Keeping Up With The Penguins

Reviews For The Would-Be Booklover

Category: Memoir & Autobiography (page 1 of 6)

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 BOOK IS AWFUL! IT IS LITERALLY THE WORST BOOK I’VE EVER READ; ONLY READ THIS BOOK IF YOU ARE WILLING TO LITERALLY BORE YOURSELF TO DEATH. IT’S SOME OF THE WORST LITERATURE EVER PUBLISHED. PLEASE TAKE MY ADVICE I’M SAVING YOUR LIFE.” – Eileen
  • “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

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.

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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
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