Keeping Up With The Penguins

Reviews For The Would-Be Booklover

Category: Satire (page 1 of 4)

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!

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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

Thank You For Smoking – Christopher Buckley

One of my favourite movies of all time is Thank You For Smoking (2005). It follows Nick Naylor, chief spokesperson for a major tobacco lobby, as he tries to convince the world that cigarettes won’t kill you (or, if they do, at least you’ll die with liberty). The thing is, I didn’t even realise it was a book, the 1994 novel Thank You For Smoking, until I scored this copy for $4.99 in a remainder book shop while I was waiting for a train. How basic of me!

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Cards on the table: I’ve had an on-again-off-again relationship with cigarettes for too many years. At the time of reading Thank You For Smoking, it was (mostly) off, and I was hoping this would be the book to help me kick the cancer sticks for good. It’s basically the anti-West Wing: a biting satirical caricature of Washington politics, corporate greed, media spin, and Hollywood bullshit.

The opening line sets the tone:

“Nick Naylor had been called many things since becoming chief spokesman for the Academy of Tobacco Studies, but until now no one had actually compared him to Satan.”

Thank You For Smoking (Page 3)

As in the movie, Nick is a cigarette company flack, and a pretty damn good one (despite his boss’s suspicions otherwise). He’s a scoundrel, through and through, out for chicks and cash and cigarettes – usually in that order, but not always. His offices are just a few blocks from the White House, and he glad-hands with all the bigwigs in town (when he’s not being flown cross-country in his boss’s private jet). He loves his job, and he’ll defend cigarettes passionately to anyone who’ll listen, but deep down he knows he’s only doing it to pay the mortgage. That’s how he sleeps at night.

The supporting players are Nick’s M.O.D. Squad, the friends-cum-support-group whose self-designated moniker stands for Merchants Of Death. Together, they represent the tobacco, alcohol, and firearms industries, and more than one argument breaks out over whose product is the most deadly. All of the lobby groups in Thank You For Smoking have knee-slappingly ironic names and acronyms: the Moderation Council for booze, the Society For The Humane Treatment of Calves for veal, and so on.





Nick’s opposition are the congressmen (the very few of them not on the take) and public health advocates who hold him – and Big Tobacco, by extension – responsible for 1,200 deaths a day. They’ve got righteousness on their side, but it’s no match for Nick’s quick wit and doublespeak. In fact, Nick is so effective in his role that he becomes the target of anti-tobacco terrorists, who paper him with nicotine patches in a showy effort to bump him off. Nick survives, but he’s left with a terrible and apparently life-long distaste for cigarettes – a significant handicap in his line of work. Plus, the FBI suspects that he faked the whole thing to garner sympathy.

Despite his provocative rhetoric on Oprah, Nick knows he’s just plugging holes. The tide is turning against cigarettes. His boss, ever-skeptical of Nick’s media strategy, intimates that he’s one strike away from getting the sack – and that’s before he realises Nick is sleeping with an attractive young reporter who has promised him a favourable profile. Nick’s Hail Mary offering is to fly to Los Angeles and make a deal that would see movie stars smoking on the big screen (and not just the villains and the crazies). After all, product placement works for beer and popcorn, why not cigarettes?

Yes, Thank You For Smoking is funny and fast-paced and just a little farcical. It’s a thoroughly entertaining read. The thing is, reading it reaffirmed all the arguments I’ve ever heard in favour of – not quitting smoking, don’t be ridiculous – not watching the movie before you’ve read the book (or, at least, not reading the book of a movie you’ve enjoyed). I just kept picturing scenes from the (remarkably faithful, it must be said) movie version the whole way through. The laughs just weren’t quite as hearty coming from the page. Thank You For Smoking is a book I probably would have loved-loved-loved otherwise. As it stands, it was just pretty good. I’d recommend it for anyone who has a taste for political satire and a dark sense of humour.

My favourite Amazon reviews of Thank You For Smoking:

  • “Good plot, well told with excellent humor and all loose ends tied up expertly. Just the right length and stopped well in time before it got tedious.” – Kindle Customer
  • “Had to buy this book for a class. I like that it was hard back but when I received the book it had a unique smell to it and I had to leave it outside for a few days to air it out.” – Glen
  • “This was a gift and I didn’t read it. However, I do like Christopher Buckley’s writing and knowing this I’m sure it was great for the intended two smokers.” – Carole Stevens


My Sister The Serial Killer – Oyinkan Braithwaite

As much as we all love a bit of mystery and intrigue, sometimes it’s nice to read a book with the premise laid out completely in the title. My Sister The Serial Killer gives you exactly what it says on the tin: the story of Korede and her sister, Ayoola, who has the unfortunate habit of killing her boyfriends.

My Sister The Serial Killer - Oyinkan Braithwaite - Keeping Up With The Penguins
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I first encountered Oyinkan Braithwaite at the Sydney Writers’ Festival (she’s lovely, by the way, and she had a queue out the door for book signings after her session). It’s hard to imagine that such an astonishingly dark and laughably twisted plot came out of the mind of such a delightful creature. I’m sure her Google search history must’ve got her on a watch-list somewhere…

But, to the story: as I said, Ayoola keeps killing her boyfriends, and it’s up to Korede to clean up the mess. Korede is literally the person Ayoola calls to help her hide a body (c’mon, we’ve all got one). The story begins with Korede cleaning up the blood spatters of the third man that Ayoola has “dispatched”, and immediately you get the sense that this situation can’t continue indefinitely.

Even aside from the serial murders, Korede and Ayoola have a strange relationship – in no small part due to their fact that their father was horribly cruel and extremely dodgy (in fact, the knife Ayoola uses to off her suitors once belonged to him, a deftly crafted metaphor for the inheritance of violence). Korede feels responsible for her sister, but simultaneously suffers from a bit of an inferiority complex. She’s the “homely” one, while Ayoola is unequivocally the “beautiful” one, with all of the privilege and preference that beauty entails.

The plot boils over when a love triangle forms: Ayoola sets her sights on the handsome and charismatic doctor that Korede has loved from afar for months. Sibling loyalty can only go so far, after all. This forces Korede into the small gap between the proverbial rock and hard place: should she keep her sister’s secrets, or divulge them to the man she loves (possibly saving his life)?

My Sister The Serial Killer thus cleverly mixes crime, romance, and family saga. It’s definitely not a thriller, in the sense that it focuses far more on the sisters’ relationship – and what happens to it under strain – than it does any cat-and-mouse games with detectives. It’s also set in Lagos, with a remarkably strong sense of location and culture that we might more commonly associate with “place writing” (and a “place” that’s sadly not often encountered by Anglophone readers, to boot).

The story unfolds in short, punchy chapters. The family backstory – abusive father, complex mother – is revealed incrementally, in a way that naturally parallels and informs the rollercoaster of the love triangle and the will-she-or-won’t-she (kill again). I must say, I thought My Sister The Serial Killer would be more light-hearted in tone – or, at least, more morbidly humorous. Braithwaite focuses more on moral responsibility and culpability than I expected. There were few laughs, and more “wait, what would I do in that situation?” dilemmas. Is Ayoola empowered, or simply sociopathic? Is Korede doing the right thing by covering up her crimes, or is she enabling a murderer? Is she righteously loyal, or simply blinded by the affection of shared experience?

But, I suppose, I can hardly complain that my funny bone wasn’t tickled when it was such a pleasure to spend time with such complex and intriguing characters. The novel’s conclusion was satisfying without being too “neat”. Braithwaite demonstrates a talent for writing far beyond her years and experience. I look forward to seeing what she comes out with next (“My Brother, The Money Launderer”, perhaps? “My Mother, The Armed Robber”?)

My favourite Amazon reviews of My Sister The Serial Killer:

  • “I love this story. This is the first book I’ve bought since scholastic book fairs were a thing for me.” – Lauryn
  • “I don’t understand why I’m meant to care about an unapologetic murderer and her accomplice sister???? Also if I had a sister I feel like my cap would be covering up one murder for her. After that homegirl is on her own. By three I’d probably call the police myself because, you know, maybe my sister needs to work through some stuff (in prison) if she’s killing this many people?” – Miss Print
  • “Hilarious! I have two younger sisters and one torments the other with… well, not covering for murder, but other things.” – Mason J Blacher

Sanditon – Jane Austen

I’m slowly making my way through Jane Austen’s body of work: first up was Emma, then Pride And Prejudice. I couldn’t make up my mind which to read next… until the universe made it up for me. The wonderful folks at Oxford University Press were kind enough to send me a copy of Sanditon for review. Never heard of it? Not surprising! Only the die-hard Austen fans really have. It’s the partial manuscript, her final effort, the one she was working on when she died, aged just 41.

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If you take a look at the original manuscript (images are available, with transcription, open access at janeausten.ac.uk – good on them!), you can actually trace the timeline of Austen’s writing process. She began Sanditon on 27 January 1817, wrote twelve chapters, then set it aside on 18 March that year. She wrote to her niece a few days later, complaining that she felt unwell, and her condition deteriorated quickly. The unfinished novel, some 24,000 words, sat in a drawer and wasn’t published until more than a century after her death (in 1925). The title comes from the fictional seaside township she created for the story, Sanditon, though that title was applied retroactively (Austen herself never actually decided on a title for the manuscript). It was likely based on the real town of Worthing, where Austen stayed in 1805.

If someone handed you Sanditon without a cover or title page, you probably wouldn’t recognise it as one of Austen’s books. It’s set by the sea, for one thing, moving away from her traditional country-village settings and impoverished-gentry family homes. It may well be the first “seaside novel”, a short tradition in English lit that came after Austen’s time. It’s more than the setting, though, that sets Sanditon apart. Austen was clearly in the mood to mix things up. It starts with a bang, right in the middle of the action, where her novels would have usually begun with a bit of background information or family history (yes, we’re all thinking of “it’s a truth universally acknowledged” here).

She was drawing on a combination of the burgeoning trend for seaside holidays – resorts were capitalising on the reputation of fresh air and salt water bathing for “health” – and the site of cultural revolution that they represented. Here was a setting where the female body, so strictly policed in Austen’s world (real and fictional), was freed from its usual constraints. These towns had floating populations and attracted a variety of characters from all over, which gave her an opportunity (or would have, I guess) to explore new dynamics and new opportunities for humour and critique.





Austen didn’t stray too far from her repertoire, though: Sanditon was still intended to be a social satire, as best we can tell, a commentary on the ridiculousness of the craze for seaside holidays. It is also, in some ways, a gentle ribbing of hypochondriacs, people wealthy and privileged enough to imagine illnesses and cures, written by a woman who (we now know) was dying.

It all starts (with a bang, as I said) when the carriage of Mr & Mrs Parker topples over near the home of the Heywoods. Mr Parker is injured, and the carriage all kinds of buggered, so the couple stays with the Heywoods for a fortnight until everyone’s ready to get back on the road. Mr Parker speaks very fondly of Sanditon, a former fishing village; he and his business partner, Lady Denham, have designs on opening a fashionable seaside resort there.

Charlotte Heywood is the eldest daughter still living at the Heywood home (and, again as best we can tell, she was all set to become the main character). When Mr Parker and his carriage are ready to go, she tags along with them, and stays with the Parkers in Sanditon as a summer guest. There, she meets the locals, including Mrs Denham – a twice-widowed woman who got her fortune from her first husband, and her title from the second (wink-wink). She has some scheming and opportunistic family members (it is still an Austen novel, remember) hoping to secure her estate.





It’s a strong set-up, but unfortunately the Sanditon manuscript ends before Austen had the chance to lay everything out properly. More characters are introduced – like Mr Parker’s two sisters, self-declared invalids, and a brother – but the novel cuts off before they can be fully developed and their roles revealed. Still, Austen has just enough time to work in a few zingers.

“I am very sorry you met with your accident, but upon my word you deserved it.–Going after a Doctor!–Why, what should we do with a Doctor here? It would be only encouraging our servants and the Poor to fancy themselves ill, if there was a Doctor at hand.”

Sanditon, page 35

And a pro health tip from Arthur: take your toast with a “reasonable” quantity of butter, because dry toast will ravage your stomach lining like a “nutmeg grater”. True fact!

Because Austen laid all the ground-work with Sanditon, it’s been a favourite of “continuators” – later writers who tried to complete the novel and emulate her style (her niece, Anna Lefoy, among them). That means there are a few different versions of Sanditon floating around, but my OUP edition is the OG: edited by Kathryn Sutherland (who has worked on a whole bunch of Austen projects), and presented faithfully to Austen’s original work. That means it’s a slim book (it is, after all, unfinished, and ends abruptly in the middle of Chapter 12), but it’s beautifully produced, with a well-researched author biography, introduction, and notes.

Ultimately, Sanditon reads like what it is: a first draft of an incomplete novel. There’s enough of Austen’s natural talent and brilliance there to make it worth reading, but also enough to bum you out – it is terribly, terribly sad that this work will forever remain unfinished (continuators be damned). Still, I appreciated this little window into Austen’s mind, and the opportunity to see the machinations that came before her formally polished and published prose.

My favourite Amazon reviews of Sanditon:

  • “ “I am everything Jane Austin”!” – Gloria Groot
  • “didnt finish” – Joan Strochak
  • “This is not the complete book, only the section Jane Austen wrote” – C. Jones
  • “Slow to start but got better near the end …..” Kaya Penelope
  • “Disappointed with ending, author seems to have tired of writing and abruptly ends the story.” – Teri Jensen

The Manic Pixie Dream Boy Improvement Project – Lenore Appelhans

I always thought those book lovers that kept track of where exactly they got book recommendations were kind of going overboard. I mean, I love a spreadsheet tracker as much as the next person (ahem), but I didn’t think I needed to track where I first heard of a book – surely the crucial details, like title and author, would be enough? Well, I’m eating humble pie now, and kicking myself in the pants at the same time. I know I first heard about The Manic Pixie Dream Boy Improvement Project on a bookish podcast… but I cannot, for the life of me, remember which one! I’d really love to shout them out here, and thank them for putting me on to this gem of a book, so if there’s the tiniest chance any of you brilliant Keeper Upperers out there might recall being recommended this same book in that way (a stretch, I know!), I’d greatly appreciate you sharing in the comments.

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The Manic Pixie Dream Boy Improvement Project definitely goes out to all the word nerds and book geeks. The whole premise is a literary critique: Riley is a Manic Pixie Dream Boy, a sub-type of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl trope. He lives in TropeTown where he hangs out with all the other trope characters until they’re summoned by an author for a role in a book.

(A quick sidebar for the uninitiated: a trope is a recurrent motif or character in books. Authors use as a kind of short-hand, to signal to the reader what’s happening in the story. So, for instance, if there are two equally-charming-but-very-different boys vying for one girl’s attention, you’re smack bang in the middle of the Love Triangle trope (and you can probably guess it’s going to end one way or the other). If you’re presented with a character who’s a force for good but truly only motivated by sex, money, or drugs, you’ve got yourself an Anti-Hero trope (and you’ll probably love him despite his flaws). See what I mean?)

(And, a sidebar to the sidebar: the moniker of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl was first used in a review of the 2007 film Elizabethtown, but the trope itself has existed far longer. Critic Nathan Rabin described Kirsten Dunst’s character in the film as such: “The Manic Pixie Dream Girl exists solely in the fevered imaginations of sensitive writer-directors to teach broodingly soulful young men to embrace life and its infinite mysteries and adventures.” Basically, their only job is to be quirky and fun love interests, and get the boys to live a little. So, that should give you enough context…)





But back to the story! Riley, as I said, is a Manic Pixie Dream Boy, a trope created to counter-balance the sexist origins of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl trope (it turns out boys can exist in stories solely to justify the development of another character just as well as girls, who knew?). There was one other Manic Pixie Dream Boy in TropeTown, Finn, but he was “terminated” under mysterious circumstances. “No one really knows what happens when you’re terminated,” Riley explains. “You board a train on the outskirts of town. The train always comes back empty.” And Riley might find himself terminated, too, if he’s not careful.

See, Riley’s job as a trope is simply to turn up when summoned by an author, and perform his role as a trope while the Developeds (central characters who get actual depth) progress through the story. But he’s been going off script, taking his character beyond the bounds of Manic Pixie-ness, and his authors are getting pissed. They’ve made a complaint to the TropeTown Council, who stick Riley in group therapy, alongside a bunch of similarly-disgruntled Manic Pixies. They’re all restless, seeking a level of autonomy never afforded to their kind. Riley feels like they’re all capable of more than just regurgitating cliches, but he also knows he needs to “accept [his] place in the narrative hierarchy” and do as he’s told. Thus, the book’s title: this is The Manic Pixie Dream Boy Improvement Project.

It might all sound dreadfully complicated, but please don’t write this one off! I swear, any confusion is my fault entirely. Appelhans has done an incredible job of weaving a clever and complex world in a very accessible way, right down to including a map of TropeTown in the opening pages (which is, in itself, a delight – the Villains live in an area literally called “The Wrong Side Of The Tracks”, lol!).





I don’t think it will surprise you to learn that this book is very meta: not so much so that it detracts from the reading experience, more like it gives you the feeling of being in on the joke. Riley often breaks the fourth wall, speaking directly to the reader, and displays a comic level of self-awareness in his role. The tone is always lighthearted, quirky and zany as we’d expect of a Manic Pixie story, but don’t be fooled: at its heart, The Manic Pixie Dream Boy Improvement Project is actually a searing literary (and, by extension, social) critique.

Take, for example, the repeated digs at beloved YA author John Green. Riley’s most successful role to date was playing “Romantic Cancer Boy” (a very obvious nod to The Fault In Our Stars). The Manic Pixie-cum-Mean Girl Nebraska is the only one of the therapy group to have had a titular role (again, a not-subtle poke in the ribs to Green’s Looking For Alaska). The Manic Pixie trope is so pervasive and evergreen in young adult fiction, the jokes work in seamlessly, but I still applaud Applehans for being brave enough to go after the king and leaving herself barely any room for plausible deniability.

The parody, of course, could not be complete without a love story, a mystery, and lots and lots of wacky adventures – and The Manic Pixie Dream Boy Improvement Project has all of those in spades. Nevertheless, the book never felt repetitive or cheesy. The cliches were employed sarcastically, the humour was wry, and even for all the zaniness, the central message was still one that I can get behind: we all need to take a long, hard look at whose stories get told, and how (an especially timely question in the bookish world). Towards the end, Appelhans even wades into that ever-dangerous territory of addressing “problematic” tropes: Uncle Tomfoolery, the Magical Negro, and so forth. I think she handled that combustible subject matter superbly, too.

I suppose The Manic Pixie Dream Boy Improvement Project is technically itself a YA novel, but I would really resent it being pigeon-holed. I think this literary send-up would be a wonderful read for book lovers of all ages, guaranteed to delight, entertain, and provoke indiscriminately.


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