Keeping Up With The Penguins

Reviews For The Would-Be Booklover

Category: Books Made Into Movies (page 1 of 12)

The Importance Of Being Earnest – Oscar Wilde

I am dipping, once again, into my Complete Works Of Oscar Wilde collection. The first time, I read and reviewed The Picture Of Dorian Gray, and this time I’m taking a stab at one of his plays: The Importance Of Being Earnest. I didn’t realise until after I’d read it that it is subtitled A Trivial Comedy for Serious People – though, as a rather unserious person, I can tell you that didn’t inhibit my enjoyment of this ridiculous romp at all.

The Complete Works of Oscar Wilde - book laid on wooden table - Keeping Up With The Penguins
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At the time of writing The Importance Of Being Earnest, Wilde was coming off the back of wild success (pun definitely intended) of his plays An Ideal Husband, and A Woman Of No Importance. He was stuck with his family on a summer holiday in 1894 when he began work on this new venture, borrowing names and places from people and places he knew in real life. The play was finished in time for its first performance at St James’s Theatre in London, on 14 February 1895.

The play is set in “The Present” (i.e., 1895), and revolves around two young men who create fictional excuses to escape tedious social obligations (relatable content!). Act I opens with Algernon receiving Jack (whom he calls “Ernest”) at his home. Jack is planning to propose to Algernon’s cousin Gwendolen, but Algernon discovers his secret – that his name isn’t Ernest at all (spoiler, it’s Jack), and Ernest is a rapscallion “brother” that Jack has invented as a reason to visit the city and a cover for his own bad behaviour.

But, plot twist, Algernon has a similar deception of his own. Whenever he needs an excuse to get out of something, he says that his friend Bunbury is very unwell and he must attend to the invalid’s bedside. He calls this Bunburying, the old-timey equivalent of “my mum says no”.

When Gwendolen shows up – with her mother, the formidable Lady Bracknell, in tow – Jack forges ahead with the proposal, and to his delight she accepts… because his name is Ernest (as far as she knows). She says she had always planned to marry a man by that name, and Jack resolves to have himself re-christened immediately, so that she never need know he’s deceived her.

In Act II, Algernon heads to Jack’s home in the country to meet his ward, an attractive young lady called Cecily. The devious rake presents himself as Ernest, Jack’s troubled brother, and in that guise himself proposes to Cecily. She, too, is particularly fond of the name Ernest, so Algernon also arranges to have himself christened accordingly.

Naturally, their deceptions are exposed and it takes some fancy footwork for Algernon and Jack to dance their way out of trouble. This collection has the full four-act version of The Importance Of Being Earnest, which includes the solicitor who comes to arrest “Ernest” for unpaid bills back in London. Apparently, the manager of the first production asked Wilde to cut it down, and some critics argue that “the three-act structure is more effective and theatrically resonant”… but I disagree.

Wilde’s wit and insight shines at full strength throughout The Importance Of Being Earnest. Take, for instance, this surprisingly timely gem:

ALGERNON: Oh! It is absurd to have a hard and fast rule about what one should read and one shouldn’t. One should read everything. More than half of modern culture depends on what one shouldn’t read.

The Importance Of Being Earnest (Page 360)

That’s something that U.S. governing bodies and school boards would do well to remember, eh?

And while the plot satires and skewers the social conventions of the time and Victorian propriety (the name Earnest might have been an in-joke, suggesting that a man might be gay in the same way that being “musical” did at the time), Wilde steers away from the more serious political matters and sinful behaviour in his earlier plays. The most sinful scene of The Importance Of Being Earnest involved Algernon gluttonously gobbling a platter of cucumber sandwiches intended for his guest.

The farcical premise and witty dialogue have made The Importance Of Being Earnest Wilde’s most enduringly popular play. It’s still beloved by critics, readers, and theatre-goers alike, and I’m happy to join them in singing its praises. It’s a quick read, remarkably clever, and delightfully ridiculous.

My favourite Amazon reviews of The Importance Of Being Earnest:

  • ” The book is good and the movie with Colin Firth is about as good but cant be used in class as reference.” – Mads Stokes
  • “Got it but never wanted to read it” – chelsey
  • “The cover’s gross. In England they break their necks and hang em. That’s against constitutional rights against cruel and unusual punishment. That’s nutty.” J. Kim
  • “Terrible play. Pretentious characters. Predictable plot.” – Amazon Customer
  • “I got 5 pages into this before I gave up.
    I dislike plays at the best of times; with shakespeare you can’t understand it, with this you’re bored to death!
    Cumber sandwiches and tea? “Oh how dreadfully spiffing!” This just fuels the negative snooty-tooty stereotype of us Brits!
    Tell me what is funny about some cagey weirdo with two names and a secret relationship/aunt having his cigarette box stolen and then somehow not knowing what is inscribed on his own property?” – Girlie

The Joy Luck Club – Amy Tan

Do you know how to play mahjong? I don’t, but I can tell you that The Joy Luck Club is structured similarly to the game, four parts with four chapters apiece to create sixteen interlocking stories. Granted, I only know that because I looked it up, but it’s a start, wouldn’t you say?

The Joy Luck Club - Amy Tan - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins
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The stories revolve around eight women: four Chinese mothers, and their four American(ised) daughters. These immigrant families all came, from their various points of origin, to San Francisco, where they met at the First Chinese Baptist Church. Suyuan Woo is the founding member of what they call The Joy Luck Club (for which the book gets its name). It’s a regular appointment to play mahjong, feast on good food, share stories and celebrate being alive (and, later, play the stockmarket).

In the first section, we learn that Suyuan Woo has sadly passed away, and her daughter Jing-Mei Woo is taking her place at the mahjong table. She was once the wife of an officer, forced to flee her Kweilin home during WWII and abandon her twin daughters along the way. The three other mothers in The Joy Luck Club have equally sad stories. They’re all around the same theme, too: life is hard, tradition is good (except when it sucks), and kids are ungrateful.

The only narrative propulsion throughout The Joy Luck Club, really, is Jing-Mei Woo’s attempt to find the twin daughters her mother was forced to abandon decades prior. The other ladies of the club had a letter confirming that they were alive and safe, but they don’t yet know that their mother is dead.

So, eight stories, for each of the eight women. It was hard to place the stories as you were reading them. Aside from the respective character’s name at the beginning of “their” chapter, I found myself relying heavily on context clues to work out when and where each story was taking place (and how it connected to the other stories in The Joy Luck Club, though I’ll happily admit that sometimes that thread eluded me).

I won’t pretend to be any kind of expert on China (or Chinese culture, Chinese language, Chinese tradition, the Chinese diaspora, Chinese medicine, or even Chinese food), so all I’m relying on is my gut feeling in saying this… but the stories in The Joy Luck Club felt OFF, in the way Tan depicted them. I struggle to put my finger on exactly why, but something about the characters and their lives on the page just didn’t feel authentic.

I read, after finishing the book, that although The Joy Luck Club sold well and was very popular with many readers, there were a number of critics who reproached Tan for perpetuating racist stereotypes about Chinese Americans. Frank Chin, one of the pioneers of Chinese American literature, attributed The Joy Luck Club‘s popularity to this pandering approach; according to him, depicting Chinese culture as “backwards, cruel, and misogynistic” guaranteed that the book would be received well by mainstream America. He also criticised Tan’s invention of Chinese “folk tales” for the book, calling them “Confucian culture as seen through the interchangeable Chinese/Japanese/Korean/Vietnamese mix (depending which is the yellow enemy of the moment) of Hollywood”. Zing!

The mother/daughter relationships are well fleshed out, though – complex and multifaceted, an impression enhanced by the alternating generational accounts in the book’s structure. It’s a commendable representation of the search for identity and inherited trauma. Critics praised this aspect of The Joy Luck Club, with Nancy Willard saying: “Amy Tan’s special accomplishment in this novel is not her ability to show us how mothers and daughters hurt each other, but how they ultimately forgive each other.”

And, ultimately, I liked the philosophy of the club itself, the Joy Luck Club – making a space in one’s life to be deliberately, determinedly happy, even when the world is falling to shit. We could all use a bit of that, couldn’t we? Unfortunately, the titular club only really appears in the first couple of chapters of The Joy Luck Club; it’s barely mentioned after that.

All told, The Joy Luck Club wasn’t really what I was expecting. It was fine, I’m sure some find it deep and impactful, but it’s not one I’ll be thrusting into your hands or re-reading myself. In fact, I think reading the opening chapter as a short story by itself would make it much more powerful, so maybe give that a go instead.

My favourite Amazon reviews of The Joy Luck Club:

  • “This isn’t advice on how to raise children.” – Lok An
  • “The kindle version sucks. You can’t even burn it for warmth.” – NYAAH!
  • “This book is the absolutely worst ever. The Dr. Seuss books are better than this. Amy Tan needs to step up her game because this was a joke. Some of these stories makes no sense and you can tell that Amy Tan was high while making this book. Needs to be banned from every bookstore around the world including Antarctica and North Korea. The Bible is miles better than this s***.” – Hans Guzman
  • “If you don’t know any Asian American people, you will love this book.” – nico

Crazy Rich Asians – Kevin Kwan

14th century Moroccan traveller Ibn Battuta wrote: “Nowhere in the world are there to be found people richer than the Chinese”. It’s a fitting epigraph for Kevin Kwan’s debut novel Crazy Rich Asians, an outrageous over-the-top satirical novel about the very richest Chinese families, first published back in 2013.

Crazy Rich Asians - Kevin Kwan - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins
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Kwan has said that, in writing Crazy Rich Asians, he wanted to “introduce a contemporary Asia to a North American audience” – and try to bite back your jealousy when you hear that he loosely based the novel on his own upbringing in Singapore. While caring for his father (who sadly passed in 2010), Kwan began writing stories to preserve the memories they shared. Beginning with the chapter he called “Singapore Bible Study” (“an excuse [for attendees] to gossip and show off new jewellery”), he eventually developed the stories into a novel.

Crazy Rich Asians revolves around five central characters, though the full cast is huge. There’s a helpful family tree in the front to help you keep things straight, with hilarious footnotes (the footnotes continue throughout the novel, but sadly devolve into oddly patronising for-dummies translations of slang terms and descriptions of Asian cuisine).

Things kick off when Nicholas (Nick) Young, heir to the fortune of one of the wealthiest families in Asia, asks his ABC (American Born Chinese) girlfriend Rachel Chu to come to Singapore with him, to attend the wedding of the year. Singapore’s most eligible bachelor, Colin Khoo, is marrying fashion icon, Araminta Lee, and everyone’s going to be there.

Rachel has basically no idea about Nick’s family or wealth. As far as she knows, he’s a regular old middle-class NYU professor, like her. She crashes into this grand-wedding-cum-family-reunion completely unprepared.

Eleanor Young, Nick’s controlling mother, is one of the titular Crazy Rich Asians. She’s as obsessed with prestige and propriety as you’d expect a ridiculously wealthy matriarch to be. She’s terrified at the prospect that Nick might be serious about – might even marry – a girl no one knows, an American, from outside her close-knit circle of wealthy friends and families.

Eleanor hires a private investigator to learn more about Rachel’s past, hoping to use whatever she uncovers to prove to Nick that she’s not a suitable marriage prospect. Things backfire, in more ways than one.

And, as if that’s not enough, there are side plots galore. There’s Nick’s younger brother and his trampy soap-opera star girlfriend, who shows up to meet the family in a completely sheer outfit. There’s Nick’s cousin, who is baffled to discover that her seemingly-happy husband is receiving filthy text messages from a Hong Kong mistress. Colin’s wondering what the hell he’s got himself into with all these wedding shenanigans, and whether he can stomach the hoopla long enough to get Araminta down the aisle. And more!

Crazy Rich Asians is just as gossipy as Austen, with the same emphasis on class, lineage, and scandal. Of course, the volume is turned up to eleven, with jaw-dropping opulence in every aspect – designers, decor, and domestic help. In fact, Kwan has said that his editor asked that some off the more lavish details be cut from the story, as they weren’t “believable”; Kwan sent through links to news articles to prove that the families he’s writing about really do live this way. Truth is less believable than fiction, at least in this case.

It was fun to plunge into the glitzy world of the Youngs and the Leongs, but a couple of things held me back from enjoying Crazy Rich Asians as thoroughly as I would have liked. Firstly, the dialogue was quite stilted throughout, and tended to over-explain (I recall a similar issue when reading Kevin Kwan’s 2020 novel Sex And Vanity). Secondly, there was a shocking and unexpected scene about dog-fighting, which made my breath catch in my throat. Thankfully, it was called out by characters in-text, but it still felt really jarring. I skipped my eyes over a page or two, and went back to the glitzy fun I came for. (Oh, and another trigger warning, there’s a fairly detailed description of a pretty awful domestic abuse situation towards the end.)

Still, despite those issues, I can see why Crazy Rich Asians went gangbusters and became an international best-seller. Kwan capitalised on the momentum and released two sequels: China Rich Girlfriend in 2015, and Rich People Problems in 2017. There was a film adaptation too, which was widely praised for its carefully curated aesthetic and Asian cast.

All told, if you’re looking for a book to take to the beach, Crazy Rich Asians is a very safe bet. Be prepared to weep the next time you check your own bank balance, though!

My favourite Amazon reviews of Crazy Rich Asians:

  • “I would recommend this book to people who like flat characters, unrealistic dialogue, a love story with no spark, and a predictable ending.” – doodlenoodle
  • “if I could get the time back I spent reading this book I’d use it to watch paint dry, I’d enjoy that more.” – IL
  • “I get it. They’re crazy rich. Not enough character development.” – ST
  • “if you actually loved this book and found it funny and entertaining, then you must be as dumb as a bag of rocks. I’m no member of Mensa, but I can see that this book was written for the un-intellectual masses instead of people who actually enjoy fiction.” – RWK88205
  • “Regardless of the word “rich” in the title, this novel is poor, poor, poor.” – Margaret Grant

Outlander – Diana Gabaldon

Imagine popping out for an afternoon stroll. You leave your loving husband to do his little family tree hobby, and wander around looking at interesting plants. You get closer and closer to some big rocks, and notice one of them with a hole down the middle seems to be buzzing. Screaming. You topple through the gap and find yourself 200 years in the past, dazed and confused and staring down the barrel of your husband’s ancestor’s pistol. That’s what happens to Claire Beauchamp in the first hundred pages of Outlander – and there are still seven hundred pages to go!

Outlander - Diana Gabaldon - Keeping Up With The Penguins
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Outlander is a time travel-historical romance, previously published as Cross-Stitch. Diana Gabaldon sat down about thirty years ago to have a go at writing a novel “for practice” – y’know, just for fun – and this is the result. Her test run has been published in 38 different languages, sold over 25 million copies around the world, and it’s been adapted into a highly-acclaimed television series.

It’s a CHUNKY book, as I alluded to just a second ago – 868 pages in my edition. In retrospect, it would have made a good lockdown read (so if we have to live through another once-in-a-century pandemic, be sure to put Outlander on your nightstand). As it turned out, I ended up reading it while I was laid up with a rotten cold, so I suppose the experience was mostly the same.

Back to the story: our girl Claire was an army nurse, and was happily beginning her post-war life with hobby genealogist Frank Randall in 1946 when she tumbled through the wormhole. Post-tumble, she’s in 1743 Scotland, and has to think double-quick to escape the clutches of Frank’s great-great-great-great-(great-great??) grandfather Captain Jack Randall. Luckily, a Scottish clansman, the dashing Jamie Fraser, rides in to the rescue and knocks the bad guy out so she can scarper.

Now, the logic of Outlander gets a bit convoluted, but to boil it down to its bare bones: Claire is English, but the clansmen trust her, and she ends up having to marry one of them (Jamie being the obvious choice) because the English Captain can’t arrest a Scot (even a Scot by marriage) on their ancestral lands.

Poor Claire ends up caught between two lovers and timelines. At first, she’ll do anything to get back to her own time and to Frank, but the longer she spends with her husband-by-convenience, the hotter she gets for him and the more at-home she feels in her new era. Jamie keeps being all dashing and rescuing her from hard scrapes, plus he’s pretty good at the obligatory marriage consummation, so you can understand her trouble.

The plot of Outlander is episodic, very Quixote-esque. It’s one damn thing after another, and a lot of traipsing from place to place to escape whatever trouble they’ve gotten themselves into. They still manage to make time for plenty of sex, though, naturally. It’s not a closed door romance, but the door isn’t wide-open either – it certainly wasn’t as steamy as I was expecting.

What concerned me was the romanticised violence. There’s a lot of “men beat their wives because they love them” kind of stuff, worked up to be some kind of passionate declaration of devotion (ew), and a lot of violence as vengeance for slights – real or perceived – against a woman’s honour (double ew). So, if that’s something that bothers you, you might want to give Outlander a miss.

The gay characters also made me raise my eyebrows a bit. Gabaldon doesn’t offer particularly positive queer representation. The only gays are villains, and there’s more than one instance (including one particularly extended and graphic instance) of queer men raping straight men. That said, given that it’s a historical romance set in the 18th century and written in the late ’80s/early ’90s, the presence of gays at all is unusual and commendable to some extent.

Oh, and there’s a few instances of casual ableism and racism, too. I know, I know, Outlander is “of its time”, but you know what? We’re reading it in 2021 and we should at least acknowledge that we know (or should know) better now.

The only other heads-up I’ll give is that the story takes some very strange turns in the last hundred pages or so. There’s a lot of religion, a bit of witch magic, and I think some kind of twisted not-at-all-recommended form of self-administered amateur exposure therapy? Nevertheless, Gabaldon manages to wrap everything up in a way that feels satisfying but definitely paves an inviting path for the sequel.

Ah, the sequel! And the one after that! And the one after that! There have been nine of ten planned Outlander books published now (most recently, Go Tell The Bees That I Am Gone in 2021), as well as several novellas, short stories, and a whole other series (the Lord John books) telling accompanying stories. It’s now one of the best-selling book series of all time. Not bad for a book written for practice about a girl who takes a walk, eh?

My favourite Amazon reviews of Outlander:

  • “I forced myself to read on for several days (I typically can devour a book in less time!) and finally quit when I finally admitted I had made a mistake in buying a sex novel based on a ridiculous story line.” – ARS
  • “Stupid drivel. She obviously wanted to write spank-erotica but needed context, so came up with waaaaaay too much to go with the spanking. God, and the wolf. I stopped reading it at that point. Wanted to stop earlier, but so many friends just loooooved it. Why you gonna write about some horrible wolf you gotta kill? Cause you WANT to write about killing wolves. I don’t wanna read that. Why’s your mind all twisted up with wolf-icide, crazy Gabaldon?” – Hannah Flake
  • “Alice in Wonderland (Alice through the Looking Glass), and The Wizard of Oz both had the protagonist experiencing something that put them in a different time/location. The primary difference in the two older versions is the lack of pornography.” – G. McLeod
  • “I’ve never bothered writing a really bad review before, but this book compelled me. I was told that this is a good series for Game of Thrones lovers. Um, NOPE. This is a good book for women who read books with Fabio on the cover, have a strong stomach, and have a lot of patience.” – alex a

American Psycho – Bret Easton Ellis

There’s been a lot of nostalgia for the ’90s lately, and to those of you remembering (or wishing you were old enough to remember) those days of yore, let me recommend you read American Psycho. Bret Easton Ellis’s 1991 novel will remind you what a hotbed of toxic masculine Yuppie nonsense much of that decade really was. It’s a fascinating read, but not one for the faint of heart.

American Psycho - Bret Easton Ellis - Keeping Up With The Penguins
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Ellis chose the perfect quote – from Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s Notes From The Underground – as an epigraph. It begins:

Both the author of these Notes and the Notes themselves are, of course, fictional. Nevertheless, such persons as the composer of these Notes not only exist in our society, but indeed must exist, considering the circumstances under which our society has generally been formed.

American Psycho Epigraph

The first few chapters give off strong Money-era Martin Amis vibes. At first, the protagonist – Patrick Bateman, the titular American psycho (i.e., maniacal investment banker) – mentions his private obsession with sexualised violence only briefly, with nonchalance. Blink and you’ll miss it. (And poor some out for the poor early readers who didn’t know what they were in for…)

Bateman narrates his everyday activities: morning routine, office routine, endless dinner-and-drinks get-togethers with his investment banker buddies and the women they refer to exclusively as “hardbodies”. The characters – including Bateman – are constantly confused for one another, because all of those Wall Street guys are the same. Bateman is strangely obsessed with what people are wearing, Valentino this and Brooks Brothers that. It’s obviously a commentary on the consumerist culture of the era and geography, but it was so frequent and heavy-handed (seriously, about a third of the novel is dedicated to describing the characters’ outfits), that I couldn’t help but wonder if Ellis was just a smidgen obsessed himself.

Oh, and in an eerie stroke of foresight, Bateman is also obsessed with Donald Trump. Ha!

Anyway, American Psycho seems like your bog-standard Yuppie greed novel, until Bateman starts describing his violent impulses and how he acts upon them.

So, that brings us to the trigger warnings. I realise that my triggers (i.e., anything at all that might even present a minor inconvenience to a dog) are not shared by all. However, I feel pretty confident in saying if you have a trigger, it’ll be pulled by American Psycho. Some governments have deemed it so disturbing that it can only be sold to 18+ adults, shrink-wrapped like a smutty magazine.

Personally, for the most part, I found Bateman’s infamous violence almost comedic. It was just so incredibly graphic. The one instance that really stuck with me is when he narrates noticing fat spatters on his blinds and curtains from the breasts of a woman (he electrified them with starter cords until they exploded). That’s a pretty good example of what you can expect.

And, for those of you who share my concern for fictional canine welfare, there is more than one occasion of truly horrible holy-fuck-I’m-going-to-cry-until-I-throw-up violence against dogs. The first, at least, can be seen coming a mile off (when Bateman attacks the owner), so I could skip my eyes over the page. Unfortunately, the later instances are very sudden and truly sickening.

Unsurprisingly, a lot of people around Ellis warned him that American Psycho would ruin his career, prior to its publication. Simon & Schuster acquired the manuscript first, but later withdrew due to “aesthetic differences” (i.e., “this is so fucked, we cannot possibly publish it”). Vintage Books then picked it up, and went on to publish it after what they called “a customary editing process”. Ellis received death threats and hate-mail galore when it hit the shelves, and even anyone who positively reviewed the book was subject to criticism. He recalled in an interview that “the one good review [that appeared in] the national press” (the Los Angeles Times) resulted in “a three-page letter section of people canceling their subscriptions”.

Even now – more than 30 years later – American Psycho continues to make waves. Apparently, in Australia, it’s supposed to be sold shrink-wrapped, but that’s news to me; I bought it naked as the day it was born. Governments and wowsers are still banning it, petitioning for it to be banned, hiding it on the top shelf out of reach of the poor impressionable children… don’t they realise by now that the banning a book is the best way to guarantee that people will read it?

Ultimately, I thought American Psycho was just another – quite good, but gimmicky – commentary on Yuppie culture. I didn’t hate it, but books that make the same point(s) without the chainsaw murders are a dime a dozen. If someone’s looking for a Yuppie-critical read, American Psycho wouldn’t be the first (or even probably the third) I’d recommend. If they’re after a horrifying novel to make their stomach churn, sure, they could pick this one up, but personally I found Tender Is The Flesh a lot more unsettling.

My favourite Amazon reviews of American Psycho:

  • “I don’t think I’ve ever read a more boring or uninteresting book. He literally just goes on and on about clothes and other boring stuff” – Amazon Customer
  • “Maybe some men shouldn’t be allowed to read & write.” – Kathryn Harvey
  • “Yes it’s repulsive, but so is a puddle of vomit on a school room floor. How this got out of the trash bin and actually published is an insult to even marginally better writers.” – George Zucco III
  • “If you really want to punish an ex of yours, buy them a copy of this book. They’ll never stop cursing your name.” – Jesse L. Cairns
  • “I will grant the business card scene is fantastic, although it is not enough to make up for the crapfest this book is.” – Ira Jaxon
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