Keeping Up With The Penguins

Reviews For The Would-Be Booklover

Category: Memoir & Autobiography (page 1 of 6)

The Year Of Living Biblically – AJ Jacobs

The Year Of Living Biblically (subtitle: “one man’s humble quest to follow the Bible as literally as possible”) was a particularly timely read for me, in the wake of threats to Roe v Wade making world headlines and the ousting of an evangelical Prime Minister here at home. This memoir of an “immersion journalism” experiment chronicles AJ Jacobs’s attempt to live literally by each and every rule in the Bible for one full year. If we’re going to use parts of the Bible to justify real-life laws and policies, it makes sense we should look at everything else it says, too.

The Year Of Living Biblically - AJ Jacobs - Keeping Up With The Penguins
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Jacobs was “raised in a secular family but increasingly interested in the relevance of faith in our modern world” – basically, he wanted to see whether there was anything he was missing out on by not living by the Bible’s commandments. He jokes that this project is an “extreme religious makeover”. I’m a born-and-raised atheist myself (not even in the technically-Jewish way that Jacobs is, but the only-went-in-to-a-church-that-one-time-for-a-wedding way). So, The Year Of Living Biblically was a crash-course in the contents of the Bible for me. It turns out there’s HEAPS in there that we never hear about.

Depending on which poll you look at, somewhere between 30 and 55% of Americans say that they take the Bible literally. In reality, the vast majority of them pick and choose which bits to apply (which is why you don’t see many religious folks arrested for stoning adulterers). Jacobs vowed against this kind of “cafeteria Christianity”, and to follow every rule he could find as best he could.

Before his year of Biblical living begins, he prepares by reading the Bible cover-to-cover for the very first time. Between the testaments Old and New, he finds over seven hundred rules and guidelines that he commits to follow.

Jacobs is genuine in his approach to The Year Of Living Biblically, which I really appreciated. In the hands of a determined cynic, it would have been a very different book. He actively sets aside his cynicism in favour of curiosity and commitment to the project. He’s not here to make fun of the Bible or those who adhere to his teachings, nor does he accept everything in it blindly. He takes a rigorous approach, in frequent consultation with spiritual advisors of all kinds.

He describes his experience over the course of the whole year, not quite day-by-day but almost—a close chronological account. His beard, which he mentions frequently throughout, is “the most noticeable physical manifestation” of his transformation. It grew so big and bushy that his wife wouldn’t kiss him throughout the final two months of his project. It also led others to make assumptions about him (e.g., the nurse who assumed he was an Orthodox Jew), which was interesting in and of itself.

Now, you’re probably wondering what about the, y’know, more whacky rules. The ones that break the law, or seem downright weird in a modern context. Did Jacobs really stone adulterers? Yes (in a sense). Did he offer animal sacrifices? Yes (again, probably not exactly in the way you’d imagine, but still). Did he stop wearing clothes of mixed fibers? He hired a bloke to show him how to do it right! There’s no bait-and-switch in The Year Of Living Biblically, he does exactly what it says on the tin.

And I must say: pour some out for Julie, Jacobs’s long-suffering wife, who lived with him (and bore him two sons, twin boys, conceived by IVF) throughout his year of Biblical living. She seems to have been fairly accepting in Jacobs’s account, even when he (conveniently) couldn’t take out the rubbish on the Sabbath, though she did (understandably) take issue with the “purity” rules, that required Jacobs not touch her for at least seven days after she menstruated.

By the end of The Year Of Living Biblically, Jacobs declares himself a “reverent agnostic”. Living by the Bible’s rules for twelve months didn’t make him believe in God, but it did radically change his perspective on spirituality and broke down the stereotypes he held about those who live devout lives. (And, I must say, in sharing his experiences in this book, he’s up-ended a lot of my own assumptions and misconceptions, too.)

Jacobs referenced (quite a few times) another book he’d written about another project he’d undertaken, The Know-It-All (in which he readss an entire encyclopaedia, all 32 volumes of Encyclopaedia Britannica). I’ll be keeping an eye out for it, because it sounds like it would be just as interesting as this one. The Year Of Living Biblically would be a particularly good companion read alongside Religion For Atheists, too, as they have much the same message in the end (that there is room for sacred in the secular).

My favourite Amazon reviews of The Year Of Living Biblically:

  • “This book is awesome. I read this book the year i was pregnant. Hands down, better than ‘what to expect when you’re expecting.’” – StarSpangledGirlWithAPlan
  • “I bought this book thinking it would be interesting. It was. I have to admit that the author was annoying though–or at least some of the things he did. I have to give a big thumbs up to his wife for not killing or divorcing him, because I wouldn’t have been able to deal with it!” – Salix Alba
  • “The whole premise was ridiculous. Paul said the biggest thing Christians had to worry about was abstaining from fornication and they didn’t have to be circumcised or follow the rituals in the O.T. and the person reading for the audio book has an annoying sounding voice” – jamie lewis

Wow, No Thank You – Samantha Irby

As soon as I heard the title of this book – Wow, No Thank You – I knew I had to read it, whatever it was. I didn’t know anything about Samantha Irby, I’d never read her blog, but I could tell she and I would get along. That feeling was only reinforced by the dedication – “This book is dedicated to Wellbutrin” – which gave me the first of many literal lols.

Wow No Thank You - Samantha Irby - Keeping Up With The Penguins
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So, here’s what I learned from Wow, No Thank You: Irby is 40, and not entirely comfortable with that. She describes herself as a “cheese fry-eating slightly damp Midwest person… with neck pain and no cartilage in [her] knees… who still hides past due bills under her pillow”. If that doesn’t sound like the kind of person you immediately want to befriend, perhaps Wow, No Thank You isn’t for you.

It’s a collection of essays about… stuff. Life. Ridiculous jobs. Trying to make friends as an adult. The lost art of making a mix-tape. Living in a place where most people don’t share your politics. Getting your period and bleeding all over the sheets of your Airbnb. Trying to remember why you ever found nightclubs fun. There’s even a whole essay of “Sure, sex is fun, but have you ever…” jokes (the format might mystify you if you’re not on Twitter, but it’s hilarious).

Hung Up! is one of my particular favourites from this collection, a brilliant defence of time spent on our phones. Irby presents the remarkable thesis that our phones are better than real life, if only for the fact that you can block people who bug you.

Are You Familiar With My Work? is surely the most memorable essay in this collection, if only for the intensity of the butt-clenching second-hand embarrassment. I laughed so hard my dog refused to stay on the couch with me as I read on.

Country Crock is another essay worthy of note, for different reasons. It’s a surprisingly moving piece about being a fat, black, queer woman (married to a white woman, no less) in Trump’s rural heartland. It’s a different vibe to the other essays in Wow, No Thank You, but it seems to fit right in and demonstrates Irby has range beyond poo jokes.

It would seem that Irby’s schtick is to be confrontationally honest about the kinds of things most of us would rather die than talk about. Sure, plenty of people find her essays “gross” or “too much information”, but for those of us who find her honesty refreshing, she’s a marvel. She unearths hilarious particulars of her life and manages to make them relatable. Who among us hasn’t had a hypercritical inner monologue running as we navigate the choppy waters of making a new friend? Desperately searched for a bathroom? Procrastinated as the pile of work we Really Should Be Doing grew higher and higher?

Maybe the context of having read Irby’s earlier essay collections (Meaty and We Are Never Meeting In Real Life) or her blog might’ve made Wow, No Thank You even better, but I enjoyed it thoroughly coming in cold. It’s not going to be for everyone, but it sure is for me.

My favourite Amazon reviews of Wow, No Thank You:

  • “The rabbit on the cover is nice, the content not so much.” – Brittany
  • “my wife and I were very excited to read “Wow, No Thank You” and that is effectively our reaction to it.” – R. Foshee

Calypso – David Sedaris

David Sedaris is a must-read auto-buy author for me now, but I’m forcing myself to take it slow. I make myself read only one book of his at a time, every so often, instead of gobbling them all down at once like the gluttonous goblin-reader I am at heart. I started with Me Talk Pretty One Day, then last year Dress Your Family In Corduroy And Denim, and now Calypso – a collection of 21 autobiographical essays published in 2018.

Get Calypso here.
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My first literal lol came from Calypso‘s blurb. After promising that “Sedaris sets his formidable powers of observation towards middle age and mortality”, it reveals that he named his beach house the Sea Section. HA! It also says that Calypso is “beach reading for people who detest beaches, required reading for those who loathe small talk and love a good tumour joke” – so if there was any doubt whether it might be up my alley…

Sedaris’s essay collections always revolve around a rough theme or motif. With Calypso, he focuses on middle-age and the changing shape of his family (as he approaches the age his mother was when she passed away, and deals with the loss of his sister). Many of the stories take place at the aforementioned Sea Section (I still laugh, every time! What a brilliant pun!), with his remaining family members gathering at the North Carolina beach house for holidays and getaways. It presents the perfect location and excuse for the Sedaris clan to gather, and spend time with their patriarch, now in his ’90s.

Plus, it gives Sedaris the opportunity to realise his childhood dream of “[owning] a beach house and it would be everyone’s, as long as they followed my draconian rules and never stopped thanking me for it,”.

Sedaris is at his best (i.e., his cattiest) in Your English Is So Good, an essay bemoaning the nonsense filler phrases that pepper our interactions with strangers. I also struggled to control my snort-laughs while reading And While You’re Up There, Check On My Prostate, about the curses of various languages and cultures. (His conclusion is that the Romanians have us all beat, with gems like “I fuck your mother’s memorial cake” and “shove your hand up my ass and jerk off my shit”.)

Unusually, for Sedaris, the content of Calypso warrants a pretty strong trigger warning: for suicide, his sister Tiffany’s in particular. It’s a sad event in his life, of course, and there are a few particularly bleak moments as Sedaris reckons with what it means for himself and his family, but for the most part Sedaris addresses it with the same matter-of-fact wry tone that he does most facts of life.

The best thing about David Sedaris books is that I get to enjoy them for the “first time” twice! Once on paper, once on audio! I’m pleased to report that the Calypso audiobook, read by Sedaris himself, is just as wonderful as the paperback version (though hearing him imitate his brother’s drawling dialogue makes those parts even funnier, if you can imagine).

So, of course, I enjoyed Calypso. There was no way Sedaris was going to let me down. Even though the content is a bit darker in parts, he still writes with the humour and panache that makes him unique. It’s impossible not to be impressed by his mastery of the form, the way in which he can punch in any direction and still manage to remain thoroughly likeable and hilarious. It’s going to be difficult to force myself to wait to pick up another one of his books…

My favourite Amazon reviews of Calypso:

  • “Usually donate books to either Hospice or our local Friends of the Library; however, in fear that someone will purchase this, read it and give it a 5-star review thereby encouraging further reading, I felt that I had to prevent that.” – Sammypot
  • “Tumors being fed to turtles, injured kittens being shot, yuppies in a buying frenzy for useless clothing, diarrhea on a plane, suicide, alcoholism, etc.” – Shelaw
  • “If you like neuroses and self absorption, this is the book for you.” – Indiana Kevin
  • “As a David Sedaris fan I was really looking forward to this book. Saved it to read on vacation. Big mistake. Full of depressing stories. Death, illness, diarrhea. Really? Can’t understand the good reviews.” – Pop99

Year Of Yes – Shonda Rhimes

I’m not ashamed to admit that, prior to reading Year Of Yes, all of my Shonda Rhimes knowledge was Grey’s Anatomy-related. In fact, prior to Year Of Yes, Rhimes herself really preferred it that way. All her life, she had been a self-confessed introvert; she once hired a publicist for the express purpose of keeping her from actually having to do any publicity for her ground-breaking television.

Year Of Yes - Shonda Rhimes - Keeping Up With The Penguins
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Really, Rhimes said “no” to everything as a way of hiding from things that terrified her (can’t we all relate, just a little bit?). As a show-runner for multiple Big Time Mega Hit Must-Watch shows, and a single mother to three kids, no one ever doubted her when she said she was “too busy”. But the truth was, actually, she was too afraid.

Then, while cooking Thanksgiving dinner in 2013, her sister said something to her, something Rhimes calls the “six startling words”: you never say yes to anything.

Well, you can’t lay down a gauntlet like that in front of a powerhouse like Rhimes. She embraced the challenge and decided to go against all her better instincts, to spend the year saying YES. She’s now written this book, Year Of Yes, about her experience. It’s not a memoir, exactly – even though it’s told through the frame of Rhimes’ experiment. It’s not self-help, either – even though Rhimes offers a lot of advice and wisdom gleaned from what she’s done. I’d say Year Of Yes is a non-fiction book about the transformative power of being open to new things and overcoming ingrained anxiety, as exemplified by one extraordinary woman.

I knew from the prologue alone that Rhimes and I would be great friends (she and Gabrielle Union and I should really get together sometime). She likes wine (in a let’s-drink-about-it way, not a snobby way), and her searing self-deprecation (whilst never losing sight of, nor apologising for, her many accomplishments) is totally endearing. What’s more, it’s abundantly clear throughout Year Of Yes that she poured a lot of herself into her most-beloved Grey’s Anatomy character, Christina Yang. Trust me, if you’ve ever identified as a Yang, Year Of Yes is a book you’ll want to read.

That’s not why I picked it up, though – just a happy coincidence. Mostly I was curious about Year Of Yes as a fascinating counterpoint to all of the calls for busy women to say “no” more often. Rhimes is busier than most of us (combined). Surely, I thought, saying “yes” – to everything – would simply lead to her feeling over-committed and exhausted.

She addresses the over-commitment question directly in chapter seven (“Yes to All Play and No Work”), when she realises that saying “yes” also means saying yes to silly things, fun things, and sometimes saying yes to those things means saying a grateful “no” to others. This is not the year of indiscriminate yes; it’s the year of yes to things that make us feel alive. There are some things (and some people, ahem!) that it is absolutely right to say-yes-to-saying-no-to.

When Rhimes starts saying yes, she finds that her fear won’t actually kill her. Most of the time, facing the fear she feels really pays off. She does interviews, speeches, cameo appearances, all kinds of awesome stuff that brings her a lot of joy – all of which she would have said “no” to, had her sister not made a crack at her at a family get-together. Year Of Yes turns out to be Rhimes’ own self-guided form of exposure therapy. The more she says yes, and follows through, the easier (and better) it gets.

I got nervous when she started to talk about health and her weight – but I needn’t have worried. Though some of her self-talk and concerns might be a bit triggering for readers particularly sensitive to those issues, I thought Rhime’s message was ultimately a positive and empowering one. She is not here to advocate for losing weight in order to feel beautiful. Rather, she discovered that once she felt beautiful and said “yes” to doing things that made her feel good, losing weight was a side effect of that. Say “yes” to loving your body and commit to doing the best you can for it, and the rest will fall where it may. Sometimes that means saying “yes” to a hike, sometimes it means saying “yes” to extra cheese.

I hesitate to share this, for fear of sounding like a gross cliche, but… what the heck. Year Of Yes actually encouraged me (I will not say the word inspired: I will not, I will not, I will not) to start saying yes a bit more myself. Not to anything particularly life changing, but to invitations and offers that I might otherwise have turned down. Post-lockdown anxiety had me very apprehensive about going back out into the world and interacting IRL again, but it turned out the more often I said “yes”, the easier (and better) it got.

Take this as a simple testament to the power of Year Of Yes: it convinced even the hardest-baked cynic on the other side of the world to give it a go. Hell yes, Shonda!

My favourite Amazon reviews of Year Of Yes:

  • “I had such high hopes for this book! And I tried. I tried soooo hard to make it through. But it is was so incredibly boring and self-centered and seemingly without an ability to connect to others hardships and experiences of life. If you DO find yourself as a very wealthy, very successful TV writer and producer with an amazing life who just can’t seem to say yes to fancy events with other wealthy, successful people, then PLEASE buy this book. It will no doubt help you on your journey.” – Jessica Michele
  • “The book came with what very much appears to be snot on the cover, complete with multiple pieces of nose or beard hair in it. Delivered during the peak of COVID. Not feeling great about this.” – Amsat
  • “I’m in a book club and this was our book… not sure if I’m going to stay with the book club.” – Jeff & Erin

Know My Name – Chanel Miller

In 2016, the name Brock Turner made headlines around the world. He was sentenced to just six months in jail after he was convicted – literally caught in the act – of sexually assaulting a young woman on the Stanford campus in California. His victim, identified then only as Emily Doe, wrote an impact statement which was shared online; it went viral, and reached millions around the world within days. Three years later, Chanel Miller stepped forward and identified herself as Emily Doe, the until-then anonymous victim of the man whose name has become inextricable from conversations about sexual assault, sentencing, and #MeToo. In Know My Name, Miller reclaims her name, her story, and the years lost to her silent battle.

Know My Name - Chanel Miller - Keeping Up With The Penguins
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In January 2015, Miller was a 22-year-old graduate living in Palo Alto. One night, on a whim she decided to attend a Stanford campus party with her sister and friends. Within hours, Brock Turner sexually assaulted her, and she became “unconscious intoxicated woman” – Emily Doe. In Know My Name, Miller doesn’t ease you into this harrowing story with any meandering anecdotes about her upbringing. She’s setting this scene for her assault by page 2.

I was deeply disturbed to realise, in these early chapters, just how little Miller was told about what had happened to her once she regained consciousness, even after she made it abundantly clear to doctors and police that she had no memory of leaving the party. One of the most confronting scenes from Know My Name (and that’s saying something) comes when Miller learns the details of her assault from a news article, sitting at her desk at work. At the same time as the rest of the world, she read about her assailant’s dreams of swimming at the Olympics and his record-breaking pace, alongside the allegations that he had violently penetrated her with his fingers and left her mostly-undressed on the ground behind a garbage bin when two cyclists intervened.

He was the one who lost everything. I was just the nobody it had happened to.

Know My Name (Page 48)

This pattern plays out time and time again in Know My Name, each instance as sickening as the last: the perpetrator’s accomplishments and ambitions are highlighted, his crime(s) diminished, Miller’s pain and suffering barely mentioned.

The judge had given Brock something that would never be extended to me: empathy. My pain was never more valuable than his potential.

Know My Name (Page 241)

Of course, the assault is only the beginning. Over the course of Know My Name, Miller recounts in gut-wrenching detail the ways in which she was repeatedly violated over the following years: the investigation, the hearing, the trial, the sentencing, the aftermath. Institutions seem to fail her at every turn. The courtroom turns into a circus with rival ringleaders, each seeking to make their own performing monkey seem most sympathetic to a jury. The administrators of Stanford offer Miller little more than a pamphlet and a condescending pat on the shoulder, their fears of litigation and bad publicity far outweighing any fear they have for the safety of students and visitors to their campus.

Miller does remind us at intervals (though she shouldn’t have to) that Know My Name exists for so many people. One in five women have a version of this story that they could tell. What happened to Miller is not an isolated incident, it was not an extraordinary once-off. It happens every day, in every part of the world. It’s an excellent companion read to She Said (the journalists’ account of breaking the Harvey Weinstein story), in that regard.

It struck me, about halfway through Know My Name, that this was the first full account I’d ever read of the victim’s journey through the judicial system. In TV dramas, they cut right from the confession to the guilty verdict, and everyone goes home feeling justice has been done in 38 minutes. Miller’s account exposes the indefinite timeframes, the potential minefields, the unexpected demands – women just don’t know that this is what they’re agreeing to when they’re encouraged to report. Collectively, we “know” that it’s difficult, demoralising, retraumatising, but that knowledge is abstract. By sharing the full story in Know My Name, Miller makes it tangible.

She also emphasises the ripple effect of trauma. The man who attacked her didn’t only victimise her, he victimised her sister, her parents, her grandmother, her friends. Her sister lives with enormous survivor’s guilt. Her parents had to see close-up images of Miller’s brutalised vulva displayed in the courtroom. Her friends had to fend off reporters and the defendant’s investigators looking to dig up dirt. One assault, so many victims.

Chapter 12 provides a particularly striking rebuttal to the “but what about innocent until proven guilty?” argument. Miller lays out all the ways in which we currently interrogate the past behaviour of the victim (what they drank, what they wore, who they’ve slept with); if the victim can’t be “innocent until proven guilty”, why should their attacker be? The benefit of the doubt doesn’t seem to extend to the person who is bleeding. Miller has been caught in this trap herself, but incredibly she has retained the capacity to articulate the flaws of the “system” in stunningly eloquent ways. “When a victim does go for help, she is seen as attacking the assailant,” Miller says in Know My Name. “Inherently the victim is outnumbered,” (page 287-8).

It’s hard not to turn this review into a series of extracts; Miller’s voice is that powerful. Just one more…

For years, the crime of sexual assault depended on our silence. The fear of knowing what happened if we spoke… The barricades that held us down will not work anymore. And when silence and shame are gone, there will be nothing to stop us.

Know My Name (Page 327)

Goosebumps, right? This is an incredible read, on every level: as a tool for dismantling the patriarchy, as a masterfully-crafted narrative, as an account of crime and justice, and as a radical testament to the costs of survival.

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