Keeping Up With The Penguins

Reviews For The Would-Be Booklover

Category: Non-Fiction (page 1 of 4)

12 Amazing Non-Fiction Books By Women

Looking back over the books I read and reviewed this month, I realised: it’s been wall-to-wall amazing non-fiction books by women. That wasn’t exactly by design, but looking over my shelves I can see how it could happen! It would seem that non-fiction books by women – particularly ones on niche subjects, or ones that take a unique approach – really pique my interest. Here are a few more of my favourites…

Any Ordinary Day by Leigh Sales

Any Ordinary Day - Leigh Sales - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Every person who talks about the most devastating day of their life invariably says the same thing: “it was any ordinary day”. Thus, the title of Australian journalist Leigh Sales’ book – Any Ordinary Day – about the worst days, the catastrophic days, when the world collapses in upon you. She asks the questions we all silently wonder when we’re watching for the news. When you have a life-changing near-brush with death, does it actually change your life? When you lose loved ones in the most unimaginably horrible ways, how do you learn to love and trust again? This is one of the most compelling and fascinating non-fiction books by women of recent years, and (sadly) given the increasing rate of life-changing events in our world, it is ever resonant and relevant.

You Daughters Of Freedom by Clare Wright

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This might seem baffling to my American Keeper-Upperers (given that voting is voluntary in your homeland), but I really dig participating in democracy. Put it down to watching Mary Poppins too much as a kid (Well Done, Sister Suffragette!). Every time I line up to the ballot box, I feel immense gratitude for all of the women who fought and died for my right to do so. That’s what drew me to pick up You Daughters Of Freedom – a testament to the Australians who won the vote for women, comparatively early. The trailblazing (though, it must be said, white) women who won the vote served as inspiration for the rest of the world.

Bad Feminist by Roxane Gay

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You know that voice in your head that says: you’re a bad feminist if you fangirl over Mr Rochester when you read Jane Eyre? Or the one that says you’re a bootlicker if you like the colour pink? Roxane Gay shines the spotlight on that nasty, mean little voice in Bad Feminist. In this series of at-times hilarious and at-time searing essays, she looks at the ways in which the culture we consume reflects who we are, and what we want it to say about us. I have never felt so validated and affirmed as I have reading this incredible book (unless you count reading Roxane Gay’s Twitter feed).

See also: Hunger

Victoria by Julia Baird

Victoria - Julia Baird - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

I was skeptical (to say the least) when I heard that there was a new biography of Queen Victoria forthcoming (and with such a creative title, too). Victoria is surely at least the hundredth book about a dead British monarch published this past decade. And yet, the more I heard about it, the more interviews Julia Baird gave about her process and her approach, the more my curiosity was stoked. There’s no shortage of biographies in the category of non-fiction books by women, but this one is surely one of the best.

In Order To Live by Yeonmi Park

In Order To Live - Yeonmi Park - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Conceptually, North Korea still blows my mind. In this age of unprecedented globalisation and connection, how has one country so brutally and efficiently cut its people off from external influence and insight? If any of their citizens do get a sniff of the world beyond the borders, how could they possibly find within themselves the courage to run? In Order To Live by Yeonmi Park is one woman’s story of doing just that. Facing dangers the likes of which most of us couldn’t imagine (relying on Chinese smugglers for escape, then navigating across the Gobi desert with no more than the stars to guide her), she made it to South Korea and, as if her survival alone wasn’t testament enough, shared her story with the rest of the world.

The Killing Season: Uncut by Sarah Ferguson

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I might be showing my age when I say this, but what the hell: the first Australian election in which I felt properly and politically engaged was the one that elected Kevin Rudd’s government in 2007. Shortly thereafter, he was usurped by Julia Gillard, Australia’s first female prime minister. Then, in a move shocking to every non-Australian in the world (seriously, we change leaders more frequently than we change underpants down here), Rudd resumed the leadership before a spectacular election defeat in 2013. Obviously, everyone behind-the-scenes has a very different version of these events – each of which Sarah Ferguson investigated when making the documentary program The Killing Season. In the book version, she recounts details she couldn’t put to air at the time. Heck, maybe I’m the only one who cares, but this is the first of the non-fiction books by women about Australian politics that truly gripped me.

The Great Pretender by Susannah Cahalan

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Ever heard of the Rosenhan experiment? A brilliant psychiatrist sent a bunch of people into psychiatric hospitals with feigned benign symptoms, and they were all diagnosed with stigmatising mental illnesses and fed huge quantities of psychoactive medication. This outcome changed the course of psychology and psychiatry forever, and it has had significant real-world impacts on the lives of people living with mental illness today. Susannah Cahalan took it upon herself, having narrowly escaped misdiagnosis and institutionalisation herself, to uncover the truth of this experiment and the man who instigated it, in The Great Pretender. It is a fascinating, and terrifying, read.

She Said by Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey

She Said - Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey - Keeping Up With The Penguins

You might think you “know” the Harvey Weinstein story, but until you’ve read She Said, I can promise you that you don’t. Not only are the details of Weinstein’s crimes horrific, but the lengths that he went to cover them up (and the number of people who enabled him along the way) are almost literally unbelievable. I’m so grateful to Kantor and Twohey for sharing with us the story behind the story, how they worked to break the sexual harassment story that changed the world – they’ll teach this in journalism classes for years to come.

See What You Made Me Do by Jess Hill

The all-too-common refrain when it comes to domestic abuse is “why didn’t she leave?” or “why did she stay?”. See What You Made Me Do is the first book I’ve read to turn that on its head. The questions Jess Hill poses are more along the lines of “why did he hit her?” and “what ‘counts’ as domestic abuse?”. I’ll admit, this book will turn your stomach – Hill doesn’t shy away from the sheer horror of lives lived in the shadow of domestic abuse, and the very worst of where and why it happens. That said, I’ve made it my personal mission in life to make sure more men read this book. I want “nice guys”, “good blokes”, “wonderful fathers”, and all the rest of them to read this one. Can you imagine what would happen if they did?

Pain And Prejudice by Gabrielle Jackson

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Imagine if I told you that 176 million people worldwide were affected by one insidious disease, one for which we cannot definitively determine a cause, and one for which the “cures” on offer are (at best) guesswork. Then, imagine that I told you that between 30-60% of the people who could develop this disease couldn’t correctly identify the parts of their anatomy where it might originate. You’d be floored, right? I know I was when I read Pain And Prejudice by Gabrielle Jackson, a book about the ways the medical system has under-served people with uteruses for far too long. This is an amazing, personal account of the patriarchal assumptions that undermine the health of half the population.

Three Women by Lisa Taddeo

Three Women - Lisa Taddeo - Keeping Up With The Penguins

It takes a rare talent to write about sex in a way that is both enthralling and immersive, but never titillating. Three Women is not an erotic book, but a clear-eyed account of women’s sex lives and the experiences that shape them. Over the course of eight years, Taddeo investigated the sexual histories of three women: Lina, Maggie, and Sloane. Her meticulously detailed reporting evokes Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, drawing upon thousands of hours of interviews and documentation to verify the truth as she presents it to you. This book is controversial (inevitably, given its subject matter and Taddeo’s frank treatment of it), but in that lies the beauty of its premise: finally, finally, non-fiction books by women are triggering conversations about the lived experience (and sex lives) of women. Hurrah!

Everywhere I Look by Helen Garner

Everywhere I Look - Helen Garner - Keeping Up With The Penguins

A young inner-city women loving Helen Garner is somewhat of a cliche, but I’m steering into the skid – it’s a cliche for a reason. All of her books are worth reading, of course: fiction, diaries, true crime, and everything in between… But my personal favourite, and possibly her least lauded (ironically enough), is her essay collection Everywhere I Look. Most of the essays have been previously published elsewhere, but there’s something especially wonderful about having them all back-to-back on paper. She applies her keen insight and acerbic wit to topics as varied as making a house a home, true crime, heroes, grandchildren, and Russell Crowe movies.

The Trauma Cleaner – Sarah Krasnostein

Sandra Pankhurst is a woman of extremes. She has lived her life at both ends of the bell curve. Her highs have been very high, her lows have been very low. Initially, Sarah Krasnostein set about telling Pankhurst’s life story in a long-form essay (‘The Secret Life Of A Crime Scene Cleaner’), but she found that this woman’s multitudes could not be contained. Thus, she wrote this book, The Trauma Cleaner, about how an abused kid from the suburbs came to be a professional cleaner of others’ messes.

The Trauma Cleaner - Sarah Krasnostein - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins
Buy The Trauma Cleaner here.
(When you do, I’ll get a tiny referral fee at no cost to you, and you’ll get my eternal gratitude along with a great read!)

At present, Sandra runs the company she founded, Specialised Trauma Cleaning Services, as she has done for the past 20+ years. It’s a job that draws her into the homes of hoarders, the homes of victims, the homes of the dead. “Her work, in short, is a catalogue of the ways we die, physically and emotionally,” Krasnostein puts it, on page 2.

The hook of The Trauma Cleaner is, naturally, the voyeuristic thrill we get from peering into lives that have fallen apart. The thing is, though, it’s not really about trauma cleaning. Krasnostein did accompany Pankhurst on several jobs, and describes them from her own perspective (that of an outsider) while weaving in Pankhurst’s matter-of-fact seen-it-all commentary. There’s not enough detail to make your stomach churn, but just enough to make your eyes widen. Krasnostein gives a thorough beginner’s-guide to the nature of that work, but really this story is about Pankhurst, and her incredible life.

To step back to the beginning: Pankhurst was horribly and sadistically abused by her parents (as punishment, Krasnostein implies, for having been adopted – a surplus child supplanted by two subsequent biological children). She was unceremoniously booted from her family home in her teenage years, but unfortunately her rough trot didn’t end there. Her first job, to support herself and secure her own living arrangements, was working on the now-infamous Westgate Bridge. When the construction collapsed, she witnessed the deaths of 35 colleagues.

Krasnostein traces Pankhurst’s life from there, through marriage(s), children, coming out as trans, sex work, business-building, drugs, damage, and drama. She alternates between these aspects of Pankhurst’s past, and the reality of her present work (and illness).

Krasnostein is, thankfully, not exploitative of the clients and crime victims that require Pankhurst’s services; she offers them as “case studies” of sorts, but makes clear to the reader that their consent was gained, their own insights offered freely and in their own words. Krasnostein uses what she finds behind their doors to pave in-roads into Pankhurst’s history. She and her publisher make one noticeable concession to the voyeur: a few glossy photographic inserts, showing scenes from Pankhurst’s whole life.

The major stumbling block in The Trauma Cleaner – for Krasnostein, and by extension for the reader – is the patchy nature of Pankhurst’s memory.

“The challenges posed by Sandra’s memory loss mean that parts of her biographical story have required imaginative reconstruction. All dialogue and characters, however, are based on what she does remember and, where possible, interviews with third parties or historical records. Nothing has been exaggerated.”

Author’s note, The Trauma Cleaner

It’s a good thing that Krasnostein included that final affirmation in her Author’s Note. It would be easy to suspect – believe, even – that she took some creative license in telling Pankhurst’s outlandish life story. Throughout The Trauma Cleaner, Krasnostein reminds the reader that Pankhurst is “not a flawlessly reliable narrator”. She points to gaps and inconsistencies in Pankhurst’s memory, rather than hiding them, which (contradictory as this might seem) actually makes her story more believable, and illuminating.

Even though Pankhurst is the “hero” of The Trauma Cleaner, she is not faultless. Krasnostein doesn’t shy away from her past mistakes, oversights, and selfishness – in particular, the way she left Linda (her wife, prior to coming out) and their children.

Still, even when detailing Pankhurst’s flaws, Krasnostein is kind, generous, and insightful in her depiction. The only point on which the author seems to miss a step is her surprisingly puritanical attitude about Pankhurst’s career as a sex worker. Krasnostein calls the work “distasteful” and “dangerous”. She seems surprised that Pankhurst, as a trans sex worker, might be more concerned about violence perpetrated by the police than by her clients. It’s a jarring bum note in an otherwise fantastic book.

The Trauma Cleaner – aside from being a biography of an extraordinary woman with an extraordinary job and an extraordinary resume – is a book about the satisfaction of imposing order in a chaotic world. The world certainly hasn’t become any less chaotic in the years since its release, so you might say it becomes more resonant as time goes on. I would highly recommend it to fans of Chloe Hooper and Susan Orlean.

Why I’m No Longer Talking To White People About Race – Reni Eddo-Lodge

You know I love a good provocative title, and Why I’m No Longer Talking To White People About Race has to be one of the best of recent years. It caused a bit of a stir when it was first published back in 2017, and whipped up into peaks again this year with the spike in sales of racial justice books after worldwide #BlackLivesMatter protests. The cover maximises the impact, using colour and texture to obscure “to white people” until you take a closer look. Aside from any of the book’s contents, my hat goes off to Reni Eddo-Lodge and the team at Bloomsbury for this master stroke!

Why I'm No Longer Talking To White People About Race - Reni Eddo-Lodge - Keeping Up With The Penguins
Buy Why I’m No Longer Talking To White People About Race here.
(Not only will you get a great read, you’ll also send a tiny commission my way, win-win!)

Alright, enough judging a book by its cover! Why I’m No Longer Talking To White People About Race is Eddo-Lodge’s first book. It started with her blog post of the same name that she published back in 2014, but there’s no need to go trawling the internet for it: Eddo-Lodge reproduces it in full in the preface. It serves as a thesis statement, framing and contextualising everything that is to follow.

So, the $64,000 question: why isn’t Eddo-Lodge talking to white people about race? Well, basically, she’s fed up: with white denial, with white self-flagellation, with trying to shake hands with a brick wall. “The journey towards understanding structural racism still requires people of colour to prioritise white feelings,” she says, and it’s bloody exhausting. Of course, the title expresses that feeling in short-hand; she’s no longer talking to white people who refuse to meet her on the same ground, who refuse to acknowledge the facts, who don’t come to the conversation with open hearts and minds, about race. After all, if she’s constantly called on to be empathetic and to assume the best in others, even those who offend and anger her, why shouldn’t she hold her interlocutors to the same standard?

Of course, the paradoxical effect of publishing the Why I’m No Longer Talking To White People About Race blog post – and, later, book – is that it caused her to spend quite a bit of time talking to a lot of white people about race. She has met every reaction, from glowing admiration to gushing apologies to gross aggression. Eddo-Lodge is an award-winning journalist, and she went out on quite a limb in phrasing and publishing her thoughts this way – she even calls out a number of her colleagues (by name!) from The Guardian and other outlets. She’s not pulling her punches!

A disclaimer: I am reading Why I’m No Longer Talking To White People About Race as one of the titular white people, in the broadest sense – a white person who had an interest in racial justice long before it became a 2020 buzzword (thank you, undergrad sociology classes!) but white nonetheless, with all that it entails. So, you really should take that into account in reading my summary and response to Eddo-Lodge’s ideas here – and I urge you to purchase and read her book for yourself rather than relying on my understanding of it.

As per the blurb, Why I’m No Longer Talking To White People About Race “explor[es] everything from eradicated black history to the inextricable link between class and race”. It is “the essential handbook for anyone who wants to understand race relations in Britain today”. Naturally, her ideas are formed and focused on Britain (as you’d expect, given how much she draws from her lived experience and her education in that country), but the points that she makes are certainly transferable to colonies like Australia.

She begins with an examination of black British history, from the colonial slave trade to the riots and reforms of the 20th century, with particular attention to how blackness came to be associated with criminality. It’s truly fascinating, and I would have read a whole book of her work on that subject alone – one that has, I suspect, too long lived in the shadow of American race history. Although the history Eddo-Lodge describes is awful and terrible and infuriating, it’s also an incredible testament to the resilience, strength, and courage of black British people.

Much of the subsequent discussion in Why I’m No Longer Talking To White People About Race circles around definitions: how we define race, how we define class, how we define feminism, and who those definitions include/exclude. I wanted to imprint many paragraphs on my brain, memorise them to whip out later when I unwittingly find myself in conversation with a racist-who-doesn’t-think-they’re-racist (the worst kind, in my view). Racism is not personal prejudice (“I don’t like X because they’re black”), it is broad discrimination plus the power to affect the lives of the targeted group – it’s the collective effect of bias over time. Racism is to be found in systems and structures that operate to keep people of colour out. “We tell ourselves that racism is about moral values,” Eddo-Lodge says on page 64, “when instead it is about the survival strategy of systemic power.”

The chapter “What Is White Privilege”, I assume, is the most contentious. Eddo-Lodge answers the question directly on page 86: “White privilege is an absence of the negative consequences of racism. An absence of structural discrimination, an absence of your race being viewed as a problem first and foremost…”. The term pisses (some) white people off, presumably because it de-centers them, reminding them that their experience is not universal. White privilege does not mean that a white person has not struggled, has not faced hardship, but it does mean that the colour of their skin hasn’t had a significant negative impact on the trajectory of their life.

Eddo-Lodge acknowledges and explains the complexities of this term in a frank and (in my view) unassailable way. She goes as far as to break her own titular resolution, to no longer talk to white people about race, seeking out white people to interview about – among other things – white privilege, and what it takes to overcome the reflective urge to defend whiteness when it is criticised.

Why I’m No Longer Talking To White People About Race was relatively successful upon its initial release, but following the killing of George Floyd earlier this year, it reached stratospheric new heights of success. It became the first book by a black British author to reach number 1 on the UK’s top 50 book sales chart. It has been endorsed by notable black writers, including Marlon James (who said that it was “essential” and “begging to be written”), and Bernadine Evaristo (winner of last year’s Booker Prize, who likened it to Roxane Gay’s Bad Feminist).

I would really love to give Why I’m No Longer Talking To White People About Race a blanket recommendation as a catch-all universally-accessible masterwork of white consciousness-raising. However, I can’t imagine people deeply entrenched in systemic racism, to the point of defending it, picking this book up and learning from it. Why I’m No Longer Talking To White People About Race is not a primer, it’s not a for-beginner’s guide to racism. I would recommend it only to readers who are ready and willing to meet and understand Eddo-Lodge on her terms. If this is your first foray into trying to better understand issues of race and racial justice, keep this one on hand for when you’ve got the basics down, then give it a go.

My favourite Amazon reviews of Why I’m No Longer Talking To White People About Race:

  • “I want to highlight every word and carry it around with me as anti-racism ammunition – starting Friday evening at work drinks.” – Sophie Armstrong
  • “Great book, and the people who gave it one star probably didn’t read it. Or are just the butt hurt white people in denial that this book is talking about.” – Amazon Customer

I’ll Be Gone In The Dark – Michelle McNamara

When my dear friend Cathal handed me a copy of I’ll Be Gone In The Dark, I literally squealed with delight. I’d been desperate to read it ever since I did my initial binge-listen to every episode of the My Favorite Murder podcast (reminder: I reviewed the hosts’ joint memoir Stay Sexy And Don’t Get Murdered, also a gift from Cathal, here). But I exercised some restraint, and held onto it until I felt I really… “needed” it. That’s the definition of adulthood, isn’t it? Delayed gratification? Okay, maybe it’s a bit whacky that my gratification comes from a gritty true crime novel, but whatever. I am what I am, and what I am is a true crime junkie. I’ve made my peace with it.

The back-cover summary for I’ll Be Gone In The Dark promises “a masterful true crime account of the Golden State Killer – the elusive serial rapist turned murderer who terrorised California for over a decade – from Michelle McNamara, a gifted journalist who died tragically while still writing and researching her debut book”. It also features glowing endorsements from Stephen King and Gillian Flynn, once again lending credence to the idea that the truth can be stranger (and better) than fiction.

The story of I’ll Be Gone In The Dark has received almost as much attention as the crimes it covers. It all began with McNamara’s blog (True Crime Diary, still online here), and an article she wrote for the LA Times in 2013. At that time, the series of rapes and murders attributed to the Golden State Killer were still a decades-old cold case, with files stretching across multiple jurisdictions and decades. McNamara sadly died, aged just 46, with the manuscript of this book only two-thirds done.

It was completed after her death by the lead researcher and a close colleague (Paule Haynes, and Billy Jensen), and her husband (Patton Oswalt) wrote a touching afterword in her honour. These contributors added footnotes to clarify or expand upon what McNamara had written before her death, rather than editorialising in an attempt to produce a “polished” story. They don’t ignore or gloss over McNamara’s passing, and they don’t falsely emulate her style or voice – it’s always clear to the reader what was McNamara’s work, and what was their logical continuation. On occasion, they cobbled together crucial sections from her notes and blog posts, making it clear to the reader that they had done so. I really liked this approach; it seemed more respectful, to both McNamara and the reader, than any alternative. I’ll Be Gone In The Dark was ultimately published posthumously, in 2018, two years after McNamara’s death.

Even though the book is definitively true crime, it has a more literary bent than most offerings you’d find at airport bookshops. It crosses over into memoir at times, with McNamara offering up her own family history to explain how she came to have an interest in true crime and this particular case. It’s not schlocky, sensationalist true crime, but it’s still compulsively readable. It would seem that the one concession the publishers made to the tropes of the genre were the glossy photograph inserts: smiling photographs of the victims and their families, yearbook photos, neighbourhoods where crimes took place, evidence bags, and police sketches.

McNamara doesn’t shy away from her own role in bringing the case to worldwide public attention; she’s not braggy, but she doesn’t downplay it either. She wasn’t “just lucky”. She, and a group of like-minded armchair detectives, kept the case alive through hard work, persistence, and determination. In fact, it was McNamara who coined the “Golden State Killer” moniker. Prior to that, given that the culprit had undertaken three separate crime sprees with little to connect them, the press had given him three different nicknames (including the East Area Rapist, and the Original Night Stalker). The public, understandably, got the impression that these were different perpetrators, until McNamara came along and started connecting dots on their behalf.

The crimes (over one hundred burglaries, at least fifty sexual assaults, and at least thirteen murders) were all committed long before the DNA testing and lab analysis we have today. “By the time DNA testing revealed that crimes previously thought to be unrelated were the work of one man,” McNamara says on page 4, “more than a decade had passed since his last known murder, and his capture wasn’t a priority”. More than eight thousand suspects were investigated as part of the Golden State Killer case, but when McNamara started her blog, the police still had nothing.

It’s near impossible to wrap your head around the magnitude, severity, and sheer volume of crimes committed by the Golden State Killer, and McNamara doesn’t even attempt to lay out the facts of the case(s) in any linear fashion. I can’t even imagine how difficult it would have been to try to capture the scope and relate the details of all of these crimes, because there were just so many – and, being an unsolved case with no leads at the time of writing, it’s not like there were trial documents or police interviews to verify information against. McNamara and her publishers helpfully included, in the front of I’ll Be Gone In The Dark a timeline, a map, and – most importantly, in my view, a list of victims and investigators. That’s something I wish we saw more in true crime: front-and-center focus on victims, and the people who work to bring them justice.

That said, the title is drawn from a threat the killer made to one of his early victims:

“… a man in a leather hood entered the window of a house in Citrus. Heights and sneaked up on a sixteen-year-old girl watching television alone in the den. He pointed a knife at her and issued a chilling warning: ‘Make one move and you’ll be silent forever and I’ll be gone in the dark,’.”

Page 60-61

Still, because the killer hadn’t been identified at the time of writing, I’ll Be Gone In The Dark by default avoids exploiting the victims or overtly revering the serial rapist and murderer (the way that true crime books about, say, Ted Bundy, tend to).

I’ll Be Gone In The Dark topped the New York Times Best Seller List for non-fiction, and remained there for fifteen weeks. HBO subsequently purchased the film rights, and a six-part documentary series was released earlier this year. But, of course, the big clincher is this: since the time of publication, the Golden State Killer has been caught. His identification and arrest was controversial, as it occurred through the use of DNA evidence matched against samples provided to a genealogy website. What’s even more stunning is that McNamara foresaw this: in I’ll Be Gone In The Dark, her notes point to her intention to find a way of running the killer’s DNA through 23AndMe or

Obviously, there are all kinds of scary ethical questions raised by this type of investigation, but I won’t explore them here. All I’ll say is, just this once, I’m glad it worked. The culprit has been sentenced to life in prison, without the possibility of parole, after pleading guilty to multiple counts of murder and kidnapping (he cannot be charged on counts of rapes he committed in the 1970s, as the statute of limitations has passed – boo to that!).

I’ll Be Gone In The Dark, though, concludes with a letter from McNamara to the then-unidentified killer. In it, she personally implores him to step into the light. It gave me literal goosebumps – and I still can’t help but wonder what went through his mind when he read it (as he undoubtedly has).

I’ve heard some readers complain that reading I’ll Be Gone In The Dark is less captivating now that the “case is solved”. I would argue that, if that’s the case, you’re reading it for different reasons than I am. I read this book to learn about a woman’s pursuit of justice, to understand the horrors wrought upon the women who were victimised by one terrible man, to get some insight into how fifty years can go by without an answer being found. I’m not here to gawp at a cold case (and if you are, no worries, there are plenty of other true crime books out there for you). But if you’re anything like me, if any of those motives sound more appealing to you than simple scares and shock factor, then I’ll Be Gone In The Dark is the book for you, as it was for me.

I don’t often include plugs at the end of my book reviews, but given the nature and content of this one, I feel it’s warranted. U.S. Keeper Upperers, I know there’s a lot of you – consider throwing some support towards End The Backlog, who aim to eliminate the atrocious backlog of untested rape kits across your country and prevent such a backlog from ever building up again. For Keeper Upperers elsewhere, look into your local or state-based sexual assault support services, I’m sure they could use your backing, too!

My favourite Amazon reviews of I’ll Be Gone In The Dark:

  • “This book legit gave me nightmares. 10/10 would recommend.” – Justin Marshal Kirkpatrick
  • “I don’t understand the reviews for this book. I found it to be dull and boring. My favorite true crime books read like a novel. This book is stale and full of percentages.” – siansays

The Library Book – Susan Orlean

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My favourite Amazon reviews of The Library Book:

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

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