Keeping Up With The Penguins

Reviews For The Would-Be Booklover

Category: American (page 1 of 11)

The Argonauts – Maggie Nelson

The Argonauts is a pillar of the contemporary queer canon, so frequently invoked that it’s practically become cliche. It’s the shiniest jewel in American writer Maggie Nelson’s crown. I’ve previously read her fragmentary homage Bluets (for study) and her verse memoir Jane: A Murder (for fun), so I’m not sure why I haven’t picked this one up before now. According to the blurb, it’s a “timely and genre-bending memoir that offers fresh and fierce reflections on motherhood, desire, identity, and feminism… a rigorous exploration of sexuality, gender, and notions of family,”.

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For such weighty and broad subject matter, The Argonauts is a slim tome – just 180 pages. It’s told in snippets, paragraphs, rather than chapters (clearly the poet coming out in Nelson), but there’s still a narrative thread to follow. It’s a trick that lets her tell a story but also turn on a pin when it comes to subject, sense, and style. Another note on the form: rather than using footnotes or in-text references, Nelson logs her sources in the margins, a feature that makes the reading far more smooth and I would love to see more widely adopted.

Technically speaking, The Argonauts is a work of “autotheory”, combining philosophical/academic ideas with the anecdotal evidence of memoir. Nelson explores all those lofty ideas from the blurb through the story of her romance with Harry (to whom the book is dedicated), their courtship and their making of a family. Two significant paths run parallel: Harry’s transformation as they begin taking testosterone and undergo reconstructive chest surgery, and Nelson’s as she undertakes cycles of IVF and becomes pregnant.

From the marketing and chat around The Argonauts, I’d really expected Harry’s story to get more airtime; this is the queer love story after all, about making a baby with a non-binary/masc partner. But Nelson was overwhelmingly introspective, far more focused on what was going on inside her own body. I’m a bit undecided as to whether this is a good thing or bad.

The Argonauts is not an easy read in the sense that Nelson forces you to think – really think – about everything she’s saying, but it’s full of wonderful insights perfectly expressed, like:

I get why it’s politically maddening, but I’ve also always thought it a little romantic – the romance of letting an individual experience of desire take precedence over a categorical one.

The Argonauts (page 10)

I must admit, I rolled my eyes when she quoted Deluze & Parnet on page eight (page eight! if a bloke in a bar dropped those names that early in a conversation, I’d dump him on the spot), but the saving grace was that Nelson did so in a passage that perfectly depicted the discomfort of asking for pronouns and resorting to friend-assisted internet research of a paramour, to avoid asking. This is what I’m talking about, this is the vibe of The Argonauts.

What concerns me is I felt there was a certain elitism in Nelson’s expression. This isn’t Gender Queer Parenting For Dummies. She seems to assume a level of education, a familiarity with certain writers and academics (ahem-Deluze-ahem!), that readers who might benefit most from her work don’t necessarily have. That’s not to say that they (well, we) don’t or can’t understand The Argonauts, it’s just that it doesn’t feel like we’re being invited to do so.

Of course, we can’t expect every writer to write for every audience, but this isn’t marketed as an academic text. If it had been, I would have gone in with a different set of expectations and perhaps not been so disappointed or confused by the high-falootin’ talk. Still, assuming you are part of Nelson’s (perhaps subconsciously) intended audience, you’ll find The Argonauts a poignant and resonant read.

What really sticks with me, more so than any academic thought or theory, is Nelson’s love for Harry. It shines, on every page. Even when they disagree, even when they’re scared, even when things are awful. Not to be sappy about it, but Nelson’s obvious and obliterating love for Harry and their family was my favourite part of this complex and multi-faceted book, and I would say The Argonauts is worth reading for that alone.

My favourite Amazon reviews of The Argonauts:

  • “Maggie Nelson can write. She has some interesting ideas, but whereas some writers make you feel like you want to sit and have coffee with them, Nelson just seems exhausting.” – M. Young
  • “This book is as exhilarating as it is frustrating.” – Mary, Mary, Mary
  • “Five thumbs down” – Betty

Dress Your Family In Corduroy And Denim – David Sedaris

I loved, loved, loved my first adventure with David Sedaris, Me Talk Pretty One Day, so I’m not ashamed to say I came to Dress Your Family In Corduroy And Denim hoping for more of the same. Such an approach would normally invite disappointment, but Sedaris totally delivered. This is the 2004 collection of 22 autobiographical essays, once again focused on the author’s upbringing, family, and his adult life. You’d think that well would run dry eventually, but Sedaris’s keen observational eye can pick out every last trickle.

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Dress Your Family In Corduroy And Denim – and Sedaris’s whole schtick, more broadly speaking – is best summed up by the blurb on this edition. “Sedaris lifts the corner of ordinary life, revealing the absurdity teeming below the surface,”. He examines the neighbours who didn’t watch television (Us and Them), his own failed attempts to become a hippie (The Change In Me), and what becomes of the estate of the late Aunt Monie (so nicknamed as a portmanteau of “moan” and “money”, another delightful example of Sedaris telling you everything you need to know with one small detail; Monie Changes Everything). There are snort-laughs to be found in every essay, guaranteed.

He mines his family, deep – even so far as to describe their very resentment of his mining them for content. I can understand the ever-present and irresistible temptation, though, because the whole Sedaris clan, as he describes them, are just as sharp and hilarious as he is. Take, for instance, this moment of radical honesty from his black-sheep sister, Tiffany:

We climb the few steps to her porch and she hesitates before pulling the keys from her pocket. ‘I haven’t had a chance to clean,’ she says, but the lie feels uncomfortable, and so she corrects herself. ‘What I meant to say is that I don’t give a fuck what you think of my apartment. I didn’t really want you here in the first place.’

Dress Your family in corduroy and denim (page 198)

He cleans Tiffany’s apartment for her, and in return she dubs him Fairy Poppins, which he says “wouldn’t bother [him] if it weren’t so apt”. I re-read this passage over and over again, until I was crying with laughter.

Nothing is off limits for Sedaris: his family, his neighbours, even strangers he encounters on the street. He doesn’t hesitate to take aim at other countries, other religions, other cultures, a prospect that would normally set the woke reader’s teeth on edge. And yet, Sedaris once again proves himself the master of poking fun, even when he’s poking down (Six To Eight Black Men), because he pokes nobody harder than himself. He lays his own faults and shortcomings bare, without ever once sliding into the “confessional” or the pity-seeking. It’s all done in the name of fun, with maybe a splash of poignancy thrown in for good measure.

I was a little confused, when I got to the end, by the title: Dress Your Family In Corduroy And Denim. There was not one mention of his family’s exploits in textiles. After all, Me Talk Pretty One Day perfectly encapsulated and reflected the content of that book, and was drawn from the title of one of the essays it contained. I was ready to chalk it up to an unsolved mystery, another quirk of Sedaris’s charm, but an answer came to me via an unverified anecdote on the Wikipedia page: “At a public appearance in Cleveland, Ohio on October 12, 2010, Sedaris explained when he was under a deadline for a title and was getting desperate, his boyfriend Hugh had a dream in which he saw someone reading a book entitled, in French, Dress Your Family In Corduroy And Denim. Sedaris knew then that he had his title, even though it had nothing to do with the contents of his book.” So, there you have it!

If you’ve never read Sedaris and you’re wondering where to start, I’d still say Me Talk Pretty One Day is the best option… but I’d recommend having a copy of Dress Your Family In Corduroy In Denim to hand, because you’ll want to pick it up as soon as you’ve converted.

My favourite Amazon reviews of Dress Your Family In Corduroy And Denim:

  • “I believe David Sedaris is a modern day Mark Twain.” – Cheryl
  • “Interesting book. Arrived promptly.” – JJ
  • “Not a book about fashion.
    Which I should have probable guessed because no-one wears corduroy anymore.” – Katie Krackers
  • “Pairs well with: Gordon’s gin and grapefruit juice” – Michele Feltman Strider
  • “I and my friends have never got this type of writing. Maybe we are aliens, or maybe you have to be from New York or something.” – Mark Anthony

Thank You For Smoking – Christopher Buckley

One of my favourite movies of all time is Thank You For Smoking (2005). It follows Nick Naylor, chief spokesperson for a major tobacco lobby, as he tries to convince the world that cigarettes won’t kill you (or, if they do, at least you’ll die with liberty). The thing is, I didn’t even realise it was a book, the 1994 novel Thank You For Smoking, until I scored this copy for $4.99 in a remainder book shop while I was waiting for a train. How basic of me!

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Cards on the table: I’ve had an on-again-off-again relationship with cigarettes for too many years. At the time of reading Thank You For Smoking, it was (mostly) off, and I was hoping this would be the book to help me kick the cancer sticks for good. It’s basically the anti-West Wing: a biting satirical caricature of Washington politics, corporate greed, media spin, and Hollywood bullshit.

The opening line sets the tone:

“Nick Naylor had been called many things since becoming chief spokesman for the Academy of Tobacco Studies, but until now no one had actually compared him to Satan.”

Thank You For Smoking (Page 3)

As in the movie, Nick is a cigarette company flack, and a pretty damn good one (despite his boss’s suspicions otherwise). He’s a scoundrel, through and through, out for chicks and cash and cigarettes – usually in that order, but not always. His offices are just a few blocks from the White House, and he glad-hands with all the bigwigs in town (when he’s not being flown cross-country in his boss’s private jet). He loves his job, and he’ll defend cigarettes passionately to anyone who’ll listen, but deep down he knows he’s only doing it to pay the mortgage. That’s how he sleeps at night.

The supporting players are Nick’s M.O.D. Squad, the friends-cum-support-group whose self-designated moniker stands for Merchants Of Death. Together, they represent the tobacco, alcohol, and firearms industries, and more than one argument breaks out over whose product is the most deadly. All of the lobby groups in Thank You For Smoking have knee-slappingly ironic names and acronyms: the Moderation Council for booze, the Society For The Humane Treatment of Calves for veal, and so on.





Nick’s opposition are the congressmen (the very few of them not on the take) and public health advocates who hold him – and Big Tobacco, by extension – responsible for 1,200 deaths a day. They’ve got righteousness on their side, but it’s no match for Nick’s quick wit and doublespeak. In fact, Nick is so effective in his role that he becomes the target of anti-tobacco terrorists, who paper him with nicotine patches in a showy effort to bump him off. Nick survives, but he’s left with a terrible and apparently life-long distaste for cigarettes – a significant handicap in his line of work. Plus, the FBI suspects that he faked the whole thing to garner sympathy.

Despite his provocative rhetoric on Oprah, Nick knows he’s just plugging holes. The tide is turning against cigarettes. His boss, ever-skeptical of Nick’s media strategy, intimates that he’s one strike away from getting the sack – and that’s before he realises Nick is sleeping with an attractive young reporter who has promised him a favourable profile. Nick’s Hail Mary offering is to fly to Los Angeles and make a deal that would see movie stars smoking on the big screen (and not just the villains and the crazies). After all, product placement works for beer and popcorn, why not cigarettes?

Yes, Thank You For Smoking is funny and fast-paced and just a little farcical. It’s a thoroughly entertaining read. The thing is, reading it reaffirmed all the arguments I’ve ever heard in favour of – not quitting smoking, don’t be ridiculous – not watching the movie before you’ve read the book (or, at least, not reading the book of a movie you’ve enjoyed). I just kept picturing scenes from the (remarkably faithful, it must be said) movie version the whole way through. The laughs just weren’t quite as hearty coming from the page. Thank You For Smoking is a book I probably would have loved-loved-loved otherwise. As it stands, it was just pretty good. I’d recommend it for anyone who has a taste for political satire and a dark sense of humour.

My favourite Amazon reviews of Thank You For Smoking:

  • “Good plot, well told with excellent humor and all loose ends tied up expertly. Just the right length and stopped well in time before it got tedious.” – Kindle Customer
  • “Had to buy this book for a class. I like that it was hard back but when I received the book it had a unique smell to it and I had to leave it outside for a few days to air it out.” – Glen
  • “This was a gift and I didn’t read it. However, I do like Christopher Buckley’s writing and knowing this I’m sure it was great for the intended two smokers.” – Carole Stevens


A Little Life – Hanya Yanagihara

Normally, when you set about tackling an 800+ page epic study of humanity, trauma, and relationships, you’re talking about one of the classics, a book written back in the day before publishers cared about “readability”. Not so with A Little Life: I have no idea how this book made it through the vetting process, but here we are. This 2015 novel by Hanya Yanagihara became a best-seller, despite its length and… shall we say, challenging content.

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A Little Life begins with four graduates who have moved to New York. There’s Willem (the kind, handsome one), JB (the quick-witted, artistic one), Malcom (the frustrated, upwardly-mobile one), and Jude (the brilliant, enigmatic one). They all exist on a wide spectrum of identities (racial, sexual, familial, and otherwise), a pleasingly diverse crew with deep and abiding love for one another, even as life scatters them across different courses. One of the really interesting aspects of this book – which you might not realise until much later – is that it’s not anchored in any particular time period. It’s just vaguely contemporary, with no reference to September 11 or any other cultural landmarks that would anchor it in our minds, giving it a timeless quality right from the outset.

For the first fifty or so pages (a drop in the bucket of this epic), they all go to parties, move apartments, hook up, squabble, gossip, all as you’d expect. There are all the usual schisms that threaten friendships – money, politics, miscommunication – but also a deep respect that seems capable of withstanding it all. The story focuses largely on JB, Malcolm, and Willem; Jude’s story is only partly revealed, as background. He exists on the periphery, of the friendship and the narrative. Then, so gradually you might not notice at first, the story of A Little Life morphs into something different, something more than your bog-standard New York bildungsroman.





The friendship ensemble slowly recedes, leaving Jude in the spotlight. Yanagihara drip-feeds his back story to the reader – how he was found abandoned as an infant, near a garbage can, adopted by monks who mistreat him in horrifying ways, only to jump from the frying pan into the fire, and so forth. The story of Jude’s present is chronological, and his past is revealed through seamlessly chronological flashbacks too, making for smooth parallel narratives.

I’ll stop beating around the bush, because if you’ve not read A Little Life and you’re reading this review to work out whether or not to pick it up, you need to know: Jude was sexually abused, repeatedly, in all manner of ways, from a very young age. A Little Life is the story of how this trauma reverberates throughout his life. There’s graphic detail – a lot of it – and very little, if any, justice or redemption.

A Little Life is an UNDERTAKING. It’s not slow moving, by any means, but it is LONG. You need to be ready to really immerse yourself in the lives and relationships of these characters, including Jude’s (though he has it the worst, the others’ aren’t a picnic, either). Yanagihara seems determined to make the reader work for it. She reveals things by surprise, mentions facets of the back-story in passing that cast all-new light on everything that has come before – that’s why A Little Life is NOT skimmable, despite its imposing length. If you let your eyes skip down half a page, you’re liable to miss something crucial and you’ll be forced to circle back, re-live it all over again (the way that Jude has to).

It took me an embarrassingly long time to work out why A Little Life felt so much more overwhelming and devastating than other books I’ve read (and I’ve read some real downers). It’s the damn MAGNITUDE of the thing. It’s both incredibly long and incredibly intimate, which means its punches land much harder. The content isn’t necessarily more traumatic or triggering than you’d find in other books, but there’s SO MUCH of it, and it requires such a HUGE investment on the part of the reader…





Reading A Little Life actually forced me to confront a really uncomfortable question: at what point does literature become tragedy porn? The Sisyphean nature of Jude’s traumas – he comes so close to contentment, time and again, only for the boulder to roll back down the hill and absolutely crush him – gave me pause. Every time he reaches out, makes any headway at all in reckoning with his past, it manifests in another cycle of abuse. Yanagihara renders it in such a way that it is never titillating or sensationalist; this isn’t schlocky horror or crime fiction, and yet… the sheer magnitude of the protagonist’s suffering is enough to make bile rise in the back of your throat. The only thing that makes it bearable is the intervening chapters where she portrays Jude’s life as a successful corporate lawyer, with fulfilling friendships and a found family worth their weight in gold.

You need to know there are no happy endings here. In an article for New York Magazine, Yanagihara said that she wanted to “create a protagonist who never got better”. His relationships with his friends and his adoptive father evolve, but they never “heal” him. Anyone who recommends this book to you without a major trigger warning is a psychopath and a bum, and you should cut them out of your life ASAP. Any time anyone brings up the “debate” about whether and why trigger warnings should be used, A Little Life is the book that proves the affirmative.

One more important thing to note (just a sec, let me drag out my soap box): I’m once again calling your attention to the fact that if the central characters of this novel had been women, rather than men, A Little Life would have been relegated to the category of “women’s fiction” and probably published with a flower on the front cover or some shit (if it were published at all). As it stands, the relationships between these men, and their emotional lives over the course of decades, are the soul of this story. It is, thus, lauded as epic literary fiction. I’m just saying.

Let’s not end on a bum note. Yay for Yanagihara, who shot to international literary stardom with this novel. It was short-listed for the Booker Prize in 2015, and later ranked in The Guardian’s list of the 100 best books of the 21st century. I’m not sure what she’s written lately, but – as good as A Little Life was – I’m not sure I’m all that eager to find out. I need to lick the wounds this novel inflicted for a bit, before I go begging for more.

My favourite Amazon reviews of A Little Life:

  • “Masterpiece, but stay away from it, it will make you cry like the time your first dog died, be warned.” – Sharon
  • “great book if you want to torture yourself. i loved every second.” – Victoria A.
  • “Had to seek out and read every single one-star review as an antidote to the damage caused by this book. No, not complaining about the darkness and pain, but how painfully bad and ill-conceived it is. Never knew a book could make you annoyed to the extent of losing sleep. The one-star reviews restored for me a sense of normalcy, humanity, reason, and general good taste.” – Amazon Customer
  • “I cringe every time this book pops up in my book searches. I haven’t read this book nor do I know anything about it except that the cover is hideous and makes me want to punch my Kindle each time I have to look at it.” – Kindle Customer

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.

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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


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