Keeping Up With The Penguins

Reviews For The Would-Be Booklover

Category: Satire (page 1 of 5)

The Sellout – Paul Beatty

I’m a sucker for a wild premise, so as soon as I heard about The Sellout, reading it became inevitable. The 2016 Booker Prize-winner has a gob-smacking conceit: a pissed-off protagonist comes before the U.S. Supreme Court on a litany of charges that effectively amount to reinstating slavery and segregation in his small California hometown. Seriously? Seriously!

The Sellout - Paul Beatty - Keeping Up With The Penguins
Get The Sellout here.
(I hope you don’t think I’m a sellout for putting affiliate links on this page! A gal’s gotta eat/read!)

The Sellout is “an absurdist comedy for our times”. You’d think, given the premise, that Beatty was inspired to write it after seeing the increasing volatility in race relations across America – but nope! He told an interviewer that, simply, “he was broke”. With the book sales and awards he’s won, I hope that’s no longer the case.

The story is largely set in the “agrarian ghetto” of Dickens, a fictional Californian town that is mostly black and mostly poor, on the outskirts of Los Angeles. The narrator (who is technically unnamed, but referred to as “Me” or by his nickname, “Bonbon”) is outraged when Dickens is summarily wiped off the map, unincorporated by the powers that be. He sets about trying to return his hometown to its former “glory”, and stumbles upon an unusual way of doing so: segregating busses and schools, allowing a former child actor to be his slave, and revisiting the racist films of old.

I’ve been charged with a crime so heinous that busting me for possession of marijuana on federal property would be like charging Hitler with loitering.

The Sellout (page 20)

From the outset, The Sellout has strong Portnoy’s Complaint vibes – and that’s even before the narrator starts talking about his father. They had a tenuous relationship, rooted in the fact that Daddy was an unorthodox psycho-sociologist who performed unethical and unapproved experiments on the narrator as a child. He bastardised psychological schools of thought and twisted them into strange games to test his kid’s Blackness. Reading it gave me some flashbacks to my psychology undergrad, I must admit.

I laughed out loud reading The Sellout too, frequently – but in a way that made me feel oddly ashamed. It’s a deeply satirical book. At times, I found myself wondering whether it was really “okay” for me to be laughing, given that I’m clearly not the intended audience, and many of the nuances of race relations in America would escape me. It’s the taboo that makes it funny, a lot of the time.

(Oh, and heads up: there’s a pretty graphic description of a calf castration about halfway through, and that’s really the least of The Sellout’s disturbing and distressing content.)

Beatty uses stereotypes and parody to provoke the reader, to both laughter and anger. He works in some strange moments of insight and poignancy, despite the surreal nature of the story and its characters.

When I did what I did, I wasn’t thinking about inalienable rights, the proud history of our people. I did what worked, and since when did a little slavery and segregation ever hurt anybody, and if so, so fucking be it.

The Sellout (Page 39)

Academics and reviewers who are smarter than me have positioned The Sellout as a critique of the idea of America as a post-racial society. Basically, Beatty uses comedy and over-exaggeration to draw attention to the embedded systemic racism that persists even after a Black man won a Presidential election.

Reni Eddo-Lodge puts it well in her review, I think, when she calls The Sellout “a whirlwind of satire”. She says: “Everything about The Sellout‘s plot is contradictory. The devices are real enough to be believable, yet surreal enough to raise your eyebrows.”

I’m kind of flabbergasted, having read it now, that The Sellout won the Booker Prize. It seems like it would have been a controversial choice, to say the least. Even setting aside the racial components, it was the first American book to win the prize (traditionally reserved for English-language books not from the U.S.) since they were made eligible with a rule change back in 2002. Hats off to the judges who flew in the face of what was surely considerable opposition to get this scarily funny surreal satire the attention it deserves.

My favourite Amazon reviews of The Sellout:

  • “I read for pleasure and this book was not pleasurable.” – Mary McBeth
  • “Kind of like the current president. outrages but no redeeming value.” – Bahmadan
  • “If you’re a hipster, a literary critic who wants to sound hip, an academic, a Jeopardy fan, or a masochist, you’ll love this pointless mishmash filled with cultural references designed to show how brilliant the author is.” – Michael Engel
  • “Erudite vomit.” – John Updike
  • “Not really my cup of tea. If you’re OK with prolific profanity, extensive use of the N-word, and a story line that compares unfavorably to a hairball then maybe you’ll like it better.” – Craig VanArendonk

Nothing To See Here – Kevin Wilson

I heard the conceit of Nothing To See Here and it was all I needed to know. “A politician’s kids spontaneously combust, threatening his political career” – I am HERE FOR IT! I rushed out to find myself a copy immediately.

Nothing To See Here - Kevin Wilson - Keeping Up With The Penguins
Get Nothing To See Here here.
(Affiliate links are nothing to see here, either – just a little tool that lets you support this site when you make a purchase.)

So, in 1995, Lillian is 28-years-old and down on her luck, living in her mother’s attic in Tennessee. She could’ve lived the good life instead – she could’ve been a contender! – but her mother was bribed into letting her take the fall for her roommate’s drug possession back in high school. So, she drifts from shitty job to shitty job, barely able to see past the fog of poverty and depression. She has a dark sense of humour and a wicked pragmatism that I thoroughly enjoy.

The inciting incident of Nothing To See Here comes when Lillian receives a letter, from that roommate who escaped a drug charge. Madison is every bit as luminous and charismatic as she was in high school, but now she’s a senator’s wife and lives in a mansion paid for with his family’s wealth. Madison writes to Lillian, begging her to come take her up on a “job opportunity”. Lacking any better options, Lillian accepts.

She doesn’t know until she gets there that the “job opportunity” is taking care of Madison’s step-kids. Who spontaneously combust, at inconvenient times. They need to be kept out of sight, and out of mind.

Seriously, they spontaneously combust. Just… whoosh!

‘How are they still alive?’ I asked.

‘It doesn’t hurt them at all,’ she said, shrugging to highlight how dumbfounded she was. ‘They just get really red, like a bad sunburn, but they’re not hurt.’

‘What about their clothes?’ I asked.

‘I’m still figuring this out, Lillian,’ she said. ‘I guess their clothes burn off.’

‘So they’re just these naked kids on fire?’

‘I think so. So you can understand why we’re worried.’

Nothing TO See Here

Lillian agrees to look after these “fire children” for the summer, keeping them out of view of the media and Madison’s husband’s political opponents. (Needless to say, “fire children” might pose a problem for his future presidential aspirations.) That’s easier said than done, but Lillian’s willing to give it a crack for some money in the bank and the chance of a fresh start.

Nothing To See Here is a novel about class, about the divide between wealth and poverty. Lillian’s entire life trajectory is changed, first by Madison’s crime (which wasn’t even a blip on her own record, expunged by money and influence), then by Madison’s exploitation of her desperation in seeking her out for help. It’s a powerful allegory for the limitations of class mobility and inequity of opportunity.

If you were rich, and you were a dude, it really felt like if you just followed a certain number of steps, you could do pretty much whatever you wanted.

Nothing To See Here

As much as Lillian envies Madison’s wealth and privilege, though, Wilson does manage to sneak some sympathy in the side entrance. Madison’s preoccupation with “appearances” and politics prevents her from developing any kind of relationship with the children, a relationship that Lillian ultimately finds immensely rewarding and fulfilling (though, obviously, not without its challenges).

It’s also a fascinating study of female friendship, with Lillian and Madison being essentially grown “frenemies”, while still caring deeply for one another. There are queer overtones, with Lillian’s admiration for Madison tipping over into outright lust at times. It’s difficult to understand, unless you’ve been a woman in this kind of friendship, what would make Lillian feel in anyway drawn to or obligated to Madison after what happened in high school – but she does. It’s one of those illogical relationships that somehow makes perfect sense, and Wilson renders it beautifully on the page.

There was less about the politician husband than I expected. I thought this novel was going to be along the lines of Veep, but it was more like My Brilliant Friend – except more humorous and pithy. So, I guess I’d call Nothing To See Here contemporary feminist fiction meets political satire with a speculative fiction element. That’s one heck of a combination, I know, but Wilson truly nails it.

My favourite Amazon reviews of Nothing To See Here:

  • “Interesting premise – a pair of twins who burst into flames now and again when they are upset. Implausible? Sure, but that’s beside the point. He never explains why the kids catch fire and you don’t expect him to – all kids catch on fire now and again in a sense. It’s one of them metaphor things.” – Dave the L
  • “I tend to prefer a more serious genre, but once in a while I need to lighten up and this story did it for me. I wasn’t even offended by the main character’s intermittent use of the F word because it was an essential contribution to her character.” – vito catalfio
  • “Stupid . No plot, no body, no reality. So many holes in this book that the pages could be made of Swiss cheese.” – VLK
  • “I just didn’t like this story how Madison hired Lillian to look after her step children who seemed to also catch on fire. Very far fetched story.” – Harrison Shapiro
  • “The simplistic story line, cardboard characters, and uninteresting writing do not reward the time spent reading. The author titled the book correctly: There’s Literally NOTHING to See Here.” – Readerphile

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.

Horrorstor - Grady Hendrix - Keeping Up With The Penguins
Get Horrorstor here.
(Unlike your regular product catalogue, when you use an affiliate link on this page to make a purchase, you’ll be supporting this blog in the form of a small commission. Good on you!)

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

Northanger Abbey – Jane Austen

Northanger Abbey occupies a strange place in the Austen oeuvre. It was the first of her major works to be completed in full (1803), but it wasn’t published until after her death (1817). The first half of the story is a comedy of manners, the second is a satirical spin on the Gothic novel. Her heroine is plain and annoying, but still wins the love of the hero in the end. If the Austen novels were a family, Northanger Abbey would be the weird cousin who never says anything in the group chat.

Northanger Abbey - Jane Austen - Keeping Up With The Penguins
Buy Northanger Abbey here.
(Want to sponsor more fictional journeys to dream destinations? Use an affiliate link on this page, I’ll earn a small commission!)

It would seem that, in writing Northanger Abbey, Austen took her frustration with the tropes of Gothic novels (the shrinking violet heroines, the spooky haunted houses, etc.) and turned it into a story of her own. The Introduction to my edition cites “Austen’s deep-seated dislike of pretension… [and] the absurdities of contemporary literature” as sources of inspiration as well. Basically, Austen wanted to send-up the schlocky novels of her day – something like My Best Friend’s Exorcism would be today’s equivalent.

So, instead of a beautiful young woman who faints at a whiff of excitement, Austen chose for her heroine Catherine Morland, a particularly-naive and over-eager bookworm. She’s a middle-class middle child (of ten!), undistinguished and generally unremarkable. If I had to summarise the central thesis of Northanger Abbey‘s opening chapter, it would be: “This bitch! I mean, she tries, but damn.”

The narrator tells us directly that Catherine is “not really” a heroine. That’s another thing: the narrator’s position in Northanger Abbey is unlike any of the others I’ve read so far of Austen. It’s third-person in the sense that the story is told from an outside perspective, not by one of the characters involved, but at the same time it’s not an omniscient or fly-on-the-wall viewpoint, either. The narrator – slash Austen herself – makes little asides to the reader throughout, offering her own commentary and insights into what’s going on and what the reader should make of it all.

The “inciting incident” is Catherine’s invitation to join some family friends on a sojourn to Bath. Of course, she accepts, and while she’s staying with them, she befriends the world’s most Extra supporting character, Isabella. She’s all “oh, you simply MUST come for a walk with me, or I will DIE, I will be DECEASED, for you are my BEST FRIEND IN THE HISTORY OF THE WORLD and without YOU I would meet an UNTIMELY DEATH!”, on every damn page. Still, Catherine doesn’t seem to find her as exhausting as I did; she joins Isabella at balls, at the theater, at the baths, and so on.

Shortly thereafter, Catherine also meets Henry Tilney – our leading man. He’s not as dashing or charismatic as other Austen heroes, but he’s got his own kind of charm. The blurb for Northanger Abbey described him as “irresistible but unsentimental”, which is bang on. Catherine immediately falls head-over-heels in love with him – even goes so far as to befriend his sister Eleanor, in an effort to get closer to him – but he seems just mildly entertained by her (well, until the happily-ever-after).

You know who’s more-than-mildly entertained by Catherine? John Thorpe, Isabella’s brother. He’s crude and gross and would definitely have sent Catherine dick pics if he’d had the technology. He never shuts up, either. Catherine doesn’t want a bar of him, but ends up kind-of accidentally stringing him along, in an effort not to hurt his or Isabella’s feelings. Whoops.

Catherine’s own brother, James, joins them in Bath for a bit, and decides he’s in love with Isabella. She’s keen on him too, and accepts his proposal of marriage… only to come down with a ghastly case of cold feet, coincidentally around the same time as she finds out he’s not rich. She starts trying to flirt her way into a more fruitful marriage, but by the end of Northanger Abbey she gets her comeuppance and James gets away scot-free.

Once the party’s over in Bath, Eleanor invites her new friend Catherine to come and stay with her and her brother (Henry, the hottie, remember?) at their place, the titular Northanger Abbey. Catherine, having read a lot of Gothic novels, expects a spooky haunted house filled with ghosts of long-ago traumas and whatnot. Of course, it’s nothing of the sort. She stays there safe and happy as a welcome and beloved houseguest, until Eleanor and Henry’s father boots her.

That’s very bad news for Catherine, given her plan to seduce Henry and marry him and love him forevermore. Turns out, his father had had the same idea, which is why she was invited to the abbey in the first place, only Daddy thought his future daughter-in-law was wealthy. When a (scorned) John Thorpe told him she was practically a pauper, he quickly tried to pull up the seeds he had sown.

Henry’s not having a bar of that. He flips Daddy the bird, and rides like the wind to Catherine’s side, to tell her that he does love her after all (rich or no) and they’ll be married (with Daddy’s approval or no). Oh, and Eleanor manages to marry rich, too, which goes quite some way to assuaging Daddy’s concerns. Badabing, badaboom, there’s your happy ending!

So, as far as Austen novels go, Northanger Abbey is more bold and bawdy than some of her more-renowned offerings. While it hits a lot of the same notes as your Emmas and your Pride And Prejudices, it hits them a lot harder, and holds the pedal down for good measure. Take, for instance, the very obvious moral position with regards to literacy: all of the “good” characters of Northanger Abbey love books and talk about them at length, while all of the “bad” characters turn their noses up at them. I wonder what Austen was getting at with that, hmm?

(I feel I should also mention – though it was hard to work out where, so this will have to do! – that there are a couple of instances of blatant anti-Semitism, which I found really jarring, having not encountered that particular type of antiquated nastiness in Austen’s work previously. Just a heads up!)

I think I preferred the subtlety of Austen’s later work, but there’s something to be said for the explicit humour of Northanger Abbey – her other works made me nod appreciatively, while this one made me literally lol. I suppose it depends what you’re in the mood for as to which side you come down on. Still, I found this a cracking good read, and any Austen fan worth their salt should give it a go.

My favourite Amazon reviews of Northanger Abbey:

  • “I think she’s just freaking herself out.” – Molly Koeneman (she / her)
  • “Jane Austen is a very proficient writer indeed.” – revrich333
  • “This book was like purposefully watching a terrible documentary to help you fall asleep. Every time I picked this book up I fell asleep. This is not a book I would recommend unless you need sleep.” – Andrea
  • “Not really a book about a heroine. No heroine here just a girl that lucks up marrying the man she liked. Boring.” – KTWeed
  • “it was okay I guess, I liked the wishbone version better” – toyherb

Death At Intervals – José Saramago

Here we have yet another book I came to via the wonderful The To Read List Podcast: Death At Intervals (or, in the U.S., Death With Interruptions). Aside from their recommendation, it was the premise that had me hooked. In an unnamed country, on January 1 of a brand new year, death just… stops. “New year’s eve had failed to leave behind it the usual calamitous trail of fatalities,” the narrator explains on page one. Death is on strike. Come on, Keeper Upperers! Tell me that doesn’t pique your curiosity!

Death At Intervals - Jose Saramago - Keeping Up With The Penguins
Buy Death At Intervals here.
(If you use an affiliate link, like this one, after a short interval I’ll earn a small commission!)

People who are unwell or injured neither improve or deteriorate – they simply don’t die. Initially, the population is dancing in the streets. I mean, it sounds like great news, right? No death! Woohoo! But of course, before long, some unanticipated consequences take the shine off the apple. Undertakers and funeral directors face bankruptcy. Religion has to take a new approach. A black market emerges, a “maphia” (spelled that way to avoid confusion with the traditional mafia) who will smuggle the elderly across the border where they can “expire” naturally. All of the outcomes are logical, once Saramago lays them out for you, but they’re definitely not the first ones that spring to mind when you hear “eternal life”.

Although Death At Intervals isn’t a comedy per se, I found it hilarious how quickly the “disappearance of death” became a bureaucratic and administrative nightmare. Saramago dedicates a lot of time to pondering: what’s to become of all the life insurance policies? Would legislating the need for pet funerals save the floundering funeral industry? He also interrogates what this situation would mean on the household level. After all, if hospitals are overwhelmed with terminally ill people who won’t die, the logical next step is that they’d be sent home to their families. What’s to become of them? Can we just stick Grandpa in the attic until death starts up again? (That’s where the aforementioned “maphia” come in, angels of death as it were, offering a solution to families who can’t bear the financial and emotional burden of caring for the nearly-dead indefinitely).

Saramago also delves briefly(ish) into the philosophy of linguistics. See, the “disappearance of death” really throws all the philosophers into a post-modern tizzy.

“It seems you don’t understand that words are the labels we stick on things, not the things themselves, you’ll never know what things are really like, nor even what their real names are, because the names you gave them are just that, the names you gave them…”

Death At Intervals (Page 64)

In the second half of Death At Intervals, we transition from treating death (or the absence of it) as a phenomenon, and she (yes, she) becomes an actual, anthropomorphised character. She decides to get back to work (“The seven months that death’s unilateral truce had lasted produced a waiting list of more than sixty thousand people on the point of death,”, page 98) and she also decides to try something new: sending letters to the soon-to-be deceased, warning them of what’s to come. She also announces this new development in a letter written to the media, and then chastises them when they correct her spelling and punctuation.

The final twist comes in the form of one of her you’re-going-to-die-soon letters that is mysteriously returned. An otherwise-unremarkable cellist, against all odds, appears to have defied his mortal fate. This drives “death” up the wall, and she devotes all of her energies to unraveling the mystery of why this man simply won’t die.

Saramago wrote Death At Intervals in his native Portuguese (original title: As Intermitências da Morte) and it was first published in 2005. This edition was translated into English by Margaret Jull Costa (#NameTheTranslator!) and published three years later. Although it’s a short book, just a couple hundred pages, it reads like a far longer one, mostly due to the fact that… well, I hesitate to say this about a Nobel Laureate, but here goes: Saramago writes weird. There are almost no paragraph breaks, not even for dialogue. Oh heavens, the dialogue – not only does he not use inverted commas, he doesn’t even break the sentence! You’ve got to read each page a couple of times to make sure you’re really clear on who’s saying what to whom. Apparently, this is Saramago’s “thing” (eschewing the agreed-upon rules of grammar and punctuation), and that’s almost enough to put me off trying any of his other books.

Still, if you can grit your teeth and put your grammar-pedantry aside, Death At Intervals is a really interesting book. It’s a modern satire dressed up as magical realism. It might force you to confront all kinds of heavy questions you weren’t expecting – could humanity exist without mortality? what about religion or philosophy? not to mention what it says about euthanasia! – but Saramago manages to keep it fun.

My favourite Amazon reviews of Death At Intervals:

  • “Having a hard time reading this book. It’s implausible of course but dry and uninteresting” – sheri
  • “interesting look on life and death. i enjoy all of Jose Saramago’s take on life.” – Lauren
  • “Wonderful author, great story, too bad he has passed away.” – hdf
« Older posts