Keeping Up With The Penguins

Reviews For The Would-Be Booklover

Category: Memoir & Autobiography (page 1 of 3)

Becoming – Michelle Obama

I worry that reviewing Daisy Jones And The Six has put me on a dangerous path. All of a sudden, I find myself tempted to pick up all of the hugely hyped books of the past few years, the ones I thought I’d never bother reading, just to see if they live up. Here’s exhibit B: Becoming. (Does that mean I’ll end up reading A Promised Land, too? We’ll see…)

Becoming - Michelle Obama - Keeping Up With The Penguins
Buy Becoming here.
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I think we can all agree that the market for White House memoirs is well and truly saturated. Even before the Trump era, we were drenched in the recollections of the second undersecretary to the whoever of no-one-cares. It makes me wonder whether it’s even possible to have a single unguarded conversation with anyone who might go within a hundred feet of the U.S. federal government, seeing as they all seem to have notebooks and voice recorders in their pockets…

But there seems to be something special about Becoming, Michelle Obama’s account of her life up to and including her time as the first black First Lady of the United States. It sold 725,000 copies on the first day of release, and 1.4 million in its first week. It set the record for the best-selling book published in the United States in 2018, just fifteen days after it hit the shelves. What’s most remarkable is that its popularity has persisted, past the initial curiosity spike and gossip-hounding; as of November 2020, there are at least 14 million copies in worldwide circulation.

The thing is, there’s nothing about the way the book is written – with its straightforward chronological format, and no-nonsense accessible tone – that seems remarkable at all. Content-wise, it didn’t seem particularly earth-shattering, either. From the preface alone, I got the impression that, while Obama was going to be frank about the ups and downs, she’s an earnestly optimistic person at heart and Becoming was hardly going to be a salacious tell-all.





The first section, Becoming Me, covers Obama’s life growing up on the South Side of Chicago, with loving parents and a stalwart brother in an apartment above her aunt and uncle’s. Thanks to her mother’s advocacy, her own hard work, and a couple of lucky breaks, she received a more-than-decent education that saw her accepted into Princeton University (and, later, Harvard Law School). Obama recounts a fairly charmed-life version of her childhood and adolescence. Her story is not without sadness or difficulty, but it all just seems so wholesome. There was, as she tells it, no more angst than a gnawing sense of self-doubt, and no more misbehaviour than a (very) brief mention of smoking pot and necking with a boy in the backseat of his car. Surely, she’s left the good stuff out.

Becoming Us – as you might guess – covers her courtship and marriage to Barack, whom she met as a young lawyer at a prestigious law firm. Obama is a little more open in this section, about her desire to leave the corporate world, her misgivings about her new husband’s political career, and – most admirably – her miscarriage and troubles conceiving.

That said, sometimes the writing gets a bit repetitive, especially through the first half (we get it, your Aunt Robbie is a hard-arse). There are times where it also feels a little indulgent; some anecdotes had me wondering “Why are you telling me this? What’s it going to add to the story?”. I had to remind myself that Obama is a public figure, not a writer – that’s probably why Becoming is so long, and willfully ignores some of the more creative aspects of memoir writing.





The feminist in me is pushing me to pretend that these early developmental sections – how Obama became Obama – are the most interesting, that Obama’s own career in law and then community advocacy are the best parts of Becoming. They aren’t a snooze fest – it’s interesting and inspiring to see how a young woman persevered to overcome everything that was, on paper, against her – but let’s be real. The reason we read Becoming is for the third and final section, Becoming More – her account of her time as First Lady.

Throughout the election campaign and early days after the vote, it’s clear that Obama had an agenda: to be the change she wanted to see in U.S. government. Even though she, herself, wasn’t in a position to be drafting policy or implementing legislation, she still had a certain sway – especially with the public – and she used it tactically. Her Let’s Move campaign was seeded with her concerns about her own daughters’ nutrition, and by carefully and strategically addressing those concerns and bringing them to a bigger platform, she sowed and reaped tangible changes for childhood nutrition across the U.S.

She also offers some really powerful and touching insights about her own mis-steps and mistakes while her husband was in office: from her naivete to outright ignorance of what her role should be and what it required of her. She’s not quiet about her frustrations with the media and public attacks on her and her family, but she doesn’t seem overly bitter about them, either. Throughout Becoming, her faith seems to lie in her in-person interactions with the public. “When voters got to see me as a person, they understood that the caricatures were untrue,” she says, on page 270. “I’ve learned that it is harder to hate up close.”





I got the distinct impression, from the way Becoming is written and presented, that the Obamas aren’t done with politics and public life. She insists, in the Epilogue, that she herself has no aspiration or interest in pursuing a career in politics, but given the sanitary and affirming tone of the book, I don’t quite believe it.

Publishing her memoir has certainly given Obama a huge platform, perhaps even bigger than the one she held while her husband was in office. Becoming was an Oprah’s Book Club pick – with all the international reach and influence that that entails – and the audiobook even won a Grammy (for Best Spoken Word Album, 2020). If she were to pursue some new line of public life, I’ve no doubt they’d pave the road in gold for her. In the meantime, Becoming wasn’t perfect, but it was a pleasure to read, and I’ve gained some insight into recent U.S. political history that surely won’t go astray.

My favourite Amazon reviews of Becoming:

  • “The title should’ve been more like “Becoming Michelle Obummer”!” – sergio chavez
  • “I wouldn’t wipe my dogs butt with this book.” – virginia g foretich
  • “Great book… I bought two one for my auntie birthday and one for myself, get comfortable with a little greatness in your life and she looks great on my coffee table!” – Sharonda Rudolph-Doe

Julie and Julia – Julie Powell

Julie Powell’s life in the early ’00s was a bit of a bummer. She was working a dead-end secretarial job, fielding the public’s suggestions for a Ground Zero memorial. She was diagnosed with PCOS and, given that she was nearly thirty, the pressure to produce a child (from all corners: familial, professional, and internal) intensified. On the verge of existential crisis, she did what so many of us do: she sought out a Project, and she found it in her mother’s battered copy of Julia Child’s Mastering The Art Of French Cooking. Julie And Julia is her memoir, based on her blog, about her year of cooking dangerously.

Julie And Julia - Julie Powell - Keeping Up With The Penguins
Buy Julie And Julia here.
(Yes, this is a paid link, because that’s how us bloggers scratch out a living before we get multi-million dollar book deals and movies starring Meryl Streep.)

It’s the contemporary domestic equivalent of a herculean feat: 524 recipes, in 365 days. What’s more, Powell only had one tiny apartment kitchen to work in, not to mention an aversion to eggs and no bloody idea where to buy offal or marrow bones. Naturally, mishaps and misadventures ensue.

Powell started the project in August 2002, when blogs were still new, mysterious little rabbit-holes of the internet where one could build a large following relatively quickly if they were doing something no one else was blogging about. Her mother thought she was crazy, and most of her friends did, too – thoughts that Powell doesn’t mind repeating for the reader, and huffing about at length (but after all, as Anne Lamott said, “if people wanted you to write nicely about them, they should have treated you better”). Her only steadfast supporter is Eric, her husband, but even he blanches at some of the more adventurous recipes, and his patience is tested by Powell’s frequent cooking-induced melt-downs.

As she tells her own story, in chronological episodic form (not unlike a blog), Powell weaves in imagined scenes from Julia Child’s life. Drawing on biographies, letters, and photographs, she paints a very rosy picture of Julia’s romance with her husband, Paul, and how she came to love French cooking. These are decorative touches, however; Julie Powell is the meat of the story, Julia Child just the garnish.



In other reviews and articles, a lot has been made of what Julia Child herself thought of Powell’s project (in sum: she wasn’t a fan, really). I’m kind of disappointed that so much focus has been trained on that one aspect of this quite-remarkable story. I find it much more interesting to look at what drew Child to cooking initially, and what parallels can be found in Powell’s experience.

Child, for instance, didn’t learn to cook until the age of 37, and once she’d figured it out (graduating from Le Cordon Bleu cooking school, no less), she set about spreading the word. She published Mastering The Art Of French Cooking in service of teaching the average “servantless” American to cook like a gourmet chef – or, to put it more simply, she made high-falootin’ food accessible.

Isn’t that essentially what Powell has done with Julie And Julia, too? Granted, she’s not teaching us how to cook (she just barely includes a single recipe, it’s not a cook-book after all), but she is making it feel like an achievable goal at least. Before reading Julia And Julia, I would have felt more comfortable skydiving than attempting any fancy-pants French cooking. I’m not one of those can’t-boil-water types, but my idea of a hearty home-cooked meal is more bangers-and-mash than boeuf bourguignon (in fact, I even had to Google how to spell the latter, twice). Seeing that Powell, like me, didn’t have all the tools or know-how when she started off and still she gave it a go… well, “inspirational” is a gross word, but it instilled a little confidence. I even went out and bought a leek.

What’s more: both Julie and Julia are unafraid of admitting their mistakes. Granted, Julie might drop a few more f-bombs, but they both hasten to reassure readers that cock-ups are a natural part of learning to cook. As Julia once said, “If you’re alone in the kitchen, what does it matter – who’s there to see you?”.



I don’t want to mislead you, though: Julie And Julia is just as much about marriage and existential dread as it is cooking. Powell weaves in memories of her childhood and youth, hopes and fears for her future, making the story more comprehensive than just a single year in her life with one ambitious project as its focus. I think that was a good call, on her part, preemptively answering our desire for authenticity in such accounts and saving us from a repetitive cooking procedural (if that’s what you’re after, seriously, go find a recipe book).

Of course, not long after publication, Julie And Julia was adapted to a film of the same name, starring Meryl Streep(!) as Julia Child and Amy Adams as Powell. I watched it once, years ago, and I can’t say I remember much, other than it was good and funny and Meryl Streep was brilliant. I’ll have to watch it again, soon. In doing some Googling for this review, I learned that it was actually the last film written and directed by Nora Ephron before she died, which makes it extra-special.

So, final verdict: I liked it. Sure, Powell’s snarky sense of humour and tendency towards histrionics won’t be to everyone’s taste, but what is? Julie And Julia is a good, quick read that – if you’re anything like me – will inspire you to pick up the tongs instead of ordering UberEats for the fourth night in a row. If it doesn’t sound like it’s up your alley, that’s fine, because I’m going to share with you the single most important take-away of the whole book: put more butter in everything. Seriously. That pat of butter you normally use? Double it.


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 🙂


The Library Book – Susan Orlean

Susan Orlean made international headlines, and won herself a legion of new fans, earlier this year when she posted a series of unabashedly drunken tweets lamenting the state of the world. She’s well deserving of the recognition, of course, but there are plenty of us who were well enamored with her long before she had one too many wines at her neighbour’s house. I’ve been crazy about her ever since I picked up The Library Book earlier this year, her account of the 1986 Los Angeles Central Library Fire.

Never heard of it? Neither had Orlean, until she moved to Los Angeles and took a tour of the Central Library building. Her tour guide pulled a book from a shelf and smelled it (slightly odd, but not beyond the pale for book lovers). Then he said he could “still smell the smoke”, and that’s what piqued Orlean’s interest. She thought, at first, that he meant the remnants of a time when patrons were allowed to smoke cigarettes in libraries. But, no: he was talking about the suspected act of arson that set light to the library on the morning of 29 April 1986, the fire that burned for several hours, the same one that destroyed over 400,000 books and damaged several hundred thousand more. No one was killed, but fifty firefighters were injured.

‘Hang on,’ Orlean thought (as I’m sure you are right now), ‘if the fire was that big, why hasn’t anyone heard about it?’. Check the date: it was drowned out of the news almost immediately by the Chernobyl disaster. And thus, the biggest library fire in the history of the United States was all but forgotten – and the suspected crime remains unsolved.





That’s not to say there were no suspects. Orlean begins The Library Book with a profile of Harry Peak, the man who led police on a wild goose chase throughout their investigation. He is described as being “very blonde” by his lawyer, and “the biggest bullshitter in the world” by his sister – make of that what you will. Orlean reads reports, transcripts, interviews friends and relatives, to find out everything she can about Harry Peak… but even then (spoiler alert), she can’t definitively answer – nor can anyone else – the question of why, or even whether, he would set fire to the Los Angeles Central Library.

The Library Book is, at its bones, a true crime story, interrogating who could have possibly started such a fire, and why. That said, it’s a long way from the feigned objectivity or omniscience of a book like The Arsonist. Orlean’s writing is memoir-esque, interweaving her own recollections of childhood library visits, and also incorporating extensive local history, including the socioeconomic and political complexities of the city of angels.

Now, I’m going to put a very important warning right here: do not read The Library Book if your friends and family will not take kindly to being bombarded with “fun facts” for at least a month. I made a grave error in choosing this book to accompany me when I was a passenger on a road trip. By the time we reached our destination, my fellow travellers were ready to set me on fire. Every few minutes, I’d say “Oh, wow! Did you know…” They were interested, at first, but after a while it wore thin, and soon my gasps of fascination were met with exhausted groans. So, there you go. You’ve been warned.





Orlean leaves no stone unturned, which is what makes The Library Book such a trove of delight and wonder for book-lovers and library patrons. She turns up everything from the history of libraries, the growth of Hollywood, the bust of the Depression, the psychology of arsonists, the physics of book burning (she even burned a copy of Fahrenheit 451 herself, for research!), the lives of the librarians who worked in the building (right down to their preferred brands of cigarettes)… she spent six and a half years researching this book, and it shows. And yet, she doesn’t simply dump it all in your lap; she delivers it, seamlessly, in a page-turning book that offers a kaleidoscopic view of a library and the terrible crime that occurred there (probably).

I’m sure you’ve deduced as much by now, but I’ll say it for the record: The Library Book is a highly Recommended read here on Keeping Up With The Penguins. It’s a must for any library-goer or book-worm. And, in a year when libraries have been beaten and bruised by pandemic restrictions coupled with the increased demand of the disadvantaged communities they serve, there is surely no better time to read a love letter the public library system.

Do you use your local library? Either way, you might want to check this out.

My favourite Amazon reviews of The Library Book:

  • “lots of facts about libraries” – kcp
  • “Dreadful book – throw out” – Polly
  • “This book is tedious, overwritten and disjointed. Just like the IMPOSSIBLE BURGER is impossible to eat, this book is impossible to read.” – ruth evans

Good Talk – Mira Jacob

In case you’re new around here, let me give you the skinny: Keeping Up With The Penguins is all about trying new things. Even if it’s a book you don’t think you’ll like, even if it’s an author you’ve never read before, even if it’s a genre that you’ve written off as “not for you” – you (and by “you”, I mean “I”) have to give it a go anyway. That’s the deal. I’ve never read a graphic novel before. I never even read comics as a kid. But when my dear friend read and recommended Good Talk by Mira Jacob, I had to walk the walk.

Good Talk is “a memoir in conversations”, promises the blurb, “a bold, wry, and intimate graphic memoir about identity, interracial families, and the realities that divide us,”. Those conversations began for Jacob when, aged 6, her son became obsessed with Michael Jackson, and an innocent line of childish enquiry turned tricky.

“Sometimes, you don’t know how confused you are about something important until you try explaining it to someone else.”

Good Talk, PAge 20

Her son’s questions about race, and identity, and politics, led Jacob to re-evaluate her own life experiences and conversations from her past. She reproduces those memories in Good Talk, from her parents’ migration to the United States to the election of Donald Trump. They include being mistaken for “the help” at her in-laws’ party, being put in the position of telling her husband that their son had asked if he was afraid of brown people, and being overwhelmed with joy when Barack Obama was elected as President shortly after her son’s birth. She has spoken about how she never set out to write a memoir because she didn’t feel she was up to the level of vulnerability and transparency it requires, but boy. Oh, boy.





Let’s cut to the chase: Good Talk is a damn good book. It’s not just a “good graphic novel”, it’s not just a “cult classic”, it’s good without a qualifier. So good that, at a recent (COVID-safe) gathering of friends, I pulled a friend away from the merry-making and forced her to read Chapter 6. That’s the chapter where Jacob describes winning a Daughters Of The American Revolution essay contest, only to have the women running the contest try to dissuade her from presenting her essay at their luncheon when they realised she was brown (luckily, she had a kick-arse teacher who backed her up and got her on that stage).

Jacob’s recollections, images, and dialogue are deceptive in their simplicity (and, let me be clear, I mean that in the best possible way). What, on its face, might look like a speech bubble actually contains the weight of hundreds of years of systemic oppression and the gritted teeth of resilience. Jacob’s language is frank, her presentation is enticing, but her message is searing. If you’re white, like me, and the beneficiary of a system that means your skin colour hasn’t kept you out of room, you’ll need to sit with it a while to fully comprehend its meaning.

The beauty of Good Talk, in my view, is that it works on multiple levels. In a remarkably accessible way, Jacob has written a book that will make people of colour feel seen and heard, and make people who are white or white-passing re-evaluate their conversations and interactions (the way that Jacob had to when her son started asking questions about Michael Jackson).





Other reviews of Good Talk have emphasised that Jacob resists “people of colour” becoming a monolith in the U.S., as though there is some unique experience shared by all, and I wouldn’t want to speak over her on that front (obviously), but I still think there’s some incredible universal resonance here. What shines through – and what will unify all readers, regardless of racial or cultural heritage – is the fierce love that Jacob has for her son and her family. “I can’t protect you from becoming a brown man in America,” Jacob rhetorically laments to her son on page 346. Even as a child-free white woman, my heart broke when I read that, and my eyes got a bit watery.

I could’ve read this book quickly, if I wanted to. I probably could’ve knocked it over in a single afternoon. But I took my time, in an effort to really, truly, fully appreciate its content, and the generosity of Jacob in sharing it with us (and by “us”, I mean “me”). If all graphic novels are as good as Good Talk, consider me a convert.

My favourite Amazon reviews of Good Talk:

  • “Literally hugged this book to my chest after finishing it, unwilling to put it down. It felt like hanging out with a brilliant, funny, sad friend.” – EN
  • “Anyone and everyone, especially mixed race Americans looking for people like them, should read this.
    The build up and the tension and release ebbing and flowing throughout the pages is incredible and so perfectly captures many of the internal and external tensions for mixed race families in modern America.
    (Having the same name as the author only makes me slightly biased!)” – Mira L
  • “This book is for you. A version or part of everyone you know is probably in this book. You’re in here. Even when you don’t want to see it. I learned a lot about myself, my family, our friends and the world we live in. Mira and her family are my heroes.” – B. Healy
  • “I really did not like the cartoon reading format. Past that book was good.” – Becky

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