Keeping Up With The Penguins

Reviews For The Would-Be Booklover

Category: Recommended (page 1 of 8)

I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings – Maya Angelou

Does this book really need an introduction? I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings is Maya Angelou’s iconic 1969 autobiography, describing her youth and upbringing. The title comes from the third stanza of Dunbar’s poem “Sympathy” (which is well worth reading in full, if you’ve got a moment). It’s one of the most acclaimed autobiographies in the history of literature, and with good reason.

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By the way, a note on choosing your edition: mine is gorgeous, but it doesn’t have the foreword by Oprah. If I had my time again, I’d prioritise that over prettiness.

I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings traces Angelou’s life from age three to seventeen, artfully recreating the perspective of the child while retaining the wisdom of the adult narrator. She and her older brother, Bailey, were abandoned by their parents and sent to live with their grandmother (whom they call Momma) in Stamps, Arkansas. Several years later, Angelou’s father unexpectedly appears and takes the children to live with their mother in St Louis. There, aged just eight years, Maya is sexually abused by her mother’s boyfriend. This horrifying event has ongoing ramifications throughout her young life (obviously).

The traumatised Angelou proves too much for her mother and St Louis family to handle, so she and Bailey are sent back to Stamps. There they remain until after Angelou graduates eighth grade, a watershed moment in her young life. Momma then decides that the children are ready to return to their mother, who was by then living in California.

Angelou attends high school while living with her mother (whom she adores, despite the earlier traumatic experience in her St Louis home). Before she even graduates, Angelou becomes the first Black female cable car conductor in San Francisco. She relishes the independence and responsibility that comes with entering the workforce, but she still experiences the usual confusion and angst that comes with adolescence. In a moment of desperation, to prove to herself that she “isn’t a lesbian”, she sleeps with a local teenage boy and becomes pregnant.

She manages to hide the pregnancy from her family for eight months, until she graduates high-school, and at seventeen years of age, she gives birth to her son. It’s remarkably not a particularly traumatic experience for her, and I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings ends on a positive and hopeful note as Angelou embarks on motherhood.

So, as that potted summary might indicate, I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings depicts a radical transformation, from a nervous young girl subjected to racism and abuse to a self-possessed young woman with hope and determination. At many critical junctures, books and literature provide solace to Angelou, and it’s through the power of the written word that she reclaims her own agency and makes sense of her bewildering world. It’s a powerful coming-of-age story, especially for fellow bookworms, and it’s impossible to read this one without feeling uplifted in some way (despite the traumatic content).

It reads like a novel (even though, obviously, it’s not) – beautifully, lyrically, with rich and inviting prose. It would seem that’s very much by design; Angelou wrote I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings in response to a challenge issued by her friend James Baldwin and editor Robert Loomis, to “write an autobiography that was also a piece of literature”. She later said that she felt “tricked” into writing the book (she initially refused, as she thought of herself as a poet rather than a memoirist, but couldn’t resist the challenge), but given the result, I think we can forgive Baldwin and Loomis the manipulation.

The literary feeling isn’t just a “vibe”. Many fancy-pants literature critics have commented on it, categorising I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings as “autobiographical fiction” rather than straight narrative non-fiction. But Angelou herself resolutely called this and her subsequent books autobiographies, and thematically they align very neatly with other autobiographies by Black women. Basically, let’s not punish Angelou for writing so damn well that we can’t believe it’s real.

If I had to offer a criticism – like, under pain of death – I would say that I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings slows down a bit in the second half. Plus, the content is definitely going to be tough for some readers to handle (trigger warnings for racism, sexual abuse, and violence). But it’s just so beautifully written! I think critic Opal Moor put it well: “Though easily read, [I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings] is no ‘easy read’.”

My favourite Amazon reviews of I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings:

  • “I get that this book is an autobiography so of course I knew it was going to be somewhat boring. But what I didn’t know was how boring.” – Amy Lee
  • “Should be required reading in high school except that too many school boards will probably disapprove.” – Allen Hunter
  • “I wanted the book with the title that included CRAWDAD not caged bird sings…my mistake” – Sheldon Rudolph
  • “This has to be the worst book ever written! I am reading thisfor english right now and I can’t read two pages without fallingasleep. She goes on and on about things that don’t pretain to the topic. I remember toward the begining of the book she spent half of a page on how she didn’t steal a can of pinapples when she had the chance. So what! I don’t steal stuff every day, and I don’t write about it and bore people with it. What ever you do, don’t buy this book.” – Wesley Detweller

The Story Of The Lost Child – Elena Ferrante

Ah, here we are: the last of the Neapolitan novels. Sitting down to read The Story Of The Lost Child felt like sitting down to goodbye drinks with an old friend the night before they leave town. Having followed Lena and Lila through childhood (My Brilliant Friend), adolescence (The Story Of A New Name), and young adulthood (Those Who Leave And Those Who Stay), this last installment follows them as they mature into old age. It has been translated, as always, from the original Italian into English by the imitable Ann Goldstein.

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Lena says early on in The Story Of The Lost Child that this is “the most painful part of the story” and (spoiler alert) she’s spot on. I think this might be the most intensely felt of all the Neapolitan novels, more deeply impactful than even the sharp angst of My Brilliant Friend.

It begins in a time of painful contrasts for narrator Lena: the passion of a long-awaited love affair with Nino and the satisfaction of a revitalised career, experienced simultaneously with complete social, marital, and familial collapse. She officially leaves her husband Pietro, and believes that Nino too has left his wife… but Lila, as always, comes around with a big bucket full of truth and dumps it over Lena’s head. Nino hasn’t left his wife, and doesn’t intend to.

Even when he knocks Lena up, he stays with his wife, and splits his time between two households. Lila gets pregnant at the same time (by Enzo, with whom she still lives and runs a computer business). Finally, Lena and Lila’s lives are on the same track. They go to gyno appointments together, commiserate over the symptoms of pregnancy, and become close once again.

They grow even closer when Lena discovers Nino is cheating on her with the housekeeper, and moves into a small apartment right above Lila’s. They have daughters the same age, they trade off dinners and childcare, it’s all very Modern, takes-a-village, etc.

The big catalyst of The Story Of The Lost Child is that Lena, in desperation and lacking time to write new work, submits a copy of her old manuscript – a novel about her childhood in Naples – for publication. Apparently, being back in the old neighbourhood makes her prose just a bit too vivid. The dangerous Solaras family recognise themselves in the pages, and the ramifications – not just for Lena, but for everyone in her orbit – are huge. (There’s a hint in the title…)

I won’t reveal the Big Twists from that point (got to hold something back, eh?), but the ending – oooft! It was better than I could have ever imagined. Standing ovation. Even after thousands of pages, Ferrante still surprised me and delighted me and made my heart twist in my chest. The end of The Story Of The Lost Child is absolutely breathtaking.

As much as I thoroughly enjoyed The Story Of The Lost Child, finishing it felt bittersweet. I know there are other Ferrante books to read (some of them are already crowded into my to-read shelf!), and I’m a bit too Mature(TM) to mope about fictional characters… but still! I’m amazed and impressed with how the story ended, but quite sad that there’s no more of it for me to discover.

Some project for some future year – “when I have time”, ha! – will be to sit down and re-read all of the Neapolitan novels from start to finish, but back-to-back this time (instead of one per year, as I’ve done since 2018). I wish I could do it immediately, if I’m being honest, but naturally there are other books to be read and things to be done that have to take priority. It’s one for the bucket list.

If you’re wondering whether undertaking to read the Neapolitan novels is worth it, the answer (according to the authority of me) is absolutely YES. If you’re wondering whether the story runs out of fizz by the time you get to The Story Of The Lost Child, the answer (according to the authority of me) is a resounding NO. Of course, the series has its ups and downs, and every reader will respond differently to parts of such a complex and multi-faceted work, but on the whole: W. O. R. T. H. I. T!

My favourite Amazon reviews of The Story Of The Lost Child:

  • “Who wrote those words? An algorithm? If the writer is human, she seems afraid to reveal the self behind her work. I find that irritating and cowardly. What is she hiding from? The Mob? Whatever. Brilliant marketing of four novels that could easily have been edited to one. Bravo on that point.” – rc
  • “Glad my female friends and I are not this complicated.” – Sucarichi
  • “I am not a corpse, therefore I loved this novel. The only problem with it is the depression I feel having reached the last page.” – Agaricus
  • “Without doubt written by a non Italian. 4 books and not one mention of Napoli the football team. No mention of Italy wining the World Cup. Ridiculous! No Mention of the Roman Catholic Upbringing ALL characters would have had. No mention of the local chapel and the priests. Pure fantasy!” – C. Caughey

Notes On A Scandal – Zoë Heller

Notes On A Scandal (marketed as What Was She Thinking?: Notes On A Scandal in the U.S., don’t ask me why) is a 2003 novel by English journalist and writer Zoë Heller. I vaguely remember seeing the film adaptation years ago, and being captivated by the performances of both Judi Dench and Cate Blanchett, but really nothing about the plot. So, aside from having some strong visuals for the main characters, I felt like I didn’t know much about this one going in.

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Heller has said that Notes On A Scandal was inspired by the real-life case of Mary Kay LeTourneau, an American teacher who had “an affair” (read: plead guilty to two counts of child rape) with a student. So, that should give you an idea of the relevant trigger warnings.

The story is narrated by Barbara, a veteran teacher at a London comprehensive school, and a lonely spinster in her spare time. How to put this delicately… she has trouble making friends. As always, the smallest details make the character, and Heller’s talent for it is gob-smacking.

My name is Barbara Covett. (From time to time one of my colleagues will call me ‘Barb’ or, even less desirably, ‘Babs’, but I discourage it.)

Notes On A Scandal (page 4)

If the Vibes haven’t already tipped you off, you know for sure that something is Not Right with Barbara by Chapter 3. Her story begins with the arrival of Sheba Hart, a new and apparently-naive (though very privileged) art teacher. Barbara intuits that they are potential BFFs, though Sheba barely seems to realise she exists at first.

Slowly, Barbara ingratiates herself into Sheba’s life – first with lunches off campus, then dinners at her home. Unbeknownst to Barbara, however, Sheba is doing some ingratiating of her own, “falling in love” with her 15-year-old student Steven Connolly. It’s the same old story: Sheba feels “unfulfilled” in her perfect upper-middle-class life, Steven is vulnerable and deprived of affection, and before you know it…

Barbara eventually finds out about the “affair” (I really hate to use that term, because it’s not an affair, it’s abuse, but I’m trying to communicate the perspective of the narrative here, so please forgive me). Rather than being, say, appalled, or reporting Sheba to the principal (or the police!), Barbara is deeply wounded and betrayed. How could her BFF have done something so scandalous and not even told her? Because, you see, this is all about Barbara. These are her Notes On A Scandal, after all.

Barbara offers a rather clinical and detached account of the events of the “affair”. The passion in her prose is reserved for her own relationship with Sheba, and her own magnanimity in forgiving Sheba’s treachery. That makes Barbara an unreliable narrator, naturally, but often she reveals more than she really intends to.

The good news is that Sheba is eventually “outed” as a predator. In a jealous fit, Barbara gives another teacher at the school (appropriately named “Bangs”) a very thinly veiled hint about what has been going on, and he goes straight to the principal. Sheba’s life quickly falls apart; she’s fired, she’s confronted by Steven’s mother at her home, her husband kicks her out, and the newspapers have a field day.

All of this is excellent news to Barbara! She finally has Sheba – vulnerable, scared, lonely Sheba – all to herself, and completely reliant on her for support. That’s when, unbeknownst to Sheba, she starts penning her little memoir, her Notes On A Scandal, about the matter.

Notes On A Scandal evoked The Prime Of Miss Jean Brodie for me, with its English school setting, its compact length, and its themes of betrayal and intrigue. For obvious reasons, it also brings to mind Lolita. In fact, imagine that Humbert Humbert was a woman and his story was narrated by his stalker, and you land somewhere pretty close to this one.

It was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 2003, and The Guardian ranked Notes On A Scandal at number 70 on their 100 Best Books Of The 21st Century. The film version (which I really must watch again, now that I’ve read the novel) was released in 2006, and received four Academy Award nominations. A lot of close-but-no-cigars all around, really.

I don’t see why Notes On A Scandal didn’t make a bigger splash. The subject matter is repellent, of course, but it’s an intense and fascinating read with superbly crafted characters, each and every one of them delightfully hateful. Well paced, cleverly choreographed, guaranteed to stay with you – well done, Heller!

My favourite Amazon reviews of Notes On A Scandal:

  • “But that darn Barbara though. She had issues.” – QTEEPYEE
  • “I think Barbara actually feels betrayed that Sheba chose a young man over her. Barbara’s fixation on Sheba is so over the top, but she justifies it in the book and in the movie because she’s “lonely.” Please. Get another cat, crazy lady! Volunteer somewhere! Just. Get. Away.” – Rhonda Filipan
  • “If you like British authors you will love Notes on a Scandal. Two women both wanting something and neither one getting it.” – Jeri Jordan

Calypso – David Sedaris

David Sedaris is a must-read auto-buy author for me now, but I’m forcing myself to take it slow. I make myself read only one book of his at a time, every so often, instead of gobbling them all down at once like the gluttonous goblin-reader I am at heart. I started with Me Talk Pretty One Day, then last year Dress Your Family In Corduroy And Denim, and now Calypso – a collection of 21 autobiographical essays published in 2018.

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My first literal lol came from Calypso‘s blurb. After promising that “Sedaris sets his formidable powers of observation towards middle age and mortality”, it reveals that he named his beach house the Sea Section. HA! It also says that Calypso is “beach reading for people who detest beaches, required reading for those who loathe small talk and love a good tumour joke” – so if there was any doubt whether it might be up my alley…

Sedaris’s essay collections always revolve around a rough theme or motif. With Calypso, he focuses on middle-age and the changing shape of his family (as he approaches the age his mother was when she passed away, and deals with the loss of his sister). Many of the stories take place at the aforementioned Sea Section (I still laugh, every time! What a brilliant pun!), with his remaining family members gathering at the North Carolina beach house for holidays and getaways. It presents the perfect location and excuse for the Sedaris clan to gather, and spend time with their patriarch, now in his ’90s.

Plus, it gives Sedaris the opportunity to realise his childhood dream of “[owning] a beach house and it would be everyone’s, as long as they followed my draconian rules and never stopped thanking me for it,”.

Sedaris is at his best (i.e., his cattiest) in Your English Is So Good, an essay bemoaning the nonsense filler phrases that pepper our interactions with strangers. I also struggled to control my snort-laughs while reading And While You’re Up There, Check On My Prostate, about the curses of various languages and cultures. (His conclusion is that the Romanians have us all beat, with gems like “I fuck your mother’s memorial cake” and “shove your hand up my ass and jerk off my shit”.)

Unusually, for Sedaris, the content of Calypso warrants a pretty strong trigger warning: for suicide, his sister Tiffany’s in particular. It’s a sad event in his life, of course, and there are a few particularly bleak moments as Sedaris reckons with what it means for himself and his family, but for the most part Sedaris addresses it with the same matter-of-fact wry tone that he does most facts of life.

The best thing about David Sedaris books is that I get to enjoy them for the “first time” twice! Once on paper, once on audio! I’m pleased to report that the Calypso audiobook, read by Sedaris himself, is just as wonderful as the paperback version (though hearing him imitate his brother’s drawling dialogue makes those parts even funnier, if you can imagine).

So, of course, I enjoyed Calypso. There was no way Sedaris was going to let me down. Even though the content is a bit darker in parts, he still writes with the humour and panache that makes him unique. It’s impossible not to be impressed by his mastery of the form, the way in which he can punch in any direction and still manage to remain thoroughly likeable and hilarious. It’s going to be difficult to force myself to wait to pick up another one of his books…

My favourite Amazon reviews of Calypso:

  • “Usually donate books to either Hospice or our local Friends of the Library; however, in fear that someone will purchase this, read it and give it a 5-star review thereby encouraging further reading, I felt that I had to prevent that.” – Sammypot
  • “Tumors being fed to turtles, injured kittens being shot, yuppies in a buying frenzy for useless clothing, diarrhea on a plane, suicide, alcoholism, etc.” – Shelaw
  • “If you like neuroses and self absorption, this is the book for you.” – Indiana Kevin
  • “As a David Sedaris fan I was really looking forward to this book. Saved it to read on vacation. Big mistake. Full of depressing stories. Death, illness, diarrhea. Really? Can’t understand the good reviews.” – Pop99

A Tale For The Time Being – Ruth Ozeki

Very few blurbs have grabbed me like that of Ruth Ozeki’s A Tale For The Time Being. It’s a brilliant premise: a writer finds a diary, locked inside a Hello Kitty lunchbox, washed up on the beach in remote coastal Canada. She suspects it to be debris from the 2011 Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami. She reads the diary, and finds herself increasingly obsessed with the life and inner world of 16-year-old Nao, the diary’s keeper. I mean… isn’t that fascinating?!

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The story unfolds through the two alternating timelines, Nao’s in her diary and a close third-person narration as Ruth reads it (yes, the writer character’s name is the same as the IRL writer, it’s all very meta). Normally, writers writing about writers bugs me, but it didn’t at all in A Tale For The Time Being, possibly because the third-person POV gave it some distance to stop it feeling too schlocky, and Nao’s diary entries broke things up.

Nao is a fascinating character. She was raised in Silicon Valley, a completely American upbringing, until her father lost his job and the family was forced to relocate back to Tokyo. Her father is depressed, isolated (she calls him hikikomori), and suicidal, while her mother is barely present, working to keep a roof over their heads. But if things suck at home, they’re even worse at school, where Nao is tormented by her classmates and forgotten by her friends back in the States.

Hearing all that, you’d probably expect (as I did) that Nao’s diary would be wistful and angsty, but she has a lot of vigour. Her initial diary entries read as though she’s grabbing you in a big bear hug and shouting HELLO in your ear. She’s like a Japanese Holden Caulfield, but far more likeable.

Nao is just about driven to suicide herself, but she commits to recording as much as she can about the life of her 104-year-old grandmother, a “famous-anarchist-feminist-novelist-turned-Buddhist-nun”, before she dies. That’s the purpose with which she begins the diary, but over the course of A Tale For The Time Being, her interjections and digressions reveal far more about her own life.

(And I suppose this is as good a time as any to give a few trigger warnings: suicidality and bullying, of course, and also sexual assault, war crimes, and one natural – but horrific – dog death.)

Ruth, reading all of this, becomes deeply emotionally invested. Not only is she reading the diary, but she’s constantly searching the internet, seeking out translators, trying to find any skerrick of evidence she can that Nao (and/or her family) survived the tsunami of 2011. Of course, she does eventually manage to connect the dots and find out what became of all the players – but not in the way that you’d expect. A Tale For The Time Being takes some weird detours into metaphysics and philosophy, but it still comes to a satisfying (though pleasingly not saccharine) conclusion.

Off the page, Ruth Ozeki (the real life one) seems as fascinating as her characters. She’s “a novelist, filmmaker, and Zen Buddhist priest” according to her author bio. In fact, she was the first Zen Buddhist priest to be shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize (for this book, back in 2013). And she also thanks one of my faves, Karen Joy Fowler, in the Acknowledgements for giving her courage “at a critical moment in time”.

A Tale For The Time Being would be a great pick for fans of Mieko Kawakami, though Ozeki’s prose is a little more smooth and inviting, a little less edgy and devastating. I was so thrilled to discover that the story lived up to the high, high expectations the blurb had set.

My favourite Amazon reviews of A Tale For The Time Being:

  • “Two neurotic confused suicidal dopes yammering endlessly about their “feelings” What ever they are.” – M. Konikoff
  • “Odd that Ozeki embraces Zen (less is more) since the book is so redundant, excessive, and long-winded, all of which would seem Zen’s opposite. Like real life? Maybe so, but then the novel is an imitative fallacy. Like what Jefferson did with the bible, I’d like to snip out the good parts of this book, string them together, and perhaps by doing so create a greater work of art.” – SS
  • ““A Tale for the Time Being” should be renamed “A Tale to Waste Your Time”.” – L. Marantz
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