Keeping Up With The Penguins

Reviews For The Would-Be Booklover

Cha-Ching! Best Book Bargains

Starting the Keeping Up With The Penguins project presented a bit of a problem: books ain’t cheap. I set myself a limit of $10 per book, but even if I stuck to that 100% I would still end up spending north of a grand. Plus, in my soul, I’m a firm believer in compensation for artists. Getting the books cheaply is great for me and everything, but authors should get paid what they’re worth for their work. On top of that, I adore independent and second-hand bookstores. Every dollar that I spend with them means employment for the creative writing student, and bills paid for the small business owner, and support for small presses, and opportunities for emerging writers.

So, my life for the last year has been a delicate balancing act: finding books that fit within my budget, while upholding my own ideals about the book industry. I love the thrill of the hunt – nothing compares to finding a long-sought-after tome buried in a bookstore bargain bin, especially when you can take it home in exchange for just the shrapnel that you have in your pocket. It turns out I have a real knack for it! There’s a perception that buying books through smaller and independent retailers means spending more: I’m here to prove that’s not the case! I thought I’d share a few of the best book bargains I’ve found for Keeping Up With The Penguins.

Best Book Bargains - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Dracula – Bram Stoker

Dracula was one of my first bargain bin finds, and I walked home afterwards on cloud nine! I spied it at my local secondhand bookstore, marked at the princely sum of $3.

Dracula - Bram Stoker - Keeping Up With The Penguins

The Complete Works of Oscar Wilde

I’ll admit I broke the budget with this one, but I feel it’s justified! Technically, my $10 limit was just for The Picture of Dorian Gray, but this book contains everything that Oscar Wilde ever wrote, so if I average it out… it was a steal! I found this one in a tiny crammed bookstore in Tel Aviv (of all places!) while on my honeymoon. I paid 50 shekels, which converted to roughly $20 back home.

Used Book Store - Tel Aviv - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Yes Please – Amy Poehler

When I set out to find Yes Please, I thought it’d be a fool’s errand. Poehler had reached peak popularity at the time, for her performances in Saturday Night Live during the American election. But I struck gold! I spotted her memoir in the window of my local secondhand bookstore, marked at $10 (right on budget!). It was super-early and they weren’t open yet, and I had to go into the city – so I messaged my husband immediately and made him promise to be waiting outside the door when the owner arrived, to secure it before someone else did. Because he loves me, he did just that, and that’s how it came to be this week’s review!

Yes Please - Amy Poehler - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Moby Dick – Herman Melville

I got the best kind of bargain for Moby Dick: it was free! I actually “borrowed” (re: stole) it from my husband’s collection. Of course, in doing so, I ended up with a copy so excessively worn and dog-eared that I was scared to open it, lest it fall apart. Still, it (miraculously) held up, and it served me well!

Moby Dick - Herman Melville - Keeping Up With The Penguins

The Book Thief – Markus Zusak

The Book Thief was #1 on the Dymocks 101 list of 2016, so I knew finding a bargain copy was just a matter of patience. When a book is announced as a winner of any kind, there’s a rush to buy it and everywhere sells out, then there’s a lull as everyone reads it, and then eventually it starts showing up in garage sales and secondhand bookstores. Sure enough, I managed to pick up The Book Thief about twelve months after its nomination for just $4.

The Book Thief - Markus Zusak - Keeping Up With The Penguins

The Hunger Games – Suzanne Collins

I actually bought this one many years before Keeping Up With The Penguins was even conceived. I was picking up something else entirely from Big W in the small regional town where I lived at the time, and I spotted The Hunger Games marked down to just $2.37. I’d heard of the book and figured I’d want to read it one day, so I grabbed it. And, what do you know, I finally got around to it!

The Hunger Games - Suzanne Collins - Keeping Up With The Penguins

A Passage To India – E.M. Forster

My purchase of A Passage To India is notable simply for the fact that I don’t often buy hardcovers, but this one was such a bargain I couldn’t resist! I find hardcovers bulky and annoying a lot of the time (even though many of them are beautiful, drool!). Still, when I spied this beautiful, perfect, pristine edition in that ever-giving local bookshop, I couldn’t resist! An absolute bargain at just $7.




Now, just because I’m a local bookstore fiend doesn’t mean there aren’t cracking deals to be found through the bigger retailers. I’m not that much of a snob! 😉

Dymocks tends to run some fantastic 3-for-2 promotions, and I’m always keeping an eye out for deals on the Penguin Classics (particularly when they come with the gorgeous Penguin merch!).

Another hot tip: Amazon actually has hundreds of classics available for free on Kindle! Works that have passed into the public domain (after their author has been deceased for 75 years) are downloadable for free, or at least very cheaply! If you’re hung up on hard copies, though (like I am!), you can still get some amazing deals. Check out all the freebies here – you’ll be surprised at what you might find!

What’s the best bargain you’ve ever found on a book? Let me know in the comments below (or tell us over at KUWTP on Facebook!).

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Yes Please – Amy Poehler

I thought I had no chance of coming across a copy of Yes Please by Amy Poehler for <$10 (my self-imposed book budget for the Keeping Up With The Penguins project), after Saturday Night Live’s (and, by extension, Poehler’s) popularity boom during the last U.S. election. And yet, I managed to snatch it – for the right price – from the window of my favourite secondhand bookstore. Is there any better feeling?

Yes Please - Amy Poehler - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Yes Please is the memoir of the American actress/comedian/television writer, released in 2014. In terms of accolades, it was nominated for a Grammy – of all things – for Best Spoken Word Album. It seems fitting for a celebrity who has hedged her brand on her reputation for not playing by the rules.

I expected to love it. After all, I loved Bossypants, written by Poehler’s wife-in-comedy Tina Fey. I love books by strong, funny, honest women. I love memoirs. Right from the outset, it ticked all of the right boxes. I had read that it was received with mixed reviews upon release – critics liked some parts and hated others, apparently. But isn’t that just life? I had high hopes.

Well: sometimes, I chuckled. Sometimes, it seemed a bit self-help-y. Sometimes, Poehler made a really good point. Sometimes, she name dropped a probably-famous person, but I didn’t know of them so it went right over my head. It was a mixed bag, really.




Yes Please didn’t feel as much like reading as it did An ExperienceTM. It’s more of a scrapbook than a memoir; there’s full-colour photographs and letters from friends and extracts from television scripts. There’s no cohesive narrative, it’s a series of essays and letters and anecdotes plucked from the life of a famous person.

The thing is, I’ve never watched SNL, save for the grabs that make the evening news when Alec Baldwin does a funny Trump impression. I had to stop a few times to jump on YouTube and find a clip she described. My personal favourite was a heavily-pregnant Poehler delivering a rap on behalf of Sarah Palin. Still, those stolen moments weren’t enough to allow me to immerse myself in the book itself. The parts about SNL and about improve troupes and about Parks and Recreation were really written for readers that wanted a backstage pass to the films and television shows that they already love. Some knowledge of Amy Poehler, and her career (especially on SNL), and comedy/theater/television more broadly is definitely required in order to enjoy Yes Please properly. (At least, that’s what I tell myself, rather than face the equally-likely reality that I am just a dimwit who couldn’t follow along.)

I wanted to know what Poehler thought about life, about men, about feminism, about marriage, about human nature… Really, the only piece of Poehler’s work with which I was deeply familiar prior to reading Yes Please was her bit-part in Mean Girls, and that didn’t even rate a mention!

Amy Poehler is a Cool Mom - Mean Girls - Keeping Up With The Penguins

The one part I really connected with was her “Plain Girl vs The Demon” essay. Poehler managed to articulate something very important about women getting to decide their currency in the world, emphasising that it’s okay if looks aren’t it. That’s not a message that women hear very often, and it churned around in my head for a while.

I also applauded Poehler’s lack of gratitude-gushing, and her refusal to feed the reader any crap about “luck”. She’s very frank and forthright about how her own hard work got her to where she is today. There was no magical coincidence that tossed her into the lap of an SNL director and shot her off to stardom. She expresses an appropriate amount of gratitude to the people she knew who helped her along the way, of course, but make no bones about it: Poehler’s here to tell you she made it to the top on the sweat of her own brow.

I occasionally laughed out loud, which is normally a great sign for a book, but ten minutes later I couldn’t remember the joke. Either I’m getting old, or Yes Please just didn’t resonate with me. It felt like Poehler and I were buzzing on different frequencies.

Amy Poehler is wise and wonderful and honest and smart. I didn’t love her book, but her book is not her. I don’t think she needs me to love Yes Please, and I don’t think that not loving it makes me a troll or a hater. It’s a book for people who love her already, after all; I doubt it would lead a true troll or hater to change their minds. As she says in her introduction, “writing is hard” – my hat still goes off to her.

My favourite Amazon reviews of Yes Please:

  • “I discovered I do not care about Ms. Poehler’s life.” – SJ MATTHEWS
  • “Throughout the book, Amy writes that she didn’t know what to write about and writing is hard. She was right.” – R Aesch
  • “It took me a long time to get through this. It wasn’t as funny or as interesting as I thought it would be. It’s also a very heavy book for a paperback. Tough to hold up while reading in bed.” – Jeannebug1
  • “Cool Insite into her life And show business but it’s not a jaw slapper.” – Sweet Doodle
  • “I haven’t finished it. I haven’t finished it. I haven’t finished it. I haven’t finished it. I haven’t finished it. I haven’t finished it. Will tell u when done.” – Laurie Rea

 

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7 Books You Can Read Over and Over Again

Some books are evergreen: no matter how often you read them over, you’ll get something new out of them every single time. Plus, there’s something super-comforting about reading a familiar story, knowing its characters inside out and chuckling at your favourite joke for the fiftieth time. Often, we form our impressions of these books in childhood, and returning to them later gives us a nostalgic rush. Other times, it might be a book that strikes us as so significant, so funny, so insightful, so relevant, or so heartbreaking that we can’t help but return to it time after time. To celebrate these beloved books, this week on Keeping Up With The Penguins we’ll take a look at seven books you can read over and over again.

Books You Can Read Over and Over Again - Keeping Up With The Penguins

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves – Karen Joy Fowler

This is a selfish addition to this list, I’ll admit, because I reviewed We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves just this week, and I absolutely fucking loved it. I cannot recommend it highly enough! Even though I think your true enjoyment of this book is predicated on the plot twist that occurs about a third of the way in (don’t click through to the review unless you’ve already read it!), I think I’ll still enjoy reading it over and over again. Indeed, early passages have new meaning when you know what’s coming. Plus, it’s just so damn funny and heart-wrenching in equal measures that I won’t be able to help coming back to it.

1984 – George Orwell

I talk about George Orwell’s 1984 a lot here on Keeping Up With The Penguins because it is one of my favourite books of all time and it is the ever-fucking-giving-tree of relevance and significance. I’ve re-read it at least a dozen times, and every time something new jumps out at me. One time, I got really hung up on how it expressed the idea that history is written by the victors. Another, I was struck by what Orwell was saying about human relationships, and the context in which they occur. On my very first reading, back when I was a teenager, I had a Black Mirror-esque freak-out about the idea of technology watching us (that was in the days before smart phones, little did I know…). What I’m saying is that you’ll never get tired of re-reading 1984, and there’s always something new to chew on.

Jane Eyre – Charlotte BrontĂ«

My review of Jane Eyre is coming soon on Keeping Up With The Penguins, but for now suffice it to say that this book convinced me – now and forever – that Charlotte is by far the superior BrontĂ«. Jane Eyre is beautifully written, and should be read and re-read for its masterful storytelling alone. Beyond that, though, it has all the makings of a favourite classic: romance, mystery, adventure, injustice, and conflict. I’ll turn to this book in times of need, like a hot bath or a stiff drink.




Harry Potter (Series) – J.K. Rowling

OK, I’m cheating – firstly, this is actually a series of seven books, and secondly, I think just about every bookworm my age has already re-read the Harry Potter books at least a couple of times. I myself read them to the exclusion of just about all else for a couple of years. I’m not sure they meet the mandate of giving the reader something new every time, but Harry Potter defined a generation of readers. Even now, it’s great to flick through them, remembering how it felt to read them with wonder for the first time. It’s so funny to see kids “discovering” the series now, declaring their Hogwarts houses on their Instagram bios and getting lightning bolt tattoos (it’s probably the same way our parents felt when we all discovered ’80s pop).

Moby Dick – Herman Melville

If Harry Potter cheats the mandate, I can guarantee you that Moby Dick does not. You will never run out of new shit to find in this rabbit warren of a book. It is six hundred pages of mostly digression, with Melville’s thoughts running off in every which direction. Even if we set aside the actual content, Melville’s experimentation with style and form and narrative perspective can keep you busy for at least a few re-reads. Every time you pick it up, you’ll find some new poignancy to your own life circumstances, and the world around you, because it’s just so broad that you couldn’t possibly not find something to relate to. Give it a try (like I did)!

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy – Douglas Adams

When I first started telling people that I was reading my way through the List of popular and classic books, no fewer than six of them asked me whether The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy was on it. It’s been recommended to me far more than any other book, and it’s a long-time favourite of so many readers. It’s not hard to see why: “the adventures of the last surviving man following the destruction of Earth” is a pretty compelling premise! It is equal parts hilarious, quotable and brilliant. Another one to turn to when you’re feeling down, or need to find some comfort in its familiarity.

Wuthering Heights – Emily BrontĂ«

Eagle-eyed Keeping Up With The Penguins readers will know that my first shot at Wuthering Heights didn’t go so great. I had a lot on my mind at the time, and just lacked the emotional strength to fully immerse myself in Emily BrontĂ«’s story of love (and incest, and madness, and fear) on the moors. That said, I can totally see myself returning to this story a hundred times over and still finding buried treasures that take me by surprise. Wuthering Heights is definitely evergreen, as the decades of academic analysis online can attest. Cathy and Heathcliffe aren’t done with me yet!

Of course, any book can be read over and over again – there’s probably as many evergreen books as there are readers, because everyone will feel differently about what each books means to them. What books can you read over and over again? Let me know in the comments below (or share them over at KUWTP on Facebook!).

 

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We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves – Karen Joy Fowler

As promised, I’ve broken free of the spiral of novellas written by dead white guys. This week on Keeping Up With The Penguins, we turn our attention to something very different: We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler.

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves - Karen Joy Fowler - Keeping Up With The Penguins

The front of this edition is stuffed with pages upon pages of positive reviews and accolades. We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves has won the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction. It was shortlisted for the 2014 Man Booker Prize. More importantly for most Australians, it made the Dymocks 101… twice. I learned from these pages that it was published in 2013, it was Fowler’s tenth novel, and it had clearly won legions of fans around the globe, but apart from a couple of vague references to “family” in the blurbs, I had no bloody idea what the book was actually going to be about.

It turns out there’s a very good reason for that. But more on that in a minute…

Sitting down to start reading in earnest, I was literally lol’ing before ten pages had passed. Rosemary, the protagonist, narrates a scene from her university cafeteria, watching a couple breaking up at a nearby table. It sounds banal as all heck, but it was beautifully done, and Rosemary’s deadpan humour won me over instantly. I was hooked!

It’s hilarious, but quickly starts foreshadowing some ominous shit. Both of Roesmary’s older siblings are notably absent (one apparently in some kind of legal trouble, the other vanished mysteriously some time ago), and her relationship with her parents stinks. But why? That’s what you’ve got to read on to find out.

Here’s the thing: this is the first time, in the history of this project, that I have hesitated in giving a spoiler. Keeping Up With The Penguins is, after all, one big spoiler. If I’m reviewing a book published over a century ago, I don’t really give a fuck if I’ve “ruined” it for you. Even the newer books I’ve reviewed have been turned into movies that everyone’s already seen, or have plots so hackneyed that they seem impossible to spoil anyway. This book is different. The first plot twist is so (a) unexpected, and (b) central to what makes this book special, that it’s giving me pause. Still, it’s impossible to review this book properly without revealing its “secret”. Don’t get me wrong, the value of Fowler’s writing isn’t completely based on the “big reveal” – it’s just the dawning realisation, the moment of coming to an understanding while being completely bewildered at the same time, is so precious that I’m loathe to steal it from anyone else.

You have been warned. Spoilers from We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves are to follow.

Back out now if you’re planning on reading this one (which you really should, I can’t recommend it highly enough – get it here).




Anyway, Rosemary’s sister is Fern. She adored Fern, they grew up together, but Fern vanished in an instant when they were 5 years old without any explanation or farewell. You’re about 70 pages in at this point, and you’ve really bonded with Fern. You’re gripped by her marked absence in Rosemary’s life, and the scars it has left on her mentally.

Fern is (wait for it) a chimpanzee.

Yeah.

She wasn’t a pet: Rosemary’s hippie ’70s psychologist parents were literally raising Fern The Chimpanzee as a member of their family. I’m big enough to say it: I did not see that plot twist coming. I honestly thought Fern The Human was dead, maybe murdered by the older brother (Lowell) who’s on the run from the law. I didn’t see the twist coming at all, and I’m deeply grateful. The elegance with which Fowler carefully orchestrated the reader’s bond with Fern before revealing her species, how cleverly she forced the reader to examine the line we draw for ourselves between animal and human… I was amazed. I am in awe. Hats off, Fowler!

(Also, hats off to the publicists who have managed to keep this twist under wraps, to this day. It’s not mentioned in the Wikipedia page, it doesn’t feature anywhere in the publicity materials, they might tell me to shut down this review – it’s amazing work in the technological age.)

Anyway: once you get past that, there’s a stack of revelations still to come: How Fern left, why she left, what Lowell did, and why their parents are so batshit crazy. Rosemary and Lowell are briefly reunited at one point, and it turns out he’s been doing a spot of animal activism “work” outside the law. He’s been trying to find Fern, and the stories of the cruelty he witnessed broke my heart. Like, everyone was looking at me, the crazy-lady-crying-over-her-book-on-the-bus broke my heart. I’ll tell you right now that there’s no “happy ending” in this book: the best you’ll get is a resolution, a reconciliation, an atonement, but you couldn’t call it “happy”. There, I’m done spoiling things now!

It’s clear that Fowler did a lot of research for We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, but it wasn’t one long info-dump like, say, Still Alice. Fowler doesn’t just demonstrate how much she knows; it’s all revealed organically through the way the story is narrated. I cannot overstate how clever and masterful it is! What’s more, Rosemary is a somewhat unreliable narrator, but it’s written in a way that’s not frustrating to the reader and doesn’t detract from your empathy for the character or engagement with the story. Fuck, I love this book!

On the animal-rights stuff: Fowler said in an interview “I believe in science and in medical research. I eat meat…. [but] if we can’t bear to look at what we are doing, then we shouldn’t be doing it.” This really closely mirrors my own personal philosophy, which might be why this book resonated with me so much. I kept checking in with myself, asking whether Fowler was maybe getting preachy, or patronising people who think that animal activists are a bunch of smelly hippies, but I don’t think so. The story is heart-wrenching, and the theme of animal rights is inextricably bound with the universal themes of sibling loyalty and guilt. It’s good, regardless of your political or moral vantage point.

I drank the Kool-Aid, I’ll admit. I started recommending We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves to people I barely knew before I finished it. I could have easily stayed up ’til sunrise to finish it in a single sitting. My review cannot possibly do it justice. If you’ve read this far, you’ve already the book, so I’m glad you know what I’m talking about (let me know your thoughts in the comments!). If you read past the spoiler warning without having read the book, you’re maybe a bit of an idiot, but I still love you and you should go ahead and read it anyway. 😉

My favourite Amazon reviews of We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves:

  • “It was a really good story up until she got a monkey. Silly.” – Tracie Gardner
  • “I don’t even remember reading this book so I’m guessing it wasn’t great” – Natasha Smit
  • “Really weird story. Not the sort of nonfiction I enjoy.” – Peggy S
  • “…. About halfway through I had my full of girl loves monkey, girl looses monkey, girl finds monkey. I found the author’s voice annoyingly cute. The writing was good.” – Miami Maid

 

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Remember These? Books From High School That You Should Revisit

I didn’t exactly hide the fact that I thought The Great Gatsby sucked. In fact, I disliked it so much that I spent a lot of time wondering why so many of my fellow students were forced to read it in high school (I have no idea how I escaped that particular rite of torture, I guess I’m just lucky). For a lot of us, being forced to read books in high school was the pits. It probably left a bad taste in your mouth when it comes to a lot of the classics on The List. After all, non-negotiable enforced reading isn’t exactly conducive to enjoying and engaging with a story. Plus, as teenagers, how many of us actually had the perspective to understand the themes in Gatsby – or, indeed, any of the other classics bestowed upon us by the evil overlords of English teaching departments? Still, we’re all older and wiser now, so maybe there’s some value in giving them a second chance. Here’s a list of books from high school that you should revisit.

The Catcher In The Rye – J.D. Salinger

I had a quick peruse of the internet, and it would seem that a lot of other bloggers and experts agree with me: The Catcher in the Rye is definitely a book from high school that you should revisit as a grown up. I never actually read this one in high school either, but I reviewed it for Keeping Up With The Penguins and really enjoyed it. Sure, it’s a coming-of-age story, but Salinger didn’t actually intend for it to be a young adult novel so it’s certainly suitable for an adult audience. Holden Caulfield is a perfect caricature of every young man you’ve ever met, and if nothing else you get to enjoy that in a really patronising way (“ah, aren’t young people silly?”).

Looking For Alibrandi – Melina Marchetta

I know we probably couldn’t call it a “classic” by any means, but Looking For Alibrandi is the first book that comes to mind when I think about high school reading lists. Teachers always assigned this one thinking that we’d really relate to Josie’s struggles with family, identity, responsibility and culture. I’m not sure how much I could “relate” per se, but I did really enjoy it at the time, and I can tell you that it really holds up – even now, more than two decades after its publication. It’s a bit niche in the sense that it is very specific to the Australian context, so I have no idea whether international readers would be able to get into it. Still, anything’s worth a try! (And if you’re an international reader who’s given it a go, please let me know what you thought in the comments!)

To Kill A Mockingbird – Harper Lee

Now, more than ever, storytelling that explores our understanding of race and power is vital – regardless of whether you’re fourteen or forty. If you read To Kill A Mockingbird carefully, you’ll notice that, even though the story is mediated through the experiences of young people, Scout recounts it as an adult; it’s one long flashback, and a nifty narrative style. You’re in a position, as an adult, to pick up on things like that, and you’ll appreciate the prose all the more for it. Plus, you might want to give yourself a refresher if you’re planning to read Go Set A Watchman, set twenty years after the events in the original book.




Fahrenheit 451 – Ray Bradbury

Fahrenheit 451 is usually assigned in high schools to teach teenagers a valuable lesson about censorship and government power, but it’s about so much more than that (as Bradbury has said himself). You’ll find a lot more to chew on here when you revisit it as a grown up, and you don’t have an English teacher standing over your shoulder telling you what to look for. Bonus: it’s a short and easy read (most editions don’t run more than 150 pages), so even if you haven’t learned to love it with age, at least it will be over quick!

The Crucible – Arthur Miller

I don’t think I read The Crucible in high school, but I do recall watching the film; indeed, I got full marks on my assignment to write and perform a monologue from the perspective of one of the characters, so I remember it very fondly 😉 Given how many men have called out current events as being “witch hunts” over the past year, it’s great to take a look back at this fictionalised account of what went down in Salem. Or you know, you can try to read more into the allegory that Miller wrote into the story (you probably know what McCarthyism actually is now, so it’ll make a lot more sense).

Lord Of The Flies – William Golding

I once heard an English teacher say that if she had to teach Lord Of The Flies one more time, she’d do something unseemly with that pig’s head. It is pretty ubiquitous in the classroom, presented as a kind of cautionary tale for kids that might think they can handle life without adult supervision. That much is clear to you as a teenager, but revisiting it as a grown up reveals so much more to the story. It’s definitely one to make you ponder the bigger issues of individual responsibility, groupthink, authority, humanity’s capacity for darkness… all that stuff we think we already know as teenagers, until we grow up and realise we don’t have a damn clue. Lord Of The Rings is good for all of that, trust me!

Revisiting books from high school is great; you enjoy them all the more, safe in the knowledge that there won’t be a test after. You might even get a nice nostalgic kick out of re-reading books that you first encountered as a wide-eyed impressionable youngster, and marvel at how much you’ve changed since then. Have you revisited any books from high school? Did you find any new favourites? Let me know in the comments below (or post your list over at KUWTP on Facebook!).

 

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The Great Gatsby – F. Scott Fitzgerald

The recent Keeping Up With The Penguins trend of reviewing short-novels-by-dead-white-guysthat-got-turned-into-movies ends (promise!) with The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald.

The Great Gatsby - F Scott Fitzgerald - Keeping Up With The Penguins

This is a beautiful Penguin edition of the 1925 novel; I picked it up from my favourite secondhand bookstore (as always), and yet it looks brand new, never read. In the front they’ve printed Fitzgerald’s original dedication, to his wife Zelda. I thought that was really sweet… until I later learned that she was quite a piece of work, and would probably have kicked up a royal stink if he hadn’t dedicated the book to her.

Fitzgerald began planning The Great Gatsby in 1923, but it was a long and laborious process to get to the finished product. In his first year of writing he pumped out 18,000 words, only to scrap it all and start again. There were stacks of revisions, even entire chapters re-written, before it went to press. Fitzgerald also changed the title more often than he changed his underpants. His reported favourite was “Under The Red, White and Blue”, but it was vetoed by his publishers (and his wife, ha!).

The Great Gatsby, in its final form, received mixed reviews and sold “poorly” – just 20,000 copies in its first year. Fitzgerald died in 1940 believing himself to be a failure (boohoo). Shortly after his death, the book experienced a strong resurgence, thanks in large part to the Council on Books in Wartime that distributed 155,000 copies to American soldiers fighting in WWII. It is now considered a contender for that ever-elusive accolade: The Great American Novel. It has been adapted for film, television, literature, opera, ballet, radio, and even computer games. I vaguely remember seeing the 2013 movie at some point, but my memories are mostly just glitter and sparkly costumes. The only concrete fact that my brain saw fit to retain was that Leonardo launched a thousand memes.

Leonardo Di Caprio as Jay Gatsby - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Anyway, what’s the story? Well, a young Yale graduate slash Great War veteran (Nick Carraway) moves to Long Island to work as a bond salesman and basically sort himself out. He ends up with a rich neighbour – Jay Gatsby – who throws a lot of fancy parties. (He’s really rich, okay? It’s very important that you know that.) So, Nick just kinda hangs out there a bit; his only other social outings are visiting his flapper cousin and her philandering husband, they live just up the road. Already, as I was reading, I couldn’t stop asking myself: what’s the point? I mean, a swotty young guy discovers that he likes drinking and pretty girls, and he hangs around his rich neighbour’s hectic parties – so what?

Later, we find out that Gatsby is actually in love with Nick’s beautiful cousin, and has quasi-stalked her for years (but we’re supposed to think that’s romantic, not creepy). He uses Nick to engineer a rendezvous, and finally gets into her pants. They continue hooking up on the sly for a while, until her husband Mr Philanderer finds out and gets all jealous (ironic). There’s a crazy show-down at a hotel in the city, and the beautiful cousin runs over her husband’s mistress in Gatsby’s car (yes, shit really escalated, but it’s not over yet). Because of the car, everyone assumes that Gatsby is the one who was driving, and it’s all very I Know What You Did Last Summer. The mistress’s husband avenges her death by killing Gatsby, and then himself. The beautiful cousin gets back with her husband, and they run away together. Nick tries to throw a funeral for Gatsby and nobody comes. The end.




Fitzgerald famously drew inspiration from the parties he attended in Long Island in the early 1920s, and many true events from his life are reflected in the plot (he fell in love with a girl and needed to “prove himself” with material success before he could marry her, among other plot points). You don’t have to try too hard to pick apart the Very Important Themes in The Great Gatsby, a lot of stuff about the façade of class mobility in America and the excesses of wealth and the recklessness of ambitious youth. Blah, blah, blah… It all boils down to a cautionary tale, and a pretty boring one at that. How many times do we need to expose the “underbelly” of the Great American Dream? It is a myth, we get it. I mean, maybe they didn’t back in the 1920s, but we’ve all seen American Beauty now, so I’m not sure how much The Great Gatsby adds to that narrative.

I fail to understand how this has become a staple of the high school English syllabus. Is it because it’s a “classic” that’s short enough to squeeze into a teenager’s limited attention span? Do the grown-ups think it’s “relateable”? The characters do all talk and act like rich, indulgent teenagers I suppose, like an old-timey version of The OC. I know I’m not an authority, but I think there are better choices for reading assignments. I mean, as far as the literary merit goes, to me Fitzgerald sounded like a wannabe poet trying too hard to write romantic prose. He told a friend that he wanted The Great Gatsby to be a “consciously artistic achievement”, but it came off sounding like desperate, over-reaching wank half of the time.

So, in conclusion, no. Not for me. No, thank you. My tl;dr summary is this: a shady rich guy gets taken in by a slapper, and owning a fancy car comes back to bite him in the arse. I really didn’t care about the characters or the story at all, and finer examples of American literature abound as far as I’m concerned – but by all means, check this one out for yourself if you want to see just how far it falls short of its reputation.

My favourite Amazon reviews of The Great Gatsby:

  • “Hated this book. It was a total waste of time. If I wanted to be depressed and read about unfaithfulness in marriage, I would read the court records. Don’t know why this is a classic.” – Amazon Customer
  • “Wow, even better than the Cliff notes I read in High School.” – Marc Reeves
  • “I had to buy this for my son for school. He did not like the book but that’s not Amazon’s fault…” – D. Basuino
  • “One star is too many, but it is the minimum.
    The only reason I read this was for a class. I gave the teacher a stinker review as well.The book is a pointless exercise in futility about pointless stupid people. The only point to the story is that people with money are just as trashy, if not more so, than people without. The characters have no development, are barely two dimensional, do stupid things for no reason and face no consequences for their veniality.This books is the literary equivalent of being stuck in a window seat on a airplane for 14 hours needs to a drunken, smelly creep with bad breath and smelly gas who talks at you for the whole flight about his pointless job. For being such a thin book, it is the hardest reading I have ever had to do.Of course, it is even more aggravating that the kindle edition costs $11 for a book you can get at a bookstore for less than a dollar.” – Heinrick Ludwig von Mencken

 

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What To Say To Your Tinder Date About Books You Never Read

There’s no use hiding it: we all pretend to have read books we really haven’t. Mark Twain once famously described a “classic” as a book that people praise and don’t read. These fibs aren’t such a big deal when you’re having a casual chat with your family over lunch, or talking to a stranger at a bus stop… but what about the high-stakes of a first date? Favourite books are a go-to conversation starter, but what if you’ve never read their beloved Hemingway or Faulkner? It could through your perceived compatibility with that hottie into peril. It’s fake-it-or-make-it time! To save you dashing to the bathroom to read a Wikipedia summary, I’ve put together a cheat sheet: here’s what to say to your Tinder date about books you never read.

What To Say To Your Tinder Date About Books You Never Read - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (Robert Louis Stevenson)

Don’t say: “It’s all about the monster within, you know?”
Do say: “Ah, the prototype for doppelgĂ€nger literature!”

Luckily, Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde is popular and enduring enough to have become a cultural catchphrase, so you probably know more about it than you think. It’s a super-short novel (closer to a novella), and yet it’s packed to the rafters with symbolic meaning, so it can be described as a metaphor for just about anything you want. Bonus points if you reference my favourite interpretation: that Stevenson wrote Dr Jekyll as a closet homosexual, and the emergence of Mr Hyde was a metaphor for his rampant gay sex drive. You might even get the chance to take the intellectual upper-hand if your date calls it “The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde”; Stevenson intentionally (and infuriatingly) excluded the preposition from its official title.

I’ve actually posted a full review of Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde just this week, so you can check that out if you need more detail.

The Sun Also Rises (Ernest Hemingway)

Don’t say: “I just love how Hemingway would show, not tell!”
Do say: “While it lacks Hemingway’s characteristic sparseness, it’s a fascinating insight into the changing role of men after the First World War, isn’t it?”

The Sun Also Rises isn’t my favourite from Hemingway’s collected works, but a lot of people love it so it might crop up in conversation. If you can, steer the conversation towards the origins of the story in Hemingway’s own life. No one’s quite sure whether Hemingway was rejected from the military due to poor eyesight, or whether he just wussed out of being a soldier and snagged a position as an ambulance driver instead; either way, themes of rejection and cowardice and male insecurity are heavy in all of his work. The Sun Also Rises is a “roman Ă  clef” (a true story dressed up as fiction) based on the lives of Hemingway and his friends in the “Lost Generation”.

Hint: Hemingway is famously nicknamed “Papa”, so you’ll sound like a real literary insider if you call him that now and then.

Moby Dick (Herman Melville)

Don’t say: “That’s the one about the whale, right?”
Do say: “Although his masterpiece is a harder slog for the contemporary reader, Melville was undoubtedly superior to Hawthorne.”

If your Tinder date says that Moby Dick is their favourite book, you can be pretty confident you’ve found someone who’s super patient and very persistent. After all, they finished and (apparently) loved a 600-page epic set on board a 19th century whaling ship. Melville experimented with perspective, narrative technique, chronology, and just about everything else that makes a book a book, so Moby Dick is a really tricky read. Like Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, there are so many different meanings and interpretations of Moby Dick that you can make up pretty much anything you like and it will probably sound alright. If you want to seem like you really have your finger on the pulse, talk about the significance of the work in the present-day context of climate change. Captain Ahab’s attempts to bring the white whale into submission drove him mad and ultimately led to his demise, which could be a metaphor for humanity’s struggle to control and dominate the environment.




Ulysses (James Joyce)

Don’t say: “It’s, erm, a really hard read, isn’t it?”
Do say: “The focus on his delivery and his experimentation with form and style have really detracted from a true understanding of the work in the popular consciousness.”
Alternative do say: “How about I buy us another round?”

If you ask them, the Ulysses-lover will probably tell you that they are also patient and persistent, but beware: you might find that they’re pretentious and a little bit snobby as well. Ulysses is notorious for being one of the most difficult English-language books in the history of literature, and I see no shame in ‘fessing up that you’ve never read it (and probably never will). If you’re really determined to show off for them, however, you could ask them how they think it compares to Mrs Dalloway. Virginia Woolf’s novel was, in effect, a response to Joyce’s Ulysses, mirroring its style and form. Both take place over a single day, written in a hectic stream-of-consciousness style, focusing primarily on the lives of two central characters while others weave in and out.

Alternatively, you can simply insist on buying another round an change the subject entirely. It’s up to you.

As I Lay Dying (William Faulkner)

Don’t say: “There’s so many different narrators, it’s too hard to keep track!”
Do say: “Faulkner is so skillful in the way he truly immerses the reader in the culture and vernacular of communities completely foreign to the mainstream.”

Faulkner famously claimed that As I Lay Dying was written and published in a single draft. He said that he wrote the whole thing in six weeks, while working his day job in a power plant. Either he’s a real show-off, or a damn dirty liar. Still, he’s probably the most renowned author of the Southern Gothic genre, and he won the Nobel Prize for literature. As I Lay Dying tells the story of the death and funeral of a Southern matriarch, through the perspective of fifteen different characters in her family and community. The overriding message is that dying can be a relief from the suffering one experiences in life, and families are bonkers.

Bonus tip: pretty much every Faulkner novel features a death and/or a funeral of some kind, so if your date starts talking about any of his other works, just ask him what he thought about Faulkner’s depiction of funeral rites in that context. Works like a charm! Plus, you can read my review of As I Lay Dying right here, if you want to make sure you’ve got it locked and loaded.

If you’re wondering what to say to your Tinder date and the book they mention isn’t listed here, do what I always do when I’m stuck: ask a lot of questions. People love talking about themselves and why they love what they love, so it shouldn’t be too hard to get them on a roll. Make sure you come back here as soon as the date is over and let me know which one I missed, so I can update this post accordingly! (You could also put out a cry for help over at KUWTP on Facebook!)

 

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

I’m on a bit of a roll now, with books that have been turned into films, and – as it turns out – novellas written by dead white guys. This week, it’s Robert Louis Stevenson’s Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde.

Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde - Robert Louis Stevenson - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde was published in 1886 (and, yes, the original publication intentionally and infuriatingly left out the preposition that would have made the title grammatically correct, ugh). Stevenson wrote the first draft in under three days, but then – the story goes – his wife told him it was shit, so he burned it and started again. He was (allegedly) coked up during the re-write, which probably wasn’t such a wise idea for a guy with a history of hemorrhages. In sum, Stevenson conceptualised and completed the work in less than ten weeks; it sold 250k copies in the U.S. by 1901, and achieved far greater commercial and critical success than the novel he spent five years perfecting, which just goes to show. Stevenson’s popularity declined hard after his death – his wife and son apparently went around publishing every half-finished scrap of work that they could find to keep the money coming in, which put a bit of a dent in his literary reputation – but that doesn’t seem to have deterred today’s fanboys and fangirls at all.

The fact that he pumped it out so quickly is not quite as impressive once you figure out that it’s only 66 pages long – closer to a short story than a novella. It’s the shortest undertaking on Keeping Up With The Penguins so far, and I’m pretty sure it’s the shortest one on The List. I’m clearly a bit thick, because – even knowing how short it was – I was surprised that it was over so quickly!

That said, Stevenson managed to cram a lot into those 66 pages, and literary types continue to analyse Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde to death. The introduction to this edition (which is almost longer than the book itself) goes deep into a critical analysis. Apparently, a psychoanalytic reading of the text reveals that Stevenson had a tonne of Daddy Issues. My eyes kind of glazed over once it started talking about its handling of metaphysical confusion… but then it turned to queer theory and the reading of Jekyll as a closet homosexual, and I was back on board! (Incidentally, I also learned that Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde is the prototype of a sub-genre called “doppelgĂ€nger lit”, which is just so niche, I laugh every time I think of it).

So, the story: London lawyer Gabriel John Utterson hears a story about a creep named Hyde, who beat up a kid and paid the family off with a cheque drawn in the name of his mate Dr Jekyll. Utterson is a bit freaked out by that, because he knows that Jekyll recently rewrote his will to name Hyde the sole beneficiary. He figures Hyde is blackmailing Jekyll for reasons unknown; he asks a few nosy questions around town, but he doesn’t actually do all that much about it.

“‘If he be Mr Hyde,’ he had thought, ‘I shall be Mr Seek.'”

Hyde continues to stomp around London having a grand old time doing awful things, until he cocks up and murders an actual member of parliament. Everyone is understandably upset. Utterson tries to get Jekyll to snitch on Hyde, but Jekyll tells him to fuck up. One of Jekyll’s doctor mates tells Utterson that he knows what Jekyll’s been up to, but it’s so bad that the poor prick literally dies of shock before he can spill the beans.

Jekyll starts acting really weird, and his servants freak out when they don’t see him for a few days; he’s apparently holed up in his mysterious laboratory, but they get it into their heads that Jekyll’s actually been murdered and an imposter is living there in his place. Utterson breaks in to Jekyll’s secret room… only to find Hyde dead on the floor, wearing Jekyll’s clothes. This seems strange, so Utterson finally gets around to reading the letter left behind by their dead doctor friend, and a letter-slash-suicide-note from Jekyll himself. Turns out, Jekyll had gone full mad scientist and found a way to temporarily transform himself into a degenerate alter ego so that he could indulge all of his sicko fantasies without besmirching his own name… only he lost control, and couldn’t stop the transformations happening, so he offs himself in order to kill the monster. The End.




Unless you spent the 20th century (and then some) living under a rock, that “twist” ending won’t come as a shock to you. Still, I’d imagine at the time of publication it caused quite a stir. The biggest problem with a contemporary reading is that it’s really hard to enjoy organically when the “twist” has been part of the cultural zeitgeist for over a century. There have been at least 120 film and stage adaptations – I have seen exactly none of them, and yet I’ve still used “Jekyll and Hyde” as shorthand in conversation. Like Vader being Luke’s father, or Bruce Willis being a ghost, you end up reading this one as an academic exercise, picking apart the layers and metaphor rather than letting yourself get lost in the story.

That doesn’t mean there’s no fun to be had! I quite the queer reading of Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde – there’s lots of fodder in the imagery of Hyde standing over Jekyll’s bed, Jekyll having to atone for unspeakable sin, etc. When you look at it that way, you can see Hyde as a vehicle for the closet-homo Jekyll to indulge his vices without getting busted. (This was the end of the repressed Victorian era, after all.) Eventually, of course, Jekyll loses all control and his gay sex urge runs rampant – love it!

Much like Wuthering Heights, there are so many layers to this story that the debate about Stevenson’s “true” meaning will probably rage on for another century yet. As I said, my preference is the queer reading, but I certainly wouldn’t begrudge anyone their own interpretation – there’s plenty to go around! I hear some folks read it as a commentary on Scottish nationalism versus union with Britain…

What I would say is this: if you assume you’re familiar with the Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde and you don’t need to read the original, you’re really missing out. I’ll definitely read it again; I’m not sure it rises to the ranks of “recommended” here at Keeping Up With The Penguins, but it’s short and accessible and familiar enough to be enjoyed by almost anyone.

My favourite Amazon reviews of Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde:

  • “Puerto Rico. Puerto Rico. Puerto Rico. Puerto Rico. Puerto Rico. Puerto Rico. Puerto Rico. Puerto Rico. Puerto Rico. Puerto Rico. This is the best place” – mary gagliardo
  • “Not what I was hoping for. I was expecting less ‘Old English’ and more human struggle. Dr. Jekyll is trying to achieve something, but there’s no description of why. Mr Hyde was described as complete evil. Other than bumping into a kid and killing a man, what else has he done? I’m disappointed.” – Kevin Palmer
  • “Ending was abrupt, liked the musical more. Wish there was more detail in the murders and perhaps a love interest….” – Chanebradshaw
  • “Although it is fantasy, I couldn’t accept the physical change in size between Jekyll and Hyde, regardless of the symbolic intent.” – R. L. Riemer

 

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This Guy!: The Most Unlikeable Narrators in Literature

It’s all well and good for an author to write a book with a likeable narrator, don’t you think? Kind, empathic, brave, warm, honest, well-meaning, and funny narrators jump off the page. They’re the type of people we aspire to be, or at least befriend. On the other hand, it takes a special set of skills to write a book from the point of view of a truly despicable person. Unlikeable narrators do things that we readers would never dream of doing, admit to things that make our skin crawl, and (in the case of narrators that are both unlikeable and unreliable) make us question whether we should even believe the story they’re telling us. And yet, we don’t throw the book across the room. Sometimes, we even enjoy them enough to list them among our favourites, or chalk them up as classics of literature.

I thought about that a lot as I read A Clockwork Orange for this week’s review. I like to think I’m generally a pretty forgiving reader, but there are least a few narrators that have really horrified, disgusted and angered me. So I’ve put together a Keeping Up With The Penguins list of the most unlikeable narrators in literature. Prepare to raise your hackles…

The Most Unlikeable Narrators in Literature - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Alex (A Clockwork Orange – Anthony Burgess)

If you’ve seen the film adaptation, you may think you’re familiar enough with the misdeeds of Alex in A Clockwork Orange. Let me tell you’re now: you’re in no way prepared for reading chapter after chapter of extreme graphic violence from Alex’s own perspective. Alex is the instigator of vicious assaults, violent rapes, and all manner of hideously anti-social behaviour. What makes it worse is that he knows all the while that what he’s doing is wrong (“you can’t have a society with everybody behaving in my manner of the night”), and yet he’s simultaneously full of self-pity and wide-eyed confusion as to why anyone would want to “cure” him. It all makes for an extremely confronting read.

Humbert Humbert (Lolita – Vladimir Nabokov)

Humbert Humbert was the first narrator who made me feel truly disgusted, as far as I can recall. Bear in mind that he is a sexual predator who fetishises the twelve-year-old Lolita, trying desperately to convince the reader that it was in fact she who seduced him (ick) and that his love for her is simply mischaracterised as perverse. It is a true credit to Nabokov that Lolita remains a fascinating, beautiful read – albeit one narrated by a truly abhorrent man. (Humbert Humbert got what was coming to him in the end, though, and that always feels good.)

John Self (Money: A Suicide Note – Martin Amis)

John Self is perhaps a lesser-known example of the unlikeable narrator, but he is well deserving of his place on the list nonetheless. Amis had his work cut out for him in Money: A Suicide Note, crafting a protagonist that captured all of the hedonism and excess of the late 20th century. John Self eats, smokes, drinks, and fucks himself into oblivion for the entire duration of the novel. His hubris is (of course) his downfall; his business associate swindles him, and his entire orgy of consumption collapses around his ears in the end. John Self is not the kind of man you would want to invite to dinner, but Money: A Suicide Note is artfully written.




Alexander Portnoy (Portnoy’s Complaint – Philip Roth)

Alexander Portnoy is often lumped into the same category as John Self, but really he’s more of a “love him or hate him” kind of guy. Portnoy’s Complaint reads as a monologue of Alexander’s frustrations, as described to his psychoanalyst. He describes his life as being akin to living “in the middle of a Jewish joke”, complete with a domineering mother, an urgent sex drive, and a heaping serve of guilt. It’s hard to look away, the obscenity certainly draws your eye, but it’s equally tough to shake the nagging repulsion one feels for Alexander.

Holden Caulfield (The Catcher in the Rye – J.D. Salinger)

Personally, I kind of liked Holden Caulfield, but that was mostly due to the nostalgic kick I got out of his character being so similar to the angry teenage boys I knew growing up. Holden is miserable, self-pitying, angry, vague, prone to flights of fancy, and – most of all – he shits on everything. In The Catcher in the Rye, he represents everything that everyone dislikes about self-centered teenagers, and his unrelenting whinge-fest can certainly grate on the nerves. He lacks the true darkness of other, more mature characters on this list, but he is certainly unlikeable in his own way.

Patrick Bateman (American Psycho – Bret Easton Ellis)

I would be remiss if I didn’t include Patrick Bateman on this list of unlikeable narrators, he’s basically the poster-child for them: detail-oriented, stylish, aloof, and filled to the brim with murderous rage. He has a real penchant for torture, dreams up particularly gruesome methods to kill, and to top it all off he targets the most vulnerable women he can find… or does he? We never quite get to the bottom of Bateman’s psychopathology, and the reader’s frustration at the end of the novel is probably enough on its own to make him deeply unlikeable (you know, in the event that you can get past the whole chainsaw-a-sex-worker-to-death thing).

So, why do we even read these books? These are no-good, very-bad people, after all. I think, in large part, it’s because we find them interesting. They’re so far removed from what we experience every day, the types of people we know and love, and that makes them fascinating. What do you think? Do you have a “favourite” unlikeable narrator? Let me know in the comments below (or share with us over at KUWTP on Facebook!).

 

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A Clockwork Orange – Anthony Burgess

Given that I’ve pulled together a List of mostly popular and classic books, I’ve stumbled across a bunch that have been made into movies. I only mention that here because this is one of the very few times I’ve actually seen the film adaptation prior to reading the book, so I had some idea of what was up with A Clockwork Orange before I read it.

A Clockwork Orange - Anthony Burgess - Keeping Up With The Penguins

A Clockwork Orange, the novella, was published in 1962, but reached peak saturation after the Kubrick film adaptation was released in 1971. I saw the movie sometime in my mid-teens, fancying myself a bit disaffected and angsty, but hadn’t read the book until now. In terms of genre, it’s a hard one to pin down. I’ve seen it referred to as science fiction, which almost fits, but I would describe it as truly dystopian (as opposed to the cutesy Young Adult type of dystopian to which we’ve all become accustomed). Burgess wrote the whole thing in three weeks, and by all accounts he thought it kind of sucked, and yet it remains the work for which he is best known.

Shit gets very real, right from the outset. The narrator is Alex, a hardened juvenile delinquent with a passion for classical music. He spends a night with his friends, stealing cars and beating the living daylights out of unsuspecting civilians. The next day, he lures two very young girls home from the record store, and brutally rapes them in his bedroom. At this point, we’re only forty pages in. I mean, I’d heard that the book depicted a “subculture of youth violence”, but when this is the starting point… well, that description doesn’t seem to cut it, does it?

As A Clockwork Orange unfolds, Burgess just flat out makes up his own words. He called it “Nasdat”, a kind of Anglo-Russian slang. I’d imagine it’s a lot like reading a book written in a language in which you’re almost fluent – it gets easier and easier, but you still find yourself stumbling on a word now and then. It’s less like reading and more like a jigsaw puzzle, piecing together the context clues to work out what the hell is going on.

For some reason reading about the violence, delivered rapid-fire in this nonsense language, is a lot more confronting than seeing it on the screen. All of the nonsense language in the world can’t cloak or soften it. Perhaps I’m desensitised to violence in film and television (aren’t we all?), but not so much with book; in fact, I don’t think I had ever read a truly violent book… until now. I like to think I’ve got a fairly strong stomach for this kind of stuff, but Burgess really put it to the test. “Anti-hero” doesn’t quite suffice in describing Alex – he is unsympathetic in the extreme. I didn’t think I could dislike a narrator more than I disliked Nabakov’s Humbert Humbert (from Lolita), but here we are.




Anyway, Alex gets caught by the authorities about a third of the way into the book, which is the first indication that something’s a bit hinky. In a traditional goodies-catch-the-baddie story, you’d expect him to get caught at the very end, after a bitching chase scene or something. In A Clockwork Orange, the actual story isn’t Alex’s crime(s), it’s his punishment.

The only bit of Burgess’ story that I didn’t quite buy was the politics of Alex and his “droogs” (translates roughly to “homies”, I think). Alex only gets caught because one of his droogs beats him with a bike chain and leaves him unable to escape from the cops, after an earlier leadership squabble. The cops don’t believe Alex’s bullshit story (about being led astray and lured into crime by a group of violent thugs), so he goes to prison. He gets by inside by cozying up to the prison chaplain and snitching (sometimes honestly, sometimes not) on his fellow inmates. His droogs inside end up dogging him too, blaming him for the death of a cellmate (when really they all got a few kicks in). He bitches about their hypocrisy and wails about their violent perversions, but doesn’t count himself among them. None of this seems like it would hold up in the real world of gangland violence. Snitches get stitches, after all, and a little bitch like Alex would be wearing concrete boots before long. It felt like maybe the only mechanism that Burgess had to drive Alex first into prison, and then into an experimental punishment/”cure”.

“In a sense, choosing to be deprived of the ability to make an ethical choice, you have in a sense really chosen the good.” – Prison Chaplain

Ah, yes, the punishment. As a psychology graduate (yes, I studied psych in a former life), it was both fascinating and (frankly) offensive to see old, basic concepts of behaviourism bastardised by a desperate government. Burgess called it the Ludovico technique – a form of aversion therapy, where the authorities injected Alex with nausea-inducing drugs while forcing him to watch violent films (the logical conclusion being that he becomes physically sickened at the thought of violence). In that sense, the book really takes aim behavioural psychology, but that’s just one thread of the ugly sweater vest. Is goodness still “good” if it’s not a choice? Given that we’re all exposed to persuasive powers on a daily basis, do any of us really still have “choices”? Is violence still violence when it is perpetrated by the State? Unraveling the philosophical questions raised by A Clockwork Orange would take a decade. For now, I’ll just get on with it, because thinking about all of this for too long really bums my flow.

Alex gets out, apparently “cured”, but finds himself homeless, rejected by his parents and looking for a way to end it all. He is attacked by a former victim, the police who rescue him turn out to be former droogs who just beat him further, and when he stops at a house to end it all – guess what – the resident is the husband of a former victim, too. Alex is really shit out of luck. It’s all very convenient, but at least the story moves quickly and there’s no bones about what Burgess is doing.

Alex ends up in the hands of a political group who are highly critical of the current government, and want to turn Alex into a symbol of police brutality. Facing a life as a cautionary tale puppet, and realising that his “cure” has also made listening to his beloved Beethoven unbearable, he figures now is as good a time as any to execute his suicide plan. He cocks it up, winding up in hospital only to find that he seems to have been “cured of the cure” in recovery. He can go back to a life of violence and orchestral music without enforced illness and revulsion. Lovely!

In the original American publication, the story ended here, but there’s actually a 21st chapter, which was included in my edition. I guess this true ending is “happy” in a sense – Alex decides to give up his life of violent crime to seek a wife and have a child. Only, he acknowledges that – try as he might to renounce his life of crime, he won’t be able to exert any control over his hypothetical son who will go on to fuck everything up the way that he did, and have a son who goes on to do the same. So everything’s fucked, and none of it will get any better, even if Alex redeems himself in a life of domesticity (so maybe not that “happy” after all). The book is arguably more realistic without this closing passage, and Kubrick famously refused to include it in his film adaptation.

A thought that struck me in the final chapters: is this what The Catcher In The Rye could have been, or tried to be? Funnily enough, A Clockwork Orange – undoubtedly more violent and confronting in basically every respect – didn’t face anywhere near the same level of censorship. Removal of the book from a handful of schools and libraries in the U.S. only happened after the release of the film, which was substantially more controversial. Really, it’s the ultimate case of literary one-upmanship; Burgess took the disaffected youth trope to its logical extreme, and forcefully confronted his readership in places that Salinger only gently poked.

I couldn’t possibly argue that A Clockwork Orange is an enjoyable read. I don’t think that I could bring myself to recommend that somebody read it, but simultaneously I wouldn’t discourage anyone from reading it either. My tl;dr summary would be that everyone is evil, there are no good guys, and everything sucks. If you can accept that reality with a heaping serve of extreme violence, then this might be the book for you.

My favourite Amazon reviews of A Clockwork Orange:

  • “…. If the book had been written using the King ‘s English, it certainly would not have been a candidate for the Book of the Month Club. However, as I read the last page, I felt as if I had stopped to eat at an ethnic restaurant in this ethnic neighborhood where I ordered my meal from a menu written completely in this bizarre language, but I knew precisely what I wanted to eat.” – Barbara Moore
  • “I cannot like this book. How did this become a classic? The gibberish throughout hurts me. I feel dumber just attempting to read this ‘book’. My feelings are the characters are stupid. They beat people up, smoke, and cause trouble all in a language that is not English. Not fun to read. Not engaging. Not anything worth recommending. If I wanted to read nonsense I would find Dr Seuss books, at least those make sense.” – Amazon Customer
  • “the negative actions depicted in this book are not a good thing… duh. that was tony’s point! ‘no good, no bad’ idiocy makes tony barf his other lung. take responsibility for yourselves!!! (read that again!) try shock therapy if you’re still watching sports on TV. help someone today!” – A customer

 

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