Keeping Up With The Penguins

Reviews For The Would-Be Booklover

Category: Comedy (page 1 of 4)

Dress Your Family In Corduroy And Denim – David Sedaris

I loved, loved, loved my first adventure with David Sedaris, Me Talk Pretty One Day, so I’m not ashamed to say I came to Dress Your Family In Corduroy And Denim hoping for more of the same. Such an approach would normally invite disappointment, but Sedaris totally delivered. This is the 2004 collection of 22 autobiographical essays, once again focused on the author’s upbringing, family, and his adult life. You’d think that well would run dry eventually, but Sedaris is clearly more than capable of hauling out every last trickle.

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Dress Your Family In Corduroy And Denim – and Sedaris’s whole schtick, more broadly speaking – is best summed up by the blurb on this edition. “Sedaris lifts the corner of ordinary life, revealing the absurdity teeming below the surface,”. He examines the neighbours who didn’t watch television (Us and Them), his own failed attempts to become a hippie (The Change In Me), and what becomes of the estate of the late Aunt Monie (so nicknamed as a portmanteau of “moan” and “money”, another delightful example of Sedaris telling you everything you need to know with one small detail; Monie Changes Everything). There are snort-laughs to be found in every essay, guaranteed.

He mines his family, deep – even so far as to describe their very resentment of his mining them for content. I can understand the ever-present and irresistible temptation, though, because the whole Sedaris clan, as he describes them, are just as sharp and hilarious as he is. Take, for instance, this moment of radical honesty from his black-sheep sister, Tiffany:

We climb the few steps to her porch and she hesitates before pulling the keys from her pocket. ‘I haven’t had a chance to clean,’ she says, but the lie feels uncomfortable, and so she corrects herself. ‘What I meant to say is that I don’t give a fuck what you think of my apartment. I didn’t really want you here in the first place.’

Dress Your family in corduroy and denim (page 198)

He cleans Tiffany’s apartment for her, and in return she dubs him Fairy Poppins, which he says “wouldn’t bother [him] if it weren’t so apt”. I re-read this passage over and over again, until I was crying with laughter.

Nothing is off limits for Sedaris: his family, his neighbours, even strangers he encounters on the street. He doesn’t hesitate to take aim at other countries, other religions, other cultures, a prospect that would normally set the woke reader’s teeth on edge. And yet, Sedaris once again proves himself the master of poking fun, even when he’s poking down (Six To Eight Black Men), because he pokes nobody harder than himself. He lays his own faults and shortcomings bare, without ever once sliding into the “confessional” or the pity-seeking. It’s all done in the name of fun, with maybe a splash of poignancy thrown in for good measure.

I was a little confused, when I got to the end, by the title: Dress Your Family In Corduroy And Denim. There was not one mention of his family’s exploits in textiles. After all, Me Talk Pretty One Day perfectly encapsulated and reflected the content of that book, and was drawn from the title of one of the essays it contained. I was ready to chalk it up to an unsolved mystery, another quirk of Sedaris’s charm, but an answer came to me via an unverified anecdote on the Wikipedia page: “At a public appearance in Cleveland, Ohio on October 12, 2010, Sedaris explained when he was under a deadline for a title and was getting desperate, his boyfriend Hugh had a dream in which he saw someone reading a book entitled, in French, Dress Your Family In Corduroy And Denim. Sedaris knew then that he had his title, even though it had nothing to do with the contents of his book.” So, there you have it!

If you’ve never read Sedaris and you’re wondering where to start, I’d still say Me Talk Pretty One Day is the best option… but I’d recommend having a copy of Dress Your Family In Corduroy In Denim to hand, because you’ll want to pick it up as soon as you’ve converted.

My favourite Amazon reviews of Dress Your Family In Corduroy And Denim:

  • “I believe David Sedaris is a modern day Mark Twain.” – Cheryl
  • “Interesting book. Arrived promptly.” – JJ
  • “Not a book about fashion.
    Which I should have probable guessed because no-one wears corduroy anymore.” – Katie Krackers
  • “Pairs well with: Gordon’s gin and grapefruit juice” – Michele Feltman Strider
  • “I and my friends have never got this type of writing. Maybe we are aliens, or maybe you have to be from New York or something.” – Mark Anthony

Thank You For Smoking – Christopher Buckley

One of my favourite movies of all time is Thank You For Smoking (2005). It follows Nick Naylor, chief spokesperson for a major tobacco lobby, as he tries to convince the world that cigarettes won’t kill you (or, if they do, at least you’ll die with liberty). The thing is, I didn’t even realise it was a book, the 1994 novel Thank You For Smoking, until I scored this copy for $4.99 in a remainder book shop while I was waiting for a train. How basic of me!

Thank You For Smoking - Christopher Buckley - Keeping Up With The Penguins
Buy Thank You For Smoking here.
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Cards on the table: I’ve had an on-again-off-again relationship with cigarettes for too many years. At the time of reading Thank You For Smoking, it was (mostly) off, and I was hoping this would be the book to help me kick the cancer sticks for good. It’s basically the anti-West Wing: a biting satirical caricature of Washington politics, corporate greed, media spin, and Hollywood bullshit.

The opening line sets the tone:

“Nick Naylor had been called many things since becoming chief spokesman for the Academy of Tobacco Studies, but until now no one had actually compared him to Satan.”

Thank You For Smoking (Page 3)

As in the movie, Nick is a cigarette company flack, and a pretty damn good one (despite his boss’s suspicions otherwise). He’s a scoundrel, through and through, out for chicks and cash and cigarettes – usually in that order, but not always. His offices are just a few blocks from the White House, and he glad-hands with all the bigwigs in town (when he’s not being flown cross-country in his boss’s private jet). He loves his job, and he’ll defend cigarettes passionately to anyone who’ll listen, but deep down he knows he’s only doing it to pay the mortgage. That’s how he sleeps at night.

The supporting players are Nick’s M.O.D. Squad, the friends-cum-support-group whose self-designated moniker stands for Merchants Of Death. Together, they represent the tobacco, alcohol, and firearms industries, and more than one argument breaks out over whose product is the most deadly. All of the lobby groups in Thank You For Smoking have knee-slappingly ironic names and acronyms: the Moderation Council for booze, the Society For The Humane Treatment of Calves for veal, and so on.

Nick’s opposition are the congressmen (the very few of them not on the take) and public health advocates who hold him – and Big Tobacco, by extension – responsible for 1,200 deaths a day. They’ve got righteousness on their side, but it’s no match for Nick’s quick wit and doublespeak. In fact, Nick is so effective in his role that he becomes the target of anti-tobacco terrorists, who paper him with nicotine patches in a showy effort to bump him off. Nick survives, but he’s left with a terrible and apparently life-long distaste for cigarettes – a significant handicap in his line of work. Plus, the FBI suspects that he faked the whole thing to garner sympathy.

Despite his provocative rhetoric on Oprah, Nick knows he’s just plugging holes. The tide is turning against cigarettes. His boss, ever-skeptical of Nick’s media strategy, intimates that he’s one strike away from getting the sack – and that’s before he realises Nick is sleeping with an attractive young reporter who has promised him a favourable profile. Nick’s Hail Mary offering is to fly to Los Angeles and make a deal that would see movie stars smoking on the big screen (and not just the villains and the crazies). After all, product placement works for beer and popcorn, why not cigarettes?

Yes, Thank You For Smoking is funny and fast-paced and just a little farcical. It’s a thoroughly entertaining read. The thing is, reading it reaffirmed all the arguments I’ve ever heard in favour of – not quitting smoking, don’t be ridiculous – not watching the movie before you’ve read the book (or, at least, not reading the book of a movie you’ve enjoyed). I just kept picturing scenes from the (remarkably faithful, it must be said) movie version the whole way through. The laughs just weren’t quite as hearty coming from the page. Thank You For Smoking is a book I probably would have loved-loved-loved otherwise. As it stands, it was just pretty good. I’d recommend it for anyone who has a taste for political satire and a dark sense of humour.

My favourite Amazon reviews of Thank You For Smoking:

  • “Good plot, well told with excellent humor and all loose ends tied up expertly. Just the right length and stopped well in time before it got tedious.” – Kindle Customer
  • “Had to buy this book for a class. I like that it was hard back but when I received the book it had a unique smell to it and I had to leave it outside for a few days to air it out.” – Glen
  • “This was a gift and I didn’t read it. However, I do like Christopher Buckley’s writing and knowing this I’m sure it was great for the intended two smokers.” – Carole Stevens

The Helpline – Katherine Collette

I first encountered Katherine Collette via her podcast with Kate Mildenhall. She spoke there about The Helpline, writing it and the process of publishing, and I thought it sounded fascinating. To be honest, though, I probably would have picked it up anyway, based on the amazing and hilarious cover art alone…

The Helpline - Katherine Collette - Keeping Up With The Penguins
Buy The Helpline here.
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The Helpline is a book about Germaine. Germaine is in her late thirties, she’s very good with numbers, she loves Soduku (more than most people, she attends conventions and watches YouTube videos of champions in her spare time), and she very recently lost her job as senior mathematician at Wallace Insurance. Her mother, Sharon, is hardly the nurturing type, and full of useless suggestions, which is why Germaine makes a point of seeing her as little as possible. In fact, she avoids most people. She’d rather be analysing spreadsheet data than engaging in pointless conversation.

Germaine soon discovers that there is very little demand in the job market for senior mathematicians. In the end, she’s forced to accept the only job she can get: answering the senior’s helpline at the local council. She shares an office with her new colleague, Eva (who drinks three large Slurpees a day, and sleeps just five hours a night). Aside from the paycheck, the only good thing about working the helpline is the free biscuits.

It’s not long before the mayor, high-flyer Verity Bainbridge, recognises Germaine’s unique talents and work ethic. Naturally, she invites Germaine to participate in a secret project: ousting the chairperson of the local Senior Citizen’s Center, Gladys. Gladys has been causing a lot of trouble for the owner of the ritzy golf club next door. In fact, it might be best if the Senior Citizen’s Center was closed down altogether – for the good of the community, Verity reassures Germaine. Germaine agrees, and takes to her new assignment with vigor, but it all goes a bit sideways when she’s forced to get to know the people she’s supposed to be getting rid of…

The Helpline is a charming, heart-warming story for anyone who loves a good oddball protagonist: think The Rosie Project, or A Man Called Ove. Germaine’s quirky narration (complete with helpful figures and graphs to illustrate her story: anticipated career trajectory, persons at fault for The Incident, and so on) is immediately endearing. Of course, the underlying truth that makes these kinds of books enjoyable is the disconnect between the way the narrator sees the world and the way we know it to be, but the comedy is magnified by the fact that we can also recognise the truth in Germaine’s dealings with bureaucracy and office politics. In other hands, that could make The Helpline sad or confusing or (worst of all) dull, but Collette nails the voice that allows us to engage and empathise and laugh with (instead of at) Germaine.

Another masterstroke: Collette provides an array of small, delightful details that flesh out The Helpline without bogging it down. I can see how this plot and its characters could have easily swung too far in one direction or the other – grossly saccharine, or striving but soulless – but Collette gets the balance just right. Her prose is lighthearted, but sharp, and straightforward, but enchanting.

An important note: Germaine’s personality isn’t a front. There’s no shadowy childhood trauma that “made her this way” (unless you count the cheating scandal that robbed Alan Cosgrove of the 2006 Soduku Championship). It’s a welcome respite from the trigger-heavy “rom coms with depth” that build a character around a defining Terrible Thing that happened to them years prior to the narrative.

I’ve read elsewhere a couple of veiled allusions to the fact that The Helpline may have been inspired by real-life events (Celia may or may not bear a resemblance to a certain president of a certain senior citizen’s centre somewhere in this great country). It’s certainly not hard to believe, given the machinations of local councils and petty corruption we’ve all become too used to. That said, this book is more than just an office comedy with a light romantic sub-plot: it’s a witty contemporary parable about how we decide what to value in life, and what to do when the world throws us a curve ball or two.

My favourite Amazon reviews of The Helpline:

  • “I didn’t finish , too slow characters pathetic, all they seem concerned about was biscuit jar .” – Jan Fischer
  • “The characters made me laugh throughout the whole book. Of course, they also made me quit doing Sudoku.” – Betsy Donaghey

The Family Law – Benjamin Law

Working in a beloved local bookstore definitely has its perks (though not necessarily the ones you’d imagine – being able to read all day behind the desk is a pipe dream!). I’m a long-time fan of Benjamin Law, and one day earlier this year he came in to the store for a TV shoot. When he was done, my boss convinced me to (shyly) ask him to sign a copy of his memoir, The Family Law.

The Family Law - Benjamin Law - Keeping Up With The Penguins
Buy The Family Law here.
(When you do, an Australian author will get a cut, a small publisher will get a cut, I’ll get a cut, and you’ll get a great read!)

In case you’re not familiar, Law is an Australian author and journalist. He’s been working in television, radio, and theater for years – not to mention his strong Twitter presence. He was born in Queensland in 1982, to immigrant parents from Hong Kong. The Family Law is his memoir, about what it was like to grow up in an Asian-Australian family in the heartland of Pauline Hanson and her ilk.

It’s not a misery memoir, however – no sad laments, no tearful recollections of racially-motivated violence and oppression. This is a story of heart, humour, and hope. As per the blurb: “Meet the Law family – eccentric, endearing, and hard to resist. Your guide: Benjamin, the third of five children and a born humourist.”

The Family Law is presented as a series of vignettes and essays, in the style of David Sedaris. The through line is family connection, the love between siblings and parents, forged in the fire of being the only Asians on the mostly-white Sunshine Coast. The humour is self-deprecating, colourful, occasionally scatalogical, and uniquely Australian. Law plays to his strengths: the strangeness of being both an insider and an outsider at once, of feeling both at home and displaced.

Law is disarmingly honest about experiences that would make most of us squirm to recount (and probably automatically disqualify him from any future in politics): performing in black-face for a school production, family in-jokes about rape, an Islamophobic aunt, an extended family summarily deported after overstaying their tourist visas… He is admirably forthcoming and frank about these flies in the ointment (there’s probably something to that whole power-of-vulnerability thing) and it’s a handy signpost for the reader that he’s not here to make himself look good. He’s here to tell his family’s story.

“Every marriage starts with passive aggression, but couples soon realise that being passive requires effort. It’s easier to be openly hostile.”

The Family Law (Page 15)

I must say, even though each of the Laws get a look in, it’s the mother – Jenny – who steals every scene. She’s beyond brilliant. She tapes difficult English words (like “diarrhoea”) with their definition to the wall, so she can remember them. She likens giving birth to “squeezing a lemon out of your penis hole”. She is always, always borderline-inappropriate, in the most amiable and likeable way.

The Family Law is a memoir that will speak to all young Australians, not just those with an Asian background, not just those who are gay. Even though Law speaks to his racial and sexual identity, those facets aren’t defining in his story, and they’re certainly not essential to engaging with it. Basically, all you’ll need to enjoy The Family Law is some level of experience with family relationships, and a permissive sense of humour. Some familiarity with the Queensland vernacular and culture might also come in handy…

In 2010, Law created a six-part television comedy series of the same name, loosely based on the book. (No, I haven’t watched it yet – my to-watch list is now longer than my to-read list, if you can believe it – but I watched the trailer on YouTube, does that count?) It was the most-viewed program on SBS OnDemand throughout the series, and received huge critical acclaim here and overseas.

All in all, The Family Law is a charming, funny, and occasionally over-the-top series of recollections about feeling different and family life. Despite what they say about not meeting your heroes, I feel lucky to have done so, and Benjamin Law remains one of mine 🙂

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.

A Short History Of Tractors In Ukrainian - Marina Lewycka - Keeping Up With The Penguins
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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 use of 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
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