Keeping Up With The Penguins

Reviews For The Would-Be Booklover

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The Library – Andrew Pettegree and Arthur der Weduwen

The Library - Andrew Pettegree and Arthur der Weduwen - Keeping Up With The Penguins
Get The Library: A Fragile History here.
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I loved Susan Orlean’s The Library Book, and I’ve been on the hunt for more books and stories about the history of libraries ever since.

Then this beauty landed in my lap (courtesy of Profile Books via Allen & Unwin), The Library: A Fragile History. Pettegree and der Weduwen explore “the rich and dramatic history of the library, from the famous collections of the ancient world to the embattled public resources we cherish today”.

This is a BEAUTIFULLY designed hardcover, with ribbon bookmark; I suspect the designers knew full well that the subject matter would appeal to bibliophiles.

Pettegree and der Weduwen’s focus is more on the ancient, medieval, and Renaissance history of the library, when it largely existed as personal collections of the wealthy and powerful. I’ll admit I skimmed some of those chapters, but if those eras of history make your heart sing, you’re in luck.

The final chapters, with more recent history of the politics and progress of the library as a public institution, were of most interest to me.

While The Library wasn’t quite as snappy and readable as Orlean’s book, but it was still an interesting wide-view window into world history via book collections through the ages.

My Year In Books 2021

I was recently clearing out some old bookmarks, and found this post from BookerTalk back at the end of 2019. It seemed like such a fun idea, I saved it to give it a go myself sometime: answer a bunch of questions using only the titles of books you’d read that year. Looks like I’m finally getting around to it! Here’s my life in books for the year 2021…

My Year In Books 2021 - Book List - Keeping Up With The Penguins

In high school I was: Educated

Read my full review of Educated here.

People might be surprised by: (my experiences working on) The Helpline

Read my full review of The Helpline here.

I will never be: Rebecca

Read my full review of Rebecca here.

My fantasy job is: The Speechwriter

Read my full review of The Speechwriter here.

At the end of a long day I need: (We’re Going To Need More) Wine

Read my full review of We’re Going To Need More Wine here.

I hate: Misery

Read my full review of Misery here.

I wish I had: The Audacity

Read my full review of The Audacity here.

My family reunions are: Sorrow And Bliss

Read my full review (for Primer) here.

At a party, you’d find me with: The Stranger Beside Me

Read my full review of The Stranger Beside Me here.

I’ve never been to: Northanger Abbey

Read my full review of Northanger Abbey here.

A happy day includes: Love Objects

Read my full review of Love Objects here.

The motto I live by is: Everyone In This Room Will Someday Be Dead

Read my full review of Everyone In This Room Will Someday Be Dead here. (I hope that doesn’t make me sound morbid – it’s just an impermanence this-too-shall-pass thing I’m going for, I swear!)

On my bucket list is: Becoming

Read my full review of Becoming here.

In my next life, I want to have: (be a) New Animal

Read my full review of New Animal here.

The actual origin of this list/game is a bit of a mystery; it’s been floating around the book blogs for years now. I’ve linked back to where I first saw it (BookerTalk, one of my favourites!), but if you know who came up with it originally, please let me know in the comments so I can give them full credit!

UPDATE: Veronica from The Burgeoning Bookshelf found this game’s origins! It was Adam over at RoofBeamReader! His original post can be found here. Thanks for the fun, Adam, and the hot tip, Veronica!

My Grandmother Sends Her Regards And Apologises – Fredrik Backman

I’ve been wanting to read My Grandmother Sends Her Regards And Apologises by Fredrik Backman ever since I read (and loved!) A Man Called Ove. It sounded like an equally sweet and disarming story: a young girl reaching out on behalf of her beloved grandmother to right past wrongs. Then, around this time last year, I lost my own beloved grandmother, and I worried that this book would simply feel Too Real. So, I put it off, until now. I felt ready, and I was in the mood for something Backman-y.

My Grandmother Sends Her Regards And Apologises - Fredrik Backman - Keeping Up With The Penguins
Buy My Grandmother Sends Her Regards And Apologises here.
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This book was first published in the original Swedish (Min mormor hälsar och säger förlåt) in 2013, then it was translated into English (My Grandmother Sends Her Regards And Apologises, or in the US, My Grandmother Asked Me To Tell You She’s Sorry, which doesn’t quite have the same ring to it) in 2015 by Henning Koch. The rights for translation have been sold in over 40 countries; after the success of A Man Called Ove, everyone was banking on another hit from Backman.

Once again, the story takes place in Sweden, but instead of a curmudgeonly old man, it follows seven-year-old Elsa. The young girl knows she’s different from other children, though the adults call it being “smart for her age”. Her Granny (who’s “old for her age”, a former surgeon turned eccentric) is her superhero, and her best (only) friend. Granny takes her on marvellous adventures, talks their way out of trouble, and teaches Elsa how to stand up to the kids who bully her at school.

They live in a house of flats, with a large cast of quirky neighbours forming a de facto extended family. I’ve drawn you a map, because I found it quite hard to keep track for the first couple hundred pages.

My Grandmother Sends Her Regards And Apologises House Map - Keeping Up With The Penguins

When Granny dies (which I guess is kind of a spoiler, but c’mon, clearly you saw that coming) Elsa slowly learns more about the life she lived before Elsa. She leaves behind a series of letters for Elsa to deliver to people she has hurt or offended.

Elsa soon realises that the fantasy land Granny has been “taking” her to ever since she could remember – The Land Of Almost-Awake and the Kingdom Of Miamas where no one has to learn to ‘fit in’ – might not be entirely imaginary. The terrifying hound hidden in the basement actually seems more like a wurse. The Monster who lives next door to the wurse might actually be Wolfheart, the hero of Miamas. She worried when Granny died that she might never get to visit The Land Of Almost-Awake ever again, but maybe she’s been living in it all along.

My Grandmother Sends Her Regards And Apologises is a step above A Man Called Ove in literary terms, fusing stark Swedish realism with childhood imagination and fairy tales. While I didn’t find Elsa quite as endearing a main character as darling old Ove, she still provided a humourous and poignant insight into what might otherwise have been a very dark story.

It struck me, towards the end, that this is a much better less-pathologised version of The Curious Incident Of The Dog In The Night-Time. Backman doesn’t stuff around trying to make Elsa’s quirks fit a specific set of diagnostic criteria. There’s nothing wrong with Elsa at all; she just likes correcting other people’s grammar, and makes full use of her active imagination.

I suspect, with the Britt Marie character’s arc, that one of Backman’s other books – Britt Marie Was Here – picks up where My Grandmother Sends Her Regards And Apologises left off. Luckily, I’ve got a copy on my to-read shelf, ready to go whenever the mood strikes.

The take-home message is that you never really know someone. Everyone has hidden depths, even precocious seven-year-olds and their eccentric grandmothers. I’m grateful to Backman for the ever-timely reminder.

My favourite Amazon reviews of My Grandmother Sends Her Regards And Apologises:

  • “A rather stupid grandmother with her elderly granddaughter a the central figures. The grand daughter is only seven but behaves like a grown up. Thankfully the stupid, demented grandmother dies half way through but is still remarkably central to the childish story. Harry Potter is better reading than this for an adult and so much of the story is stolen from Harry Potter.” – nigel barnard
  • “One complaint to Mr. Backman directly: stop feeding literary dogs chocolate, baking mixes, cookies, and coffee. In my experience, that can only lead to bad, bad things.” – Jessie
  • “I recommend this book to anyone who has a heart and a brain.” – Kindle Customer

7 1/2 – Christos Tsiolkas

7 1/2 - Christos Tsiolkas - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Ready to feel bad about how little you achieved during quarantine? Christos Tsiolkas committed to writing 800 words a day, and the result is 7 1/2. It’s “a novel about beauty”, or – more accurately – a novel about a novelist on retreat, trying to write a novel about beauty. My friends at Allen & Unwin were kind enough to send me a copy for review, and it came highly recommended, with blurbs from Helen Garner and Charlotte Wood.

I’m quite skeptical of writers writing about writers, and I must say Tsiolkas’s latest hasn’t done much to change my mind. He goes the full Martin Amis with his main character: a mid-50s gay Greek writer named Christos Tsiolkas who is “tired” of writing about politics and religion and sex, and hates how often he checks his phone.

I perked up a bit in the sections where the Christos character was writing a novel about a retired porn star, but most of the novel was Christos being amazed by nature, bemoaning technology, and sniffing armpits (seriously, the guy is obsessed with sweat, I could’ve made a drinking game out of it).

I really wanted to be generous in my reading, and Tsiolkas is undeniably a talented writer, but 7 1/2 at its heart is one long lament about The Modern World. It’s more masterfully written than a forwarded chain email that’s been scanned by Norton Anti-Virus, but the vibe is the same.

8 Strange Book Titles

Sometimes, strange things tie otherwise disparate books together. I have a particularly attuned radar for books with the word strange in the title – mainly because it’s my last name! So, here are eight strange book titles (geddit?).

8 Strange Book Titles - Book List - Keeping Up With The Penguins
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10 Minutes 38 Seconds In This Strange World by Elif Shafak

10 Minutes 38 Seconds In This Strange World - Elif Shafak - Keeping Up With The Penguins

What happens when we die? No one knows for sure, but the protagonist of Elif Shafak’s 2019 novel 10 Minutes 38 Seconds In This Strange World can tell us what happens in the strange interval between her heart ceasing to beat and her brain ceasing activity. In as long as it takes to drink a cup of coffee, she takes us through her childhood in the Turkish provinces, her ‘career’ on the Street Of Brothels, and the special relationships she forged with her chosen family in life. This vivid philosophical novel brings the streets of Istanbul and the shared realities of mortality to life.

Jonathan Strange And Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke

Jonathan Strange And Mr Norrell - Susanna Clarke - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Jonathan Strange And Mr Norrell is named for the two characters at its heart: scholarly fusspot Mr Norrell, and reckless talented Jonathan Strange. In Susanna Clarke’s speculative historical novel, magic has been gone for centuries, only to manifest finally in these two strange sides of the same coin. The two magicians work together until their differences drive them apart, but neither of them foresee the consequences of their dabbling in the magical arts. This is one of the most richly-drawn worlds of contemporary fiction, written with breath-taking detail and two characters that will stay with you long after you turn the thousandth page. Read my full review of Jonathan Strange And Mr Norrell here.

Nine Perfect Strangers by Liane Moriarty

Nine Perfect Strangers - Liane Moriarty - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Following up a worldwide best-seller like Big Little Lies is no mean feat, but Liane Moriarty swung for the fences with Nine Perfect Strangers. As the ‘strange’ title suggests, nine people from various walks of life find themselves gathered at a remote health retreat. They’re all seeking something – relaxation, weight loss, a balm for a broken heart, a cure for writer’s block – but at Tranquillum House they’re going to find something else entirely. Moriarty has the propulsive page-turner down to a fine art, and you won’t be able to look away from this one until all of the threads finally weave together.

Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson

Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde - Robert Louis Stevenson - book laid on wooden table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Look, it’s hard to be spooked – even by a particularly strange book, like Strange Case Of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde – when the plot twist has become so well-known it’s slipped into the English language idiom. Still, this short novel is the finest example of classic doppelgänger literature, and it’s well worth a read. The “big reveal” – that well-mannered genteel Dr Jekyll has been secretly transforming into the monstrous Mr Hyde – might not make you gasp, but the abundantly obvious queer metaphor and the new resonance in the age of alt-accounts online will give you a lot to think about. Read my full review of Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde here.

Strangers Drowning by Larissa MacFarquhar

Strangers Drowning - Larissa MacFarquhar - Keeping Up With The Penguins

How do we decide to do good? Help others? And why do we make the decision to help one, but not another? These strange philosophical questions inspired Larissa MacFarquhar to write Strangers Drowning, a book about idealism and the urge to help. She seeks out those rare individuals who have made extreme commitments to one cause or another – parents who adopt dozens of children, people who found a leprosy colony, people who live on a fraction of their income in order to donate the rest – in an effort to understand why, and what it costs them. The fact is that “doing good” isn’t always the imperative it appears to be.

The Secrets Of Strangers by Charity Norman

The Secrets Of Strangers - Charity Norman - Keeping Up With The Penguins

It’s a sad fact of modern life that almost all of us city-dwellers have a story about traumatic act of violence in their metropolis that has indelibly imprinted on us. For New Yorkers it’s September 11, for Londoners it’s the 2005 bombings, and for Sydneysiders (myself among them) it’s the Lindt Cafe siege. The premise of Charity Norman’s novel The Secrets Of Strangers seemed eerily similar (which is why I put off reading it for so long, for fear of triggering those memories): a group of strangers in a cafe on a regular weekday morning find their lives thrown off-course by a gunman who takes them hostage. It’s chilling, but all the more so for the secrets that bind them all together…

The Stranger Beside Me by Ann Rule

The Stranger Beside Me - Ann Rule - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Sometimes, fact is stranger than fiction. That’s definitely the case for Ann Rule, the crime writer who discovered that the kind man who’d worked with her at a suicide hotline in Seattle was actually America’s most feared serial killer: Ted Bundy. She’d already received an advance to write the story of the Campus Killer when she learned that she was far closer to the perpetrator than she ever could have imagined. As well as being a classic of the true crime genre, The Stranger Beside Me is a fascinating interrogation of the ethics of writing, the obligations of friendship, and the minds of serial killers. How well do we ever know the strangers beside us? Read my full review of The Stranger Beside Me here.

The Strangers We Know by Pip Drysdale

The Strangers We Know - Pip Drysdale - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Pip Drysdale nods to a strange fact of the human existence in The Strangers We Know: when our lives collapse around us, it rarely happens all at once. Rather, the Jenga pieces are pulled out one by one, until the whole thing comes tumbling down. For her main character, Charlie, the first piece to go is a glimpse of her husband on a friend’s dating app. How could her loving partner be swiping through chicks when he seems so dedicated to her? Believe it or not, that’s just the beginning. When Charlie signs up for the app herself, in the hope of dismissing her doubts (or catching him in the act) she quickly finds out that’s the least of her problems. Read my full review of The Strangers We Know here.

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