Keeping Up With The Penguins

Reviews For The Would-Be Booklover

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The Little Prince – Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

Prior to reading The Little Prince (or, in the original French, Le petite prince), I would have told you that I was “familiar” with it. I would have simply left out the fact that my familiarity only extended to the bits they quoted in One Tree Hill voice-overs and epigraphs of famous novels. Turns out, there’s a lot more to this children’s book than quaint aphorisms…

The Little Prince - Antoine de Saint-Exupery - Keeping Up With The Penguins
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The Little Prince has a strange history (like most timeless, classic children’s books). The author, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, was a French aviator, childless, and (at the time of writing) living under grueling war-time exile. How he managed to both write and illustrate such a perennially popular moral allegory, a “spiritual biography”, under those circumstances, I’ll never know…

It was first published in New York, in April 1943, but not published in France – or French, the language in which Saint-Exupéry wrote – until after Liberation, as all of the author’s writings had been banned by the Vichy regime. “The unusual bilingualism of the story’s publication,” explains the introduction to my edition, “means that the first translation, by Katherine Woods, is properly speaking as much the original work as the French text from which it was drawn.”

From this stumble start, The Little Prince has gone on to become the most translated French book in the world, appearing now in over 300 languages and dialects (my copy was translated into English – again – by T.V.F. Cuffe). Over 140 million copies have been sold worldwide.

Another note on my particular edition (the Penguin Modern Classic): it also contains another work by Saint-Exupéry, Letter To A Hostage. It’s an open letter to a friend of the author’s, a Jewish intellectual who was in hiding in occupied France. They make for strange bedfellows, I thought at first, but reading the dedication of The Little Prince (one of the most beautiful I’ve ever encountered), it made sense:

To Léon Werth

I ask children who may read this book to forgive me for dedicating it to a grown-up. I have a genuine excuse: this grown-up is the best friend I have in the world. I have another excuse: this grown-up understands everything, even books for children. I have a third excuse: this grown-up lives in France, where he is cold and hungry. He needs a lot of consoling. If all these excuses are not enough, I will dedicate the book to the child whom this grown-up used to be, once upon a time. All grown-ups started off as children (though few of them remember). So I hereby correct my dedication:

To Léon Werth when he was a little boy.

The Little Prince (Page 3)

Could somebody please pass the tissues? *sniffle*

Ahem, to the story: The Little Prince begins with the narrator describing grown-ups, specifically their natural inability to perceive or understand the things that are truly important. He explains that, as a child, he’d hoped to become an artist, but none of the grown-ups understood his drawings and they encouraged him to pursue more “reasonable” lines of work.

So, from the beginning, you can see the magic of The Little Prince: as with all great children’s books, it addresses the reader on their level, with respect and empathy. The fantasy to follow in The Little Prince works precisely because it employs the logic of children, and celebrates their imaginative capacity, without getting bogged down in making things “realistic” for the grown-ups.

“Grown-ups never understand anything by themselves, and it is exhausting for children always and forever to be giving explanations.”

The Little Prince (Page 6)

So, the narrator grew up to be a pilot, and one day his plane crashes in the Sahara desert (clearly drawing on Saint-Exupéry’s real-life experience, because believe it or not, that actually happened to him – more than once!). As he’s trying to fix his plane, and worrying about running out of water, a young boy – the titular “little prince” – appears as if by magic, demanding that the pilot draw him a sheep. They become fast friends, and over the course of the following eight days, the little prince slowly reveals the story of his life.

The little prince came from a very tiny “home planet” (which the narrator identifies as a house-sized asteroid), with a few very small volcanoes and a variety of plant life, including one very special rose that the prince treasured above all else. He left the rose, and his home planet, to explore the universe. Along the way, he encountered a series of satirical caricatures of grown-ups (including the “king” who had no subjects, forced to issue commands to the sun to rise and set in order to exert his power, and the “businessman” who claimed he owned all the stars and proved it by counting them).

When the little prince landed on Earth, at first he assumed it was uninhabited, as he landed in the middle of stark desert. Eventually, he met a snake, and then some flowers, and then a fox (who begged the little prince to “tame” him, so that they might become friends).

At this point, the character of the fox offers perhaps the most often-shared gem of wisdom from The Little Prince. It is the story’s keynote aphorism: “On ne voit bien qu’avec le cœur. L’essentiel est invisible pour les yeux,” (“One sees clearly only with the heart. What is essential is invisible to the eye.”) Judging by the drafts and notes, Saint-Exupéry reworded and rewrote that line at least 15 times before settling on this version.

Despite making all these new friends, by the time the little prince meets the pilot, he is dreadfully homesick, and by the time he’s told his story, the pilot is dying of thirst. The little prince finds the pilot a water well, and then tells him that it’s time return to his home planet (which might “look like” him dying of a snake bite, but actually he’s simply leaving his shell behind).

The Little Prince ends with a drawing of the landscape where the little prince and the narrator met, and where the snake took the little prince’s corporeal life. The narrator asks the children reading the book that if they ever find themselves in that place, and they meet a little boy with golden curls, that they contact him immediately so that he may be reunited with his friend.

Do you need a tissue? I don’t blame you. It’s an incredibly moving ending, holy heck – unlike anything I’ve read in contemporary children’s book.

But here’s the clincher (take a deep breath, this is going to hurt): The Little Prince is a very strange case of life coming to imitate art. Saint-Exupéry disappeared without a trace on his eighth high-level reconnaissance flight on 31 July 1944, just over a year after The Little Prince was published. He was never found, nor does anyone have any clue what happened to him and his plane. Léon Werth, the dear friend to whom the book is dedicated, did not learn of Saint-Exupéry’s presumed death until a month later, via radio broadcast (remember that he was in hiding). Even then, it wasn’t until November that year that he learned of The Little Prince, the book his friend had written for him. Ugh, I can’t – it’s just TOO SAD!

Sad as it may be, I suppose it’s fitting: almost everything, every symbol and every character, in The Little Prince was drawn from some aspect of Saint-Exupéry’s life. As I mentioned earlier, there’s the pilot and his crash landing in the Sahara, but there’s also the little prince’s rose (reportedly inspired by Saint-Exupéry’s wife), the small home planet with volcanoes (inspired by Guatemala, where Saint-Exupéry recuperated from another crash), and so on.

The Little Prince might be a short and simple story, but don’t be deceived: Saint-Exupéry poured his whole heart and soul into it. He wrote and illustrated the manuscript over the summer of ’42, working “long hours with great concentration”, usually at night (when he felt most creatively “free”), spurred on by truly scary quantities of black coffee. His biographer, Paul Webster, said: “Behind Saint-Exupéry’s quest for perfection was a laborious process of editing and rewriting which reduced original drafts by as much as two-thirds.” He would often wake up in the morning still at his desk, with his head on his arms over the pages. Unsurprisingly, he also suffered from a number of stress-related health problems, and marital strife.

Initial reviewers were a bit flummoxed by the multi-layered story of The Little Prince. The book found only modest success at first, spending just two weeks on the New York Times Best Seller List. I think (or hope) we’re now more accepting of books with complex messages, ones that can appeal to multiple age groups – given that The Little Prince now sells almost two million copies each year and has become a cultural icon, it would seem to be the case. Still, don’t go into it if you’re looking for something twee and lighthearted. Every copy, in all the languages across the world, should probably be sold with a big box of tissues.

My favourite Amazon reviews of The Little Prince:

  • “there’s something about reading this book that makes you feel at peace with yourself and the whole world. The Little Prince knows whats up” – Malanie Beverly
  • “What can be said about this little story. It is timeless. It is as fresh as spring water. Thank you” – Bea

My 2021 To-Be-Read List

This might come as a shock, Keeper Upperers, but here’s the truth: my to-be-read list is out of control. Like every true booklover, I accumulate books way faster than I can read them. Often, I really struggle to prioritise, because I want to read them ALL in equal measure. As a little resolution-in-advance, I sat myself down with my spreadsheet (yes, there’s a spreadsheet) and forced myself to make a list of books I am definitely, definitely, definitely going to read and review in 2021. You can hold me to it!

My 2021 To-Be-Read List - Keeping Up With The Penguins
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A Tale For The Time Being by Ruth Ozeki

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I was captivated by the blurb of A Tale For The Time Being from the first time I heard it. It’s narrated by two characters: a teenage Japanese American girl in Tokyo, who keeps a diary, and a Japanese American writer who finds the diary washed up on shore some time after the 2011 tsunami. Everything else I’ve heard about it just makes me want to read it more: Ozeki was the first practicing Zen Buddhist to be nominated for the Booker Prize, it’s her “most ambitious” novel, and it’s full of her “signature humour”.

Atonement by Ian McEwan

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Atonement was first published in 2001, which means 2021 marks the 20th anniversary of its release. Seems like a fitting time to finally get to it, eh? McEwan has a huge back-list, but Atonement is the one I’ve been meaning to read for the longest (it certainly seems to be the one for which he’s best known). It’s a WWII novel, which normally I’d shy away from, but it sounds like it has a really compelling family drama story at the centre. Plus, I need to read it in order to add the movie to my to-be-watched list!

Eileen by Ottessa Moshfegh

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It’s funny how the novel that best encapsulates the Vibe of 2020 was written years before it began: My Year Of Rest And Relaxation. Ottessa Moshfegh’s writing blew me away, her unique talent for crafting female characters in particular. So, I immediately set out on a hunt to find her previous novel, Eileen; it’s been sitting on my to-read shelf for nearly a year now. Now I hope, given the blurb (an unhappy 20-something woman who works in a prison), it isn’t equally prescient of what’s to come in 2021… but even if it is, I’m sure it’ll be a good read.

My Grandmother Sends Her Regards And Apologises by Fredrik Backman

My Grandmother Sends Her Regards And Apologises - Fredrik Backman - Keeping Up With The Penguins

I loved A Man Called Ove so much that I’ve been buying every other book by Fredrik Backman on sight. The one I was looking forward to reading most of all was My Grandmother Sends Her Regards And Apologises (translated slightly differently in some editions). It’s the story of a young girl who loses her grandmother, and slowly discovers more about her grandmother’s life and the lives she touched – sounds hilarious and heart-warming all at once, right? The thing is, I lost my own beloved grandmother in November, and I haven’t been able to face reading anything that might remind me of her ever since. Hopefully, 2021 will see the wound heal over, and I’ll be able to enjoy this one as planned.

Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen

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I’ve fallen into a fun pattern of reading one Jane Austen each year: first Emma, then Pride and Prejudice, and this year Sanditon (her final, incomplete novel). I’ve got a couple more to go, and I think 2021 might be the year for Northanger Abbey. It was the first manuscript that Austen completed, but it wasn’t published until after her death – a Gothic satire novel about a young woman, Catherine Morland, coming of age. It’s the “most youthful and optimistic” of Austen’s novels, apparently, and I reckon we could all do with a bit of that next year…

Room by Emma Donoghue

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It can’t all be super-literary all the time: I want to read a few fun page-turners in 2021, too. That’s why I’m bumping Room by Emma Donoghue up towards the top of the to-be-read list. It sounds really gripping, sad, and scary (what a combo!). The story was inspired by the Fritzl case (in which an Austrian woman and her children were held hostage for years), told from the perspective of a five-year-old boy who was born and has spent his whole life in one small room.

The Absolutely True Diary Of A Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie

The Absolutely True Diary Of A Part-Time Indian - Sherman Alexie - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Along the lines of my Austen thing, I also try to read a notorious book each year for Banned Books Week. One that I’ve been meaning to try for ages is The Absolutely True Diary Of A Part-Time Indian. It’s told from the perspective of 14-year-old Junior, a budding cartoonist who has spent his life on the Spokane Indian Reservation but now attends an all-white high school. It’s been repeatedly challenged and banned for a variety of reasons: “alcohol, poverty, bullying, violence, sexuality, profanity and slurs related to homosexuality and mental disability”. All sounds good to me!

Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier

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One of the most-often-recommended-to-me-books-on-my-to-read-list is Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier. I can’t quite explain why I haven’t got to it yet, except to say… I always mean to! It sounds deliciously Gothic and camp, with just the right drop of melodrama. An unnamed young woman fears she will always live in the shadow of her husband’s first wife, Rebecca, now dead but still beloved by the sinister housekeeper Mrs Danvers and the rest of the Manderley household staff. And once I’ve finally read it, I can watch the acclaimed adaptation released earlier this year!

Those Who Leave And Those Who Stay by Elena Ferrante

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My sojourn through the Neapolitan novels will continue in 2021 with Those Who Leave And Those Who Stay, the third installment of Elena Ferrante’s brilliant quartet. If the first two (My Brilliant Friend, and The Story Of A New Name) are anything to go by, it’s going to be amazing. They’re all translated into English by the inimitable Ann Goldstein. The second book ended with Lena as a newly published author, and her long-time crush Nino in the audience at her first reading. I can’t wait to see what happens next for her!

Too Much Lip by Melissa Lucashenko

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Alright, this one isn’t so much a to-be-read as a to-be-finished: I was lucky enough to study an extract of Too Much Lip by Melissa Lucashenko, and enjoyed it so thoroughly that I went out and bought the whole book to read in full. It’s a “dark comedy about ordinary people”, and it won the Miles Franklin award in 2019 for the “highest literary merit” and “presenting Australian life in any of its phases”. It’s rare that a book by an Indigenous Australian wins our country’s most prestigious literary prize, and even rarer still that a funny book wins it, so that alone is enough to make it a must-read!

Great Expectations – Charles Dickens

As we finally enter the downhill run for 2020, it seemed fitting to pick up Great Expectations. After all, we all had such great expectations for this year, didn’t we? Nothing went to plan, for us or for one of Dickens’ most-beloved protagonists, Pip. I really loved David Copperfield, so I figured I was all set for another five-star read from the master of English literature. Unfortunately, 2020 struck again…

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Great Expectations was Dickens’ thirteenth novel, but only the second (after the aforementioned David Copperfield) to be fully narrated in the first-person. He must’ve known he was on to something, because this one, too, traces the psychological and moral development of a young man, his transition from country to city life, and an eventual homecoming. But beyond that, they actually have very little in common; apparently, Dickens re-read David Copperfield before starting Great Expectations, to make sure he didn’t accidentally repeat himself.

Dickens structured Great Expectations as three “stages” (volumes), but it was initially published as a serial (as most stories were back then) in Dickens’ own weekly magazine, All The Year Round. Installments appeared from December 1860 to August 1861, and Great Expectations was published in full in a three-volume set later that year. Fun fact: Dickens only put pen to paper and started publishing because the previous serial – A Day’s Ride by Charles Lever – was tanking and circulation numbers were way down. Just goes to show, if you want something done right…

The story begins on Christmas Eve 1812, with our boy Pip an orphan at 7 years old. While visiting the grave of his parents, he encounters an escaped prisoner who bullies him into stealing food and tools from home. For Pip, “home” is a (very) modest dwelling shared with his hot-tempered much-older sister and her amiable husband, the town blacksmith Joe Gargery. They took Pip in after his parents died, and no one ever lets him forget how lucky he is that they did so. (Why does every adult in a Dickens novel get off on psychologically torturing children? Seriously!)

So, Pip pinches some food and a file for the prisoner (so he can gather his strength and cut off his shackles). The poor kid is freaking out that he’s going to get busted, all through Christmas dinner. There’s a knock on the door, and it’s a unit of soldiers asking Joe the Blacksmith to mend some shackles so that they might re-capture two escaped prisoners. Once the prisoners are re-captured and shackled, one of them falsely confesses to having stolen the food and the file himself, clearing Pip of any suspicion.

Sorry for the absurd level of detail here, but it’s all important later, I promise – a clarification that applies to this review and to Great Expectations itself in equal measure. That said, even though Dickens has a reputation for long-windedness and bloated sentences, he can be extremely evocative and succinct when he wants to be. Plus, the wry humour I loved in David Copperfield definitely carries over…

“My sister having so much to do was going to Church vicariously, that is to say, Joe and I were going.”

Great Expectations (Page 23) – Lol!

A few years after the convict incident, Pip is summoned by local pain-in-the-arse Mr Pumblechook to go and visit Miss Havisham. She’s a wealthy and notoriously reclusive spinster, so she needs a young gun around the place to liven her up a bit. Upon arriving at her decrepit mansion, Pip promptly falls in love with Miss Havisham’s adopted daughter, Estella. Now, this bitch is cold as ice, the Queen of Treat-‘Em-Mean-Keep-‘Em-Keen. The rest of Great Expectations could almost be summed up as “Pip remains butt-hurt that Estella was mean to him for the rest of his life, while desperately trying to win her approval,”.

The visits to Miss Havisham continue until Pip is old enough to begin his apprenticeship under Joe (which Miss Havisham pays for). Joe’s assistant, Orlick, is jealous as hell about the up-start brother-in-law getting the plum gig. Instead of wallowing in his misery, like a normal person, he bonks Mrs Joe over the head with something heavy. She doesn’t die, but she does suffer severe brain damage, and Orlick figures justice has been served.

Four years into Pip’s apprenticeship, he receives a visit from a lawyer, Mr Jaggers, with the most intriguing offer. Apparently, an anonymous patron has set aside a large sum of money to finance Pip’s dream of Becoming A Gentleman. Obviously, Pip assumes it’s Miss Havisham, his previous financier, but Mr Jaggers refuses to confirm or deny. Off Pip goes to London, to learn how to Act Proper…

Thus begins the second stage of Great Expectations. Pip sets himself up with a tutor, and finds a best friend in the tutor’s son, Herbert (who bizarrely calls Pip ‘Handel’ throughout the novel – it was annoying and confusing as heck for a while). The swankier Pip gets, the more embarrassed he becomes about his upbringing, and he starts to look down his nose at Joe and the family who raised him.

Word comes from home that Orlick (of head-bonking fame) has come into the employ of Miss Havisham – uh oh! – but Pip, being a dick-swinging gent now, has a quiet word in Mr Jaggers’ ear and sees to it that Orlick gets the sack. Now, here’s the weird part: you’d think that this would be a huge CLANG moment with reverberations, given that this is a book about moral development and all, but Dickens kinda glosses over it. Instead, he skips straight ahead to the next Big Twist: that Pip’s sister finally succumbs to her injuries and topples off the mortal coil. Joe is, understandably, quite bummed.

Pip’s still getting five hundred quid a year from his anonymous benefactor, which is more than he knows what to do with, so he decides to do a little anonymous benefact-ing of his own. He sets his mate Herbert up in a plum job that will last him the rest of his life. He figures this good deed will get the karma train running back his way, but alas, Estella still won’t have a bar of him. She decides she’s going to marry some other dickhead instead; Pip tries to talk her out of it, and she (quite rightly) tells him to get fucked and mind his own business.

So, we’re about halfway through Great Expecations at this point (it feels longer than 2020, doesn’t it?), and FINALLY Pip’s benefactor is unmasked! Obviously, it’s not Miss Havisham. It’s actually the convict he encountered that first night in the cemetery (see? told you it was important later!). Mr Abel Magwitch was transported to Australia after he was re-captured, but he never forgot the kindness of the little boy who got him a feed and helped him in his bid for freedom. Magwitch worked hard, yanked on some bootstraps, and eventually got enough money together to make Pip a gentleman. Unfortunately, he violated the terms of his sentence to return to England to see that it was done, so now he’s put everyone in a real fucking pickle. Nice going, Magwitch.

Third stage: Pip needs to figure out how to get Magwitch out of the country, pronto, and he enlists Herbert’s help to get it done. Now, I must say, the plot of Great Expectations really starts to fall apart at this point. It’s a lot of Pip running back and forth between Mr Jaggers and Miss Havisham, getting money and figuring out who Estella’s birth parents are (??? who cared until now? honestly?).

Dickens officially loses me when Miss Havisham spontaneously combusts – no, I’m not kidding! Pip gets badly burned trying to put out the flames. It’s painful and all, but he cops on with it, and he and Herbert are just about ready to smuggle Magwitch out of the country… when Pip is foolishly lured to the remote(!) marshes(!!) at night(!!!) and Head-Bonker-In-Chief Orlick tries to murder him.

I’m just going to rush through the rest of it, because really, if you’re not Done(TM) with Great Expectations by now, you need to work on your priorities. Herbert saves the day, and Pip is rescued from certain death. They almost manage to get Magwitch out of England, but they get busted at the last minute and it all goes to hell. Magwitch dies in prison. Pip gets real crook and Joe has to nurse him back to health. Joe also ends up paying all of Pip’s debts (no idea where he got the dough, but I was so bored and confused by this point I didn’t really give it much thought). Joe marries the nurse who cared for his first wife (good for him). Pip moves with Herbert and his wife to Egypt (cool, cool). He comes back after eleven years, and has his final encounter with Estella.

She falls into his arms, and they finally live happily ever after, right? WRONG. After all that, there is absolutely no pay-off. Great Expectations ends with the famously ambiguous line that Pip saw “no shadow of another parting from her” after that. The end.

So, yes, Great Expectations was a bit of a let-down. My fault, really, for reading it during this stinking-bad-very-no-good year.

Clearly, Great Expectations didn’t draw me in the way that David Copperfield did. I’m still struggling to figure out why, exactly. I remember David Copperfield being brilliantly paced, and it kept me hooked, all the way through to a satisfying resolution. Great Expectations started off okay, with poor orphan Pip and his crisis of conscience, but after that it just kind of tanked.

I think maybe this book’s downfall is that, though Dickens tried to write an interesting plot and character (as he did so successfully with David Copperfield), he was too preoccupied this time around with inserting his Ideas into the story. He ended up with 600+ pages about the (contradictory) concepts of morality and status, being a good person and being a gentleman, etc. Those ideas all made their way into David Copperfield of course – as they do many other Edwardian and Victorian books – but that was a book about characters with problems, not problems personified in characters. Great Expectations is an interesting philosophical and class commentary – about the origins of wealth, personal values versus social ladder climbing, and so on – but that alone doesn’t make for a good read.

The one real upside to reading Great Expectations (aside from the fact that now I can say I have and I never have to do it again) is that I can officially say the rumour that Dickens “couldn’t write women” is absolute bullshit. By far, the most interesting characters in Great Expectations were Mrs Joe (who was basically the original Petunia Dursley), Miss Havisham (the bitter old broad who hates all men, very relatable) and Estella (who has no time for being “nice” to boring boys unworthy of her). Apparently, Estella was based on Dickens’ real-life mistress, Ellen Ternan – I hope she gave him hell.

So, that’s it. I found Great Expectations a real slog, and struggled to get through to the end – which makes it the perfect metaphor for this slog of a year. I loved David Copperfield enough that I’m not dissuaded from ever trying Dickens again, but Great Expectations and I are done. I certainly wouldn’t recommend it to a first-timer! Here’s hoping my next Dickens – and the next year! – is a return to form.

My favourite Amazon reviews of Great Expectations:

  • “I know this is true Dickens style, but the detail wasted on nothing for pages and pages was just too much. Pip is a twit.” – Victoria Reader
  • “I had low expectations… they were met.” – Jon M. Wilson
  • “I guess the author had lower expectations than the audience did” – t
  • “i would recomend this book to friends who have insomnia or those who i absolutely despise.” – Amazon Customer
  • “I was forced to read this book in my English class this year, and I almost died. For a more thrilling read, try a dictionary or a phone book.” – Brandon Rohrig
  • “Reading GREAT EXPECTATIONS as a 14 year old high school student in 1967 helped me acquire a clearer understanding of the concept of infinity. Eternity could never be as long as this book, which I endured to its soporific, boring end. I recommend it to hold up the end of a busted sofa!” – Author in the Attic
  • “Amazon. Sort your reviews section out on this. Reviews in this section seem to be for everything from a book to a mug to a tea towel to an audiobook to Anne of Green Bloody Gables. Atrocious.” – Def Jef

The Best Books of 2020: My Reading Year In Review

There’s really no pithy way to sum up 2020. It’s the year that stretched on forever, but seemed to pass in the blink of an eye. The world changed minute-by-minute, but we spent altogether too much time stagnant and bored. On the whole, it was a pretty shit one – for me and for most people I know. The only silver lining, as far as I can see, was a huge crop of truly great books to read. Here’s my reading year in review: the best books of 2020.

The Best Books Of 2020 - My Reading Year In Review - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Don’t forget: if you buy a book through a link on this site, I get a tip and some new year cheer!

Rabbits For Food by Binnie Kirshenbaum

Rabbits For Food - Binnie Kirshenbaum - Book On Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Rabbits For Food was one of the first books I read in 2020 – back when the year was new, and the pandemic was but a distant threat. I was barely a third of the way through it when I decided I would make it my year’s mission to thrust this underrated book into more readers’ hands. This story of depression, breakdown, institutionalisation, and (maybe?) redemption is one of the funniest books I’ve ever read. Even if you scroll no further, you’ve already found a winner.

Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata

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Sayaka Murata has won multiple literary prizes in Japan, she was named one of Vogue Japan’s Women Of The Year in 2016, and yet Convenience Store Woman is the first of her ten (ten!) novels to be translated into English. It was translated by Ginny Tapley Takemori (always, always, always #NameTheTranslator), and it has gone on to make Murata a literary superstar in the Anglophone world, as she has long deserved to be. Anyone who has felt a little on the outer, who has wondered whether the roles society has deemed fit for them were worth inhabiting, will find Convenience Store Woman a delightful – if searing – comfort. Read my full review of Convenience Store Woman here.

See also: Earthlings (warning: it takes everything from Convenience Store Woman and turns it up to eleven!)

Big Lies In A Small Town by Diane Chamberlain

Big Lies In A Small Town - Diane Chamberlain - Book on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

I’m not too big to admit when I’m wrong (it’s rare, but it does happen). I took one look at Big Lies In A Small Town and thought “ugh, another domestic thriller pot boiler, snooze”. Lies are the new Girls in book titles, after all. But, once again, there’s something to that whole not-judging-a-book-by-its-cover thing. This is a fascinating story about art, racism, integrity, and faith – one that I’ve breathlessly recommended to just about everyone I’ve encountered since I turned the final page. Consider this your annual reminder not to write off a book that’s “not for you” – it might just knock your socks off. (In fact, I’m still looking for mine…)

Me Talk Pretty One Day by David Sedaris

Me Talk Pretty One Day - David Sedaris - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Before this year, I knew David Sedaris mostly by reputation, and his audio-essays I’d heard on This American Life. It was reading his brilliant essay on his failed attempts at panic-buying that finally cinched it for me, and I plucked Me Talk Pretty One Day down from my to-be-read shelf. It was the perfect antidote to everything that was happening in lockdown. It had me wheezing with laughter (no mean feat in those lean times). It was hilarious, honest, and heartfelt – and I recommended it immediately to everyone who was struggling to read as the world fell apart. Read my full review of Me Talk Pretty One Day here.

Bonus: I also named Sedaris one of the authors I’d most love to share a house with in lockdown.

In The Dream House by Carmen Maria Machado

In The Dream House - Carmen Maria Machado - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

In The Dream House was the most hotly-anticipated memoir coming into the year 2020. Machado’s white hot writing talent is one thing, but the way she has structured and presented this memoir is just truly mind-blowing. Not only does she write deftly, vulnerably, beautifully, and devastatingly, the story she tells is a crucial and timely one: a formative and abusive relationship with a partner she calls only “the woman in the Dream House”. This book is destined for the queer canon, where it most certainly belongs.

See also: Her Body And Other Parties, Machado’s brilliant debut short story collection.

Good Talk by Mira Jacob

Good Talk - Mira Jacob - Keeping Up With The Penguins

When the year 2020 dawned, I was but a humble wide-eyed graphic novel virgin. I didn’t have anything against them, per se, I just figured they weren’t “for me”. Then, a friend read and recommended Good Talk by Mira Jacob, and I figured I’d give it a go (not sure I want to know what that says about my ability to stand up to peer pressure, shhh). It was amazing, the best first-time a girl could ask for. It is a remarkably accessible book about incredibly complex topics, one that will make people of colour feel seen and heard, and make people who are white or white-passing re-evaluate their conversations and interactions. Read my full review of Good Talk here.

The Animals In That Country by Laura Jean McKay

The Animals In That Country - Laura Jean Mckay - Keeping Up With The Penguins

The Animals In That Country definitely goes down as my spookiest read of 2020, for a number of reasons – not the least of which being that it’s a book about a global pandemic, coincidentally released in the midst of a global pandemic. You can’t buy free publicity like that! It’s an eerily prescient premise, right down to the conspiracy theories that proliferate on Facebook and the government ads that encourage people to “keep calm and stay indoors”. At the centre of it all is Jean, the hard-drinking foul-mouthed granny who works at a remote wildlife park and will do anything to keep her family safe.

The Manic Pixie Dream Boy Improvement Project by Lenore Appelhans

The Manic Pixie Dream Boy Improvement Project - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

My reading this year wasn’t all doom, gloom, and viruses: one of the best books I read in 2020, The Manic Pixie Dream Boy Improvement Project, was an unadulterated delight. It’s one for the word nerds and book geeks, a literary critique dressed up as light fantasy. 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. The problem is, not all of the tropes are willing to play by the authors’ rules… Read my full review of The Manic Pixie Dream Boy Improvement Project here.

Piranesi by Susanna Clarke

Piranesi - Susanna Clarke - Keeping Up With The Penguins

If certain books are to be considered “up my alley”, I must say Piranesi is so far off that the GPS co-ordinates take a full minute to update. For the first hundred pages (about half the book), I wasn’t sold at all. And yet… by the end, I was breathless. This is a peculiar and enigmatic book, one that raises philosophical and psychological questions I would never have expected from its length and blurb. I truly relished the opportunity to spend time with a narrator who was unreliable but not unlikeable. If there’s a single book that sums up the 2020 mood – stuck in a house, alone, with no idea how you got there or who you can trust to get you out – Piranesi is it.

The Family Law – Benjamin Law

Working in a beloved local bookstore definitely has its perks (though not necessarily the ones you’d imagine – being able to read all day behind the desk is a pipe dream!). I’m a long-time fan of Benjamin Law, and one day earlier this year he came in to the store for a TV shoot. When he was done, my boss convinced me to (shyly) ask him to sign a copy of his memoir, The Family Law.

The Family Law - Benjamin Law - Keeping Up With The Penguins
Buy The Family Law here.
(When you do, an Australian author will get a cut, a small publisher will get a cut, I’ll get a cut, and you’ll get a great read!)

In case you’re not familiar, Law is an Australian author and journalist. He’s been working in television, radio, and theater for years – not to mention his strong Twitter presence. He was born in Queensland in 1982, to immigrant parents from Hong Kong. The Family Law is his memoir, about what it was like to grow up in an Asian-Australian family in the heartland of Pauline Hanson and her ilk.

It’s not a misery memoir, however – no sad laments, no tearful recollections of racially-motivated violence and oppression. This is a story of heart, humour, and hope. As per the blurb: “Meet the Law family – eccentric, endearing, and hard to resist. Your guide: Benjamin, the third of five children and a born humourist.”

The Family Law is presented as a series of vignettes and essays, in the style of David Sedaris. The through line is family connection, the love between siblings and parents, forged in the fire of being the only Asians on the mostly-white Sunshine Coast. The humour is self-deprecating, colourful, occasionally scatalogical, and uniquely Australian. Law plays to his strengths: the strangeness of being both an insider and an outsider at once, of feeling both at home and displaced.

Law is disarmingly honest about experiences that would make most of us squirm to recount (and probably automatically disqualify him from any future in politics): performing in black-face for a school production, family in-jokes about rape, an Islamophobic aunt, an extended family summarily deported after overstaying their tourist visas… He is admirably forthcoming and frank about these flies in the ointment (there’s probably something to that whole power-of-vulnerability thing) and it’s a handy signpost for the reader that he’s not here to make himself look good. He’s here to tell his family’s story.

“Every marriage starts with passive aggression, but couples soon realise that being passive requires effort. It’s easier to be openly hostile.”

The Family Law (Page 15)

I must say, even though each of the Laws get a look in, it’s the mother – Jenny – who steals every scene. She’s beyond brilliant. She tapes difficult English words (like “diarrhoea”) with their definition to the wall, so she can remember them. She likens giving birth to “squeezing a lemon out of your penis hole”. She is always, always borderline-inappropriate, in the most amiable and likeable way.

The Family Law is a memoir that will speak to all young Australians, not just those with an Asian background, not just those who are gay. Even though Law speaks to his racial and sexual identity, those facets aren’t defining in his story, and they’re certainly not essential to engaging with it. Basically, all you’ll need to enjoy The Family Law is some level of experience with family relationships, and a permissive sense of humour. Some familiarity with the Queensland vernacular and culture might also come in handy…

In 2010, Law created a six-part television comedy series of the same name, loosely based on the book. (No, I haven’t watched it yet – my to-watch list is now longer than my to-read list, if you can believe it – but I watched the trailer on YouTube, does that count?) It was the most-viewed program on SBS OnDemand throughout the series, and received huge critical acclaim here and overseas.

All in all, The Family Law is a charming, funny, and occasionally over-the-top series of recollections about feeling different and family life. Despite what they say about not meeting your heroes, I feel lucky to have done so, and Benjamin Law remains one of mine 🙂

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