Keeping Up With The Penguins

Reviews For The Would-Be Booklover

Category: Memoir & Autobiography (page 1 of 7)

When You Are Engulfed In Flames – David Sedaris

I treat myself to one David Sedaris book a year (otherwise, I’d gobble them all up at once like a greedy little goblin). This year, I went for When You Are Engulfed In Flames, his sixth essay collection first published in 2008. As per the blurb: “Subjects include a parasitic worm that once lived in his mother-in-law’s leg, an encounter with a dingo, and the recreational use of an external catheter. Also recounted is the buying of a human skeleton and the author’s attempt to quit smoking.”

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Yes, of course, When You Are Engulfed In Flames contains twenty-two essays as hilarious and ridiculous as we’ve come to expect from Sedaris. Other subjects include the time he joined his brother for a drug deal in a North Carolina trailer home, karmic retribution on rude plane passengers, his husband lancing a boil on his tailbone, and befriending a French local only to find out he was a child abuser.

There’s less about his family in this collection than in others I’ve read so far. It’s disappointing, if only because his family seems a veritable goldmine of comic fodder (I have a particularly soft spot for his foul-mouthed brother). But When You Are Engulfed In Flames isn’t lacking in comic characters, even if they’re not related to Sedaris. I saw another review refer to them as a “new crop of lunatics”, which is spot on.

My personal favourite in the collection – one that gave me many, many literal lols – is That’s Amore, an essay about/profile of Sedaris’s New York neighbour, Helen. She hates everyone, believes herself to be the center of the universe, and sounds like an absolute nightmare to live next to (if incredibly funny to read about). Sedaris attributes to her endless hysterical non sequiturs, including “I shit so hard, I think I sprained my asshole”.

(Heads up: there’s a few uncensored slurs scattered here and there throughout When You Are Engulfed In Flames. Normally, it wouldn’t warrant a mention, but I’ve noticed an uptick on readers looking for content warnings before they pick up a book – so, there you have it.)

The final story in When You Are Engulfed In FlamesThe Smoking Section – is remarkably long, much longer than any other essay I’ve read by Sedaris. He recounts, diary-style, his attempt to quit smoking by moving to Tokyo for six months (yes, that sounds insane, but in Sedaris’s world it makes perfect sense). The story is good – not quite as good as his very best, but still good by any benchmark – even if it does read more like An American In Tokyo, and make me crave a cigarette myself.

My dog, Fyodor Dogstoyevsky, doesn’t care for David Sedaris – because the books make me laugh out loud so hard and so often, his nap time is frequently disturbed. Even though When You Are Engulfed In Flames isn’t my favourite of his collections I’ve read so far – and probably not one I’d recommend to first-time Sedaris readers – it’s still great. I’m still in awe of the way Sedaris can craft a story out of seemingly nothing at all. I’d dearly love to share a cocktail and a smoke with him (if he hadn’t, as The Smoking Section suggests, sadly quit both alcohol and cigarettes).

Read my reviews of Sedaris’s other books here:

My favourite Amazon reviews of When You Are Engulfed In Flames:

  • “I laughed out loud more reading this book than I have in my day to day life since childhood.” – aprillaman
  • “He is a breath of fres air for this busy weiry lady suffocated by every day stressers.” – Elizabeth Carver
  • “I felt like I was sitting next to a guy on the plane who tried really hard to make me laugh, waving his arms in my face telling crude exaggerated stories. I sat stone faced for 30 minute chance before I told him, “Enough.”” – R Hilux

I Love Dick – Chris Kraus

I Love Dick obviously has an incredible (and memorable!) title, but beyond that its contents were a bit of a mystery to me. According to the blurbs, it’s “an epistolary novel with autofiction elements“, “blurring the lines of fiction, essay, and memoir”. So, that’s about as clear as mud. I mean, is it true, or not?

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It’s a weird one, folks, so I’ll do my best to break it down. Part One (“Scenes From A Marriage”) sets the stage. In December 1994, Chris Kraus and her husband, Sylvère Lotringer, have dinner with a rogue academic pseudonymously named Dick. All of these people are real, by the way (they have Wikipedia pages and everything: here, here, and here). Chris and Sylvere are forced by poor weather to spend the night at Dick’s place, and Chris starts feeling… something.

Based on almost no direct interaction, Chris convinces herself that she has fallen in love with Dick. Not only that, she makes the logical leap to conclude that he too has some feeling for her, and they have shared a “conceptual fuck”. Because she and Sylvère have one of Those types of marriages, she tells him immediately, and thus her (their) “affair” with Dick begins.

They both start writing letters to Dick, independently and together. At first, it’s a game, like married couple chicken – how far will we actually take this bizarre thing that we’re doing? How far can we stretch our ridiculous self-justifications? But then they start actually calling Dick, telling him about the letters, sending him some and asking him to help them turn the eighty ninety hundred and twenty pages into some kind of art piece.

Dick is justifiably freaked out, and gives them a polite “huh, interesting, we’ll see”, which they interpret as “full steam ahead”.

Then, Part Two (“Every Letter Is A Love Letter”) gets even weirder. Dick becomes, in effect, a diary that Chris writes to daily. She veers away from merely expressing her deep love for him, and starts pontificating on feminism, schizophrenia, art, Judaism, and identity. It would almost read as a collection of essays, if not for the occasional “oh, yeah, and that’s how we fell in love, Dick, how’s that going for you by the way?” interjections.

I Love Dick comes to a crashing halt, in the end, when Chris gives Dick the complete collection of letters and he realises that polite deferral is no longer an option. He writes a letter to Sylvère, the tl;dr version of which is: “This whole thing has been weird as fuck, I hope we can still be friends but you lot need to calm down,”. Chris receives a letter too, and opens it with hope abounding – only to find it’s simply a photocopy of Dick’s letter to Sylvère, her (now semi-estranged)husband. An incredible final fuck-you from Dick, A+ for pettiness.

Look, I don’t like to judge. I err on being so open-minded my brain might fall out when it comes to other people’s marriages (and affairs, come to that). But given that Chris and Sylvère put all this out there in I Love Dick, I feel entitled to proffer an opinion. Here it is: these two are covered, head to toe, in red flags. If I were Dick, I would’ve set world records for how fast I’d run away from them.

It’s not just the interpersonal aspects of I Love Dick that bother me. It’s the hyper-intellectualisation of what is a demonstrably bonkers endeavour that skeeves me out. This is the ’90s academic version of being chronically online. Chris and Sylvère are so far up their own arses, they manage to position their entire existence as performance art. I’m not opposed to academic modes of thought or writing, but when you’re using art criticism and philosophy to impose an “affair” on a bloke who just offered you a sofa bed for the night after dinner? That doesn’t sit right with me.

The most interesting aspect of I Love Dick, for me, was barely mentioned in the book itself: privacy. Not only are Chris and Sylvere real people, Dick is too. They gave his identity the flimsiest obfuscation possible, just enough to technically avoid legal claims of defamation, but it’s abundantly obvious who the real Dick is (or, even if it isn’t, you can find out on Google in 0.60 seconds). I think this raises a lot of interesting questions about where the ethical line is between art and exploitation. I’m not sure I’m the right person to decide exactly where that line is, but I’m fairly confident that I Love Dick lands on the wrong side of it.

All that said, I Love Dick is still an interesting read (just… bloody weird). It brought to mind Maggie Nelson for me, and Patricia Lockwood. I’m not sure I can articulate exactly why, other than to say they all have a resonant Vibe. I think I’ll need to sleep on this one for many nights yet before I finally land on how I really feel about it, beyond simply weirded out.

My favourite Amazon reviews of I Love Dick:

  • “This was like if s bored person got their dumb blog published. So trite and Gen xer. Very over white women voices.” – SeymoreSluts
  • “Weird book. Well written but a labor to read. Far less salacious than I hoped. I give it a solid meh” – Larika Jones
  • “Chris behaves like a middle schooler fixated on the quarterback. You want to shout at her, pull her aside, take her out for a few cocktails and tell her to smarten up.” – Orange Kitty

Growing Up Aboriginal In Australia – Anita Heiss (ed.)

Growing Up Aboriginal In Australia is a 2018 autobiographical anthology, with 52 short essays by Aboriginal people about coming into their own identities. It’s the second in Black Inc’s Growing Up series, a collection that aims to ‘enlighten, inspire, and educate’ (see also: Growing Up Asian In Australia, Growing Up Queer In Australia, and so on). The tagline promises “childhood stories of family, country, and belonging”.

The anthology is edited by Anita Heiss, an Aboriginal Australian author, poet, cultural activist and social commentator. She’s done an excellent job of collating diverse stories from a broad cross-section of Aboriginal people. Contributors to Growing Up Aboriginal In Australia include a handful of writers you might recognise – like Tony Birch, Evelyn Araluen, Tara June Winch – but they are mostly non-writers. For many, it’s the first time they’ve published anything they’ve written. The only requirement Heiss laid out for them is that their stories be true, non-fiction accounts about (as the title suggests) growing up Aboriginal in Australia.

Mostly, the stories are told in a straightforward essay format, though some of the contributors mixed it up, offering conversation transcripts, open letters, and poetry. On the whole, they’re not particularly arty or Literary(TM). That’s good in the sense that it makes these accounts widely accessible. You don’t need to be a “reader” to appreciate and learn from them, nor do you have to be an adult (I’d say Growing Up Aboriginal In Australia is appropriate and accessible to just about any age group with an interest in reading it).

However, if you’re looking for literary masterpieces about First Nations people, this isn’t the collection you’re looking for. You should try reading Melissa Lucashenko, or Alexis Wright. That’s not to say that their Literary(TM) writing is any better than that in Growing Up Aboriginal In Australia, or vice versa – simply that different styles will appeal to and resonate for different readers.

It’s also not a particularly graphic or explicit collection, if anyone’s worried about that. Of course, traumatic events and racism are frequently mentioned throughout Growing Up Aboriginal In Australia, but they’re never exploited or discussed in gratuitous detail.

The feeling of not being “black enough” or “Aboriginal enough”, and lamenting loss of connection to ancestry and culture, is present in almost all of these stories. That’s the most heartbreaking aspect of Growing Up Aboriginal In Australia for me – the impact that colonisation has had, and the damage it has done, in deciding what a “real” Aboriginal person “should” look like, or how they should live.

Each account reveals, to some degree, the impact of invasion and colonisation – on language, on country, on ways of life…

Growing Up Aboriginal In Australia (Anita Heiss, Introduction)

My personal favourites from Growing Up Aboriginal In Australia include Finding ways home (Evelyn Araluen), White bread dreaming (Shannon Foster), A story from my life (William Russell), It’s too hot (Alexis West), and Aboriginemo (Alison Whittaker). Most of the contributions I particularly enjoyed were ones that focused on a single incident, or period in the person’s life – but that’s a purely personal preference. Some of the stories do that, others offer a more sweeping overview of the contributor’s childhood. It seems like Heiss gave them pretty free rein to tell their own stories as they saw fit.

Whichever approach they take, each contributor clearly speaks from the heart in their stories, with a strong desire to humanise their identities and reject the stereotypes they have been subjected to throughout their lives. Growing Up Aboriginal In Australia encourages empathy and demands respect, a wonderful contribution to the canon of First Nations literature in this country.

Hunger – Roxane Gay

“The story of my body is not a triumph,” Roxane Gay writes in the opening pages of her 2017 memoir, Hunger. “This is not a weight-loss memoir… Mine is not a success story. Mine is, simply, a true story.”

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In short, vignette-like chapters, Gay describes her rapid weight gain in the wake of a devastating trauma (to say the least), and her life lived in a fat body. Take this as your trigger warning: Hunger includes detailed descriptions of sexual assault and disordered eating – and this review is going to cover them, too.

The story Gay tells in Hunger is not one we often hear in discussions about weight as it relates to health, or food as it relates to weight. It’s one we’re not comfortable hearing, but one as essential to understanding the subject as understanding that the BMI is bullshit.

[The BMI is a measure] that allows the medical establishment to try and bring a sense of discipline to unruly bodies

Hunger (Page 9)

Gay is not ‘voluptuous’ or ‘pleasantly plump’. She isn’t even obese, or morbidly obese. She is, she tells us in Hunger, ‘super morbidly obese’. She is completely frank in describing her shame about her body’s size, and her desire to be thin or ‘normal’. She sees her body as a “cage of her own making”, one that has certain benefits (more on those in a minute) but overwhelming downsides.

She brilliantly articulates the conflict and contradiction of living in a fat body. She ‘knows’ that we ‘should’ love our bodies as they are, for what they can do, and feed them with fuel while rejecting diet culture… but that knowledge doesn’t (always) correspond with her feelings. It’s possible to know all the body-positive catch-phrases, but not to feel the way they say we should, when we exist in a world that is so pervasively and inherently anti-fat.

But Hunger is not just one long confession about self-loathing and body image. Gay delves deep, deeper than we could ever hope or expect, into the reasons she has the body she does. As a tween, Gay was the victim (her preferred nomenclature, though she respects the use of ‘survivor’ by those who choose) of a violent sexual assault, perpetrated by a boy she believed to be her boyfriend and his friends. She was gang raped, and she told no one. It’s horrifying and heart-breaking and horrendous.

That experience was defining, in that Gay began to eat as a means to self-soothe after that event, and as a means to become physically repulsive to men. Her body is a rejection of the male gaze made manifest, the only way a young Gay could see to protect herself from further violation.

Hunger is a study in contradictions. Physical heft bought Gay personal space and a layer of protection, but it also made her body public property – the subject of opinions and input from complete strangers, uninvited. She is encouraged at every turn to ‘get healthy’, to ‘lose weight through diet and exercise’, without any consideration for the cause of her weight gain to begin with (not to mention the impossibility of finding active wear that will fit her). And, as I mentioned a second ago, Gay interrogates the conflict between the way the body positivity movement says she ‘should’ feel about her body, waging constant war against every other message (internal and external) she receives about the way she looks.

Throughout Hunger, Gay addresses clothes, diets, bulimia, public spaces, doctors, food – all the aspects of her life that her size touches. If you are of average size yourself, or even close to it, it will be revelatory the ways in which weight can stymie your capacity to simply go about your business.

Gay has described Hunger as “by far the hardest book I’ve ever had to write”, and it’s not hard to see why. I cannot fathom the bravery and strength it took for her to simply put these words on a page, let alone share them with the world in a best-selling memoir. I’m in awe of her, honestly, and I’m sure after reading Hunger you will be, too.

Want more? Read my full review of Roxane Gay’s essay collection Bad Feminist here.

My favourite Amazon reviews of Hunger:

  • “I wanted to relate to her as I am also obese but most of the time I didn’t. I’m what she calls “Lane Bryant fat” in the book because I can still buy clothes there. It’s a decent read if you like memoirs and struggle with weight even if you are “Lane Bryant fat” because we can still be pretty big, too.” – Jessie Tyler
  • “I felt I was eavesdropping on a conversation between two long-time intimate adversaries: Roxane Gay and her body.” – Laurasaridavis
  • “The best thing about the book is its cover: a clever, almost abstract photograph of fork tines. Sorry I wasted my time on such an inferior, whiny memoir.” – Elizabeth
  • “The book description needs to be more clear as to what this book is about. It is not about the life of an obese woman, the trials she faces and how she rises above. It’s about self pity and a little bit of Liberal politics.” E.A.S.

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 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
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