Keeping Up With The Penguins

Reviews For The Would-Be Booklover

Category: Non-Fiction (page 1 of 3)

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

Me Talk Pretty One Day – David Sedaris

I know David Sedaris mostly by reputation. I’d heard some of his segments on This American Life, and I loved his essay about his failed attempts at panic-buying at the onset of the pandemic, but I hadn’t read anything book-length until I picked up Me Talk Pretty One Day. This memoir, told in essays, was first published in 2000, making this year its twentieth anniversary, and yet it’s still as pertinent and resonant as ever. Sedaris’s wry humour and keen observations, of everything from family life to travel to cooking to education, are timeless.

My edition comes with a new introduction from the author, describing the various types of “fan” mail he has received since its initial release. Right from the outset, Sedaris sets his tone: uniquely sarcastic and affectionate in equal measure, poking fun without ever being cruel. I’m still scratching my head, trying to work out how he did it. How did he manage to land punches – in all directions, up and down and sideways – that feel like kisses? It’s truly masterful, a kind of comic genius you don’t see everyday.

Me Talk Pretty One Day is split into two parts. The first is a collection of essays about his childhood, mostly set in his native North Carolina. The second focuses on his life after moving to France, with his partner. It’s hard to believe how much life Sedaris has lived, as a speed addict, a furniture removalist, a writing teacher, a failed performance artist, an ex-pat… It’s all copy for Sedaris. He provides seemingly endless and delightfully witty commentary on all of his experiences, sharing the worst of them (addiction, grief, shame) with just as much good humour as the best of them.





Much of the humour in the second section is derived from Sedaris’s attempt to live in France without actually speaking French (and his fumbling efforts to learn). The titular essay – Me Talk Pretty One Day – is drawn from his participation in language classes, where just about everything is lost in translation. However, the title also echoes in the very first essay, from Sedaris’s childhood, about receiving speech therapy for his pronounced lisp. It’s a satisfyingly neat parallel. In fact, Sedaris’s communication “failures” are a recurring motif throughout the book.

Me Talk Pretty One Day is about astutely-observed adventures in seemingly mundane everyday activities. I’m sure Sedaris occasionally exaggerates and over-emphasises for comic effect, but I am more than willing to forgive him that. He seems like the kind of writer that could derive side-splitting laughter from a shopping list. That said, this isn’t a “fluffy” read. Sedaris is disarmingly honest about his extended flirtation with crystal meth (and his related dalliance with performance art), and other moments of darkness and weakness in his life. Still, he seems to process these traumas (self-inflicted and otherwise) in the way I most prefer and adore: with self-deprecating humour.





Me Talk Pretty One Day is a great read for when your attention span is shot. The essays are short enough that you can read the whole thing in bite-sized chunks, but the through-line is strong enough that it will keep pulling you back in. It’s a shame that it’s never been adapted for the screen. Apparently, it was all set to go – with a completed script and all – but Sedaris’s sister expressed concerns about how their family would be portrayed, and so he squashed it. For all his ribbing and warts-and-all honesty, Sedaris is clearly still a good guy, one who will set aside his own interests to protect his family and keep them happy.

So, I end where I began: still amazed at Sedaris’s knack for being cutting without being cruel, to tease but never bully. Every critical observation he offers is laced with love and LOLs. Every autobiographical gem he mines is polished to a bright shine. Me Talk Pretty One Day definitely lives up to the hype, and I guarantee it will tickle your funny bone, even in your darkest hours.

My favourite Amazon reviews of Me Talk Pretty One Day:

  • “Some people may like his humor but I’m not one of them.” – Dick
  • “I had to stop reading this while on the treadmill at the gym. I was laughing so hard I could barely walk and was making a spectacle of myself.” – Kindle Customer
  • “It was absolutely hilarious. I just wish he would not use so much “potty talk”. That not pretty!” – margaret h cleveland
  • “If you want to laugh hard enough to pee, this is for you.” – Amazon Customer
  • “It’s David Sedaris. Nuff said

    Except there are word minimums on this review, like a school book report. He’s the writer, not me.” – Amazon Customer

Tracker – Alexis Wright

How do you go about writing the autobiography of a man who was larger than life? The short answer is, you don’t. Tracker is not neat, linear life story told in a single voice. Rather, it is a “collective memoir”, drawing upon the ancient traditions of oral histories, whereby one man’s incredible life is related through the stories of dozens of people. Alexis Wright is not a narrator, but a collaborator, bringing together friends, family members, colleagues, politicians, and countless others to paint a portrait – detailed, contradictory, and powerful – of one of Australia’s most beloved Aboriginal leaders.

Tracker Tilmouth was born in 1954, in the latter years of the White Australia policy. He was one of the Stolen Generation, removed from his family at three years old, and raised on the Croker Island Mission. He went on to become the country’s most powerful advocate for the social, legal and economic advancement of Aboriginal Australians, working with the Central Land Council and other organisations in Queensland and the Northern Territory, until his death in 2015.

Alexis Wright has carefully pieced together his life story from the recollections and statements of over fifty contributors, each carefully selected and approved by Tracker before his death. The effect is something like sitting around the dinner table after a large family reunion, listening to everyone hash over their histories: the good, the bad, and the ugly. The strongest speaker, though, is Tracker. He is instantly beguiling, his distinctive “voice” booming loud and large from the page.

That’s not an artifact, it would seem: it was how Tracker did business. He was charismatic, skilled in the art of tailoring his message for the listener, informal and crass at times but always disarming with his good-natured humour. He was multi-lingual, able to converse in several Indigenous languages as well as Australian English, and this fluidity of language allowed him to act as a conduit, and a mediator, between groups. Even where all parties shared a common language, Tracker still managed to form bridges across political and cultural divides; he was determined, in every circumstance possible, to create an environment where people felt they could talk to him, and to each other, as a way of finding solutions to seemingly insurmountable problems.





Tracker is a long(!) book, one that requires close and attentive reading over an extended period. Even though I was deeply engaged in the content and very interested in Tracker’s life and perspective, some parts dragged, which I guess would be the nature of any biography told in multiple voices (not all of them will resonate equally for every reader). It follows rough timeline, as you might expect of a biography, in that it starts with childhood and follows the trajectory of Tracker’s life and career. That said, it’s only very loosely structured. Sometimes, the same events are revisited and re-told from different perspectives, the pieces of the puzzle pushed together in a new way to form a different picture. This all seems to emerge organically from the mode of storytelling, rather than being forced or engineered as some kind of gimmick.

Wright doesn’t intervene as a narrator at any stage (she’s so absent from the narrative that where she is referred to at all, it is in third-person), which means there is no umpire adjudicating for the reader the contradictions between the different versions of events, and the different descriptions of Tracker. And it’s not all glowing, let me assure you: Tracker is, at times, criticised for his derision, his sexism, and (for want of a better word) his lack of polish. He was “certainly not politically correct by the standards of polite white civility”, and so it’s hardly surprising he ruffled a lot of feathers.

Where the first half of Tracker focuses mainly on events and achievements in Tracker’s life, the second focuses more on his philosophy, his ideas, and his insights. It’s not dense sociopolitical commentary, mind you – just an airing of Tracker’s vision for economic, social, and legal self-determination for Indigenous Australians. For him, it wasn’t just about the legal ruling or the funding approval for an initiative, it was about the practical impacts for the community, what a given decision or action would actually do to combat the entrenched inequality that still exists in Australia. For all the unwieldy complexity of the issues and challenges he took on, he boiled almost everything down to financial independence: “If it isn’t economically sustainable, it won’t work”. That might not be a popular view in today’s climate, reducing cultural continuation to dollars and cents, and it’s one I approached with much skepticism – but I’ve got to say, Tracker’s way of winning people over is just as effective on the page as it was in life.

Tracker also presents his views on the ever-timely issue of constitutional recognition:

“It is not our constitution, it is their constitution. If you want to be invited to a shit sandwich, off you go. It is not ours, it has nothing to do with us. So we have the stupidity of recognition. What do you recognise? You recognise we own it? If you want to recognise we own it all, give us a treaty. Give us our rights. Give us our property rights. Return the stolen land. Do those sorts of things. Do not talk to us about recognising us because you can do that on a piece of paper, it is not going to mean anything.”

Page 407

This view surprised me a little – not the sentiment, but the vehemence of it – as did his views on the Greens and other environmentalist groups. Tracker pointed out a lot of problems in the ethos of these organisations that I’m privileged enough not to have had to consider previously. For me, Tracker really highlighted – in a way we don’t see often enough – the heterogeneity of “the Indigenous community”. Just like there are a broad range of views within “the gay community” or “the Muslim community”, the First Nations people are a diverse group with diverse views. That kind of nuance is too often lost when, as we’ve seen recently, they’re forced front and center of a political debate.





Another surprise: Tracker was a far less emotional read than I was expecting. Most of the contributors presented their stories in a matter-of-fact way, without the grief-stricken lyrical waxing I suppose I’m conditioned to expect from what is, in effect, a eulogy. This is not a book that sobs into the reader’s shoulder about how sad it is that such a brilliant man faced such hardship, and was lost so young (though it is, of course, extremely sad) – rather, it’s a careful record of the “facts” of a fragmented history, and in some ways, that is perhaps a more fitting tribute.

For her efforts and vision, Wright won the Stella Prize in 2018. It’s hard to imagine that a life as large and far-reaching as Tracker Tilmouth’s could have been captured in writing in any other way, and I’m glad that the literary community has recognised this stunning, epic achievement. I’ll leave the last word to her:

“Tracker was the one who made us look more, and work harder… The holes in this book are the missing stories of hundreds of people who knew Tracker. You can go anywhere in this country and there will always be someone with a great story to tell about Tracker, of something he said or did. Keep sharing those stories. Embellish them. Make his stories your own story. Most of all, be the story. That is what he would have wanted.”

Acknowledgements (Page 617-18)



Religion For Atheists – Alain de Botton

I can honestly say that since I started the Keeping Up With The Penguins project, I haven’t DNF’d a single book (that’s did-not-finish, for those of you playing at home). I just don’t feel like I can bring you an honest and fair review without having slogged all the way through, even the ones I’m not enjoying. Before I started this reading project, though, I was liable to put a book down if it wasn’t holding my interest, and go on my merry way. That’s what happened when I first tried Religion For Atheists by Alain de Botton. Now that I’ve finished reading my way through my original Keeping Up With The Penguins reading list, I figured it might be a good time to go back and revisit some of those earlier abandoned tomes…

Religion For Atheists was published back in 2012, and I picked it up shortly after hearing an interview with Alain de Botton on the Sunday Night Safran program (RIP!) on Triple J. I can’t remember why I abandoned the book exactly – about a hundred pages in, according to where I left the bookmark – only that it wasn’t as funny as I was expecting. de Botton was hilarious in the interview, which is what convinced me to pick up his book in the first place. When the first hundred pages didn’t even elicit a chuckle, I guess I figured it was a waste of my time.

Now, I’m a big believer that a book has to come to you at the right moment in your life – and that’s why I’m ready to give Religion For Atheists another shot. A lot has changed for me since 2012, and I no longer demand that my books be a giggle-fest in order to keep going.

I’m right to go back to it; I am, like de Botton, a lifelong atheist (seriously, I didn’t even do religious education in school, and I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve entered a house of worship). The cover of Religion For Atheists promises “a non-believer’s guide to the uses of religion”, which sounds right up my alley. de Botton starts off by pointing out that it is extremely boring to ask whether any given religion is “true” or “right” on the question of God and the afterlife (and I heartily agree). In fact, there’s very little about “God” in this book at all, so if that’s what you’re after, you can skip this one.

de Botton also says straight-up that he has no intention of comparing religions with one another (phew!). In his view, all religions evolved to serve the same basic needs: community cohesiveness, and coping with the inevitable pain of life. Religious or not, we all need a little cohesion and coping along the way, so he contends that while the supernatural claims of any and all religions are false (and that can be taken as read), some aspects of them are still useful in their applications for secular life and society. Basically, he’s saying we can all benefit from the wisdom and power of religion without having to get down with any of the woo-woo aspects of it. I’m sold!





Religion For Atheists is straight-forward in its layout, too: de Botton takes a problem in society, discusses how various religions have attempted to solve it, and then proposes a secular version that we might implement to better our lives. These problems are as varied as “Education”, “Pessimism”, “Community”, and so on. In “Institutions”, for instance, de Botton compares organised religions to corporations, in the ways that they efficiently spread their message, accumulate wealth, and enact social change. He makes the case that we could start advertising values the way that we advertise brands, a kind of late-capitalist conversion that would allow us to use institutional structures in a more positive way.

The sections are interspersed with beautiful photographs and reproductions of religious artworks – the production values of the book are gorgeous, but the best parts are the humourous captions that de Botton has added below each image (see? he IS funny!).

I know fuck-all about most religions (lifelong atheist, see above), so I was grateful to see that de Botton doesn’t assume much prior knowledge. In fact, I think he managed to teach me a thing or two that even religious folks might not know themselves. I learned, for example, that Catholic Mass actually began as a shared meal, more along the lines of the Jewish Shabbat dinner. Workers would down tools to gather around a table (as opposed to gathering to face an altar), and eat and drink to commemorate The Last Supper (I’d heard of that, at least, thanks to The Da Vinci Code). The way we do it today is very different, and would be basically unrecognisable to those early Catholics (and you can make an argument that the changes haven’t necessarily been for the better).





So, what did I take from all this? Did de Botton convert me? Not quite – though I’m not sure he intended to. I really responded to the idea of the Jewish Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur) – an opportunity to reflect on those whom you’ve wronged and how. On that designated day, you seek them out and express contrition. It is “a rare opportunity for blanket forgiveness”, de Botton says, which serves as a balm for those festering resentments that might otherwise tear a community apart. It’s a way of communally acknowledging that we’re all flawed, so we must all forgive one another and be forgiven, and just get on with things. I can certainly see how it would be beneficial, and it’s a perfect example of the type of religious ritual that emerged for purely pragmatic reasons (which is, after all, de Botton’s whole point). We infuse these rituals with “divine” ideas in order to protect them and keep them going, when really, we might not need to – according to de Botton, we could incorporate them into our secular lives and simply accept they are important, without any need for a “higher power” to tell us so.

I also really appreciated that de Botton didn’t oversell or waffle on – Religion For Atheists is actually a surprisingly short book, given the lofty subject matter. The reviews were mixed, of course: given the premise, de Botton was always bound to offend or piss off just about everyone. He said that in writing this book, he wanted to help atheists derive the benefits of religion, but I think (if they’re not too horrified at the whole God-ain’t-real-get-over-it approach) religious people could gain a lot of insight from it, too. Religion For Atheists has a newfound timeliness given the recent revelations of widespread institutionalised sexual abuse in multiple churches. It could really help those believers who are struggling with the organisations of their faith, but are scared to lose the comfort and clarity they get from its tenets and ceremonies.

All told, I found Religion For Atheists thought-provoking and highly readable (this time around, anyhow). I’d heartily recommend it to anyone who’s curious about how stuff works, in general, and society/religion in particular. Plus, I’ll now forever use it as my example of why it’s important to revisit a book you did not finish – if you write it off forever, you might really be missing out.

My favourite Amazon reviews of Religion For Atheists:

  • “Some good insights. Some not useful.” – Glenn Wilhite
  • “All the good things about religion, without the Hairy Thunderer bits.” – Daemeon R.
  • “Jesus Christ is missing from the index. How can he write anything about Christianity without mentioning Jesus?” – Wendel L. Thompson

Stay Sexy And Don’t Get Murdered – Karen Kilgariff & Georgia Hardstark

I first discovered the My Favorite Murder podcast back in 2017. I went all the way back to the beginning and binge-listened to every single episode (yes, I’m a podcast junkie, but this one was particularly addictive), and I haven’t missed one since. We fans call ourselves “Murderinos”, and there are tens of thousands of us around the world. The hosts are Karen Kilgariff and Georgia Hardstark, and they have over 20 million monthly listeners. “You come for the murder, you stay for the camaraderie” they say, and they’re right. Their friendship is the reason their podcast, and now their book, works. Stay Sexy And Don’t Get Murdered is their dual memoir published last year (and this copy was very kindly gifted to me by my very dear friend and fellow Murderino, Chent).

Sidebar: The book is gorgeous, of course, but I must say, I was really bemused by the fact that in the blurb the word “bullshit” is censored (stylised as “bullsh*t”), but they let the word “unfuckwithable” fly in full. Weird, eh?

Anyway, I’ve never read a dual memoir before. In fact, this is the first (officially) co-authored book I’ve reviewed on Keeping Up With The Penguins. It’s a strange mix of self-help and memoir, like a “Look what we learned by how badly we fucked up!” guide to life. Kilgariff and Hardstark’s transparency about hard times and shitty decision-making is gloriously disarming. They cover everything from self-care, to relationships, to substance abuse, to staying sexy, to not getting murdered.

Ah, murder: you’d think that, given the nature of their brand and the subject of their podcast, that Stay Sexy And Don’t Get Murdered would be full of true crime chat. Not so! True crime is mentioned in passing, of course (given that it’s their passion, and now their life’s work), but it’s not a focus. When they do mention it, mostly towards the end of the book, they steer away from recounting grisly details or glorifying sensational cases. Instead, they use the opportunity to pay respects to victims and families, and call out the toxic habit of victim-blaming.

“… at the end of the day, the only reason it matters is the victim. It’s the victim and their friends and family who will forever be affected by the trueness of the crime long after the killer is caught…”

Page 295

The book’s title, and all its chapter headers, are taken from catch-phrases and in-jokes used in the podcast. Basically, Kilgariff and Hardstark take their winning formula and reproduce it in print, only they’re now talking about their lives instead of murders. Their personalities and tone translate well, and there’s no pretentious attempts at literariness. These podcasters are well aware—and they make their readers well aware of their well-awareness—that they aren’t Professional Authors(TM). There’s no bullshit, they’re not writing like they hope they’ll win the Pulitzer. They’re just two insanely popular women with a huge fan base, responding to popular demand for a book about their experiences. They write as they speak, which they know (based on the weight of evidence) will resonate.





Most Murderinos will already be at least somewhat familiar with many of the stories recounted in Stay Sexy And Don’t Get Murdered, but Kilgariff and Hardstark offer more nuanced and detailed insights than they might off-the-cuff in a podcast recording. Their radical vulnerability, their unabashed hanging out of dirty laundry, is very impressive. They are candid and personable, just as you’d hope them to be, and they encourage their readers (as they do their listeners) to eschew the myth of “perfection” and the reverence of politeness. OK, fine, they out-and-out tell readers to “fuck politeness”, and I must say, I agree.

It’s quite funny—I laughed out loud a few times. I’m not sure I’d call Stay Sexy And Don’t Get Murdered a laugh riot exactly, there are a lot of stories of trauma and devastation, but you’re sure to crack a few smiles at least (and if you don’t, you’re dead inside, seek help).

I’m not sure how much this book would mean to readers who don’t already listen to the podcast, though. As I’ve said, it’s generously seasoned with in-jokes, the kind that have already been broadcast to millions and adopted by the die-hard fans as mantras (“stay out of the forest”). Kilgariff and Hardstark are trading, intentionally or not, on the goodwill and emotional investment that already exists. Sure, Stay Sexy And Don’t Get Murdered might win them a few more Murderinos, but I think for the most part, it goes out to the lovers. Still, for them (and I include myself), this book is a slam dunk. It’s like getting to sit in on your best friend’s therapy session. (Oh, yeah, they advocate therapy, a lot—it’s very L.A.)

Stay Sexy And Don’t Get Murdered is definitely one of the better celebrity memoirs I’ve read, on par with Anh Do’s The Happiest Refugee. This is what I was hoping to get from Amy Poehler’s Yes Please—my wish has finally been fulfilled. Does that make Karen and Georgia my fairy godmothers? Hope so!

My favourite Amazon reviews of My Favorite Murder:

  • “haven’t read…..too busy listening to their PodCast.” – Alison Kramer
  • “…. If I wanted to hear that I should go to therapy a dozen times I’d just listen to my sister rag on me for free.” – Bellingham Bookworm
  • “this book cleared my acne and cured my depression. I love my moms Georgia and Karen, and I LOVED this book.” – Hannah @ A Reading Red Sox
  • “I love staying sexy and not getting murdered. Thank you Karen and Georgia.” – AK
  • “Buy it you true crime lover!!!” – Alex H
  • “I Laughed, I Cried, I Got Inspired! Consider me not murdered.” – Jenna T
  • “Great read! Withstands spilled beer. Would recommend.” – Zack


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