Keeping Up With The Penguins

Reviews For The Would-Be Booklover

Page 4 of 54

Me Talk Pretty One Day – David Sedaris

I know David Sedaris mostly by reputation. I’d heard some of his segments on This American Life, and I loved his essay about his failed attempts at panic-buying at the onset of the pandemic, but I hadn’t read anything book-length until I picked up Me Talk Pretty One Day. This memoir, told in essays, was first published in 2000, making this year its twentieth anniversary, and yet it’s still as pertinent and resonant as ever. Sedaris’s wry humour and keen observations, of everything from family life to travel to cooking to education, are timeless.

My edition comes with a new introduction from the author, describing the various types of “fan” mail he has received since its initial release. Right from the outset, Sedaris sets his tone: uniquely sarcastic and affectionate in equal measure, poking fun without ever being cruel. I’m still scratching my head, trying to work out how he did it. How did he manage to land punches – in all directions, up and down and sideways – that feel like kisses? It’s truly masterful, a kind of comic genius you don’t see everyday.

Me Talk Pretty One Day is split into two parts. The first is a collection of essays about his childhood, mostly set in his native North Carolina. The second focuses on his life after moving to France, with his partner. It’s hard to believe how much life Sedaris has lived, as a speed addict, a furniture removalist, a writing teacher, a failed performance artist, an ex-pat… It’s all copy for Sedaris. He provides seemingly endless and delightfully witty commentary on all of his experiences, sharing the worst of them (addiction, grief, shame) with just as much good humour as the best of them.

Much of the humour in the second section is derived from Sedaris’s attempt to live in France without actually speaking French (and his fumbling efforts to learn). The titular essay – Me Talk Pretty One Day – is drawn from his participation in language classes, where just about everything is lost in translation. However, the title also echoes in the very first essay, from Sedaris’s childhood, about receiving speech therapy for his pronounced lisp. It’s a satisfyingly neat parallel. In fact, Sedaris’s communication “failures” are a recurring motif throughout the book.

Me Talk Pretty One Day is about astutely-observed adventures in seemingly mundane everyday activities. I’m sure Sedaris occasionally exaggerates and over-emphasises for comic effect, but I am more than willing to forgive him that. He seems like the kind of writer that could derive side-splitting laughter from a shopping list. That said, this isn’t a “fluffy” read. Sedaris is disarmingly honest about his extended flirtation with crystal meth (and his related dalliance with performance art), and other moments of darkness and weakness in his life. Still, he seems to process these traumas (self-inflicted and otherwise) in the way I most prefer and adore: with self-deprecating humour.

Me Talk Pretty One Day is a great read for when your attention span is shot. The essays are short enough that you can read the whole thing in bite-sized chunks, but the through-line is strong enough that it will keep pulling you back in. It’s a shame that it’s never been adapted for the screen. Apparently, it was all set to go – with a completed script and all – but Sedaris’s sister expressed concerns about how their family would be portrayed, and so he squashed it. For all his ribbing and warts-and-all honesty, Sedaris is clearly still a good guy, one who will set aside his own interests to protect his family and keep them happy.

So, I end where I began: still amazed at Sedaris’s knack for being cutting without being cruel, to tease but never bully. Every critical observation he offers is laced with love and LOLs. Every autobiographical gem he mines is polished to a bright shine. Me Talk Pretty One Day definitely lives up to the hype, and I guarantee it will tickle your funny bone, even in your darkest hours.

My favourite Amazon reviews of Me Talk Pretty One Day:

  • “Some people may like his humor but I’m not one of them.” – Dick
  • “I had to stop reading this while on the treadmill at the gym. I was laughing so hard I could barely walk and was making a spectacle of myself.” – Kindle Customer
  • “It was absolutely hilarious. I just wish he would not use so much “potty talk”. That not pretty!” – margaret h cleveland
  • “If you want to laugh hard enough to pee, this is for you.” – Amazon Customer
  • “It’s David Sedaris. Nuff said

    Except there are word minimums on this review, like a school book report. He’s the writer, not me.” – Amazon Customer

13 Guaranteed Slump-Buster Books

If you’ve got a lot of bookish friends, you’ve probably heard at least one or two of them complain about being in a “reading slump” at some point. I have a pretty good reading rhythm, and I’m not sure I’d ever use that terminology myself, but I can certainly relate to the feeling of being not in the mood: no books calling to you, nothing that draws you in… Surely we’ve all felt a bit of that of late, with the state of the world. I know I did, but To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before was just the ticket and I’ve got a good strong bench of slump-buster books. I can guarantee you these will get you back on that book-lovin’ horse!

13 Guaranteed Slump-Buster Books - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Big Little Lies by Liane Moriarty

Big Little Lies - Liane Moriarty - Book Laid On Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Liane Moriarty is the reigning queen of woman-centred domestic thrillers, and Big Little Lies got her the crown. I turned to it after I finished Ulysses – I was exhausted, and in the mood for a page-turner, and boy did it deliver! This is Moriarty in her prime: three women, all dealing with their own struggles, merging and converging with a dramatic climax that ends in bloodshed. All of Moriarty’s books are compelling and satisfying, but Big Little Lies particularly so. Read my full review of Big Little Lies here.

The Martian by Andy Weir

The Martian - Andy Weir - book laid on wooden table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

A man stranded alone on Mars, years away from assistance with only a month’s worth of supplies, hardly sounds like a hilarious premise for a novel… and yet The Martian made me laugh harder than any book had in ages. It’s thrilling and compelling enough to draw you in, but Weir deftly steers clear of anything dark or depressing. The narrator, Mark Watney, is determined to survive and his good attitude is infectious. In addition to cheering you up, this one might even teach you a thing or two about science – imagine that! Read my full review of The Martian here.

The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes by Arthur Conan Doyle

The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes - Arthur Conan Doyle - Keeping Up With The Penguins

If you’re in the mood for snack-sized stories, instead of a heavy pot roast story, The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes is the book for you. Doyle is a masterclass in economical writing; not a word is wasted, and he manages to say a lot in just a few pages. What’s more, the stories are just as interesting and clever as you’d hope for the world’s most famous fictional detective – but they stop short of being horrifying or terrifying, the way most contemporary detective thrillers are. Read my full review of The Adventures Of Sherlock Holmes here.

The One-Hundred-Year Old Man Who Climbed Out The Window And Disappeared by Jonas Jonasson

The One Hundred Year Old Man Who Climbed Out The Window And Disappeared - Jonas Jonasson - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Ah, I never tire of recommending this book! The One-Hundred-Year Old Man Who Climbed Out The Window And Disappeared is one of the most delightful books I’ve ever had the pleasure to read. It’s basically a European Forrest Gump, but less trite, a sprinkle more snarky, and guaranteed to make you chuckle. Plus, who can’t relate to wanting to jump out the window and go on an adventure? This amazing Swedish novel (translated into English by Rod Bradbury) will bust your slump for sure. Read my full review of The One-Hundred-Year Old Man Who Climbed Out The Window And Disappeared here.

Crazy Rich Asians by Kevin Kwan

Crazy Rich Asians - Kevin Kwan - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

If reality TV shows about eligible bachelors and glamorous ladies are dragging your attention away from reading, Crazy Rich Asians is just the thing to bring you back. Kevin Kwan is the king of the guilty indulgence. This book is glitzy, it’s silly, it’s funny, it’s touching, and it’s just far enough over-the-top (without toppling over). Even better, if it leaves you wanting more, there are two sequels to sustain you, and a movie adaptation that will knock your socks off. My full review of Crazy Rich Asians is coming soon!

Everywhere I Look by Helen Garner

Everywhere I Look - Helen Garner - Keeping Up With The Penguins

I’m sure if I ever met Helen Garner, she would describe me in some delightfully searing way: an inner-city young woman who worships the ground she walks on is surely the type of cliche she detests. Still, it’s a cliche for a reason. All of her books are worth reading, of course, but if it’s slump-buster books you’re after, you can’t go past her essay collection Everywhere I Look. Most of the essays have been previously published elsewhere, but there’s something especially wonderful about having them all back-to-back on paper. She applies her keen insight and acerbic wit to topics as varied as making a house a home, true crime, heroes, grandchildren, and Russell Crowe movies.

Less by Andrew Sean Greer

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

Greer said that he began writing Less as a “very serious” novel, but he soon figured out that the only way to write about the miseries of an ageing, gay writer (as an ageing, gay writer) was to make it funny. It’s an unparalleled stroke of genius that makes for a compelling, heart-warming read. I can’t over-state it: I really dig this determinedly self-deprecating approach. It lets Greer parody all the priviliged-white-American-abroad tropes, to my great delight. Less will knock your reading slump for six! Read my full review of Less here.

Stay Sexy And Don’t Get Murdered by Karen Kilgariff and Georgia Hardstark

Stay Sexy and Don't Get Murdered - Karen Kilgariff and Georgia Hardstark - Book on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Calling all Murderinos! (Though I doubt there are any who aren’t already familiar with Stay Sexy And Don’t Get Murdered…) Listening to the My Favorite Murder podcast is guaranteed to perk you up, and same goes for the joint memoir of hosts Karen Kilgariff and Georgia Hardstark. In their trademark transparent and radically straight-forward style, they present this life-story-slash-guide-to-life. They are frank, disarming, and under no pretensions. Just what you need mid-slump! Read my full review of Stay Sexy And Don’t Get Murdered here.

Bridget Jones’s Diary by Helen Fielding


Have you ever wanted to read your best friend’s diary? C’mon, you know you have! That’s why Bridget Jones’s Diary is one of my sure-fire slump-buster books. Sure, at times, it’s farcical and ridiculous, but it’s also hilarious and charming and iconic and (surprisingly) wise. Scoff if you must, but this is actually the cleverest adaptation of Pride And Prejudice I’ve encountered to date, examining the ways that sex and power operate in our (relatively) contemporary society in a way that is engaging, exciting, and incredibly relatable.

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

I suppose The Manic Pixie Dream Boy Improvement Project is technically a young-adult novel, but I would really resent it being pigeon-holed: this literary send-up would be a wonderful read for book lovers of all ages, guaranteed to delight, entertain, and provoke indiscriminately. It’s a love story, a mystery, and lots and lots of wacky adventures – in fact, it has all of these elements in spades. The humour was wry, and even for all the zaniness, the central message was still one that I can get behind. Read my full review of The Manic Pixie Dream Boy Improvement Project here.

Such A Fun Age by Kiley Reid

Such A Fun Age - Kiley Reid - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Such A Fun Age is the debut novel from American author Kiley Reid. It might look like a sweet summer read, but underneath lurks a serious critique of race, class, and good intentions. It’s a searing social commentary disguised as a book for the beach, a truly brilliant marketing ploy that guarantees this book will get into the hands of those who need to read it most. If you’re starting out on your journey of learning about racial injustice but you’re feeling exhausted and struggling to take it all in, this is the book to bust your slump!

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

Look, I’m not too proud to admit it: I took one look at Big Lies In A Small Town and thought it was going to be yet another potboiler domestic thriller. What I got instead was something so compelling, and so deftly written, I’ve since recommended it to just about everyone I know. The story centers around a Depression-era mural: the woman commissioned to paint it (who disappeared under mysterious circumstances), and the woman charged with restoring it for installation, nearly eight decades later. The themes Chamberlain explores (race, privilege, and opportunity) are timely and timeless. This is one of the slump-buster books you must pick up when you want a page-turner with substance!

Me Talk Pretty One Day by David Sedaris

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

It takes a very particular writing talent to tease without cruelty, to roll your eyes with a smile on your face and love in your heart – and that’s exactly what David Sedaris has. The best example is his collection of memoir essays, Me Talk Pretty One Day. If you’re feeling a little bit snarky, if you’re in the mood to poke a little fun, if you want to literally laugh out loud, this is the best pick of the slump-buster books for you. Plus, if you’re having trouble focusing on the page, the audiobook is incredible, read by Sedaris himself. My only caution: don’t read it in a public place. People will be very concerned about your random outbursts of mirth! Read my full review of Me Talk Pretty One Day here.

Which books have busted YOU out of a slump? Let me know in the comments below!

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

For a fluffy young-adult rom-com, To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before has a spine-chilling premise. Lara Jean has written a letter to every boy she’s ever loved (five total), letters that were supposed to be for her eyes only… until one day, under mysterious circumstances, the letters are mailed to the boys in question. It’s every teen girl’s worst nightmare; even now, slightly (ahem!) past my teenage years, I shudder at the thought. But don’t let that put you off! It sets the stage for a thoroughly delightful read.

To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before was first published back in 2014. I’d already seen the Netflix adaptation, but I figured if the book was anywhere near as charming and endearing, it’d be worth reading. Han has said her story was inspired by her own habit of writing love letters (never mailed) to the boys she had crushes on as a teenager. For Lara Jean – and presumably for her creator – the letters are cathartic, a way to “let go” and farewell the boys she has no future with (including her sister’s boyfriend – eek!).

Sure, the romance is the central plot, but equally essential to this novel is Lara Jean’s family. Her mother is, sadly, dead, but she is very close to her father and sisters. Margot is the elder, headed off for university in Scotland, and Kitty is the younger, annoying at times but wise beyond her years. Josh – the aforementioned boyfriend of Margot – is practically part of the family. He lives next door and he often joins them for dinner and family events. He is also (prepare yourself for a stomach-churn) an unintended recipient of one of Lara Jean’s letters.

What’s a girl to do? Throw everyone off the scent by plunging head-long into a fake relationship, of course! Another recipient of a letter, Peter Kravinsky, is the “cool guy” of Lara Jean’s high school. He’s also recently broken up with his own girlfriend. They mutually agree to carry on as though they’re in a relationship. Lara Jean hopes it will prove to Josh that she’s moved on (and stop Margot cottoning on to the fact that she was secretly lusting after him the whole time, plausible deniability is the name of the game!), and Peter just wants to make his ex-girlfriend and resident Mean Girl, Gen, jealous.

Will it come as any shock if I tell you that this perfect plan goes horribly awry? Of course not! Of course it does! And everyone involved gets their feelings at least a little bit hurt. Such is the nature of young-adult romances. And yet, To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before – predictable and sweet as it might be – never once feels like a cliche. It’s never cloying or annoying. I mean, if you’re determined to be a real grouch, I suppose you could look down your nose at it, but boo to you!

Given the dire state of the world, and our collective desperation for a little escapism, To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before is the perfect read for the current moment. It’s sweet, it’s nostalgic, no one has to wear a mask or sing Happy Birthday as they wash their hands… Lara Jean’s internal monologue feels real. So. many other YA novels I’ve read sound like an adult simply parodying the way they think teenagers speak “nowadays”, which is patronising to say the least. To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before, however, hits the mark – a bullseye! Ah, to be young and in love…

The initial release spent 40 weeks on the New York Times Young Adult Best Seller List, and went on to be translated and published in over 30 languages. It got another boost upon the release of the Netflix adaptation in 2018 (which, I’m pleased to report, was mostly faithful to the book). There have since been two sequels, too: P.S. I Love You in 2015 (now with its own Netflix treatment, too), and Always And Forever, Lara Jean in 2016. I’m not sure I’m hooked enough to seek those out, but I wouldn’t discourage anyone from doing so. On the whole, I thoroughly enjoyed this one, and I would highly recommend it to anyone who needs to be reminded that life can be good and sweet.

My favourite Amazon reviews of To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before:

  • “I wanted the movie.” – Kayti
  • “This was an amazing book because it was about boys.” – Amazon Customer
  • “I couldn’t put this book down. I love how it was clean and not dirty.” – Staci

10 Future Classic Books

Sally Rooney’s Normal People has been widely touted as a “future classic”, a book that critics and pundits believe is destined for the status of “classic” in some imagined future. I’d heard the term “future classic books” bandied around somewhere before, but couldn’t quite remember where… and then I dug up this fantastic post from Lynne at Fictionophile (an idea that originated at Orangutan Library). So, I thought I’d take a crack at it myself: looking over my shelves, I pulled out a stack of ten that I think will be future classic books.

10 Future Classic Books - Keeping Up With The Penguins

How does a book become a classic?

Back when I was thinking about what makes a book a classic, I came up with a set of criteria that I’ve adapted to apply here.

For starters, books need to stand the test of time in order to become classics. That means fifty, a hundred, or a hundred and fifty years from now, people would still be interested in reading them and able to derive some kind of insight or enjoyment from the experience. Even from a purely pragmatic standpoint, future classic books need to continue to be re-printed and re-published; a book that can’t be bought or accessed anywhere is going to have a tough time becoming a classic.

Future classic books should also probably pass some test of literary merit. This one is tricky because it’s so subjective: my masterpiece might be your bargain bin garbage. Still, I think it’s reasonable to expect that there should be some kind of general consensus from People Who Know(TM) – critics, awards panels, and so forth – as well as general readers that the contender is, y’know, good.

(That said, it’s interesting to consider how many classics were considered popular nonsense at the time of initial publication. Shakespeare was basically 50 Shades Of Grey in his own time…)

Finally, future classic books should make some kind of cultural contribution, and/or have an enduring significance and resonance. This could take any number of forms: Nineteen Eighty-Four takes on new resonance every day because of the scary new parallels we see between Orwell’s vision of a dystopia and our own reality; the premise of Strange Case Of Dr Jekyll And Mr Hyde, the duality of the “top bloke” and the monster, is so enduring that it’s become part of our idiomatic language; Pride And Prejudice is continually read and re-read as a subversive, feminist text; Robinson Crusoe has become a historical record of the atrocious colonialism and racism that pervaded social mores, politics, and (inevitably) literature in its time… The list goes on and on.

How do we decide which are future classic books, then?

Well, of course, this is entirely subjective: my judgements are different from Lynne’s, and from just about everyone else’s. In fact, it’s really not all that different from trying to determine what “counts” as a classic in the present day. Everyone has their own ideas and opinions. That’s what makes this so much fun! As I said, I looked over my shelves, and tried to pick out books that were published in the last 20 years and that matched all of the criteria above. Here we go…

Citizen: An American Lyric by Claudia Rankine

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

Citizen is one of the best-selling books of poetry of my generation, and sales have re-surged in light of the worldwide Black Lives Matter protests this year, putting it smack-bang in the middle of the Venn diagram of popularity and critical acclaim and ongoing resonance. Rankine integrates poetry with other art forms, so that reading this collection is a multi-media experience: art, photography, music, even video. I don’t think it’s possible to overstate this book’s cultural contribution and significance; it is one of the most incredible testaments to the lived experience of race and racism I’ve ever read.

My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante

My Brilliant Friend - Elena Ferrante - Book Laid On Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

My Brilliant Friend (and the subsequent books in the Neapolitan quartet) is incredibly complex. It covers everything – burgeoning womanhood, the politics of small communities, the ramifications of war, poverty, domestic violence, sexual violence, literacy, friendship, betrayal, revenge, how women’s lives are shaped by class and status, maternity, familial obligation, social responsibility, intelligence… These themes and motifs are timeless, and reading it, it’s hard to imagine a future where we don’t consider it a classic, on par with Austen and the Brontës. Read my full review of My Brilliant Friend here.

The Argonauts by Maggie Nelson

The Argonauts - Maggie Nelson - Keeping Up With The Penguins

The Argonauts is a love story, of sorts, a memoir of Nelson’s relationship with artist Harry Dodge, but it’s also an exploration of gender identity, queer theory, and the modern family unit. When it was first published, it was fresh, fierce, and barrier-breaking. Now, it’s become a contemporary classic of the queer literature canon, embedded in our understanding of the heteronormative pressures on relationships and families, and surely a future classic book in its own right.

My Year Of Rest And Relaxation by Ottessa Moshfegh

My Year Of Rest And Relaxation - Ottessa Moshfegh - Keeping Up With The Penguins

If the measure of future classic books was simply “ones you keep thinking about long, long after you’ve read them”, My Year Of Rest And Relaxation would get the gong. Not simply because the unnamed protagonist’s goal (to sleep, in drugged-out bliss) for a entire year is very relatable, but because… ah, heck, I don’t even know. Moshfegh’s writing is incredibly engaging, just on the surface level, but it has hidden depths that you can plunge re-read after re-read. I’m not sure I’ve even reached them all yet, but I’m looking forward to plunging in again!

Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro

Never Let Me Go - Kazuo Ishiguro - Keeping Up With The Penguins

I had to put an Ishiguro on this list of future classic books, but I had a devil of a time picking which one! My personal favourite (so far) is An Artist Of The Floating World, but that’s one of his shorter and less-well-known/lauded titles, so in the end I settled on Never Let Me Go. There’s not much I can say about this one without “spoiling” it, which is probably much the same feeling that people had upon the initial release of Strange Case Of Dr Jekyll And Mr Hyde (and look how that turned out). I guess I’ll settle for saying simply that it’s eerie, unsettling, and clearly a work of Nobel-Prize-winning genius.

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

A blurb that promises a book “revolutionises” a genre, especially one as saturated as memoir, seems quite literally unbelievable. But I’m here to tell you the truth: Carmen Maria Machado did it with In The Dream House. It is an intimate, horrifying, beautiful, multi-dimensional account of her formative – and abusive – love affair with a partner she calls only “the woman in the Dream House”. Machado mines the depths of pop culture and literature and art and critical theory in search of representation. I am truly in awe of her, and if this book doesn’t end up a future classic, I’ll eat my hat.

Atonement by Ian McEwan

Atonement - Ian McEwan - Keeping Up With The Penguins

In Ian McEwan’s best-known work, Atonement, one young girl’s mistake has spiraling ramifications. Lives are ruined, including her own, and she has to contend with how to (you guessed it) atone for her role in the whole mess. It has already been immortalised in film, but I think the book itself is destined for the classics shelf. It certainly passes the literary merit test (it won a stack of awards in the years following its release), and its interrogation of the timeless themes of sex, family, and power continues to resonate with readers.

Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Americanah - Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Americanah addresses a story as old as time (literally, we’re talking some Penelope and Odysseus type of shit here): a couple torn apart by time and circumstance, who come back together. Ifemelu immigrates from Nigeria to the United States to attend university, but her bond with her high-school classmate, Obinze, never quite breaks. Of course, it also addresses the immigrant experience and the power dynamics of race, gender, and class (those old chestnuts). The only thing that could top Americanah becoming one of the future classic books is one of Adichie’s other books taking the gong instead…

The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen

The Corrections - Jonathan Franzen - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Say what you will about Jonathan Franzen (I could say a thing or two myself), but The Corrections is readable as all heck and it achieved incredible cut-through despite its incredibly unfortunate release date (1 September 2001). It captured A Moment in American life, an oddly prescient take on the anxiety and existentialism that emerged post-9/11. The story itself centers on a family – two aging parents, and their three adult children – and their lives coming up to their “one last Christmas” together. Despite being deeply rooted in American life and culture, there’s something ineffably universal about this story (plus, I reckon it’s got one of the best closing lines of any novel, ever).

The Secret History by Donna Tartt

The Secret History - Donna Tartt - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

The Secret History is the definitive campus novel, surely – I can’t think of any other that even comes close! It was Donna Tartt’s first novel, though she’s maybe now better known for her later Pulitzer Prize-winning offering, The Goldfinch (which I think is too long, too dense, and too singular to become one of the future classic books). This one is an “inverted detective story”, exploring the close-knit relationship of six classics students that lead to a murder. Just the right blend of mystery, suspense, and literary chops!

Now, before you come for me: the sad fact is that in this search I came across a lot of books that I think should be future classic books, but I doubt they will be. We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves is top of that list (yes, I’ll never miss an opportunity to plug it). And, on the other side of it, there are plenty of other books that probably will be future classics, but didn’t make the cut for one reason or another. Yes, Harry Potter is the obvious choice, but the Philosopher’s Stone was published before my 20-year cut-off and J.K. Rowling has recently proved herself to be… well, a bit Umbridge-y. And there are plenty of worthy contenders with whose work I’m just not familiar enough to make the call (I can hear you shouting MURAKAMI, calm down, I’m getting to him!).

Which do you reckon are the future classic books? Let me know in the comments below!

Normal People – Sally Rooney

What on earth can I say about Normal People that hasn’t been said already? As I sit down to write this review, I’m chewing my lip, frantically scanning every note I took while reading it, looking for something – ANYTHING! – that sounds new or interesting. The fact is, I am (once again) probably the last person in the world to read this book. I had every intention of reading and reviewing it before the mini-series adaptation was released, but… All I can say is that I hope being perpetually late to the party is a part of the Keeping Up With The Penguins brand that you all secretly find endearing.

Normal People is millennial wunderkind Sally Rooney’s second novel, published in 2018 (her first, Conversations With Friends, was published the year prior). The story – if we can call it that – starts in 2011, with the primary characters Connell and Marianne as teenagers. They live in the same small Irish town, but that’s where the similarities between them end.

People know that Marianne lives in the white mansion with the driveway and that Connell’s mother is a cleaner, but no one knows the special relationship between these facts.

Normal People (Page 2)

It’s definitely a character-driven novel; there’s not much of a plot to summarise here, beyond saying that Normal People depicts four years of Connell and Marianne’s relationship, the ebbs and tides as they graduate high-school and attend Trinity College in Dublin. It’s basically the folie à deux of young love in novel form, but let me be clear: it’s not a romance novel. For most of the four year period, Connell and Marianne are barely friends, let alone lovers, and they never seem to actually like each other all that much.

Rooney uses this relationship as something like a case study of the millennial condition, the strange fact of coming of age where you seem to have everything and nothing simultaneously. That’s why she’s been (repeatedly!) called the “Salinger of the Snapchat generation”, though I think of what she’s doing as more akin to Hemingway’s depiction of the Lost generation after the war. Setting Marianne and Connell’s lives during the post-GFC downturn is hardly an accident; it’s clear that Rooney is doing more than simply “writing what she knows”.

Normal People is remarkably subtle, though, in the way it provokes and challenges us to think about what life is like for the kids these days. When we first meet the pair, Connell is popular, handsome, intelligent, and beloved at their high-school, while Marianne is skinny, anxious, masochistic, and on-the-outer socially. They meet only because Connell’s mother cleans Marianne’s house, and initiate a sexual liaison only once Connell has firmly established that their encounters will remain a solemn secret, lest his good reputation be tarnished by association.

It took me a while to work out why this bugged me (I mean, besides the obvious – teenage boy Connell is a complete dick). When I finally put my finger on it, I had a lightbulb-going-on-above-the-head moment. As the “wealthy” one, surely Marianne should have been in the position of having the most social capital? But no, Rooney subverts that subconscious expectation, and in so doing shows us how class and status markers have shifted for this generation. (And I think we can read a lot of gender stuff into this point, too, but I haven’t got that far yet – Normal People is a book that requires a lot of mulling.)

Don’t worry: Normal People isn’t the tired old girl-lets-herself-get-mistreated-by-an-arsehole-forever story – Rooney subverts that expectation, too. At university, Marianne blossoms while Connell flounders, and the power dynamics of their relationship shift accordingly. BUT, hold onto your hats, this isn’t your standard best-revenge-is-living-well resolution, either! Rooney does it again! (Should we make this a Normal People drinking game?) Neither of them ever really gets it together, and their issues are never completely resolved.

In fact, over the course of the novel, it really seems that Marianne and Connell bring out the worst in each other. They are, on the face of it, quite unlikeable… but also strangely sympathetic? There’s something magnetic about their relationship that draws out the voyeur in us all. You just can’t help but keep watching on, and hoping they sort their shit out. I think that strange push-pull is attributable to Rooney’s incredible writing; it’s sparse but intimate, and her insights are more penetrating than a rectal exam. My only real complaint is she doesn’t use punctuation marks to indicate speech. (Seriously, why is this a thing? Why? Just… why? I get it, it was all Cool and Arty and Literary for a minute there, but that moment is OVER and this is a hill I am willing to die on. Hate it!)

Anyhoo! Normal People was long-listed for the 2018 Booker Prize (how it didn’t progress any further is beyond me), and it won just about every Book Of The Year award on offer. It was ranked 25th on the Guardian’s 100 Best Books Of The 21st Century (seems premature, but okay) and they called it a “future classic”.

Even though Normal People is complex and intensely felt, it’s a quick read – I powered through it (wondering the whole damn time why I’d waited so damn long). It’s anxious and intimate and passionate and intriguing, just as you’d expect from every other rave review. Actually, it reminded me a lot of the shamefully-underrated 2001 Kirsten Dunst film Crazy/Beautiful, if that’s not too niche a point-of-reference for you. So, what do you reckon? Should I go ahead and watch the Normal People mini-series adaptation? Tell me in the comments…

My favourite Amazon reviews of Normal People:

  • “This book is the literary equivalent of jumping up and down on Lego in your bare feet for 5 hours.” – Keith D. Stoddart
  • “Got half way through, was suddenly and overwhelmingly overcome with boredom. It chugs on and on, the characters are dull and irritating. The cover art is good.” – J. Skeet
  • “This book starts off sad and never improves.” – Grant Gibbons
  • “I think the idea behind this novel had potential, but I feel like it was executed very poorly. It was like listening to a sad emo kid eat a white bread sandwich.” – Victoria

« Older posts Newer posts »