Keeping Up With The Penguins

Reviews For The Would-Be Booklover

Category: Recommended (page 1 of 5)

The Library Book – Susan Orlean

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

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

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





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

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

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





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

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

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

My favourite Amazon reviews of The Library Book:

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

Good Talk – Mira Jacob

In case you’re new around here, let me give you the skinny: Keeping Up With The Penguins is all about trying new things. Even if it’s a book you don’t think you’ll like, even if it’s an author you’ve never read before, even if it’s a genre that you’ve written off as “not for you” – you (and by “you”, I mean “I”) have to give it a go anyway. That’s the deal. I’ve never read a graphic novel before. I never even read comics as a kid. But when my dear friend read and recommended Good Talk by Mira Jacob, I had to walk the walk.

Good Talk is “a memoir in conversations”, promises the blurb, “a bold, wry, and intimate graphic memoir about identity, interracial families, and the realities that divide us,”. Those conversations began for Jacob when, aged 6, her son became obsessed with Michael Jackson, and an innocent line of childish enquiry turned tricky.

“Sometimes, you don’t know how confused you are about something important until you try explaining it to someone else.”

Good Talk, PAge 20

Her son’s questions about race, and identity, and politics, led Jacob to re-evaluate her own life experiences and conversations from her past. She reproduces those memories in Good Talk, from her parents’ migration to the United States to the election of Donald Trump. They include being mistaken for “the help” at her in-laws’ party, being put in the position of telling her husband that their son had asked if he was afraid of brown people, and being overwhelmed with joy when Barack Obama was elected as President shortly after her son’s birth. She has spoken about how she never set out to write a memoir because she didn’t feel she was up to the level of vulnerability and transparency it requires, but boy. Oh, boy.





Let’s cut to the chase: Good Talk is a damn good book. It’s not just a “good graphic novel”, it’s not just a “cult classic”, it’s good without a qualifier. So good that, at a recent (COVID-safe) gathering of friends, I pulled a friend away from the merry-making and forced her to read Chapter 6. That’s the chapter where Jacob describes winning a Daughters Of The American Revolution essay contest, only to have the women running the contest try to dissuade her from presenting her essay at their luncheon when they realised she was brown (luckily, she had a kick-arse teacher who backed her up and got her on that stage).

Jacob’s recollections, images, and dialogue are deceptive in their simplicity (and, let me be clear, I mean that in the best possible way). What, on its face, might look like a speech bubble actually contains the weight of hundreds of years of systemic oppression and the gritted teeth of resilience. Jacob’s language is frank, her presentation is enticing, but her message is searing. If you’re white, like me, and the beneficiary of a system that means your skin colour hasn’t kept you out of room, you’ll need to sit with it a while to fully comprehend its meaning.

The beauty of Good Talk, in my view, is that it works on multiple levels. In a remarkably accessible way, Jacob has written a book that will make people of colour feel seen and heard, and make people who are white or white-passing re-evaluate their conversations and interactions (the way that Jacob had to when her son started asking questions about Michael Jackson).





Other reviews of Good Talk have emphasised that Jacob resists “people of colour” becoming a monolith in the U.S., as though there is some unique experience shared by all, and I wouldn’t want to speak over her on that front (obviously), but I still think there’s some incredible universal resonance here. What shines through – and what will unify all readers, regardless of racial or cultural heritage – is the fierce love that Jacob has for her son and her family. “I can’t protect you from becoming a brown man in America,” Jacob rhetorically laments to her son on page 346. Even as a child-free white woman, my heart broke when I read that, and my eyes got a bit watery.

I could’ve read this book quickly, if I wanted to. I probably could’ve knocked it over in a single afternoon. But I took my time, in an effort to really, truly, fully appreciate its content, and the generosity of Jacob in sharing it with us (and by “us”, I mean “me”). If all graphic novels are as good as Good Talk, consider me a convert.

My favourite Amazon reviews of Good Talk:

  • “Literally hugged this book to my chest after finishing it, unwilling to put it down. It felt like hanging out with a brilliant, funny, sad friend.” – EN
  • “Anyone and everyone, especially mixed race Americans looking for people like them, should read this.
    The build up and the tension and release ebbing and flowing throughout the pages is incredible and so perfectly captures many of the internal and external tensions for mixed race families in modern America.
    (Having the same name as the author only makes me slightly biased!)” – Mira L
  • “This book is for you. A version or part of everyone you know is probably in this book. You’re in here. Even when you don’t want to see it. I learned a lot about myself, my family, our friends and the world we live in. Mira and her family are my heroes.” – B. Healy
  • “I really did not like the cartoon reading format. Past that book was good.” – Becky

The Story Of A New Name – Elena Ferrante

You should know that, as I write this, I am suffering a severe case of Ferrante Fever. Ever since I read My Brilliant Friend, I’ve been borderline-obsessed with the world’s most notable living pseudonymous author. That book was the first in the Neapolitan Quartet, a series of four novels (a “wildly original contemporary epic”) that follows the lives of Lena and Lila, two girls who grow up in mid-20th century Naples with all of the impoverishment, violence, and oppression that such a life entails. I can’t emphasise enough the delight of discovering an author who has such a glorious back-list to read through. I find myself spacing out my reading of Ferrante, trying to make the magic last as long as possible. Today, I share with you my thoughts on the second book in the Neapolitan Quartet, The Story Of A New Name.

The Story Of A New Name was first published in the original Italian in 2013, and shortly thereafter translated into English by the imitable Ann Goldstein (always, always, always #NameTheTranslator). The story picks up after My Brilliant Friend leaves off, in the spring of 1966. Lila is a newlywed, and Lena is continuing her studies, exploring the world beyond the neighbourhood of their childhoods. Despite their diverging paths, their complex and evolving bond continues.

Lila gives Lena her Garner-esque diaries for safe-keeping, on the condition that her friend would never read them. Lena, of course, betrays that promise almost immediately (who among us wouldn’t? Come on, now!). Upon reading them, Lena is forced to re-evaluate her life, and Lila’s. Confronted by what she discovers (their childhoods being depicted with “ruthless accuracy”), she promptly throws the offending notebooks into a river.

I can’t even pretend that anything I say about The Story Of A New Name from here on won’t constitute “spoilers”, so proceed at your own peril…





Lila emerges from her honeymoon only to find herself living under a weight of expectation to become pregnant, though she doesn’t want to have children deeply resents her husband (he’s a dickhead, btw). Her first pregnancy is short-lived, and she miscarries at ten weeks. The town gossip suggests that her animosity kills any embryos that would embed in her womb (yep, that’s fucked). Given that her husband regularly beats and rapes her, who could blame her for being a bit ticked off? Their marriage is inherently political, intertwined with and influenced by their family business and their relationship with the Solaras brothers (basically the rich kids who have financed all their hopes and dreams… at a price).

Lila’s doctor prescribes “sun and swimming” (y’know, “for strength”) to facilitate her fertility, so she’s packed off to a summer beach holiday. Determined not to be trapped alone with her mother and her sister-in-law, she begs Lena to come with her. Lena has her own ulterior motive to accompany them: Nino, the unattainable intellectual object of her secret crush, will be “studying” at the beach, so Lena convinces Lila that’s the place to be for all this fertile “sun and swimming” business.

Most of The Story Of A New Name takes place on this beach holiday because, folks, it is full of drama – think your favourite reality show to the power of N. Remember how Lena harboured secret desires for Nino? Yeah, Lila – her best friend – hooks up with him instead. The affair is brief, but it still leaves Lila with a bun in the oven (gasp! pearl-clutching!), and she is forced to return to her husband who does not believe her (whether he’s deluding himself, or genuinely confused, who knows), when Lila says the child isn’t his.





Stefano – Lila’s husband – undertakes an affair of his own and his lover, Ada, becomes pregnant, too. Lila, quite understandably, is fed up with the bullshit and she leaves, despite the fact that she’s forced to move into a smaller, dodgier neighbourhood with her childhood fried, Enzo. Ada happily takes her place at Stefano’s side, with their kind-of-more-legitimate kid in their big house.

While all of this is going on, Lena – the actual narrator, though you’d be forgiven for forgetting that the story is “about” her because it’s really all “about” her brilliant friend – graduates from high school, and wins a scholarship to study at a university in Pisa. That’s all well and good, but she suffers from one of the most debilitating cases of imposter syndrome I’ve ever seen depicted in fiction. Lena doubts herself constantly: her intellect, her background, her aptitude…

And then there’s the fact that she’s sexually active. A young woman! Unmarried! Having sex! Can you believe it? Set aside the fact that it’s largely rooted in an earlier molestation: it’s scandalous! Eventually, she meets Pietro, a nice young bloke from an important family who. doesn’t give a shit about her “reputation” (what a guy). He’s just happy to finally meet a girl he can talk to about old poetry and philosophy and politics.





When they graduate university, Pietro’s gift to Lena is an engagement ring, which she happily(?) accepts. In return, she gives him a hand-written novel. Unbeknownst to her, he passes it on to his mother, who uses her connections to have it placed at a publishing house. The book is released to popular success and critical acclaim, but Lena is disappointed and confused when she realises that no one from her old neighbourhood really gives a shit (her old teacher and former librarian, who fostered her young literary mind, are no longer around). The story ends with Lena attending her first public reading as a published author… where she realises that Nino is in attendance. Yes, that Nino, of the object-of-her-secret-desire-but-then-he-knocked-up-her-brilliant-friend fame.

Returning to the Neapolitan Quartet with The Story Of A New Name felt like picking up where I’d left off with old friends. I got to see how Lila and Lena “turned out”, what “happened next” for them. That might sound bleeding obvious to anyone who’s used to reading books in series, but mostly I read stand-alone novels, so for me it was wonderful. Lila was as manipulative and shrewd as ever, but still a sympathetic character – my feelings towards her were as ambivalent, contradictory, and ebbing as Lena’s own.

Thematically, The Story Of A New Name addresses many of the same issues as My Brilliant Friend: female friendship, class marginalisation, sexual expression, competitive relationships, the importance of literacy… The decisions of the girls’ parents in the first novel (Lena’s to allow her to continue her education, Lila’s to withdraw her from school at a young age) have ripple effects throughout their lives. The Neapolitan Quartet is effectively a Sliding Doors-epic. Both feel overshadowed and envious of the other, furious jealousy mingles with the unshakeable affection of shared experience… ugh. Ferrante is just too good for words. Too good.

My favourite Amazon reviews of The Story Of A New Name:

  • “It was kind of confusing. I didn’t like the beating the women received but I finished the book and the ending was worth it.” – Sue Campbell
  • “I loved it, but it’s a book for women. Therefore I can’t give it 5 stars. I don’t see many men with patience to read it through…” – Amazon Customer
  • “Interesting, but redundant . Perhaps touch like life .” – j toby

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

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