Keeping Up With The Penguins

Reviews For The Would-Be Booklover

Category: Recommended (page 3 of 9)

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.

Get Calypso here.
(And if you use an affiliate link like this one to make a purchase, I’ll earn a teeny tiny commission! It all adds up!)

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?!

A Tale For The Time Being - Ruth Ozeki - Keeping Up With The Penguins
Get A Tale For The Time Being here.
(When you make a purchase through an affiliate link like this one, I earn a small commission.)

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

The Immortal Life Of Henrietta Lacks – Rebecca Skloot

To call The Immortal Life Of Henrietta Lacks a ‘biography’ feels reductive. This 2010 masterpiece of journalistic non-fiction, by first-time American writer Rebecca Skloot, is much more than the dates and facts of a life. It’s a study of bioethics, a masterclass in accessible science writing, and a testament to the human consequences of scientific discovery. And it’s compelling as heck, to boot!

The Immortal Life Of Henrietta Lacks - Rebecca Skloot - Keeping Up With The Penguins
Buy The Immortal Life Of Henrietta Lacks here.
(If you do, you’ll earn my immortal gratitude – as an affiliate, I earn a small commission.)

For those of us unfamiliar with the life of Henrietta Lacks (which I’d imagine is most of us, if you haven’t read this book yet), here’s the run-down. Henrietta Lacks was a poor, black, Southern tobacco farmer, still working the land upon which her ancestors were enslaved. She sadly developed cervical cancer in the prime of her life. While undergoing treatment at John Hopkins, her cancer cells were taken – without her knowledge – and used to create the first ever “immortal” human tissue grown in culture.

Don’t worry if you don’t understand exactly what that means: Skloot explains it, a couple of times over, the for-dummies version that even people who hated high-school biology can comprehend.

Basically, before Henrietta’s cancer cells were stuck in a test tube, scientists didn’t know how to make cells grow outside of the human body. They’d stick them in some jelly, wait a bit, and watch them die off, time and again. Henrietta was just one in a long, long, long(!) line of patients whose cells were harvested to see if they might grow – but hers were the first that did.

That’s incredible enough on its own – they took cells out of her body and the cells kept growing – but it’s just the beginning. Henrietta’s cancer cells (now known in scientific circles as HeLa, taken from the first two letters of her first name and surname) are – as the title of this book suggests – immortal. They’re still growing today, even though Henrietta has been dead for seventy-plus years.

So, the immortality isn’t (just) metaphorical: there are literally trillions of living HeLa cells in laboratories all around the world, as you read this right now. According to Skloot, if you could put all of the HeLa cells ever grown onto a scale, they’d weigh 50 million metric tonnes (that’s 100 Empire State Buildings).

The skeptical among you might be wondering: so what? We grew a bunch of cells from a lady? Why should that matter?

Well, for lots of reasons. The ability to grow human cells – Henrietta’s cells – in culture has allowed us to develop all kinds of medical advancements that would have otherwise (probably) never come to be. The polio vaccine, cancer treatments, the effects of radiation, in-vitro fertilisation, gene mapping – all of it was tested first, or developed using, HeLa cells. It’s no stretch to call Henrietta Lacks’s cells the most important tool in modern medicine.

And yet, through a bizarre and tragic series of events, most people have no idea who she is. Rebecca Skloot only heard about her by chance, when a biology teacher mentioned her in a class. Skloot followed her nose, learned everything she could and went searching for more – that research became The Immortal Life Of Henrietta Lacks, the definitive true story of one of the most important women the world doesn’t know.

Henrietta’s own family knew nothing of her “immortal” cell line until two decades after her death. Even though their matriarch’s cells have become a multi-million dollar industry, they can’t afford health insurance. They’ve been screwed by journalists, con-men, and the doctors they were supposed to trust. So, The Immortal Life Of Henrietta Lacks is just as much a study of bioethics and law as it is the story of the woman before the cells.

(Hot tip: don’t skip the Afterword! It offers fascinating insight into the current-ish state of human tissue research, regarding collection, consent, and commercialisation. I was shocked to learn that what happened to Henrietta and her family could quite easily, and legally, still happen today!)

The Immortal Life Of Henrietta Lacks is very just-one-more-chapter-y. Skloot doesn’t rely on gimmicks or cliffhangers; the real story is enticing enough to have you wondering what will happen next (in Henrietta’s life, and in Skloot’s quest to learn about it) all on its own. Henrietta’s legacy – her cells, her life, and what the medical field did to her family – is profoundly sad, but also moving and powerful. Skloot has done a great thing in bringing it to the world.

The critics agree: not long after its release, The Immortal Life Of Henrietta Lacks was named one of the best books of the year by over sixty different media outlets, including the New York Times, NPR, and Oprah. Over a decade later, it is still required or recommended reading at over a hundred universities, and widely taught in classrooms at all levels.

I’m sure you can tell, by this point, that I loved The Immortal Life Of Henrietta Lacks and I highly recommend it – especially to fans of Susan Orlean and John Safran.

My favourite Amazon reviews of The Immortal Life Of Henrietta Lacks:

  • “I really like the story it was a nice book. Very interesting and nice.” – Juan
  • “It’s like reading a book about the theory of relativity that doesn’t discuss its specifics but rather focuses on the family of the man who maintained the big clock that helped to “give” Einstein the idea, and how they never got paid for their contribution to science. A background on Einstein, Bern, the ethics of the trade of medieval clock tower maintenance and the family history included. If all of the inspirational medieval clock towers could have been gathered on a scale, their total weight would have measured more than 50 million metric tons. Now, think about that you dullards. This book is pointless claptrap, spacious claims, morbid interests, a rotten flavor of the “month”.” – JakeSW
  • “What were the publishers thinking!!?? I purchased the Kindle version of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, in 2014 which had the original cover featuring the late Henrietta Lacks. Unless you are among ardent fans of Oprah Winfrey, you will be disappointed that the new Kindle version features Ms Winfrey. The book is NOT about Ms Winfrey. Therefore, I was beyond shock when I saw that my 2014 Kindle version was automatically updated to the new cover. This was not acceptable (admittedly not a fan of Ms Winfrey).” – EGALITARIAN

Know My Name – Chanel Miller

In 2016, the name Brock Turner made headlines around the world. He was sentenced to just six months in jail after he was convicted – literally caught in the act – of sexually assaulting a young woman on the Stanford campus in California. His victim, identified then only as Emily Doe, wrote an impact statement which was shared online; it went viral, and reached millions around the world within days. Three years later, Chanel Miller stepped forward and identified herself as Emily Doe, the until-then anonymous victim of the man whose name has become inextricable from conversations about sexual assault, sentencing, and #MeToo. In Know My Name, Miller reclaims her name, her story, and the years lost to her silent battle.

Know My Name - Chanel Miller - Keeping Up With The Penguins
Buy Know My Name here.
(This is an affiliate link; I will earn a small commission for any purchases made.)

In January 2015, Miller was a 22-year-old graduate living in Palo Alto. One night, on a whim she decided to attend a Stanford campus party with her sister and friends. Within hours, Brock Turner sexually assaulted her, and she became “unconscious intoxicated woman” – Emily Doe. In Know My Name, Miller doesn’t ease you into this harrowing story with any meandering anecdotes about her upbringing. She’s setting this scene for her assault by page 2.

I was deeply disturbed to realise, in these early chapters, just how little Miller was told about what had happened to her once she regained consciousness, even after she made it abundantly clear to doctors and police that she had no memory of leaving the party. One of the most confronting scenes from Know My Name (and that’s saying something) comes when Miller learns the details of her assault from a news article, sitting at her desk at work. At the same time as the rest of the world, she read about her assailant’s dreams of swimming at the Olympics and his record-breaking pace, alongside the allegations that he had violently penetrated her with his fingers and left her mostly-undressed on the ground behind a garbage bin when two cyclists intervened.

He was the one who lost everything. I was just the nobody it had happened to.

Know My Name (Page 48)

This pattern plays out time and time again in Know My Name, each instance as sickening as the last: the perpetrator’s accomplishments and ambitions are highlighted, his crime(s) diminished, Miller’s pain and suffering barely mentioned.

The judge had given Brock something that would never be extended to me: empathy. My pain was never more valuable than his potential.

Know My Name (Page 241)

Of course, the assault is only the beginning. Over the course of Know My Name, Miller recounts in gut-wrenching detail the ways in which she was repeatedly violated over the following years: the investigation, the hearing, the trial, the sentencing, the aftermath. Institutions seem to fail her at every turn. The courtroom turns into a circus with rival ringleaders, each seeking to make their own performing monkey seem most sympathetic to a jury. The administrators of Stanford offer Miller little more than a pamphlet and a condescending pat on the shoulder, their fears of litigation and bad publicity far outweighing any fear they have for the safety of students and visitors to their campus.

Miller does remind us at intervals (though she shouldn’t have to) that Know My Name exists for so many people. One in five women have a version of this story that they could tell. What happened to Miller is not an isolated incident, it was not an extraordinary once-off. It happens every day, in every part of the world. It’s an excellent companion read to She Said (the journalists’ account of breaking the Harvey Weinstein story), in that regard.

It struck me, about halfway through Know My Name, that this was the first full account I’d ever read of the victim’s journey through the judicial system. In TV dramas, they cut right from the confession to the guilty verdict, and everyone goes home feeling justice has been done in 38 minutes. Miller’s account exposes the indefinite timeframes, the potential minefields, the unexpected demands – women just don’t know that this is what they’re agreeing to when they’re encouraged to report. Collectively, we “know” that it’s difficult, demoralising, retraumatising, but that knowledge is abstract. By sharing the full story in Know My Name, Miller makes it tangible.

She also emphasises the ripple effect of trauma. The man who attacked her didn’t only victimise her, he victimised her sister, her parents, her grandmother, her friends. Her sister lives with enormous survivor’s guilt. Her parents had to see close-up images of Miller’s brutalised vulva displayed in the courtroom. Her friends had to fend off reporters and the defendant’s investigators looking to dig up dirt. One assault, so many victims.

Chapter 12 provides a particularly striking rebuttal to the “but what about innocent until proven guilty?” argument. Miller lays out all the ways in which we currently interrogate the past behaviour of the victim (what they drank, what they wore, who they’ve slept with); if the victim can’t be “innocent until proven guilty”, why should their attacker be? The benefit of the doubt doesn’t seem to extend to the person who is bleeding. Miller has been caught in this trap herself, but incredibly she has retained the capacity to articulate the flaws of the “system” in stunningly eloquent ways. “When a victim does go for help, she is seen as attacking the assailant,” Miller says in Know My Name. “Inherently the victim is outnumbered,” (page 287-8).

It’s hard not to turn this review into a series of extracts; Miller’s voice is that powerful. Just one more…

For years, the crime of sexual assault depended on our silence. The fear of knowing what happened if we spoke… The barricades that held us down will not work anymore. And when silence and shame are gone, there will be nothing to stop us.

Know My Name (Page 327)

Goosebumps, right? This is an incredible read, on every level: as a tool for dismantling the patriarchy, as a masterfully-crafted narrative, as an account of crime and justice, and as a radical testament to the costs of survival.

Educated – Tara Westover

When it comes to writing memoirs, you’ve either got to have talent for storytelling or a life so fascinating that talent (or lack thereof) doesn’t matter. Luckily, Tara Westover has both. Even in the hands of a real bore, Educated – a memoir about shame, understanding, and the transformative power of education – would be an interesting read. In Westover’s voice, it’s downright enthralling.

Educated - Tara Westover - Keeping Up With The Penguins
Buy Educated here.
(And let me educate you on affiliate links: this page has ’em, and if you use ’em to buy anything, I’ll earn a small commission. Lesson complete!)

Educated, first published in 2018, is Westover’s account of her remarkable life: growing up in a family of survivalist Mormons, leaving them to step foot in a classroom for the first time as a university student, and going on to complete a PhD at Cambridge University. The story is told in three parts, to match that chronology.

Part One begins with Westover’s birth – date unknown, sometime around the end of September, 1986 – on an isolated rural property that served as both family home and junkyard. Westover didn’t have a birth certificate for the first nine years of life. When the time came for her to get one, none of her family members could agree on their recollection of the day she was born. “I remember the day [my delayed birth certificate] came in the mail,” she says, on page 26. “It felt oddly dispossessing, being handed this first legal proof of my personhood: until that moment, it had never occurred to me that proof was required.”

Her parents were deeply suspicious of any government or organisation, be it hospitals, schools, or the tax man. Westover and her siblings grew up fearing the kind of federal intervention we’ve seen play out on the evening news, where operatives would come to take them away – and for them, the threat was a lot more tangible, and local. A 1992 siege upon the home of a like-minded Idaho family nearby resulted in three deaths; you might know it as Ruby Ridge.

Westover’s attempts to attend school or participate in any other aspect of “normal” childhood were (sometimes violently) opposed by her father. That included seeking medical attention. Educated has any number of stories of junkyard injuries that the family “treated” (homeopathically) themselves at home, and more than one serious car accident – each more stomach-turning than the last.

Despite that stumble start in life, Westover managed to “home school” herself enough to pass the required exams and gain entry to Brigham Young University. In Part Two of Educated, she details the pressures and obstacles that come from starting college at 17, having taught yourself to read with only the Bible and the Book of Mormon as reference texts.

Once Westover begins her formal education, she is reluctant – in the extreme – to tell the truth of her upbringing, her circumstances, and her needs. It’s easy, with privilege and hindsight, to shout at the page: “Just tell them! It’ll help! It’ll make things better for you!”. It takes a long time for Westover to concede that she does, in fact, need more than her upbringing gave her to survive in the world.

I’ll never forget one particularly harrowing episode where Westover finally found the courage to ask a question in class: the meaning of the word Holocaust. Her classmates were horrified, but of course, none of them knew why she asked.

I’d never learned how to talk to people who weren’t like us – people who went to school and visited the doctor. Who weren’t preparing, every day, for the End of the World.

Educated (Page 101)

The final section of Educated covers Westover’s opportunity to study at Cambridge, the financial assistance and mentorship she received to help her stay there – and, of course, what choosing the path of education meant for her relationship with her family, her hometown, her religion, and herself. The book learning’s not all beer and skittles, after all.

Westover writes her true history without judgement, a remarkable feat given her circumstances. She says at the end of her memoir that she’s in touch with only a few of her family members, and lives a life entirely separate from the mountain that was her first home, but she doesn’t seem to wish them ill or bear any bitterness for the life they gave her.

In the interests of a right of reply, I’ll tell you here that Westover’s parents (via their attorneys) have said that there is “only a little germ of truth” in Educated, and her brother Shawn in particular has vehemently denied the instances of abuse Westover described. Westover hasn’t given a public response to that – the book kind of speaks for itself, really, having been professionally fact-checked by the kinds of very smart and thorough people who do that kind of thing.

What Westover has lost in family, she has won in fans, hundreds of thousands of times over. Educated was an instant best-seller, and received wall-to-wall positive reviews (a frightening number of which appear as blurbs in my edition, pages and pages of them!). The book spent over two years on the New York Times Bestseller List, and has been translated into over 45 languages. As of last year, it had sold over 6 million copies worldwide.

I found Educated to be a breathtaking read, in more ways than one. The dangers and horrors of Westover’s childhood had my heart in my throat – but the moments of love and compassion shared within this bizarre family did, too. I was captivated by the way Westover was able to relate her story, with frankness and fairness that any memoir writer should envy. Naturally, I must offer any prospective readers content warnings for family trauma (and one particularly alarming incident of cruelty towards a dog, near the end), but trust me: if you can stomach it, Educated is an incredible and transformative read.

My favourite Amazon reviews of Educated:

  • “By purchasing this book, helped her pay for her psych bills.” – Gloria H. Pedrick
  • “Survivalist, near- death experiences, severe mental illness, religious conflict, this book has it all. And you think YOUR family is nuts!” – Nancy
  • “I need this book downloaded on to my iPad, please” – Yvonne barmon swanstrom
« Older posts Newer posts »