Keeping Up With The Penguins

Reviews For The Would-Be Booklover

Category: American (page 1 of 22)

Shrill – Lindy West

“Shrill” is a gendered insult, as Lindy West points out early in her memoir. In using it for a title, she alludes (primarily) to the criticisms levelled at Hillary Clinton in the run-up to the 2016 presidential election, when the bulk of this book was written. “Shrill” is a word applied to women with opinions stated loudly – and that should give you a pretty good idea of what Shrill is all about.

Shrill - Lindy West - Keeping Up With The Penguins
Get Shrill here.
(In my opinion, using the affiliate links on this page to make purchases is awesome, because it helps me keep the lights on.)

In this collection of personal essays, West combines cultural criticism with reflections on a life lived in a fat female body. Topics range from shyness to body image to rape jokes to break-ups to movie villains to abortion to airlines, so Shrill covers a lot of ground. West’s style lands somewhere between Roxane Gay and Samantha Irby – in fact, I’d love to go to brunch with all three of them. I doubt I’d get a word in, but I’d have a fabulous time.

In between taking aim at misogyny and revealing highly embarrassing personal secrets, West offers moments of penetrating insight. My personal favourite: “In a certain light, feminism is just the long, slow realization that the stuff you love hates you,” (page 19-20). Any feminist who’s really looked at the lyrics to their favourite hip-hop jam will relate.

You’ll want to have a bookmark handy for the chapter How To Stop Being Shy In Eighteen Easy Steps. I plan to re-read it every time I feel a full-body cringe coming on, remembering something I’ve said or done in the past. It’s one of the most uplifting personal essays I’ve ever read, and it comes from a place of radical vulnerability. In essence, it’s thesis is that you’ve survived everything that has ever embarrassed you, so you probably shouldn’t waste so much energy on feeling embarrassed.

Undoubtedly, though, the pièce de résistance of Shrill is the chapter(s) dedicated to confronting the internet troll that impersonated West’s dead father on Twitter. You might recall her segment on This American Life, back in 2015, where not only did she have a conversation with the man, but she recorded it and shared it with the world. It’s a remarkable act of bravery, for both of them, and it’s a masterclass in compassion (for others and for oneself).

Shrill has aged surprisingly well, given how far culture has come over the past eight years; it was published pre-Covid, pre-#MeToo, and pre-a lot of other stuff that has moved the needle considerably in that time. The only part that struck me as truly quaint and outdated was one of the final essays, where West writes about the (then) CEO of Twitter conceding that they’d done a terrible job of monitoring and moderating the platform, and vowing to do better. Little could West have known how truly unwieldy that platform could become in the hands of an unhinged billionaire desperately seeking external validation from the big boys on the playground.

The thing is, I didn’t find Shrill to be a particularly funny book, despite all the blurbs and reviews calling it “hilarious”, “uproarious”, and “laugh-out-loud funny”. Don’t get me wrong, Lindy West is funny, and this isn’t meant to be levelled as a criticism. Just like I didn’t find Shrill romantic or scary, I didn’t find it funny. I did, however, find it thought-provoking, and galvanising, and insightful, and surprising, and honest. All of these are wonderful things that don’t need to make us snort-laugh. If you’re looking to chuckle, look elsewhere, but if you want to feel strong and powerful, pick up Shrill.

My favourite Amazon reviews of Shrill:

  • “vicious. for lesbians. all men all criminals.” – Erard Gilles
  • “this book is garbage and only winning awards due to an agenda like Obama’s Nobel Peace prize.” – Al Clark
  • “Awful book, it’s just cry-baby rhetoric. No real facts to counter abortion, just her ‘fweeings’.
    In fact, this book is an abortion itself.” – PJ
  • “What an immature, immoral, selfish woman!!” – Judy

Interview With The Vampire – Anne Rice

Going into Interview With The Vampire, I only really knew Anne Rice by reputation – if at all. I’d heard a lot of women around my age talk about reading her books as a formative experience, sneaking them home from the library and devouring them under the covers, but somehow I missed out on that rite of passage. I’d never even seen the Oscar-winning film adaptation of her most famous book, so I went into it with pretty much a blank slate.

Interview With The Vampire - Anne Rice - Keeping Up With The Penguins
Get Interview With The Vampire here.
(If you’ve got any questions about affiliate links, you can ask, but they’re fairly simple: when you make a purchase, sites like this one get a small commission for referring you.)

Interview With The Vampire is a gothic-horror vampire novel (duh), styled as a centuries-old vampire – Louis de Pointe du Lac – telling his life story to a reporter. Rice drops you right into the middle of the conversation, or that’s how it feels anyway. I wondered for a minute whether there was an introductory chapter or two missing, because the action takes off before you know what hits you and doesn’t stop.

Louis was 25 years old, back in 1791, when he became a vampire. He was an indigo plantation owner (ahem, slave-owner, but more on that in a minute) grieving the shocking loss of his pious brother Paul. In the midst of a self-destructive spiral, he is approached and bitten by a vampire, Lestat de Lioncourt. Soon, he’s allergic to the sun and sleeping in a coffin and hungry only for blood hot and fresh from the vein.

Lacking any other options for vampire buddies, Louis and Lestat become frenemies. Louis hopes that Lestat will teach him The Ways of being a vampire, but everything Lestat shows him seems either completely stupid or morally reprehensible. Louis feels stuck with him, though – and the fact that they’re immortal, so this arrangement might have to last forever, adds another layer of conflict and complexity. And, it hardly needs saying but I’ll say it anyway: it’s all deeply homoerotic. There’s no subtlety to it at all.

Even though this all happens very quickly in Interview With The Vampire, you’ll still find yourself working through long, long chapters. Rice is wordy, and she loves an ellipsis, which gives you the feeling of reading extended texts from a baby boomer.

Anyway, Louis and Lestat’s relationship is coming apart at the seams. In desperation, Louis escapes to New Orleans, and finds himself drawn to ‘feed’ (sorry, gross, I know) on a plague-ridden five-year-old girl, whom he finds crying next to her mother’s corpse (double gross, but hold onto your hat, there’s worse to come). Lestat is worried that Louis is going to abandon him, so he has the bright idea of also feeding on the five-year-old and completing the process of turning her into a vampire, too. I guess it’s the old-timey vampire equivalent of a surprise pregnancy in Anne Rice’s world. Louis can’t leave Lestat now – they have a baby.

That might be repellent enough to put a swathe of would-be readers off Interview With A Vampire altogether, but what I read about that particular plot point afterwards changed my feelings about it. Rice began working on the short story that would eventually become Interview With The Vampire shortly after the death of her daughter Michelle, at just six years of age. She’s even said specifically, in interviews and so forth, that the young vampire girl (Claudia, in the book) is directly inspired by her late daughter. Knowing that makes the story less horrifying and more horribly sad, for me anyway. What mother wouldn’t want to give her daughter eternal life, even if it meant turning her into a vampire (or, as it were, a fictional character)?

Whether you can stomach the attack, abuse, manipulation, and corruption of a child, described in yearning and tender prose, is just one deciding factor in whether Interview With The Vampire is the right book for you. There’s also the aforementioned homoeroticism (though that endears me to it more, if anything). One of my favourite critical comments on this point came from Edith Milton, writing for The New Republic: “To pretend that it has any purpose beyond suckling eroticism is rank hypocrisy,”. LOL!

What I really take issue with in Interview With The Vampire is the depiction of slavery, and the inherent racism in the narrative. I suspect you’d need a few years to write a thesis that really gets to the bottom of it, especially now with the newer screen adaptation transforming the story with a Black man in the lead. As I read this one, though, purely on a surface level, you’ve got Lestat feeding on slaves and their families, Louis exploiting their fear, and zero question or concern about their well-being or the systemic problem of race-based slavery.

It’s particularly surprising given that Rice seemed to style herself as a chronicler of the plight of the down-trodden. “I wrote novels about people who are shut out life for various reasons,” she wrote in her memoir. “This became a great theme of my novels — how one suffers as an outcast.”

I suppose Rice did try to nod to social justice when she had Louis refuse to feed on his own slaves (he predominantly drinks the blood of animals, making him the vampire equivalent of a vegetarian, I guess), but I mean… he had no issue enslaving them, so…?! Basically, in Interview With The Vampire, slaves are background characters that occasionally pop their heads up to keep the plot in order, they’re spoken about in denigrating ways and treated as disposable resources, and it all just gave me the ick.

Still, I can see the book’s appeal. What’s particularly interesting is the recasting of the vampire as tragic anti-hero, rather than self-evident villain. I don’t know if that was Rice’s intent in having the vampire narrate his own story in Interview With The Vampire (we’re never the villains in our own story) or just an interesting by-product of taking a different perspective, but either way, it works. That’s probably why it went on to sell ten million-odd copies, and spawn twelve sequels. I probably won’t go out of my way to read any more of them, but I can see why others might.

My favourite Amazon reviews of Interview With The Vampire:

  • “I just read this pile. The main character, Louis, is just incredibly whiny. The book has pages upon pages of whining, but I can never really identify what the character finds so loathsome about his creator. The book is painfully descriptive, yet incredibly vague. Save the time and fall asleep in front of the movie.” – Erik Pearson
  • “The first and the biggest problem is the main character – he is so unlikable and such a pushover for about 95% of the story, you can’t just be annoyed with him ALL THE TIME. Most of the negative events in the book are his fault because he’s such an idiot.” – Kindle Customer
  • “In a word: AWFUL! Ann Rice has taken her love for penning overblown sexual fetishes (both hetero and homo-erotic) and single-handedly ruined the vampire as myth originally described the foul demon. Lestat’s character was so lavishly overblown as to verge on the comical. Each scene in the book was more or less a wishful description of an orgiastic costum party.” – J. Pemberton

Let’s Explore Diabetes With Owls – David Sedaris

Every David Sedaris book is like a treat for me. I hoard them like chocolates in a secret corner of the fridge, and pull them out when I need something sinful and delicious. My latest indulgence is Let’s Explore Diabetes With Owls, his collection of narrative essays from 2013.

Let's Explore Diabetes With Owls - David Sedaris - Keeping Up With The Penguins
Get Let’s Explore Diabetes With Owls here.
(Explore affiliate links with me: when you make a purchase, you’re supporting this site with a small commission.)

It won’t come as any surprise to fellow fans of Sedaris that Let’s Explore Diabetes With Owls contains very little about the titular diabetes, or owls. The title was taken from a conversation he had with a reader at a book signing, who asked him to inscribe one of his books with something along the lines of ‘explore your inner feelings’. Sedaris said: “I never write what people ask me, so I said ‘I’ll keep the word explore’, and I wrote ‘let’s explore diabetes with owls,’.” There you have it.

The essays in Let’s Explore Diabetes With Owls aren’t closely tied to a particular theme or servicing any overarching narrative. Rather, there’s a few threads that loosely connect a few of them, more like a mind map than a straight line through a story.

Sedaris’s voice remains as singular as ever, though – curious, awkward, wry, self-deprecating, at times angry, mostly baffled. He waxes rhapsodic about his relationship with his French orthodontist, he overcomes his fear to hand-feed a kookaburra at a regional Australian cafe, he grumbles about the futile but irresistible task of cleaning rubbish from the English countryside, and he wonders what exactly it is about him that gives a taxidermy shop attendant the (correct) impression that he’d like to see human remains they keep out the back.

A couple of motifs appear multiple times throughout. Many of the essays in Let’s Explore Diabetes With Owls were written or set during the early Obama years, for instance, so quite a few of them reference the 2008 election and the world’s fascination with the American political side-show. Sedaris’s father is also a recurring character, at times an menacing presence in the family home and at others an object of fun. Any other writer might struggle to communicate to the reader that a man who rarely wears pants inside the house can intimidate a child, but Sedaris isn’t just any writer. Without ever explaining it explicitly, Sedaris impresses upon us his lifelong struggle to satisfy his father – only to delightfully resolve the tension by finally conceding to his father’s demands that he get a colonoscopy, which makes the old man happy.

My love for Sedaris is so great that even the cruelest subject matter doesn’t put me off his writing. In Loggerheads, he describes a disastrous childhood experiment keeping captured baby sea turtles in a bedroom aquarium, despite knowing nothing about them (not even what they ate). The sea turtles met an unfortunate end, which would be enough to put me off any other essayist, but Sedaris has engendered enough goodwill that I can forgive it.

In that vein, delicate readers might be put out by some of what I’d diplomatically refer to as some cultural insensitivity in Let’s Explore Diabetes With Owls – in the chapter about examining a taxidermied Congolese Pygmy for instance, or the one about food and hygiene habits in China. It’s dicey ground, but I like to assume the best of intentions in Sedaris and I hope that other readers can do the same.

Really, the slightly sour note in Let’s Explore Diabetes With Owls was a layout issue more than anything else. Sedaris includes comedic fictional monologues throughout the collection, which he explains in the foreword, but they’re not flagged as such in text. So, reading Let’s Explore Diabetes With Owls led to frequent experiences of whiplash, realising that Sedaris was writing in character and not, in fact, relating a story about being a teenage girl who gets ripped off on a school trip to England or a woman who is duped by her gay son into wearing a Big Proud Dyke t-shirt to a conservative rally. These stories are funny, and no doubt fun for Sedaris to write, but I could’ve done without them – or at least would have preferred they be signposted a bit better.

All told, reading Let’s Explore Diabetes With Owls was another wicked delight, and I’m already eagerly anticipating my next treat from Sedaris.

My favourite Amazon reviews of Let’s Explore Diabetes With Owls:

  • “A turd left floating in a toilet is far funnier than one mans take on politics in the US.” – amlphx
  • “As a resident of the south who got to go to one of his book signings it now makes me re-evaluate whether or not he actually wanted to be there or secretly was hating our guts cause we might be conservative.” – Amazon Customer
  • “Do you really want to read about the taxidermist who used a human head as his subject, for example, or about his sisters’ reactions to some pervert exposing himself? In two words, this book is childish trash.” – Spot
  • “Too mean-spirited and kind of snobby and elitist – like this guy has the monopoly on good taste. Get over yourself.” – Anonymous
  • “Reading this was like going to your favorite restaurant, ordering a lobster and having the waiter lift the lid of the serving dish to reveal a dead rat. I tried three time to read this mound of steaming crap.” – Tom Hemeon

Dumplin’ – Julie Murphy

Dumplin’, the 2015 young adult novel by Julie Murphy, opens strong with an epigraph quoting Dolly Parton: “Find out who you are and do it on purpose”. It’s a theme that runs through the story about a plus-size small-town gal trying to figure out where she fits in a world not made for her.

Dumplin' - Julie Murphy - Keeping Up With The Penguins
Get Dumplin’ here.
(You’ll be the dumplin’ of my eye if you make a purchase through one of the affiliate links on this page.)

Dumplin’ is set in a small Southern town, known only for having the longest-running beauty pageant in the state of Texas. Willowdean ‘Will’ Dixon has never really fit in, not even in her own family, but she doesn’t mind – or she didn’t, until she developed strong feelings for her gorgeous co-worker at the local burger joint. All of a sudden, Will (known “affectionately” as Dumplin’ by her mother) is self-conscious about her size, and she’s desperate to find a way back to comfort in her own skin.

The only plus-size ‘role model’ Will ever had was her Aunt Lucy, a large woman who passed away shortly before the book begins. Lucy was kind and loving, but also deeply insecure. As Will puts it, “There are so many things that Lucy never did. Not because she couldn’t, but because she told herself she couldn’t, and no one made her believe otherwise.”

Determined to avoid a future life like Lucy’s, Will does the one big thing her aunt was never brave enough to do: enter the beauty pageant. To her mother’s shock, Dumplin’ has no intention of losing weight to fit into a pageant dress (and that’s never really a factor in the story). She enters simply to prove to herself that she can, a fake-it-’til-you-make-it route to body acceptance.

So, it sounds like it should be a heartfelt feel-good read, right? But I found Dumplin’ fairly depressing. Will seems to make ‘being fat’ her whole personality. Hardly a page goes by where she doesn’t mention it. I know that teenagers, especially those who don’t fit the mold of traditional beauty standards, can be a bit obsessive and self-critical, but it just felt over the top.

That’s especially given that Will’s judgement extended to other characters – there wasn’t a single character in Dumplin’ who wasn’t defined by their appearance (fat, skinny, buck-toothed, or otherwise). Will even uses a few ableist slurs that made me grit my teeth. It just wasn’t what I’d been hoping for in a book positioned as an ode to self-love and body positivity. Definitely not in the spirit of Saint Dolly!

I feel like this is a kind of writerly tic that Julie Murphy has been able to overcome, though. I don’t recall it being an issue at all in If The Shoe Fits, one of her later novels. There we got a heroine who was plus-sized and proud, and far more realistic in terms of her self-perception. So, if you’re looking for an uplifting book that places a fat woman in the spotlight and lets her get the man and the happily-ever-after, that’s probably a better one to pick up.

The strongest recommendation I can make for Dumplin’ is that it’s full of characters who love and admire Dolly Parton (even if they don’t quite manage to live by her ethos). It’s wonderful to see such a generous, wonderful woman eulogised in fiction, especially a book aimed at younger readers who might need prompting to find out more about her.

My favourite Amazon reviews of Dumplin’:

  • “the book has zero surprises in store for the reader. if you’ve ever read a book before you should steer clear, and if you haven’t, you should read something else.” – Evan Ørndal Lien
  • “This was supposed to be a revolution in heels–and what happens? Willowdean remains somewhat judgmental, and worse, the Roman empire wins! Ugh.” – Stephanie McCall
  • “Unfortunately, this dumpling was a little too bland for my taste.” – Books, Tea, Insanity

Zen And The Art Of Motorcycle Maintenance – Robert M Pirsig

I am not a very Zen person, and I have very little interest in motorcycle maintenance – so what on earth could have compelled me to read a book about both of those things? Well, Zen And The Motorcycle Maintenance holds the dubious honour of being the most-often rejected best seller. Robert M Pirsig’s manuscript was turned down 121 times before he found an editor happy to take a chance on his weird book, and even then expectations were low. It went on to top the best seller lists, and sell millions of copies worldwide.

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance - Robert M Pirsig - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins
Get Zen And The Art Of Motorcycle Maintenance here.
(I’ll feel a lot more Zen if you use an affiliate link on this page to make a purchase, which supports this site.)

I was reassured by the Author’s Note on my edition, which promises: “[This book] should in no way be associated with that great body of factual information relating to orthodox Zen Buddhist practice. It’s not very factual on motorcycles either.” It seems Pirsig had a good sense of humour, and a knack for turning a phrase – both qualities I appreciate in an author.

Zen And The Art Of Motorcycle Maintenance is an autobiographical story about a father-and-son motorcycle road trip across the United States, but in telling it, the narrator undertakes a philosophical odyssey and examines how we think and perceive the world. So, not exactly light reading.

As the “autobiographical” part of that summary suggests, Pirsig actually did undertake a 17-day journey with his son, Chris, from Minnesota to Northern California on the back of a Honda CB77. He also undertook the philosophical odyssey himself, too, but I’m hoping (for his sake) that there’s more than a little creative license in Zen And The Art Of Motorcycle Maintenance, because things get dark.

In between legs of the trip, the narrator/Pirsig spends a lot of time talking philosophy to himself (in-text essays he calls Chautauquas). The philosophy is pretty basic stuff at first, until he turns to rhetoric and the Ancient Greeks in the final act. Reading Zen And The Art Of Motorcycle Maintenance is like taking a shaved-down Intro to Philosophy class. You could probably get about the same level of understanding from reading the Wikipedia page about the book. The urge to skim was strong as I was reading it, particularly once I passed the halfway mark. I found myself desperate to skip the philosophical meandering, and get to the road trip story.

It sounds like Pirsig would’ve been alright with that, though. He once said: “Two different books are commingled [in Zen And The Art Of Motorcycle Maintenance], one about ideas and the other about people. If a reader just wants to know about the people, that’s okay. It’s still a readable book.” Never thought I’d be a ‘people person’, but there you have it!

The philosophy stuff is linked to the road trip stuff by the narrator’s back story, and this is where Zen And The Art Of Motorcycle Maintenance took a turn that I didn’t expect. It turns out the narrator has a history of mental illness, and personifies it in the form of Phaedrus. Phaedrus is both the narrator’s past self and his shadow self, a college professor who became crazed by his quest to understand what constitutes good writing, or ‘Quality’ as he calls it. The narrator/Phaedrus was detained and hospitalised, and treated (without consent) by electroconvulsive therapy, causing the apparent split between his two selves. He’s basically a middle-aged Holden Caulfield, with more delusions of intellectual insight.

But, as I said, the philosophy – and the back-story that informs it – kind of bored me, in the end. It was the road trip I was interested in, and the narrator’s relationship with his son. Given how closely Zen And The Art Of Motorcycle Maintenance aligns with Pirsig’s own life and experience, I thought it was kind of brutal that he included the scenes where Chris shits his pants (twice! on one road trip! that’s why we pack more underwear than we need). Of course, this was overshadowed by the heart-wrenching Afterword, which reveals that Chris was murdered a few years after the book was published. Pirsig seemed to believe that his son was reincarnated in some fashion, by way of an accidental pregnancy with his second wife – if that brought him some comfort, I’m glad.

All told, Zen And The Art Of Motorcycle Maintenance is a book I’d recommend to privileged white men who take themselves too seriously. For me? It was fine, but not one I’ll be re-reading.

My favourite Amazon reviews of Zen And The Art Of Motorcycle Maintenance:

  • “Don’t know what people see in this book other than the catchy title, but it is nothing squared. It is not good at philosophy and it’s not good at storytelling so you’ve been warned.” – Molly
  • “Attempted to read this gobeldegook and never finished it. Some people like Limburger cheese but most find it stinks. This book has little to do with motorcycles. After reading some of the book, I finally realized that a mental case with half baked philosophy is the author! This book is like the emperor’s new clothes. I didn’t get it so I guess I’m not a intellectual snob.” – none
  • “The first part is just a long string of examples of poor parenting. One really starts to feel bad for the son by the end of it. The second engages in the worst kind of sophistry, misrepresents Taoism, misrepresents Zen, and basically claims to be a distillation of all three. The author claims that reality itself is subservient to an “indefinable” substance called “quality”. It’s basically Plato’s abstract ideals only sloppier. It’s also worth pointing out that this has nothing to do with motorcycle maintenance. If you’re looking for that, there are plenty of online videos out there on other platforms.” – jason
« Older posts