Keeping Up With The Penguins

Reviews For The Would-Be Booklover

Category: American (page 1 of 12)

Beloved – Toni Morrison

I’m not sure I’ve ever seen an outpouring of grief for an author who passed away like that I saw after Toni Morrison passed in August 2019. My Instagram was flooded with quotes and remembrances to the Great American Novelist, and the book referenced most often in this eulogy-en-masse was Beloved. I’d heard a lot about it prior to then, of course, but never actually read it… until now. Yes, Keeper Upperers, I have finally read Morrison’s most-beloved 1987 novel.

Beloved - Toni Morrison - Keeping Up With The Penguins
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First, a bit of history (because you can’t read or understand Beloved without its history): the story was inspired by the real-life story of Margaret Garner. She was a slave who escaped from Kentucky and fled to the free state of Ohio in 1856. When U.S. marshals busted into her cabin and arrested her, in accordance with the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, they found that she had killed her own two-year-old daughter and was attempting to kill her other children. The motive, as we understand it today, was to prevent her children being returned to a life of slavery – a fate worse than death. Morrison came across Garner’s story in an old newspaper article, and reproduced it later in a compilation of black history in 1974. But Morrison wasn’t done with Garner’s story; it was the seed that grew into Beloved.

Beloved is dedicated to “Sixty Million and more” – a reference to the Africans and their descendants who died as a result of the slave trade. Morrison lamented the fact that there was no true memorial to the deaths of those men, women, and children, and so Beloved became her own personal tribute. Upon accepting the Frederic G. Melcher Book Award in 1988, she said: “There’s no small bench by the side of the road. And because such a place doesn’t exist (that I know of), the book had to.”

The story of Beloved begins in 1873, with Sethe – a formerly enslaved woman – and her daughter Denver living at 124 Bluestone Road, in Cincinnati, Ohio. Sethe’s older sons, Howard and Buglar, ran away years ago. The house is haunted, see, by the memories and inherited trauma of Sethe’s past, which are personified in the ghost of the child she buried. The child was never formally named, but buried beneath a tombstone with the only phrase Sethe could remember from her Christian funeral: Beloved. (She would have had “Dearly Beloved” engraved, only her “services” to the engraver only purchased her ten minutes of time to carve a name.) Baby Suggs, Sethe’s mother-in-law and a fellow escaped slave, also lived at 124 Bluestone Road, but she died shortly after the boys ran away, eight years before Beloved begins. The early chapters of the novel sketch out this rough history, and Morrison’s capacity to take your breath away with her blunt insight is on full display.

[The plantation] never looked as terrible as it was and it made her wonder if hell was a pretty place too.

Beloved (Page 7)

Morrison doesn’t just give you one inciting incident: she gives you two. First is the arrival of Paul D, another enslaved man from Sweet Home (the plantation where Sethe, Baby Suggs, and several other characters were ‘owned’). A romance kindles quickly between him and Sethe, but the ghost of Beloved freaks him the heck out and he banishes her with a lot of shouting and table-flipping. It takes a bit of doing, but eventually he wins Denver over, and the three of them attend a local carnival as a family, happy to be rid of the ghost that haunted them.

When they return to 124 Bluestone Road, however, a young woman (yes, this is the second inciting incident, hold onto your hats, people!) is waiting for them on the front step. She calls herself – durn, durn, durn – Beloved. Sethe is charmed by the young woman and takes her in, despite Paul D’s repeated warnings that it could only lead to trouble. Denver has no problems believing that this Beloved is her deceased sister manifest, and quickly develops an intense bond with her.

Naturally, the manifest ghost starts causing all kinds of problems. First, she bewitches Denver. Then, she charms Paul D into a bonk. He’s disgusted with himself, and triggered by the memories of Sweet Home that the sex with Beloved recalls, and (somewhat inexplicably) he decides the best way to deal with it all is to get Sethe knocked up. Only, when he tells his friends about it, one of them – Stamp Paid – reveals Sethe’s deepest, darkest secret (uncool, but kind of warranted).

You ready for the big spoiler? It’s coming, ready or not!

Sethe killed her infant. After she’d escaped Sweet Home and made it to Baby Sugg’s house at 124 Bluestone Road, four horsemen came looking for her with bad intentions. Hearing that they were clip-clopping up the street, Sethe ran to the woodshed where her children were and tried to kill them all, but Beloved was the only one she had time for. Eeek!

Paul D confronts Sethe, and ultimately leaves her, saying that her love for her children is “too thick” for him to deal with. She holds firm in her position that “thin love is no love” and that she did the right thing in killing Beloved. She has all the evidence she needs; Beloved has come back to her.

After Paul D runs off, Beloved consumes Sethe’s every waking thought and movement. She hardly eats, while Beloved grows bigger and bigger, eventually appearing to be pregnant. Denver is kind of freaked out by all of this (understandably), and braves her fear of the Cincinnati streets to go out in seek of help. The local women come to her aid, to exorcise Beloved – figuring, naturally, that she’s a ghost who’ll flee at the whiff of some holy water – coincidentally at the same time as the landlord of 124 Bluestone Road comes trotting up on his horse.

It’s all too much for Sethe, who is big-time triggered by the memory of those horsemen coming for her and her children to return them to Sweet Home, and she has a breakdown. Beloved disappears, and Sethe never recovers. She remains bed-ridden for the rest of her life, and Paul D returns to find her a shell of her former self. Over the years, everyone forgets about Beloved, until all traces of her are gone.

Phew! Do you need a second? I sure did, after I finished reading Beloved.

So, what was the character Beloved? A ghost? A demon? That question is the heart of this story, and probably a big part of the reason it has captured so much popular and academic attention. Morrison told us plainly that she was the daughter that Sethe killed, but we can all kind of tell that she’s also a symbol, a manifestation of the repressed trauma of slavery.

Beloved smacks of a book that needs to be re-read over and over again to be appreciated fully. I wanted to love it outright; everyone said that I would and that I should… but I didn’t, really. In fairness, lockdown probably wasn’t the right time for me to read it. There’s some future me who will re-read it and find it completely wonderful, but the present me can only concede that it was a brilliant but not enjoyable read. A lot of Morrison’s cleverness didn’t really “click” until later, writing up this review (e.g., the Schoolteacher from Sweet Home was never named, but all of the former slaves and children of slaves were, a very interesting subversion and re-claiming of the narrative). Basically, I didn’t have the brain space for Beloved, which I regret – and I’d recommend you don’t pick it up until you do.

Luckily, a lot of people far wiser than me read it when their brains weren’t turned to mush by the Delta variant. Beloved was awarded the 1988 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, it was a finalist for the 1987 National Book Award, and it was ranked as the best work of American fiction (by literary critics for the New York Times) from 1981-2006.

Incredibly, despite what it has to teach students about history and about writing craft, Beloved has been banned from five U.S. schools since 2007 (let alone all the times it was challenged and banned before that). Apparently, some parents don’t want their precious progeny exposed to “bestiality, infanticide, sex, and violence”, even in fiction. Every great book, it seems, has a long history of being banned and censored, and Beloved is no exception.

If you’d asked me before I started writing this review, I would have said – with certainty – that Beloved was universally… well, beloved. It’s only since I started Googling possible reasons for my own ambivalence towards it – it just wasn’t a fun read, you know? – that I encountered some pretty heavy criticism. It’s been called sentimental, sensational, overwritten, and overblown. But, despite that criticism (and my own mixed feelings), I must acknowledge that Beloved is a book that has taken on mythical proportions in cultural significance. Its importance in representing the impact of inherited trauma, correcting the false narrative around slavery, and giving voice to African Americans cannot be denied… regardless of one person’s experience of reading it.

Little Fires Everywhere – Celeste Ng

Little Fires Everywhere is Celeste Ng’s second novel, the one that catapulted her to book club stardom. It was famously endorsed by Reese Witherspoon, who said: “It’s a deep psychological mystery about the power of motherhood, the intensity of teenage love, and the danger of perfection,”. It also made her cry, so. There’s that.

Little Fires Everywhere - Celeste Ng - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins
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The story starts in 1998, in the “placid, progressive suburb” of Shaker Heights, Ohio (where, it turns out, Ng herself grew up). Elena Richardson, and three of her four children, gather in the driveway and watch their house burn down. This was no wayward candle or cigarette accident, the firefighters tell them; several small fires, using an accelerant, were lit on each of their beds. This seems to be the natural climax of some very inflamed tensions.

Ng then takes the reader back to 1997, when Elena Richardson rented out her investment property to Mia Warren, an artist and a single mother to teenager Pearl. Previously, they’d lived all over the States, picking up and leaving town at the drop of a hat when the muses moved Mia to do so. But it seems they’re ready to settle now, in Shaker Heights, and quickly enmesh themselves in the lives of the Richardson family.

Pearl becomes particularly close – and quick! – to the second-youngest Richardson kid, Moody. They share a love of teenage angst and manic Pixie adventures. The eldest Richardson kid, Lexie, also takes Pearl under her wing, showing her how to wear cool clothes and eyeshadow and stuff. Trip, the middle Richardson brother, is Pearl’s forbidden fruit; she knows Moody has a crush on her, but the jockish hunk of teen-man-meat that is Trip proves too tasty to resist. Izzy, the youngest Richardson, just tramps in and out being mad at the world; she and Pearl don’t really spend much time together, but she is drawn to Mia, the artist who actually takes her seriously (a powerful spell to cast on a teen girl with a lot of misdirected rage).

The adults – Elena and Mia – watch their kids become close with some concern. Elena thinks she’s Mother Theresa for offering Mia a job as the Richardson’s housekeeper, for “pocket money” while she’s doing her little art projects. Mia accepts, if only to keep an eye on Pearl and the Richardson kids, making sure they’re not getting up to too much trouble (which, of course, they do). As a debate sparks in the community about whether an adopted Chinese-American infant should be returned to her birth mother, Mia’s disregard for “the rules” becomes a sore point between them all, and Elena’s charity reaches its limits.

Ng manages to weave together multiple perspectives and time periods throughout Little Fires Everywhere, but she does so very naturally. There are no abrupt jumps backwards or forwards; in fact, you’ll barely notice it happening, unless you pause to take stock of what you’ve just read.

Everyone in this story has their own secrets and motivations, but not in a schlocky way. This is closer to An American Marriage than it is to Big Little Lies (both of which I’ve seen floated as comparison titles, the former more accurately, in my opinion).

In case it’s not clear, I’ll spell it out: I. LOVED. THIS. BOOK. Little Fires Everywhere is masterfully written. It’s an issue novel, but one that doesn’t beat you over the head with a foregone moral position. It’s a psychological thriller, without the hack writing or “plot twists” you can sniff out a mile off. It’s a family drama with a family that actually feels like a family, lots of little dramas unfolding in each of their lives. Little Fires Everywhere is one of those rare much-hyped novels that actually lives up.

I haven’t seen the mini-series adaptation (produced by, and starring, the book’s biggest advocate, Reese Witherspoon), but I once I finished the book I watched the trailer on YouTube. It seems to make the story a lot FLASHIER, a lot more DRAMATIC, with lots of shouting and violins. I hope they were just hamming it up for the trailer cut, because that would seem to betray the subtlety that makes this book genius.

Ng has definitely won a fan in me – immediately after I finished Little Fires Everywhere, I added her debut – Everything I Never Told You – to my wishlist, and I’ll eagerly await anything else she writes from now on.

My favourite Amazon reviews of Little Fires Everywhere:

  • “I did not read this book I watched the show and then I bought the book for my mom when she asked for my Hulu password so she could watch the show. She needs to read a book.” – Marina Oglesby
  • “Burning ball of mommy issues!” – Molly Koeneman (she / her)
  • “The men do not get much space in this book. The author focuses mostly on the mother-daughter relationship. It is a very good read.” – L FischbachAmazon Customer
  • “Was somewhat like reading War andPeace….in Chinese” – janeeyrehead

The Swans Of Fifth Avenue – Melanie Benjamin

Whenever I find a book I really love, I find myself becoming curious about the author’s life off the page. That’s what drew me to The Swans Of Fifth Avenue (that, and a long-ago recommendation on a podcast, though I can’t remember which one – darn it, I really need to start writing these down!). In this historical fiction novel, Melanie Benjamin tells the story of how Truman Capote infiltrated, and then betrayed, the socialites of Manhattan’s upper-est echelons. After the riotous success of In Cold Blood, he found himself in need of a story, so he befriended the Ladies Who Lunch and then used their lives as fodder. Yes, that really happened, and Benjamin wrote a novel about it!

The Swans Of Fifth Avenue - Melanie Benjamin - Keeping Up With The Penguins
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The Swans Of Fifth Avenue is exactly what you’d hope of a novel about 1950s New York high society: heavy on the sparkle and scandal, the gossip and glitz. This is back when literature was still glamorous and everyone knew everyone (worth knowing). Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and Wharton all get name-checked in the very first chapter.

Babe Paley is the Queen Bee of the socialite “Swans”. She’s a press darling, wealthy beyond measure, and transcendent with beauty. By any account, she “has it all”… so, of course, she’s secretly miserable. Her friends are phony, her husband a philanderer, and her material world is lacking any true love or respect.

Along comes Truman Capote, an impish gay (i.e., non-threatening) writer on the come up. He catches a ride on Babe’s private jet (well, her husband’s, and he – in fairness – was expecting “Truman” the former president, not “Truman” the cheeky ink slinger). Capote and Babe recognise each other as kindred spirits and become instant friends.

Babe brings Capote into her glittering world almost as soon as they land. She introduces him to all of the Swans, and before long they’re trading gossip and going on shopping sprees and getting snapped by the paps on the street. Babe entrusts Capote with her deepest, darkest secrets about her sexless marriage and search for meaning. (Spoiler alert: BIG mistake! Big! HUGE!)

Capote is quickly revealed to be a mischievous (at best) or malevolent (at worst) liar. He tells different versions of the same story: to Babe, he says his childhood was dreadful, but to Slim (her best friend, the brassiest Swan) he says that it was wonderful. He smiles and nods at acquaintances in restaurants, only to savage them to all who’ll listen as soon as they leave the room. He comes across as a pernicious little twit, but undeniably great fun to have over for dinner. One thing I did note as I was reading The Swans Of Fifth Avenue is that Capote is portrayed as a lot more boyish and vulnerable than he has been in other fictionalised versions of his life – I’m thinking mainly of Philip Seymour Hoffman’s portrayal in the film Capote. Only towards the end of the book did he morph into the bloated, desperate alcoholic that’s more familiar to me.

The publication of In Cold Blood is the turning point in his career, and his relationships with the Swans. Basically, Capote gets real high off his own fumes, and it’s not a graceful comedown. After the success of his true crime novel, and the big party he throws to celebrate his own triumph, he struggles to write anything that he feels comes close to the expectations (that he has stoked) of his adoring public and publishers. Lacking any other muses, he writes La Cote Basque, 1965: a very, very thinly veiled short story about one Lady Ina Coolbirth and her high-society friends at brunch. “The characters” trade stories and gossip about, oh, I don’t know, sexless philandering husbands and squalid one night stands.

Capote thinks he’s been very clever and literary, of course, but his delusion is shattered upon publication. All of his friends recognise themselves immediately – one socialite actually takes her own life after reading the story – and Capote is blacklisted. All of the glitz and glamour is torn away from him, and he can’t even get his former best friends to pick up the phone when he calls. It’s a tragic fall from grace, but one that feels very deserved.

Of course, the constant distraction of reading any novelisation of a true story is always present in The Swans Of Fifth Avenue: how much of it is true? (The same could be said of Capote’s work, ahem!) Benjamin addresses this in her author’s note:

“All of [this book’s] characters were incurable liars in life. This gave me quite a lot of leeway… All conversations are imagined, although some—like the conversation between Truman Capote and Liz Smith near the end—are known to have occurred… The timeline is faithful. The fallout from Answered Prayers is true to life. The relationships are real; in other words, Truman and Babe and Bill Paley were that tight little trio; Slim was Babe’s closest female friend… The emotions are what I imagine; the motivations and intent behind some of these documented acts. The facts are the bones upon which I stretch the fictionalised flesh.”

Author’s note (The Swans Of Fifth Avenue)

I was really grateful to her for providing this context – though maybe putting them in a foreword would have made it easier to focus on the fun imagined elements throughout, instead of stopping to Google each new character as they were introduced.

The Swans Of Fifth Avenue is highly readable, the same way that Prosecco is highly drinkable on a sunny afternoon. I thoroughly enjoyed this delicious gossipy take on Capote’s misdeeds. Perhaps it could’ve been a little leaner, a little meaner, but it was great fun to read as it is. I’d recommend this one if you’re in the mood escape to a past when there were no Instagram or Twitter accounts letting the rich and fabulous “control their own narratives”.

My favourite Amazon reviews of The Swans Of Fifth Avenue:

  • “I was lured in to read ‘The Swans of Fifth Avenue’ by the subject and I expected some interesting and intriguing insights into the world of 1950s coming-of-age television and book publishing, with a tidbit or two, or 20, of the intertwining of Manhattan’s rich and famous, most notably Babe Paley and Truman Capote. That was not the case and this was certainly the wrong book for me to read at the end of life-sucking 2020. The key “swan” characters were an insipid group of self-important, vapid, whining gazillionaires with first-world problems that are common and trite.” – Cindy
  • “Mostly a story following Truman Capote and his “Swans”. He was a strange little man..” – Lisa Christian

The Perks Of Being A Wallflower – Stephen Chbosky

I first became aware of The Perks Of Being A Wallflower via the 2012 film adaptation. I vaguely remember seeing it; it left the impression of being quirky but also a huge bummer. It turns out that Stephen Chbosky himself actually wrote and directed it (John Hughes originally held the rights, before he sadly passed away). Anyway, at some point I figured out it was a young adult book before it was a film, and picked up a copy for myself along the way.

The Perks Of Being A Wallflower - Stephen Chbosky - Keeping Up With The Penguins
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The cover of The Perks Of Being A Wallflower promises “a deeply affecting coming-of-age story… in the tradition of The Catcher In The Rye“. It was first published in 1999, and it’s set in the early years of that decade, beginning in 1991.

Charlie is the titular wallflower: a shy, introspective, socially awkward teen, just starting high-school as the story begins. He begins writing semi-anonymous letters, addressed to “dear friend”, he says in the hopes of reaching “someone out there [who] listens and understands and doesn’t try to sleep with people even if they could have” (page 3). Seems reasonable enough!

Through these letters, Charlie’s story – and his unique perspective on life – unfolds. He’s very earnest and matter-of-fact, but he’s also surprisingly perceptive and insightful for a fifteen-year-old. My teenage diaries and letters were certainly more angst-ridden and self-indulgent, no mean feat considering Charlie’s history of mental health issues.

In these letters, to his mysterious and anonymous “friend”, Charlie makes mention of his periods of depression and “things getting bad” (mostly triggered, it would seem, by the sudden and unexpected death of his Aunt Helen, in a car crash, and more recently that of his friend Michael, who took his own life). Charlie feels mostly alone in the world, but he doesn’t seem to mind so much; as he sees it, there are plenty of perks to being a wallflower (geddit?).

Eventually, he makes friends with two older kids from his school, Patrick and Sam. At first, it seemed they might just be taking pity on the weird quiet kid whose friend killed himself, but they proved me wrong. They adopt Charlie into their friendship circle, as one of their own, and he has all of the slightly-less-than-wholesome high school experiences that we would hope. He even develops a charmingly inappropriate and unrequited crush on Sam, who acknowledges it without ever embarrassing him.

Of course, the major problem with befriending older kids in high school is that they’re destined to grow up and get out long before you. That might seem like the logical climax towards which The Perks Of Being A Wallflower would build, but Chbosky always has something darker looming over it all. Charlie increasingly exhibits symptoms of PTSD (of course, that’s not the language he uses to describe it in his letters, but it’s clear that’s what’s going on), and it turns out his repressed trauma is something a lot more gnarly than you might expect. It all comes out when he finally gets His Moment with Sam, right before she leaves for college.

Spoilers below this point, blah blah blah…

Ah, yes, the “big twist” reveal. It comes on subtly, and when it did I wasn’t sure Chbosky had really “earned” the feelings he was clearly hoping to elicit from the reader (see: the same problem as Daisy Jones And The Six). In essence, Charlie was sexually abused by his Aunt Helen as a very young child; that’s why his memory of the event is shaky, and also why his feelings about her death are so confused and troubling. The epilogue, Charlie’s final letter to his friend, reveals that he was discovered in a catatonic state after some kind of psychotic break that recalled his memories of the abuse, and he had to spend some time in a psychiatric facility. Sam and Patrick visited, and while he didn’t exactly live “happily ever after”, he finished up in much better shape than he started out.

I’m really not sure how I feel about child abuse being used as a “big twist” in a novel either, but… for all its problems, I couldn’t stop thinking about it. Chbosky and Charlie’s story really got under my skin. Of course, this should serve as a huge stinky trigger warning, but for those of us who can stomach it, The Perks Of Being A Wallflower is a book that will stay with you, whether you like it or not.

I think Chbosky has a rare talent for writing in the voice of a teenager, about TeEn IsSuEs, in a way that doesn’t sound patronising. He said he wanted to address the question of why good people let themselves get treated badly, and I suppose he found an answer of sorts. He also said he incorporated many of his own memories of growing up in Pittsburgh, making The Perks Of Being A Wallflower at least somewhat autobiographical (though I hope not too autobiographical, ’cause… you know).

Naturally, because Chbosky wrote something relatively realistic about teens for teens, some parents got their knickers in a knot over it. The Perks Of Being A Wallflower has hit the American Library Association’s top 10 list for the Most Frequently Banned And Challenged books no fewer than six times. Apparently, some parents have taken issue with the book’s “pornographic content” and “vulgarity”, “homosexual themes”, and “glorification” of drugs and alcohol – as though teens would have no idea about any of that were it not for a book. Honestly!

I found The Perks Of Being A Wallflower to be a really affecting book, as promised by the blurb, and its effect certainly lingered. I also re-watched the film, and it totally holds up – still quirky and a bummer, as I remembered, but very well done. On the whole, if dark YA gets your motor running, this is one that should be top of your to-be-read list (if it’s not already).

My favourite Amazon reviews of The Perks Of Being A Wallflower:

  • “This book was absolutely amazing and all the moms on here are a bunch of crybaby’s. Many things in the book are not quite AS graphic as they make it seem because of the way it’s written. Overall, it’s a really really good book and now I cant wait to watch the movie. And if you’re a mom whose unsure if their kid should read it, buy it anyways because all you have to do is read it first and decide for yourself, AND you get to relax and read a book.” – Victoria
  • “First of all, I respect any opinion that this is a great book. But I must say I am confounded by the thousands of five-star reviews, because not only do I not see that, but I actively, aggressively disliked “The Perks of Being a Wallflower,” which would have been more aptly titled “The Perks of Being Weird and Weepy.”” – Ga303
  • “its no wonder high-schoolers are depressed these days. this book made me miserable.” – Dj Hickson
  • “I really didn’t like the various sexual comments.” – Joanne McDowell
  • “It sucked and was super boring and dumb. My girlfriend hated hearing me complain the whole time I was reading it.” – Garrett landsrud

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,”.

The Argonauts - Maggie Nelson - Keeping Up With The Penguins
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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
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