Keeping Up With The Penguins

Reviews For The Would-Be Booklover

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The Importance Of Being Earnest – Oscar Wilde

I am dipping, once again, into my Complete Works Of Oscar Wilde collection. The first time, I read and reviewed The Picture Of Dorian Gray, and this time I’m taking a stab at one of his plays: The Importance Of Being Earnest. I didn’t realise until after I’d read it that it is subtitled A Trivial Comedy for Serious People – though, as a rather unserious person, I can tell you that didn’t inhibit my enjoyment of this ridiculous romp at all.

The Complete Works of Oscar Wilde - book laid on wooden table - Keeping Up With The Penguins
Get The Importance Of Being Earnest here.
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At the time of writing The Importance Of Being Earnest, Wilde was coming off the back of wild success (pun definitely intended) of his plays An Ideal Husband, and A Woman Of No Importance. He was stuck with his family on a summer holiday in 1894 when he began work on this new venture, borrowing names and places from people and places he knew in real life. The play was finished in time for its first performance at St James’s Theatre in London, on 14 February 1895.

The play is set in “The Present” (i.e., 1895), and revolves around two young men who create fictional excuses to escape tedious social obligations (relatable content!). Act I opens with Algernon receiving Jack (whom he calls “Ernest”) at his home. Jack is planning to propose to Algernon’s cousin Gwendolen, but Algernon discovers his secret – that his name isn’t Ernest at all (spoiler, it’s Jack), and Ernest is a rapscallion “brother” that Jack has invented as a reason to visit the city and a cover for his own bad behaviour.

But, plot twist, Algernon has a similar deception of his own. Whenever he needs an excuse to get out of something, he says that his friend Bunbury is very unwell and he must attend to the invalid’s bedside. He calls this Bunburying, the old-timey equivalent of “my mum says no”.

When Gwendolen shows up – with her mother, the formidable Lady Bracknell, in tow – Jack forges ahead with the proposal, and to his delight she accepts… because his name is Ernest (as far as she knows). She says she had always planned to marry a man by that name, and Jack resolves to have himself re-christened immediately, so that she never need know he’s deceived her.

In Act II, Algernon heads to Jack’s home in the country to meet his ward, an attractive young lady called Cecily. The devious rake presents himself as Ernest, Jack’s troubled brother, and in that guise himself proposes to Cecily. She, too, is particularly fond of the name Ernest, so Algernon also arranges to have himself christened accordingly.

Naturally, their deceptions are exposed and it takes some fancy footwork for Algernon and Jack to dance their way out of trouble. This collection has the full four-act version of The Importance Of Being Earnest, which includes the solicitor who comes to arrest “Ernest” for unpaid bills back in London. Apparently, the manager of the first production asked Wilde to cut it down, and some critics argue that “the three-act structure is more effective and theatrically resonant”… but I disagree.

Wilde’s wit and insight shines at full strength throughout The Importance Of Being Earnest. Take, for instance, this surprisingly timely gem:

ALGERNON: Oh! It is absurd to have a hard and fast rule about what one should read and one shouldn’t. One should read everything. More than half of modern culture depends on what one shouldn’t read.

The Importance Of Being Earnest (Page 360)

That’s something that U.S. governing bodies and school boards would do well to remember, eh?

And while the plot satires and skewers the social conventions of the time and Victorian propriety (the name Earnest might have been an in-joke, suggesting that a man might be gay in the same way that being “musical” did at the time), Wilde steers away from the more serious political matters and sinful behaviour in his earlier plays. The most sinful scene of The Importance Of Being Earnest involved Algernon gluttonously gobbling a platter of cucumber sandwiches intended for his guest.

The farcical premise and witty dialogue have made The Importance Of Being Earnest Wilde’s most enduringly popular play. It’s still beloved by critics, readers, and theatre-goers alike, and I’m happy to join them in singing its praises. It’s a quick read, remarkably clever, and delightfully ridiculous.

My favourite Amazon reviews of The Importance Of Being Earnest:

  • ” The book is good and the movie with Colin Firth is about as good but cant be used in class as reference.” – Mads Stokes
  • “Got it but never wanted to read it” – chelsey
  • “The cover’s gross. In England they break their necks and hang em. That’s against constitutional rights against cruel and unusual punishment. That’s nutty.” J. Kim
  • “Terrible play. Pretentious characters. Predictable plot.” – Amazon Customer
  • “I got 5 pages into this before I gave up.
    I dislike plays at the best of times; with shakespeare you can’t understand it, with this you’re bored to death!
    Cumber sandwiches and tea? “Oh how dreadfully spiffing!” This just fuels the negative snooty-tooty stereotype of us Brits!
    Tell me what is funny about some cagey weirdo with two names and a secret relationship/aunt having his cigarette box stolen and then somehow not knowing what is inscribed on his own property?” – Girlie

Our Members Be Unlimited – Sam Wallman

Our Members Be Unlimited is a beautiful and often moving guide to union organising that’s in touch with the reality of work today,” according to Bhaskar Sunkara (the founding editor of Jacobin magazine), and I can’t come up with a better way to describe it myself. I was lucky enough to receive a copy from the publisher Scribe for review.

Sam Wallman is a comic artist/cartoonist and committed unionist, so clearly Our Members Be Unlimited combines his two great loves. He describes it as “a longform comic book informed by [his] time working as an elected delegate in a call centre, as an organiser for a lare blue collar union, and as an undercover union activist at Australia’s first Amazon warehouse.”

The latter aspect of his experience is detailed most in Our Members Be Unlimited, but thankfully it doesn’t seem to have been quite as horrific for Wallman as it has been for his comrades in the United States (he never had to pee in a bottle… though he did pee into a urine bag strapped to his leg).

Mostly, though, Our Members Be Unlimited focuses on the history of unions, what we owe them and why we need them. It’s shocking, at times, but mostly encouraging. Wallman works from the thesis that work needn’t be the most miserable part of our lives, and while workers’ collective action is as subject to pitfalls as any other movement, it’s still the most powerful tool at our disposal to improve our lives under capitalism.

And don’t skip the glossary in the Appendix! I considered myself fairly well-versed in union lingo, and even I learned a lot (and got a few lol’s into the bargain). Our Members Is Unlimited‘s fun format and beautiful rendering belies the significance of its subject – a must-read for fans and followers of Jorts The Cat.

10 Books About Low-Stakes Problems

I don’t know about you, but if I’ve had a bad day or a hard week, it’s tough to unwind with a book that has life-or-death stakes. There’s a lot of pressure on authors to “ramp up the stakes” of their stories, as though the only way we readers could be compelled to read on is if we’re worried the world might end before the epilogue. The thing is, the truly masterful writers out there can make the low-stakes problems of their characters gripping without an adrenaline rush, and keep us reading while soothing and entertaining us. Here are some of my favourite books about low-stakes problems.

10 Books About Low-Stakes Problems - Book List - Keeping Up With The Penguins
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Important note: I started feeling super-guilty as I was putting this list together, as if I were minimalising or trivialising the problems of the characters in these books (and, by extension, minimalising or trivialising the real-life problems of readers that mirror them). Low-stakes problems can still be stressful and awful! Your concerns are valid, I promise! To me, “low-stakes” doesn’t mean “not important” or “silly”, just not life-and-death and/or easy for me personally to read about.

Loner by Georgina Young

Loner - Georgina Young - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Loner explores the anxieties and complexities of contemporary youth in a way that feels realistic and grounded. Basically, it’s a book about the weird in-between time after high school but before Real Life. Lona’s big problem is that she doesn’t really know who she is, and she doesn’t really know what the heck she’s doing with herself. Surely, we’ve all been there… Being an introvert in a world built for extroverts and slowly figuring it out doesn’t make for life-or-death dramatics, but it’s great fodder for books about low-stakes problems. Read my full review of Loner here.

There’s No Such Thing As An Easy Job by Kikuko Tsumura

There's No Such Thing As An Easy Job - Kikuko Tsumura - Keeping Up With The Penguins

2020 was a year of very high-stakes problems, which is why There’s No Such Thing As An Easy Job was such a welcome respite. It managed to capture the mood without fuelling the fire of existential dread. It’s the story of a young woman who wants a job that’s close to home and not too taxing, a 2020 mood if there ever was one. Each chapter is devoted to a different “easy” job she takes on, each with its own unique set of at-times farcical challenges. It was translated into English from the original Japanese by Polly Barton (#NameTheTranslator!). Read my full review of There’s No Such Thing As An Easy Job here.

In A New York Minute by Kate Spencer

In A New York Minute - Kate Spencer - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Have you ever clicked on one of those viral videos: “This woman’s dress ripped on the subway, you won’t believe what happens next!”-type of videos? Well, in In A New York Minute, Franny and Hayes find themselves the stars of one such video, recognised as the #SubwayQTs all over their city. Only they don’t know each other, and if first impressions are any indication, they don’t care to. Will they be able to make their real-life relationship into one worthy of all the online attention? Will Franny be able to parlay their online popularity into a successful business? Read my full review of In A New York Minute here.

Julie And Julia by Julie Powell

Julie And Julia - Julie Powell - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Julie Powell’s life in the early ’00s was a bit of a bummer. On the verge of existential crisis, she did what so many of us do: she sought out a Project, and she found it in her mother’s battered copy of Julia Child’s Mastering The Art Of French Cooking. Julie And Julia is one of the few memoirs about low-stakes problems, based on Powell’s blog about her attempt to cook every one of Julia Child’s recipes in just a year. Even though she has Big Stuff going on in her life, she takes the pressure and deals with it by proxy, cooking up a storm, which is a welcome relief. Read my full review of Julie And Julia here.

Happy Endings by Thien-Kim Lam

Happy Endings - Thien-Kim Lam - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Romances are great books about low-stakes problems; usually, the will-they-or-won’t-they tension is as bad as it gets. In Happy Endings, though, the couple are tearing each other’s clothes off from the beginning. Their real problem is that they’re each trying to get their respective businesses off the ground, and it’s solved by finding a surprising synergy between their talents: selling sex toys with demonstrations in a soul food restaurant. Their relationship is pretty much a foregone conclusion, so with just the businesses to contend with, it makes for a fun low-stakes read. Read my full review of Happy Endings here.

Less by Andrew Sean Greer

Less - Andrew Sean Greer - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Arthur Less surely doesn’t see his own problems as low-stakes in Less. He fears he is “the first homosexual to ever grow old”. His boy-toy dumped him, found a more age-appropriate suitor, and got engaged. And now, Arthur Less has received an invitation to the wedding. He has no choice but to accept every other invitation to every half-baked literary engagement that’ll have him, no matter where they are in the world, if only to save himself the shame of attending the wedding and watching the love of his life walk down the aisle to someone else. It’s farcical, it’s ridiculous, and it’s a brilliant book. Read my full review of Less here.

The Importance Of Being Earnest by Oscar Wilde

The Complete Works of Oscar Wilde - book laid on wooden table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Who among us hasn’t faked a reason to escape a tiresome situation? The Importance Of Being Earnest is basically the origin of “my mum says no”. Two men both have their own custom-made long-held standing excuses to leave home: for John, it’s his ragamuffin “brother” Ernest, and for Algernon, it’s his sickly “friend” Bunbury. These ruses work well for years, until a woman falls in love with John and swears that she would only ever marry a man named Ernest, and Algernon poses as the fake-brother to win the affections of John’s ward. Oscar Wilde knew that low-stakes problems could make great drama – he even gave the play the subtitle, “a trivial comedy for serious people”. Read my full review of The Importance Of Being Earnest here.

The Helpline by Katherine Collette

The Helpline - Katherine Collette - Keeping Up With The Penguins

The Helpline is a charming, heart-warming story for anyone who loves a good oddball protagonist (and books about low-stakes problems). Germaine is in her late-thirties, she’s far better with numbers than she is with people, and she recently learned (the hard way!) that there’s very little demand in the job market for senior mathematicians. She’s forced to accept the only job she can get, answering calls to the local council’s Senior Citizens Helpline, and soon finds herself drawn into a web of petty corruption and stubborn oldies. Read my full review of The Helpline here.

Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen

Northanger Abbey - Jane Austen - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Like most Jane Austen novels, Northanger Abbey is a romance, with the marriage and honour of the heroine at stake – really, any of them would be at home in a list of books about low-stakes problems, but this one is the most fun. In addition to the love triangle, where the wholesome hero contends with the charismatic wealthy villain for the naive heroine’s affections, Austen throws in her unique satirical take on the tropes of Gothic fiction for good measure. Really, the biggest risk facing the characters of Northanger Abbey is that their own gossip will get them in the end. Read my full review of Northanger Abbey here.

To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before by Jenny Han

To All The Boys I've Loved Before - Jenny Han - Keeping Up With The Penguins

It’s only as a grown-up (relatively speaking) that I can concede that To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before is one of the best young adult books about low-stakes problems. As a teenager, it would have been a horror story, a terrifying prospect that would have fuelled my nightmares well past the end of adolescence. In reality, Lara Jean’s predicament – that her secret love letters to her crushes were actually sent to them, and she was forced to fake-date the hottest guy in school for a while – isn’t life or death. It makes for a marvellous read, though! Read my full review of To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before here.

Happy Endings – Thien-Kim Lam

If your taste in rom-com books tends towards the smutty (like mine does), then your ears will prick up when you hear the premise of Happy Endings (like mine did). A sex toy salesperson has to team up with her restaurateur ex-boyfriend to make her dream of opening her own shop come true. But will their chemistry bubble over and spell disaster for them both? It’s a steamy, second-chances romance about unfinished business, good food, and homemade orgasms.

Happy Endings - Thien-Kim Lam - Keeping Up With The Penguins
Get Happy Endings here.
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Meet the players: Trixie Nguyen, sex toy salesperson extraordinaire with a passion for empowering women to own their Os and a desire to prove herself to her traditional Vietnamese parents, and Andre Walker, who has recently inherited a flailing soul food restaurant from his mother and is struggling to keep the wolf from the door.

Years ago, when they were both living in New Orleans, they had an intense romance… until Andre left Trixie, with just a “I’m sorry, I can’t, don’t hate me” Post-it note by way of explanation. (What a guy!)

Now they’re both living in Washington DC, and (of course) they unexpectedly run into each other when Trixie is selling vibrators at a party hosted in Andre’s restaurant. The night is a smashing success for both of them, and there the (brilliant!) idea of pop-up sex toy shops alongside soul food buffets is born.

Both Trixie and Andre feel the weight of others’ expectations, albeit in different ways. Both are desperate for business success, believing it to be the key to their happiness. Both of them feel they have something to prove to their parents. And both of them are hot-hot-HOT for each other, even though they know it’s a mistake to mix business with pleasure. It makes for a very, very steamy novel, just like I like ’em. Now, that’s just my personal taste; if you’re liable to clutch your pearls at an exposed breast, this is not the book for you.

(Or, actually, maybe it is. Happy Endings is sex-positive, pro-pleasure, and full of encouragement for those who might need it. Lam clearly believes, as does Trixie, that pleasure is for everyone, regardless of gender, size, age, or inclination. So, you know, maybe don’t write it off completely, even if that’s not usually your jam.)

It may seem like I’m revealing a lot here, but the first few chapters of Happy Endings (well, most of them, if I’m honest) are exposition-heavy. You don’t need to read between the lines one bit.

Another bummer: as a Coeliac, I couldn’t help but cringe at the fairly frequent jibes about gluten-free restaurants. Lam used them throughout Happy Endings as a symbol of the evil gentrification that Andre was so desperate to defeat. I tried not to let it bother me, but I’d be lying if I said it didn’t. His fried chicken sounds delicious, but would it really be worth days in a sick bed or hunched over a toilet bowl (not to mention a shortened lifespan), when I could get a decent GF feed up the road? Hmph.

But other than that, Happy Endings was a delight to read. The blurb maybe overstates the stakes a little (they’re comfortingly low), and there’s a cast of supportive, empowering characters that keep the mood up. All told, it’s a fun second-chance romance with a sweet message and (as the title suggests) a happy ending for all involved.

P.S. Lam is clearly an awesome lady, too. As well as writing books herself, she founded Bawdy Bookworms, a subscription service that “pairs sexy romances with erotic toys”. I checked immediately whether they deliver to Australia (they do!) and immediately put a subscription of my own at the top of my wishlist.

My favourite Amazon reviews of Happy Endings:

  • “Happy Endings was the perfect book for my Vegas trip. It held my attention over all the noise of a pool party.” – Kendra Pierson
  • “The only downside? There is a lot of talk about food and it made me hungry. Other than that, it was an excellent read.” – Tegan H.
  • “Andre is kind of a stick but he will grow on you.” – kathleen g

Abomination – Ashley Goldberg

Abomination - Ashley Goldberg - Keeping Up With The Penguins

For a while in the 2010s I lived in St Kilda, right on the edge of Melbourne’s Jewish enclave. Despite my proximity, grocery shopping on Balaclava Road was as close as I ever got to this unique community – which I suppose is not surprising, given the stark divide between the worlds of the secular and the Orthodox. Still, I welcomed the opportunity to learn more about them via Ashley Goldberg’s debut novel, Abomination (kindly sent to me for review by the wonderful team at Penguin Random House Australia).

The chapters alternate between the perspectives of two childhood friends, Ezra and Yonatan. Both attended the ultra-Orthodox Jewish Yahel Academy in the late ’90s, and both were shocked by the accusations of sexual abuse levelled at beloved pillar of the community, Rabbi Hirsch. As teachers, students, and parents reeled, Ezra and Yonatan lives were set on different tracks, until they reunite 20 years later at a protest regarding Hirsch’s escape from justice.

If any of that sounds familiar, it’s by design; the crimes of Rabbi Hirsch, and the ultra-Orthodox community’s reaction, are based on the real-life case of Malka Leifer. Leifer stands accused of shocking abuses in her time as principal of the Adass Israel School, but has evaded criminal prosecution for years. Tireless advocates and victims have finally brought enough scrutiny to the case, forcing the hands of authorities regarding Leifer’s extradition from Israel, and she will stand trial in Australia later this year.

Naturally, Abomination warrants a couple of trigger warnings – for sexual abuse (though it happens off page and is not exploited for shock value in the narrative), and also bullying and mental illness.

It’s a strangely stressful read, for its intensity and Goldberg’s deft sidestepping of the beats you might expect a story like this to hit. Goldberg doesn’t rely on shock-value or voyeurism, making this a remarkably deep story about crises of faith and the ripple effects of secrets and scandal. It’s important not to try to “binge” Abomination – this is a book that needs to be sipped like fine wine, not chugged like cheap beer.

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