Keeping Up With The Penguins

Reviews For The Would-Be Booklover

Category: Non-Fiction (page 1 of 9)

The Subtle Art Of Not Giving A Fuck – Mark Manson

One of the most widely discussed and bemoaned book trends of the past decade has been “books with swears in the title” – and it all started (well, mostly) with The Subtle Art Of Not Giving A Fuck. It’s a self-help book by ‘superstar blogger’ Mark Manson (who, granted, most people had never heard of before this book hit the best-seller list). Aside from the title, its other big drawcard is that heartthrob Chris Hemsworth describes it as “a good kick in the arse”, which is one of the best blurbs I’ve come across.

The Subtle Art Of Not Giving A Fuck - Mark Manson - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins
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I don’t often read or review self-help books, but it’s just as well. Manson positions this book as the anti-self-help manifesto, a counter-point to the mindless positivity he alleges is peddled in other books of the genre. He believes that life’s struggles give it meaning (no light with out the dark, yin-yang, the whole bit) and blithely smiling our way through it or trying to find a way to live a life without struggle is missing the point and only makes things worse. Thus, The Subtle Art Of Not Giving A Fuck.

It’s a surprisingly anti-capitalist stance, actually, which was the first tick in the ‘pro’ column for me. “Giving a fuck about more stuff is good for business,” as Manson says on page 5. If we’re all worried about being too fat or too short or too poor or too boring, we’ll spend money to buy products that promise us our problems will be solved. Deciding that we care about more meaningful things, and that we don’t need to buy stuff to make ourselves feel good, will bring the system to its knees.

Unfortunately, Manson does run out of creative ways to say ‘give a fuck’ by about page 12, so it starts to wear thin. That was the first tick in the ‘con’ column.

Basically, The Subtle Art Of Not Giving A Fuck is a provocative title for a book that simply emphasises the importance of knowing what really matters to you, and encourages you to act in accordance with that. In the old parlance, we might’ve once said ‘don’t sweat the small shit’, but Manson repackages that adage and sells it as ‘give fewer fucks’ (so maybe he’s not the anti-capitalist king that was foretold after all).

Mostly, Manson dilutes key concepts from psychology and philosophy (also anthropology at times, and even stretching over into evolutionary biology now and again), and boils them up together into a profanity-laden concoction that’s very easy to swallow. It’s not particularly revelatory to say that we grow from pain and suffering, or that you’re responsible for how you respond to a situation, but it sounds profound if you say it in your TED Talk voice.

What worries me is that I can see some of the key concepts of The Subtle Art Of Not Giving A Fuck being applied in a gross way by certain segments of the community. The straight white men who feel oppressed by the existence of diversity and inclusion programs, for instance. You can practically hear them salivating over the idea that we shouldn’t give a fuck about how our decisions make others feel and we’re all responsible for what we do with the cards we’re dealt in life – as though the deck isn’t stacked and we shouldn’t ask for a fresh one. Manson doesn’t seem to have really accounted for this possible reading – or, if he has, he doesn’t address it or try too hard to head it off.

As of 2019, The Subtle Art Of Not Giving A Fuck had sold over eight million copies (not to mention the sequels and journals and other accoutrements of any popular self-help title), so it’s definitely resonated widely. As far as I’m concerned, you could pick worse from the self-help session. It’s easy enough to read, you can knock it over in a single sitting, and it’s ultimately a positive message: find out what you care about, care about it a lot, and disregard the stuff that doesn’t serve you. We could all benefit from doing that a bit more, probably.

My favourite Amazon reviews of The Subtle Art Of Not Giving A Fuck:

  • “The worst part is that I bought the Kindle edition, because if I had gotten a hard copy at least I’d have a good coaster to set my drink on.” – Amazon98
  • “You could get the same quality of advice off of any bathroom wall.” – Marie Jakowski
  • “Completely unhelpful. A book equivalent of someone saying ” Hey, you should just stop worrying about stuff”.” – John Travis Wheeling
  • “This should be called “the subtle art of wasting your money” bc that’s all it is.” – Carla

Bi – Julia Shaw

It seems unthinkable that there has been no true history or close examination of bisexuality published before Julia Shaw’s Bi in 2022, but here we are. Its thesis is perhaps best summed up in the words of beloved television bisexual Callie Torres from Grey’s Anatomy: “It’s a thing and it’s real. I mean, it’s called LGBTQ for a reason. There’s a B in there and it doesn’t mean Badass. Okay, it kind of does, but it also means Bi.”

Bi - Julia Shaw - Keeping Up With The Penguins
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As per the blurb, Bi “explores all that we know about the world’s largest sexual minority… there is more to explore than most have ever realised,”. The Guardian called it “a tour of the science, culture and history of bisexuality that ranges from the vehemently political to the charmingly weird,” which sums it up well, too.

Shaw starts strong with a history of the term “bisexual”, how it has been defined and how it has been misused. As she points out, “bisexual” has been (mis)taken by many young queer activists to be a trans-exclusionary term, leading some to adopt alternatives like pansexual or plurisexual. In reality, “bi” does not refer to a sexual or gender binary (male/female), but rather to an attraction to the “self” and the “other”. A bisexual person is attracted to people who share their gender identity and people who have different gender identities. This aligns with the etymology of “homosexual” (“homo” meaning same as oneself) and “heterosexual” (“hetero” meaning different from oneself). So, there you go – the more you know!

From there, Shaw goes as broadly as she possibly can, without writing a multi-volume epic (which this subject would deserve, but would be difficult to market). Bi covers Kinsey, bonobos, prison sex, film and television, marriage, threesomes, and more. Pretty much any entry-level question you have about bisexuality can be answered in these pages.

Naturally, Bi includes some shocking statistics. I was surprised to learn that some 83% of LGBTIQA+ people are closeted, for instance. It makes sense, once you think about it for a second, but it still seems like a big, sad number.

Speaking of sad: some sections of Bi are quite a bummer, and you should steel yourself for that going in. It’s not all sexually curious primates and Pride marches. Bisexual people face “double discrimination”, being excluded from the straight community by their queerness and treated with suspicion by the gay community for their malleability. The stats on sexual assault victimisation in the bisexual population made me want to curl up and cry. I even had to put Bi down and look at pictures of puppies a few times in the ‘It’s Political’ chapter, where Shaw describes countries that criminalise queerness (69 of them, at the time of writing), and the uphill battle that bisexual asylum seekers face in “proving” their sexuality (they’re less likely than any other sexual minority to be afforded refugee status). So, just be prepared if you’re going to read this one yourself.

Shaw’s tone is more academic than conversational throughout Bi, though she does slip in a personal anecdote here and there. I would’ve preferred more of that, if I’m honest, but that’s purely a personal preference and not a reflection of the quality of the work at all. Overall, I really vibed with her philosophy of de-centering heterosexuality and making bisexuality more visible. I can see her expanding this into a purely academic work of queer theory, if she’s so inclined in future.

Bi will obviously be of most interest to bisexual readers, but it has plenty to offer a general audience too. I would especially recommend it to straight allies and loved ones of people who have recently come out as bi, as a solid resource for informing your understanding and conversations.

Stiff – Mary Roach

Stiff is “a book about the notable achievements of the dead”. Not in the sense of dead white guys, not even in the sense of zombies – but in the sense of literal dead bodies. It turns out a lot of human knowledge is only possible thanks to the contributions of cadavers. It takes a certain kind of mind to even come up with that as a book topic, and have the stomach to research and write it – seven blessings to Mary Roach, is all I’m saying.

Stiff - Mary Roach - Keeping Up With The Penguins
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Stiff is a non-fiction book with a few memoir-y touches. Roach mostly sticks to describing the history of using cadavers to advance scientific knowledge, but occasionally diverts into personal anecdotes of her experiences researching the book. Topics she covers include:

  • Using cadavers for medical training (anatomy classes, practicing surgical techniques, etc.)
  • Using cadavers for forensic pathology (studying how they decay, so we can better understand crime scenes)
  • Grave robbing and the early days of dissecting human bodies
  • Cadavers as crash test dummies
  • Organ donations from the brain dead
  • Alternatives to burial and cremation

And – believe it or not – lots more.

Roach doesn’t shy away from the grim history non-consent and disrespect shown to cadavers used for such purposes (especially the bodies of people from marginalised communities). That said, she describes this history in much the same matter-of-fact tone as she describes more palatable aspects of cadaver research. She strikes a good balance between recognising the gruesomeness of the subject, acknowledging the absurdity of it, and maintaining a respectful reverence for the people who make it possible (living and dead).

Stiff shows that the living people who work with cadavers are almost as interesting as the cadavers themselves. Roach speaks to people who chop up bodies so that medical students can use them to learn, people who leave bodies out in a paddock to see how they decompose, people who put cadavers in cars that are crashed at high speeds to test safety apparatus, people who compost bodies as an alternative to burial – can you imagine what any of these people say they do when they introduce themselves at dinner parties?

I found that I put Stiff down often, not because I was disgusted or disturbed but because I wanted to Google something that Roach had mentioned in passing. Other readers might appreciate Roach’s brevity, but I would’ve been happy with a book five times as long that explored all the rabbit holes.

The only time Stiff really showed its age (having been published 20 years ago) was in the chapter about organ donation. One of Roach’s interviewees, whom she spoke of quite highly, was none other than Mehmet Oz – aka Dr Oz, aka snake-oil salesman and failed Republican candidate. Also, trigger warnings weren’t as common back when Stiff was first published, so I’d imagine a lot of readers went in blind; heads up for death and medical research (obviously), but also a lot of animal experimentation. There have been a lot of stomach-turning things done to dogs in the name of research, and those are the only details in this book I could’ve done without.

On the whole, Stiff has held up well, and remains an excellent read for anyone who’s curious about the macabre (or simply has the stomach for the more gruesome aspects of medical history).

My favourite Amazon reviews of Stiff:

  • “After going through Roach’s unfortunate bestseller, one thing is sure, I am not giving my body to science. Had such a tasteless assemblage not been given birth, I might have.” – Marie-Jo Fortis
  • “Would not recommend to anyone. Kinda of an odd choice to recommend without friends thinking you are weird.” – Unie
  • “Bought this for my fiancee and then she decided I wasn’t good enough. She always treated me like I was worthless.” – Chris Gill
  • “Seven or so good chapters crammed into 12.” – Thomas Tomczak

Pearl – Siân Hughes

Pearl - Sian Hughes - Keeping Up With The Penguins
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The 2023 Booker Prize judges called Pearl “an exceptional debut novel… both a mystery story and a meditation on grief… at once quiet and hugely ambitious”. I might never have come across it, but it was long-listed this year and the wonderful folks at UQP sent me a copy for review.

And I must admit, I went in making some assumptions that were way off base. With that title – Pearl – and the blurb referencing a young girl and her mother, I assumed it was some kind of adaptation or allusion to The Scarlet Letter. If you’re assuming the same, let me disabuse you of that right now and save you a bit of confusion!

Marianne was eight years old when her mother walked out the kitchen door, and disappeared without a trace. She left, in her wake, a million unanswered questions and a collection of poetry, containing the medieval verse Pearl (where the book gets its title). The poem doesn’t play quite as big a role in the overall story as the blurb would have you believe, but it’s still a touchstone throughout.

Pearl is a short novel that packs an emotional punch (heads up for self-harm, disordered eating, post-partum depression/psychosis, and a dog death that sad but mercifully brief). The patterns of Marianne’s life are shaped by her mother, even in absentia. With the absence of any new evidence as to her ultimate whereabouts, Marianne still comes to new levels of insight into her mother’s state of mind when she left the house that day, which brings the story to its climax.

Pearl left me feeling strangely unmoored, like I was walking through fog for a while after I turned the final page. I’m glad it will get its moment in the spotlight along with the other long-listed Booker titles this year, as this quiet English novel might’ve passed by many of us otherwise.

Buy Pearl on Booktopia here. (affiliate link)

The Five – Hallie Rubenhold

Polly, Annie, Elizabeth, Catherine, and Mary Jane. Recognise their names? They’re all famous for the same thing: being murdered, in 1888. That’s basically all we know about them, because the values of Victorian England have clouded our view of them for the past 130 years. In The Five, Hallie Rubenhold sets out to correct (i.e., expand) the record. These five women are far more than simply victims of Jack The Ripper.

The Five - Hallie Rubenhold - Keeping Up With The Penguins
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In the introduction, Rubenhold gives broad context for the murders of these five women. A drought in 1887 had led to poor crop yields and high unemployment in Victorian London. This, in turn, had lead to a growing unhoused population and a movement that might effectively amount to Occupy Trafalgar Square. It sets the tone for The Five, which is a history book more so than a true crime one.

Each woman is given her own section, a biographical sketch that Rubenhold pieces together from scraps of records (like marriage certificates and landlord ledgers), coroner’s inquests and journalism (always emphasising the unreliability of these accounts), historical accounts (written by other people about similar circumstances around the same time), and educated guesses (based on extensive research). It gives a fuller picture of the lives of the five women than we’ve ever had before.

The cards were staced against Polly, Annie, Elizabeth, Kate and Mary Jane from the day of their births. They began their lives in deficit… Their worth was compromised before they had even attempted to prove it.

The Five (Page 339)

Rubenhold also examines how these women came to be known and remembered as sex workers (though she uses the term “prostitutes”, as many observers and commentators have done). In reality, they led full and complex lives, and only two of them (Elizabeth and Mary Jane) ever formally exchanged sex for money. Her approach is compassionate, but unsentimental – angry at the injustice of the historical record, rather than wistful or tawdry.

There were many reasons why an impoverished working-class woman may have been outdoors during the hours of darkness, and not all of them were as obvious as street soliciting. Those without homes or families, those who drank heavily and those who were dispossessed did not lead lives that adhered to conventional rules. No one knew or cared what they did or where they went, and for this reason, rather than for a sexual motive, they would have appealed to a killer.

The Five (Page 344)

Rubenhold makes a fascinating point – though very briefly – that it is precarious/unstable housing that is the thread linking the five women together, not sex work. I wish she’d explored that more, because it felt like a lightbulb going off for me. Even though the five women never met and had little else linking them other than the man who murdered them, they all had unreliable access to safe shelter and all were asleep (rather than in the throes) when he encountered them.

You’ll notice that The Five contains very little information about how the women were murdered. Plenty has been written about that already, after all. This book is about their lives, and the unfortunate domino effects of poverty, inadequate contraception, alcoholism, and homelessness that led to their violent ends. “The larger [Jack The Ripper’s] profile grows,” Rubenhold writes, “the more those of his victims seems to fade,” (page 345).

So, zooming out for a second, The Five is a book about challenging long-held assumptions. Rubenhold encourages us to think critically about what we accept as historical fact. What we “know” about the past is inevitably shaped and coloured by the values of the time, and the hangover of those values on our perspective today.

It is only by bringing these women back to life that we can silence the Ripper and what he represents… by attempting to understand their experiences and see their humanity, we can restore to them the respect and compassion to which they are entitled. The victims of Jack the Ripper were never ‘just prostitutes’; they were daughters, wives, mothers, sisters and lovers. They were women. They were human beings, and surely that, in itself, is enough.

The Five (page 348)

The Five is a fascinating and insightful read, one I really wish I’d got to sooner. If you’re on the fence about picking this one up, let me be the one to tip you over to the side of “yes”. True crime readers will likely find it dry and scant on grisly details, but hopefully will recognise the reason for that and understand its importance in the broader context.

My favourite Amazon reviews of The Five:

  • “If this had been a lecture, I would have slept through it.” – michelle whitehead
  • “Imagine reading a very. Structured. College. Essay. About a topic that is so overwritten, with too many adjectives and adverbs. Imagine trying to describe what a world of life was like and then overwriting the heck out of it. And not well. I just didn’t care. And the author really really wants you to care.” – Kindle Customer
  • “This is why I’m becoming hesitant to read female historians, because they cannot remain objective when telling the story. It always has a feminist bent to it.” – William Lyons
  • “Very slow. Too detailed for me. Will be enjoyed by others with patience. Worth a try if you are patient.” – Cecilia Steel
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