Keeping Up With The Penguins

Reviews For The Would-Be Booklover

Brave New World – Aldous Huxley

If you’ve been reading the news, you’ll know that quoting mid-20th century dystopian novels is really “in” right now. Since we started the dumpster fire that is the Trump presidency, a lot of these older works have startling new relevance. I’ve got George Orwell’s 1984 covered (it’s one of my long-time favourite books), but I’m sick of chuckling along obliquely when people start talking about Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World.

Brave New World is kind of like 1984’s homely cousin. There was some beef between the authors when Orwell accused Huxley of ripping off his plot (Orwell believed it was just a bit too similar to We by Yevgeny Zamyatin). Huxley always maintained that Brave New World was actually inspired by the utopian novels of H.G. Wells. He originally intended the book to be a satire, a “negative utopia” sending up all the novels that implied humanity could solve all of its social and economic issues with science. But then, as Huxley later wrote to a friend, the author “got caught up in the excitement of [his] own ideas”, and he ended up creating an entirely dystopian future where developments in reproductive technologies and psychological theories (sleep-learning, classic conditioning, etc.) have turned society on its head… and not necessarily in a good way. Brave New World was essentially the Black Mirror of the 1930s.

The foreword in this edition is pretty weird. Huxley wrote it himself, and his main message seems to be: “a writer should never feel remorse for the mistakes they made in their books and it’s no use trying to go back to fix them, but I could totally fix all the problems in Brave New World if I wanted to, and here’s exactly how I’d do it…”

Brave New World was published in 1931, and set 600 years in the future from then (so, the year 2540 to us, or the year 632 “After Ford” for the characters). Citizens of the Brave New World (called the “World State”) are engineered in artificial wombs, indoctrinated as children into predetermined castes, and kept calm with the constant use of a drug they call “soma”. Epsilons (the lower caste) are the giants, and the Alphas (highest caste) stand on their shoulders – without Epsilons, the “utopian” society would collapse. This is a metaphor for basically everything: capitalism, sexism, racism, and every other power structure you can think of.




 

The story kicks off with the beautiful Lenina (who works in a “hatchery”, breeding babies) and the dumpy Bernard (a psychologist who hates everything) taking a holiday together. They visit the natural world outside the confines of the World State (called the “Savage Reservation”), and there they meet Linda. She was once part of the World State, but got dumped in the reservation when she found herself naturally pregnant. Everyone in the World State is encouraged to fuck one another silly, but natural pregnancy and procreation is a huge no-no, so she’s basically shunned. Bernard can’t resist the opportunity to rock the boat a little back home, so he brings Linda and her son (John) back to the World State with him.

Lest you be mistaken, Huxley has A PointTM to make, and he goes in hard. He certainly doesn’t waffle on at all, and you can tell that every sentence is perfectly crafted to have maximum impact. In that regard, Brave New World reads more like a short story than a novel. This is a good thing in the sense that it makes the book a quick read. However, you do start to miss flowery descriptive moments and drawn-out passages, because they would give you a bit of time to process all of the information-dumps.

‘And that’, put in the Director sententiously, ‘that is the secret of happiness and virtue – liking what you’ve got to do. All conditioning aims at that: making people like their unescapable social destiny.’

Around the time he started to write Brave New World, Huxley was really freaked out by the Great Depression (1931). There was mass unemployment and changes to the currency in Britain, leading to a lot of uncertainty. A trip to the United States didn’t help Huxley much; there, he saw youth culture, commercialised and promiscuous and narcissistic (he would have shit himself if he’d come forward in time and discovered Instagram). He also came across a copy of My Life and Work by Henry Ford (yes, of the Ford Motoring Company), which greatly influenced Huxley’s approach to the book. See, the whole book is based around the fear of losing individual identity and ceding free will. Ford is actually revered as the creator of the World State – not quite a deity, but close (so, instead of saying “oh my god”, people in the World State say “oh my Ford”). I wonder what you’d pay for that kind of product placement now… 😉

Anyway, back to the plot. Bernard returns to the World State with his “savages” in tow, and things start to fall apart. He parades John around like a performing monkey, which garners a lot of attention, but John really hates it. John has a passion for Shakespeare (considered smut in the World State) and quotes him endlessly (don’t worry, it’s mostly the well-known plays, so no prior knowledge of the Bard is required to follow what’s going on).

Linda reveals that John’s father is actually one of the bigwigs in the World State government, leading to a huge fall-out. Around the same time, Lenina hits on John, but he goes full fuck-boy and attacks her, calling her a slut. There are a lot of complex sub-plots that weave in and out here, but basically it all ends up with John exiling himself. He goes off to live in an abandoned lighthouse, alone on the fringes of the World State. He overreacts somewhat to what he sees as the excesses and indulgences of that society, and starts whipping himself like that monk from The Da Vinci Code. Crowds gather to watch him, fascinated by “the self-flagellating savage”, until one day he thinks he sees Lenina in the crowd and he goes completely nuts. The story ends with a really haunting depiction of his suicide, alone in the lighthouse.

This review might sound pretty PG, but the American Library Association actually ranks Brave New World on their list of the most challenged books of all time (don’t forget, Banned Books Week is coming up!). It has been censored, banned, and/or challenged dozens of times all around the world. The further I get into the Keeping Up With The Penguins project, the more I realise that the most-often banned books are always the ones that offer the best insights into our world.

Huxley later wrote two follow-ups: an essay (“Brave New World Revisited” in 1958), and his final novel (“Island” in 1962). I’m not sure I’ll bother seeking those out, but I’m glad I read Brave New World. By way of a recommendation, this one is probably best suited to sociology students, and/or naïve teenagers who need a bit of a wake-up call. It’s definitely less depressing than 1984, if that’s your concern – they still have sex, drugs, and rock’n’roll in the World State, after all 😉

My favourite Amazon reviews of Brave New World:

  • “The mass baby electrocution scene was epic. ZAP! That’s what you get for looking at books!” – John Sapinski
  • “Progressive claptrap” – John Harrington
  • “This is the business plan of the Progressive Party. It is the Mein Kampf of the Democrat. I commend it. It is always good to know what the train that is about to hit you looks like. Gives you a chance to dodge.” – Athelstan
  • “almost sickening book—strange—baby torture, toddler sex—just weird” – Gloria M.

 

Ridiculous (Real!) Reasons That Your Favourite Books Have Been Banned

At the end of this month, we’ll be celebrating Banned Books Week (23-29 September), an annual event promoting free and open access to literature. According to the official website, over 11,000 books have been challenged since 1982 (a “challenge” being an attempt to ban or restrict materials, brought by an individual or group, on the basis of content). The idea of a whole week dedicated to unorthodox and unpopular literature originated in the U.S. through the American Library Association, but it has gathered steam and spread worldwide. Banned Books Week draws international attention to the very real dangers posed by censorship – be it at the hands of schools, states, or federal governments.

Personally, I love banned books. In fact, it would seem that the majority of the books on The List have been banned, challenged, or censored at some point in history, somewhere in the world. At least 20 of them appear in the American Library Association’s top 100 lists of banned books over the past two decades. What I find most disturbing is the number of books that have been challenged because they contain diverse content; of the top ten most frequently challenged books in 2015, for instance, nine of them (quick maths: that’s 90%) featured or were written by people of colour, LGBTI people, and/or people with disabilities. Why are we so quick to challenge inclusive content from groups that are already marginalised in so many other respects?

Well, my favourite way to confront things that I don’t like is to laugh at them (of course!). So, let’s all have a chuckle at some of the most ridiculous (real!) reasons that books have been banned, challenged, or censored.

Ridiculous Real Reasons That Books Have Been Banned - Keeping Up With The Penguins

 

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn – Mark Twain

Banned in Concord, Massachusetts (1885)
Reason Given: It is “trash and suitable only for the slums”

It was an auspicious start to a long and illustrious lifetime of bans and challenges for Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Right up to the present day, it has been challenged repeatedly on the groups of racial insensitivity, perpetuation of racism, use of racial stereotypes, and coarse language. The fact that it accurately reflects the treatment and lived experiences of people of colour in 19th century America seems to have no bearing.

The Call of the Wild – Jack London

Burned in Nazi Germany (1920s-1930s)
Reason Given: It is “too radical”

A nice story about a man going for a walk with his dog (ha!) is clearly of great concern, and not only to the Nazis. The Call Of The Wild was also banned in Italy and Yugoslavia at different points, and has been challenged more recently in the U.S. for “age-inappropriateness” and concern about the author’s “pro-Socialist” views.

Fahrenheit 451 – Ray Bradbury

Censored in Irvine, California (1992)
Reason Given: Obscene language (“hell”, “damn”)

The irony here is mind-boggling! Surely no one ruling on these challenges has actually read the Fahrenheit 451, a dystopian science-fiction novel about a future world where books are illegal. A (somewhat oblivious) Californian school mandated the use of an expurgated version of the text in their classrooms, with all the “bad” words blacked out. Bradbury’s work has also been challenged and banned in other districts, usually citing its profanity, anti-government advocacy, opposition to religious belief, and – best of all – “questionable themes” (could they be any more vague?).

The Grapes of Wrath – John Steinbeck

Banned in Kern County, California (1939)
Reason Given: “Portrays Kern County, California in a negative light”

That’s right: Kern County is not only the setting of Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, but it was also the first place to ban it. The book was similarly banned in Ireland in the 1950s, and Turkish booksellers were charged for “spreading propaganda” when they sold the book in the 1970s. Grounds for other subsequent challenges include its profanity (“goddamn”), and sexual references.

Leaves of Grass – Walt Whitman

Challenged in New York, New York (1882)
Reason Given: It’s “filthy”

A wonderful little organisation called the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice (sadly now disbanded) was not a huge fan of Whitman’s Leaves of Grass. They pressured publisher James Osgood to cease distributing the work altogether, arguing that it violated “the Public Statutes concerning obscene literature”. When that failed (good on ya, Osgood!), the upstanding booksellers of New York took it upon themselves to advise their customers not to purchase the “filthy” book. I must say, if I received such a warning, I’d probably buy two copies.

Moby Dick – Herman Melville

Banned in Lindale, Texas (1996)
Reason Given: It “conflicted with community values”

Ah, that old chestnut! Which community values were contradicted exactly remains unclear, but Moby Dick definitely contradicted them, according to a school district in Lindale. Other books banned by the same school under that ruling include To Kill a Mockingbird, The Scarlet Letter, and – the darling of Banned Books Week, mentioned above – The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Check out my full review of the community-value-conflicting American classic here.




 

Fifty Shades of Grey – E.L. James

Challenged (2015)
Reason Given: It is “poorly written”, and there are “concerns that a group of teenagers will want to try it”

I shouldn’t play favourites, but as far as I’m concerned this is the best ridiculous reason for a book to be challenged, ever! I can understand perhaps thinking that the content of Fifty Shades of Grey is a little “adult” for a very young audience, but what a way to articulate that concern! The Malaysian government did a little better: they banned the entire trilogy that same year, for its “sadistic” material and its “threat to morality”.

*Note: the location of this particular challenge has not been made public. The wonderful team at the ALA Office for Intellectual Freedom were kind enough to tell me why: librarians and other professionals who wish to seek support from their office, but fear reprimands or punishment at work for reporting instances of censorship, are welcome to submit their concerns confidentially. However, they also confirmed for me that this was, in fact, a legitimate challenge reported to their office in 2015.

Lord of the Flies – William Golding

Challenged in North Carolina (1981)
Reason Given: It is “demoralising, in that it implies that a man is little more than an animal”

This reason for challenging Lord of the Flies is lifted directly from its very premise. Any kid writing a book report can tell you that Golding’s whole point was that man is not that different from the animals. Such logic isn’t stopping the censorship brigade, though! They’ve also challenged this book for its obscene language, violence, and – I swear, I’m not making this up – animal cruelty.

Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland – Lewis Carroll

Banned in Hunan, China (1931)
Reason Given: It would be “disastrous to put animals and human beings on the same level”

Yep: anthropomorphised animals really freak out the Chinese government. They felt that Lewis Carroll’s charming children’s fantasy novel, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, was an insult to humans, and would teach children “disastrous” things (i.e., that humans and animals are “on the same level”). Can you imagine?

The U.S. got on board the banning train in the ’60s, albeit for different reasons: they believed the mushroom and hookah imagery would lure kids into the drug culture. Then, in the ’90s, New Hampshire banned the book (again!) for promoting “sexual fantasies and masturbation”. ??? Even I don’t know how they got there… Seriously, read my full review here and see if you can figure it out.

All The King’s Men – Robert Penn Warren

Challenged in Dallas, Texas (1974)
Reason Given: Depicting a “depressing view of life” and “immoral situations”

God knows, we can’t have young adults exposed to a depressing view of life in literature! Especially not when it reflects immoral situations! How else will they learn that the real world is all sunshine and rainbows, and everyone does the right thing always?! We can hardly blame the good people of Dallas, Texas for challenging All The King’s Men, really.

Brave New World – Aldous Huxley

Removed from classrooms in Miller, Missouri (1980)
Reason Given: “It makes promiscuous sex look like fun”

Words fail me.


Honourable mentions must also go to: The Holy Bible (challenged for its “religious viewpoint”), The Witches by Roald Dahl (for “encouraging disobedience”), Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret by Judy Blume (for “content dealing with menstrual cycles and feminine hygiene”, heaven forbid) and A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess (inexplicably challenged for “obscene language” only, when half the book is written in a nonsense language invented by the author and depicts some of the most graphic sexual violence and state-perpetrated violence that I have ever read – check out my full review for more details).

So, now that we’ve all had a good laugh, let’s get back to Banned Books Week. The battle against censorship is never won. Take some time out this month to read books that people tell you you “shouldn’t”. Soak up some dangerous ideas. Support an author who has been challenged or banned (buy their book, go to their talk, request their work at your local library). None of us have to like everything, but we should do everything we can to make sure that no one impinges on our right to read anything.

Have you come across a ridiculous reason that a book has been banned? What will you be reading to celebrate Banned Books Week? Let me know in the comments (or give it a shout-out over at KUWTP on Facebook!).

 

Paper Towns – John Green

John Green is one of only three authors to have more than one book on The List. This week, I’m tackling the first of them: Paper Towns. It debuted at #5 on the New York Times Bestseller List in 2008, it won the Edgar Award in 2009 for Best Young Adult Novel, and just about every YA-reader I know has a major stiffy for Green. So, I figured it was worth a look.

Paper Towns is your standard coming-of-age story. There’s a prologue positioning the two central characters as childhood friends. The nerdy, underappreciated boy-next-door (Quentin “Q” Jacobsen) “loves” Margo Roth Spiegelman from afar for years. She is (surprise, surprise) beautiful, mysterious, and edgy.

Margo goes missing, and Quentin goes looking for her, following her trail of clues. You have to suspend your disbelief for a minute here. I mean, I’ve never met a teenager with enough foresight to leave complex metaphorical breadcrumbs when they run away, and, indeed, why would they? The whole point of running away is, y’know, to not get caught. Still, that’s what Green chose for a plot, and I’m hardly in a position to argue with him.

There were some surprisingly clever and funny bits. I laughed out loud at the story of local figure Dr Jefferson Jefferson, who is actually not a doctor of any kind – he’s just a powerful, wealthy man who petitioned the courts to change his first name to “Dr”. That’s funny, right?! So I keep reading along, chuckling away… until we hit the first speed-bump of self-indulgent teenage wankery. Quentin opines:

“It struck me as somewhat unfair that an asshole like Jason Worthington would get to have sex with both Margo and Becca, when perfectly likeable individuals such as myself don’t get to have sex with either of them – or anyone else for that matter.”

Sound the alarm, guys: our narrator is definitely a Nice GuyTM.


His (brief) moment of redemption doesn’t come until about two-thirds of the way through the novel (by which point I’d already written him off). He realises that Margo isn’t just a vessel for all of his dreams and desires – she’s an actual person, would you believe it? And he’s not subtle about it, either. He really thwacks you over the head with this life-changing realisation.

“Margo was not a miracle. She was not adventure. She was not a fine and precious thing. She was a girl.”

I was just about to score one for John Green – I was pleasantly surprised, I honestly didn’t think he had it in him – but then it all went to shit. And by that, I mean that his selfish teenage arsehole characters went back to acting like selfish teenage arseholes. Quentin skips his high-school graduation (and somehow convinces his friends to do the same), despite the fact that he is an only child and his parents are so excited and proud of him that they bought him a car. He uses that very car to drive across the country chasing after the girl, risking life and limb, with nary a thought to his heartbroken parents… only to find that she’s absolutely fine and, well, that’s kind of the end.

It’s not all terrible, though. I wasn’t a huge fan of the characters or the plot, but the “paper towns” trivia was pretty fun and it made a nice little backdrop for the story. If you’re wondering: the idea of a “paper town” is actually an old cartography trick. Basically, if you’re designing a map (back in the days before Google had street view), you sneakily add in an extra fake town in a random spot. It was an early form of copyright protection. If a cartographer saw their secret fake “paper town” on another map, they could be fairly certain that the designer had copied their design without permission. Clever, eh? Green confirms in his author note that the paper town he references in the book, Agloe, is actually real:

“Agloe began as a paper town, created to protect against copyright infringement. But then people with these old Esso maps kept looking for it, and so someone built a store, making Agloe real.”

But aside from the fun trivia (and the lols in the beginning), I didn’t find all that much to love about Paper Towns. I think Green tried to play with “dark” themes too much. He was a bit heavy handed with the death stuff (that’s him “having his cake”), but then he wraps it up very neatly in an alarmingly benign ending (and that’s him “having it too”)., The monologuing in the closing chapters was extremely tedious; it felt like very lazy storytelling. I had to keep reminding myself that I’m a bit older than the target market; maybe today’s young adults like having everything teased out in dialogue, to feel like the story has a resolution?




Bonus fun fact: Paper Towns was apparently, like all good books, banned from a U.S. school in 2014 because a local parent “disapproved of the book’s sexual content”. A few high-school boys occasionally whined about being virgins, which is enough to make anyone clutch their pearls, I’m sure. The National Coalition Against Censorship had it reinstated shortly thereafter.

My tl;dr summary of Paper Towns would be this: two kids living in no-one-gives-a-fucksville get their kicks running around doing dumb shit, until the mysterious unattainable girl runs away and the boy next door (who “loves” her) chases her across the country. Paper Towns is great for younger teenagers, but will probably grate the nerves of anyone who has already finished high-school.

My favourite Amazon reviews of Paper Towns:

  • “Purchased for my adult son who is a
    Librarian to give to his 13 year old son.” – granny70
  • “This book is complete trash. I would rather read a book about a boy peeling an orange. The characters were flat and the book was just boring in general. Q was a nerdy teen and Margo was a spoiled brat, who cares. This book was a waste of time I could have spent reading The Hunger Games.” – Isabela Underdahl
  • “WOW THANKS JON GREAN U MADE ME CRY IN DIS U HOE GO SUCK A PAPER TOWN” – Xing Lee

 

The Craziest Writing Methods of Famous Authors

When we start talking about how our favourite writers write, I think all of us conjure up one of two mental pictures. We either imagine the disciplined, dedicated writer (like Stephen King) with his set schedule and his carefully-arranged study, or we think of the heavy-drinking night owl (see: Hunter S Thompson), who obliterates their body and mind but vomits out genius works of art at random. Authors certainly exist right across that spectrum, but it’s always more fun to read about the latter 😉 Here are some of the craziest writing methods of famous authors, the bizarre habits and creative processes that have produced amazing works of literature.

Craziest Writing Methods of Famous Authors - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Jack Kerouac & His Scroll

Jack Kerouac spent years scribbling down notes for On The Road in his various journals before he actually sat down at a typewriter and got on with it. He went from one extreme to another, though. He decided that having to stop for anything would be an unwelcome distraction in his creative process, so he procured a single 120-foot scroll of paper, and thus began typing his manuscript. His work poured forth, and he wrote the entire draft in what was effectively a single burst, barely stopping for food and water. When he was done, he just rolled it back up, and marched on down to his editor’s office. Of course, his sensible editor told Kerouac that he was out of his mind, and he’d need to type it up on normal pages in order for them to edit it – in response, Kerouac threw a tanty and stormed out.

Kerouac was also highly superstitious (about his writing, but also life in general). He tried out various rituals to get the creative juices flowing: writing only by candlelight, writing by a full moon, praying before sitting down to write, standing on his head (yes, really). Clearly, something worked, because he is now considered the darling of the Beat generation literary movement.

Maya Angelou & Her Hotel Room

Maya Angelou took Virginia Woolf’s maxim (that a woman needs a room of one’s own) to the next level. She rented a hotel room in her hometown by the month, and used it as her “study”. At 6:30AM each morning, she would head over there and spend the morning writing. She specifically requested that management remove all paintings and decorative items from the room (too distracting), and forbid housekeeping staff from cleaning the room (lest they inadvertently throw away a scrap of paper containing a line of genius). She stocked the room herself with a thesaurus, a dictionary, the Bible, and a few crossword puzzles; she believed her “Big Mind” would sort out problems in her work if she kept her “Little Mind” occupied with something else.

Of course, she never actually slept there. She would leave around 2:00PM, run her errands, and then review the pages she’d written that day at home after dinner. She is cited as saying she’d inevitably scrap most of them, but keep the process up until she had about fifty good pages that she was happy with. And that’s how her work was born.


Aaron Sorkin & His Broken Nose

Granted, Aaron Sorkin isn’t an “author” in the same sense as everyone else on this list – he’s actually a screenwriter, the mind behind A Few Good Men, The Social Network, and The West Wing. Still, his process is definitely bonkers enough to warrant inclusion here!

“Writing never comes easy,” he once said. “The difference between Page 2 and Page Nothing is the difference between life and death.”

In 2011, Sorkin arrived at an Emmy event with a broken nose. When pressed by the media, he confessed that the injury was incurred as part of his writing process. It turns out, Sorkin workshops his dialogue… with himself, reading his lines out loud into a mirror. While working on a script, he became so enraged with his character’s situation that he head-butted the glass! He was probably on to something good, but… sheesh.

Victor Hugo & His Bare Arse

I’m not being funny: Victor Hugo literally wrote The Hunchback of Notre Dame in the nude. He was working to an incredibly tight deadline in 1831, and found himself becoming distracted by, y’know, leaving the house all the time. So, what’s a writer to do?

Well, the obvious: Hugo bought himself a big bottle of ink, and asked his valet to confiscate all of his clothes. You can’t go out and have a good time and miss your deadline if you’ve got nothing to wear! Hugo fought off the cold by wrapping himself in a huge grey shawl, and set about writing out the manuscript, all the while in his birthday suit.

It’s unconventional, but you’ve got to give it to Hugo: it’s genius!




Kazuo Ishiguro & His “Crash”

This is perhaps the grown-up’s version of Kerouac’s scroll. It was 1987 when Kazuo Ishiguro convinced his wife to let him try something a little weird. No, not that! He convinced her to take on all of his housework and emotional labour (like wives have done for centuries before, but I digress), he completely cleared his calendar, and planned an entirely new approach to his book. He did nothing but write from 9:00AM-10:30PM, six days a week. He allowed himself an hour each day for lunch, and two for dinner (what a slacker!). He didn’t answer the phone once in this time, or even look at a piece of mail. His plan was to reach a mental state in which his “fictional world was more real to him than the actual one”. Apparently it worked, because this process produced The Remains of the Day. The first draft took him four weeks, writing free-hand on his writing slope.

In fact, Ishiguro still writes all of his first drafts on that writing slope. When the time comes to type them up, he uses a computer that dates back to 1996 – it’s not connected to the Internet. Neither of these habits are particularly kooky. What really disturbed me was reading Ishiguro quoted in an interview as saying that, while he was working on The Buried Giant, he didn’t watch a single episode of Game of Thrones. Apparently, he wanted to remain focused on his own fictional world, and he was worried that taking an hour to watch an HBO series once a week would “tamper with the world that he set up”. It’s all well and good to sacrifice for your art, but surely there are limits to what a human being can endure! 😉

James Joyce & His Crayons

For anyone who has read James Joyce’s work, it won’t come as any surprise to see him included in this list. He wrote one of the most notoriously unreadable novels in the history of English literature (Finnegans Wake); it took him seventeen years to complete, and every sentence is so oblique that most people need a companion guide to read alongside it. (I’m not game enough to take it on just yet – Ulysses is on The List, but I’m so apprehensive that I’ll probably leave it until last.)

Why seventeen years? Well, firstly, Joyce considered hammering out two whole sentences to be a “good day’s work”, so he wasn’t the most prolific guy. Secondly, he was working at a pretty serious disadvantage: he was almost blind. He was horribly near-sighted, and ended up developing iritis (a painful eye condition, the result of rheumatic fever). He had twenty-five eye surgeries in an attempt to improve his condition, with no luck. So, he took to writing with large blue pencils and crayons, laying on his stomach in bed, wearing a big white coat.

It sounds nuts, but there was actually method to his madness! The colourful writing implements were big enough and bright enough to help him see what he was writing. He also believed that the white coat reflected more light onto the page in front of him. As for laying on his stomach in bed, well: there probably aren’t many more comfortable ways to get your eyes as close to the page as possible. Maybe he wasn’t that crazy after all!


Friedrich Schiller & His Rotting Apples

Of course, I’ve saved the best for last. Friedrich Schiller’s mate, Goethe, has dobbed him in as having probably the craziest writing method of all time. See, Goethe stopped by Schiller’s house one night, and – finding that his friend was out and about – decided to wait, and have a snoop around.

He noticed a strange smell emanating from the bottom drawer of a desk, in the study where Schiller would work. Goethe leaned down, opened it, and found… a pile of rotting apples.

No joke: Schiller had deliberately stored a bunch in a drawer, and waited patiently for them to go off. He told his wife that the odor was “inspiring”, and he “could not live or work without it”. That woman deserves an actual medal, because what the actual fuck?! According to Goethe, the smell was so overpowering that it was enough to make you lightheaded. I’m not one to judge, but… Schiller was off his head.


Writers are hardly known for being well-adjusted and sensible, but this lot really take the cake. Have you heard about any other crazy writing methods of famous authors? Are you inspired to develop one of your own? Let me know in the comments below (or tell us over at KUWTP on Facebook!).

On The Road – Jack Kerouac

It’s certainly the season for dramatic gear shifts. I’ve gone from hyper-masculine military memoir American Sniper, to subtle 19th century social satire Emma, and now on to the quintessential American road trip novel: Jack Kerouac’s On The Road. It’s never boring keeping up with the Penguins, I tell ya!

On The Road is based on the 20-something Kerouac’s travels across the United States in the years following WWII. In fact, it’s more than “based on”: it’s basically a true story with a bunch of fake names to protect the guilty. Kerouac spent years scrawling drafts in various notebooks before finally gritting his teeth and sitting down at his typewriter. He spat out the entire thing on a single scroll of paper. Yes, you read that right. The original scroll stretched over 120 feet (and it sold in 2001 for $2.43 million). By the time the book was finally published in 1957, Kerouac was thirty-five years old. Critics have said that Kerouac spent the first half of his life struggling to write On The Road, and the second half of his life trying to live it down.

What did he have to live down, exactly? On The Road went gangbusters upon its release, after all. The New York Times called it “the most beautifully executed, the clearest and the most important utterance yet made by the generation Kerouac himself named years ago as ‘beat’, and whose principal avatar he is”. That’s a rave review right there! But Kerouac learned quickly that coining the name of a generation, and being their “avatar” no less, ain’t all beer and skittles. Interviewers badgered him with constant questions about “Beat” culture, and showed relatively little interest in his actual work. As you can imagine, Jack got jack of it pretty quickly (ha!).

I’d heard of the “Beat generation” before I sat down to read On The Road, but couldn’t have told you a damn thing about it. Luckily, On The Road is basically a crash course for-dummies guide, so I’m all across it now. The Beat generation was effectively a literary movement that emerged in the late ’40s and early ’50s. Kerouac and his buddies (on whom the characters in On The Road are based) were basically the Tumblr kids of their day. The Beat generation were characterised by their rejection of traditional values (especially the materialism underpinning American culture at the time); as such, they’re well renowned for their spiritual quests, their drug use, and their raunchy sex lives.




 

In terms of plot, On The Road follows the narrator Sal Paradise on a series of hodge-podge journeys back and forth across the United States. It is split into five parts.

Part One (1947) covers Sal’s first trip from New York to San Francisco (via Denver), and back again (via Bakersfield). Sal is a pretty flawed human; he lacks any real conviction, he drinks a little too much, and he has terrible luck with women. Still, despite his shortcomings, he had a certain chutzpah that I admired. He certainly wasn’t too proud to ask his aunt or friends for money. There was no machismo bullshit, which felt like a breath of fresh air when it comes to young white male characters. Anyway, Sal is basically just looking to party on with his friends across the country. He’s particularly keen to hang out with the other central character, free-spirited maverick Dean Moriarty. Sal also ends up having a brief dalliance with a Mexican girl named Terry on the return journey, but he abandons her to carry on home. Like I said, he’s not exactly a stand-up guy.

Part Two (1948) begins with Sal in Virginia. Dean comes to join him, and from there they drive to New York, then to New Orleans, then to San Francisco. They make friends and party with people all along the way, and the trip ends with Sal taking the bus back to New York once more.

In Part Three (1949), Sal takes the bus from New York to Denver, then trudges on to meet up with Dean (who is having serious woman troubles) in San Francisco. Together, they bounce around the country a bit (Sacramento, Denver, Chicago, Detroit), dreaming up hair-brained schemes that never quite pan out. They eventually return to New York, where Dean knocks up a(nother) girl. It was around this point that I figured out the Beat generation actually invented Uber. Seriously: Sal and Dean travel the country using ride-sharing programs organised by the travel bureaus of each city. Who knew?

Anyway, Part Four (1950) sees Sal leave Dean (who is now living an almost-normal domestic life), and take a crazy bus journey through Washington D.C., Ashland, Cincinnati, and St Louis, before meeting up with a different friend (Stan) in Denver. Dean quickly ditches his new life, and comes to join them in a beat-up old car. The three of them drive it across Texas and down into Mexico, where they party on until Sal gets dysentery. It’s a major buzz-kill. Dean ditches him there, which is not very neighbourly of him, but sadly not out of character.

The final section, Part Five, is only a few pages long. Sal has recovered and returned to New York. He has settled down with a new wife (Laura). They plan to move to San Francisco together, but Dean shows up and fucks with their plans. The story ends with Sal’s sensible friend (Remi) refusing to give Dean a lift across town. Sal gets a bit wistful about it, the end.


If you were able to bear with me through that summary, well done. If you struggled, be warned that you might struggle following the book as well. The writing is pretty frantic, in line with Kerouac’s dedication to a style of “spontaneous prose” (i.e., he types out whatever comes off the top of his head in the moment, and all editing can go to hell). It’s worth muddling through, though, for the character sketches, which are absolutely sublime:

“Marylou was watching Dean as she had watched him clear across the country and back, out of the corner of her eye – with a sullen, sad air, as though she wanted to cut off his head and hide it in her closet, an envious and rueful love of him so amazingly himself, all raging and sniffy and crazy-wayed, a smile of tender dotage but also sinister envy that frightened me about her, a love she knew would never bear fruit because when she looked at his hangjawed bony face with its male self-containment and absentmindedness she knew he was too mad.”

My favourite character was actually one of the bit-players: Sal’s aunt. She puts him up whenever he’s bored of catching busses, and she sends him money whenever he asks. To put it another way, she puts up with all his bullshit without complaint, but commands enough respect that Sal really cares about her opinion of him. He says of her: “My aunt once said that the world would never find peace until men fell at their women’s feet and asked for forgiveness”. That line really stuck with me, more than anything else from On The Road, and I’ve used it at least a dozen times since. It seems particularly poignant given the global revolt against “Weinstein culture” over the past 18 months.

On The Road is to the Beat generation of the ’40s and ’50s what The Sun Also Rises was to the Lost generation of the ’20s. You’ll often see them compared, held up side-by-side. I’m going to plant my flag and say that On The Road was the better of the two, because to my mind it presented a far more self-aware and nuanced treatment of masculinity. I’m not sure I’d call it a Recommended read, though. I can see why American beatniks and hippies loved it, but for me it was just okay. Check it out if you like crazy roadtrips and don’t mind listening to people ramble when they’re high.

My favourite Amazon reviews of On The Road:

  • “Disappointed. It read like a poorly written diary. The main characters wasted much of their life and I felt like I was wasting mine reading about it.” – Linda Carroll
  • “This is a book. It has words in it that create sentences which in turn create paragraphs. Amazing.” – Amazon Customer
  • “Book made me want to leave my family for adventure.” – Amazon Customer
  • “I thought this was “on the road” by the famous TV personality John Karult. What a disappointing surprise.” – Frederick R. Dublin

 

What Do Your Bookshelves Say About You?

“If you go home with somebody and they don’t have any books, don’t fuck them.”

Chances are, you’ve heard this timeless piece of dating advice from John Waters, and maybe you’ve even put a few books on proud display to make yourself seem fuck-worthy. I would argue, though, that establishing whether a would-be lover has books is just one piece of the puzzle. You’d be amazed at what a stranger can tell about you by looking at your bookshelves. You might be super-organised, highly ambitious, deeply creative, easy-breezy – and someone can probably tell all of this (and more!) from what you’ve stuck on the flimsy particleboard slabs you bought at IKEA and assembled yourself. Think about it: what do your bookshelves say about you?

What Do Your Bookshelves Say About You? Keeping Up With The Penguins

Your Bookshelves Are: Alphabetised

Who You Are

You’ve got your shit together. You’re probably shaking your head and thinking I’m crazy, that you’re just as much a mess as the next person, but you’re wrong. You probably have a day-planner and remember people’s birthdays and everything. You absolutely excel at scheduled, orderly fun. You’ve got the patience for complex problem solving, so you probably give your friends great advice. You love stationery stores, and getting a good night’s sleep.

What You Read

You’ve probably got a pretty broad collection, but you read more non-fiction than most people. You’ve also probably got a stash of “inspirational guides” and “business manuals” (because you can’t bring yourself to call them self-help books). You might have found yourself wondering if you should implement the Dewey Decimal system. No one but you will notice or care that you’ve done it, but dammit it will feel good.

Your Bookshelves Are: Colour-Coordinated

Who You Are

Others might call you “adorable”, or “off with the pixies”, but you prefer to think of yourself as “creative” and “free-spirited”. You definitely own a few floaty skirts, and your Instagram feed looks like a rainbow full of glitter exploded over a unicorn. Your bookshelf system is maybe not as efficient as the alphabetiser’s, but you’ve got a great memory so you know where to find every single book. Plus, you don’t see any problem in having something pretty to look at.

What You Read

You’ve probably kept a few of your favourite books from childhood – Enid Blyton’s Faraway Tree books, or The Babysitters Club series, maybe. Your collection definitely includes all of the Harry Potter books, and at least one of the ancillary titles (Fantastic Beasts and Where To Find Them, perhaps?). You’ve splurged at least once or twice on gorgeous Penguin cloth-bound covers, or similarly beautiful editions, and you display them proudly in your colourful booktopia.


Your Bookshelves Are: Alarmingly Cluttered

Who You Are

You have books stacked every which way: on top of one another, leaning against each other, and crammed into every nook and cranny. You are the polar opposite of the alphabetiser (you can hardly organise your weekend, let alone your life), and the colour-coordinator would cringe at your devil-may-care arrangement. You’ve been accused of being scatter-brained, you’re constantly late, and you frequently forget to respond to text messages. But you are also intensely loving, and great fun to have around.

What You Read

You buy more books than you could possibly read, but you could never bring yourself to part with any of them (unless you’re trading in your third copy of Pride & Prejudice to score a rare edition of My Brilliant Career, or something). You have no idea how big your collection actually is, but you love it and you wouldn’t have it any other way.

God only knows what you’re actually reading at the moment: it’s impossible to tell, because you’ve got shit piled everywhere. Your tastes vary so widely even you can’t tell what you like anymore.

Your Bookshelves Are: Clean and Minimalist

Who You Are

Your bookshelves have never been cluttered, not a day in your life – an alarmingly cluttered shelf would give you intense anxiety. You’re pretty frugal, mostly because you’re a firm believer that you can’t buy anything to make you whole. Your bookshelves are a decorative feature of your home, not a storage mechanism. You dust them (and every other surface) regularly, and you water the small potted plants you keep around your home religiously. You love a quiet glass of wine, when the meditation app on your phone just ain’t cutting it.

What You Read

You’re not a voracious reader per se, but you have a handful of favourites that you return to time and again. You’re probably subscribed to a bunch of periodicals online (you’d die without your daily updates from The New Yorker), and you listen to a lot of podcasts and audiobooks. When you do splash some cash at a bookstore, you probably pick up a couple of gorgeous cook books, and/or some recent award-winning literary fiction.



Your Bookshelves Are: Stacks on the Floor

Who You Are

A close cousin of the alarmingly-cluttered reader, you refuse to invest in the bourgeoise notion of a “shelf”. The closest you get to a “system” is separating stacks into “read” and “unread”, but even that distinction is pretty vague. You probably dog-ear your pages, too. You’re definitely a night-owl, and generous to a fault. You make a pretty good show of being pessimistic and cynical, but deep down you’ve got a lot of love for people around you, and you really believe in yourself (though you’d never admit it, because it sounds so cliche).

What You Read

You buy your books second-hand, so you pick up whatever’s going. As such, your stacks could contain just about anything… but you can guarantee there’s at least a couple poetry collections, maybe some European philosophy, and definitely some sci-fi and/or dystopian fiction. You have very strong feelings about On The Road, one way or the other.

Your Bookshelves Are: On A Kindle

Who You Are

It’s hard to catch you Kindle readers in your natural habitat, enigmatic creatures that you are. You read on busses, on lunch breaks, in bed, and anywhere else the urge strikes. You’ve got a strong sense of who you are, and you’re not going to bow to social pressure when it comes to reading, or anything else. You’re not likely to be waylaid by sensory pleasures (like that “new book smell”): you’re practical, logical, and focused.

What You Read

You’ve picked a genre, and you’re sticking to it. Whether it’s fantasy, horror, romance, or crime, you know it inside and out, and you’re all across the new releases. You leave honest reviews on Amazon, and love nothing more than getting an advance reader copy from a hot new author.

Some Final Tips for Organising Your Bookshelves

Ultimately, regardless of what it might “say” about you, to your hot date or your mother-in-law or anyone else stopping by your abode, your organisational system needs to make sense to you. You might find it easiest to have everything in alphabetical order (this is particularly useful for really large collections), so all you need to do is scan your bookshelves for the author’s surname. Maybe there are books you reach for again and again – in which case, it might make more sense to have your favourites at easy-to-spot eye-level, while the others can languish on upper and lower shelves. Whatever you choose, you should leave a little extra room for new additions. No matter what you tell yourself, even if you’re not “really” a book-worm, you’re never “done” buying books. You don’t want to find yourself having to start all over again next time you get an Amazon delivery.

If you’re really worried about what your bookshelves say about you, think about this: diversity is almost always going to be the key. A well-rounded reading list usually means a well-rounded individual. Even if you haven’t got around to reading much outside of your usual genre or your favourite authors yet, shelves of books “to be read” can say a lot about your aspirations and goals. That still counts for something! In the end (unless you’re a professional bookstagrammer) how you organise the books isn’t as important as the fact that they’re there.

What do your bookshelves say about you? Do you recognise yourself as one of the readers on this list? Let me know in the comments below (or tell us your “type” over at KUWTP on Facebook!).

 

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Emma – Jane Austen

Chris Kyle filled up my tolerance bucket to overflowing. By the time I was done with American Sniper, I was desperate to get back to literature that didn’t offend every moral fiber of my being. In my hour of need, I turned to one of the most recognisable female writers of the English language. My sum total experience of Austen beforehand was six aborted attempts to read Pride and Prejudice, and falling asleep during the Keira Knightley film adaptation. I know I’ll have to get around to reading that particular masterpiece eventually (it’s also on The List), but baby steps are the name of the game. So, I decided to start with Emma.

Emma was the last of Austen’s six novels to be completed, after the publication of Pride and Prejudice. A London publisher offered her £450 for the manuscript, and asked for the copyright for Mansfield Park and Sense and Sensibility thrown into the bargain. She told him to get stuffed, and in 1815 published two thousand copies at her own expense. She retained all of the copyright, and (more importantly) all of the bragging rights. Slay, Austen, slay!

Before she began writing Emma, Austen wrote to a friend: “I am going to take a heroine whom no one but myself will much like”. From what I can tell, later critics didn’t dislike Emma as much as they simply acknowledged that she was a flawed character (the horror!). The book isn’t even really about her, per se; Emma is actually a satirical novel about manners, hubris, and the perils of misconstrued romance, exploring the lives of genteel women in the early 19th century and issues of marriage, gender, age, and social status. But all I knew about it before I started reading was that it was the basis of the movie Clueless.

Clueless - You're a virgin who can't drive - Emma - Jane Austen - Keeping Up With The Penguins

So, the central character, Emma Woodhouse (“handsome, clever, and rich”), fancies herself to be quite the matchmaker in her small English village. She’s wealthy enough to get by without a husband of her own, but she takes great pleasure in meddling with other people’s love lives. What else was a girl to do before Tinder? Her pet project is Harriet Smith, an unsophisticated, illegitimate seventeen-year-old girl whose only prospect for social advancement is a good matrimonial match. Now, you can look past this pretty weak and flimsy plot to read Emma as a searing class commentary on the right of the elite to dominate society… but, if that’s not your thing, you should know right now: Emma is basically The Book Where Nothing Happens.

I mean it: nothing really happens. Every scene is a visit or a party where bored rich men and women gossip about who will marry whom. Emma tries to set Harriet up with everyone, but they all fall in love with Emma (or her dowry) instead – boohoo. There’s a lot of whining about rich white-girl problems. Now and then, there’s a dramatic declaration of love or a rejected proposal to keep the wheel turning, but otherwise it’s all pretty bland. Most of the story is told through the gossip of the town of Highbury, kind of like the original Gossip Girl.




 

The most interesting and likeable character in Emma was the uncouth Mrs Elton. Mrs Elton has fat stacks of cash, but lacks the manners and social graces that are expected of her in “polite society”. She commits social suicide almost immediately, calling people by their first names (gasp!) and boasting about her family’s wealth (can you imagine?). Emma describes her as “self-important, presuming, familiar, ignorant, and ill-bred”, but I liked her. She was a whole lot more fun than the rest of them put together. Picture an old-timey Kath & Kim character mixing with the upper crust: hilarious! It is Mrs Elton’s lack of social grace that reveals the hypocrisy and the ridiculousness of the gentility. Good on her, I say!

Things start to heat up a bit plot-wise towards the end (in relative terms, anyway): people get sick, peripheral characters die, there’s arguments between friends, and the very-predictable love triangle comes to a head. There’s a happy ending (i.e., everyone gets married), which pretty much makes it a 19th century beach read.


Emma isn’t a horrible book, and I didn’t hate it. Indeed, it’s quite clever and charming, in its own way. There’s some really funny bits, there’s some interesting class and gender commentary… but the pacing is positively glacial, and (as I said before) nothing happens. In terms of this particular edition, the introduction was fine, but the footnotes were absolutely taking the piss. No kidding, there is a footnote providing the definition of “carriage”, but nothing for the word “valetudinarian” (I had to Google it, it means “a person who is unduly anxious about their health”, just so you know). I gave up on the notes a few chapters in, they just weren’t adding much to my reading experience.

My tl;dr summary of Emma would be this: if you get your jollies dissecting the idiosyncrasies of high society in early 19th century England, and don’t mind falling asleep now and then while you’re reading, Emma will make your day. If you’re chasing action and intrigue and shock-twist endings, you might want to give this one a miss. Fingers crossed Pride and Prejudice will give me a bit more to chew on…

My favourite Amazon reviews of Emma:

  • “Boring, BORING, B O R I N G!” – Cliffgypsy
  • “too many similarities between this book and the much better Alicia Silverstone movie Clueless for me to recommend it to everyone but all in all if you like your teen comedies set in Victorian england and not LA, go for it. Grab it before Hollywood discovers the similarities and gets it yanked off the shelf with a court order. Maybe Austen can write her next one based on the plot of Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure. Set it in South Africa during the Boar war or something” – Walter Rice
  • “Tedious and slow. Too much angst and upstanding-ness.” – Iaswa
  • “Normally, “women’s fiction,” focusing on relationships and family, doesn’t interest me much, but Austen writes so well I was able to read all the way through. That emma, what an interfering know-it-all, but the harm is not irreparable.” – Marie Brack

 

How To Avoid Best Sellers That Aren’t Worth Your Time

This week, I reviewed American Sniper – needless to say, I wasn’t a fan. More than anything, I was bewildered as to how such a terribly written book could become a “#1 Best Seller”, and I felt sad for everyone who picked up a copy thinking that meant it would be a terrific read. This got me to thinking: what makes a “best seller”? How can you avoid the best sellers that aren’t worth your time?

How To Avoid Best Sellers That Aren't Worth Your Time - Black and Red Text Overlaid on Image of Newspapers on a Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

What Is A “Best Seller”?

The term “best seller” was first used in The Kansas Times & Star back in 1889, but the idea has been around basically as long as books have been mass-produced. The phrase is generally understood to indicate a book that has sold more than others over a given period (or is more frequently borrowed, don’t forget about your local library!). Lists of these “best sellers” are published by various newspapers, magazines, and book-stores, the most widely-recognised ones being Publishers Weekly, the Washington Post, Amazon.com, and – of course – the New York Times (more on that one in a minute). Best seller lists are usually divided into categories – popular fiction, non-fiction, cookbooks, and so on – to make sure you’re not comparing apples and oranges.

The most important thing to understand is that the term “best seller” is associated only with copies sold or borrowed, so it has nothing to do with the book has academic or literary merit. As such, it is used very loosely by book publicists and publishers. They know that a book with “best seller” printed on the cover will (funnily enough) sell more copies than a book that is advertised as simply being “really good”. That’s the power of social proof for ya!

How Are Best Sellers Calculated?

It depends on the list, who publishes it, and why. Usually, best seller lists rely on sales data over a specific period – maybe a week, a month, or a year. That’s a super-important factor, because the sales period is really the main determining factor in a book’s rank (or, indeed, whether a book appears at all). A classic book (like, say, Moby Dick) might sell way more books over a period of fifty years than a current book (like, say, Still Alice), but guess which one is going to make a best seller list calculated on a specific week of 2007? Plus, think about what happens to books the week that the movie adaptation is released. People see ads for the movie, decide to buy the book before they see it, and all of a sudden – for just one or two weeks – a book that is 5-10 years old (or older!) is back on top of the list. To put it another way: if best seller lists covered sales from all time, The Bible would be in the number one spot every week.


Another really important factor in determining whether a book is a “best seller” is the category into which it is placed. The New York Times famously created a separate “Children’s Books” list in 2001, because Harry Potter had dominated the first, second, and third places in their fiction list for so long. If the categories are really narrow and niche (“21st century female memoir”, “children’s books by Australian authors”, “Young Adult fantasy hardcovers”), a book doesn’t have to sell all that many copies to make it to the top. If, on the other hand, the categories are really broad (“fiction” and “non-fiction”), the book would have to go boonta to even get a look-in at the top ten.

What all this means is that, while the number of copies sold does “count” in calculating whether a book is a “best seller”, it’s not the only factor (and it’s definitely not the most important factor). There’s a tonne of other things that go into these calculations, too: whether the book is hardcover or paperback, whether its sales are wholesale to book chains or private orders for independent bookstores or online orders, whether the author has previously had a best seller… As complicated as it sounds, people have still found ways to game the system (of course). In 1995, the authors of The Discipline of Market Leaders personally ordered 10,000 copies of their own book through small bookstores that they knew were influential in the calculation of best seller figures. It bloody worked, they made the top 10 in a bunch of the lists, and the authors laughed all the way to the bank.

The most widely-recognised list of all – the New York Times Best Seller List – remains a bit of a mystery. It’s been going since 1931, published each week in The New York Times Book Review. The exact method used to compile this particular list is literally a classified trade secret. As best we plebs can tell, it’s based on weekly sales reports from selected independent and chain bookstores in the U.S., but no one really knows for sure. The secrecy is designed to prevent people from rigging the system (authors of The Discipline of Market Leaders, we’re looking at you!), but it also means that readers – like you and I – can’t really evaluate the value of its recommendations, because we don’t know where they come from.




 

For as long as there have been best seller lists, there have been criticisms of them, and they all boil down to pretty much the same thing: best seller lists can’t be relied upon to tell us which books are worthwhile. A classic book will always outsell this week’s flash-in-a-pan garbage celebrity memoir over time, but that’s not going to be reflected in a list that only takes this week or this month into account. Some lists are prone to double-counting, because they take into account both wholesale and retail sales, which gives us a false sense of how many people are buying and enjoying those books. And, most worryingly, there will always be authors and publishers that try to game the system, and the reader will (almost) never know when that has happened.

So, ultimately, the message is this: take best seller lists with a grain of salt. All they can really tell us is which books sold a lot of copies over a given period of time, and even then they can’t do that 100% accurately. Sometimes, they really cock it up! Here’s a few examples of when they’ve done just that…

6 Best Sellers That Aren’t Worth Your Time

American Sniper – Chris Kyle

I reviewed Chris Kyle’s autobiography this week, and it was a real stinker. It wasn’t just terribly written, it was also a really horrible story about a really horrible man. There was no nuance, no critical reflection, and no honest insight: just the story of a white man who liked killing brown people so much, he became the “best” at it. It’s enough to turn your stomach. If you’re looking for an interesting military read, check out Catch-22 or The White Mouse – neither of them have the words “best seller” on the cover, but they’ll be much better for your brain.


Fifty Shades of Grey – E.L. James

Sadly, it’s become really popular to shit all over this book, which I don’t think is “cool” or funny. The performative dislike of something that other people love is boring and played out, so if you’re here for that, sit down.

That said, from a literary critique perspective… Fifty Shades of Grey kind of sucks.

I’m sorry, but it’s true.

Fifty Shades has sold 70 million copies worldwide (and the story of a young girl’s free-fall into the unhealthiest BDSM relationship of all time has now become a major movie franchise, too). James originally self-published, seemingly without the input of a professional editor – and boy, does it show. It’s too laughably bad to be sexy. If you’re looking for some decent literary smut, check out my list of books that are sexier than Lady Chatterley’s Lover. There’s no reason your titillating filth can’t have some literary cred. 😉

The Secret – Rhonda Byrne

Some years ago, I was going through a tough time, and a well-meaning friend gave me a copy of The Secret. Now, I’m not looking down on anyone who reads self-help books (hell, I’ve read a few), and it’s certainly not my place to pick apart The Secret’s specific methodologies. It’s just that this one, the grand poobah of all self-help books, is terribly written, and laughably expensive for what it is. If you’re looking for a book to help you figure out your mess of a life, skip past this one.

Twilight – Stephanie Meyer

I know it’s a pretty shit go for me to say a best seller isn’t worth your time when I haven’t actually read it myself, but Twilight appears on so many “worst best seller” lists out there that I couldn’t possibly not include it here! The series has sold over a hundred million copies (not an exaggeration), the fact that it’s the story of a vulnerable teenage girl being exploited by her vampire boyfriend (and ending up in some kind of love triangle with a werewolf, or something?) apparently doesn’t put people off. I think we can do better, folks. Dracula was hardly a feminist call-to-arms, but you’re certainly better off chucking a few dollars towards Bram Stoker’s estate than you would be buying the Twilight series. For sure.

Fun fact: Fifty Shades of Grey was originally conceived as an erotic Twilight fan-fiction series. That should tell you something about both of them. 😉



Artemis – Andy Weir

The Martian was fucking fantastic, so it’s no surprise that Andy Weir’s follow-up novel, Artemis, sold like crazy. Everybody clamored to get their hands on the next speculative fiction masterpiece, but unfortunately the consensus seems to be that it really doesn’t hold up. I have not come across a single review that says it even comes close to The Martian, let alone surpasses it. The main criticism seems to be that Weir does a particularly clumsy job of writing a female protagonist. The extract I read left me asking the age-old question: why do male authors constantly write their female heroines as talking or thinking about how “hot” their own bodies are? No woman does this.

I won’t be buying Artemis, I’m afraid, but The Martian is definitely worth your time – and I wish Weir all the best in his next effort!

The Maze Runner – James Dashner

I’ve not yet read The Maze Runner either, but it is on The List, and I’m fairly confident that I’m not going to love it. For starters, when I first showed my husband – who knows me pretty damn well – a copy of The List, he saw that I’d included The Maze Runner and he groaned. Loudly. He strongly recommended that I remove it, and I, of course, told him to get stuffed (nobody tells baby what to do with her List!). Still, his opinion counts for something.

Anyway, aside from that little personal anecdote, there are other reasons to include The Maze Runner on this list. It would seem it was written for the Hunger Games crowd, but it falls short in a lot of respects. Plus, earlier this year James Dashner was dropped by his U.S. publisher (Penguin Random House), and dumped by his agent, after serious sexual harassment allegations surfaced in a trade publication. He has released a statement saying that he would be seeking “counseling and guidance” with regards to his behaviour.

As you can see, it’s not that hard for a really average book to make it to the top of a best seller list. Best seller lists really aren’t your best guide to what’s worth reading – sometimes they get it right, but there are plenty of best sellers that aren’t worth your time (or your hard-earned cash!). Have you read any terrible best sellers lately? Let me know in the comments below (or name and shame them over at KUWTP on Facebook!).

 

American Sniper – Chris Kyle

The best part about the Keeping Up With The Penguins project is the ample opportunity for rapid gear-shifts. In this case, I went from classic children’s fantasy to a 21st century assassin’s memoir, in the form of Chris Kyle’s American Sniper.

This copy was proudly borrowed from the library of my mate Drew, which I guess makes him a Keeping Up With The Penguins sponsor of sorts. Top bloke!

So, let’s get the obvious stuff out the way: the book’s full title is “American Sniper: The Autobiography of the Most Lethal Sniper in U.S. Military History”. Kyle, the primary author, was a former United States Navy SEAL. His two (two!) ghostwriters list this book as the shiniest jewel in their career crowns, according to their author websites. I suppose the stats back them up on that; American Sniper was published in 2012 and spent 37 weeks on the New York Times Best Seller list, followed by the release of a film adaptation (directed by Clint Eastwood and starring Bradley Cooper) two years later. Them’s some solid signs of success.

What’s the draw? Well, American Sniper tells the story of Kyle’s Texas upbringing, SEAL training, and a decade’s worth of tours in Iraq. During that time, he became “the deadliest marksman in U.S. military history”, killing somewhere in the vicinity of 255 people (160 of which have been “confirmed by the Pentagon”, whatever that means).

Aaaand I think I have to end my “objective” overview right about here, because American Sniper is fucking ugly. In so many ways.

From the opening pages, you can just feel Kyle’s militarised boner pressing against your upper thigh. He’s going to be slobbering in your ear all night about how white men with big guns saved the day. Welcome to your spot in the American Imperialism Circle Jerk.


Lest you think I’m overstating it: by page 4, Kyle is passing moral judgments on the “worth” of Iraqi lives versus American ones. Oh, but he doesn’t call them Iraqis – they are the “bad guys”. They are also “pure evil”, and “savages” (like it’s the 18th century and the generals are handing out a few smallpox blankets to the locals). He also calls them “motherfuckers”, and “whackadoos”. He “wishes he’d killed more of them”. I use all of these inverted commas to emphasise that these are the actual words he used to describe the human beings that he killed. Pro tip: don’t try taking a drink every time he says “bad guys”. It won’t make the writing any better, and you’ll pass out long before you finish the book, so you’ll just have to start again the next morning (with a hangover).

He also calls the Iraqis “targets” now and then, like it’s a bad ’80s action movie. The lack of self-awareness, not to mention basic critical thinking skills, is truly astonishing. Catch-22 it ain’t. Kyle will, on the one hand, try to impress upon the reader that the war in which he was a willing (eager) participant was Absolutely Necessary, because the “bad guys” were coming to kill Americans. Why or how the “bad guys” were going to do that he doesn’t make clear, but regardless he is Absolutely Sure it is the case. As such, he sees no problem in taking out these “targets”, and talking about the joy of it ad nauseam. On the other hand, Kyle seems to lack the mental capacity to attribute those same feelings – fear of strange invaders coming to kill you, doing everything you can to stop them in their tracks – to the Iraqis. He storms and raids their homes, shoots them in the streets, ignores and denigrates the Iraqis who would fight alongside him… and doesn’t understand at all why that might piss them off. After all, he’s forgotten that they’re humans. They’re “targets”. They’re “bad guys”.

If you can get past his dehumanisation of the 25 million people living in Iraq before 2003 (you’re a better person than I am), you’ll still have plenty of other shitty stuff to contend with. His false modesty is the worst. The whole book reads something like: So many people want me to tell my story, and I don’t know why! I’m just an average Joe! Also I really love killing people, I’ve killed lots and lots of people, more than anyone else, did I tell you? I’m really good at it. I’ve basically saved the world from evil savages. But I’m just a guy doing his job, and I can’t believe that sooooo many people want me to write a book… Appeals to group authority abound. I lost count of the number of times he did that before I was 100 pages in: “people” wanted him to write a book, “people” ask him all the time how many bad guys he killed, “people” ask him every day about his favourite gun… ugh.

It’s not just that the writing is exceedingly average (which, of course, it is). Kyle is just awful: literally him, his personality and his way of being in the world. At best, he’s just dull and clichéd. He fancies himself a real-life G.I. Joe. He got his first “real” rifle at age seven, and he talks about guns more often (and more lovingly) than he does his wife. He opines at one point, without a hint of irony, that the British soldiers “speak English funny”. The thrust of every anecdote is that he is a hero, anyone outranking him is an idiot, and the Iraqis are dispensable savages. Rinse and repeat. If you told me that American Sniper wasn’t, in fact, a memoir, but instead the wish-fulfillment first novel of a socially-awkward young white man who spends 100 hours a week playing first-person shooter video games, I’d believe you, without question.




The bit that truly turned my stomach – the point at which Kyle became completely irredeemable in my eyes – was on page 161. He tells the most horrifying story of stealing a child’s video game from the house that he and his team raided and occupied. He talked about it so glibly, without a hint of remorse or regret – indeed, joking about the circumstance and inviting the reader to laugh along with him – that it brought me to tears. He literally stole from the child of a family that he turned out onto the street in a war zone. He turned a crib from that house into a sniper bed; he used it for eight hours, then discarded it, and moved on to the next raid.

He and his team did this a lot, according to Kyle. They would take over entire apartment buildings (“stinking slums”, he called them), give any civilian family they found $300, and tell them to fuck off and live somewhere else. All so they could use a single room as a sniper hole, for less than a day. He talks about it all with such immense pride, it’s fucking disgusting.

“I don’t shoot people with Korans – I’d like to, but I don’t.” – an actual quote from American Sniper

There were several controversies about the book following publication. Kyle described beating a man in the first edition, and the victim brought a lawsuit alleging defamation and unjust enrichment. Then there was an official investigation into Kyle’s claim that all of the book proceeds went to veterans’ charities (in fact, 2% went to charities, while Kyle’s family received $3 million). There were also squabbles over Kyle’s alleged embellishment of his military record and honours (seriously, by this point, who cares? seems to be the least of his crimes).

I make a point of not Googling books before I read them, so it was only after I’d finished American Sniper that I learned about Kyle’s death. He was shot by another (mentally ill) veteran on a rehabilitation sojourn to a shooting range. It’s a tragic story, but it really doesn’t change my opinion, or this review, at all – the book must be judged by its own merit (or lack thereof) after all. It might be callous to say, but Kyle lived by the sword and he sure as shit died by it. I can’t say I was surprised.

So, is Kyle’s story one that should be told? Maybe. On its face, it’s an interesting window into a world that we don’t often see in full technicolour. But to do it this way, without a trace of self-awareness, not a hint of insight, nary a critical thought… is that really the best we can do?

My tl;dr summary: American Sniper is basically Fifty Shades of Grey, except that it’s the love story of Chris Kyle and his guns. It’s a few hundred pages of horribly-edited masturbatory anecdotes about war. If you want to learn the truth of war, seek it elsewhere. I would recommend American Sniper to precisely no one.

My favourite Amazon reviews of American Sniper:

  • “Very good book. I would defiantly recommend to anyone. It was full of action and just very well wrote in my opinion” – Riley Madsen
  • “Great book! So great someone busted out my car window and only stole this book and a cellphone charger.” – Two Dogs
  • “I checked this book out from the library. I was thoroughly enjoying this book until I got to page 199 where Chris Kyle talked about watching porn. That ruined the whole book. Although I appreciate his service for the United States, after reading that, I felt completely disappointed and disgusted.” – K.M. Lessing
  • “I think one can be a patriot and Not be disgusting. This is not that.” – alan babcock
  • “Reminded me of junior high school.
    I don’t plan to see the movie.” – Letha Courtney Harmon

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The Best Fathers in Literature

Literature is littered with examples of poor parenting, particularly when it comes to fathers. All too often, fathers are dead (as was the case with the Reverend in Jane Eyre), or otherwise absent (like Chaplain March in Little Women). Sometimes they’re completely ineffectual (like Emma’s Mr Woodhouse), and other times they outright suck at the fatherhood gig (see Pap Finn in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn), to the point of being dangerous and extremely damaging (who could forget Lolita’s Humbert Humbert?). It all makes for pretty depressing reading, but you know what? Father’s Day is coming up, and it’s time that we spread a little joy to counteract all this misery. Let’s take a look at some of the often-overlooked best fathers in literature.

The Best Fathers In Literature - Black Text Above Image of Man Holding Child on Jetty - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Bob Cratchit (A Christmas Carol – Charles Dickens)

My love for Dickens knows no bounds, but even I can acknowledge that he didn’t write a whole lot of present, supportive father figures. That makes A Christmas Carol’s Bob Cratchit all the more special! Bob is hardly flawless – he’s a little earnest, and a bit of a martyr – but dammit, he saves Christmas! And he provides the perfect counterpoint to Ebenezer Scrooge’s misanthropy. Bob Cratchit will make you believe in fatherly love again, so pick this one up when you’re losing faith.

Hans Hubermann (The Book Thief – Markus Zusak)

Family isn’t always about blood. Hans Hubermann is a forster father to Liesel in The Book Thief, her biological parents having been persecuted for being communists in Nazi Germany. While it would have been easy for a lesser man to simply ignore Liesel (given everything else he had going on), or punish her for stealing books, Hans instead teaches her to read at night by candlelight, and role models the kind of empathy and compassion that saves lives in such dire circumstances. Make no mistake, he can dole out the tough love when it’s needed (Liesel makes the potentially deadly mistake of saying she hates Hitler in public, and Hans smacks her down), but it always comes from a place of genuine fatherly love. If only all fictional displaced children had a man like Hans to care for them… You can read my full review here.


Thomas Schell (Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close – Jonathan Safran Foer)

Thomas actually dies before the story of Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close even begins, a victim of the 9/11 World Trade Center attacks. And yet, the reader is immediately and abundantly aware of his love for his son. The story is told through the eyes of nine-year-old Oskar, as he chases clues to his father’s secret all over New York City. Their father-son bond is well and truly alive, and Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close serves as a great reminder that good parenting transcends mortality.

Mr Bennet (Pride and Prejudice – Jane Austen)

It would seem that there’s a certain controversy involved in calling Mr Bennet one of the best fathers in literature. He is, after all, a bit weak-willed and bewildered (especially when it comes to financial planning). But in fairness, five daughters (especially ones that live for the drama, like the Bennet girls) and a high-strung wife is a lot to cope with, and one can hardly blame the man for backing down from a fight now and then.

What is not up for debate is his love and support for all of the girls, especially the protagonist of Pride and Prejudice, his darling Lizzy. He refuses to entertain the notion of a marriage to a man he sees as undeserving of her (even though it would have been a financially savvy match), but he backs Lizzy 100% when she tells him she loves Mr Darcy. “I could not have parted with you, my LIzzy,” he says, “to anyone less worthy”. Recognising the intelligence and agency of his daughters made him a man ahead of his time, and – in my opinion – well-worthy of inclusion in this list of the best fathers in literature.




Atticus Finch (To Kill A Mockingbird – Harper Lee)

And, finally, we come to Atticus – arguably the best father in literature, the numero uno, the grand poobah of fatherhood… (as long as you don’t count the ugliness that came to light with the release of Go Set A Watchman). In truth, any list of the best fathers in literature is woefully incomplete without mention of To Kill A Mockingbird’s Atticus Finch. He is a widower, raising two children alone against a backdrop of Southern poverty and racism. And yet, he upholds the values of acceptance, gratitude, empathy, and respect like no other literary icon has before or since. His influence is so great that it inspired the foundation of The Atticus Finch Society, a real-life organisation founded to serve the very population that the fictional Atticus sought to defend. Plus, if his bravery and moral fortitude in the face of an unfair world weren’t enough, the man is endlessly quotable:

“You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view – until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.”


And there we have it: a collection of the best fathers in literature you can read to celebrate this Father’s Day. Have you got a favourite that I’ve missed? Make sure you let me know in the comments below (or give them a shout-out over at KUWTP on Facebook!).

 

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