Keeping Up With The Penguins

Reviews For The Would-Be Booklover

Category: American (page 2 of 17)

Lakewood – Megan Giddings

Here’s yet another book I discovered thanks to The To Read List Podcast: Lakewood, the debut body horror novel by Megan Giddings. If a mix of The Handmaid’s Tale and The Immortal Life Of Henrietta Lacks (with Get Out and Black Mirror vibes) appeals to you, you’re going to want to give this one a go.

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Lakewood begins with Lena Johnson, a Black millennial woman, mourning the passing of her beloved grandmother and staring into a financial abyss. Lena’s mother is unwell with a series of mysterious symptoms that come and go, and medical treatment in the U.S. is… well, we all know what it is. Plus, amongst Lena’s grandmother’s belongings are a stack of bills that are way past due. Lena is forced to drop out of college, and seek any opportunity to make money – fast.

The answer to Lena’s problems comes in the form of a letter from Lakewood, Michigan. That’s the location of a research program testing new drugs and therapies. They invite Lena to become one of their test subjects, a position that comes with medical insurance for her whole family, free housing, and a generous stipend. Of course, it also means a loss of privacy, great personal risk, and the penalties of a terrifying NDA at stake… but if it saves her mother and gets her family out of debt, it’s worth it, right?

An invitation to participate in a series of research studies about mind, memory, personality, and perception. The Lakewood Project.

Lakewood (page 11)

A job offer that seems too good to be true! Are your spidey senses tingling yet? They should be. Lakewood is about to get fucked up.

It turns out these experiments aren’t anything that would hold up to any kind of ethics review panel. This isn’t filling out a Myers-Briggs or rating the taste of a new coating on a baby aspirin. They give Lena eye-drops that turn her brown irises blue. They feed her with cream capsules that are supposed to replace food and leave her starving. They make her take medication that could be a cure for dementia, but loosens her grip on reality.

All of this is told from a close third-person perspective in the first half of Lakewood. The second half switches to an epistolary style, telling the remainder of the story through a series of letters that Lena writes to her best friend Tanya, describing what is being done to her. The switch to the first-person account makes the whole thing more chilling.

Actually, Lakewood is scary on two different levels. First, there’s the all-too-real commentary on how science has abused and exploited Black bodies. Giddings draws openly on the Tuskegee studies and other such real-life examples. She uses what happens to Lena as a diorama of the trauma underpinning distrust of medicine in minority communities. It’s not subtle, but it doesn’t have to be.

But Giddings – in a masterstroke – manages to scare us another way, as well.

See, the horror isn’t just what’s being done to Lena’s body. The truly fucked-up bit is what they do to her mind. She quickly realises that she can no longer trust her own memories, and she can no longer be sure what is “experiment” and what is “reality”. Did she really spend a night at a bar being told that her newly blue eyes were beautiful, or was that part of the experiment? What about the woman in the bathroom who told her that “Toni Morrison would be ashamed”? Was an observer gauging her reaction to that?

At first, Lakewood feels like a novel grounded in our own reality as readers. But as the experiments go on, and become more surreal, we’re drawn into a speculative world almost without realising. We lose track of what is real and what is not – much the same way as the main character does. In that way, our experience reading Lakewood mirrors Lena’s living it.

So, what I’m saying is that Giddings is very, very clever. The fact that she developed this complex premise right out the gate, for her debut novel, is very, very, impressive. There were a few unanswered questions (like, who was funding these studies?) and the prose didn’t always shine, but on the whole, an amazing effort. I think Giddings is going to have a writing career to watch.

Want to read more? Check out my review of The Women Could Fly, also by Megan Giddings, here.

My favourite Amazon reviews of Lakewood:

  • “if they came out with a part two i don’t think I’d read it…maybe I would to see if it finally goes somewhere.” – April Edwards
  • “All I can say is read it if you want…..I wish I hadn’t.” – Kindle Customer
  • “End of the day, I’m just glad a Black woman got a book published.” – Cam’s Corner
  • “Sometimes books try to be deep by not going very deep, skipping over the surface of the story and letting the reader create subtext. I’m not the best reader for this. I’m not that deep.” – Kindle Customer

Of Mice And Men – John Steinbeck

Am I the only person in the world who didn’t have to read Of Mice And Men in high-school? It’s a staple of English lit classrooms, despite repeated and sustained attempts to have it banned or censored. Having finally got around to reading it for myself as a grown-up, I have to say, this might be the first time I’ve ever thought that people wanting to keep a book out of the classroom might have a point. Not because of “vulgarity” or “obscenity” or whatever bullshit they’ve come up with this year, but because this book is messed up.

Of Mice And Men - John Steinbeck - Keeping Up With The Penguins
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On the off-chance that there’s someone else out there who skipped the rite of passage that is reading Of Mice And Men as a teenager, let me break it down for you. This 1937 novella by John Steinbeck follows George and Lennie, two drifters with big dreams but only their hands to work with. They move from farm to farm in California, during the Great Depression, hoping to get enough cash together to buy a little plot of land for themselves.

My edition includes an introduction by Susan Shillinglaw (Director of the Center for Steinbeck Studies at San Jose State University). I read it before I read the story, of course, and it gave some good context. It was part of an unofficial trilogy of Steinbeck novels (the others being In Dubious Battle, and The Grapes Of Wrath) that focus on the Californian labouring class. He based Of Mice And Men (originally titled ‘Something That Happened’, which I reckon would’ve been better) off his own experiences working alongside migrant farm workers in the 1910s. Apparently, Lennie was based on a real person Steinbeck had worked with during that period.

Before I describe the plot, I want to offer a few trigger warnings (I wasn’t kidding when I said this book was messed up – like, seriously, I might never get over it). You might be expecting the standard violence, racism (including racist language), and ableism (including ableist language) that was all too common in that period, but what you might not be prepared for is the constant and pervasive animal cruelty and death! Dogs and puppies – oh, my heart. Their deaths were discussed with such cavalier abandon, I had to cuddle with Fyodor Dogstoyevsky for an hour after I’d read it.

Alright, with that out of the way: Of Mice And Men begins with George and Lennie camping by a body of water, en route to a new farm job. George is street-smart but bitter, and Lennie is physically strong but lives with a non-specific intellectual disability. George feels obliged to keep Lennie out of trouble, and he doesn’t always succeed. They both hope that this new job will earn them enough money to realise their long-held dream of purchasing land of their own.

When they arrive at the farm, the vibes are immediately off. The Boss’s son, Curley, is an arsehole with a Napoleon complex, and he sees a big ol’ target on Lennie’s head. His wife (a ‘tart’, can you believe it) has the audacity to flirt with the farmhands for lack of anyone else to talk to, and Curley doesn’t like that one bit.

They befriend an elderly ranch hand, Candy, who is eager to leave the farm after one of the other workers euthanises his elderly dog against his wishes (*sobs*). Candy offers George and Lennie $350 towards their purchase of land on the condition that he join them and help where he can.

It all goes to shit when Lennie accidentally kills a puppy (*sobbing grows violent*), and then double-accidentally kills Curley’s wife. He does a runner, as he and George had earlier planned an escape route in the event of such trouble. George catches up with him – and, uh, shoots him in the back of the head? And everyone else is like “oh, good, the big stupid murdery guy is dead, let’s go get drinks” and no one can figure out why George is a bit conflicted about the situation. The end.

I told you! Of Mice And Men is messed up. M.E.S.S.E.D. U.P!

It’s a short novel, but it’s brutal and terribly sad. It’s masterfully written – no notes on that front! – but it’s far from an enjoyable read. Devastating. Nightmare fuel. I am exceedingly glad I was not compelled to read it as an angsty adolescent, as I’m quite confident I never would have recovered.

If I set my personal feelings aside for a second, I can see that Of Mice And Men has the same timeless qualities and themes as The Grapes Of Wrath: class struggle, bonds, sacrifice, race, gender, loneliness. One of the characters sums it up well when he says: “A guy goes nuts if he ain’t got anybody. Don’t make any difference who the guy is, long’s he’s with you.”

Steinbeck inverts our expectations by putting Lennie, the character who should be the most powerful in that context (with his strength and size, in a physically demanding job), in a position of powerlessness due to his intellectual disability, compounded by his socioeconomic position. And again, as with the Joads in The Grapes Of Wrath, there is no happy ending to be found, no neat resolution to the position in which Lennie finds himself due to structural oppression.

Plus, the brevity of Of Mice And Men (at 30,000 words) lends it to dramatic adaptation and performance. This was very much by design, according to Steinbeck. He wrote in 1936: “The work I am doing now is neither a novel nor a play but it is a kind of playable novel. Written in novel form but so scened and set that it can be played as it stands.” As such, it’s been adapted to multiple formats across the decades, mostly to critical praise.

What fucks me up, though, is that Steinbeck clearly thought he was capturing something essential (maybe even hopeful) about humanity in Of Mice And Men. I’m not sure he realised how truly depressing his story was.

In every bit of honest writing in the world there is a base theme. Try to understand men, if you understand each other you will be kind to each other. Knowing a man well never leads to hate and nearly always leads to love. There are shorter means, many of them. There is writing promoting social change, writing punishing injustice, writing in celebration of heroism, but always that base theme. Try to understand each other.

John Steinbeck (Journal Entry, 1938)

I mean, that’s a beautiful and resonant sentiment – but Of Mice And Men got me closer to understanding nothing but a bottle of wine and a trashy rom-com to try to cleanse my mind of it. Really, that’s my reaction to Steinbeck’s writing on the whole, and it makes it very difficult to give a pithy summary or a star rating: five stars for mastery of the craft, negative five stars for enjoyment.

Anyway, I’m determined to end this review on a happier note. My favourite fun fact about Of Mice And Men is that an early draft was literally eaten by Steinbeck’s dog. As he explained, in a letter in 1936: “My setter pup [Toby], left alone one night, made confetti of about half of my [manuscript] book. Two months [sic] work to do over again. It sets me back. There was no other draft. I was pretty mad, but the poor little fellow may have been acting critically.”

Dogs are awesome. Steinbeck was twisted. End of book report.

My favourite Amazon reviews of Of Mice And Men:

  • “Don’t read. Waste of time. Only Boring old English teachers read this garbage” – SHOPPER
  • “Really don’t see why a children’s book needs swear words. What the heck!! This book is not meant for young kids. The word “bitch” is not appropriate for any kid book” – Lucy
  • “Of Mice and Men is just a major downer with no redeeming qualities.” – SDH
  • “because five pretentious critics gave these books great reviews back in the 50’s, we’re now forced to read them even today. For the actual book, it has one of the stupidest endings i’ve ever read in a novel, the characters are uninteresting, and this should not even be at a garage sale for a quarter, let alone an ‘american classic’. of mice and men gets 1 dead friend out of 5” – Raditz
  • “This was the first book I ever felt like ripping to shreds and unless you yourself are depressed or wish to become so, DO NOT READ A STEINBACK NO MATTER WHAT ANYONE TELLS YOU!” – not so great expectations

I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings – Maya Angelou

Does this book really need an introduction? I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings is Maya Angelou’s iconic 1969 autobiography, describing her youth and upbringing. The title comes from the third stanza of Dunbar’s poem “Sympathy” (which is well worth reading in full, if you’ve got a moment). It’s one of the most acclaimed autobiographies in the history of literature, and with good reason.

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By the way, a note on choosing your edition: mine is gorgeous, but it doesn’t have the foreword by Oprah. If I had my time again, I’d prioritise that over prettiness.

I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings traces Angelou’s life from age three to seventeen, artfully recreating the perspective of the child while retaining the wisdom of the adult narrator. She and her older brother, Bailey, were abandoned by their parents and sent to live with their grandmother (whom they call Momma) in Stamps, Arkansas. Several years later, Angelou’s father unexpectedly appears and takes the children to live with their mother in St Louis. There, aged just eight years, Maya is sexually abused by her mother’s boyfriend. This horrifying event has ongoing ramifications throughout her young life (obviously).

The traumatised Angelou proves too much for her mother and St Louis family to handle, so she and Bailey are sent back to Stamps. There they remain until after Angelou graduates eighth grade, a watershed moment in her young life. Momma then decides that the children are ready to return to their mother, who was by then living in California.

Angelou attends high school while living with her mother (whom she adores, despite the earlier traumatic experience in her St Louis home). Before she even graduates, Angelou becomes the first Black female cable car conductor in San Francisco. She relishes the independence and responsibility that comes with entering the workforce, but she still experiences the usual confusion and angst that comes with adolescence. In a moment of desperation, to prove to herself that she “isn’t a lesbian”, she sleeps with a local teenage boy and becomes pregnant.

She manages to hide the pregnancy from her family for eight months, until she graduates high-school, and at seventeen years of age, she gives birth to her son. It’s remarkably not a particularly traumatic experience for her, and I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings ends on a positive and hopeful note as Angelou embarks on motherhood.

So, as that potted summary might indicate, I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings depicts a radical transformation, from a nervous young girl subjected to racism and abuse to a self-possessed young woman with hope and determination. At many critical junctures, books and literature provide solace to Angelou, and it’s through the power of the written word that she reclaims her own agency and makes sense of her bewildering world. It’s a powerful coming-of-age story, especially for fellow bookworms, and it’s impossible to read this one without feeling uplifted in some way (despite the traumatic content).

It reads like a novel (even though, obviously, it’s not) – beautifully, lyrically, with rich and inviting prose. It would seem that’s very much by design; Angelou wrote I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings in response to a challenge issued by her friend James Baldwin and editor Robert Loomis, to “write an autobiography that was also a piece of literature”. She later said that she felt “tricked” into writing the book (she initially refused, as she thought of herself as a poet rather than a memoirist, but couldn’t resist the challenge), but given the result, I think we can forgive Baldwin and Loomis the manipulation.

The literary feeling isn’t just a “vibe”. Many fancy-pants literature critics have commented on it, categorising I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings as “autobiographical fiction” rather than straight narrative non-fiction. But Angelou herself resolutely called this and her subsequent books autobiographies, and thematically they align very neatly with other autobiographies by Black women. Basically, let’s not punish Angelou for writing so damn well that we can’t believe it’s real.

If I had to offer a criticism – like, under pain of death – I would say that I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings slows down a bit in the second half. Plus, the content is definitely going to be tough for some readers to handle (trigger warnings for racism, sexual abuse, and violence). But it’s just so beautifully written! I think critic Opal Moor put it well: “Though easily read, [I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings] is no ‘easy read’.”

My favourite Amazon reviews of I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings:

  • “I get that this book is an autobiography so of course I knew it was going to be somewhat boring. But what I didn’t know was how boring.” – Amy Lee
  • “Should be required reading in high school except that too many school boards will probably disapprove.” – Allen Hunter
  • “I wanted the book with the title that included CRAWDAD not caged bird sings…my mistake” – Sheldon Rudolph
  • “THIS BOOK IS AWFUL! IT IS LITERALLY THE WORST BOOK I’VE EVER READ; ONLY READ THIS BOOK IF YOU ARE WILLING TO LITERALLY BORE YOURSELF TO DEATH. IT’S SOME OF THE WORST LITERATURE EVER PUBLISHED. PLEASE TAKE MY ADVICE I’M SAVING YOUR LIFE.” – Eileen
  • “This has to be the worst book ever written! I am reading thisfor english right now and I can’t read two pages without fallingasleep. She goes on and on about things that don’t pretain to the topic. I remember toward the begining of the book she spent half of a page on how she didn’t steal a can of pinapples when she had the chance. So what! I don’t steal stuff every day, and I don’t write about it and bore people with it. What ever you do, don’t buy this book.” – Wesley Detweller

The Bluest Eye – Toni Morrison

Having read Toni Morrison’s most-beloved (ha!) novel first, I decided to go with her very first novel next. The Bluest Eye is an iconic novel about beauty, violent jealousy, and the source of racial self-loathing, first published in 1970.

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The Bluest Eye is short, just shy of a couple hundred pages, so it can be read in one sitting if you’ve got the peace and quiet you’ll need to really focus on it. I wouldn’t characterise it as a quick read, because there is so much going on and it’s very dark, but it’s a short one at least.

Speaking of the dark themes, I’m going to give you the trigger warnings right now, because I won’t be able to avoid talking about them from this point on. Heads up for family violence, rape (including that of a child), and animal cruelty (including a particularly horrendous dog death that really messed me up).

Okay, on with it: the action takes place in Lorain, Ohio – which was actually Morrison’s hometown! – in the early 1940s, just before war broke out. It all revolves around Pecola, a young Black girl who is widely considered ugly due to her dark skin and her unpolished appearance.

The point of view, though, is that of Claudia, a girl around Pecola’s age whose parents foster Pecola at various times. See, Pecola’s home life leaves a lot to be desired. Her family lives in an abandoned shop front, and her father is an unreliable alcoholic who sexually abuses her (I warned you!) and beats her mother. When her father accidentally burns the place down, Pecola goes to stay with Claudia’s family, until… well, it’s not clear when exactly, because her circumstances seem unlikely to improve.

Flashbacks throughout The Bluest Eye weave together Pecola’s story, and Claudia’s, and that of Pecola’s parents (Cholly and Pauline), as well as other characters that are in Pecola’s orbit. It’s a clear precursor to books like Girl, Woman, Other, that use multiple characters’ perspectives to tell a wide-ranging story around a theme.

There are no “big reveals” or “climaxes” exactly. It’s more like The Bluest Eye circles around a major time bomb – the fact that Pecola is pregnant, after being raped by her father – that will inevitably go off. It is through that pregnancy that Morrison paints a portrait of Black life in a WASP community in that era. As if it all wasn’t sad enough, Pecola’s child doesn’t survive, an outcome that Claudia blames on herself (she and her sister planted marigolds, in the hopes that the plant’s survival would guarantee the child’s, but of course neither flourished).

In the end, Claudia realises that her community uses Pecola – her “ugliness”, her poverty, her terrible circumstances – to make themselves feel better. The title – The Bluest Eye – comes from Pecola’s desperate attempt, towards the end of the novel, to turn her eyes blue, in the hopes that it would make her “pretty” (read: more white) and change her fortune. Pecola descends into madness, and lives a life of delusion, where she believes she has succeeded in changing the colour of her eyes.

So, yeah. There’s not much joy to be found here.

Morrison has said that she wrote The Bluest Eye because she was “interested in talking about black girlhood”. It seems sadly inevitable that a book on that subject would end up a foundational text about the impact of Euro-centric beauty standards and internalised loathing. She subsequently said her ‘job’, as she saw it, was to “rip that veil drawn over proceedings too terrible to relate”, which she certainly achieved.

My edition has a gorgeous, generous afterword by Toni Morrison herself, written in 1993. She mentions—among other things—that she broke the narrative of The Bluest Eye into parts that the reader has to reassemble, to prevent us from falling into the trap of “the comfort of pitying Pecola.” I think that’s what sets works like this apart from Misery Porn books like A Little Life – the misery is central to the story, but there is purpose to it beyond pitying the sufferer.

Morrison also says, though, that she’s not satisfied with the execution of her ideas in retrospect, which is a shame—and, honestly, a brave thing to admit to a reader who has just finished her book.

And, of course, I must mention that The Bluest Eye – being a book about racism, incest, molestation, and so forth – has been subjected to countless bans and instances of censorship. It’s not ancient history, either; as recently as last year, it made the top ten list of most-banned books in the U.S. I mean, I understand that these subjects are tough and not all kids (heck, not all adults) are up to it – and there’s no shame in that – but denying others access to Morrison’s brilliant Nobel Prize-winning work is just unconscionable. So, there.

My favourite Amazon reviews of The Bluest Eye:

  • “F this book it was for school .. but ok overall” – maddie
  • “our stupid Florida governor has banned this book and I have no idea why.” – fmartinache
  • “Appalling. Filled with sex . Awful sex. Can’t see why this is an award book. Not appropriate for kids. Amen” – Ron Toleos
  • “People say “Oh, it’s a powerful story about racism and false ideas of beauty etc.” But IMO, there are so many BETTER stories about those themes that DON’T make me want to scrub my eyeballs after reading them.” – Trudi M. Rosenblum
  • “For those who care, she uses f-words and b-words in the book. The book is filled with sexuality. I didn’t like it because if I want to read a book, I like to read something that doesn’t pollute my mind and I thought, an skilful writer like her didn’t need to decorate her work with profanity” – Naz88

Red, White & Royal Blue – Casey McQuiston

What happens when America’s First Son falls in love with the Prince of Wales? It’s a killer premise for Casey McQuiston’s debut novel (and #Bookstagram darling) Red, White & Royal Blue. They’ve quickly become one of my automatic-buy authors – I loved One Last Stop, and I’m desperate to get my hands on a copy of I Kissed Shara Wheeler – so it was great to go back and see where it all began for them back in 2019.

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McQuiston, unsurprisingly, came up for the idea for Red, White & Royal Blue – a romance between the heirs to two of the world’s most powerful families – during the 2016 American presidential election. They’ve also cited the TV show Veep, the Hilary Clinton biography A Woman In Charge, and royal romance The Royal We as sources of inspiration.

It makes for a delightful escapist read. Alex Claremont-Diaz, one of the romantic leads, is the First Son of America’s first woman president. He’s had a few encounters with Britain’s Prince Henry, none of them good. Their mutual dislike bubbles over at a royal wedding, when a little argy-bargy sends them careening into an extravagant wedding cake – a moment unfortunately captured by photographers.

So, it’s time for damage control! Their handlers concoct a plan for Henry and Alex to make a public show of friendship, to alleviate the risk of any further diplomatic incidents. Red, White & Royal Blue isn’t so much a fake-dating romance book as it is a fake-friendship-turns-into-real-dating romance book – a welcome twist on the trope.

Alex and Henry’s forced proximity really keeps the tension high, and propels the plot forward. Their burgeoning love affair is paced just right – not so quick as to be completely unbelievable, not so slow as to become boring, and with just the right amount of angst. The sociopolitical complexities of coming out are addressed as significant obstacles, but not overwhelming ones.

The only flaw in Red, White & Royal Blue‘s story, as far as I could see, was that one of the plot points (re: the emails, no spoilers but IYKYK) was so blatantly foreseeable! I felt like I spent two-thirds of the book waiting for that particular shoe to drop. Hot tip: if you EVER want to keep ANYTHING secret, NEVER put it in writing – especially in a romance novel!

That was forgivable, though, given how FUN this novel was. It’s hard to believe McQuiston was a debut writer. The tone was consistently youthful (without being either annoying or condescending), wry, and self-aware.

He’s unsure of the dress code for inviting your sworn-enemy-turned-fake-best-friend to your room to have sex with you, especially when that room is in the White House, and especially when that person is a guy, and especially when that guy is the Prince of England.

Red, White & Royal Blue (page 134)

I did get a weird pang towards the end, looking at the dates. The timeline of Red, White & Royal Blue clearly stretched in the future at the time McQuiston was writing; they (understandably) had no idea that absolutely everything would change in 2020. It makes for a heart-wrenchingly sweet parallel universe where a left-wing woman could be President and none of us ever did a birthday party via Zoom.

Red, White & Royal Blue, unbelievably, lives up to the hype. Of course, it’s targeted at younger readers, but I can vouch for the fact that it resonates for young-at-heart readers, too. I’d especially recommend it for fans of The West Wing, and/or anyone who’s just particularly burned out by The State Of The World and looking for some starry-eyed optimism.

My favourite Amazon reviews of Red, White & Royal Blue:

  • “Alex is sad. He looks at Henry. Their eyes meet. Henry smiles for once. That makes Alex smile. Alex says “OMG LOL WE ARE CRAZY” then Henry says “we ARE crazy” then they both turn on their heels and head to another room. Sex happens. Sky is blue. Grass is green.” – Amazon Customer
  • “If you want to read chapter after chapter of vulgar language explicitly describing homosexual sex, then this is the book for you.” – goldie
  • “Written for adolescent girls with the reading difficulties.” – Kneale Grainger
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