Keeping Up With The Penguins

Reviews For The Would-Be Booklover

Category: Popular Fiction

The One-Hundred-Year Old Man Who Climbed Out The Window And Disappeared – Jonas Jonasson

Before we begin this review, let’s all take a minute to appreciate how Jonas Jonasson has the best name for a writer! Love that alliteration! And now that the formalities are out of the way, we can take a look at his worldwide best-seller, The One-Hundred-Year Old Man Who Climbed Out The Window And Disappeared. I bought this copy at a funky little second-hand bookshop in Ballina over a year ago but I hadn’t opened it until now, and I’m glad I waited. I needed something funny and light after The Call Of The Wild (with less puppy torture!), and it sure did the trick!

The One-Hundred-Year Old Man Who Climbed Out The Window And Disappeared was first published in its native Swedish (Hundraåringen som Kiev ut genom fönstret och försvann, don’t ask me to say it) in 2009. It was the best-selling book in Sweden the following year, and by mid-way through 2012 it had sold over three million copies worldwide. This is the edition translated by Rod Bradbury, but it looks like there are a few different English versions floating around; in fact, it’s been translated into 35 languages, all told.

The story starts on 2 May 2005, with Allan Karlsson sitting in his retirement home, contemplating the impending celebration of his one-hundredth birthday. Frustrated by the prohibition policy of the home, he decides (bugger it!) he’ll jump out the window.

He walks in his slippers to the nearest bus station. There, he meets a hoodlum who’s bursting for the loo, but can’t squeeze himself into the cubicle with his giant suitcase in tow. The young man asks Allan to hold the case for a minute while he relieves himself, but the centenarian carpes the heck out of the diem! He jumps onto a bus, suitcase in tow, and leaves the hoodlum holding his dick and looking confused.



Turns out, that suitcase is stuffed full of drug money, and Allan ends up on the run from the dealers (who are desperate to recover their funds) as well as the police (who just want to return the befuddled old man to his home). Unbeknownst to his pursuers, Allan is sharp as a tack, and has a wealth of life experience in slipping through clutches to draw upon.

Every other chapter or so gives us a flashback to an increasingly fantastic episode from Allan’s long life. We learn that he unintentionally helped to make the atom bomb, became drinking buddies with Harry S Truman, saved the life of General Franco, had dinner with Stalin, got held in a concentration camp with Albert Einstein’s less-intelligent brother, foiled an assassination plot against Winston Churchill… yes, you have to suspend your disbelief a little for The One-Hundred-Year Old Man Who Climbed Out The Window And Disappeared, but if you can’t do that, how do you ever have any fun! (He never met Hitler, though – thank goodness! I’m so sick of that trope.)



Allan really likes vodka, which makes him instantly relatable for me, and the matter-of-fact way in which his story is told had me howling with laughter:

“Finer folks disapproved of [Allan’s father], dating back to the time he had stood on the square in Flen and advocated for the use of contraceptives. For this offense, he was fined ten crowns, and relieved of the need to worry about the topic any further since Allan’s mother out of pure shame decided to ban any further entry to her person.”

p. 26

Of course, because I am who I am as a person, I couldn’t help contemplating a more morbid reading of the story, where Allan’s incredible history is actually a delusion, the product of some form of age-related dementia. I seriously considered that it might be the “shock twist ending” for a minute, but (thankfully) there was nothing in the book itself about it at all, and nothing in the reviews I read online afterwards. So, it would seem I’m the only one who would have such a bummer of an idea. This is why I can’t have nice things…

The One-Hundred-Year Old man Who Climbed Out The Window And Disappeared is not only great fun, it’s also easy to pick up and put down as needed. That makes it great for holidays and other busy periods where your attention might be diverted. There’s a Swedish movie version (and another American adaptation planned soon, I think); I watched it hoping it would recreate the magic, but no such luck. The humour definitely works best on the page. The good news is that Jonasson has also written four subsequent novels, including a direct sequel for this gem: The Accidental Further Adventures Of The One-Hundred-Year Old Man.

Tl;dr? The One-Hundred-Year Old Man Who Climbed Out The Window And Disappeared is a European Forrest Gump, but better! It’s a Recommended read here on Keeping Up With The Penguins, I’ve named it as one of the books guaranteed to make you literally LOL, and I’ll be reaching for it any time I need a light read with a lot of laughs.

My favourite Amazon reviews of The One-Hundred-Year Old Man Who Climbed Out The Window And Disappeared:

  • “It was alright but I wasn’t happy with all the murder and crime stuff it talked about.” – Jackie H
  • “If you have someone in your life dealing with a difficult geriatric, this might be salve To help with the pain.” – Robert K Anderson
  • “It was fun to read. The old man made every that I didn’t expect. Ha ha ha ha ha ha was all that I want to say” – Young
  • “This story was beyond silly and the writing infantile. I tried and tried again to get into it but finally after about 30 pages I tossed it in the trash. I could have better spent my time cleaning out the glove box in my car.” – mike lucas
  • “characters lacked character. Story was hard to connect to.” – PJ
  • “For anyone that thinks they are too old to accomplish anything. I so enjoyed this book, even the history of other countries.” – J Panther
  • “Bo-owing!” – Ann Olsen


The Husband’s Secret – Liane Moriarty

It’s been a while since I picked up a contemporary popular fiction book (and even longer since I read one by an Australian woman!), so it’s about time I gave Liane Moriarty’s breakthrough novel a go, don’t you think? The Husband’s Secret came out in 2013, and even though it was her fifth novel, it made one hell of a splash. It sold over 2 million copies worldwide, and Moriarty is now practically a household name. She has the distinction of being the very first Aussie to have a book debut in the number one spot on the New York Times Best Seller List (her best-known book, Big Little Lies). Surely, all of this makes The Husband’s Secret a best seller worth reading – we need to see where the magic began!

Jumping right in, The Husband’s Secret has one HECK of a premise! A woman finds an envelope, written in her husband’s hand, and it says (*ominous music*): “For my wife, only to be opened in the event of my death”. But her husband is still very much alive, and he won’t tell her what’s inside.

I think it goes without saying that, given that this is how the story begins, the opening chapter is an absolute cracker. My brain was whirring, I was dying of curiosity, convinced this book was a winner… but then, in chapters two and three, we almost inexplicably started bouncing around in the lives (and, later, timelines) of a bunch of other characters. None of them seemed particularly three-dimensional, and they all had generic white-people names: Rachel. Tess. Will. Jacob. Lauren. It wasn’t until their storylines began to merge and intersect that things finally started making sense again…

The Husband’s Secret is set in Sydney, where Cecilia – the woman who finds the envelope – is an (otherwise) happily married mother-of-three. Her life looks pretty perfect from the outside, until she finds that envelope-shaped cat among the pigeons. Tess, it turns out, is a career-woman who returns to Sydney with her son after she finds out that her husband and her cousin are “in love” (they’re not even shagging, can you believe it, they just sit her down one night and tell her they love each other – vomit!). She enrols her kid in the same school that Cecilia’s kids attend. And then there’s Rachel, the school secretary; she suspects that the P.E. teacher, Connor (who is, coincidentally, Tess’s ex-boyfriend), is the man responsible for the murder of her daughter thirty-odd years ago.





Do you see why it was confusing at first? I mean, the paths all eventually cross and Moriarty pieces it all together like a jigsaw puzzle, but I wasn’t a huge fan of that initial confusion. I just wanted to get back to the letter, dammit, not hear about the love lives and murders of these other randoms!

So, back to THE LETTER! Reading the opening chapters of The Husband’s Secret triggered an intense debate in my household. I was immediately in my own husband’s ear, asking if he’d open the envelope in those circumstances. Long story (and many hours of argument) short: he wouldn’t, I would. I knew, instantly, reading that first page, that I would. I mean, come on now: it’s a secret letter! This is what makes The Husband’s Secret a really great read for book clubs. Love it or hate it, whatever your tastes, you know it’s going to stimulate some interesting conversations when you all get together.

So, we all know how much I hate spoiler warnings, but I feel obligated to offer one here, because this book is relatively recent and it’s kind of predicated on the “shock twist”. Consider this my warning: if you don’t want to know what’s in the envelope, bugger off and come back once you’ve read it for yourself…





So, no shit, Cecilia opens the letter (like any normal person! *ahem*) and it’s a confession that her husband was the one who killed the school secretary’s daughter, when he was seventeen!



Seriously, I was SHOOK! The longer version of the story is this: he had a baby with Cecilia and suddenly got all sentimental about that girl he killed that one time. So, he wrote this letter, figuring no one would see it until after he was dead. And then he set about implementing all these self-flagellation measures in his life to “punish” himself for his crime, seeing as he was never going to go to jail. He forced himself to go without sex for six months, boo hoo. What a guy, right?!

Anyway, this big reveal comes surprisingly early, before you’re even half-way through the book. Still, Moriarty manages to work in a few more twists down the line, so never fear. She drip-feeds you the story of Jane’s murder, and takes you through the sprawling impact it had (and continues to have) on all of their lives. The epilogue had a real Life After Life feel about. it, actually, because it highlighted all the near-misses and almosts that led the story to its conclusion.

Let me level with you: the premise was fun, the twist was interesting, but the writing didn’t exactly blow me away. This is ultimately a story about toxic masculinity, but Moriarty didn’t really interrogate that theme as much as I’d have liked. Even though the story is focused on the three women, and told almost entirely from their perspectives, they were basically just passive receptacles for the garbage behaviour of the men in their lives. They were reactionary, rather than demonstrating any agency of their own, and they never really explained why they were so damn submissive.





All that said, it’s not like I was so unimpressed that I won’t seek out any more Liane Moriarty books. I’m already eager to read Big Little Lies, and I’ve added it to my next reading list for Keeping Up With The Penguins. I mean, credit where credit is due: Moriarty managed to work in more than one plot twist I didn’t see coming, which I always appreciate (as all readers do), Plus, I really enjoyed reading a story set in my home city. Even when the topic is murder, there’s something really comforting about a familiar setting.

And off the back of the success of the HBO adaptation of Big Little Lies, CBS Films has acquired the rights to The Husband’s Secret. They announced back in 2017 that the film will star Blake Lively. I’m looking forward to checking it out, mostly because I’m curious from an artistic standpoint how the twist will translate to the screen. No word on the release date yet, though…

So, would I recommend this one? Maybe. If you’re looking for a challenging, meaty book to wrap your brain around, you’d best keep looking. But if you want something fun to talk about with your book club, or something to get your mother for Christmas, this one’s right up your alley. Do with that what you will!

My favourite Amazon reviews of The Husband’s Secret:

  • “Without a doubt this is the worst book I’ve read this year. There is not a likable character in the entire book, and that includes a 2 year old….” – MSC
  • “I read most of this book because it was the only book I had with me on a rafting trip. I had such hopes, since is the same author as Big Little Lies, hopes bashed.” – maggie t
  • “Story takes too long.” – Sandra Mulrey
  • “I didn’t like the format. I certainly didn’t like the story. Too depressing. Not my cup of tea. I read to slip into fantasy not depression.” – Amazon Customer
  • “I hated this book so much I deleted it off my Kindle immediately so I wouldn’t be reminded of the time I wasted with it.” – LMPV
  • “Such an enjoyable read! If you like books by Liane Moriarty this book is for you.” – Danielle Galanowsky
  • “Too dark for my taste, I was expecting a bit of suspense/mystery and got child death, adultery, murder, and what seemed to be advertising for the show Biggest Loser. The story is supposed to be how these strangers lives become entwined but in reality it’s just jumping around from one person’s point of view to the next, with several flashbacks thrown in to really muck things up. After the first few chapters I started skipping large chunks of pages and would pick up reading again with Cecilia and her family. This author has a way if making me dislike the main character, casting them in such a negative light that I, as a reader, do not care what happens to them. The only redeeming quality of this book is, I borrowed it from the library and can return it immediately!” – lovestoread
  • “Fine book. Epilogue unneeded.” – McAwsm
  • “It is well written, but I thought it was depressing and I didn’t finish it.” – Sandra Baumer
  • “This was a stupid book. General Hospital is better.” – Amazon Customer
  • “I find that authors who use profanity in storytelling demonstrate weak writing skills. It is offensive to me for writers to disrespect and dishonor God Almighty. Not one I could recommend.” – Karla Stores
  • “eye roller” – JKADEN
  • “buncha prudes” – Amazon Customer
  • “Okay for a holiday read. Like the Tupperware party the story unfolds around, it has a a predictable feel emblazoned with plastic characters.” – CM


Life After Life – Kate Atkinson

How often do you read a book where the main character dies 17 times? I’d wager not often, especially if you rule out any sci-fi or fantasy elements. Here, we have no time machines, no medical miracles, and no religious resurrections. Life After Life tells the life stories of Ursula Todd, a girl born on 11 February 1910. It takes the reader through all the twists and turns that her life could have taken, and shows how differently things could have turned out. Cool, eh?

Now, I was a little disappointed to realise that I had, unintentionally, picked up another fictionalised WWII narrative (how many can there BE on the List?). I’ll tell you up-front that I probably would have enjoyed Life After Life and its unique structure more if it had been placed against a different backdrop; I’m starting to get a bit weary with WWII re-tellings. That said, it was still a very interesting read, and it gave me plenty to sink my teeth into. I think the premise is best summed up by the blurb:

“During a snowstorm in England in 1910, a baby is born and dies before she can take her first breath. During a snowstorm in England in 1910, the same baby is born and lives to tell the tale. What if there were second chances? And third chances? In fact an infinite number of changes to live your life? Would you eventually be able to save the world from its own inevitable destiny? And would you even want to?”

So, in Ursula’s first “life”, she is strangled by her umbilical cord. Next, she survives her birth into a middle-class Buckinghamshire family, but later dies, drowning at sea. Then, she lives a little longer, only to fall to her death from the roof, where she was trying to retrieve a toy.

I’m going to state the bleeding obvious (even though it took an embarrassingly long time for it to dawn on me as I was reading): a 600-page story about a girl who gets to live her life over and over again until she gets it right… well, it gets a bit repetitive. More than a bit, actually: before I was a quarter of the way through, I’d lost track of the Ursula Death Toll. She’d died at least three times from influenza alone. The sequence repeats itself again and again, but Ursula seems mostly unaware (unlike the reader, who is painfully aware). She just gets an odd sense of foreboding now and then, when she approaches a point where she died in a previous life. It’s like playing a video game again and again, but completely forgetting the experience of having played it before; your subconscious tells you “hang on, there might be a bad guy behind that bush”, and you get a little further each time without really knowing it.

Atkinson doesn’t really address the reader’s logical questions about this repetitive cycle, except to hint at it through Usurla’s therapist. In one of her lives, as a child, she pushed her housekeeper down the stairs. This caused her mother to (quite rightly) question her sanity, and send her to a shrink. The good doc weaves in and out of the stories and lives, always spouting wise shit about reincarnation but stopping just short of giving any real answers.


Ursula’s first crack at her adult life, having finally survived her whole childhood, is pretty miserable: she is traumatised by a rape that she experienced in her teens (resulting in an unwanted pregnancy and an illegal abortion), and she finds herself trapped in an oppressive marriage. Her husband kills her when she tries to escape. In her next life, she ends up on a different path by aggressively defending herself and fending off her rapist in the first instance, which I found really gross. It seemed to imply that rape survivors can be “saved” from their trauma if they just try hard enough. Sorry, Atkinson, but you lose points from that.

A somewhat random storyline pops up a few times, in different lives, where Ursula’s neighbour (a young girl called Nancy) is raped and murdered by a child molester. On a couple of occasions, Ursula uses her foreboding former-life Spidey Sense to prevent it from happening, but the threat is never really explored or explained. I’m guessing Atkinson describes it further in the sequel (A God In Ruins, published two years later and focusing on the story of Ursula’s brother). I wasn’t a huge fan of that, either; it seemed like a bit of a ploy to get readers to buy the next book.

Anyway, later iterations of Ursula’s life see her experience WWII from multiple perspectives, mostly the Blitz in London but also once from Hitler’s compound in Germany. Sometimes she’s a blast victim, sometimes she works for the War Office, sometimes she volunteers as a rescuer, sometimes she has a baby with a Nazi. This is where I do give Atkinson credit: it’s certainly not a one-sided book, and Ursula’s fear of the Allied bombings and her love for her daughter is just as emotive when she’s on the “other” side. And I should mention here, I also loved Atkinson’s use of language. She had a real knack for brilliant similes, my favourite being the corpse that was picked up by his arms and legs only to “split apart like a Christmas cracker”.


I kept hoping/waiting for a big “twist” that never really came. I’m not sure if that’s my fault as a reader (I love plot twists that knock me on my arse, like this one!), or whether Atkinson kept setting things up that never quite came to fruition. I thought Ursula’s long-lost cousin (born to her aunt and adopted in Germany) would turn out to be Hitler. Or perhaps Ursula’s father was actually the murderous child molester. There seemed to be a lot of those types of loose ends that could have been turned into something really interesting, but alas. If you’re a fan of the shock-twist-ending, this isn’t the book for you – none of that shit happens, I’m afraid.

Towards the end of Life After Life, Ursula’s Spidey Sense has grown much stronger, and she starts to recall more definite details from previous lives. She uses this knowledge to try and prevent WWII by (of course) killing Hitler. The whole book builds up to this moment, and yet we never actually find out what happens! Ursula shoots Hitler, but his posse retaliates quickly, and she dies almost immediately after firing the gun. Every time Ursula dies, Atkinson tells us “darkness falls” (ahem-CLICHE-ahem), and the reader’s experience of the timeline stops with her death. So, maybe killing Hitler worked, maybe it didn’t – only Atkinson knows.


So, on the whole, Life After Life is murky. It’s full of plot-lines that aren’t completely resolved, and kind of appear and disappear at Atkinson’s will. The philosophical questions raised by Ursula’s endless Sliding Doors moments aren’t really answered. We don’t even know why or how her life happens over and over again. It’s not fantasy, it’s not science-fiction… it’s a really hard one to classify. I guess I’d say it straddles historical and speculative fiction, right in the middle of the Venn diagram between them. I think Life After Life is a good one for book clubs, because it will undoubtedly spark a lot of debate. It’s hard not to start thinking about your own life in a butterfly-effect-y kind of way (“maybe it’s a good thing I’m running 20 minutes late because in another punctual life I’d get hit by a bus!”, and that kind of thing). Still, there was enough in this book that didn’t sit right with me, and I won’t be seeking out the sequel.

My favourite Amazon reviews of Life After Life:

  • “What a mess. One of the worst books I’ve read in a long time. Writer needed to pick a story and stick with it.” – Carol J. Tady
  • “TOO MUCH.” – Kathryn J. Byerly
  • “This book has all the makings of a fabulous alternative fiction or something, but ultimately all the wonderful vignettes of a life endlessly repeated (and truly the writing and imagery are superb!), got tedious because there was never a real resolution. Something always went wrong until suddenly it didn’t, but by then the book is over and we have no clue what went right and what actually happened.

    This book was either far too long or far too short, I’m not sure which.” – Kindle Customer

  • “The author actually knows English. Imagine that! She is funny and holds the readers attention even though there is a real story.” – Clint
  • “repetitive by nature, boring by design” – Sophia
  • “We tried to do a book club and this was the first book…. This book was so bad, the book club died. This book single handedly killed our book club. And darkness fell.
    Deaths were tedious, ending each chapter with “darkness fell” made a very good inside joke among the cancelled book club but a terrible way to get your readers to take you seriously, I tried to read the book three times and just couldn’t get passed all the deaths of the main character to get to anything substantial…actually the worst book I have ever tried to read.” – Carly Stewart



The Girl On The Train – Paula Hawkins


I picked up a copy of Paula Hawkins’ commercial breakthrough novel, The Girl On The Train, in a poky little Tel Aviv bookstore of all places. I was on my honeymoon, and I’d been searching desperately for a public bathroom. I stumbled upon this little gem instead, and paid the grand sum of 18 shekels, which converted to about $7 back home, I think. (Note: I found a bathroom shortly afterwards, never fear.)

The Girl On The Train was released in 2015, and debuted at #1 on the New York Times Fiction Best Seller list. It went on to hit a bunch of similar success benchmarks over the next few years, not the least of which was an edition run with those five magic words printed on the front cover: “Now A Major Motion Picture”. Of course, I haven’t seen the film, but conventional wisdom suggests that reading the book first is always the best idea anyway.

Even though there is only one girl on the train, this one is told from the perspective of three different narrators. Hawkins flicks back and forth between their perspective, each providing different pieces of the puzzle. It was a nice change – refreshing even, reading the stories of fictional women that were actually written by a woman. You forget how important diversity is until you find yourself reading through a List written almost exclusively by old white guys.

If Women Wrote Men The Way Men Wrote Women - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Don’t get me wrong: The Girl On The Train is hardly on the front-foot when it comes to feminist literature. The title is the first clue (referring to grown women as “girls” in titles is one of my pet peeves), but I also took personal issue with the fact that the only reason given for the titular girl’s spiral into alcoholism was her apparent infertility *eye roll*. Chalk that up as another example of a female character’s only depth being her distress over the status of her womb.

I know I’m being snarky, but I can’t help it. The girl (Rachel is her name, by the way) wouldn’t have found herself in this mess if she weren’t so concerned about being barren. To cope with her depression, she self-medicates with alcohol, and stares creepily from the window of a moving train into the backyards of her ex, his new baby-mumma, and their neighbours. She lives out this routine of black-outs and creepy staring every day until one day she witnesses something kind of dodgy, and then the action kicks off.


Infertility and alcoholism aren’t Rachel’s only issues, if I’m being fair. Hawkins’ publishers probably should have included a major content warning on the cover of The Girl On The Train. I can’t imagine there’s many women out there who aren’t nursing some sore spots on domestic violence, gaslighting, abortion, addiction, mental health… Thematically, it’s a really heavy read. I managed to chew through it fairly quickly, but I was in a good place mentally at the time. I’d imagine reading this one when you’re already feeling dark is a one-way ticket to the bottom of a bottle of tequila.

The Girl On The Train is scary in parts. There are show-downs and confrontations and dark alleyways to get your heart racing. Plus, every character could be the “bad guy”; they’re all fucked up in profoundly disturbing ways, and yet they are all recognisable. Any one of them could be your friend or your partner or your neighbour or your family, which is really the scariest part of all. The whole way through, you need to bear in mind that your experience as a reader is filtered through the (very subjective) lens of an incredibly unreliable narrator. You’ve got to keep a close eye on the dates, too – even within chapters, the stories aren’t told chronologically. It’s very cleverly (deliberately) done to disorient the reader, and it’s probably the most masterful element of the book.

My tl;dr summary of The Girl On The Train would be this: barren drunk stalker “girl” witnesses what could be a clue to what could be a crime, and you’ve got to swim through some very choppy waters to get yourself back on solid ground after that. I would only recommend this one if you’re in the mood for an easy read with heavy content. If you’re a thriller aficionado you might find it cliche, and if you’re in a dark place it might trigger some stuff for you: you’ve been warned.

My favourite Amazon reviews of The Girl On The Train:

  • “How boring and cliche. These days, the hand that rocks the publishing cradle is the extra money in the bank just about anyone who is on the bestseller list has to drink coffee at bourgeois cafes whilst waiting for heir manuscript to be picked up and published. Barf.” – Amazon Customer
  • “This train took me nowhere.” – Sactomike
  • “BAD AND BORING” – snqrene
  • “Not for blokes! Way to introverted and boring.” – Amazon Customer
  • “Silly women’s book” – frances
  • “If you are male, this book makes you feel like a dirty shirt. I don’t recommend it for anyone with hope for any relationship to succeed.” – Michael O.

 

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We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves – Karen Joy Fowler

As promised, I’ve broken free of the spiral of novellas written by dead white guys. This week on Keeping Up With The Penguins, we turn our attention to something very different: We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler.

The front of this edition is stuffed with pages upon pages of positive reviews and accolades. We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves has won the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction. It was shortlisted for the 2014 Man Booker Prize. I learned from these pages that it was published in 2013, it was Fowler’s tenth novel, and it had clearly won legions of fans around the globe, but apart from a couple of vague references to “family” in the blurbs, I had no bloody idea what the book was actually going to be about.

It turns out there’s a very good reason for that. But more on that in a minute…

Sitting down to start reading in earnest, I was literally lol’ing before ten pages had passed. Rosemary, the protagonist, narrates a scene from her university cafeteria, watching a couple breaking up at a nearby table. It sounds banal as all heck, but it was beautifully done, and Rosemary’s deadpan humour won me over instantly. I was hooked!

It’s hilarious, but quickly starts foreshadowing some ominous shit. Both of Roesmary’s older siblings are notably absent (one apparently in some kind of legal trouble, the other vanished mysteriously some time ago), and her relationship with her parents stinks. But why? That’s what you’ve got to read on to find out.

Here’s the thing: this is the first time, in the history of this project, that I have hesitated in giving a spoiler. Keeping Up With The Penguins is, after all, one big spoiler. If I’m reviewing a book published over a century ago, I don’t really give a fuck if I’ve “ruined” it for you. Even the newer books I’ve reviewed have been turned into movies that everyone’s already seen, or have plots so hackneyed that they seem impossible to spoil anyway. This book is different. The first plot twist is so (a) unexpected, and (b) central to what makes this book special, that it’s giving me pause. Still, it’s impossible to review this book properly without revealing its “secret”. Don’t get me wrong, the value of Fowler’s writing isn’t completely based on the “big reveal” – it’s just the dawning realisation, the moment of coming to an understanding while being completely bewildered at the same time, is so precious that I’m loath to steal it from anyone else.

You have been warned. Spoilers from We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves are to follow.

Back out now if you’re planning on reading this one (which you really should, I can’t recommend it highly enough – get it here).


Anyway, Rosemary’s sister is Fern. She adored Fern, they grew up together, but Fern vanished in an instant when they were 5 years old without any explanation or farewell. You’re about 70 pages in at this point, and you’ve really bonded with Fern. You’re gripped by her marked absence in Rosemary’s life, and the scars it has left on her mentally.

Fern is (wait for it) a chimpanzee.

Yeah.

She wasn’t a pet: Rosemary’s hippie ’70s psychologist parents were literally raising Fern The Chimpanzee as a member of their family. I’m big enough to say it: I did not see that plot twist coming. I honestly thought Fern The Human was dead, maybe murdered by the older brother (Lowell) who’s on the run from the law. I didn’t see the twist coming at all, and I’m deeply grateful. The elegance with which Fowler carefully orchestrated the reader’s bond with Fern before revealing her species, how cleverly she forced the reader to examine the line we draw for ourselves between animal and human… I was amazed. I am in awe. Hats off, Fowler!

(Also, hats off to the publicists who have managed to keep this twist under wraps, to this day. It’s not mentioned in the Wikipedia page, it doesn’t feature anywhere in the publicity materials, they might tell me to shut down this review – it’s amazing work in the technological age.)

Anyway: once you get past that, there’s a stack of revelations still to come: How Fern left, why she left, what Lowell did, and why their parents are so batshit crazy. Rosemary and Lowell are briefly reunited at one point, and it turns out he’s been doing a spot of animal activism “work” outside the law. He’s been trying to find Fern, and the stories of the cruelty he witnessed broke my heart. Like, everyone was looking at me, the crazy-lady-crying-over-her-book-on-the-bus broke my heart. I’ll tell you right now that there’s no “happy ending” in this book: the best you’ll get is a resolution, a reconciliation, an atonement, but you couldn’t call it “happy”. There, I’m done spoiling things now!


It’s clear that Fowler did a lot of research for We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, but it wasn’t one long info-dump like, say, Still Alice. Fowler doesn’t just demonstrate how much she knows; it’s all revealed organically through the way the story is narrated. I cannot overstate how clever and masterful it is! What’s more, Rosemary is a somewhat unreliable narrator, but it’s written in a way that’s not frustrating to the reader and doesn’t detract from your empathy for the character or engagement with the story. Fuck, I love this book!

On the animal-rights stuff: Fowler said in an interview “I believe in science and in medical research. I eat meat…. [but] if we can’t bear to look at what we are doing, then we shouldn’t be doing it.” This really closely mirrors my own personal philosophy, which might be why this book resonated with me so much. I kept checking in with myself, asking whether Fowler was maybe getting preachy, or patronising people who think that animal activists are a bunch of smelly hippies, but I don’t think so. The story is heart-wrenching, and the theme of animal rights is inextricably bound with the universal themes of sibling loyalty and guilt. It’s good, regardless of your political or moral vantage point.

I drank the Kool-Aid, I’ll admit. I started recommending We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves to people I barely knew before I finished it. My review cannot possibly do it justice. If you’ve read this far, you’ve already the book, so I’m glad you know what I’m talking about (let me know your thoughts in the comments!). If you read past the spoiler warning without having read the book, you’re maybe a bit of an idiot, but I still love you and you should go ahead and read it anyway.

My favourite Amazon reviews of We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves:

  • “It was a really good story up until she got a monkey. Silly.” – Tracie Gardner
  • “I don’t even remember reading this book so I’m guessing it wasn’t great” – Natasha Smit
  • “Really weird story. Not the sort of nonfiction I enjoy.” – Peggy S
  • “…. About halfway through I had my full of girl loves monkey, girl looses monkey, girl finds monkey. I found the author’s voice annoyingly cute. The writing was good.” – Miami Maid

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There are few books I’ve loved as much as I loved We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, but you can find my full list of recommended reads from 2018 here.

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Still Alice – Lisa Genova

You know what? We’ve been buried in the classics for a while – let’s jump forward to a contemporary New York Times bestseller. Still Alice by Lisa Genova was another great bargain bin find ($5!). I must say, the review excerpt from Australian Women’s Weekly on the cover was almost enough to give me pause, but I bit the bullet.

Lisa Genova self-published Still Alice back in 2007. She had tried for years to get an agent or a publisher interested in the novel, but went on to have great success off the sweat of her own brow. It’s one of those Cinderella-publishing stories that struggling, neurotic writers hold close to their hearts late at night, when the demons come…

The language and rhythm of Still Alice was a big shift from Moby Dick, and it took me a minute to re-orient my dish. However, much like The Book Thief, despite the really heavy content the book is actually very digestible. I powered through it in less than 24 hours. I did notice as I sped through that some of the editing is a bit rubbish (which is unsurprising for self-published work), but I can still understand how it made the Dymocks 101. It isn’t a timeless classic, or a work of art, but it’s an interesting story rooted in heart-wrenching subject matter, and it’s told in a very engaging way.

Still Alice focuses on the onset of dementia, specifically Early Onset Alzheimer’s Disease. Alice (the protagonist, duh) begins experiencing symptoms, and the story follows her diagnosis and mental disintegration as the disease advances. I was initially kind of disappointed to find that it wasn’t written in the first person – I thought that would have been a really cool and interesting technique given the subject. I came to eat my words, though. The limited-third person narrator still captures Alice’s internal world, but that coupled with the objective perspective on her symptoms (we see her repeating herself in the dialogue, acting in ways that clearly demonstrate she’s forgotten what she’s supposed to be doing, etc.) is really jarring in an oddly delightful way.


Genova has worked really hard to give the reader a special-access pass behind the scenes of what is unfortunately a very familiar set of circumstances. She makes a point of privileging the perspective of the patient, rather than the caregiver. In subsequent interviews, Genova talked about this a lot; she notes, sadly, that almost all of our existing stories about dementia are caregiver-centric. Personally, one of my pet peeves is medical professionals and family members talking about a person with dementia as though they’re not in the room – so Genova’s focus on avoiding that really got me on side. As a result, Still Alice is honest and provoking, without being preachy.

It’s clear that Genova has Done A Lot Of Research, and she wants you to know it. She uses all the proper scientific words and everything. There’s a massive acknowledgements section (at the beginning of the book, no less, so you can’t overlook it) with the names of lots of doctors and scientists. But the family relationships are clearly the central focus on the story. We delve deeply into Alice’s terror on behalf of her children (the genetic mutation that caused her Alzheimer’s is genetic), and her ongoing difficulty managing her husband’s emotional reaction to her diagnosis, while simultaneously trying to navigate her early symptoms. Much is also made of Alice’s youth, which is a point of difference to other Alzheimer’s narratives; Alice is in her 50s, still working and running and living a full life, setting her far apart from the stereotype of an 80-something nursing home resident becoming more forgetful and clumsy.

I did have a bit of a teary moment towards the end, but not when you’d expect! Alice’s failure to execute her own suicide plan, and her inability to recognise her newly-born grandchildren, didn’t touch me in the slightest. It was her final student writing down his words of gratitude for her, so that she could re-read them every day when she inevitably forgot how much she meant to him, that got me in the end. Turns out I’m not made out of stone, who knew? 😉

I find it really hard to criticise Genova, and Still Alice: not because the book is so brilliant that it wouldn’t warrant criticism, but because basically every review out there hammers home the same perceived shortcomings. They talk about the limited access to the caregivers’ perspective, and the repetition of scenes – but I think it’s those same “shortcomings” that were the most valuable and deliberate parts of the book, they set it apart from others on this subject. If I’m being brutally honest, I’ll tell you again that the writing and editing isn’t great (it’s kind of a non-smutty Fifty Shades of Grey style), but hell, it was Genova’s first go, and she did it all on her own without a publishing house dumping a truckload of money and resources on her doorstep. Given all of that, it’s a perfectly fine book.

I’m probably not going to read it again, but I might give it to my Mum or something, and I would definitely want to shake Genova’s hand if I ran into her in a cafe.

My favourite Amazon reviews of Still Alice:

  • “the story is an eye-opener about Alzheimer’s. Heartbreaking but revealing. My biggest complaint is it is fiction.” – Barbara
  • “I chose predictable because it wasnt a surprise I didn’t read it.” – Joey M
  • “The reason I hated the book is because I hated what happened to the person in the book. I realize that is not very mature, but I am the reader and in this instance, I will say what I like. I think what Alzheimer’s does to its victims stinks…” – Linda Layne
  • “dog ate before i could read” – kro

Looking for more tear-jerkers? Check out my full list of books guaranteed to make you ugly cry here.

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