Keeping Up With The Penguins

Reviews For The Would-Be Booklover

Category: American (page 1 of 22)

Let’s Explore Diabetes With Owls – David Sedaris

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dumplin’ – Julie Murphy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My favourite Amazon reviews of Dumplin’:

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

Zen And The Art Of Motorcycle Maintenance – Robert M Pirsig

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Heart Is A Lonely Hunter – Carson McCullers

Carson McCullers is one of those authors that really should be a household name, but few people seem to have her books on their shelves at home. The Heart Is A Lonely Hunter was her debut novel, published in 1940 when she was just (get this) 23 years old. As reviewers noted at the time, there is a startling gap between her youth and her ‘astonishing perception of humanity’ in this remarkably insightful novel.

The Heart Is A Lonely Hunter - Carson McCullers - Keeping Up With The Penguins
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(The reviewer’s heart is a lonely one too, but it warms up a bit when you make a purchase through an affiliate link on this page.)

She originally called her story The Mute, but her publishers made her change it to “something more poetic”. The title that went to print is drawn from a poem called The Lonely Hunter by Fiona MacLeod (aka William Sharp): “Deep in the heart of Summer / sweet is life to me still / but my heart is a lonely hunter that hunts on a lonely hill”.

The opening line is a corker: “In the town there were two mutes, and they were always together.” In fact, the whole first chapter will knock your socks off. As the first sentence suggests, it focuses on two close friends, John Singer and Spiros Antonapolous. They are both deaf, and communicate primarily via sign language; their disability isolates them from the rest of their community in the small mill town where they live, but they are satisfied with each other’s company.

Unfortunately, Spiros’s mental health declines rapidly. Singer is happy to continue caring for him (reviewers have likened their relationship to that of George and Lennie in Of Mice And Men), but his only living relative elects to have him institutionalised, rather than risk any liability or take any responsibility. This is devastating to Singer, who loses the only person with whom he can communicate with ease.

He moves out of the apartment they shared, finding it too painful to live among the memories of his friend, and takes up residence at a nearby boarding house. He eats at the same diner three times a day, and gradually begins to attract interest from miscellaneous lost souls, all of whom are looking for connection.

These are the “satellite characters” that we follow over the course of The Heart Is A Lonely Hunter. The introduction to my edition (by Kasia Boddy) offers a really helpful description of them, explaining how each of them represents a different kind of loneliness or alienation, alongside Singer himself.

Thirteen-year-old Mick Kelly confesses [to Singer] her growing passion for music; fifty-one-year-old Dr Benedict Copeland talks about his frustrations at raising the consciousness of the town’s black people (starting with his own family); Jake Blount, a twenty-nine-year-old itinerant labour agitator and drunk, reveals his plans for revolution; only Biff Brannon, the forty-four-year-old cafe owner, recognises that Singer is a ‘home-made God’ for them all… [Singer is] a blank canvas on to which just about anything can be projected.

Introduction (The Heart Is A Lonely Hunter)

McCullers said that she sought to write a novel about “a character to whom other characters reveal their innermost secrets”, and by any measure, she succeeded. By virtue of the fact that he cannot hear or speak, Singer becomes a de-facto therapist for the town, specifically these four characters who have difficulty connecting with others for their own reasons. The image of a priest also popped into my head a lot as I was reading The Heart Is A Lonely Hunter – not that I know much about them, but something in the anonymity of hearing sealed confessions… you get my drift.

There are many pleasant surprises in The Heart Is A Lonely Hunter, but there’s one in particular I want to highlight. I’m amazed by the progressive politics threaded throughout the story. If you can set aside some of the archaic language (yes, there’s a few n-words that are very of-the-time, and Singer is frequently described as a ‘deaf-mute’), McCullers is streets ahead of many writers of our time, let alone her own. She writes intricate inner worlds for the kinds of characters so often reduced to tropes and stereotypes – people of colour, people with disabilities – and gives them agency. Not only that, she allows them to explicitly advocate for themselves politically, be it through Blount’s socialism or Dr Copeland’s racial activism or Mick’s proto-feminism.

You’d be forgiven for thinking that this kind of pinko-leftie philosophy would lead to widespread criticism and controversy (books are being banned for less today!), but The Heart Is A Lonely Hunter rocketed to the top of the best-seller list almost immediately. McCullers’ prodigious talent superseded any qualms the reading public had about her politics; she “gave voice to those who are rejected, forgotten, mistreated [and] oppressed”, in such a way that readers forgot about their prejudice. In fact, I think there’s an argument to be made that many readers over the decades have projected themselves onto the characters of The Heart Is A Lonely Hunter, in much the same way that the characters project themselves onto Singer – a kind of meta-genius that’s almost infuriating, and downright baffling when you take into account McCullers’ tender years and limited world experience at the time of writing.

Yes, The Heart Is A Lonely Hunter is an annoyingly good book. You’ll be annoyed that a woman so young and sheltered can be so wise and insightful, you’ll be annoyed that she can articulate that insight so beautifully, and you’ll be annoyed most of all that her name isn’t held aloft alongside Hemingway’s and Fitzgerald’s when it comes to the best literary writers of the 20th century.

My favourite Amazon reviews of The Heart Is A Lonely Hunter:

  • “McCullers’ book clearly contains some wonderful character descriptions, but I gave up early hunting for the story….” – D.Beyer
  • “Didn’t know this was an Oprah selection before I started it. If I had i never would’ve read it. It was true to her lousy taste.” – Kindle Customer
  • “OK so it is well written and has interesting characters, it is also depressing and boring.” – Monica K
  • “I found this book to be about as enriching as reading Karl Marx and as uplifting as reading the national enquirer.” – Darlene Riley
  • “Just look at how popular used copies are. People are desperate to get rid of this nonsense.” – Marc
  • “In the grand list of books that you will have enjoyed having read, this one ranks slightly above “Tom and Jane Go to Camp”.

    Now, I’m not going to say that this book was trite, boring, lacking in substance or otherwise devoid of anything resembling redeeming merit, because it does have its purpose. That purpose being to sit on your shelf and make it appear as though you are some kind of eruditic masochist.

    If, like me, you were forced to read this book as some sophomore hazing ritual, you will no doubt remember that this book contains very little in the way of plot and character development. The characters don’t so much grow as fester.

    I would not recommend this book to anybody, even those that I hate. People who have suicidal tendencies are warned to stay away as the most cheery portion of this book is slightly happier than a crushed puppy.

    In closing, let me just summarize: this book is bad.” – Rolf M. Buchner

Heartburn – Nora Ephron

The blurb for Heartburn poses an interesting question: “Is it possible to write a side-splitting novel about the breakup of the perfect marriage?” It would appear that the answer is yes – as long as you’re queen of the ’90s rom-com, Nora Ephron.

Heartburn - Nora Ephron - Keeping Up With The Penguins
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Heartburn is an autobiographical novel about heartbreak, food, marriage, sex, pregnancy, Judaism, therapy, and anger – and it’s only 178 pages long. Ephron based the novel on her marriage to and divorce from her second husband, Carl Berstein. You can thank your lucky stars every day that you’re not Carl – he fucked around, and Ephron made sure that he found out.

If I had to sum up the vibe, I’d say Heartburn is like Julie & Julia meets Olivia Rodrigo’s Get Him Back. The main character, Rachel (Ephron’s avatar), is a Jewish food writer from New York, transplanted to Washington D.C. to support her husband’s career as a political journalist. When the story starts, they have one child and another on the way – and that’s the moment he chooses to kick off an affair, with glamorous socialite Thelma Rice.

Rachel’s first response is to spread a rumour on the Washington grapevine that Thelma has a venereal disease. Good for her!

Her second, once it becomes clear that her husband has no intention of wrapping up the affair and getting on with their lives together, is to take the kid and the bun in the oven and run back to New York. She goes back to group therapy, she reflects on her favourite recipes, she flirts with the idea of finding a new lover. Her behaviour is a little unhinged but, honestly, who could blame her?

Reading Heartburn, I instantly recognised some iconic Ephron lines that made their way into her film (one of my favourites) When Harry Met Sally. “Pesto is the quiche of the seventies,” for instance, and “What did she look like? / Thin. Pretty. Big tits. Your basic nightmare.” I respect that Ephron clearly knew when she’d struck gold and had no compunction about recycling content.

It’s impossible to separate Heartburn from Ephron’s real-life experience of being cheated on while heavily pregnant – and she wouldn’t want us to. It’s an explicit act of literary revenge, catharsis through thinly-veiled fiction. The fact that she doesn’t try to hide it or deny it is what makes it work.

One of the things I’m proudest of is that I managed to convert an event that seemed to me hideously tragic at the time to a comedy – and if that’s not fiction, I don’t know what is.

Nora Ephron on Heartburn

As good as Heartburn is, though, I can concede that Ephron’s novels weren’t her strongest work. Her comedy and insight into the human condition translates best on the big screen, in classic screenplays like the aforementioned When Harry Met Sally (and, indeed, the adaptation of Heartburn itself). Ephron didn’t write another novel after Heartburn, and while nothing she could have written could have possibly been bad, I’m glad she directed her energies to where they were most needed and appreciated.

This is definitely the best novel to buy for your bestie who’s going through a bad break-up; either they’ll find it hilariously relatable, or it will simply remind them that there’s light at the end of the tunnel and, someday, they’ll look back on it all and laugh.

My favourite Amazon reviews of Heartburn:

  • “This book is TERRIBLE! The main character rolls around in self pity while trying to cook the weirdest things.” – Big Mama
  • “I read about 50 pages before deciding to put myself out of this books misery.” – R. Peterson
  • “Waste of time. All about her divorce, a real downer.” – Swissneva
  • “Lots of whining, with recipes.” T. B.
  • “Back then it was like ‘wow’ she really wrote this? Reading it now, it is embarrassing and not politically correct. The book doesn’t hold up over the years. Kind of like Nora Ephron’s neck.” J. C.
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