triggered by the writing or receipt of a letter (how they ever turned such a book into a film is beyond me, they’re a credit to themselves!). It kicks off with Juliet writing to her publishers to tell them she doesn’t wish to write a sequel to her best-selling novel. Then, she receives a letter from a stranger, who lives in the out-of-the-way spot we call Guernsey, and he’s a member of the most intriguing little club…

The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

The Handmaid's Tale - Margaret Atwood - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

At first, you might not even realise The Handmaid’s Tale is an epistolary novel. You’d have to hold out to the end for the epilogue (and wait another minute or two before you start searching for the socks that Atwood blew off you). While it initially reads as a deeply introspective internal narrative, the epilogue reveals that The Handmaid’s Tale is just that: a handmaid’s tale, recorded onto cassette and buried in the junk drawer until long after the Gilead era has passed, carefully transcribed by the scholars who meet at a conference each year to try and work out what the heck went down back then. Read my full review of The Handmaid’s Tale here.

I Love Dick by Chris Krauss

I Love Dick - Chris Krauss - Keeping Up With The Penguins

One of the odder types of epistolary novel, I Love Dick combines fiction, memoir, academic essays, heartfelt missives, and… a lot of other stuff. It deliberately pushes the boundaries, in more ways than one. Chris, who we are to understand is both the protagonist of the novel and the author herself, develops an obsession with a cultural critic named Dick. Her obsession grows, deepens, as she chases him across the country, and he grows ever more elusive. This is not a book for the faint of heart (if for no other reason than you might get a few funny looks reading it in public).

The Martian by Andy Weir

The Martian - Andy Weir - book laid on wooden table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

An epistolary novel from the future: The Martian is written as a series of logs by Mark Watney, an astronaut stranded alone on Mars. Accidentally left behind by his crew, he has to figure out how to make his meager rations last long enough for a rescue mission to find him. Written largely for his own eyes (seemingly forgetting that the documents might become part of a historical record), Watney’s log is hilarious, disarming, and full of character. Read my full review of The Martian here.

The Perks Of Being A Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky

The Perks Of Being A Wallflower - Stephen Chbosky - Keeping Up With The Penguins

The Perks Of Being A Wallflower straddles the fence of epistolary novels; while it’s written as letters from the main character, Charlie, he never receives a response, making them diaries in effect. Through these letters to no one, he reveals his innermost secrets and internalised trauma. In his own life, Charlie relishes the role of wallflower, standing on the sidelines of everything that happens. His anonymous friend, to whom he addresses the letters (and by extension the reader, you and I) fulfills that same role for Charlie, observing everything that happens to him and taking it all in without intervening.

Piranesi by Susanna Clarke

Piranesi - Susanna Clarke - Keeping Up With The Penguins

One of the few common threads through all epistolary novels is that the narrators are unreliable. When we’re writing our own version of events, we can’t help but be subjective, and communicate our own point of view as though it were irrefutable truth. While the diaries that make up Piranesi hold true to that tradition, there’s a key difference: Piranesi’s mistakes and oversights aren’t self-serving slips of the ego, they are a genuine product of his environment and his long-term isolation. I can’t say any more than that without spoiling it!

The Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Anne Brontë

The Tenant of Wildfell Hall - Anne Bronte - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Until recently, Anne Brontë was kind of the forgotten Brontë sister – but not anymore. She’s having her moment in the spotlight, largely thanks to this transgressive and subversive epistolary novel, The Tenant Of Wildfell Hall. The story unfolds through a series of letters from one Gilbert Markham, describing how he came to meet a young widow named Helen Graham, now a tenant of (you guessed it) Wildfell Hall. It’s the most scandalous and debauched of all the Brontë novels, which surely in and of itself makes it worth a read.

True History Of The Kelly Gang by Peter Carey

True History Of The Kelly Gang - Peter Carey - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

It’s bold to call a fictitious memoir a “true history”, isn’t it? That’s what drew me to this epistolary novel, True History Of The Kelly Gang. Peter Carey imagines that Ned Kelly, inexplicably revered and infamous Australian bushranger, had a daughter, and what he might want to tell her about his life and crimes. It’s a conceit within a conceit, as each “volume” of Kelly’s “memoir” is preceded by a curator’s note about the state of the manuscript, and presumptions as to its origins. It’s also written in a delightfully unique and lyrical Irish-Australian dialect. Read my full review of True History Of The Kelly Gang here.

We Need To Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver

We Need To Talk About Kevin - Liionel Shriver - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Sorry to end on a bum note, but we need to talk about We Need To Talk About Kevin. It is a truly heart-wrenching epistolary novel, told through a series of letters from Eva Khatchadourian to her absentee husband, in which she endeavours to uncover where they went wrong with their son, and what they might have done to prevent his heinous crimes. Despite Kevin’s incarceration, and her own legal troubles, Eva up-ends her life to remain close to her son, and lays all of her shit bare to try and get to the bottom of it all.

The Color Purple – Alice Walker

How’s this for an opening line: “You better not never tell nobody but God.” Chills, right? It’s a powerful opener for a powerful book, Alice Walker’s The Color Purple. It sets the stage for a story told largely through letters to God, from a black woman named Celie. When she starts writing these letters, she is just fourteen years old, and yet she has already seen and experienced a lifetime’s worth of hardship.

The Color Purple - Alice Walker - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins
Buy The Color Purple here.
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(To fortify you for what’s to come, here’s a fun fact about my copy of The Color Purple: it was once awarded to Ella S at her Year 7 Speech Night, for Excellence in Mathematics of all things, according to the plate stuck in the front. Wherever she is, hope she’s still kicking the quadratic equation’s arse!)

Celie’s story begins, as I said, with her at fourteen years old, living in poverty and lacking any real education. Her story begins in the American South (Georgia, it would seem) in the early half of the 20th century. As if all of that weren’t enough – trigger warning! so many trigger warnings! – she has also been beaten and raped (repeatedly) by her father, Alphonso. She became pregnant, twice, and as far as she knows Alphonso has killed their children. The abuse at the hands of her father, and just about every other man in her life, has left her with very little self-worth or belief, aside from that which she finds in her letters to God. The dialect in which she writes takes a little getting used to at first, but no more so than books like Huck Finn.

The bright spot in Celie’s life is her younger sister, Nettie – a beautiful, clever, and brave girl whom Celie will protect from their father at all costs. An older man (identified only as Mister) comes sniffing around, looking for a bride. Alphonso refuses to let him take Nettie, and Mister begrudgingly accepts Celie instead (he needs someone, desperately, to care for his children and keep his house, ugh). Unfortunately, it’s out of the frying pan and into the fire for Celie, because as Mister’s wife she experiences only more abuse and degradation.

Not long after, Nettie runs away from home. She and Celie know she could never be safe at Mister’s house (he does, after all, still have his rapey eye on her), so Celie recommends she seek out a wealthy stranger she once met in passing to help. Unbelievably, this works, and Nettie joins their household and their missionary trip to Africa. Nettie promises to write, but when Celie never receives any letters, she concludes that her sister must be dead.

About a third of the way through The Color Purple, we’re introduced to the third central character: Shug Avery, a jazz singer and long-time mistress of Mister (whom she calls Albert, weird). When she falls ill, Mister takes her in to be cared for (i.e., by his wife, Celie) until she’s well enough to go back to work. Little does he know, he’s tying his own noose: Celie and Shug fall in love.

Shug is basically everything Celie wishes herself to be: brave, free, talented, beautiful, and worldly (in every sense). Their relationship strengthens and deepens over time, and eventually Celie elects to move away from Shug, abandoning her arsehole husband and his rotten kids. Through Shug, she also learns that her sister Nettie is not dead after all: Mister has been hiding her letters, she is alive and well in Africa, and Celie clings to hope that one day they will be reunited. And I suppose that’s about as far as I can get into describing the plot without getting too spoiler-y…

It actually took me a while to work out when exactly the events of The Color Purple were taking place. Given that the majority of the action occurs in isolated rural areas, and things have been so shitty for women of colour for so long, it could’ve been just about any time since the American Civil War. Towards the end, however, characters started alluding to a(nother) world war, which puts the timeline between 1910 and 1940. I actually liked the timeless quality, with Walker’s focus on the immediate and the minutia of character. It made the story more universal, more ingratiating to readers in the present.

You’d be forgiven for assuming that, with all the God talk and letters that are basically prayers, that this is a religious novel. Walker says in her preface that “this is the book in which I was able to express a new spiritual awareness, a rebirth into strong feelings of Oneness I realised I had experienced and taken for granted as a child,”. That said, The Color Purple isn’t evangelical or preachy at all. I found it totally accessible and relatable, even as a lifelong atheist. Celie explicitly starts to doubt the “official” version of God (as organised Christian religion would have us believe) about halfway through the novel, and comes to the remarkably progressive conclusion that “god” is in everything. Her last letter is addressed: “Dear God. Dear stars, dear trees, dear sky, dear peoples. Dear Everything. Dear God.”

The core message I took away from The Color Purple was not, despite the impression I might have given, “doesn’t life suck for people of colour”. Instead, it was to marvel at the strength and power of relationships between women. It is through her relationship with Shug, and her persistent belief in the strength of her bond with Nettie, that Celie is able to overcome all that oppresses her. The women in her life are a salve to the wounds inflicted by men and their violence, as Celie herself is a salve to the wounds inflicted on the women she loves. So, despite the rather traumatic and depressing content, the “feel” of The Color Purple is more hopeful and uplifting than you might expect.

The Color Purple was first published in 1982, and went on to win both the National Book Award For Fiction and the Pulitzer Prize For Fiction in 1983 (making Walker the first black woman to win the latter). It has retained its cultural currency in the intervening decades – so much so that it continues to be banned and challenged in schools and libraries, which seems to be a rite of passage for any meaningful work of literature. Common reasons for scrapping it from reading lists include the explicit sexual content, language, violence, and lesbianism (the horror! *eye roll*). It appeared on the American Library Association’s list of the 100 Most Frequently Challenged Books of 2000-2009.

There has been a very successful movie adaptation (with Oprah!), and a musical adaptation too, but I actually don’t feel all that inclined to seek either of them out. I feel like the power of the story comes from Celie’s telling of it, in words on paper, and I’m not sure it could translate onto screen or stage. All told, The Color Purple is a brilliant and very moving work of art, one well worth a read (and probably at least one or two re-reads, come to that).

My favourite Amazon reviews of The Color Purple:

  • “Life is uncertain and people are generally bad and good. When you can, do the things that make you happy.” – Kelly
  • “The book was a lot like the movie but different.” – N. Keith
  • “It was very disheartening for to see this book be ruined so with the perversion of lesbianism. Otherwise, it would have been a very good book. It was informative and interesting, but very disgusting because of the sexual perversion of lesbianism.” – Ecclesia
  • “incredible sorrry” – jessica Utley

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