Keeping Up With The Penguins

Reviews For The Would-Be Booklover

Category: Recommended (page 1 of 5)

Convenience Store Woman – Sayaka Murata

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: books in translation are a unique kind of magic. Sayaka Murata has won multiple literary prizes in Japan, she was named one of Vogue Japan’s Women Of The Year in 2016, and yet Convenience Store Woman is the first of her ten (ten!) novels to be translated into English. It was translated by Ginny Tapley Takemori (always, always, always #NameTheTranslator), and it has gone on to make Murata a literary superstar in the Anglophone world, as she has long deserved to be.

The blurb begins: “Keiko isn’t normal,”. A strong start, wouldn’t you say? Keiko has known since childhood that she was “different” from everybody else, but she learned early on that expressing herself in ways that feel natural to her does not go down well in her conservative and conformist culture – it freaks people out and causes problems. Throughout her childhood and adolescence, peers recoil from her and her family worries that she’ll never “fit in”. Everyone’s relieved when, aged 18, she takes a “normal” job in a convenience store (a konbini) – including Keiko. The store provides an employee manual that provides her with strict protocols for interaction that she finds deeply comforting. “This is the only way I can be a normal person,” she says, on page 21. Thus, she becomes the titular Convenience Store Woman.

Eighteen years later, however, the gig is starting to wear thin. Not for Keiko, but for the people around her. Keiko has happily adopted “convenience store worker” as her whole identity, and struggles to understand why that’s not enough. Her friends and family worry about her, and they’re not backwards in coming forwards: as far as they’re concerned, stacking shelves and greeting customers in a 24/7 convenience store is no way for a woman of advancing (reproductive) years to live, and the pressure to find a new job (or a husband) intensifies…

Enter Shiraha: a ragamuffin, layabout, ne’er do well who takes a job at the convenience store for the express purpose of “marriage shopping”. Basically, he’s an in-cel, looking for someone to give him social credibility and (ideally) finance his ridiculous idea for a start-up. He’s fired almost immediately, of course, because he’s the absolute worst – but not before Keiko identifies him as a potential solution. In her world, any explanation for her supposed aberration is better than no explanation at all. So, she takes Shiraha in, and presents him to the world as her live-in partner. There! They both “fit in” now! Happily ever after, right?





Of course not! Stick two misfits like Keiko and Shiraha in a tiny apartment together, on Keiko’s meagre convenience store worker salary no less, and everything will inevitably go to shit. Keiko has mild psychopathic tendencies, resorts to mimicking her co-workers’ speech and dress to “fit in”, and remains blithely indifferent to sex, romance, or anything like it. Shiraha feels entitled to anything and everything he wants, and views their whole arrangement as a huge favour that he is doing for Keiko out of the goodness of his heart. Really, the only thing they have in common is that they both long to flip the bird to the homogenising pressures of Japanese culture.

Let’s be clear here, though: Convenience Store Woman isn’t some kind of odd-couple rom-com, it’s no contemporary take on Pride And Prejudice. In fact, it’s very satirical, almost dystopian, in tone – wry, matter of fact, and mournful, all at once. It’s a class commentary, in the sense that it looks at social problems caused by class and gender inequity in Japan. Keiko lives in a “grim post-capitalist reverie”, where she finds purpose, acceptance, and contentment in the fluorescent, synthetic environment of the convenience store. Into the bargain, she’s a woman, which gives Murata ample fodder to question whether women can truly be happy in their “traditional” roles, that age-old question of feminism.





And yet, Convenience Store Woman is SHORT. Like, seriously SHORT. 163 pages! SHORT! The story moves very fast, which is part of its appeal, but it was almost (only almost) too fast for me. I would’ve loved to spend more time in Keiko’s mind and her world, but I’ve got to respect the mastery. How Murata managed to cram so much into so few pages is beyond me! On par with the economical prose of Arthur Conan Doyle, in my opinion…

I can’t resist a spoiler (but I left it ’til the very last paragraph, so don’t complain): in the end, Keiko rejects the more “convenient” life that Shiraha offers her, and returns to the convenience store. Obviously, that’s a broader statement about rejecting conformism in the pursuit of happiness (real or synthetic), and it’s very cleverly done – in fact, it didn’t strike me until later that that’s what Murata was getting at. Convenience Store Woman is such an intriguingly strange book, one that feels uniquely singular but simultaneously universal. I absolutely recommend it!

My favourite Amazon reviews of Convenience Store Woman:

  • “Cute story, not to norm” – Tanya settle
  • “anybody who didn’t understand this book hasen’t subsumed themselves into the rhythms of a low-level retail job. I loved this book.” – pencillers
  • “What seems would be a dull story about an ordinary woman with a mundane job is a fascinating novel.” – eva b.
  • “A very enjoyable story told from the perspective of a non-violent sociopath. It’s unlike any story I’ve read and quite fun at that.” – JF
  • “This book felt like something Dostoyevsky would have written if he were a woman and had a sense of humor….” – Travis Ann Sherman

Me Talk Pretty One Day – David Sedaris

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

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

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





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

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





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

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

My favourite Amazon reviews of Me Talk Pretty One Day:

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

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

An American Marriage – Tayari Jones

Here’s another book that’s been on my to-read list forever: An American Marriage by Tayari Jones. I had a copy on my shelves, but I kept saving it for “the right moment”. Well, given everything that’s happened in the U.S. over the past couple of months, that moment is now. This is the book that Oprah says has “redefined the traditional American love story”.

An American Marriage is Tayari Jones’s fourth novel, but it’s truly her “break-out” book – the one that brought her international attention and acclaim. I love the story of how the idea came to her, which she relates in a letter to the reader in the front of my edition:

An American Marriage is a love story I found in the mall, of all places. Sitting in the food court, I overheard a young couple arguing in hushed tones. She said, ‘Roy, you know you wouldn’t have waited on me for seven years.’ He looked puzzled and then replied, ‘This wouldn’t have happened to you in the first place.’

Tayari Jones, An american Marriage

From that spark of inspiration came this story of Roy and Celestial, a middle-class African American couple living in Atlanta. They are educated, employed, upwardly mobile – pretty much the exact opposite of the stereotype of young black lovers fighting poverty or substance addiction on the mean streets. Still, even though they’re newlyweds and they’ve “done everything right”, their lives are torn apart when Roy is accused of sexually assaulting a woman.

Now, An American Marriage is not a did-he-or-didn’t-he story. Roy’s innocence is never in doubt. Fortunately, Jones also sidesteps describing or interrogating the nature of the assault that did actually take place (so there’s no fuel to fire any false-allegation readings) – she presents this as a case of mistaken identity, with the weight of hundreds of years of systemic racism behind it. A black man was in the wrong place at the wrong time, and he paid the price: convicted and sentenced to twelve years in prison.



Of course, given the premise, this book is about the incarceration of black men in America (56% of all incarcerated people in the U.S. are Black or Hispanic, and Black men are incarcerated at five times the rate of white men; source) but that’s not all it’s about. Jones has taken the maxim of writing about “people and their problems” (as opposed to simply problems personified) seriously. Roy and Celestial, and the characters on the periphery of their relationship, are complex, fleshed-out, “real”. As much as this novel addresses very timely social issues, it also looks at what it takes to make or break a marriage, the sliding doors moments that affect all our lives. I think what it shows best of all (to borrow and mix a couple of metaphors, forgive me) is that there is no one straw that breaks a camel’s back, and no marriage exists in a vacuum.

Some sections are epistolary, told in letters sent back and forth between Roy and Celestial. They’re essentially existing on different timelines; “real life” has stopped for Roy, and he has little to do but think about his marriage, but everything continues for Celestial on the outside. Jones is really clever in how much she “shows” the reader about these characters, and how they change, through their letters. For the first few years, they’re writing frequently and emphatically, but there’s a noticeable shift as Celestial’s life begins to progress and Roy feels frustrated at being “left behind”. It’s a unique window into the ebbs and flows of a relationship where each character takes the time to articulate their thoughts on paper, directly to the other, with nothing said in haste and no performance for onlookers.

Then, there are other sections that are internal narratives, told from the perspectives of Roy, Celestial, and Andre (a vested third party in their marriage). This is another deft stroke from Jones (gosh, she’s clever), as it lets each character speak for themselves and gives them each an opportunity to win us over (or piss us off). There really is no “hero” in this story, no one character that you’re really rooting for at the expense of the others. You’ll be lured into loving and resenting all of these characters, all simultaneously. Some might find that annoying, but I actually really appreciated the shades of grey, and being able to see things from all sides. It’s the most realistic kind of love story. And, besides, at the heart of it all, there’s one common enemy, for the characters and for us: the racism at the core of the U.S. “justice” system. That’s not a focus of the novel, per se, but it’s the backdrop against which the love story plays out.



Anyway, back to the plot: three years into Roy’s sentence, Celestial tells him she no longer wishes to be his wife, which pisses him off (obviously). He refuses to see her or accept her letters for the following two years. Then, his case is overturned on appeal, and he is released. He optimistically reaches out to Celestial, hoping that their marriage could be rekindled (as she never formally divorced him), naively forgetting that he’s coming “home” to a marriage that existed mostly in his mind.

Normally, this is where I’d just go ahead and dissect the ending for you too, but I reckon this’ll be one of my very few spoiler-free reviews (okay, fine, Roy’s early release is probably technically a spoiler if you’re going to get all persnickety about it, but that only comes about half-way through the book, so there’s still a whole lotta twists and turns that I’m not ruining for you, suck it up). What I will say is that Roy and Celestial’s story, the way it unfolds, is heartbreaking and infuriating – all the more for the fact that it’s such a common and devastating reality for so many American families.

I worry about pushing that angle too hard, though, lest An American Marriage get pigeonholed in your mind as an “issue novel”. It’s truly not. It’s based on realistic “issues”, yes, but it’s ultimately about loyalty, how much we owe and to whom. It’s about marriage, and what we can reasonably expect from our spouses and ourselves. And, best of all, it’s so readable (stay-up-all-night-to-finish-it readable), and so emotive (make-sure-you’ve-got-tissues-handy emotive). If you’ve been putting off reading this one because of all the hype, stop doing that and get on it right now – An American Marriage totally lives up.

My favourite Amazon reviews of An American Marriage:

  • “I bought the audible version – I liked this book but it’s probably not going to end the way the reader wants it to – life is like that.” – Theresa V
  • “Ex-wife purchased dumb book” – Mr. Bill
  • “Why all the fuss? Not only is it unrealistic, it puts some truly unlikable characters centre stage. Reading the reviews was more interesting.” – Antonio C

Her Body And Other Parties – Carmen Maria Machado

I first encountered Carmen Maria Machado through the Sydney Writers’ Festival podcast (specifically through her lecture – which seems to have mysteriously disappeared from the internet, otherwise I’d link to it directly – about Law & Order: SVU). I’d not encountered her work before, which wasn’t entirely surprising. She didn’t have a particularly long publishing history at that time, after all, just one short story collection: Her Body And Other Parties. Now, it’s truly phenomenal that a book of short stories from a debut author received enough attention to earn her an invite to speak at a festival half-way around the world, but I think it’s more than Machado’s brilliant writing craft that got her to that point. She is completely beguiling, scarily smart, and almost-embarrassingly frank. This short story collection is like nothing I’ve ever read before.

Her Body And Other Parties is a collection of eight short stories, all wildly different. Machado ricochets from magical realism to horror to science fiction to comedy to fantasy to epistolary, so fast that the genres and tropes are pureed together into a very delicious pulp. As much as the stories vary, they make sense next to each other, forming a complete and cohesive collection that somehow leaves you (selfishly) wanting more. The stories aren’t linked by character or plot or even style, but they all address similar themes: sex, death, queerness, vulnerability, women, and their bodies (as the title might suggest).

The first story of the collection is possibly Machado’s best-known work: The Husband Stitch. It’s a reimagination of an old and oft-retold spooky story (borrowed from a French folktale of unknown origin) The Green Ribbon. You know the one, the woman who marries a man but won’t tell him why she always wears a green ribbon around her neck, until she finally lets him remove it and her head falls off? The thrust of Machado’s version is much the same: basically, we screw women over by denying them self-determination. It’s one heck of an opener, and it really sets the tone for the rest of Her Body And Other Parties. Even the new title is revealing in its gruesomeness (steel yourselves): the “husband stitch” is a euphemism for doctors using more sutures than necessary to repair a woman’s perineum after childbirth, purportedly to make the vaginal opening smaller and sexual penetration more “pleasurable” for her male partner. (Excuse me, I have to go and vomit.)



Another one of the stories that received a lot of attention was Especially Heinous (and it’s probably the reason she was invited to give that lecture at the Sydney Writers’ Festival to begin with). Essentially, it’s a novella-length story told through imagined plot summaries of a parallel-universe series of Law & Order: SVU. It sounds bizarre, and it is. Machado had the idea after she streamed endless seasons of the show while recovering from surgery, which is what lends Especially Heinous its surreal, feverish quality. Plus, it’s a very obvious but still very poignant critique of our culture’s obsession with violence that victimises women. To call it “twisted literary fan fiction” would be underselling it, but it’s a really hard premise to describe, so give me a break!

“VULNERABLE”: For three days in a row, there is not a single victim in the entire precinct. No rapes. No murders. No rape-murders. No kidnappings. No child pornography made, bought, or sold. No molestations. No sexual assaults. No sexual harassments. No forced prostitution. No human trafficking. No subway gropings. No incest. No indecent exposures. No stalking. Not even an unwanted dirty phone call. Then, in the gloaming of a Wednesday, a man wolf-whistles at a woman on her way to an AA meeting. The whole city releases its long-held breath, and everything returns to normal.

Especially heinous, her body and other parties (P. 80)

My personal favourite of the collection (though, of course, they’re all worth reading) is Inventory. What looks like a simple list of a woman’s lovers turns into an incredible work of speculative fiction, set in a dystopian world where a virus is killing off the population in swathes. You might think I’ve spoiled it for you now, but I swear I haven’t: it would take a lot more than a single review on a book blog to ruin all of the surprises that Machado has in store for you.





It should be fairly obvious by now, but just in case it isn’t: the stories in Her Body And Other Parties are “dirty”. Like, would-make-you-blush-if-you-read-them-out-loud-to-your-mother “dirty”. The main characters of The Husband Stitch fuck, in graphic detail, twice within the first five pages. Machado isn’t here to play, she’s not bashful or coy about sex – my kind of girl! I only mention it because I know that’s not for everyone, but I still want to vouch for the book (even if “smut” isn’t your “thing”). The sex isn’t pointless titillating garbage, it’s integral to the story (as it is to life), and I think even the pearl-clutchers among us will at least admire Machado’s erotic fearlessness.

Also needless to say: Her Body And Other Parties went on to win a lot of awards. A lot. Like, I got exhausted trying to collate them into a list. Every professional review I read was glowing, at minimum (I think they call that “critical acclaim”). Plus, more importantly (in my view), it’s achieved cult status – this is a book that will be passed from youth to youth, on university campuses and at seedy bars and over cheap coffees, for years to come. Machado is the real deal, folks, and I’m going to be overjoyed to be able to say “I remember reading her very first book” late in her long, long career. She’s already on her way, having released a breathtaking memoir – In The Dream House – which has revolutionised the genre and already cemented itself a place in the queer literary canon. Do I recommend Her Body And Other Parties? Abso-fucking-lutely.

My favourite Amazon reviews of Her Body And Other Parties:

  • “fun stories. different. freedom fighter stuff.” – Eddie
  • “that’s all. read it.” – G.S.
  • “Not what I expected, but definitely a well-written jaunt into lesbian-fueled surrealism.” – A Long Walk In The Woods
  • “Hot trash” – Mark Fulghum
  • “I don’t like the book, but it came in great condition and exactly as described.” – Maddie


A Man Called Ove – Fredrik Backman

I love a good sleeper hit. You know those books that have been out for a while without a fuss, then they start gathering steam, and all of a sudden they’re everywhere you look? That’s what happened with A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman. Once upon a time, Backman was a quiet little Swedish blogger, and A Man Called Ove (or, in the original Swedish, En man som heter Ove) was his debut novel. It was published in 2012, translated into English in 2013, but didn’t reach the New York Times Bestseller List until eighteen months later. Once it got there, it stayed there for 42 weeks. And, here’s some more fun trivia: it’s an even bigger, even more-unexpectedly huge best seller in South Korea (not even his publisher quite understands why). Sometimes, miracles happen, eh?

This English language edition – which has sold over three million copies around the world, by the way – was translated by Henning Koch. Remember: always #NameTheTranslator!

It begins with an especially-curmudgeonly old-before-his-time 59-year-old man, called Ove (in case you missed it). He’s been having a rough trot. He’s still mourning the loss of his wife, and recently found himself forced into early retirement. Lacking any purpose or intention for the rest of his life, he plans to die by suicide. As fate would have it, on the day of his planned departure from this mortal coil, an exuberant young family moves in next door.

Ove has always lived by a set of pragmatic principles and strict routines. When the newcomers knock over his mailbox trying to back in their trailer, he just about blows a gasket. Parvaneh is a pregnant mother of two, and Patrick is her partner who really struggles with parking. Ove finds them bothersome and tiresome and just about every other -some adjective you can imagine a grumpy old man throwing at a couple of kids just trying to find their way in the world. When they mess up his plans to die, he stubbornly refuses to accept the divine intervention, and makes a new plan… until it happens again. And again.





Look, I know this doesn’t sound like the stuff of great comic novels. A lonely old guy trying to off himself? Complete with wacky neighbours and hijinks? Indeed, Backman had trouble finding a publisher at first. Based on his pitch, they said the book had “no commercial potential”, and that Ove was too unlikeable, too much of a Debbie Downer. Reader, they were very, very wrong. I was howling with laughter from page one. I was sending snaps of the funniest bits to my friends by page twelve. And then, about half way through, my eyes got a bit wet. And then it happened again, a little further on. By the end of A Man Called Ove, I’d used up half a box of tissues, and my cheeks, my chin, and my shirt front were all wet, too. Backman is uniquely skilled at the art of getting the reader to care more than they thought they would. He’s managed to make the old man’s cynicism and indignation endearing. Ove, stick-in-the-mud as he may be, feels disconnected and lost – who can’t relate to that? And he finds, in his new neighbours, new purpose (mostly to tell them how they’re doing it all wrong) – who can’t relate to that, too?

As Ove’s relationship with his new neighbours develops, so unfolds his backstory, one so heart-wrenching and wonderful and evocative that it sings in perfect harmony with the rest of the novel. I never once felt like I was being pulled back and forth in the timeline, or emotionally manipulated, because Backman knew just how hard to push, and when to back away. What I loved most of all was that it was brimming with my favourite type of whimsical, misanthropic humour, much along the lines of The One-Hundred-Year Old Man Who Climbed Out The Window And Disappeared, my ultimate cheer-up read. A Man Called Ove is darker in its contents and themes, perhaps, but it’s definitely the same “vibe”.





There’s been a movie adaptation of A Man Called Ove (and also a stage production) – I watched the trailer on YouTube, but I don’t think I’ll be seeking it out to watch in full. I just can’t imagine how the comedy, so dark and perfect on the page, could translate to the screen. Backman has also since written several other novels, though (he’s now officially “Sweden’s most popular literary export since Stieg Larsson”), and I’m particularly interested to check out My Grandmother Asked Me To Tell You She’s Sorry.

I’d love to recommend this as a book club read, but I feel like there’s a very good chance every book club in the world has read it already – once again, I’m late to the party. A Man Called Ove is an enchanting tale of unlikely friendships, and it will pull on heartstrings you didn’t know you had. Plus, it’s a timeless reminder that you can almost never guess someone’s story just by looking at them – and I think we could all do with a few more of those.

My favourite Amazon reviews of A Man Called Ove:

  • “i was looking for an uplifting book and this was recommended. 10+ chapters of a man who dislikes everyone and wants to kill himself is definitely NOT an easy listening or feel good read. i might be only slightly encouraged by the realization that i am markedly happier and nicer than Ove.” – Appalasia Farm
  • “Sad, but uplifting” – Geoff Burdge
  • “Signed my wife up for an Audible account. But she hated it. Worst. Valentine’s Day. Ever.” – Argyle Shopper
  • “I could not wait for Ove to be Over.” – Marty


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