Keeping Up With The Penguins

Reviews For The Would-Be Booklover

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Finding Nevo – Nevo Zisin

Nevo Zisin finds the concept of “coming out” – the idea that someone is straight until proven otherwise – really bothersome. They should know, they’ve had to do it a lot. Over the course of their young life, they’ve “come out” as bisexual, lesbian, queer, trans, non-binary, and polyamorous. But they’ve done a lot of other stuff too. Nevo is an activist, writer, and public speaker, focusing on issues of gender, sex, and sexuality. Finding Nevo is their first book, a “memoir of becoming”.

Nevo sums it up best when they say, about halfway through Finding Nevo: “There is no single trans narrative. This is my experience, and my experience alone.” But even bearing that in mind, for people unfamiliar with real-life trans and non-binary stories, this book is a bit of a crash course in a lot of the personal and political aspects of a life outside the cis-gender binary. Nevo introduces and describes subjects like changing pronouns, “passing”, seeking medical care, accessibility in public spaces, and there’s a really helpful glossary and resource guide in the back – but Finding Nevo never reads like a textbook, nor does it read like high-minded literature. Nevo uses language that is accessible to anyone. They don’t assume any pre-existing knowledge, just an open mind.

Nevo was born into a Jewish family, part of Melbourne’s very tight-knit Jewish community, which gives them unique insight into the intersection of culture, social mores, and religion in the LGBTIQ+ community. Nevo was assigned female at birth, and their mother desperately wanted a girl. So, for much of Nevo’s early years, femininity was enforced: dresses and skirts, pink toys, the whole she-bang. Nevo describes their childhood as being very lonely, and the more they tried to conform to others’ expectations, the less they felt they “fit in”.

Over the course of their childhood and adolescence, Nevo struggled to find which “version” of themselves felt most authentic. They are frank about the shifts and iterations they went through with their identity over time, and – crucially – the impact that their realisations and decisions had on their relationships (especially with their family members).

What Finding Nevo ultimately depicts and advocates is a process of “unlearning”: not just our ideas about the gender binary, but other restrictive expectations and assumptions, too. Nevo rejects the dominant narrative that all trans and non-binary people were “born in the wrong body”. However well-intentioned that explanation may seem (indeed, a lot of trans people use it themselves), Nevo resists the idea that their body is “wrong”. They also learned (the hard way!) that identities aren’t rigid, and it’s okay for them to change and evolve over time. It’s okay not to know and to go with what feels “right” at the moment. That’s why we’re all here, isn’t it?

Given that Finding Nevo is only about 200 pages long, it covers a remarkable amount of ground. Nevo talks about many aspects of identity and transformation: the physical realities of life in a trans/non-binary body, negotiating the divide between their sexuality/gender and their religious faith, and all of the good, bad, and ugly emotions that have come with every step. Nevo describes great pain, joyful optimism, crippling anxiety, bewildering dysphoria, and – ultimately – determined hope. And they were only twenty years old at the time of writing! Incredible!

It’s a quick read, with straightforward language, and it’s appropriate for pretty much all ages (I’d say if a kid is old enough to ask questions about this book’s content, they’re old enough to read it and, maybe with a little help, understand). In fact, it won the Australian Family Therapists’ Book Of The Year Award in 2018. It’s a really useful resource and learning tool for queer folk and straight/cis-gendered readers. For people who are struggling with their own identity, Finding Nevo will hopefully be a source of comfort and reassurance. For others, it will be an opportunity to learn, to walk a mile in the proverbial shoes, and come closer to understanding a life that is different to their own.

For me, this was a really timely read – not just because it’s Pride, not just because reviewing Frankissstein last week had me confronting my own blind spots, but also because while there’s never a “bad” time to learn and to empathise, the current moment seems particularly good for it. Reading it re-enforced the importance of amplifying #ownvoices non-fiction, as well as fictional depictions of diverse characters. I really admire Nevo’s generosity in sharing their experience, so candidly, in a way that could help so many others. Finding Nevo is a heart-felt, thoughtful, and constructive memoir – do the world a favour and buy it for the TERF in your life today!

12+ Books That Will Teach You Something New

My father always says “you’re never too old to learn”. I’m still a spring chicken (and I’ll deny any evidence to the contrary), but even I can see the wisdom in that. I sure as heck learned a lot reading and reviewing Frankissstein earlier this week. My bookish partner-in-crime, Chent, read that book and worked on that review alongside me. I learned that just because a book is marketed as a “trans novel” doesn’t make it so (in fact, it should probably make you more suspicious than anything), that identifying as queer doesn’t give you unique access to all queer experiences, that undeniable writing talent isn’t enough to make a good book… the list goes on and on. In that spirit, I’ve decided to put together this list of books that will teach you something new.

Books That Will Teach You Something New - Keeping Up With The Penguins

In some ways, every book will teach you something, regardless of its genre, quality, or content. I tried to cap this list at an even dozen, but more and more books that will teach you something new kept jumping out at me, and I just couldn’t help myself.

DON’T SCROLL PAST THIS EXTENDED INTRODUCTION TO GET STRAIGHT TO THE GOODS! I see you! Before we get stuck in, I want to highlight a few books that will speak more accurately to the LGBTIQ+ experience than Frankissstein did or could. It seems only fair that I stick them front and center, don’t you think? Chent and I discussed it, and concluded that This Book Is Gay is a great start for people wanting to learn more about queer life, queer communities, and queer politics. Further recommended reading would include The Stonewall Reader, Queer There And Everywhere, and Growing Up Queer In Australia. Now, go forth and do some book learnin’!

A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson

A Short History of Nearly Everything - Bill Bryson - book laid on a wooden table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Let’s start with the granddaddy of books that will teach you something new: Bill Bryson’s A Short History of Nearly Everything. As the title suggests, it contains… well, a short history of nearly everything. Even though it was first published about fifteen years ago (and still refers to Pluto as a planet, whoops!), this bad boy is still chockers full of fun and relevant facts that you won’t be able to resist sharing around the water cooler. I know that I annoyed my friends and family for WEEKS with insights into geology, biology, evolutionary psychology, physiology, universeology (okay, that’s not the real name, but I was on a roll there). I’ll happily make a personal guarantee that this book will teach you something new, AND you’ll have fun while you’re doing it. Read my full review of A Short History Of Nearly Everything here.

The Great Pretender by Susannah Cahalan

The Great Pretender - Susannah Cahalan - Keeping Up With The Penguins

In a former life, I was a psychology student (in fact, I went on to get First Class Honours, thank you very much). Throughout the duration of my degree, and for years afterwards, I always took the Rosenhan experiment as read. A brilliant psychiatrist sent a bunch of people into psychiatric hospitals with feigned benign symptoms, and they were all diagnosed with stigmatising mental illnesses and fed huge quantities of psychoactive medication, thus proving that psychiatric diagnosis was biased and basically bullshit. Right?

Wrong. Susannah Cahalan called into question everything I thought I “knew” about that experiment, and the years of psychiatric research that has come off the back of it. Don’t mistake me: The Great Pretender isn’t some quacky conspiracy-theorist psychiatry hit job, but it is a critical examination of the field of psychiatry and its fallibility. Not only did this book teach me a great deal about a field I thought I already “knew”, it taught me a lot about questioning the sources of my own knowledge and not taking for granted my own critical thinking.

In My Skin by Kate Holden

In My Skin - Kate Holden - Keeping Up With The Penguins

I’ve read a lot – a lot – about the history and lived experience of sex work undertaken by women, and In My Skin by Kate Holden remains the very best of all. Perhaps it’s because it was one of the very first (I read it when I was in my mid-teens), and it’s probably the book that prompted/shaped my interest and understanding of this subject at an influential time in my life. Holden doesn’t hold her fire. She doesn’t shy away from cliches or stereotypes where they are, in her case, true (she was addicted to heroin for the majority of her career as a sex worker), but she also works to dismantle the prejudices and misconceptions that are still so widespread about this industry.

I credit this book with not only being an incredible piece of writing, and not only with teaching me about a way of life with which I was not at all familiar, but with teaching me how to empathise with people who made decisions I couldn’t understand or life choices I wouldn’t make for myself. It has become a pillar of the contemporary #ownvoices SW canon, with very good reason.

On Writing by Stephen King

On Writing - Stephen King - Keeping Up With The Penguins

On Writing could easily replace most high-school or first-year writing and communications classes (at the very least, it should be assigned reading for them all). I think, perhaps, the reason that it’s not is that Stephen King has long been unfairly maligned in academia as a “genre” writer. Because his books have ghosts and ghoulies and beasties, they’re not “real” literature, and as such his memoir-slash-self-help-guide to writing well couldn’t POSSIBLY have anything worthy to teach us… Obviously, that’s complete nonsense.

Even if you have no interest in “being a writer”, there’s still much you can learn from this book. King offers insights into the nature of determination, motivation, persistence, and resilience. And I have no doubt that you’ll call his style advice to mind when you’re writing an email or a book review blog (ahem). It’s a concise guide to writing and to overcoming obstacles, without the gimmicky nonsense that too-often populates the “self help” section.

Bonus recommendation: If you’re interested in writing, or in creativity, or in simply living your life better and looking at things a different way, you should definitely check out Bird By Bird by Anne Lamott. Or, failing that, you can watch her TED talk.

Citizen: An American Lyric by Claudia Rankine

Citizen An American Lyric - Claudia Rankine - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Citizen: An American Lyric is perhaps one of the most mind-bending books I’ve read in recent years (and that includes A Brief History Of Time and other traditionally-intense tomes). It taught me a lot, in two different ways. Firstly, it changed my idea of what “poetry” could be. Citizen isn’t just page after page of rhyming couplets, or haikus, or even a verse novel. It’s a multi-media experience. It incorporates photography, film, news media, prose – like a delicious soup made from everything you can find in your fridge, left to simmer for hours. On another level altogether, it taught me a lot about race, privilege, and visibility, particularly in terms of micro-aggressions (yes, a buzzword, but one made tangible through Rankine’s art).

Of course, the onus should never be upon people of colour to “teach” white people about race and privilege, but it behooves us to read, learn, and understand from their work. Citizen is one of the best-selling books of poetry of my generation, and I’m sure (I’m yet to see any evidence for it, but I struggle to believe it wouldn’t be the case) that sales have re-surged in light of the worldwide Black Lives Matter protests earlier this month. This book is a testament of lived experience, and it has a lot to teach everyone, of all races and creeds.

Bonus recommendation(s): If you’re looking for more local (Australian) collections that deal with race and justice, I cannot recommend highly enough Blakwork by Alison Whittaker, and Throat by Ellen Van Neerven.

The Mosquito by Timothy C. Winegard

When I picked up The Mosquito, I was really only looking for the answer to one particular question: why do mosquitoes exist? It’s something I’ve wondered for a while, but I’ve never been able to find a satisfactory answer. Contrary to popular belief, they’re not an essential food source for any other animal, they’re not crucial for pollination of fruits, they really serve no purpose at all other than spreading disease and annoying the shit out of us. But I digress!

My point is that The Mosquito taught me so much more than I could have imagined. It wasn’t so much a history of the creature itself, but a detailed examination of the ways in which it has altered the course of human history. Wars have been won and lost based on vulnerability to the mosquito’s attack. It’s literally “my kingdom for the mosquito”, all the way through. I learnt more about the Romans, more about Napoleon, and even more about conflicts of the 20th century through The Mosquito than I have any other book. And that’s not to mention the biology, the evolutionary theory, the epidemiology…

Going Dark by Julia Ebner

Going Dark - Julia Ebner - Keeping Up With The Penguins

“Extremism” is a word used so often that it has almost come to lose its meaning. We talk about “extremists” being “radicalised online”, but what does that actually mean? Julia Ebner works at a “counter-extremism” think tank, so it seems that she’s pretty well positioned to tell us. What’s more, she actually spent years going undercover in the world of these “online extremists” – in her free time! – and Going Dark is an account of what she learned.

I’d imagine most people pick up a book like this thinking “I could never be radicalised online”. Maybe, if you’re a particularly curious individual, you idly wonder whether you could without giving it any serious thought. The fact is, it’s easier than you realise for your thoughts to be molded and directed by dark corners of the internet. Ebner shows, in terrifying detail, the ways that human vulnerabilities and emotional sore-spots can be exploited and capitalised upon by extreme ideologies.

The Library Book by Susan Orlean

The Library Book - Susan Orlean - Keeping Up With The Penguins

The Library Book should really come with a warning: “you’re going to annoy the shit out of your family, friends, and colleagues with fun facts for the next few weeks”. It’s often shelved in the true crime section, which I suppose is where it belongs, as it is the result of Susan Orlean’s investigation into the Los Angeles Central Library fire of 1986. Still, within that story, Orlean manages to relate a history of libraries and books, of city planning and management, of arson and police investigation, of community support services and social justice…

I made the mistake of reading this one on a road trip, so not only did I learn a lot, but everyone in the car was forced to learn a lot along with me. Did you know that the Los Angeles Central Library fire was so hot that it caused book covers to pop like popcorn? Did you know that food manufacturers volunteered freezer space to prevent wet books from molding? Did you know that more books were damaged by efforts to put out the fire than by the fire itself? You’ll read The Library Book and learn something new, or I’ll eat my copy, cover and all.

Why I’m No Longer Talking To White People About Race by Reni Eddo-Lodge

Why I'm No Longer Talking To White People About Race - Reni Eddo-Lodge - Keeping Up With The Penguins

There’s a lot to be said for the power of a provocative title. I still remember the time, back in 2017, when Why I’m No Longer Talking To White People About Race was suddenly saturating my Twitter feed. Folks were upset, folks were confused, folks were enthusiastic, folks were relieved – and, in the past three years, the opinions continue to flow forth. This is the book that Marlon James said was “begging to be written”, one that explores the intersection of race, gender, and class in Britain (though its message is universally resonant).

The main reason to read Why I’m No Longer Talking To White People About Race is to learn about the undue burden that minorities (BAME, to use the British parlance) carry in “teaching” others about racial justice, and the structural inequalities that prop up white privilege. Even though it might seem, at first, to be written with a specific audience in mind, I think this is one of the books that will teach you something new regardless of your background or circumstances.

Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari

Sapiens A Brief History of Humankind - Yuval Noah Harari - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

In our anthropocentric (human-centred) minds, sometimes we forget that we are animals, subject to the same forces of nature as every other creature on this planet. Sapiens uses fields of evolutionary science – anthropology, biology, psychology – to explain how humans came to dominate our environment, and what the past can teach us about the possibilities for our collective future. Harari explains all the ways we are unique, as a species, and all the ways in which we’re really not all that different.

This book is based on a series of lectures given by Harari at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and it was first published in English in 2014 (“translated by the author with the help of John Purcell and Haim Watzman”, #NameTheTranslator!). So, while some of its observations might feel a little dated, it’s still got a lot to teach us about our species (plus, there’s a follow up – Homo Deus – published in 2017). And don’t worry, despite its origins, it’s not particularly academic or dense – it was definitely written for a wide audience, using language that we can all understand.

Freakonomics by Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner

Freakonomics - Stephen D Levitt and Stephen J Dubner - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Freakonomics has become one of the contemporary classics of popular non-fiction, and with good reason. Levitt and Dubner manage to meld the seemingly-dry and dull field of economics with the engaging familiar territory of pop culture, to help us better understand why and how we make the decisions we do – and, by extension, why and how the world works. Levitt is a renowned economist by trade, but he was never afraid to step outside the traditions and conventions of the field and look at topics that his colleagues wouldn’t consider worthy of attention. That’s what makes this such a fascinating read, guaranteed to teach you something new (even if you normally switch off the news when an economist comes on).

Since Freakonomics was first published in 2005, it has been reprinted, revised, republished, had a follow-up (SuperFreakonomics), continued in blog form, transformed into a bi-weekly radio/podcast program, and even been adapted to documentary film. Levitt and Dubner even formed their own consultancy firm off the back of the book’s success, with Nobel laureates among the founding partners. Not bad for a book based on statistical analysis, eh?

Pain and Prejudice by Gabrielle Jackson

Pain And Prejudice - Gabrielle Jackson - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Imagine if I told you that 176 million people worldwide were affected by one insidious disease, one for which we cannot definitively determine a cause, and one for which the “cures” on offer are, at best, guesswork. Then, imagine that I told you that between 30-60% of the people who could develop this disease couldn’t correctly identify the parts of their anatomy where it might originate. You’d be floored, right? I know I was when I read Pain And Prejudice by Gabrielle Jackson, a book about the ways the medical system has under-served women (and AFAB people) for far too long.

It’s a personal subject for Jackson: in 2001, she was diagnosed with endometriosis, and then, in 2015, adenomyosis. She has spent years researching these conditions, and the broader medical system in which they are studied and treated. From Plato‚Äôs wandering womb to the present day, she unpicks the complex social history that has got us to this point. Pain And Prejudice gives voice to hundreds of years of silent suffering.

Well, that should be enough book-learnin’ to keep us going for a while, don’t you think? No? Drop your recommendations for books that will teach us all something new in the comments!

Frankissstein – Jeanette Winterson

We’re never too old to try something new. Jeanette Winterson, of Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit fame, decided to have a crack at writing the trans experience last year with Frankissstein. In that spirit, I’m going to try something new with my review, too. See, given the content of this novel, it really doesn’t feel right for me to review it from only my own perspective. I’m allowed to have my own opinion, of course – everyone is! – but I think I would be doing you all a disservice by not calling in someone to speak to this book with me. So, here we have it: the first co-written Keeping Up With The Penguins review.

Writing this review with me is Chent: a very, very, very (very!) dear friend of mine. We sell books together at a local book store, and also share a lot of mutual love over on #bookstagram. Chent read Frankissstein around the same time that I did, at my urging. Chent is a non-binary trans-masc person, like one of the central characters, so he has a particularly important perspective on the most salient aspects of this book.

Frankissstein tells two interweaving stories: a fictionalised account of the life of Mary Shelley in 1816, living with grief and writing Frankenstein; and an imagined near-future with Ry Shelley, a scientist grappling with the new reality of sex bots, artificial intelligence, and capitalist exploitation of those technological developments. Alternating between these two timelines makes for a strange hopscotch of historical fiction and speculative dystopia. Mary Shelley’s life story is fairly well-known, so we probably don’t need to lay too much of that out for you (other than to say that Winterson’s depiction of her, as a brazen outraged feminist who calls Lord Byron out on all of his bullshit, is amazing). Ry’s story is a little more complicated…

Ry was assigned female at birth, but identifies in the book’s timeline as trans/non-binary. It would seem, though, that they pass as masc/male, given that other characters constantly misgender them and mistake their name as being short for “Ryan”. Here’s where the problems begin…

Ry, as a character, is completely flat. Their only notable characteristic is their trans body. It is the only topic of conversation, the only factor at play in their relationships, and that bears little resemblance to the varied, interesting, and complex lives of trans people. Even making room for the demands and constraints of speculative fiction, Frankissstein fails even the most basic test of reflecting anything about actual trans lives and experiences.

Reviewers really, really went for Winterson’s throat on this, how she presented a supposedly-trans narrative. Sheree, as a cis-woman, didn’t want to discount their remarks, but at the same time she worried that their (rightly) impassioned responses might give the wrong impression (or, the right impression, not clearly explained) to other cis-readers. That’s why Chent came on board for this review, to elucidate.

Winterson is a queer woman, a queer author, and in writing Frankissstein clearly sought to queer a canonical work of literature. Unfortunately, she missed the mark by a long margin. In real-life, she has made public comments that were deeply offensive to trans communities, and it would seem that those attitudes have parlayed into her work. Ultimately, Frankissstein is not a trans story, it wasn’t written by a trans author, and – as Chent can attest – it wasn’t written for a trans audience.

In fact, it would seem that perhaps Winterson and her team willfully overlooked aspects of Ry’s story that would be hurtful and harmful to trans readers: being called a “freak”, being called a “hybrid”, the constant and unnecessary misgendering, the fetishisation of Ry’s body… While, perhaps, an argument could be made in favour of the artistic merit of any one of those choices, taken as a whole – in a story that only serves a privileged cis-gendered audience – they seem exploitative and cruel.

The only arguably effective attempt that Winterson made to address trans politics and experience in Ry’s story was “that” incident (if you’ve read the book, you know where we’re going with this, and if not, trigger warning!): Ry is violently assaulted in the men’s bathroom at a bar. This section was really resonant for Sheree. In her view, it made a really important statement about the “bathroom debate”. There have been some truly nonsensical arguments made about the supposed “danger” that trans people pose by using the same bathroom as cis-gendered people (particularly trans women using the same bathroom as cis-women). This scene presented the stark reality: in truth, trans people are at far greater risk of being victimised in that situation than being the perpetrators of violence.

Chent saw it a bit differently. That assault was presented, he felt, as the price Ry had to pay for being who they are. Ry accepted the fact of their rape, without any retribution or resolution to that injustice. It was extremely graphic, no subtlety at all – right down to the use of in-your-face shouty caps – and alienating in its unavoidable gratuitousness. Also, Ry’s emotional reaction and trauma as a result of the rape is completely silenced; in fact, it barely comes up again for the rest of the novel.

Ultimately, we (Chent and Sheree) still land on different sides of this one, but we can definitely understand and appreciate each other’s point of view.

Where we can completely agree, however, is the historical fiction timeline. Winterson’s talent as a writer truly shines in her depiction of Mary Shelley’s life. She pays due attention to the ways in which Shelley was mistreated, without painting her as a martyr or a voiceless victim. Winterson doesn’t romanticise Lord Byron or Percy Shelley, unlike so many who have written before her. The reader is encouraged to consider Frankenstein as a cautionary tale. As an adaptation, of sorts, it will make the reader appreciate the original even more. For those who haven’t read it, it will surely encourage them to pick it up.

That strand of Frankissstein is a complex and multi-faceted story all on its own. We both feel that, had we read the Mary Shelley story as a stand-alone novel, we would have loved it wholeheartedly. As it stands, however, we urge you to exercise caution when deciding whether to read Frankissstein for yourself. If you’re looking for a book that will open your eyes and teach you something new about the trans experience, give it a miss. If you want to read a beautiful re-telling of Mary Shelley’s life, go ahead and read it – just skip past the Ry chapters.

Note: thank you, again, to my wonderful friend Chent, for his tireless patience as I pieced together our thoughts for this review. We had a lot of really frank conversations, and I’m so grateful that he took the time to do this. Be sure to check out his #bookstagram and show him the love he well and truly deserves!

All The Books We Should Have Read: A Book Blogger Round Up

We hear a lot about how the online world, especially social media, is a cesspool full of haters and trolls clambering to bring each other down and destroy your self-esteem. I must say, that really doesn’t jibe with my experience. Ever since I started Keeping Up With The Penguins, I’ve been embraced by a community of reviewers and readers, all of whom have been nothing but warm and wonderful and welcoming. Book people really are the best people.

After my little round-up of my favourite book podcasts went gangbusters, I thought it high-time I do the same for my favourite book bloggers… but rather than just wax on about how much I love each and every one of them, I thought I’d do something different. This time, I reached out and asked them all a question: What’s one book you haven’t read (that you really “should”)? It’s called a one-question interview, and I tell you what, the responses are FASCINATING. Check them out…

All The Books We Should Have Read - Book Bloggers Tell All - Keeping Up With The Penguins

*Note: some responses have been edited for length and clarity, but they’re all awesome!*

Christine at The Uncorked Librarian

Anna Karenina - Leo Tolstoy

“With the March release of the over-the-top YA novel Anna K, I knew for sure that I had to pick up Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina in the near future. It’s been deemed one of the greatest works of literature – EVER! – and as an English and History double major from a traditional all-women’s college, not to mention an MLIS grad, I cannot believe that Anna and I are not better acquainted. Maybe my hesitation comes from reading Madame Bovary in my freshman year of college? I’m not even sure why I associate the two!”

“I don’t regret reading Jenny Lee’s modern-day multicultural version; it’s like Gossip Girl meets Crazy Rich Asians at a Kardashian-esque soiree. I hope that Tolstoy’s version is just as extra!”

Check out Christine’s wrap up of awesome March 2020 releases – plus get inspired to travel with her diverse book and booze recommendations – over at The Uncorked Librarian.

Lory at The Emerald City Book Review

I Contain Multitudes - Ed Yong

“It’s only since I’ve started blogging that I’ve gotten really interested in reading nonfiction, due to the enthusiasm of other bloggers who introduced me to titles I would not have sought out on my own… I really need to read more of them, so I’m making an effort this year to read at least one nonfiction book per month.”

“One that I’ve had on my list for a while, but that seems especially necessary to read right now, is I Contain Multitudes: The Microbes Within Us and a Grander View of Life by Ed Yong. I want to know more about that invisible realm that lurks within us, and which suggests that we are more of an “interconnected, interdependent multitude” than we care to imagine. Can we quell our individualism for a moment, take that “grander view of life”, and maybe find a healthier way of co-existing? That’s what I’d like to know.”

See how Lory’s mission to read more non-fiction is going over at The Emerald City Book Review.

Lynne at Fictionophile

We Begin At The End - Chris Whitaker

“The book that springs to mind when asked is We Begin At The End by Chris Whitaker. I have read about thirty reviews of this novel by other book bloggers and I haven’t come across a negative one yet. It seems to have the hallmarks of a truly memorable and touching read. Sadly, it is not yet available in Canada in Kindle format, so it will be quite some time before I have the opportunity to read it, but it’s number one on my wish list!”

Keep up with Lynne’s quest to get her hands on We Begin At The End over at Fictionophile.

Mandy at Off The Beaten Shelf

Crime and Punishment - Fyodor Dostoyevsky - Vintage Books

“I studied literature in college, which was a lot of ‘shoulds’ about reading because it’s professors constantly telling you what they, as the curriculum developers, think you should be reading. Since I graduated, I’ve been trying to unlearn the idea of ‘shoulds’ and just go with my gut and read whatever sounds interesting to me in the moment.”

“That being said, every time someone talks about Anna Karenina and Crime And Punishment, I always feel like I’ve missed out! I couldn’t pick just one, so those are my two – I’ll call them ‘enthusiastic shoulds’ – that I plan to get around to one of these days.”

Mandy writes a lot about the bookish life and publishing news over on Off The Beaten Shelf, go check it out!

Jess at Fiction No Chaser

Anna Karenina - Leo Tolstoy

Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy was the first book to pop into my head when I read the question. Not only is this a book I ‘should’ read, it’s a book that has intrigued me for so long that I’m almost afraid to read it at this point. I went through a phase where I read tons of Russian literature. I’m the person who loved reading War and Peace, so it’s kind of strange that I’ve never read Anna Karenina.”

“It’s hard to avoid spoilers for this classic, so I do know how it ends, but I have avoided watching movies so that I can truly experience it when I finally take the plunge.”

Jess’s reading tastes are hella varied, so even if the Russian classics aren’t on your own TBR, you should definitely check out her hilarious reviews over at Fiction No Chaser.

Paula at The Vince Review

Pendennis - William Makepeace Thackeray

“My nemesis so far is Pendennis by William Makepeace Thackeray. It was an impulse purchase from a second hand shop, but has been taking the space of a house brick on my shelf and taunting me more with each passing month. It’s the novel Thackeray wrote straight on the heels of his more-famous Vanity Fair, but I haven’t come across anybody else who has even heard of it, let alone read it!”

*Note: Paula’s review of Vanity Fair is amazing! Mine slightly less so, but you can find it here if you want.*

“Pendennis’s immense size and scanty reputation presses heavier on my shoulders every day. The back cover blurb is the hook that holds me fast. It tells me that the book is a superbly rich and panoramic portrait of Victorian England which is unforgettable. I’d hate to be the chicken who missed having my cotton socks wowed off, just because I let disinclination get the better of me. And I’d love to be the reviewer to help restore an obscure gem to the light of day, so I really am going to read it. Just not quite yet. Please feel free to hold me accountable. I need to be free again!”

If you like Keeping Up With The Penguins, you’ll love The Vince Review – Paula and I share eerily similar tastes!

Rachael at Booklist Queen

The Night Circus - Erin Morgenstern

“At Booklist Queen, I help frustrated readers – tired of wasting their time on over-hyped bestsellers – find more great books to read. I have everyone covered with book recommendations (from classics to hot new releases) and an annual reading challenge. That said, one bestseller I’m ashamed to say I haven’t actually read is Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus.”

“I recommend this fantasy about duelling magicians all the time, because I have only ever heard great things. I already know I’m going to love it! I was captivated by her latest book, The Starless Sea, and my friends with similar reading tastes have all recommended it to me. Yet, it’s still languished on my to-read list for over six years.”

Rachael told me that she placed a library hold on The Night Circus immediately after responding to my question, good on her! Her book round-ups are extensive, honest, and awesome – find them all over at Booklist Queen.

Simon at Stuck In A Book

“The book I really should read, and definitely haven’t, is one I don’t know anything about. It’s Hive of Glass by Breton Amis. No one has ever recommended him to me, and I haven’t got a clue what Hive of Glass is about.”

“So, why have I chosen it? Chiefly because it’s been on my shelves for so long. There comes a moment in every avid book buyer’s life when they realise they won’t read all the books they buy. I currently have about 1700 unread books on my shelves. I have come to terms with the fact that book buying and book reading are two entirely separate pleasures that just happen to overlap. But when I bought Hive of Glass in 2003, I hadn’t reached that conclusion yet. I bought it out of idle curiosity, and fully intended to read it in the next few months. Here we are, the best part of two decades later…”

“Reading Hive Of Glass won’t make those other 1700 books get read, and it won’t change the sort of reader I am, but it might be a small gesture towards it. And, who knows, maybe it’s great?”

Simon really does have a knack for uncovering hidden gems, and he kindly shares his bounty with us over at Stuck In A Book.

Theresa at Theresa Smith Writes

Wolf Hall - Hilary Mantel

“While there’s likely quite a lot of books that I should have read, I can’t go past The Wolf Hall Trilogy by Hilary Mantel (Wolf Hall, Bring Up The Bodies, and The Mirror And The Light). I know that’s three books, but from all the reviews I’ve read and discussions I’ve had with people, they all say that the three books form one complete story.”

“The reason I feel like I ‘should’ read these is that they are everything I favour: historical fiction, about the Tudor court, involving sagas with people betraying each other, betraying themselves, and betraying their King. But they are each tomes in their own right, and I’ve always worried they must get bogged down with too much politics. I’ve put Wolf Hall on my must-read list so I can dither no more. I think it’s going to be like the Game of Thrones series, just start reading and re-surface weeks later…”

“… Actually, the entire GoT series took me three months, but I’m sure the Wolf Hall trilogy won’t be like that. Right?”

No one tell her! But I’m sure when Theresa finds out, she’ll let us all know the full truth (and nothing but) over on her fantastic blog, Theresa Smith Writes.

Veronica at The Burgeoning Bookshelf

A Little Life - Hanya Yanagihara

“I can think of so many books I should have read but the one that came through the strongest is A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara. Ever since it was published in 2016 I’ve been seeing amazing reviews and I stop and think, ‘Will I?’, but 800 pages of heartbreak might be too much for me. I feel like I’m the only one who hasn’t read it… yet.”

Veronica’s definitely not the only one! Be sure to check out The Burgeoning Bookshelf for some (mostly) more lighthearted reads.

Big thanks to all the amazing book bloggers who took part in this one question interview! Know another book blogger who deserves a shout-out (or want to join in the fun with your own answer)? Drop a comment down below!

Her Body And Other Parties – Carmen Maria Machado

I first encountered Carmen Maria Machado through the Sydney Writers’ Festival podcast (specifically through her lecture – which seems to have mysteriously disappeared from the internet, otherwise I’d link to it directly – about Law & Order: SVU). I’d not encountered her work before, which wasn’t entirely surprising. She didn’t have a particularly long publishing history at that time, after all, just one short story collection: Her Body And Other Parties. Now, it’s truly phenomenal that a book of short stories from a debut author received enough attention to earn her an invite to speak at a festival half-way around the world, but I think it’s more than Machado’s brilliant writing craft that got her to that point. She is completely beguiling, scarily smart, and almost-embarrassingly frank. This short story collection is like nothing I’ve ever read before.

Her Body And Other Parties is a collection of eight short stories, all wildly different. Machado ricochets from magical realism to horror to science fiction to comedy to fantasy to epistolary, so fast that the genres and tropes are pureed together into a very delicious pulp. As much as the stories vary, they make sense next to each other, forming a complete and cohesive collection that somehow leaves you (selfishly) wanting more. The stories aren’t linked by character or plot or even style, but they all address similar themes: sex, death, queerness, vulnerability, women, and their bodies (as the title might suggest).

The first story of the collection is possibly Machado’s best-known work: The Husband Stitch. It’s a reimagination of an old and oft-retold spooky story (borrowed from a French folktale of unknown origin) The Green Ribbon. You know the one, the woman who marries a man but won’t tell him why she always wears a green ribbon around her neck, until she finally lets him remove it and her head falls off? The thrust of Machado’s version is much the same: basically, we screw women over by denying them self-determination. It’s one heck of an opener, and it really sets the tone for the rest of Her Body And Other Parties. Even the new title is revealing in its gruesomeness (steel yourselves): the “husband stitch” is a euphemism for doctors using more sutures than necessary to repair a woman’s perineum after childbirth, purportedly to make the vaginal opening smaller and sexual penetration more “pleasurable” for her male partner. (Excuse me, I have to go and vomit.)

Another one of the stories that received a lot of attention was Especially Heinous (and it’s probably the reason she was invited to give that lecture at the Sydney Writers’ Festival to begin with). Essentially, it’s a novella-length story told through imagined plot summaries of a parallel-universe series of Law & Order: SVU. It sounds bizarre, and it is. Machado had the idea after she streamed endless seasons of the show while recovering from surgery, which is what lends Especially Heinous its surreal, feverish quality. Plus, it’s a very obvious but still very poignant critique of our culture’s obsession with violence that victimises women. To call it “twisted literary fan fiction” would be underselling it, but it’s a really hard premise to describe, so give me a break!

“VULNERABLE”: For three days in a row, there is not a single victim in the entire precinct. No rapes. No murders. No rape-murders. No kidnappings. No child pornography made, bought, or sold. No molestations. No sexual assaults. No sexual harassments. No forced prostitution. No human trafficking. No subway gropings. No incest. No indecent exposures. No stalking. Not even an unwanted dirty phone call. Then, in the gloaming of a Wednesday, a man wolf-whistles at a woman on her way to an AA meeting. The whole city releases its long-held breath, and everything returns to normal.

Especially heinous, her body and other parties (P. 80)

My personal favourite of the collection (though, of course, they’re all worth reading) is Inventory. What looks like a simple list of a woman’s lovers turns into an incredible work of speculative fiction, set in a dystopian world where a virus is killing off the population in swathes. You might think I’ve spoiled it for you now, but I swear I haven’t: it would take a lot more than a single review on a book blog to ruin all of the surprises that Machado has in store for you.

It should be fairly obvious by now, but just in case it isn’t: the stories in Her Body And Other Parties are “dirty”. Like, would-make-you-blush-if-you-read-them-out-loud-to-your-mother “dirty”. The main characters of The Husband Stitch fuck, in graphic detail, twice within the first five pages. Machado isn’t here to play, she’s not bashful or coy about sex – my kind of girl! I only mention it because I know that’s not for everyone, but I still want to vouch for the book (even if “smut” isn’t your “thing”). The sex isn’t pointless titillating garbage, it’s integral to the story (as it is to life), and I think even the pearl-clutchers among us will at least admire Machado’s erotic fearlessness.

Also needless to say: Her Body And Other Parties went on to win a lot of awards. A lot. Like, I got exhausted trying to collate them into a list. Every professional review I read was glowing, at minimum (I think they call that “critical acclaim”). Plus, more importantly (in my view), it’s achieved cult status – this is a book that will be passed from youth to youth, on university campuses and at seedy bars and over cheap coffees, for years to come. Machado is the real deal, folks, and I’m going to be overjoyed to be able to say “I remember reading her very first book” late in her long, long career. She’s already on her way, having released a breathtaking memoir – In The Dream House – which has revolutionised the genre and already cemented itself a place in the queer literary canon. Do I recommend Her Body And Other Parties? Abso-fucking-lutely.

My favourite Amazon reviews of Her Body And Other Parties:

  • “fun stories. different. freedom fighter stuff.” – Eddie
  • “that’s all. read it.” – G.S.
  • “Not what I expected, but definitely a well-written jaunt into lesbian-fueled surrealism.” – A Long Walk In The Woods
  • “Hot trash” – Mark Fulghum
  • “I don’t like the book, but it came in great condition and exactly as described.” – Maddie

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