Keeping Up With The Penguins

Reviews For The Would-Be Booklover

Category: Non-Fiction (page 1 of 5)

The Argonauts – Maggie Nelson

The Argonauts is a pillar of the contemporary queer canon, so frequently invoked that it’s practically become cliche. It’s the shiniest jewel in American writer Maggie Nelson’s crown. I’ve previously read her fragmentary homage Bluets (for study) and her verse memoir Jane: A Murder (for fun), so I’m not sure why I haven’t picked this one up before now. According to the blurb, it’s a “timely and genre-bending memoir that offers fresh and fierce reflections on motherhood, desire, identity, and feminism… a rigorous exploration of sexuality, gender, and notions of family,”.

The Argonauts - Maggie Nelson - Keeping Up With The Penguins
Buy The Argonauts here.
(And if you do, using an affiliate link on this page, I’ll earn a small commission.)

For such weighty and broad subject matter, The Argonauts is a slim tome – just 180 pages. It’s told in snippets, paragraphs, rather than chapters (clearly the poet coming out in Nelson), but there’s still a narrative thread to follow. It’s a trick that lets her tell a story but also turn on a pin when it comes to subject, sense, and style. Another note on the form: rather than using footnotes or in-text references, Nelson logs her sources in the margins, a feature that makes the reading far more smooth and I would love to see more widely adopted.

Technically speaking, The Argonauts is a work of “autotheory”, combining philosophical/academic ideas with the anecdotal evidence of memoir. Nelson explores all those lofty ideas from the blurb through the story of her romance with Harry (to whom the book is dedicated), their courtship and their making of a family. Two significant paths run parallel: Harry’s transformation as they begin taking testosterone and undergo reconstructive chest surgery, and Nelson’s as she undertakes cycles of IVF and becomes pregnant.

From the marketing and chat around The Argonauts, I’d really expected Harry’s story to get more airtime; this is the queer love story after all, about making a baby with a non-binary/masc partner. But Nelson was overwhelmingly introspective, far more focused on what was going on inside her own body. I’m a bit undecided as to whether this is a good thing or bad.

The Argonauts is not an easy read in the sense that Nelson forces you to think – really think – about everything she’s saying, but it’s full of wonderful insights perfectly expressed, like:

I get why it’s politically maddening, but I’ve also always thought it a little romantic – the romance of letting an individual experience of desire take precedence over a categorical one.

The Argonauts (page 10)

I must admit, I rolled my eyes when she quoted Deluze & Parnet on page eight (page eight! if a bloke in a bar dropped those names that early in a conversation, I’d dump him on the spot), but the saving grace was that Nelson did so in a passage that perfectly depicted the discomfort of asking for pronouns and resorting to friend-assisted internet research of a paramour, to avoid asking. This is what I’m talking about, this is the vibe of The Argonauts.

What concerns me is I felt there was a certain elitism in Nelson’s expression. This isn’t Gender Queer Parenting For Dummies. She seems to assume a level of education, a familiarity with certain writers and academics (ahem-Deluze-ahem!), that readers who might benefit most from her work don’t necessarily have. That’s not to say that they (well, we) don’t or can’t understand The Argonauts, it’s just that it doesn’t feel like we’re being invited to do so.

Of course, we can’t expect every writer to write for every audience, but this isn’t marketed as an academic text. If it had been, I would have gone in with a different set of expectations and perhaps not been so disappointed or confused by the high-falootin’ talk. Still, assuming you are part of Nelson’s (perhaps subconsciously) intended audience, you’ll find The Argonauts a poignant and resonant read.

What really sticks with me, more so than any academic thought or theory, is Nelson’s love for Harry. It shines, on every page. Even when they disagree, even when they’re scared, even when things are awful. Not to be sappy about it, but Nelson’s obvious and obliterating love for Harry and their family was my favourite part of this complex and multi-faceted book, and I would say The Argonauts is worth reading for that alone.

My favourite Amazon reviews of The Argonauts:

  • “Maggie Nelson can write. She has some interesting ideas, but whereas some writers make you feel like you want to sit and have coffee with them, Nelson just seems exhausting.” – M. Young
  • “This book is as exhilarating as it is frustrating.” – Mary, Mary, Mary
  • “Five thumbs down” – Betty

Dress Your Family In Corduroy And Denim – David Sedaris

I loved, loved, loved my first adventure with David Sedaris, Me Talk Pretty One Day, so I’m not ashamed to say I came to Dress Your Family In Corduroy And Denim hoping for more of the same. Such an approach would normally invite disappointment, but Sedaris totally delivered. This is the 2004 collection of 22 autobiographical essays, once again focused on the author’s upbringing, family, and his adult life. You’d think that well would run dry eventually, but Sedaris’s keen observational eye can pick out every last trickle.

Dress Your Family In Corduroy And Denim - David Sedaris - Keeping Up With The Penguins
Buy Dress Your Family In Corduroy And Denim here.
(If you use an affiliate link on this page, like this one, I’ll earn a small commission which will help me get some new duds!)

Dress Your Family In Corduroy And Denim – and Sedaris’s whole schtick, more broadly speaking – is best summed up by the blurb on this edition. “Sedaris lifts the corner of ordinary life, revealing the absurdity teeming below the surface,”. He examines the neighbours who didn’t watch television (Us and Them), his own failed attempts to become a hippie (The Change In Me), and what becomes of the estate of the late Aunt Monie (so nicknamed as a portmanteau of “moan” and “money”, another delightful example of Sedaris telling you everything you need to know with one small detail; Monie Changes Everything). There are snort-laughs to be found in every essay, guaranteed.

He mines his family, deep – even so far as to describe their very resentment of his mining them for content. I can understand the ever-present and irresistible temptation, though, because the whole Sedaris clan, as he describes them, are just as sharp and hilarious as he is. Take, for instance, this moment of radical honesty from his black-sheep sister, Tiffany:

We climb the few steps to her porch and she hesitates before pulling the keys from her pocket. ‘I haven’t had a chance to clean,’ she says, but the lie feels uncomfortable, and so she corrects herself. ‘What I meant to say is that I don’t give a fuck what you think of my apartment. I didn’t really want you here in the first place.’

Dress Your family in corduroy and denim (page 198)

He cleans Tiffany’s apartment for her, and in return she dubs him Fairy Poppins, which he says “wouldn’t bother [him] if it weren’t so apt”. I re-read this passage over and over again, until I was crying with laughter.

Nothing is off limits for Sedaris: his family, his neighbours, even strangers he encounters on the street. He doesn’t hesitate to take aim at other countries, other religions, other cultures, a prospect that would normally set the woke reader’s teeth on edge. And yet, Sedaris once again proves himself the master of poking fun, even when he’s poking down (Six To Eight Black Men), because he pokes nobody harder than himself. He lays his own faults and shortcomings bare, without ever once sliding into the “confessional” or the pity-seeking. It’s all done in the name of fun, with maybe a splash of poignancy thrown in for good measure.

I was a little confused, when I got to the end, by the title: Dress Your Family In Corduroy And Denim. There was not one mention of his family’s exploits in textiles. After all, Me Talk Pretty One Day perfectly encapsulated and reflected the content of that book, and was drawn from the title of one of the essays it contained. I was ready to chalk it up to an unsolved mystery, another quirk of Sedaris’s charm, but an answer came to me via an unverified anecdote on the Wikipedia page: “At a public appearance in Cleveland, Ohio on October 12, 2010, Sedaris explained when he was under a deadline for a title and was getting desperate, his boyfriend Hugh had a dream in which he saw someone reading a book entitled, in French, Dress Your Family In Corduroy And Denim. Sedaris knew then that he had his title, even though it had nothing to do with the contents of his book.” So, there you have it!

If you’ve never read Sedaris and you’re wondering where to start, I’d still say Me Talk Pretty One Day is the best option… but I’d recommend having a copy of Dress Your Family In Corduroy In Denim to hand, because you’ll want to pick it up as soon as you’ve converted.

My favourite Amazon reviews of Dress Your Family In Corduroy And Denim:

  • “I believe David Sedaris is a modern day Mark Twain.” – Cheryl
  • “Interesting book. Arrived promptly.” – JJ
  • “Not a book about fashion.
    Which I should have probable guessed because no-one wears corduroy anymore.” – Katie Krackers
  • “Pairs well with: Gordon’s gin and grapefruit juice” – Michele Feltman Strider
  • “I and my friends have never got this type of writing. Maybe we are aliens, or maybe you have to be from New York or something.” – Mark Anthony

Murder In Mississippi – John Safran

I’ve had a copy of Murder In Mississippi on my shelves since I first heard John Safran talking about the process of writing it on the now-defunct Sunday Night Safran radio program (and it’s actually the second book I’ve reviewed on that basis, the first was Religion For Atheists). It was published in 2013, and later in the U.S. under the title God’ll Cut You Down (the Johnny Cash lyric, quoted in the book’s epigraph). I remember Safran saying on his show that the title changed because Murder In Mississippi sounds very exotic in Australia, but to a U.S. audience it sounds like “Murder In New South Wales” (I checked with an American friend, and she confirmed).

Murder In Mississippi - John Safran - Keeping Up With The Penguins
Buy Murder In Mississippi here.
(Or buy God’ll Cut You Down. Either way, if you use one of the affiliate links on this page, I’ll earn a little commission.)

The book’s subtitle is: “The true story of how I met a white supremacist, befriended his black killer and wrote this book”. So, even though it’s been gathering dust on my shelves for years, perhaps it’s a good thing I waited to read and review Murder In Mississippi – it’s only become more zeitgeist-y over time.

The author, John Safran, is a documentary filmmaker and humourist, kind of like an Australian Louis Theroux. He specialises in fish-out-of-water storytelling, and a “you can’t ask that!” style of interview. As he says himself, on page 2 of Murder In Mississippi: “I often ask dangerous people indelicate questions and try not to get thumped. And I often ask them about race. I’m a bit of a Race Trekkie – like a sci-fi Trekkie, but with race, not space.”

Murder In Mississippi starts when Safran – as a “bit” for a documentary – tried to join the Ku Klux Klan. Spoiler alert: they wouldn’t overlook his Jewishness, and declined his application. As part of that endeavour, he spent a day in Mississippi with notorious white supremacist Richard Barrett. Barrett didn’t take kindly to being the butt of one of Safran’s jokes, and made sufficient legal threats to stop the footage ever going to air. A year and a half later, Safran learned that Barrett had been killed (allegedly) by a young black man.





Safran was spooked, and intrigued. Drawing his inspiration from classic true crime books (In Cold Blood, Midnight In The Garden Of Good And Evil, and “a couple of less famous ones”), he decided he had to investigate and write the story. Doing so meant picking up sticks and plonking himself down in the American South with nothing more than a hunch and a penchant for asking nosy questions (seriously, Safran didn’t even have an advance or any publishing support when he decided to do this). That’s where the similarities between Safran and his predecessors end, however; he’s certainly a lot more frank with the reader about his trickery and creative license than Capote ever was. “All those true crime books were written before the internet,” Safran says on page 29. “These days, you can’t get away with anything.”

Safran embarks on his investigation with all the preconceptions you’d expect upon hearing that a white supremacist might have been murdered by a black man. He charged in with a bit of a white saviour mentality, to be honest. He thought he’d EXPOSE INJUSTICE and FIX RACISM… and, of course, nothing of the sort came to pass.

A brief overview of the crime at the center of Murder In Mississippi: on 22 April 2010, a neighbour called emergency services and reported seeing smoke rising from Barrett’s home. Firefighters found his corpse near the back door of the house, and an autopsy revealed thirty-five stab wounds, traumatic injuries to the head, and rib fractures. The investigators pieced together a story and timeline that involved Vincent McGee – who was out on parole, after serving most of a sentence for assault and grand larceny – doing some yard work for Barrett in the afternoon, returning to the house that evening and stabbing Barrett, then returning again a third time to set fire to the property in an effort to conceal his crime. They proposed a number of motives for McGee’s alleged crime, mainly robbing Barrett (his wallet and gun were missing), and/or rejecting a sexual advance made by Barrett. Safran was the only one who started asking questions about race.





When Safran arrived in Mississippi, McGee was being held in remand pending trial. Safran was hoping to get the preliminary interviews out of the way and then get his court reporter on, figuring that the Truth Would Come Out as the prosecutor and defense did battle… only McGee entered a guilty plea, and was sentenced to 65 years in prison. That left Safran scratching his arse, wondering where the heck to go from there. It completely destroyed his preconceived narrative (because miscarriage-of-justice stories should really end with the wrongfully-imprisoned man going free, at least in a pre-Serial world).

Murder In Mississippi therefore became a book about the process of researching and writing a true crime book, far more than a book about the crime itself. Searching my feelings about half-way through, as I scanned the obligatory glossy photo inserts, I realised I cared about whether Safran actually got onto McGee’s prison visitor list to interview the man in person, far more than I cared whether McGee actually committed a crime and/or what actually happened at Barrett’s house that night. Safran’s investigation, his frustrations and his doubts are the focus of the story.

“In Mississippi, the more layers of onion I peel, the more I’m standing in a mess of onion.”

Murder In Mississippi (Page 280)

There was actually something quite comforting about reading a fellow Australian’s efforts to wade into American race relations. Neither Safran nor I can pretend to truly understand the divide between white and black in the American South; all we can do is ask nosy questions and make inferences from what we understand of racism in our own backyards. Still, he has the gall to ask far nosier questions than I ever would, which meant I learned a lot.

Safran won the 2014 Ned Kelly Award (True Crime) for his efforts, and enjoyed the process so much that he went on to write Depends What You Mean By Extremist (my review of that one to follow, soon, probably). All told, this was an interesting, compelling, and at-times hilarious read, one I highly recommend to true crime fans and Race Trekkies alike.

My favourite Amazon reviews of Murder In Mississippi:

  • “Rambling and unimportant. However, I applaud the effort and wish Mr. Safran success.” – cWallin

Becoming – Michelle Obama

I worry that reviewing Daisy Jones And The Six has put me on a dangerous path. All of a sudden, I find myself tempted to pick up all of the hugely hyped books of the past few years, the ones I thought I’d never bother reading, just to see if they live up. Here’s exhibit B: Becoming. (Does that mean I’ll end up reading A Promised Land, too? We’ll see…)

Becoming - Michelle Obama - Keeping Up With The Penguins
Buy Becoming here.
(Because who knows what will become of me if you don’t send a few cents my way with this affiliate link?)

I think we can all agree that the market for White House memoirs is well and truly saturated. Even before the Trump era, we were drenched in the recollections of the second undersecretary to the whoever of no-one-cares. It makes me wonder whether it’s even possible to have a single unguarded conversation with anyone who might go within a hundred feet of the U.S. federal government, seeing as they all seem to have notebooks and voice recorders in their pockets…

But there seems to be something special about Becoming, Michelle Obama’s account of her life up to and including her time as the first black First Lady of the United States. It sold 725,000 copies on the first day of release, and 1.4 million in its first week. It set the record for the best-selling book published in the United States in 2018, just fifteen days after it hit the shelves. What’s most remarkable is that its popularity has persisted, past the initial curiosity spike and gossip-hounding; as of November 2020, there are at least 14 million copies in worldwide circulation.

The thing is, there’s nothing about the way the book is written – with its straightforward chronological format, and no-nonsense accessible tone – that seems remarkable at all. Content-wise, it didn’t seem particularly earth-shattering, either. From the preface alone, I got the impression that, while Obama was going to be frank about the ups and downs, she’s an earnestly optimistic person at heart and Becoming was hardly going to be a salacious tell-all.





The first section, Becoming Me, covers Obama’s life growing up on the South Side of Chicago, with loving parents and a stalwart brother in an apartment above her aunt and uncle’s. Thanks to her mother’s advocacy, her own hard work, and a couple of lucky breaks, she received a more-than-decent education that saw her accepted into Princeton University (and, later, Harvard Law School). Obama recounts a fairly charmed-life version of her childhood and adolescence. Her story is not without sadness or difficulty, but it all just seems so wholesome. There was, as she tells it, no more angst than a gnawing sense of self-doubt, and no more misbehaviour than a (very) brief mention of smoking pot and necking with a boy in the backseat of his car. Surely, she’s left the good stuff out.

Becoming Us – as you might guess – covers her courtship and marriage to Barack, whom she met as a young lawyer at a prestigious law firm. Obama is a little more open in this section, about her desire to leave the corporate world, her misgivings about her new husband’s political career, and – most admirably – her miscarriage and troubles conceiving.

That said, sometimes the writing gets a bit repetitive, especially through the first half (we get it, your Aunt Robbie is a hard-arse). There are times where it also feels a little indulgent; some anecdotes had me wondering “Why are you telling me this? What’s it going to add to the story?”. I had to remind myself that Obama is a public figure, not a writer – that’s probably why Becoming is so long, and willfully ignores some of the more creative aspects of memoir writing.





The feminist in me is pushing me to pretend that these early developmental sections – how Obama became Obama – are the most interesting, that Obama’s own career in law and then community advocacy are the best parts of Becoming. They aren’t a snooze fest – it’s interesting and inspiring to see how a young woman persevered to overcome everything that was, on paper, against her – but let’s be real. The reason we read Becoming is for the third and final section, Becoming More – her account of her time as First Lady.

Throughout the election campaign and early days after the vote, it’s clear that Obama had an agenda: to be the change she wanted to see in U.S. government. Even though she, herself, wasn’t in a position to be drafting policy or implementing legislation, she still had a certain sway – especially with the public – and she used it tactically. Her Let’s Move campaign was seeded with her concerns about her own daughters’ nutrition, and by carefully and strategically addressing those concerns and bringing them to a bigger platform, she sowed and reaped tangible changes for childhood nutrition across the U.S.

She also offers some really powerful and touching insights about her own mis-steps and mistakes while her husband was in office: from her naivete to outright ignorance of what her role should be and what it required of her. She’s not quiet about her frustrations with the media and public attacks on her and her family, but she doesn’t seem overly bitter about them, either. Throughout Becoming, her faith seems to lie in her in-person interactions with the public. “When voters got to see me as a person, they understood that the caricatures were untrue,” she says, on page 270. “I’ve learned that it is harder to hate up close.”





I got the distinct impression, from the way Becoming is written and presented, that the Obamas aren’t done with politics and public life. She insists, in the Epilogue, that she herself has no aspiration or interest in pursuing a career in politics, but given the sanitary and affirming tone of the book, I don’t quite believe it.

Publishing her memoir has certainly given Obama a huge platform, perhaps even bigger than the one she held while her husband was in office. Becoming was an Oprah’s Book Club pick – with all the international reach and influence that that entails – and the audiobook even won a Grammy (for Best Spoken Word Album, 2020). If she were to pursue some new line of public life, I’ve no doubt they’d pave the road in gold for her. In the meantime, Becoming wasn’t perfect, but it was a pleasure to read, and I’ve gained some insight into recent U.S. political history that surely won’t go astray.

My favourite Amazon reviews of Becoming:

  • “The title should’ve been more like “Becoming Michelle Obummer”!” – sergio chavez
  • “I wouldn’t wipe my dogs butt with this book.” – virginia g foretich
  • “Great book… I bought two one for my auntie birthday and one for myself, get comfortable with a little greatness in your life and she looks great on my coffee table!” – Sharonda Rudolph-Doe

Bad Feminist – Roxane Gay

If you follow Roxane Gay on Twitter, you probably already love her as much as I do. She’s forthright, unabashed, and gives voice to the best and worst of the little voices inside our heads. So, I picked up Bad Feminist – her 2014 essay collection – fully expecting to love it. After all, if she could cram so much into 280 characters, surely this book would be brimming with brilliance.

Bad Feminist - Roxane Gay - Keeping Up With The Penguins
Buy Bad Feminist here.
(And if you do, this bad feminist will get a few coins, via an affiliate link.)

For those of you who aren’t already familiar: Gay was born in Nebraska to Haitian parents, who had moved to the U.S. and worked their way up to middle-class comfort for themselves and their children. Gay has two younger siblings, and grew up in a comfortable, though strict, household. Though she was a lonely and slightly weird child (as per her own recollection), experienced a terrible sexual assault in her early teens, and had a couple of wayward years in her youth, she is now settled as a respected academic, writer, and critic. Plus, she’s a total boss.

This collection, Bad Feminist, catapulted her into the limelight. It’s a bunch of stand-alone essays, most published individually elsewhere prior to the 2014 release, grouped thematically. They’re all loosely tied to the overarching ideas of feminism and womanhood, what it means to do it well, and what the consequences are for doing it badly.

Gay starts Bad Feminist by explaining to the reader her personal understanding of feminism: what it is, what it means, and its guilt by association with provocateurs who have made it part of their ‘brand’. “We forget the difference,” she says in the introduction, “between feminism and Professional Feminists,”. I couldn’t help but think of Mia Freedman when I read that (here’s why). Gay’s central thesis is that there is no Essential Feminism, no one true feminism to rule all of womankind. And – as she circles back around to, in her epilogue – it is better to be a “bad” feminist than no feminist at all.





The essays in Bad Feminist blend academia and pop culture seamlessly. Gay is just as comfortable citing professors and academic papers as she is pop stars and Law & Order: SVU. In fact, my very favourite essays in this collection were her arts criticism, a notably hybrid field, in which she examines our culture and how we consume it.

She takes aim at 50 Shades Of Grey, The Help, Django Unchained – rather than boycotting these books and films, as many Feminists(TM) do on spec, she gives them a fair shake and owns up to what she likes and what she doesn’t. Some of the cultural references (e.g., TV channels and their programming) flew right over my non-American head, but I could still catch her drift.

I was really surprised to see glimpses of David Foster Wallace in Gay’s style and tone. I’m not likening Bad Feminist to Infinite Jest (though it’s a cool off-rhyme), but Gay’s essay about Scrabble, for instance, was definitely Wallace-esque. What was truly refreshing about her writing and her approach, however, was her willingness to concede her vulnerabilities, her peace with being wrong or imperfect or “bad”. I read another review that said she “punctures the need for perfection”, which sums it up perfectly. That gives her so much room to maneuver, and to invite the reader in (as opposed to herding them in a certain direction). She is able to recognise and appreciate other points of view, without discrediting or discarding her own. The real masterstroke is that she does this without any faux-humility or self-deprecating bullshit.

The only real downside to Bad Feminist is that some of Gay’s points of reference have dated really badly (the example that stuck in my mind is a couple of glowing references to Bill Cosby – yikes). It really frustrates me that the world moves so quickly that a book like Bad Feminist, one so good and from such a brilliant mind, can feel dated in just five-or-so years. I read Bad Feminist in a post-Trump, post-#MeToo, post-George Floyd, and (very nearly) post-pandemic world – a very different world from that in which Gay wrote it.

I really wish she’d release another essay collection (like, today! right now!), so that I could get her thoughts fresh out the kitchen. As it stands, Bad Feminist is one of the very few back-list titles I’ve encountered that I wish I’d read as soon as it was released. It’s still worth a read, but it would’ve been better at the time.

So, let that be a lesson to you all: if a new Roxane Gay book hits the shelves, buy it and read it IMMEDIATELY. Failing that, follow her on Twitter for her up-to-the-minute hot takes.

My favourite Amazon reviews of Bad Feminist:

  • “You should read this book if you’re thinking about reading this book.” – Peyton Stanley
  • “Bought for my liberal feminist wife who reads a lot and teaches English. She thought the book was just okay.” – Matt
  • “So thought provoking. I aspire to be a “bad feminist”.” – S. Shane
  • “Enjoying the ever-lovin’ daylights out of this!” – Brenda N Lively


« Older posts