Keeping Up With The Penguins

Reviews For The Would-Be Booklover

Category: Recommended (page 2 of 9)

Hunger – Roxane Gay

“The story of my body is not a triumph,” Roxane Gay writes in the opening pages of her 2017 memoir, Hunger. “This is not a weight-loss memoir… Mine is not a success story. Mine is, simply, a true story.”

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In short, vignette-like chapters, Gay describes her rapid weight gain in the wake of a devastating trauma (to say the least), and her life lived in a fat body. Take this as your trigger warning: Hunger includes detailed descriptions of sexual assault and disordered eating – and this review is going to cover them, too.

The story Gay tells in Hunger is not one we often hear in discussions about weight as it relates to health, or food as it relates to weight. It’s one we’re not comfortable hearing, but one as essential to understanding the subject as understanding that the BMI is bullshit.

[The BMI is a measure] that allows the medical establishment to try and bring a sense of discipline to unruly bodies

Hunger (Page 9)

Gay is not ‘voluptuous’ or ‘pleasantly plump’. She isn’t even obese, or morbidly obese. She is, she tells us in Hunger, ‘super morbidly obese’. She is completely frank in describing her shame about her body’s size, and her desire to be thin or ‘normal’. She sees her body as a “cage of her own making”, one that has certain benefits (more on those in a minute) but overwhelming downsides.

She brilliantly articulates the conflict and contradiction of living in a fat body. She ‘knows’ that we ‘should’ love our bodies as they are, for what they can do, and feed them with fuel while rejecting diet culture… but that knowledge doesn’t (always) correspond with her feelings. It’s possible to know all the body-positive catch-phrases, but not to feel the way they say we should, when we exist in a world that is so pervasively and inherently anti-fat.

But Hunger is not just one long confession about self-loathing and body image. Gay delves deep, deeper than we could ever hope or expect, into the reasons she has the body she does. As a tween, Gay was the victim (her preferred nomenclature, though she respects the use of ‘survivor’ by those who choose) of a violent sexual assault, perpetrated by a boy she believed to be her boyfriend and his friends. She was gang raped, and she told no one. It’s horrifying and heart-breaking and horrendous.

That experience was defining, in that Gay began to eat as a means to self-soothe after that event, and as a means to become physically repulsive to men. Her body is a rejection of the male gaze made manifest, the only way a young Gay could see to protect herself from further violation.

Hunger is a study in contradictions. Physical heft bought Gay personal space and a layer of protection, but it also made her body public property – the subject of opinions and input from complete strangers, uninvited. She is encouraged at every turn to ‘get healthy’, to ‘lose weight through diet and exercise’, without any consideration for the cause of her weight gain to begin with (not to mention the impossibility of finding active wear that will fit her). And, as I mentioned a second ago, Gay interrogates the conflict between the way the body positivity movement says she ‘should’ feel about her body, waging constant war against every other message (internal and external) she receives about the way she looks.

Throughout Hunger, Gay addresses clothes, diets, bulimia, public spaces, doctors, food – all the aspects of her life that her size touches. If you are of average size yourself, or even close to it, it will be revelatory the ways in which weight can stymie your capacity to simply go about your business.

Gay has described Hunger as “by far the hardest book I’ve ever had to write”, and it’s not hard to see why. I cannot fathom the bravery and strength it took for her to simply put these words on a page, let alone share them with the world in a best-selling memoir. I’m in awe of her, honestly, and I’m sure after reading Hunger you will be, too.

Want more? Read my full review of Roxane Gay’s essay collection Bad Feminist here.

My favourite Amazon reviews of Hunger:

  • “I wanted to relate to her as I am also obese but most of the time I didn’t. I’m what she calls “Lane Bryant fat” in the book because I can still buy clothes there. It’s a decent read if you like memoirs and struggle with weight even if you are “Lane Bryant fat” because we can still be pretty big, too.” – Jessie Tyler
  • “I felt I was eavesdropping on a conversation between two long-time intimate adversaries: Roxane Gay and her body.” – Laurasaridavis
  • “The best thing about the book is its cover: a clever, almost abstract photograph of fork tines. Sorry I wasted my time on such an inferior, whiny memoir.” – Elizabeth
  • “The book description needs to be more clear as to what this book is about. It is not about the life of an obese woman, the trials she faces and how she rises above. It’s about self pity and a little bit of Liberal politics.” E.A.S.

Horrorstor – Grady Hendrix

Setting aside any regards for its contents, Horrorstor gets five stars for book design, alone. Look at it! It’s formatted to look like an IKEA catalogue, complete with an order form for a copyright page and product descriptions for chapter headers. It’s honestly one of the most beautiful tomes I’ve ever had the privilege of placing on my shelves.

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Okay, okay, I’ll stop gushing. Horrorstor is a 2014 horror-comedy novel by pop-culture journalist and pulp-fiction enthusiast Grady Hendrix. The concept is enough to make you laugh and shiver at the same time. Basically, it boils down to this: haunted IKEA. Freaky, right?

The story is set in Orsk, a furniture superstore clearly (but not officially, not at all) based on the Swedish conglomerate. Something is up in this shop, let me tell you: broken glass, soiled couches, strange graffiti… all of it appearing overnight, with no culprit in sight.

Amy is a cynical but hardworking Orsk employee, disillusioned by what she sees as a dead-end job but eager not to get herself fired all the same. Her boss, Basil, on the other hand has definitely drunk the Orsk Kool-Aid. He hand-picks Amy, and Ruth Anne (another Orsk employee whose work ethic more closely resembles Basil’s own), to stay with him in the store overnight and see if they can catch the vandals before a big inspection by their corporate overlords.

Trinity and Matt, two other Orsk employees, had the same idea… only they didn’t bother to get it sanctioned by the higher-ups. On one of their patrols, Amy and Ruth Anne discover Trinity and Matt also searching the store, but they’re looking for ghosts. And they’ve got cameras. They think there’s a haunting at Orsk, and if they capture video proof, they reckon they’ll get their own ghost-hunting TV show.

What could go wrong?

Back to the design for just a second: as Horrorstor gets progressively eerie, so too do the product descriptions that lead each chapter. They start out as innocuous pieces of furniture – a chair, a table, whatever – and gradually become more sinister as the Orsk haunting reveals itself. I mean, isn’t that brilliant?

Anyway, Horrorstor is surprisingly scary and gruesome. You’ll never be able to shop at IKEA again without a chill running down your spine (if you ever could before, that is). Hendrix totally nails the tone, the disconcerting sense of disorientation that overtakes us whenever we cross the threshold of one of those places. The discordant orderliness, the stale air… all of it makes for the perfect backdrop of a contemporary ghost story.

It’s silly to try and give trigger warnings for a horror novel, but what I will offer is this: if you’re claustrophobic, or squeamish about rats, sadly you might want to give Horrorstor a miss.

But it’s not all schlocky spooks and jump-scares. This story has hidden depths. Horrorstor mines the mind-fuck of consumerism and late-stage capitalism to fuel your nightmares. Hendrix draws our attention to the ways in which we are manipulated in retail environments, and the sinister truth behind the “daily grind”.

I particularly liked the epilogue. Hendrix doesn’t shy away from the psychological fall-out of a significant trauma like the one Amy experiences in Horrorstor, but he also ends our heroine’s journey on a note of agency and empowerment. It manages to be both truthful and hopeful, a fitting end to a very clever story. If you want a horror read with a well-developed female protagonist – written by a man, no less! – Horrorstor is the money.

In this age of blockbuster action flicks, I’m completely baffled that Horrorstor hasn’t been made into a film as yet. It’s one of the very few movies I’d actually consider paying to see in a cinema, to get the full effect of the superstore setting. Apparently, rights have been optioned by New Republic Pictures, but no word as yet as to when it will be coming to a theater near us.

In the meantime, I immediately want to read Horrorstor again – for the story, for the satirical winks I might’ve missed the first time around, for that brilliant book design that I can’t stop banging on about. I also have an equal and competing compulsion to read everything else Hendrix has ever written. I definitely highly recommend this one, and stay tuned for my thoughts on the others.

My favourite Amazon reviews of Horrorstor:

  • “The scares are good, but the real horror of our millennial/Gen Z job markets in a service economy was why I kept reading. The grind of our corporate jobs paralleled the ghostly villain’s torturous motivations nicely. In short, a delightful read during these soulless times.” – Michelle
  • “This hits me hard in the part of my soul that retail work bruised. The opening act is quite funny, especially if you’ve worked in a hellscape like this.” – Danny
  • “Must have worked at Ikea.” – Kindle Customer
  • “I just anticipated more humorous anxiety and such, and what I received was gore and brutality and ungodly depressing ideas.” – Miri F

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
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