Keeping Up With The Penguins

Reviews For The Would-Be Booklover

Category: American (page 1 of 18)

When You Are Engulfed In Flames – David Sedaris

I treat myself to one David Sedaris book a year (otherwise, I’d gobble them all up at once like a greedy little goblin). This year, I went for When You Are Engulfed In Flames, his sixth essay collection first published in 2008. As per the blurb: “Subjects include a parasitic worm that once lived in his mother-in-law’s leg, an encounter with a dingo, and the recreational use of an external catheter. Also recounted is the buying of a human skeleton and the author’s attempt to quit smoking.”

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Yes, of course, When You Are Engulfed In Flames contains twenty-two essays as hilarious and ridiculous as we’ve come to expect from Sedaris. Other subjects include the time he joined his brother for a drug deal in a North Carolina trailer home, karmic retribution on rude plane passengers, his husband lancing a boil on his tailbone, and befriending a French local only to find out he was a child abuser.

There’s less about his family in this collection than in others I’ve read so far. It’s disappointing, if only because his family seems a veritable goldmine of comic fodder (I have a particularly soft spot for his foul-mouthed brother). But When You Are Engulfed In Flames isn’t lacking in comic characters, even if they’re not related to Sedaris. I saw another review refer to them as a “new crop of lunatics”, which is spot on.

My personal favourite in the collection – one that gave me many, many literal lols – is That’s Amore, an essay about/profile of Sedaris’s New York neighbour, Helen. She hates everyone, believes herself to be the center of the universe, and sounds like an absolute nightmare to live next to (if incredibly funny to read about). Sedaris attributes to her endless hysterical non sequiturs, including “I shit so hard, I think I sprained my asshole”.

(Heads up: there’s a few uncensored slurs scattered here and there throughout When You Are Engulfed In Flames. Normally, it wouldn’t warrant a mention, but I’ve noticed an uptick on readers looking for content warnings before they pick up a book – so, there you have it.)

The final story in When You Are Engulfed In FlamesThe Smoking Section – is remarkably long, much longer than any other essay I’ve read by Sedaris. He recounts, diary-style, his attempt to quit smoking by moving to Tokyo for six months (yes, that sounds insane, but in Sedaris’s world it makes perfect sense). The story is good – not quite as good as his very best, but still good by any benchmark – even if it does read more like An American In Tokyo, and make me crave a cigarette myself.

My dog, Fyodor Dogstoyevsky, doesn’t care for David Sedaris – because the books make me laugh out loud so hard and so often, his nap time is frequently disturbed. Even though When You Are Engulfed In Flames isn’t my favourite of his collections I’ve read so far – and probably not one I’d recommend to first-time Sedaris readers – it’s still great. I’m still in awe of the way Sedaris can craft a story out of seemingly nothing at all. I’d dearly love to share a cocktail and a smoke with him (if he hadn’t, as The Smoking Section suggests, sadly quit both alcohol and cigarettes).

Read my reviews of Sedaris’s other books here:

My favourite Amazon reviews of When You Are Engulfed In Flames:

  • “I laughed out loud more reading this book than I have in my day to day life since childhood.” – aprillaman
  • “He is a breath of fres air for this busy weiry lady suffocated by every day stressers.” – Elizabeth Carver
  • “I felt like I was sitting next to a guy on the plane who tried really hard to make me laugh, waving his arms in my face telling crude exaggerated stories. I sat stone faced for 30 minute chance before I told him, “Enough.”” – R Hilux

Sharp Objects – Gillian Flynn

Back in 2006, before Gone Girl took over all the best-seller lists and became shorthand for the unlikeable female narrator, Gillian Flynn released her quiet debut: Sharp Objects. It didn’t take long to catch on. Even back then, the seeds of what makes Flynn’s books so popular (especially with women) were beginning to sprout.

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Sharp Objects follows Camille Preaker, a journalist for a small Chicago newspaper, as she’s drawn back to her hometown to report on the abduction and murder of two young girls. At first, Camille doesn’t seem particularly unusual – sure, she’s a bit of a drinker, and she clearly has some unresolved issues with her family, but who doesn’t? Gradually, as the events of Sharp Objects unfold, you realise how dark she really is, and why those issues with her mother and her hometown might never be untangled.

And who are the other players? Well, the dead/missing girls, of course: Natalie Keene and Ann Nash, both boisterous young girls with rebellious streaks. There’s also Camille’s sisters: Marian passed away when Camille was still very young, but Amma is still around. She’s 13 years old, and a master manipulator. Amma and Camille’s mother, Adora (what a name!), is a strict disciplinarian and judgemental as heck. She comes from old money and she knows just how to wield her influence, inside of the family and out of it. The men in the story recede right to the background: Camille’s editor Frank Curry, long-time small-town cop Chief Vickery, and the big-time city detective called in to help out, Richard Willis.

Camille gets pushed and pulled, from pillar to post, as she tries to craft a neat story out of a very messy situation. Returning to your hometown is stressful under normal circumstances, but when you’ve got an editor breathing down your neck for copy, a mother who doesn’t want you around, two dead girls with their teeth pulled out, and a history of mental instability… yeah, you’re not going to have a good time. Eventually, though, she does figure out who killed the little girls. I’ll respect the convenant against spoilers, for once, but I will say that the conclusion is fairly predictable (aside from a couple of fun twists right at the very end).

The plot of Sharp Objects isn’t quite as propulsive or gripping as Gone Girl, but it’s still highly readable. It’s also much darker, if you can believe it. It turns out Flynn never shied away from mining the depths of female psychopathology to turn our collective stomachs. This book mixes together the “beautiful woman with dark secrets” idea with the essence of Southern Gothic, and the results are very good. Flynn has said that she was working at Entertainment Weekly as she was writing Sharp Objects, and she initially struggled to maintain the “moist, gothic tone” of her draft manuscript – she “didn’t want it to be EW bouncy”. I’m glad she stuck at it.

(Oh, and, of course, the trigger warnings: violence against children, alcoholism, sexual assault, and – the biggie – self-harm.)

After the super-mega success of Gone Girl and the corresponding film adaptation starring Ben Affleck and Rosamund Pike, Sharp Objects got the screen treatment, too. It became a 2018 HBO mini-series, and won considerable critical acclaim. Viewers praised the visuals, directing, and performances of Amy Adams (as Camille) and Patricia Clarkson (as Adora). It sounds like it’s worth checking out.

So, it would seem that Flynn is no one-hit wonder. Even though Sharp Objects didn’t quite live up to her most popular book, it was still good enough to convince me to check out the rest of her back-list. Plus, Flynn has hinted that she’s working (slowly) on a new one – so I’ll be staying tuned for news on that front, too.

My favourite Amazon reviews of Sharp Objects:

  • “The author is not good and the editing is terrible. Lack of research. Weird, untrue statements about farming” – PaigeB1920
  • “We get it, you’re bitter and woke and you wish all your old high school mates were miserable. Most people actual just want good for others. Get over yourself. And get over high school.” – Amazon Customer
  • “Please tell me you have better things to do than read about a serial killer who kills little girls and pulls their teeth. I do.” – SAF/ALF
  • “The descriptions are so detailed, that I have to wonder about the author’s own mental health. The characters are sick, the details are sick and the town is sick. Not a redeeming thing in this story. I have to wonder about Reese as well. I gave three stars because it is well written for a sick story.” – Happy Thoughts

I Love Dick – Chris Kraus

I Love Dick obviously has an incredible (and memorable!) title, but beyond that its contents were a bit of a mystery to me. According to the blurbs, it’s “an epistolary novel with autofiction elements”, “blurring the lines of fiction, essay, and memoir”. So, that’s about as clear as mud. I mean, is it true, or not?

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It’s a weird one, folks, so I’ll do my best to break it down. Part One (“Scenes From A Marriage”) sets the stage. In December 1994, Chris Kraus and her husband, Sylvère Lotringer, have dinner with a rogue academic pseudonymously named Dick. All of these people are real, by the way (they have Wikipedia pages and everything: here, here, and here). Chris and Sylvere are forced by poor weather to spend the night at Dick’s place, and Chris starts feeling… something.

Based on almost no direct interaction, Chris convinces herself that she has fallen in love with Dick. Not only that, she makes the logical leap to conclude that he too has some feeling for her, and they have shared a “conceptual fuck”. Because she and Sylvère have one of Those types of marriages, she tells him immediately, and thus her (their) “affair” with Dick begins.

They both start writing letters to Dick, independently and together. At first, it’s a game, like married couple chicken – how far will we actually take this bizarre thing that we’re doing? How far can we stretch our ridiculous self-justifications? But then they start actually calling Dick, telling him about the letters, sending him some and asking him to help them turn the eighty ninety hundred and twenty pages into some kind of art piece.

Dick is justifiably freaked out, and gives them a polite “huh, interesting, we’ll see”, which they interpret as “full steam ahead”.

Then, Part Two (“Every Letter Is A Love Letter”) gets even weirder. Dick becomes, in effect, a diary that Chris writes to daily. She veers away from merely expressing her deep love for him, and starts pontificating on feminism, schizophrenia, art, Judaism, and identity. It would almost read as a collection of essays, if not for the occasional “oh, yeah, and that’s how we fell in love, Dick, how’s that going for you by the way?” interjections.

I Love Dick comes to a crashing halt, in the end, when Chris gives Dick the complete collection of letters and he realises that polite deferral is no longer an option. He writes a letter to Sylvère, the tl;dr version of which is: “This whole thing has been weird as fuck, I hope we can still be friends but you lot need to calm down,”. Chris receives a letter too, and opens it with hope abounding – only to find it’s simply a photocopy of Dick’s letter to Sylvère, her (now semi-estranged)husband. An incredible final fuck-you from Dick, A+ for pettiness.

Look, I don’t like to judge. I err on being so open-minded my brain might fall out when it comes to other people’s marriages (and affairs, come to that). But given that Chris and Sylvère put all this out there in I Love Dick, I feel entitled to proffer an opinion. Here it is: these two are covered, head to toe, in red flags. If I were Dick, I would’ve set world records for how fast I’d run away from them.

It’s not just the interpersonal aspects of I Love Dick that bother me. It’s the hyper-intellectualisation of what is a demonstrably bonkers endeavour that skeeves me out. This is the ’90s academic version of being chronically online. Chris and Sylvère are so far up their own arses, they manage to position their entire existence as performance art. I’m not opposed to academic modes of thought or writing, but when you’re using art criticism and philosophy to impose an “affair” on a bloke who just offered you a sofa bed for the night after dinner? That doesn’t sit right with me.

The most interesting aspect of I Love Dick, for me, was barely mentioned in the book itself: privacy. Not only are Chris and Sylvere real people, Dick is too. They gave his identity the flimsiest obfuscation possible, just enough to technically avoid legal claims of defamation, but it’s abundantly obvious who the real Dick is (or, even if it isn’t, you can find out on Google in 0.60 seconds). I think this raises a lot of interesting questions about where the ethical line is between art and exploitation. I’m not sure I’m the right person to decide exactly where that line is, but I’m fairly confident that I Love Dick lands on the wrong side of it.

All that said, I Love Dick is still an interesting read (just… bloody weird). It brought to mind Maggie Nelson for me, and Patricia Lockwood. I’m not sure I can articulate exactly why, other than to say they all have a resonant Vibe. I think I’ll need to sleep on this one for many nights yet before I finally land on how I really feel about it, beyond simply weirded out.

My favourite Amazon reviews of I Love Dick:

  • “This was like if s bored person got their dumb blog published. So trite and Gen xer. Very over white women voices.” – SeymoreSluts
  • “Weird book. Well written but a labor to read. Far less salacious than I hoped. I give it a solid meh” – Larika Jones
  • “Chris behaves like a middle schooler fixated on the quarterback. You want to shout at her, pull her aside, take her out for a few cocktails and tell her to smarten up.” – Orange Kitty

The Plot – Jean Hanff Korelitz

The Plot has a jaw-dropping, amazing, oh-my-I-must-read-this-immediately premise. I challenge any booklover or creative type not to immediately run out and grab a copy once they hear it: can’t be done! As per the blurb, The Plot is “a psychologically suspenseful novel about a story too good not to steal, and the writer who steals it”.

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So, get this: at Ripley, an arts school in regional Vermont, once-promising writer Jacob Finch Bonner is languishing as an instructor in a low-residency fine arts program. He calls it a “special purgatory” for washed-up writers like himself, teaching fiction writing to students like Evan Parker – arrogant, self-indulgent, with no idea the misery that awaits them in their dream careers.

Evan Parker’s writing extract doesn’t seem like anything special, no different to the dozens of extracts Jacob Finch Bonner has to read every year (are you getting that he’s cynical, yet?). But in a one-on-one workshop, Evan Parker describes the plot of the book he’s planning to write, and… it’s stupendous. (Korelitz very cleverly talks around it, describing but not revealing this magnificent plot to the reader, at first.)

And here’s where The Plot gets interesting. Evan Parker dies, sadly and suddenly, not long after the workshop concludes. He passes without ever having published his game-changing bestseller-for-sure novel.

Three years later, Jacob Finch Bonner has written and published the story as his own. It’s gone on to have all the success that Evan Parker predicted it would: top of the best-seller lists, film adaptation in the works, and a spot in Oprah’s book club. All seems to be going well, until Jacob Finch Bonner receives an email from that reads, simply: “You are a thief.”

Who could possibly know that he stole the plot? Who would care? What are they going to do with that information? You can see how The Plot sucks you in. This is a literary mystery of the highest order.

The emails keep coming, and then they escalate. TalentedTom creates a Twitter account, a Facebook page, and an Instagram feed. Jacob Finch Bonner’s neurosis and fear of being found out begins to eat him alive. As he tries to track down this person threatening to expose him, Jacob Finch Bonner is pulled further into his stolen plot than even he realises.

The tone of The Plot is like a snarkier version of Less – meets Crime And Punishment, meets I Know What You Did Last Summer. It’s a delightful take-down of the publishing industrial complex and the Writer As Martyr archetype, as well as a complex psychological portrait. As Elisabeth Egan wrote for the New York Times review: “If you’re a reader who likes stories where a terrible decision snowballs out of control, this book is just what the librarian ordered. Welcome to a spectacular avalanche.”

Apparently, the rights to a TV series have been secured, but I think The Plot really shines because it’s written in a book format. I’m not sure the story would shine on screen the way it does on the page, and the delicious irony of the skewering would be lost. So, if it’s ever made, I don’t think I’ll be watching.

What I will be doing, though, is looking for more books by Jean Hanff Korelitz! I’d not heard of her before reading The Plot, but I can see from her author bio that she has a decent back-list, so I shouldn’t have too much trouble tracking some down. If she can write something this five-star out-of-this-world great, she’s well worth closer attention.

My favourite Amazon reviews of The Plot:

  • “Incase you need to know the author’s politics, don’t worry, she will remind you of them throughout the book. Whether it is complaining that enough tax dollars aren’t going toward Obamacare, mansplaining, or gentrification, the plot is constantly interrupted with self righteousness.” – Amazon Customer
  • “If you like suspense/ torture books you will probably enjoy, though a bit slow in middle.” – DFfifth
  • “I actually gave up halfway through and skipped to the end. Using someone’s idea maybe be morally reprehensible but it is not illegal so 200+ pages of worrying about getting caught was just boring.” – A. L. Caissie
  • “As a survivor of a BFA creative writing workshop and — briefly — the wife of a grad student on his way to becoming a professor, the setting and shop talk of academia and the publishing business were drearily familiar to me. But the pages and pages of rambling exposition in lieu of actual storytelling gave me gas.” – Valued Customer

Pizza Girl – Jean Kyoung Frazier

Pizza Girl is one of those broadly underrated books that has a small but very dedicated fan base. I first heard about it on Mandy Shunnarah’s fabulous blog Off The Beaten Shelf, and my curiosity was piqued by the gorgeous cover art. I ended up buying a different edition, not quite as pretty but just as interesting.

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Pizza Girl is Jean Kyoung Frazier’s debut novel, a slim little tome that portends great things to come from the young American writer. The story revolves around an eighteen-year-old pregnant pizza delivery girl who becomes obsessed with the stay-at-home mother who phones in a desperate order.

Her name was Jenny Hauser and every Wednesday I put pickles on her pizza.

Pizza Girl (Page 1)

The narrator remains nameless for most of the novel – her name isn’t revealed to the reader until the very end, and for once I’ll respect the universal rule against spoilers. She’s more than a little lost, with no idea who she is or what she’s doing with her life. That would normally be fine for an eighteen-year-old, except that she’s got a live-in boyfriend and a proud-as-punch mother and a ticking time-bomb in her uterus. Soon, that baby’s gonna come out, and she’s going to have to figure out how to at least pretend to have her shit together.

She’s managing to hold down her job as a pizza delivery driver, though, and that’s something. One afternoon, Jenny Hauser calls, a stay-at-home mother recently relocated to the narrator’s neighbourhood. Her son has peculiar tastes in pizza (pepperoni and pickles – yes, you read that right), and the narrator is the only one who seems willing/able to fulfill Jenny’s order.

Our pizza girl soon falls into a routine of delivering a pepperoni-and-pickle abomination to Jenny’s door every Wednesday, and she becomes strangely obsessed. She joins Jenny’s support group for new mothers, she drives past her house even when she doesn’t have a delivery to make, she imagines whole other lives for the two of them, away from kids and partners and suburbia. What could go wrong?

Pizza Girl is a surprisingly dark story, without being a graphic or explicit one. Here are a few trigger warnings for alcohol abuse, depression, grief (loss of a parent), and kinda-sorta pregnancy stuff.

The main character is equal parts pitiable and frustrating. She just can’t seem to hold it together, and she makes terrible decisions – again and again – that will make you want to clip her ear. But she’s also strangely heroic, staring down the barrel of a life she doesn’t want and doing her best to find a way out of it, so you’ll root for her in that regard at least (probably).

I saw a blurb that likened Pizza Girl to Convenience Store Woman, but that wasn’t the vibe I got from it. The tone reminded me more of Jamie Marina Lau – it’s very Melburnian (even though Frazier is from Los Angeles, the narrator is from Los Angeles, and the whole story is set in Los Angeles). If you liked Pink Mountain On Locust Island, or any other local books in that vein, I’m pretty confident Pizza Girl will be a winner for you.

I quite enjoyed it, even though it left me wanting more – all the really good pizzas do!

My favourite Amazon reviews of Pizza Girl:

  • “I had hoped that this would be an interesting book, it wasn’t.” – nobeachman
  • “In the time of COVID, I wished I hadn’t spent my time reading about a pregnant, alcoholic closeted teenager. If there is a sequel about her fetal alcohol baby, I’ll be skipping that.” – Laura Mullen
  • “Do you like watching paint dry?? If yes, this book is for you! Too harsh? Whoever wrote the synopsis to this book that included the words ‘funny’ and ‘charmingly dysfunctional’ needs to re-examine a thing or two. A drunk, pregnant, crazy stalker is not funny IMHO.” – Danielle
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