Keeping Up With The Penguins

Reviews For The Would-Be Booklover

Category: American (page 1 of 8)

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

Me Talk Pretty One Day – David Sedaris

I know David Sedaris mostly by reputation. I’d heard some of his segments on This American Life, and I loved his essay about his failed attempts at panic-buying at the onset of the pandemic, but I hadn’t read anything book-length until I picked up Me Talk Pretty One Day. This memoir, told in essays, was first published in 2000, making this year its twentieth anniversary, and yet it’s still as pertinent and resonant as ever. Sedaris’s wry humour and keen observations, of everything from family life to travel to cooking to education, are timeless.

My edition comes with a new introduction from the author, describing the various types of “fan” mail he has received since its initial release. Right from the outset, Sedaris sets his tone: uniquely sarcastic and affectionate in equal measure, poking fun without ever being cruel. I’m still scratching my head, trying to work out how he did it. How did he manage to land punches – in all directions, up and down and sideways – that feel like kisses? It’s truly masterful, a kind of comic genius you don’t see everyday.

Me Talk Pretty One Day is split into two parts. The first is a collection of essays about his childhood, mostly set in his native North Carolina. The second focuses on his life after moving to France, with his partner. It’s hard to believe how much life Sedaris has lived, as a speed addict, a furniture removalist, a writing teacher, a failed performance artist, an ex-pat… It’s all copy for Sedaris. He provides seemingly endless and delightfully witty commentary on all of his experiences, sharing the worst of them (addiction, grief, shame) with just as much good humour as the best of them.





Much of the humour in the second section is derived from Sedaris’s attempt to live in France without actually speaking French (and his fumbling efforts to learn). The titular essay – Me Talk Pretty One Day – is drawn from his participation in language classes, where just about everything is lost in translation. However, the title also echoes in the very first essay, from Sedaris’s childhood, about receiving speech therapy for his pronounced lisp. It’s a satisfyingly neat parallel. In fact, Sedaris’s communication “failures” are a recurring motif throughout the book.

Me Talk Pretty One Day is about astutely-observed adventures in seemingly mundane everyday activities. I’m sure Sedaris occasionally exaggerates and over-emphasises for comic effect, but I am more than willing to forgive him that. He seems like the kind of writer that could derive side-splitting laughter from a shopping list. That said, this isn’t a “fluffy” read. Sedaris is disarmingly honest about his extended flirtation with crystal meth (and his related dalliance with performance art), and other moments of darkness and weakness in his life. Still, he seems to process these traumas (self-inflicted and otherwise) in the way I most prefer and adore: with self-deprecating humour.





Me Talk Pretty One Day is a great read for when your attention span is shot. The essays are short enough that you can read the whole thing in bite-sized chunks, but the through-line is strong enough that it will keep pulling you back in. It’s a shame that it’s never been adapted for the screen. Apparently, it was all set to go – with a completed script and all – but Sedaris’s sister expressed concerns about how their family would be portrayed, and so he squashed it. For all his ribbing and warts-and-all honesty, Sedaris is clearly still a good guy, one who will set aside his own interests to protect his family and keep them happy.

So, I end where I began: still amazed at Sedaris’s knack for being cutting without being cruel, to tease but never bully. Every critical observation he offers is laced with love and LOLs. Every autobiographical gem he mines is polished to a bright shine. Me Talk Pretty One Day definitely lives up to the hype, and I guarantee it will tickle your funny bone, even in your darkest hours.

My favourite Amazon reviews of Me Talk Pretty One Day:

  • “Some people may like his humor but I’m not one of them.” – Dick
  • “I had to stop reading this while on the treadmill at the gym. I was laughing so hard I could barely walk and was making a spectacle of myself.” – Kindle Customer
  • “It was absolutely hilarious. I just wish he would not use so much “potty talk”. That not pretty!” – margaret h cleveland
  • “If you want to laugh hard enough to pee, this is for you.” – Amazon Customer
  • “It’s David Sedaris. Nuff said

    Except there are word minimums on this review, like a school book report. He’s the writer, not me.” – Amazon Customer

To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before – Jenny Han

For a fluffy young-adult rom-com, To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before has a spine-chilling premise. Lara Jean has written a letter to every boy she’s ever loved (five total), letters that were supposed to be for her eyes only… until one day, under mysterious circumstances, the letters are mailed to the boys in question. It’s every teen girl’s worst nightmare; even now, slightly (ahem!) past my teenage years, I shudder at the thought. But don’t let that put you off! It sets the stage for a thoroughly delightful read.

To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before was first published back in 2014. I’d already seen the Netflix adaptation, but I figured if the book was anywhere near as charming and endearing, it’d be worth reading. Han has said her story was inspired by her own habit of writing love letters (never mailed) to the boys she had crushes on as a teenager. For Lara Jean – and presumably for her creator – the letters are cathartic, a way to “let go” and farewell the boys she has no future with (including her sister’s boyfriend – eek!).

Sure, the romance is the central plot, but equally essential to this novel is Lara Jean’s family. Her mother is, sadly, dead, but she is very close to her father and sisters. Margot is the elder, headed off for university in Scotland, and Kitty is the younger, annoying at times but wise beyond her years. Josh – the aforementioned boyfriend of Margot – is practically part of the family. He lives next door and he often joins them for dinner and family events. He is also (prepare yourself for a stomach-churn) an unintended recipient of one of Lara Jean’s letters.





What’s a girl to do? Throw everyone off the scent by plunging head-long into a fake relationship, of course! Another recipient of a letter, Peter Kravinsky, is the “cool guy” of Lara Jean’s high school. He’s also recently broken up with his own girlfriend. They mutually agree to carry on as though they’re in a relationship. Lara Jean hopes it will prove to Josh that she’s moved on (and stop Margot cottoning on to the fact that she was secretly lusting after him the whole time, plausible deniability is the name of the game!), and Peter just wants to make his ex-girlfriend and resident Mean Girl, Gen, jealous.

Will it come as any shock if I tell you that this perfect plan goes horribly awry? Of course not! Of course it does! And everyone involved gets their feelings at least a little bit hurt. Such is the nature of young-adult romances. And yet, To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before – predictable and sweet as it might be – never once feels like a cliche. It’s never cloying or annoying. I mean, if you’re determined to be a real grouch, I suppose you could look down your nose at it, but boo to you!





Given the dire state of the world, and our collective desperation for a little escapism, To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before is the perfect read for the current moment. It’s sweet, it’s nostalgic, no one has to wear a mask or sing Happy Birthday as they wash their hands… Lara Jean’s internal monologue feels real. So. many other YA novels I’ve read sound like an adult simply parodying the way they think teenagers speak “nowadays”, which is patronising to say the least. To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before, however, hits the mark – a bullseye! Ah, to be young and in love…

The initial release spent 40 weeks on the New York Times Young Adult Best Seller List, and went on to be translated and published in over 30 languages. It got another boost upon the release of the Netflix adaptation in 2018 (which, I’m pleased to report, was mostly faithful to the book). There have since been two sequels, too: P.S. I Love You in 2015 (now with its own Netflix treatment, too), and Always And Forever, Lara Jean in 2016. I’m not sure I’m hooked enough to seek those out, but I wouldn’t discourage anyone from doing so. On the whole, I thoroughly enjoyed this one, and I would highly recommend it to anyone who needs to be reminded that life can be good and sweet.

My favourite Amazon reviews of To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before:

  • “I wanted the movie.” – Kayti
  • “This was an amazing book because it was about boys.” – Amazon Customer
  • “I couldn’t put this book down. I love how it was clean and not dirty.” – Staci

Under The Dome – Stephen King

Here’s another book review that’s been in the works for far too long. Back in the days when Keeping Up With The Penguins was still a seed of an idea, I was talking over my to-read list with a friend at a bar. As the night wore on, and the drinks went down, I pulled out my phone and created a new list – the next to-read list – and promised my friend that Under The Dome would be the first book on it. It was her personal favourite, and I swore to her that I’d review it just as soon as I was done with the original 109 books on my list. Well, I’m a couple months late and a dollar short, but I’m finally making good on that promise!

Really, the only reason that I put off reading Under The Dome is that I’m a big chicken. All I knew about Stephen King books is that they’re scary. Also, they’re (usually) huge – this one comes in at a whopping 880 pages. But, as with all fears, it turned out mine were (mostly) unfounded. Sure, it took a little longer to read than your standard 250-page novel, and there were a few spooky elements, but nothing that kept me up at night. So, that’s my first hot tip about Under The Dome: don’t be chicken!

The story starts on 21 October, when a small (fictional) town in Maine is completely cut off from the rest of the world by a large invisible dome that appears seemingly out of nowhere. A plane crashes right into it, killing two pilots (and one unfortunate woodchuck). The dome is unyielding, and pretty much impenetrable – some sound, light, and radio waves can travel through, but nothing with corporeal form (so no one in, no one out). So, as you can imagine, it throws everyone – under the dome, and outside of it – into a bit of a tizz.

As with any crisis situation, there are some who stand to benefit from (among other things) the panic that ensues, and an unlikely hero is called up to save the day. “Captain Barbie”, an ex-military man who was attempting to hitchhike his way out of the town on Dome Day, is charged with figuring out what the fuck is going on (the military is called in straight away, naturally, because America). Luckily, he’s got the keen-eyed flinty-cored local newspaper reporter, Julia Shumway, on his side.



Under The Dome is big in scope. I’m talking huge. I’m talking epic. At first, I couldn’t really see what the big deal was going to be; the map of the town in the front of the book included a book store, and the character list included “Dogs of Note”, so I figured I’d get by just fine in that situation, what could the problem possibly be? But then I was introduced to the town councilman, James “Big Jim” Rennie, who sees the dome as one big opportunity to make a power play that will allow him to take over the whole town. He carefully orchestrates and encourages unease among the townsfolk, using that as a springboard to expand the powers of the police force and silence any troublemakers. The dome basically throws small-town politics into a pot of water, and sets it to boil.

Now, your standard good-guy-Barbie-versus-bad-guy-Jim story would wear out real quick over the course of a book this size; they’re the main contenders in the conflict, sure, but there’s all kinds of other battles and romances and whatnot going on all around them, and King gives each their due. Under The Dome has a huge cast, and pretty much everyone’s point-of-view gets a look in at least once or twice.

The story isn’t exactly a laugh riot (in case you couldn’t tell), but some of the small-town slang and dark humour throughout made me literally laugh out loud. It was good of King to occasionally break the tension for us – believe me, there’s plenty of it. Oppressive religious mores, corrupt town council, dwindling supplies, toxic masculinity run rampant, widespread substance abuse problems, a kid with migraines and a penchant for killing women who annoy him… By putting a small town under a dome, sticking all the residents in a Lord Of The Flies-type scenario, King really lets us zoom in on the fallacy of the American Dream. In fact, King is quoted as saying that he took a lot of the same issues that he addressed in another of his books, The Stand, and used them in Under The Dome but dealt with them in a more allegorical way, taking big-world problems and putting them on a much smaller scale so we could look at them differently. After all, Anywhere, USA has a lot of dirty secrets.



As for the scary bits: well, Under The Dome isn’t horror, but holy heck, some parts are horrifying. Not just psychologically, either – I’m talking visceral, physical violence. It’s not quite supernatural or science-fictional, either. There are some spooky/other-worldly elements, but they’re not the focus or the key driver of the book. I’d shelve this one as more of a suspense thriller, a cautionary tale, with some genre-bending towards the end.

I can see why they made Under The Dome into a TV series (2013-2015); it’s got that strong small-town big-cast vibe that would be perfect for fans of Lost, or any other broad-woven light-sci-fi stories. The characters were quite well fleshed-out and three-dimensional for the most part, which was surprising given how many of them there are (and how many die). The sheer number of them, in the book version at least, allows King to tantalise the reader and reveal information really slowly, BUT the constant changes in perspective make the story FEEL pacy and compelling, regardless.

It was actually really refreshing to read a contemporary epic – not a multi-generational saga set across a century, but an event playing out over just days (a fortnight, tops) with close and intimate attention paid to every detail. Yes, it makes for a hella-long book, but it’s probably as short as King could have possibly made it without sacrificing the multiplicity of perspectives, and without those, the story would have needed a lot of long, boring monologue-y exposition from one or two key characters, anyway. No, thank you, please! Not for a story as complex as this one! I’d be happy to call Under The Dome a long book worth your time, and I must concede my friend was right in drunkenly insisting I read it (apologies, again, for taking so long to finally make good on my word – I’ll do better next time, I swear!).

My favourite Amazon reviews of Under The Dome:

  • “Never finished, conned a friend into taking it off my hands.” – Michael A. Swaney
  • “The story is entertaining though much of this book and the voice performance is really great (baaaarbie), but Stephen Kings loony left bias just pops it’s ugly head up way too often. It’s distracting and takes a lot away from the story. Really. Every white male christian is an evil crack addicted psychopath Nazi rapist and every journalist is like a cherub from heaven? Come on dude. I know this is fiction, but these old cliches are not only unbelievable they are boooooooring. If I knew it would have been like this I would not have purchased this audio book.” – Dorian
  • “I know this is blasphemy but I was disappointed with this effort of Stephen King. The baddies are bad. The goodies are good. Smut and flying body parts couldn’t hid a boring read. Sorry, there it is.” – Bod Parr
  • “Good until the ending as usual. 2 1/2 stars.” – L. M.

An American Marriage – Tayari Jones

Here’s another book that’s been on my to-read list forever: An American Marriage by Tayari Jones. I had a copy on my shelves, but I kept saving it for “the right moment”. Well, given everything that’s happened in the U.S. over the past couple of months, that moment is now. This is the book that Oprah says has “redefined the traditional American love story”.

An American Marriage is Tayari Jones’s fourth novel, but it’s truly her “break-out” book – the one that brought her international attention and acclaim. I love the story of how the idea came to her, which she relates in a letter to the reader in the front of my edition:

An American Marriage is a love story I found in the mall, of all places. Sitting in the food court, I overheard a young couple arguing in hushed tones. She said, ‘Roy, you know you wouldn’t have waited on me for seven years.’ He looked puzzled and then replied, ‘This wouldn’t have happened to you in the first place.’

Tayari Jones, An american Marriage

From that spark of inspiration came this story of Roy and Celestial, a middle-class African American couple living in Atlanta. They are educated, employed, upwardly mobile – pretty much the exact opposite of the stereotype of young black lovers fighting poverty or substance addiction on the mean streets. Still, even though they’re newlyweds and they’ve “done everything right”, their lives are torn apart when Roy is accused of sexually assaulting a woman.

Now, An American Marriage is not a did-he-or-didn’t-he story. Roy’s innocence is never in doubt. Fortunately, Jones also sidesteps describing or interrogating the nature of the assault that did actually take place (so there’s no fuel to fire any false-allegation readings) – she presents this as a case of mistaken identity, with the weight of hundreds of years of systemic racism behind it. A black man was in the wrong place at the wrong time, and he paid the price: convicted and sentenced to twelve years in prison.



Of course, given the premise, this book is about the incarceration of black men in America (56% of all incarcerated people in the U.S. are Black or Hispanic, and Black men are incarcerated at five times the rate of white men; source) but that’s not all it’s about. Jones has taken the maxim of writing about “people and their problems” (as opposed to simply problems personified) seriously. Roy and Celestial, and the characters on the periphery of their relationship, are complex, fleshed-out, “real”. As much as this novel addresses very timely social issues, it also looks at what it takes to make or break a marriage, the sliding doors moments that affect all our lives. I think what it shows best of all (to borrow and mix a couple of metaphors, forgive me) is that there is no one straw that breaks a camel’s back, and no marriage exists in a vacuum.

Some sections are epistolary, told in letters sent back and forth between Roy and Celestial. They’re essentially existing on different timelines; “real life” has stopped for Roy, and he has little to do but think about his marriage, but everything continues for Celestial on the outside. Jones is really clever in how much she “shows” the reader about these characters, and how they change, through their letters. For the first few years, they’re writing frequently and emphatically, but there’s a noticeable shift as Celestial’s life begins to progress and Roy feels frustrated at being “left behind”. It’s a unique window into the ebbs and flows of a relationship where each character takes the time to articulate their thoughts on paper, directly to the other, with nothing said in haste and no performance for onlookers.

Then, there are other sections that are internal narratives, told from the perspectives of Roy, Celestial, and Andre (a vested third party in their marriage). This is another deft stroke from Jones (gosh, she’s clever), as it lets each character speak for themselves and gives them each an opportunity to win us over (or piss us off). There really is no “hero” in this story, no one character that you’re really rooting for at the expense of the others. You’ll be lured into loving and resenting all of these characters, all simultaneously. Some might find that annoying, but I actually really appreciated the shades of grey, and being able to see things from all sides. It’s the most realistic kind of love story. And, besides, at the heart of it all, there’s one common enemy, for the characters and for us: the racism at the core of the U.S. “justice” system. That’s not a focus of the novel, per se, but it’s the backdrop against which the love story plays out.



Anyway, back to the plot: three years into Roy’s sentence, Celestial tells him she no longer wishes to be his wife, which pisses him off (obviously). He refuses to see her or accept her letters for the following two years. Then, his case is overturned on appeal, and he is released. He optimistically reaches out to Celestial, hoping that their marriage could be rekindled (as she never formally divorced him), naively forgetting that he’s coming “home” to a marriage that existed mostly in his mind.

Normally, this is where I’d just go ahead and dissect the ending for you too, but I reckon this’ll be one of my very few spoiler-free reviews (okay, fine, Roy’s early release is probably technically a spoiler if you’re going to get all persnickety about it, but that only comes about half-way through the book, so there’s still a whole lotta twists and turns that I’m not ruining for you, suck it up). What I will say is that Roy and Celestial’s story, the way it unfolds, is heartbreaking and infuriating – all the more for the fact that it’s such a common and devastating reality for so many American families.

I worry about pushing that angle too hard, though, lest An American Marriage get pigeonholed in your mind as an “issue novel”. It’s truly not. It’s based on realistic “issues”, yes, but it’s ultimately about loyalty, how much we owe and to whom. It’s about marriage, and what we can reasonably expect from our spouses and ourselves. And, best of all, it’s so readable (stay-up-all-night-to-finish-it readable), and so emotive (make-sure-you’ve-got-tissues-handy emotive). If you’ve been putting off reading this one because of all the hype, stop doing that and get on it right now – An American Marriage totally lives up.

My favourite Amazon reviews of An American Marriage:

  • “I bought the audible version – I liked this book but it’s probably not going to end the way the reader wants it to – life is like that.” – Theresa V
  • “Ex-wife purchased dumb book” – Mr. Bill
  • “Why all the fuss? Not only is it unrealistic, it puts some truly unlikable characters centre stage. Reading the reviews was more interesting.” – Antonio C

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