Keeping Up With The Penguins

Reviews For The Would-Be Booklover

Category: Comedy (page 1 of 4)

A Short History Of Tractors In Ukrainian – Marina Lewycka

Picture this: you’re 47 years old, with a family and a plum job as a Sociology lecturer at a fancy university. Your mother has sadly passed away, but you still have your father (84 years of age, and fighting fit aside from the occasional fit of… ahem, fecal incontinence). There’s also your older sister, Vera, who’s divorced and tried to royally screw you over with your mother’s will, so you really don’t have much to do with her anymore. Then, one day, the phone rings: your father is calling to tell you he’s fallen in love with a 36 year old Ukrainian blonde bombshell who wears green satin knickers, and they’re getting married. That’s the situation Nadezhda finds herself in, and the premise of the bizarrely-named A Short History Of Tractors In Ukrainian.

I assume, based on Marina Lewycka’s author bio, that at least some aspects of her debut novel are autobiographical. She, like her protagonist, was born to Ukrainian parents in a refugee camp at the end of WWII, and grew up in England. Her resume includes a post teaching at Sheffield Hallam University, and she is married with an adult daughter.

Still, one would hope that she’s exaggerating for comic effect. When Nadezhda and Vera try to put aside their years-long feud to save their father from Valentina (the voluptuous gold-digger), they hit more than a few bumps in the road. Their campaign to oust the much-younger bride unearths all manner of family secrets, and not the cute mother-had-an-affair-with-the-milkman kind. Nadezdha has to reckon with all kinds of trauma that she was too young (at the time) to remember properly for herself, including her family’s struggle to survive the Ukrainian famine and Stalin’s purges. Unfortunately, Vera remembers all too well, but she’s reluctant to share…





Lewycka offsets these huge bummers in the plot by offering us humorous theatrics, melodramatics, and soap-opera-worthy family bust-ups. There’s nothing sentimental or wistful about A Short History Of Tractors In Ukrainian: think more an over-the-top pantomime than gritty realism. The intergenerational trauma of war, poverty, and fear are ever-present (in Vera and Nadezhda’s mother’s insistence, for example, on accumulating non-perishable food, a hangover from her young life of famine and scarcity), but they co-exist with Bridget Jones-esque family squabbles and “wonderfully absurd” moments of farce.

Still, despite Lewycka’s best attempts, I still found A Short History Of Tractors In Ukrainian to be far more sombre than I had expected – more akin to a book like The Eighth Life. Maybe it’s just harder to find the funny these days than it was back when the book was first published, in 2005. Valentina abuses her husband physically and psychologically, she is grossly manipulative and cruel, and I just couldn’t make the leap to letting elder abuse tickle my funny bone. Plus, the bureaucratic nightmare of dealing with immigration authorities had me reaching for a bottle of wine. Maybe it’s a case of bad timing, or maybe this story just hasn’t aged well… it’s hard to tell.





What I did like was the strange paragraph breaks, which made the whole story feel slightly off-kilter. The sudden pauses changed the emphasis of each exchange, in a way that made me pause myself to properly think about what was going on in the story (like listening to a song in 7:8 time). Oh, and it takes its bizarre title from a book-within-a-book – the father’s treatise on (you guessed it!) the history of tractors – so you do literally get a short history of the significance of tractors (though it’s translated from Ukrainian into English, for the reader’s convenience).

Speaking of translation: A Short History Of Tractors In Ukrainian has now been translated into over 27 languages, including Russian and Ukrainian (though, apparently, a few Ukrainian reviewers were really unhappy with the book and the way it represented their country and people – Ukrainian novelist Andrey Kurkov called it a “banal tale” that would not teach anyone anything about Ukrainian migrant communities in Britain, burn!). Those criticisms aside, Lewycka won the Bollinger Everyman Wodehouse Prize in 2005, the U.K.’s only formal literary award for comic literature (for which the winner receives “a jeroboam of Champagne Bollinnger Special Cuvee and 52 volumes of the Everyman Wodehouse edition and a Gloucestershire Old Spots pig named for the winning novel).

I’m not sure I found it champagne-and-books-and-a-pig funny, but it was a fairly entertaining read. I’d recommend A Short History Of Tractors In Ukrainian for when you want your multi-generational epic compacted, and served with a spoonful of sugar.

My favourite Amazon reviews of A Short History Of Tractors In Ukrainian:

  • “Very much enjoyed the actual history of the tractor and the history related to WWII, but found the story of the nonagenarian and the buxom 30-something Ukrainian a bit silly.” – Shirley Mauss
  • “Get on with it for God’s sake. This book resembles a Star Trek time vortex episode where the same scene is played over and over and over and over again without conclusion. The daughter visits the father, fights with him and his new wife, vows not to return, next chapter, daughter visits father, fights with his new wife, vows not to return. Next chapter, daughter visits her father, fights with his new wife, vows not to return. Next chapter, daughter visits father’s house, fights with father and his new wife, vows not to return. Enough already.” – bigsnickers
  • “The book is nice.” – Kelly You

Me Talk Pretty One Day – David Sedaris

I know David Sedaris mostly by reputation. I’d heard some of his segments on This American Life, and I loved his essay about his failed attempts at panic-buying at the onset of the pandemic, but I hadn’t read anything book-length until I picked up Me Talk Pretty One Day. This memoir, told in essays, was first published in 2000, making this year its twentieth anniversary, and yet it’s still as pertinent and resonant as ever. Sedaris’s wry humour and keen observations, of everything from family life to travel to cooking to education, are timeless.

My edition comes with a new introduction from the author, describing the various types of “fan” mail he has received since its initial release. Right from the outset, Sedaris sets his tone: uniquely sarcastic and affectionate in equal measure, poking fun without ever being cruel. I’m still scratching my head, trying to work out how he did it. How did he manage to land punches – in all directions, up and down and sideways – that feel like kisses? It’s truly masterful, a kind of comic genius you don’t see everyday.

Me Talk Pretty One Day is split into two parts. The first is a collection of essays about his childhood, mostly set in his native North Carolina. The second focuses on his life after moving to France, with his partner. It’s hard to believe how much life Sedaris has lived, as a speed addict, a furniture removalist, a writing teacher, a failed performance artist, an ex-pat… It’s all copy for Sedaris. He provides seemingly endless and delightfully witty commentary on all of his experiences, sharing the worst of them (addiction, grief, shame) with just as much good humour as the best of them.





Much of the humour in the second section is derived from Sedaris’s attempt to live in France without actually speaking French (and his fumbling efforts to learn). The titular essay – Me Talk Pretty One Day – is drawn from his participation in language classes, where just about everything is lost in translation. However, the title also echoes in the very first essay, from Sedaris’s childhood, about receiving speech therapy for his pronounced lisp. It’s a satisfyingly neat parallel. In fact, Sedaris’s communication “failures” are a recurring motif throughout the book.

Me Talk Pretty One Day is about astutely-observed adventures in seemingly mundane everyday activities. I’m sure Sedaris occasionally exaggerates and over-emphasises for comic effect, but I am more than willing to forgive him that. He seems like the kind of writer that could derive side-splitting laughter from a shopping list. That said, this isn’t a “fluffy” read. Sedaris is disarmingly honest about his extended flirtation with crystal meth (and his related dalliance with performance art), and other moments of darkness and weakness in his life. Still, he seems to process these traumas (self-inflicted and otherwise) in the way I most prefer and adore: with self-deprecating humour.





Me Talk Pretty One Day is a great read for when your attention span is shot. The essays are short enough that you can read the whole thing in bite-sized chunks, but the through-line is strong enough that it will keep pulling you back in. It’s a shame that it’s never been adapted for the screen. Apparently, it was all set to go – with a completed script and all – but Sedaris’s sister expressed concerns about how their family would be portrayed, and so he squashed it. For all his ribbing and warts-and-all honesty, Sedaris is clearly still a good guy, one who will set aside his own interests to protect his family and keep them happy.

So, I end where I began: still amazed at Sedaris’s knack for being cutting without being cruel, to tease but never bully. Every critical observation he offers is laced with love and LOLs. Every autobiographical gem he mines is polished to a bright shine. Me Talk Pretty One Day definitely lives up to the hype, and I guarantee it will tickle your funny bone, even in your darkest hours.

My favourite Amazon reviews of Me Talk Pretty One Day:

  • “Some people may like his humor but I’m not one of them.” – Dick
  • “I had to stop reading this while on the treadmill at the gym. I was laughing so hard I could barely walk and was making a spectacle of myself.” – Kindle Customer
  • “It was absolutely hilarious. I just wish he would not use so much “potty talk”. That not pretty!” – margaret h cleveland
  • “If you want to laugh hard enough to pee, this is for you.” – Amazon Customer
  • “It’s David Sedaris. Nuff said

    Except there are word minimums on this review, like a school book report. He’s the writer, not me.” – Amazon Customer

A Man Called Ove – Fredrik Backman

I love a good sleeper hit. You know those books that have been out for a while without a fuss, then they start gathering steam, and all of a sudden they’re everywhere you look? That’s what happened with A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman. Once upon a time, Backman was a quiet little Swedish blogger, and A Man Called Ove (or, in the original Swedish, En man som heter Ove) was his debut novel. It was published in 2012, translated into English in 2013, but didn’t reach the New York Times Bestseller List until eighteen months later. Once it got there, it stayed there for 42 weeks. And, here’s some more fun trivia: it’s an even bigger, even more-unexpectedly huge best seller in South Korea (not even his publisher quite understands why). Sometimes, miracles happen, eh?

This English language edition – which has sold over three million copies around the world, by the way – was translated by Henning Koch. Remember: always #NameTheTranslator!

It begins with an especially-curmudgeonly old-before-his-time 59-year-old man, called Ove (in case you missed it). He’s been having a rough trot. He’s still mourning the loss of his wife, and recently found himself forced into early retirement. Lacking any purpose or intention for the rest of his life, he plans to die by suicide. As fate would have it, on the day of his planned departure from this mortal coil, an exuberant young family moves in next door.

Ove has always lived by a set of pragmatic principles and strict routines. When the newcomers knock over his mailbox trying to back in their trailer, he just about blows a gasket. Parvaneh is a pregnant mother of two, and Patrick is her partner who really struggles with parking. Ove finds them bothersome and tiresome and just about every other -some adjective you can imagine a grumpy old man throwing at a couple of kids just trying to find their way in the world. When they mess up his plans to die, he stubbornly refuses to accept the divine intervention, and makes a new plan… until it happens again. And again.





Look, I know this doesn’t sound like the stuff of great comic novels. A lonely old guy trying to off himself? Complete with wacky neighbours and hijinks? Indeed, Backman had trouble finding a publisher at first. Based on his pitch, they said the book had “no commercial potential”, and that Ove was too unlikeable, too much of a Debbie Downer. Reader, they were very, very wrong. I was howling with laughter from page one. I was sending snaps of the funniest bits to my friends by page twelve. And then, about half way through, my eyes got a bit wet. And then it happened again, a little further on. By the end of A Man Called Ove, I’d used up half a box of tissues, and my cheeks, my chin, and my shirt front were all wet, too. Backman is uniquely skilled at the art of getting the reader to care more than they thought they would. He’s managed to make the old man’s cynicism and indignation endearing. Ove, stick-in-the-mud as he may be, feels disconnected and lost – who can’t relate to that? And he finds, in his new neighbours, new purpose (mostly to tell them how they’re doing it all wrong) – who can’t relate to that, too?

As Ove’s relationship with his new neighbours develops, so unfolds his backstory, one so heart-wrenching and wonderful and evocative that it sings in perfect harmony with the rest of the novel. I never once felt like I was being pulled back and forth in the timeline, or emotionally manipulated, because Backman knew just how hard to push, and when to back away. What I loved most of all was that it was brimming with my favourite type of whimsical, misanthropic humour, much along the lines of The One-Hundred-Year Old Man Who Climbed Out The Window And Disappeared, my ultimate cheer-up read. A Man Called Ove is darker in its contents and themes, perhaps, but it’s definitely the same “vibe”.





There’s been a movie adaptation of A Man Called Ove (and also a stage production) – I watched the trailer on YouTube, but I don’t think I’ll be seeking it out to watch in full. I just can’t imagine how the comedy, so dark and perfect on the page, could translate to the screen. Backman has also since written several other novels, though (he’s now officially “Sweden’s most popular literary export since Stieg Larsson”), and I’m particularly interested to check out My Grandmother Asked Me To Tell You She’s Sorry.

I’d love to recommend this as a book club read, but I feel like there’s a very good chance every book club in the world has read it already – once again, I’m late to the party. A Man Called Ove is an enchanting tale of unlikely friendships, and it will pull on heartstrings you didn’t know you had. Plus, it’s a timeless reminder that you can almost never guess someone’s story just by looking at them – and I think we could all do with a few more of those.

My favourite Amazon reviews of A Man Called Ove:

  • “i was looking for an uplifting book and this was recommended. 10+ chapters of a man who dislikes everyone and wants to kill himself is definitely NOT an easy listening or feel good read. i might be only slightly encouraged by the realization that i am markedly happier and nicer than Ove.” – Appalasia Farm
  • “Sad, but uplifting” – Geoff Burdge
  • “Signed my wife up for an Audible account. But she hated it. Worst. Valentine’s Day. Ever.” – Argyle Shopper
  • “I could not wait for Ove to be Over.” – Marty


The Manic Pixie Dream Boy Improvement Project – Lenore Appelhans

I always thought those book lovers that kept track of where exactly they got book recommendations were kind of going overboard. I mean, I love a spreadsheet tracker as much as the next person (ahem), but I didn’t think I needed to track where I first heard of a book – surely the crucial details, like title and author, would be enough? Well, I’m eating humble pie now, and kicking myself in the pants at the same time. I know I first heard about The Manic Pixie Dream Boy Improvement Project on a bookish podcast… but I cannot, for the life of me, remember which one! I’d really love to shout them out here, and thank them for putting me on to this gem of a book, so if there’s the tiniest chance any of you brilliant Keeper Upperers out there might recall being recommended this same book in that way (a stretch, I know!), I’d greatly appreciate you sharing in the comments.

The Manic Pixie Dream Boy Improvement Project definitely goes out to all the word nerds and book geeks. The whole premise is a literary critique: Riley is a Manic Pixie Dream Boy, a sub-type of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl trope. He lives in TropeTown where he hangs out with all the other trope characters until they’re summoned by an author for a role in a book.

(A quick sidebar for the uninitiated: a trope is a recurrent motif or character in books. Authors use as a kind of short-hand, to signal to the reader what’s happening in the story. So, for instance, if there are two equally-charming-but-very-different boys vying for one girl’s attention, you’re smack bang in the middle of the Love Triangle trope (and you can probably guess it’s going to end one way or the other). If you’re presented with a character who’s a force for good but truly only motivated by sex, money, or drugs, you’ve got yourself an Anti-Hero trope (and you’ll probably love him despite his flaws). See what I mean?)

(And, a sidebar to the sidebar: the moniker of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl was first used in a review of the 2007 film Elizabethtown (but the trope itself has existed far longer). Critic Nathan Rabin described Kirsten Dunst’s character in the film as such: “The Manic Pixie Dream Girl exists solely in the fevered imaginations of sensitive writer-directors to teach broodingly soulful young men to embrace life and its infinite mysteries and adventures.” Basically, their only job is to be quirky and fun love interests, and get the boys to live a little. So, that should give you enough context…)





But back to the story! Riley, as I said, is a Manic Pixie Dream Boy, a trope created to counter-balance the sexist origins of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl trope (it turns out boys can exist in stories solely to justify the development of another character just as well as girls, who knew?). There was one other Manic Pixie Dream Boy in TropeTown, Finn, but he was “terminated” under mysterious circumstances. “No one really knows what happens when you’re terminated,” Riley explains. “You board a train on the outskirts of town. The train always comes back empty.” And Riley might find himself terminated, too, if he’s not careful.

See, Riley’s job as a trope is simply to turn up when summoned by an author, and perform his role as a trope while the Developeds (central characters who get actual depth) progress through the story. But he’s been going off script, taking his character beyond the bounds of Manic Pixie-ness, and his authors are getting pissed. They’ve made a complaint to the TropeTown Council, who stick Riley in group therapy, alongside a bunch of similarly-disgruntled Manic Pixies. They’re all restless, seeking a level of autonomy never afforded to their kind. Riley feels like they’re all capable of more than just regurgitating cliches, but he also knows he needs to “accept [his] place in the narrative hierarchy” and do as he’s told. Thus, the book’s title: this is The Manic Pixie Dream Boy Improvement Project.

It might all sound dreadfully complicated, but please don’t write this one off! I swear, any confusion is my fault entirely. Appelhans has done an incredible job of weaving a clever and complex world in a very accessible way, right down to including a map of TropeTown in the opening pages (which is, in itself, a delight – the Villains live in an area literally called “The Wrong Side Of The Tracks”, lol!).





I don’t think it will surprise you to learn that this book is very meta: not so much so that it detracts from the reading experience, more like it gives you the feeling of being in on the joke. Riley often breaks the fourth wall, speaking directly to the reader, and displays a comic level of self-awareness in his role. The tone is always lighthearted, quirky and zany as we’d expect of a Manic Pixie story, but don’t be fooled: at its heart, The Manic Pixie Dream Boy Improvement Project is actually a searing literary (and, by extension, social) critique.

Take, for example, the repeated digs at beloved YA author John Green. Riley’s most successful role to date was playing “Romantic Cancer Boy” (a very obvious nod to The Fault In Our Stars). The Manic Pixie-cum-Mean Girl Nebraska is the only one of the therapy group to have had a titular role (again, a not-subtle poke in the ribs to Green’s Looking For Alaska). The Manic Pixie trope is so pervasive and evergreen in young adult fiction, the jokes work in seamlessly, but I still applaud Applehans for being brave enough to go after the King and leaving herself barely any room for plausible deniability.

The parody, of course, could not be complete without a love story, a mystery, and lots and lots of wacky adventures – and The Manic Pixie Dream Boy Improvement Project has all of those in spades. Nevertheless, the book never felt repetitive or cheesy. The cliches were employed sarcastically, the humour was wry, and even for all the zaniness, the central message was still one that I can get behind. We all need to take a long, hard look at whose stories get told, and how (an especially timely question in the bookish world). Towards the end, Appelhans even wades into that ever-dangerous territory of addressing “problematic” tropes: Uncle Tomfoolery, the Magical Negro, and so forth. I think she handled that combustible subject matter superbly, too.

I suppose The Manic Pixie Dream Boy Improvement Project is technically itself a YA novel, but I would really resent it being pigeon-holed. I think this literary send-up would be a wonderful read for book lovers of all ages, guaranteed to delight, entertain, and provoke indiscriminately.


Stay Sexy And Don’t Get Murdered – Karen Kilgariff & Georgia Hardstark

I first discovered the My Favorite Murder podcast back in 2017. I went all the way back to the beginning and binge-listened to every single episode (yes, I’m a podcast junkie, but this one was particularly addictive), and I haven’t missed one since. We fans call ourselves “Murderinos”, and there are tens of thousands of us around the world. The hosts are Karen Kilgariff and Georgia Hardstark, and they have over 20 million monthly listeners. “You come for the murder, you stay for the camaraderie” they say, and they’re right. Their friendship is the reason their podcast, and now their book, works. Stay Sexy And Don’t Get Murdered is their dual memoir published last year (and this copy was very kindly gifted to me by my very dear friend and fellow Murderino, Chent).

Sidebar: The book is gorgeous, of course, but I must say, I was really bemused by the fact that in the blurb the word “bullshit” is censored (stylised as “bullsh*t”), but they let the word “unfuckwithable” fly in full. Weird, eh?

Anyway, I’ve never read a dual memoir before. In fact, this is the first (officially) co-authored book I’ve reviewed on Keeping Up With The Penguins. It’s a strange mix of self-help and memoir, like a “Look what we learned by how badly we fucked up!” guide to life. Kilgariff and Hardstark’s transparency about hard times and shitty decision-making is gloriously disarming. They cover everything from self-care, to relationships, to substance abuse, to staying sexy, to not getting murdered.

Ah, murder: you’d think that, given the nature of their brand and the subject of their podcast, that Stay Sexy And Don’t Get Murdered would be full of true crime chat. Not so! True crime is mentioned in passing, of course (given that it’s their passion, and now their life’s work), but it’s not a focus. When they do mention it, mostly towards the end of the book, they steer away from recounting grisly details or glorifying sensational cases. Instead, they use the opportunity to pay respects to victims and families, and call out the toxic habit of victim-blaming.

“… at the end of the day, the only reason it matters is the victim. It’s the victim and their friends and family who will forever be affected by the trueness of the crime long after the killer is caught…”

Page 295

The book’s title, and all its chapter headers, are taken from catch-phrases and in-jokes used in the podcast. Basically, Kilgariff and Hardstark take their winning formula and reproduce it in print, only they’re now talking about their lives instead of murders. Their personalities and tone translate well, and there’s no pretentious attempts at literariness. These podcasters are well aware—and they make their readers well aware of their well-awareness—that they aren’t Professional Authors(TM). There’s no bullshit, they’re not writing like they hope they’ll win the Pulitzer. They’re just two insanely popular women with a huge fan base, responding to popular demand for a book about their experiences. They write as they speak, which they know (based on the weight of evidence) will resonate.





Most Murderinos will already be at least somewhat familiar with many of the stories recounted in Stay Sexy And Don’t Get Murdered, but Kilgariff and Hardstark offer more nuanced and detailed insights than they might off-the-cuff in a podcast recording. Their radical vulnerability, their unabashed hanging out of dirty laundry, is very impressive. They are candid and personable, just as you’d hope them to be, and they encourage their readers (as they do their listeners) to eschew the myth of “perfection” and the reverence of politeness. OK, fine, they out-and-out tell readers to “fuck politeness”, and I must say, I agree.

It’s quite funny—I laughed out loud a few times. I’m not sure I’d call Stay Sexy And Don’t Get Murdered a laugh riot exactly, there are a lot of stories of trauma and devastation, but you’re sure to crack a few smiles at least (and if you don’t, you’re dead inside, seek help).

I’m not sure how much this book would mean to readers who don’t already listen to the podcast, though. As I’ve said, it’s generously seasoned with in-jokes, the kind that have already been broadcast to millions and adopted by the die-hard fans as mantras (“stay out of the forest”). Kilgariff and Hardstark are trading, intentionally or not, on the goodwill and emotional investment that already exists. Sure, Stay Sexy And Don’t Get Murdered might win them a few more Murderinos, but I think for the most part, it goes out to the lovers. Still, for them (and I include myself), this book is a slam dunk. It’s like getting to sit in on your best friend’s therapy session. (Oh, yeah, they advocate therapy, a lot—it’s very L.A.)

Stay Sexy And Don’t Get Murdered is definitely one of the better celebrity memoirs I’ve read, on par with Anh Do’s The Happiest Refugee. This is what I was hoping to get from Amy Poehler’s Yes Please—my wish has finally been fulfilled. Does that make Karen and Georgia my fairy godmothers? Hope so!

My favourite Amazon reviews of My Favorite Murder:

  • “haven’t read…..too busy listening to their PodCast.” – Alison Kramer
  • “…. If I wanted to hear that I should go to therapy a dozen times I’d just listen to my sister rag on me for free.” – Bellingham Bookworm
  • “this book cleared my acne and cured my depression. I love my moms Georgia and Karen, and I LOVED this book.” – Hannah @ A Reading Red Sox
  • “I love staying sexy and not getting murdered. Thank you Karen and Georgia.” – AK
  • “Buy it you true crime lover!!!” – Alex H
  • “I Laughed, I Cried, I Got Inspired! Consider me not murdered.” – Jenna T
  • “Great read! Withstands spilled beer. Would recommend.” – Zack


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