Keeping Up With The Penguins

Reviews For The Would-Be Booklover

Party Going – Henry Green

I think we all know by now that if you take a handful of rich people and put them in a confined space, you’re going to get some good drama. It’s a formula that’s worked for reality TV for the past couple decades, and before that, Henry Green used it as the premise for his 1939 novel Party Going.

Party Going, according to the blurb, is a “darkly comic valediction to what W.H. Auden famously described as the ‘low dishonest decade’ of the 1930s”. It’s a slim volume, closer to a novella in length than a novel. Most editions don’t actually publish it stand-alone; it’s usually packaged alongside two of Green’s other novels (Living, and Loving). The introduction to this copy was written by Amit Chaudhuri, and it’s full of name-drops. Henry Green was a contemporary of Graham Greene. He was an Oxford friend of Evelyn Waugh. John Updike called him a “saint of the mundane”. And Virginia Woolf’s imprint, the Hogarth Press, published Party Going. As to Green’s style, Chaudhuri says this book is a “masterpiece of literary impressionism”.

“Green in fact stands somewhere between James Joyce, in his tendency to be intolerant of ‘normal’ English syntax and punctuation, and Virginia Woolf, in his sense of how narrative can be shaped by things outside of event.”

Amit Chaudhuri, Introduction

There aren’t a whole lot of “events” in this plot, really, so it’s a good thing there’s other stuff to shape the narrative, otherwise I don’t know where we’d be. Six young, wealthy people – Max, Amabel, Angela, Julia, Evelyn, and Claire – all gather at a train station en route to a house party in France. They find that all the trains are delayed due to severe fog, so they take rooms in the adjacent railway hotel (rather than linger on the platform with the unwashed masses). That’s about all of the action, really; the rest of the story plays out in their relationships and gossiping, and Green tells different versions of it simultaneously.



The historical context for Party Going is important. Yes, they’re all idle rich bitches, and idle rich bitches are equally vapid and shallow, no matter where or when they are, but the reader should bear in mind that this all takes place in England right before the outbreak of WWII. It’s a dark contrast, really: the minutia of their sparkly lives and scandals, set against the backdrop of an emerging conflict that will devastate the world. These characters, oblivious and self-obsessed, are “waltzing blithely towards oblivion”. An English major might say that the train-delaying fog actually represents the cold, menacing threat of the future.

Party Going consists mostly of talk, which is mostly about nothing. Once the premise of the delayed train is established, the only real “action” to be found is a battle between Julia and Amabel for the affections of playboy Max. And there’s one strange woman, Miss Fellowes (Claire’s aunt): she falls subject to a mysterious “illness” (Green seems to imply drunkenness, but I could be wrong), and becomes obsessed with a dead pigeon she finds. While her aunt is flailing and wailing about the pigeon, Claire focuses on trying to convince everybody that she’s not heartless for wanting to leave to party with them instead of sticking around to care for the old biddy. Well, it seems important to Claire at least that everyone knows that; no one else really gives a shit. Suffice to say that all of these characters are spoiled, selfish, and horny. They treat their staff (maids and porters) like commodities, to be traded and summoned at will. All they think about is how best to fiddle the social abacus to benefit themselves.

There’s not much else to say about Party Going, really. If you didn’t enjoy Mrs Dalloway, then this is not the book for you. It’s more readable, yes, and less intensely modernist, but at the end of the day, it’s still a short book that takes a long time to read, about a bunch of privileged white people lolling about and preparing for a party.

My favourite Amazon reviews of Party Going:

  • “Short on wit.” – uncle tom
  • “John Updike is one of my favorite writers, but I found reading Henry Green like reading Upstairs, Downstairs in ultra-slow motion.” – J.M. Walker



10 Things That Will Make Me Pick Up A Book

It’s the bookworm’s perpetual dilemma, wondering what to read next: how to choose from that towering to-be-read pile? Whenever I’m perusing my own shelves, or those of a bookstore or library, there are a few things that will always push me to pick one book over another. I saw a little while back that The Hungry Bookworm did a post on this very topic as part of a Top Ten Tuesday prompt (hosted by The Artsy Reader Girl), so I thought I’d borrow the idea. Here are ten things that will make me pick up a book (almost) every time…

1. The book is about an experience that’s different to my own or unfamiliar to me.

As far as I’m concerned, one of the best things about reading is getting to live a thousand lives. Whether it’s the chance to be an ageing gay man travelling the world, or the American children of Chinese immigrants, or the founder of an underground book club for women in Iran, I want to live it all through literature. Bonus points if it’s an #ownvoices book – I’m far more likely to pick it up if that’s the case!

2. The book has beautiful cover art.

Save your “don’t judge a book” speech. I’m really not that fussy about my book covers, not in the way I know some other booklovers are. I once knew a woman who would only read first-edition hardcovers, can you imagine? I’m fine with movie poster covers or plain-Jane block lettering on a pastel background… but I can’t deny there’s a special place in my heart for beautifully designed paperbacks. I love covers that catch the eye with clever design and colour!

3. I’ve heard other readers talk about the book (even if they hated it).

I have a hard time convincing authors that even bad reviews can be a good thing. I’ve picked up more than a few books after hearing critical comments from others, and loved them. Word of mouth is still the most powerful marketing tool when it comes to books, and I’m far more likely to pick up a book if someone else has talked to me about it. That’s why it’s so important that we booklovers take the time to leave a short review on sites like Goodreads and Litsy – whether what you have to say about the book is good, bad, or somewhere in between.

4. The book has a premise that bowls me over.

A judge is called to the case of a seventeen-year-old boy refusing medical treatment on religious grounds, and she must decide whether to force him to live or let him die. A man tracks down the victims of vicious online public shaming, and uses them as a lens through which we can examine our digital world. A small town wakes to find that overnight the ocean has receded. Don’t they all sound really good? I’m a sucker for a strong premise, no matter the subject or genre. If a one-sentence summary of the book makes me go “ooooh!”, I’m picking it up for sure!

5. The author wrote another book that I loved.

I picked up Great Expectations because Charles Dickens knocked it out of the park with David Copperfield. I picked up Purple Hibiscus because Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie killed it with Americanah (also because the two editions had beautiful matching cover art – see point number 2). I picked up Depends What You Mean By Extremist because I found John Safran’s Murder In Mississippi so gripping. This strategy doesn’t always outright guarantee a great read, but it usually works.

6. The book suits my mood at the time.

Sometimes, I’m looking for a book that will affirm whatever I’m currently feeling. In that case, say I was experiencing a loss, I might turn to The Year Of Magical Thinking. Other times, I’m looking for a book to take my mind off things. Then, if I was feeling down, I might pick up The One Hundred Year Old Man Who Climbed Out The Window And Disappeared for a few laughs. I hold off on books that are heavier or more challenging until I’m in a good frame of mind; that way, I can be sure I’ll handle it and get everything out of the book that I can. My attempt to read Wuthering Heights when I was emotionally preoccupied was a total disaster!

7. It’s a non-fiction book on a niche subject.

I love a book that delves into the nitty-gritty of something! I tore through a 450+ page history of the humble mosquito. I adored The White Mouse, a small print-run autobiography of an amazing woman of whom most people have never heard. I’m really looking forward to learning how Proust might change my life from Alain de Botton’s book. As long as the author is passionate and excited about their subject, no matter what it is, I’ll get passionate and excited, too!

8. It’s a pervasive and influential book that I’ve seen referenced elsewhere.

Vanity Fair was named for a setting in John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress. A colleague who transferred left me a farewell note that said “so long, and thanks for all the fish” – I had no idea what that meant until I finally read The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy. There’s an Alabama legal society named for the fictional Atticus Finch. I love picking up books that help me understand the origins of concepts, characters, idioms, and ideas we take for granted.

9. The book is different in content and style to whatever I’ve read most recently.

I know a lot of readers love to do “book flights” (which I call falling down a reading rabbit hole). They find a subject or a writer or a genre, and read as many books in that one area as they can until they get tired of it or find something new or exhaust their options. I’m not one of those readers. My tolerance for same-ness is usually one book. Occasionally, usually by accident, I’ll read a couple of similar books back-to-back, and it always makes me antsy. It’s a one-way ticket to Reading Slumpville! So, if I’ve just read a gritty account of an Australian true crime, I might reach for a classic romance or a collection of essays next, just to keep things varied and interesting.

10. The book was shortlisted for an award.

Note that I do say shortlisted – I don’t pay all that much attention to the actual winners of major literary awards. In fact, I usually don’t realise that a book has actually won a prize until after I’ve finished reading it and I’m starting to write up a review. I do, however, really enjoy looking over award shortlists. I always end up adding most (or all) of them to my to-be-read list. With the growing push for diversity and inclusion, these lists are usually goldmines of wonderfully varied reads with literary chops. Plus, picking a winner is basically a crapshoot, so I may as well just read them all and love them all for what they are!



What makes you pick up a book? Do you go for cover art as well? Do you stick with your favourite authors or genres? Or is it something else entirely that makes you pull one down from the shelf? Tell me in the comments!

The Golden Notebook – Doris Lessing

I’m not sure there’s ever been a blurb written more to my tastes than the one I found on the back of Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook: “Bold and illuminating, fusing sex, politics, madness and motherhood, The Golden Notebook is at once a bold and perceptive portrait of the intellectual and moral climate of the 1950s – a society on the brink of feminism – and a powerful and revealing account of a woman searching for her own personal and political identity.” Yes, please!

(Yes, the cover of this edition is gold, which is a little heavy-handed, but whatever.)

As if that blurb weren’t enough, Margaret Drabble (of The Oxford Companion To English Literature) said that The Golden Notebook forms part of Lessing’s body of work she called “inner space fiction”, exploring mental and societal breakdown. I’m hooked, reel me in! The author bio alongside that little gem has a huge list of other titles: novels, drama, short stories, poetry, and non-fiction. If I’ve done my maths right, that makes Lessing a quintuple threat!

Lessing herself wrote the impassioned, illuminating preface to this edition. In it, she covers a lot, perhaps even more than the novel itself: from writing The Golden Notebook, to Women’s Lib, to Marxism, to education, to literary criticism, and back again. If you can find an edition with this preface included, it’s well worth a read. It’s also a bit scary how familiar and relevant it all is, despite having been written decades ago (the more things change, the more they stay the same, after all). The only disappointment was how many words Lessing devoted to denying any association with feminism. She says, repeatedly, in the preface and in other works, that she never wanted to be anything other than a writer across many genres, and she wrote for herself alone, not to fan the flames of any “movement”. But let’s not hold that against her, eh? Here’s how she describes the novel’s structure:

“The shape of this novel is as follows… There is a skeleton, or frame, called Free Women, which is a conventional short novel, about 60,000 words, and which could stand by itself. But it is divided into five sections and separated by stages of the four notebooks… kept by Anna Wulf, a central character of Free Women…”

Preface, The Golden Notebook

If you’re thinking ‘yeah, that’s going to need more explanation’, I don’t blame you! I’ll do my best. Basically, The Golden Notebook is a novel within a novel. The story is told in several different voices, but all of those voices come through the same central character, Anna.

Anna is a novelist, afflicted with another dratted case of writer’s block. She keeps four notebooks, each with a different theme and purpose. That’s where the different “voices” come from; she’s real good at compartmentalising her thoughts (at least at first). So, there a segments of a realistic narrative (a would-be stand-alone story that Lessing called Free Women). That story follows Anna’s life and weaves in her friends, their children, ex-husbands, and lovers. Then, in between each segment of the story, are excerpts from Anna’s notebooks. This strange structure is what makes The Golden Notebook such a weird, and fascinating, read.



In the black notebook, Anna records her recollections of her time in Southern Rhodesia, before and during WWII. Those experiences were the inspiration for her best-selling novel, the one she is currently trying to follow up. This notebook is like a long, political, Mrs Dalloway-esque stream of consciousness, full of recollections and philosophising.

The red notebook is reserved for her experiences as a member of the Communist Party. Yes, again, having that particular theme for a red notebook is heavy-handed, but to be fair if the notebook had been green or purple, that wouldn’t have seemed “right” either.

The yellow notebook contains the novel that Anna is trying to write, based on the painful ending of her own real-life love affair. That makes it a novel within a novel within a novel; much meta, very wow.

And then, in the blue notebook, Anna records her personal memories, dreams, and other minutia of her emotional life. It’s exactly what you’d expect of a stock-standard diary.

So, where’s the titular golden notebook, then? Stick around to find out.



With all this swapping back and forth between narrative and notebooks, the stories do start to overlap, which helps the reader keep track of what’s going on. Even though the timeline is (inevitably, given this structure) non-chronological, it all still holds together. Obviously, this unique post-modern style prompted much discussion and critical attention, but Lessing went to great lengths to remind everyone that it wasn’t a gimmick. She wanted reviewers to pay attention to the content of what she was saying, not the way she was saying it (maybe don’t write such a weird book then, eh?). The structure itself was one part of her wider statement: that authors who try to make a single cohesive story out of life betray the truth of the lived experience. Put that in your pipe!

Between the black and red notebooks, Lessing (through Anna) has much to say about war and Stalinism. The Golden Notebook is a political critique, an analysis of the Communist Party (as distinct from the philosophy of communism) in England around the mid-20th century. The other notebooks, along with Free Women, form a different piece of commentary: an examination of sexual liberation and women’s liberation, and their implications for gender roles in a patriarchal world. She wanted to depict the struggles of a divorced single mother, defiantly seeking a personal and political identity in a world that was changing too quickly for her to get a foothold.

In the final entries of the blue notebook, Anna’s diary, we learn that she’s fallen in love with her American flat mate, Saul Green. That realisation sends her nose-first into an emotional breakdown. But, like a phoenix rising from the ashes, it is that mental health crisis that actually pushes her to break through her writer’s block. She decides to stop compartmentalising (it was a shitty idea to begin with, tbh), and put all of herself into a single volume, which is (drumroll please) contained in a golden notebook. Through writing that notebook, she puts her broken pieces back together, and liberates herself from her romantic entanglements. This is what Lessing wanted us to focus on, instead of using her writing as (in her words) “a useful weapon in the sex war”.



Given that Lessing was so intrigued by fragmentation (of Anna as a character, and society as a whole), it makes sense that she would resent being pigeonholed. She understood fiction – and, I can safely assume, life – to be more complex and varied than one particular movement, or one aspect of identity. I suppose we could say that makes her an early intersectional feminist, though she probably would have hated that reductive description, too. Her resentment of categories extended as far as genre, even: The Golden Notebook is a hybrid of realism, parable, memoir, fantasy, and polemic, straddling all the boundaries between them.

This novel is probably one of the main reasons Lessing was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2007. She was the eleventh woman to get the gong, and the oldest person ever at the time of receiving it. In its citation, the academy said that she wrote epics of the female experience, and “with skepticism, fire and visionary power has subjected a divided civilisation to scrutiny”. For once, I actually agree with them wholeheartedly.

The Golden Notebook is a mixed-up novel, and my feelings about it are mixed-up too. On the one hand, there’s a whole bunch of reasons I shouldn’t have liked it: it’s spiralling, it’s confusing, it’s indulgent, it’s full of women making shitty decisions because of the shitty men in their lives, it’s got a jumpy timeline – all things I’ve really hated in other books I’ve read. But, on the other hand, I really enjoyed it! I looked forward to sitting down with it each day. I loved peeling back its layers, and seeing what new treasures lay underneath. By the time I got to the penultimate chapter, in which the contents of the titular golden notebook are revealed, my breath was positively bated.

Look, it’s a strange one: good-strange, but strange nonetheless. It’s not one I’d recommend blindly, because I think it takes a certain taste and outlook to enjoy properly. I liked it for myself. And I’d say that if you’re going to give it a go, make sure to allow yourself plenty of time. Don’t try to rush through it all at once. Let each section percolate in your mind a while before you go back for more.

7 Classic Books For People Who Don’t Read The Classics

Are you still searching for a bookish new year’s resolution? “Start reading the classics” might be a good one, but I wouldn’t blame you if you were feeling a bit intimidated. Classic books have a reputation for being long, dense, and difficult to understand. If you were forced to read a few in high school, that was probably enough to put you off them for life. The trick is to find a few that will ease you in. That’s why I’ve put together this list of classic books for people who don’t read classic books. I tried to pick classics that are easy to read, in terms of both language and content (no trigger warnings required, though there will always be some darker themes, can’t avoid those). These reads will get you into the rhythm, and hopefully help you develop a taste for classic books.

Classic-Books-For-People-Who-Dont-Read-The-Classics-Text-Overlaid-on-Image-of-Man-in-Hat-Sitting-at-Bottom-of-Flight-of-Stairs-Keeping-Up-With-The-Penguins

Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë

Jane Eyre - Charlotte Bronte - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Charlotte Brontë has been called the “first historian of private consciousness”, which means she was one of the first writers to do first-person narration really, really well. Jane Eyre is the story of a young woman (named Jane Eyre, duh) coming of age in Victorian England. She’s a bit down on her luck, with dead parents and mean stepsisters and everything, but a position as a governess for a strange and alluring man could turn things all around for her… It’s the perfect classic to start with if you’ve got feminist leanings but you’re still a sucker for a good romance. Read my full review here.

The Adventures Of Sherlock Holmes by Arthur Conan Doyle

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

You might think you’re already familiar with Sherlock Holmes – he is, after all, the world’s most famous fictional detective, and one of the most commonly used and adapted characters in English literature. All that familiarity and context will make Doyle’s original short story collection, The Adventures Of Sherlock Holmes, a fun and easy read. Even if you’ve been living under the world’s largest rock and know nothing about Holmes and his trusty sidekick Dr Watson, you’ll still find these stories are quick, clever, and rollicking good fun. Read my full review here.

The Age Of Innocence by Edith Wharton

The Age Of Innocence - Edith Wharton - Book Laid Flat on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

In addition to a classic book with an intricate love triangle, when you pick up The Age Of Innocence you’ll also get a piece of history. It’s written in remembrance of a long-lost time, that of Gilded Age New York, and it’s also the first book written by a woman to win the Pulitzer Prize. That makes Wharton a trailblazer, as well as a teller of cracking yarns. You do need to keep your wits about you as you read this one, because she weaves all kinds of interesting comments and observations into passages as simple as the description of a house facade. If you want a classic book you can sink your teeth into, on a long flight perhaps, this is the one for you! Read my full review here.

David Copperfield by Charles Dickens

David Copperfield - Charles Dickens - two volume green hardcover set laid on wooden table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

I know I promised you some short and snappy classic reads, so I understand if you’re looking at a copy of David Copperfield right now and thinking I’ve led you up the garden path. The thing is, even though this is a long book in terms of page count, I was so enthralled by it and the pages flew by so fast that it felt like a regular-length novel. It’s written in the style of an autobiography, telling the life story of (you guessed it) a man called David Copperfield. Dickens was the master of writing something for everyone; he knew that his books were used for family entertainment, so he weaved in politics, romance, adventure, and intrigue, and seasoned it with humour and horror, to make sure readers of all ages and inclinations would enjoy his books. Read my full review here.

Little Women by Louisa May Alcott

Little Women - Louisa May Alcott - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Little Women wasn’t even considered to be a “real” classic until very recently. It has historically been written off as sentimental fluff, and many critical readers have turned their noses up at it. Luckily, I’m here to testify the truth of the matter, just for you Keeper-Upperers: this book is brilliant. Yes, it’s easy to read, and yes, at face value it can come across a little earnest, but lurking below the surface are all manner of feminist principles and class commentary and Alcott’s trademark subversion of expectations. I’m glad to see it has claimed its rightful place in the American literary canon! This is the classic book to read when you want a cozy family story with an edge. Read my full review here.

Emma by Jane Austen

Emma - Jane Austen - book laid on a wooden table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

It took me a while, but I’m finally coming around to Austen, and to Emma in particular. I know most readers would probably recommend Pride And Prejudice for first-timers, but I actually found Emma to be a better introduction. It’s a gentle book, in the sense that most of the action takes place around bored wealthy white people visiting each other’s houses, but it’s also incredibly clever and witty and wise. Emma is a book that will marinate in your mind long after you’ve finished it. Pick it up if for no other reason than to find out what all the fuss is about. Read my full review here.

Frankenstein by Mary Shelley

Frankenstein - Mary Shelley - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Mary Shelley put pen to paper and created Frankenstein in order to win a bet, and with that the whole genre of science fiction was born. If you’re a sci-fi reader, you should read this one to see the origins of your preferred genre brought to life (much like the monster, ha!). It’s written in an epistolary style – in letters, and diary entries, and so forth – which means it’s easy enough to pick up and put down, great for reading when you’re likely to experience distractions. That said, you’ll never want to put it down, because it’s just so gripping! Read my full review here.



What classic books would you recommend to people who don’t normally read classic books? Add to this reading list in the comments below!

Nineteen Nineteen – John Dos Passos

Nineteen Nineteen is the second book of a trilogy, now called the U.S.A. trilogy, by American writer John Dos Passos. The first book of the trilogy (The 42nd Parallel) was published in 1930, followed by Nineteen Nineteen in 1932, and the finale (The Big Money) in 1936. They were all published together in a single volume for the first time in 1938. They are widely considered the peak of Dos Passos’s career, and it was off the back of these books that Jean Paul Sartre said he considered Dos Passos to be “the greatest writer of our time”. I think all of this begs an obvious question…

… why have so few people heard of Nineteen Ninteen, or John Dos Passos?

Well, here we have yet another 20th century writer who lives in the inconceivably-large shadows of Fitzgerald and Hemingway. Indeed, they were all good friends, the three of them (at least initially, but more on that in a second). Alas, in the intervening decades, Dos Passos has receded from view while the other two have continued to loom large.

Nineteen Nineteen was Dos Passos’s response to the Great War, in which – like Hemingway – he served as an ambulance driver. He had always had communist leanings, but after the conflict he travelled with Hemingway to Spain, and that’s where things got hairy. Dos Passos found the viciousness of some of the communist revolutionaries confronting (to say the least), and his reaction led to a falling out with Hemingway, who didn’t find their approach as bothersome. Thus began another great literary feud: Dos Passos headed home to write about the everyday lives of characters affected by WWI (with special attention to the social and economic forces that shaped their lives) while Hemingway wrote letters to Fitzgerald, saying that Dos Passos was a “second-rate writer with no ear” and “also a terrible snob”. As best I can tell, they never made up.



Though he found the situation in Spain pretty challenging ethically, Dos Passos never entirely gave up his communist cause. He found new conviction when he saw the widening gulf between the rich and the poor in his home country. By the time he got back, the glittery days of the Jazz Age were long gone, and the combined forces of the crash, the Great Depression, and the rise of fascism were tearing his world apart. Depicting the truth of this state of affairs in literature became Dos Passos’s passion, and you can see that in the way he wrote Nineteen Nineteen.

It’s hardly a straight-foward novel, in that it’s a highly experimental fusion of fiction and journalism. There are four different narrative “modes”. The first is the most recognisable to contemporary readers, narrative fiction that follows the lives of a few key characters (twelve across the trilogy as a whole, but they’re not linked in any significant way). Then, there are the “Newsreel” sections; these contain collages of newspaper clippings, song lyrics, and front-page headlines (drawn almost entirely from the real-life Chicago Tribune). There are also, in the third mode, short biographies of public figures. I only recognised the names of a couple of former Presidents, but there are plenty of others, including “The Body Of An American”, which tells the story of an unknown soldier killed in WWI. And I’ve saved the weirdest mode for last, the “Camera Eye”: autobiographical stream-of-consciousness passages, which seem to be Dos Passos’s way of inserting himself and his own personal perspective into the story.

The alternative and experimental modes can be discombobulating, but at least they’re all really distinct in style. You never wonder what it is exactly you’re reading, because Dos Passos has signposted it really clearly for you. I read later that his “Newsreel” and “Camera Eye” sections were inspired by modernist innovation and the emergence of “mass communication” through television and the telegraph. Can you imagine if he’d lived to see Twitter?



Dos Passos was clearly trying to Do Something Different(TM). Nineteen Nineteen, with all these different modes, isn’t cohesive or continuous at all. It’s a series of fragments, more like a creative writing class notebook than a complete novel (and this edition came complete with doodled illustrations, too). At a guess, I’d say I was able to properly comprehend maybe half of it. I struggled to follow what was going on in the narrative sections, because it was broken up by all the other stuff, so I’m not confident in giving you a complete plot summary here.

What I will say, content-wise, is that there’s a lot of sex and violence, and Dos Passos isn’t shy. I don’t mind graphic books, but I figured I’d mention it as a heads up if you do. What did bother me, though, was the recurring motif of men trying to convince their lovers to get abortions, and blaming the women for getting pregnant in the first place. Ugh!

Oh, and a passable knowledge of French would really come in handy reading this one, especially towards the end. Without it, you’re going to end up Google Translating a lot, like me.



Dos Passos does succeed in his primary objective, however, to hammer home his communist message. He has no sympathy at all for his “upwardly mobile” characters, but simultaneously he’s very kind and generous to his down-and-out victims of capitalist society.

In the end, I really felt nothing for this book. I could appreciate that Dos Passos was being really very clever and experimental and all of that, but perhaps just too much so for me to actually enjoy reading. I read later that Nineteen Nineteen has been adapted a number of times for radio and stage – don’t ask me how, holy Oprah, but I won’t be seeking them out. I’m a firm believer, as I’ve said before, that loving a book simply means that you’ve come to it at the right time in your reading life; maybe if I’d come to Nineteen Nineteen at some other time, I’d feel differently about it. As it stands, right now, I’m a bit sick of enduring 500+ pages of old white men telling me that war and capitalism are bad. Sorry, Dos Passos (if it’s any consolation, I wasn’t that big on your frenemies Fitzgerald and Hemingway, either).

My favourite Amazon reviews of Nineteen Nineteen:

  • “First book of the Trilogy was very good. This one just drones on and on and on with few interesting characters and interminable descriptions of the labor struggle. Can’t wait to finish because I want to get on to the last installment. I know now why Dos Passos played third fiddle to Hemingway and Fitzgerald.” – JB Haller
  • “I am not a fan of the camera eye. In addition, longsentenceswithallwordsattacheddonotworkwellforme. Well written prose and interesting narrative from an historical standpoint. I took a two-book pause between its predecessor 42nd Parallel and 1919. I may take a two-decade pause until I open The Big Money, well well after I’ve read Ragtime, Manhattan Transfer, and Berlin. Alexander Platz.” – Amazon Customer


50 Books To Read Before You Die

It’s a new year, and that means it’s reading resolution time. I’ve written before about how to read more, how to read more classic books, and how to read more diversely, so you can check out those posts if that’s what you’re after. But if you’re setting a more general goal this year, or looking for a fun reading challenge, this is the list for you. I’ve pulled together this list of fifty books to read before you die.

Now, these aren’t necessarily the “best” books, they’re not even the books I enjoyed the most – heck, I haven’t even read a few of them myself (yet). I certainly wouldn’t say these are the only books you should read, or that reading this list will make you definitively “well read” somehow. These are simply fifty of the books I think are well worth reading, listed here (in no particular order) alongside the reason I think you should give them a go…

50 Books To Read Before You Die - Text Overlaid on Image of Bookshelves Leading To Heavens - Keeping Up With The Penguins

1. Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White

Let’s ease into it with a children’s book, something swift and sweet. Even if you already read Charlotte’s Web as a child, it’s wonderful to revisit it as an adult. This book has much to teach us about friendship, diversity, and determination.

2. Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë

Jane Eyre - Charlotte Bronte - book laid on a wooden table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

I know Jane Eyre isn’t without it’s problems (there’s the Creole wife locked in the attic by the romantic lead, for starters), but it’s a classic for a reason. It’s compulsively readable, beautifully rendered, and this Brontë sister has been called the “first historian of private consciousness”. Reading this book will show you where masterful first-person narration truly began. Read my full review here.

3. How To Win Friends And Influence People by Dale Carnegie

Oi! If you’re scrolling past this one, thinking “I don’t read self-help books” with a smug smile, you stop right now! How To Win Friends And Influence People isn’t so much a self-help book as it is a guide to being more polite and nice to others in your day-to-day life. I think the world could do with a bit more politeness and niceness, don’t you?

4. In Cold Blood by Truman Capote

In Cold Blood - Truman Capote - book laid on wooden table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

In Cold Blood wasn’t the first true crime book, but it can (probably) claim the title of the first “non-fiction novel” without much contest. In Capote’s account of a mass murder in Kansas, we can see the origins of all contemporary true crime and investigative journalism. Set aside your qualms about his liberal creative license – it’s a cracking yarn! Read my full review here.

5. Diary Of A Young Girl by Anne Frank

The first, and most obvious, reason to read Diary Of A Young Girl is an act of remembrance: the story of Anne Frank, and the countless others who perished and suffered alongside her, should be remembered by all who continue to populate this planet. I’d like to add a second, literary reason: I have yet to read a WWII historical fiction novel that comes even close to capturing the hope, horror, and heart-wrenching honesty of this young woman’s record of her experiences.

6. A Game Of Thrones by George R.R. Martin

A Game of Thrones - George R R Martin - Book Laid On Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Even if you’re not normally a fantasy reader – I’m certainly not! – A Game Of Thrones is a good one to start with, mostly due to the enduring popularity of the HBO series. If you’ve seen it (and probably even if you haven’t) you’ll find the plot and characters at least somewhat familiar. That makes the whole thing easier to follow. And, let’s be honest, the main reason to read this book before you die is so that you can look down your nose at the know-it-alls who claim they never watched the series because they read the books. Who are they kidding? Read my full review here.

7. A Short History Of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson

A Short History of Nearly Everything - Bill Bryson - book laid on a wooden table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Even if you don’t necessarily need to know, in your day-to-day life, the origins of our universe and everything in it… it can’t hurt to have some idea, can it? A Short History Of Nearly Everything will give you the beginner’s guide to answering some of the big scientific questions of our time. Bonus: it’s all written in a highly accessible, folksy style that lets the mind-boggling facts speak for themselves without bogging you down in academic jargon. Read my full review here.

8. Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf

Mrs Dalloway - Virginia Woolf - book laid on wooden table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

You could probably read Mrs Dalloway fifty times over before you die, to the exclusion of all else, and still not understand quite everything Woolf was trying to say. I found it tough to persist with it when I knew that so much was flying over my head, but I still think it was a book worth reading. Mrs Dalloway has much to teach us about gender, perspective, human relationships – and even if we finish it having understood only a little, we still come out ahead, right? Read my full review here.

9. Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Americanah - Chimananda Ngozi Adichie - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

If you’ve seen her TED talk, you already know that Adichie is amazing, and her best known book – Americanah – will certainly give you a lot of food for thought. I realise that many of the books on this list are from the American literary tradition, so consider this book a kind of counterpoint to that. In it, Adichie examines the symbolism of America as a concept, and the ramifications of cultural imperialism across the world.

10. The Catcher In The Rye by J.D. Salinger

The Catcher in the Rye - JD Salinger - book laid on wooden table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Almost everyone was forced to read The Catcher In The Rye in high school, but it’s worth re-visiting (and definitely worth reading for the first time, if you managed to escape that particular rite of passage as I did). It’s a gritty coming-of-age novel, without the sparkle we’ve come to associate with hopeful young adult offerings of the 21st century. Plus, Holden Caulfield isn’t half as unlikeable as everyone makes out. Read my full review here.

11. The Adventures Of Sherlock Holmes by Arthur Conan Doyle

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

This is the original collection of short stories that birthed a huge body of work around the world’s most famous fictional detective, and you should read it before you die on that basis alone. But if that’s not enough to lure you in, trust me when I say The Adventures Of Sherlock Holmes is a fun read! The stories aren’t particularly scary or spooky, but they’re always delightful and clever. It’s also a great example of how we can say a lot with a few words: Doyle was the master of economical use of language. Read my full review here.

12. My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante

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

Elena Ferrante, whomever she might be, is (in my humble opinion) one of the greatest writers of literary fiction in our time. Sure, it’s fun to venture down the rabbit-hole of sussing out her true identity, but the real reason to read My Brilliant Friend is bigger than that. These English editions are beautifully translated by Ann Goldstein (#namethetranslator), in a way that retains the rolling lyricism of the original Italian. They paint vivid pictures of life in mid-20th century Naples for two young girls growing into adulthood from poverty. A must-read before you die! Read my full review here.

13. The Satanic Verses by Salman Rushdie

This is the book that saw a fatwa issued against Salman Rushdie, forcing him into hiding for many years. And with a title like The Satanic Verses… come on, don’t you want to see what all the fuss was about?

14. Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell

1984 - George Orwell - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

This is the book that “activated” me as a teenager, the one that opened my eyes to the way my world could be manipulated and distorted by power structures beyond my young imagining. Nineteen Eighty-Four remains the pinnacle of dystopian fiction because it takes on startling new resonance every single year, with every crazy event of our increasingly mixed-up world.

15. The Fault In Our Stars by John Green

The Fault In Our Stars - John Green - Book Laid On Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Look, The Fault In Our Stars isn’t a great work of literature. I’m not sure it’s even a good work of contemporary young adult literature. But it is beloved by an entire generation of teens that are growing up fast. I think we should all read it now so that we’ll have something in common to discuss with the doctors who care for us in our nursing homes. Read my full review here.

16. Strange Case Of Dr Jekyll And Mr Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson

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

I know – I know – that even if you’ve never read this classic novella, you’ve used the phrase “Jekyll and Hyde”, or heard it somewhere and (thought you) understood what it meant. I say you owe it to the English idiom to read its story of origin, Strange Case Of Dr Jekyll And Mr Hyde. For bonus points, you can check out Catch-22 as well! Read my full review here.

17. Lady Chatterley’s Lover by D.H. Lawrence

Lady Chatterley's Lover - DH Lawrence - book laid on wooden table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

The trial(s) regarding the prohibition of Lady Chatterley’s Lover were world-changing, in the sense that they provided a legal basis upon which we get to access ground-breaking and subversive literature today, even when governments and school boards would prefer that we didn’t. However, when you actually read this supposedly-erotic tome, it really serves as a good reminder that controversy sometimes amounts to no more than a storm in a tea cup. Read my full review here.

18. Moby Dick by Herman Melville

Moby Dick - Herman Melville - book laid on wooden table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

I can feel you rolling your eyes! And, believe me, I understand. Moby Dick is a six-hundred page book about whales. The size of whales. The smell of whales. The slew of artworks featuring whales. The stories of whales in religion. There’s only so many whales a reader can take! But I would suggest you give it a go, and stick with it for as long as you can. Melville experimented with form and style throughout, so some chapters and passages read completely differently to the last – there’s surely something for everyone (even if they’re not that big on whales). Read my full review here.

19. The Year Of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion

The Year Of Magical Thinking - Joan Didion - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

It’s a sad fact that at some point in life, each and every one of us will experience loss, grief, and mourning. The Year Of Magical Thinking is widely considered to be the epitome of memoirs on that experience, Joan Didion’s account of the year following the death of her husband. It’s a must-read before you die, so that you might be a little better prepared for another’s death (or better understand a long-ago passing).

20. Pride And Prejudice by Jane Austen

Pride And Prejudice - Jane Austen - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

If you ask a random stranger on the street to name a “classic book”, with no other prompting, most of them will probably say Pride And Prejudice. It’s another one of those books that we all think we “should” read, and sometimes that kind of pressure is too much. I know I tried many times, and failed, until I finally picked it up at the right moment. Austen penned a brilliant and timeless tale of a man who changes his manners and a woman who changes her mind – stick with it until it sticks with you! Read my full review here.

21. To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee

To Kill A Mockingbird - Harper Lee - Book laid on a wooden table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Maybe it’s a cliche, but it’s a cliche for a reason: To Kill A Mockingbird is the poster-child of books you should read before you die. It was Harper Lee’s only true novel, and what a novel it was! It has shaped politics, legal thinking, and morality debates in America and around the world for decades now. Not to mention the legion of kids named Atticus, after the eternal patriarch and impassioned lawyer… Read my full review here.

22. We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves - Karen Joy Fowler - book laid on a wooden table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

This is a selfish inclusion on this reading list, I grant you, but I stand by it: I think everyone should read We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, if for no other reason than I want them to. There’s a huge plot twist about 70 pages in, and – desperate as I am to talk about this book – I live in constant fear of spoiling it for someone. I won’t stop recommending this book until every reader has read it, and I can have spoiler-y discussions to my heart’s content! Read my full review here.

23. Love In The Time Of Cholera by Gabriel Garcia Marquez

Love In The Time Of Cholera - Gabriel Garcia Marquez - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Most other lists of books to read before you die include Marquez’s One Hundred Years Of Solitude. It’s a great book, no contest here, but I think that Love In The Time of Cholera is a better one to start with, especially if you’re new to the literature of South America and the tradition of magical realism.

24. I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou

I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings - Maya Angelou - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings is a miraculously poetic autobiography (well, perhaps not so miraculous, given that Angelou was, in fact, a poet). You will want to clutch this book to your chest and give it a great big hug. It’s tells the (true!) story of a young woman transformed, how she overcame indignity and prejudice to reach a place of self-possession and determination.

25. Harry Potter (series) by J.K. Rowling

Harry Potter And The Philosophers Stone - JK Rowling - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

OK, this is technically seven books (making this a list of 56 books to read before you die, if you want to be a rule ninny), but who could pick just one from the series that changed the world? And, come to that, who hasn’t read at least one of the Harry Potter books yet? Come on! Get caught up with the rest of the world, if you haven’t already. This one’s a gimme.

26. Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons

Cold Comfort Farm - Stella Gibbons - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

It’s a crying shame that more readers haven’t yet encountered Cold Comfort Farm. It lurks in the shadows of early 20th century classic literature, mostly because Stella Gibbons thumbed her nose at the “literati” (D.H. Lawrence and Virginia Woolf in particular). She refused to play by the rules of networking and deference, and her sales and reputation suffered for it. You should read this book before you die, just to make sure Gibbons’s comedic brilliance won’t be forgotten, no matter how much the literary giants wanted it to be. Read my full review here.

27. Waiting For Godot by Samuel Beckett

Waiting For Godot - Samuel Beckett - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

A couple of blokes stand around, chatting, waiting for their mate – don’t you want to know if he ever shows up? It’s a tragi-comedy, sure to tickle the funny bone of all readers with a darker sense of humour. Plus, Waiting For Godot is a play, and that was definitely Beckett’s natural talent, the best way to experience his (at-times very esoteric) writing.

28. Call Me By Your Name by Andre Aciman

Call Me By Your Name - Andre Aciman - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

If you could use a little romance in your life (without all the naff cliches that are normally found in the pages of Harlequins, or Fabio clutching a buxom blonde on the cover), Call Me By Your Name is the salve for what ails you. Your heart will wrench, your toes will tingle, as you read this beautiful account of a clandestine love affair in 1980s Italy.

29. Little Women by Louisa May Alcott

Little Women - Louisa May Alcott - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

For too many years, Little Women was written off as foolish, simplistic, fluff “for girls”, and excluded from the literary canon. My challenge to all of you is this: find an edition with a decent introduction that describes Alcott’s life and politics, and then read this subtle but subversive story. You’ll see it in a whole new light, as I did! Read my full review here.

30. Zen And The Art Of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert M. Pirsig

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance - Robert M Pirsig - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Zen And The Art Of Motorcycle Maintenance holds the world record (literally, it’s in the Guiness book) for being – get this – the most-often rejected book that went on to be a best-seller. I can only imagine the strength of will and self-belief it took for Pirsig to persist after receiving his 121st rejection letter… all that zen thinking must have done wonders!

31. How Proust Can Change Your Life by Alain de Botton

How Proust Can Change Your Life - Alain de Botton - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Look, if we’re being honest (which, of course, we always are), the main reason to read this book before you die is to work out whether it’s worth giving Proust himself a go. In Search Of Lost Time is the longest book in circulation, too long to bind in a single edition, so let de Botton decide for you whether or not to pick it up. Hopefully, reading How Proust Can Change Your Life, you’ll get an idea of whether it’s worth it. It probably is, but even if not, it’s nice to know that Proust could change your life, at least.

32. We Wish To Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families by Philip Gourevitch

The literary world has dedicated millions and millions of pages to accounts of the world wars, but there are other conflicts just as worthy of our attention. We Wish To Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families is one such crucial account of the 1994 Rwandan genocide, in which over one million people met their untimely violent deaths.

33. Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland by Lewis Carroll

Alice's Adventures in Wonderland - Lewis Carroll - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Yes, I’m including yet another children’s book, because sometimes they have more to teach us than anything written for grown-ups. In this case, read Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland to experience and marvel at Carroll’s masterful word play – it just doesn’t quite translate in its full glory to the Disney screen adaptation (or any other!). Read my full review here.

34. The Grapes Of Wrath by John Steinbeck

The Grapes Of Wrath - John Steinbeck - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

It’s rare that a book is so good that it makes me angry: The Grapes Of Wrath is one on that short list. I was so gripped by the story of the Joads, a family attempting to escape the economic desolation of the Dust Bowl, that I found myself furious that no one had ever told me how damn good it was! Plus, this book will (sadly) have a recurring timeliness as we inch closer to a climate change doomsday… Read my full review here.

35. The Feminine Mystique by Betty Friedan

The Feminine Mystique - Betty Friedan - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Second-wave feminism has long been superseded, and it’s easy for us now to decry it for all its problems, but I think it still behoves us to examine its origins as we continue to beat a path towards gender equality. The Feminine Mystique is the book widely credited with kicking things off for the second wave, and it holds up surprisingly well compared to some other feminist texts of the time.

36. The Trial by Franz Kafka

The Trial - Franz Kafka - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

If you can’t quite bring yourself to pick up Crime And Punishment (though you shouldn’t be afraid, it’s actually really good!), here’s a more accessible alternative. The Trial tells the story of a man who is arrested and put on (you guessed it) trial, answerable to a remote authority that we don’t quite understand, for supposed crimes that are never quite revealed to us.

37. Leaves Of Grass by Walt Whitman

The Complete Poems of Walt Whitman - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Picking up a copy of Leaves Of Grass is kind of like opening a choose-your-own-adventure novel. Whitman first published it as a collection of twelve poems in 1855, but then spent many years re-writing and adding to it, so that the final compilation included well over four hundred pieces. Whichever edition you choose, you’ll find it to be a wonderfully sensual collection that straddles philosophies, movements and themes.

38. The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy by Douglas Adams

The Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy - Douglas Adams - Book Laid On Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Here’s another slim tome that we should all read for the pure fun of it: The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy. It’s ridiculous, satirical, and comforting all at once – not to mention hilarious! Plus, you’ll finally get to understand all those hip references to taking towels on holiday, and the number forty-two, and that constant refrain “don’t panic”… Read my full review here.

39. Hidden Figures by Margot Lee Shetterley

Hidden Figures - Margot Lee Shetterley - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Shetterley spent six years working on this biographical story, an account of the lives and works of three NASA mathematicians that history might otherwise have forgotten (thus, the title: Hidden Figures). If you’re asking yourself why their figures may have been hidden from view: well, they were women, for one thing, and women of colour at that, working in a field heavily dominated by men. Their contributions to the space race were invaluable, and this book seeks to set the record straight.

40. Atonement by Ian McEwan

Atonement - Ian McEwan - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

McEwan is pretty damn prolific, and yet somehow the premises of his stories are always jaw-droppers. If you’re unfamiliar with his work, I would recommend starting with this one, his best-known book, Atonement. In it, one young girl’s mistake has spiralling ramifications. Lives are ruined, including her own, and she has to contend with how to (you guessed it) atone for her role in the whole mess.

41. The God Of Small Things by Arundhati Roy

The God Of Small Things - Arundhati Roy - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

The God Of Small Things was Roy’s debut novel, and it made one heck of a splash – can you imagine winning the Booker Prize your first time out? Not only that, she did a Harper Lee, and stepped back from writing and publishing for twenty years! Her follow-up wasn’t published until 2017 (sophomore slump be damned!). But for a fine examination of how small things affect our lives in big ways, you’ve got to go back to the start with this one.

42. Inferno by Dante Alighieri

The Divine Comedy - Dante Alighieri - Keeping Up With The Penguins

It seemed only right to include at least one foundational text, a story that has influenced literature in such a way that we still hear its echoes today, in this list of books to read before you die. I chose Inferno, the first of Dante’s Divine Comedy trilogy. It’s a narrative poem, depicting Dante’s descent through the circles of Hell. Reading it as a contemporary reader, you’ll appreciate how it illuminates the endurance of human nature. We really haven’t changed all that much since Dante dreamed up fitting punishments for our sins in the 14th century…

43. The Color Purple by Alice Walker

The Color Purple - Alice Walker - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

It never ceases to amaze me how the wowsers can completely miss the point when it comes to literature. The Color Purple has been consistently censored and banned in various ways ever since it was first published in 1982, usually on the grounds of its “explicit” depictions of violence. And yet, the whole point of the story was to reveal to an indifferent audience the violence wrought upon black women in the American South in the 1930s. Read this book before you die, and show the nay-sayers where they can stick their “concern” for your delicate sensibilities!

44. Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides

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Eugenides reportedly sat down to write Middlesex, an intersectional bildungsroman and family saga, after finding that other accounts of intersex lives and anatomies were insufficient in promoting understanding. In so doing, he’s woven together two intricate experiences: that of intersex people, and that of Greek immigrants, in 20th century America. It’s a lot to tackle all at once, but Eugenides got a Pulitzer Prize for his efforts, and that ain’t no small thing.

45. I Am Malala by Malala Yousafzai

Remember the fifteen-year-old girl who was shot by the Taliban for standing her ground when it came to her right to an education? This is her story, I Am Malala. It plays out against the horrifying backdrop of the rise (and fall) of the Tehrik-i-Taliban in Pakistan. This book is so detailed, so earnest and fierce, that it is still banned in many schools of that region – making it, in my eye, all the more essential reading.

46. The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

The Handmaid's Tale - Margaret Atwood - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

The Handmaid’s Tale was originally published in 1985, but boy-howdy did it come into its own these past few years! I felt like I couldn’t take a step in any direction without running into Gilead-themed protests, the HBO adaptation, the sequel, or some other homage to Atwood’s dystopian story of ideology and control.

47. This House Of Grief by Helen Garner

This House Of Grief - Helen Garner - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Helen Garner is an unimpeachable darling of the Australian literary community, and it’s tough to narrow down down this selection to just one book from her incredibly varied back-catalogue… but in the end, I went with This House Of Grief. It’s her account of the murder conviction of a man who drove his three children into a dam, killing them, in 2005. It is haunting in the extreme; you won’t be the same after reading it (just as Garner has said she was never the same after writing it).

48. Beloved by Toni Morrison

Beloved - Toni Morrison - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Did you know that Beloved is actually based on the real-life story of an African-American slave? Her name was Margaret Garner, and she escaped Kentucky in 1856. She fled to Ohio, by then a free state. Morrison, who by then was already regarded in some circles as America’s greatest novelist, came across Margaret’s story, and she was driven to write this imagined account of a former slave living in Ohio. She dedicated it to “sixty million and more” – the number of Africans, and their descendants, who died as a result of the slave trade.

49. Gentlemen Prefer Blondes by Anita Loos

Gentlemen Prefer Blondes - Anita Loos - Books Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

I will never, never, stop being bitter about the fact that The Great Gatsby is held up as the definitive Jazz Age novel, when Gentlemen Prefer Blondes is so much better! Why would you want to read about a miserable rich stalker throwing fancy parties, when you could instead read the fictional diaries of a woman willing to exploit the gender roles of 1920s America for all they’re worth? It’s hilarious, it’s brilliant, and it’s taught me more about that period than anything Fitzgerald ever scribbled down. Read my full review here.

50. Ulysses by James Joyce

Ulysses - James Joyce - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Yes. It’s here. On this list. If I have to read Ulysses (and the Keeping Up With The Penguins reading list dictates I must), then you have to read it. At least give it a go! I’m a firm believer that we should all read the books that intimidate us, like trying new foods or travelling someplace unfamiliar, and hey – it might not be as bad as we all think!

And there we have it! How many of these books have you already read? What books do you think everyone should read before they die? Add your recommendations in the comments below!


She Came To Stay – Simone de Beauvoir

This week’s selection from my reading list is a little treat for myself – it’s been a long year! And I’ve been wanting to read She Came To Stay for ages. It’s been sitting on my shelf tempting me, like a bottle of fine wine. I guess I was just waiting for The Right Moment(TM) to properly enjoy it, and as the year draws to a close, I can happily announce that the moment has finally come.

I was fairly confident that I’d find something of interest in She Came To Stay (or, in the original French, L’Invitée). It was renowned feminist Simone de Beauvoir’s first novel, published in 1943, a fictional account of her and Jean-Paul Sartre’s relationship with Olga Kosakievicz (to whom the book is dedicated). This will hardly come as a shock, but it turns out de Beauvoir had some hard feelings about the 17-year-old who “came between” her and Sartre, the love of her life, and in many ways She Came To Stay is her act of revenge. So, it’s already ticking a few boxes: feminism, thinly veiled autobiographical plot, and a tumultuous polygamous relationship. Goodie!

My only quibble with this edition is that it’s a bit of a #namethetranslator fail. The only information I could find was printed, in teeny tiny font, on the Copyright page: “This translation was first published by Secker & Warburg and Lindsay Drummond in 1949”, but as best I can tell, from what’s Google-able, the actual work of translation was done by Yvonne Moyse and Roger Senhouse. Do better, Harper Perennial!

But on with the story: She Came To Stay is set in Paris, around the time of WWII. A young, naive couple – Francoise and Pierre – are very proudly bohemian. They write, they’re in The Theater, and they have an “open” relationship (though it’s “unthinkable that they should ever tire of each other”). All of that is put to the test when Xaviere comes flouncing in. Basically, She Came To Stay is a cautionary tale about the dangers of poorly-planned polyamory, especially if you’re French and the teenager you take on as a third is a hot mess.



The character motivations are really complex, and hard to wrap your head around at times. Xaviere seemed like a real chore, to put it mildly – I struggled to understand why they kept her around at all. I’m guessing she was really-really-really-ridiculously-good-looking, but de Beauvoir doesn’t actually describe her physicality all that much, one of the many perks of reading books about women by women! I’m still not entirely sure I ever figured them out. Francoise and Pierre’s relationship is hardly healthy to begin with, but when Xaviere joins them, it goes from bad to worse. They’re exploitative, they’re voyeuristic, and they seem to really get off on emotionally abusing one another – it’s all very confronting.

There’s some timelessness to the broader themes, though. True to her reputation, de Beauvoir explored all kinds of existentialist philosophy, ideas of freedom, dependence, sexuality, and “the other”. If you’re not across your existentialist philosophising (hey, no judgement – it’d been a while for me, too!), it’s all about finding the self and the meaning of life through exploring the bounds of free will and personal responsibility. If those ideas grab you, then you’re going to want to give this book a go, because it’s got them all in spades.

de Beauvoir went to great lengths to impress upon the reader that Francoise always came second, in Pierre’s mind, to Xaviere – even though Francoise didn’t seem to realise it herself. The poor lamb falls into the trap of trying to be the “cool girl”, as most modern women do at some point in their lives. She lets his work take precedence, his sexual desires dominate, and she doesn’t dare tell him off (even when he’s being a huge prick). It’s not simple subservience, though. This notion of being “free”, being “open minded”, is a central tenant of Francoise’s identity. She’s not willing to sacrifice that for a silly little thing like emotional security.



Xaviere is unspeakably manipulative, so it’s a testament to Francoise’s strength of will that she’s able to put up with her for longer than five minutes. The teenage strumpet goes above and beyond to drive a wedge between Francoise and Pierre, and for a good two-thirds of the novel she has them dancing on her strings.

By all accounts, these relationship dynamics are the same as those that played out in de Beauvoir’s real-life ménage à trois. She and Sartre purported to value freedom and openness above all else, but clearly that didn’t work out, because she ended up writing She Came To Stay as a way of “dealing with” (her words!) the trauma of Sartre’s affair. This book is basically her equivalent of Taylor Swift’s reputation album.

I really wanted to like it. I was expecting another Jane Eyre or The Bell Jar. But, for the most part, She Came To Stay was just good. Not rush-out-into-the-street-and-shout-about-it good, just good enough to keep going. I felt like it was a bit too long; after just 150 pages, I was wondering where on earth it could possibly go, so the final sections dragged a bit. And the “shock twist ending” was kind of lost on me, I’m sorry to say. In a rare moment of fancy-pants literary high-mindedness, I assumed Francoise was being metaphorical when she (SPOILER ALERT!) described killing Xaviere. You know, I assumed it was a flight of fancy, killing the idea of Xaviere, rather than actually doing it. Not so, it turns out, and I only learned that later, reading up on the book to write this review. Whoops!



In some ways, though, I wasn’t entirely wrong. Francoise finishes off Xaviere to reclaim her own power, and to prove she’s no one’s second choice. In real life, de Beauvoir wrote this book to prove that she shouldn’t come second, either. Right? Maybe I’m stretching. The real-life story has a much happier ending, anyway, you’ll be pleased to know. de Beauvoir and Sartre stuck it out through the Olga years; they remained lovers, companions, and mutual editors until he passed away in 1980. de Beauvoir is now buried alongside him in Montparnasse, where they lived together for most of their lives. And she had a little fun of her own on the side, too; she had a long-running affair with American writer Nelson Algren, but her loyalty to Sartre, and her refusal to leave him, was the cause of its breakdown.

She Came To Stay isn’t Simone de Beauvoir’s best-known work, but I’m glad it was the one I started with. I’ll be reviewing her magnum opus, The Second Sex, here on Keeping Up With The Penguins soon: it’s a hugely-influential account of the status and nature of women in the mid-20th century, and it’s pretty much the reason we remember de Beauvoir as a pioneer of post-war feminism. And, for balance, I’ll be reviewing a collection of Sartre’s essays, too. Stay tuned…!

My favourite Amazon reviews of She Came To Stay:

  • “Nice reading, pages run quickly for a mediocre reader.” – 17a8m9a
  • “Book about pretentious Parisian snobs which somehow works out to be a most enjoyable and engaging read! Highly recommended. Loved the ending” – Petrarch’sGirl

The Best Books I Read In 2019: Year In Review

Another year is drawing to a close, which means it’s time for another obligatory year-in-review post, a round-up of all the best books I read in 2019. This year, I reviewed 51 books (though a 52nd will squeeze in just after Christmas, before the new year ticks over), and once again they spanned centuries and categories like you wouldn’t believe. That’s one of my favourite things about the Keeping Up With The Penguins project: the variety! I’ve covered everything from Pulitzer Prize winners (old and new) to little-known autobiographies, from Great American Novels to books in translation from Sweden, from hilarious Jazz Age social commentary to re-imaginings of Australian folklore. Here’s the best of what I’ve read this year, from start to finish…

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Little Women – Louisa May Alcott

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Like almost everyone, I think, I sat down with my copy of Little Women carrying a heavy burden of skepticism. I assumed it was going to be fluffy, saccharine, a relic of the days before feminism taught the world that women were powerful. How lucky I was to pick up this edition, with its incredible introduction that detailed for me the life and politics of Louisa May Alcott. It really opened my eyes to what she was trying to do with this book, and how she cleverly – but subtly – subverted the weight of expectation that was thrust upon her. Read my full review here.

Portnoy’s Complaint – Philip Roth

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Here’s another one I never thought I’d be including in a list of my best reads of the year. Portnoy’s Complaint, by all accounts, was a self-indulgent romp through the mind of an upper-middle-class Jewish American man, obsessed with sex and his mother (naturally). There was no way, I thought, I could possibly relate to, let alone laugh at, his neurotic monologue. Once again, the Keeping Up With The Penguins project has me eating my words: this book was hilarious! I cackled over poor Portnoy’s complaints, his childhood anecdotes, and his unbelievable knack for getting in his own way. Read my full review here.

The Bell Jar – Sylvia Plath

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Alright, here’s one I knew I’d love: I just had no idea how much. I saved up reading The Bell Jar for the moment I thought I needed it, and I’m so glad I did. It was searing, it was heart-breaking, it was gut-churning, it was tear-jerking, it was breath-taking. It’s a modern classic for a reason, Keeper Upperers, and it was so good I almost gave up reading and writing altogether when I finished it. Why bother, when something so beautiful already exists in the world? Trigger warnings aplenty, however – you’ve been warned. Read my full review here.

The Age Of Innocence – Edith Wharton

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The Age Of Innocence is a lot like one of those boggy marshes with hidden patches of quicksand (I know, it’s not an elegant metaphor, but bear with me): it looks plain, maybe a little boring, but if you don’t keep your wits about you as you wander through, you could find yourself sinking and struggling to get free. Wharton’s prose is deceptively simple. What appears to be a description of a carriage or a house actually contains crucial commentary about the world her characters lived in and the way it worked. If you let your mind drift, you’ll miss it, and have to track back through the pages to pick it up again. Wharton was a trailblazer for 20th century female authors in America, and The Age Of Innocence totally holds up. Read my full review here.

Cold Comfort Farm – Stella Gibbons

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Poor Stella Gibbons. I’d never heard of her, nor Cold Comfort Farm (her best-known work, which isn’t saying much) before I put together my Keeping Up With The Penguins reading list. In fact, it would seem that most people – outside of the very well-read English Literature elite – have never heard of her. She wrote dozens of books, and yet it took me a year to track down any of them. Why is she so underappreciated? Well, it would seem she had the audacity to parody D.H. Lawrence, the beloved grand-daddy of horny male writers in her time (and now, come to that), and she pissed off Virginia Woolf into the bargain. Essentially, Gibbons refused to play by the rules, and as a result, those in the powerful literary cliques sought to pull her from our shelves. I’d say that makes reading Cold Comfort Farm a political act. Read my full review here.

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn – Mark Twain

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Mark Twain’s books are divisive, I won’t deny it. I can certainly see the problems in his treatment of race in America, problems that have seen his books banned from many school libraries and removed from many a syllabus. But I really enjoyed The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, in spite of myself. I loved the way he used dialect, the way he crafted his characters’ speech to tell the reader as much about them as what they were saying. The writing was brilliant, masterful, immersive, and compelling. I wasn’t as sold on Tom Sawyer, but they can’t all be winners. Read my full review – of both! – here.

An Artist Of The Floating World – Kazuo Ishiguro

An Artist Of The Floating World - Kazuo Ishiguro - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Are you tired of me explaining all the ways in which my preconceived ideas have been kicked in the bum this year? I hope not, because here comes another one. Kazuo Ishiguro is a Nobel laureate, getting the gong for literature back in 2017. I assumed, coming to his work knowing that, that it would be Very Literary(TM). To put it bluntly, I thought it would be dense, bleak, boring, and written for people far smarter than me. I was surprised, when I finally came across a copy of An Artist Of The Floating World, to see how slim it was, and even more surprised by how quickly I powered through it. I’ve talked before about how I’ve largely gone off WWII historical fiction, but this is one I can get behind. It’s set in Japan shortly after the conflict ended, and it follows a few days in the life of an artist who is not only “of the floating world”, but also created propaganda posters for the government. Read my full review here.

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

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

When I finished reading The One-Hundred-Year Old Man Who Climbed Out The Window And Disappeared, I knew I’d found my go-to cheer-up read for many years to come. It does exactly what it says on the tin: it tells the story of an old bloke who jumped out of his nursing home window to avoid a birthday party, and the role his life’s adventures play in what unfolds after that. It stretches far past the bounds of believability, but it’s so fun and so funny that all is forgiven. This is the book I thrust into a friend’s hands if they’re having a down day. Read my full review here.

Pride And Prejudice – Jane Austen

Pride And Prejudice - Jane Austen - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

I must admit, even if I hadn’t enjoyed Pride And Prejudice, it would be getting a spot on this round-up of the best books I read this year, purely for the fact that I finished it! Long-time Keeper Upperers will know that I’ve been engaged in a brutal stand-off with this book for many years. I’ve picked it up no fewer than six times, only to quickly abandon it and move on to something else shortly thereafter. But now, I can proudly declare that I have read Jane Austen’s beloved prototypical romance, and I finally understand what all the fuss is about. My experience(s) with Pride And Prejudice just go to prove, once again, that it is crucial – crucial! – that a book comes to you at the right time in your reading life. Read my full review of the book here, and the movie adaptation here.

Gentlemen Prefer Blondes – Anita Loos

Gentlemen Prefer Blondes - Anita Loos - Books Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Gentlemen Prefer Blondes is, by a long way, the book I have recommended most often and most vehemently this year, to anyone who’ll listen (and even to those who won’t). I was completely knocked off my feet by this charming little tome, stylised as a series of diary entries chronicling the adventures of society darling Lorelei Lee. If you’ve seen the movie and figured that you didn’t need to read the book (or if you didn’t even know there was a book, no judgement!), you’re dead wrong. This is the most astute, insightful, and witty take on gender roles in the Jazz Age (and all subsequent ages) that I have ever read. Forget about Gatsby (ugh): leave your copy at a local Little Library, and curl up instead with this absolute gem. Read my review of the book here, and the movie adaptation here.

The Grapes Of Wrath – John Steinbeck

The Grapes Of Wrath - John Steinbeck - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Have you ever read a book that was so good it made you angry? That’s what happened to me when I read The Grapes Of Wrath. I was nonsensically angry with every single person in my life who had read it and hadn’t (a) recommended it to me immediately, and (b) warned me about how gut-punchingly good it was. I didn’t want to like it. Steinbeck shamelessly ripped off years of work, that of a woman who history has all but forgotten. But the story of the Joads, their migration across America to seek their fortunes (i.e., survive), moved me in ways I can barely describe. It’s all the more incredible, too, for its startling relevance in a climate that is rapidly changing… Read my full review here.

True History Of The Kelly Gang – Peter Carey

True History Of The Kelly Gang - Peter Carey - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Upon reflection, this might be my year of reading (and loving!) dialect, because – like with Huck Finn, and a few others on this list – what drew me in most to Carey’s reimagining of an Australian folk “hero” was the way he represented an early Irish-Australian accent on the page. True History Of The Kelly Gang is the first book I’ve ever read that has, in my expert-by-virtue-of-living-here opinion, accurately and beautifully represented Australian speech in a way that doesn’t make the reader want to claw their own eyeballs out. And if that doesn’t sell you on it, consider this: Carey imagines an internal world for Kelly that few have considered before reading this work, but simultaneously allows the reader room to make up their own mind about his morality or lack thereof. A must-read Australian novel! Read my full review here.


And there we have it, Keeper Upperers – an even dozen! What do you think of the best books I read this year? What were the best books YOU read this year? Add your recommendations to the comments below, or tell me on the thread over at Keeping Up With The Penguins on Facebook!

If you want to check out more of my best-of recommended reads, try this list of the best books I’ve read so far, earlier in the year.

Robinson Crusoe – Daniel Defoe

When I read the blurb of this Penguin edition of Robinson Crusoe, my first thought was: hang on a minute! They’re saying THIS is the first English novel, now? I thought it was The Pilgrim’s Progress! According to my bookish timeline, The Pilgrim’s Progress was published long before Robinson Crusoe. I guess it depends how you define “novel” when it comes to deciding which one was “first”. Apparently, there’s been some in-fighting at the Penguin editorial offices! Either way, I knew I was in for another shipwreck novel, and I hoped fervently that this one would work out better for me than Lord Of The Flies

Defoe was remarkably prolific over the course of the last decade or so of his life. He published Robinson Crusoe and a bunch of sequels, but still managed to die in debt, in hiding from his creditors. The introduction hastens to reassure me that Robinson Crusoe isn’t all that representative of his body of work; he got into writing for the money (ha!), and this is just one of many books he wrote because he sensed there’d be a market for it. Among those other works of his, the one that caught my eye was a beauty published in 1727, titled Conjugal Lewdness; or Matrimonial Whoredom, A Treatise Concerning the Use and Abuse of the Marriage Bed. I literally snorted aloud when I read that title (and again when I realised you can still buy copies in print!).

But to the book at hand, which was, incidentally, originally titled The Life and Strange Surprizing Adventures of Robinson Crusoe of York, Mariner (Defoe had clearly done his keyword research). The titular character is part of an illegal expedition to purchase slaves, but winds up shipwrecked, and forced to work as a slave would to keep himself alive (only he gets a much happier ending than most slaves did, naturally).

“Crusoe’s transformation from terrified and confused survivor to colonial master and avenging overlord of his island marks Robinson Crusoe as one of the key modern myths of English and even European culture.”

p. xxvii

Defoe probably drew his inspiration from many of the real-life stories of castaways that were floating around at the time. In particular, there was a Scottish sailor by the name of Alexander Selkirk, who was stranded for four years on the (until then) uninhabited island of Mās a Tierra, which has since been renamed Robinson Crusoe Island, in honour of the novel that immortalised it. Defoe was notoriously secretive about the sources of his inspiration, but we can be pretty confident that Selkirk was his model for the hero of his book. In fact, there’s a whole body of work investigating and documenting Defoe’s muses, including Tim Severin’s Seeking Robinson Crusoe.





If you’re going to give this one a go, you need to be prepared: there’s no chapter breaks (just like The Pilgrim’s Progress), so it reads as one long block of text. But I’ll be breaking it down for you, so never fear 😉

It starts with a young Robinson Crusoe telling his parents to fuck off, and taking to voyages at sea against their wishes. He has a lot of rotten luck with shipwrecks and describes a few, including the story of how he came to own a Brazilian plantation as a result of one of them, before he gets to the main event…

He joins an expedition to bring slaves from Africa, but winds up shipwrecked on an island near the mouth of the Orinoco River (serves him right, to be honest). He, and three animals – the captain’s dog, and two cats – are the only ones to survive. He manages to salvage a bunch of tools, guns, and other supplies from the ship before it breaks apart and sinks entirely.

And then he gets to work. He builds himself a “home”, of sorts, a rudimentary gated community. He figures out how to make a calendar, with blunt marks on a wooden cross. He hunts, raises goats, cultivates barley and rice, dries grapes to make raisins (but not wine? wtf?), and figures out how to make pottery with the limited tools and materials he has within reach. He also sits around reading the Bible a whole bunch, and talks ad nauseam about how grateful he is to God that he survived. As far as Crusoe can see, he’s pretty well set; the only thing missing is a little human connection.





Years pass, and Crusoe notices that “native cannibals” (his words, not mine) occasionally visit the island to kill and eat their prisoners. Naturally. He gets all worked up about it, and makes a plan to kill them in turn for committing such an abomination. Then, he thinks the better of it (what a guy!). He turns his efforts to freeing a prisoner or two, so he can put them in his own employ as servants and talk God with them on the long, cold, lonely nights. Eventually, one prisoner does escape his captors, only to end up in Crusoe’s clutches. He is christened “Friday”, after the day of the week he “appeared”, and Crusoe teaches him English and brainwashes him into converting.

I don’t think I even need to say it, but I will anyway: gross. So gross. Colonially gross. And every restaurant or other business that has referenced “Friday” in this regard is gross, too.

But I shouldn’t get ahead of myself, so let me continue: more “natives” show up and apparently partake in a cannibal feast. Crusoe and Friday forget all about how they’ve decided it’s “not their place” to take vengeance, and they kill most of them, sparing a couple of prisoners – one of whom is Friday’s father, and the other a Spaniard, who tells Crusoe all about his ship that wrecked back on the mainland.

Crusoe’s cogs start turning: he devises a plan to head back to the mainland with this Spanish guy, and Friday’s father, and bring all of the remaining crew back to Crusoe Island. Then, they’d work out how to build a new ship, set sail, and return to a Spanish port. Great plan, guys! Seriously! Flawless!





Then another ship shows up, an English one (it’s like that island from the TV show Lost, ships just keep showing up even though they’re apparently uninhabited). Mutineers have taken over the vessel, and their intention is to ditch their disgraced Captain on the island and sail on. Crusoe, ever the opportunist, strikes a deal with the Captain that he’ll help him take back the ship, on the condition that they leave the mutineers to suffer in their jocks on the island as he’s had to do all these years, and they’ll sail back home together. In an odd moment of Christian charity that seems otherwise completely out of step with his character, Crusoe takes the time to show the ditched mutineers how he survived on the island, and promises them that he’ll send a ship back to retrieve them later (wouldn’t hold my breath).

And, just like that: Robinson Crusoe is rescued! After “eight and twenty years, two months, and nineteen days”, he heads back to England. His family have long assumed him dead (understandable, really), so there’s nothing left for him from his father’s will, and not a whole lot else to keep him there. He heads for Lisbon, to claim the profits of his estate in Brazil, and goes to great effort to transport it all back over land. He’s determined he’ll never go near the goddamn sea again (once again, understandable). Friday accompanies him all the way *cough*Stockholm Syndrome*cough*, and they have one last adventure together fighting off hungry wolves in the Pyrenees. I must admit, I skimmed through that part – I was pretty over it.

When Robinson Crusoe was first published in 1719, it was a smash hit. The initial print run of 1,000 copies sold out straight away. To meet the demand, the printer issued five more runs, marking some of them as new “editions”. He wasn’t real crash hot at his job, though, because he managed to introduce new errors every time. The text for the edition I read is based on a photocopy of one of the first-first editions held in the British Library. Interestingly, it credits the author as being the protagonist, Robinson Crusoe, leading many readers to believe it was a real-life memoir type of thing.

Even with the errors, all the new editions sold out, too. Defoe quickly wrote a lesser-known sequel, The Farther Adventures of Robinson Crusoe, which he claimed would be the last of the Crusoe stories… but, being the money-hungry bugger he was, he couldn’t resist releasing a third, Serious Reflections During The Life And Surprising Adventures Of Robinson Crusoe: With His Vision Of The Angelick World the following year. By the end of the 1800s, there was no other book that had more editions, spin-offs, and translations – more than 700 of them!





So, let’s break down (some of) the ways in which this book is extremely problematic, shall we?

Crusoe sees himself as King Of The World (the world being his island), and imposes all of his European technology and agriculture upon it, basically just trying to re-create his homeland. He goes so far as to explicitly refer to the island as his “colony” by the end of the novel. And, of course, a large part of that is his exploitation of Friday, who is – no bones about it – his actual slave. Defoe went out of his way to idealise their master-servant relationship, because it played well for the predominant worldview at the time. He couldn’t risk losing book sales just to make a political point about human rights, now, could he? I respect the hustle, I guess, but I just can’t get past how gross it was. Here’s Crusoe, the “enlightened” European, redeeming the “savage” from his “barbarous” way of life through enforced assimilation. Ugh.

It’d take thousands of words, probably a whole book, for me to break down this bullshit, and I’m sure there are plenty of other people (far smarter than me) who are better able to identify and articulate all of the relevant issues. For now, let me just say: if those themes bother you, Robinson Crusoe is a book you want to back up slowly from and never look at again.

Those attitudes weren’t just dreamt up by Defoe to make for compelling fiction. In real life, he was a Puritan moralist (remember that other book of his I mentioned up top?), and mostly he wrote about how to be a good Christian. That’s why so much of Robinson Crusoe focuses on the main character ruminating about providence and penitence and redemption. Crusoe really hammers home Defoe’s believe in an absolute morality – we can see that in the way he treats cannibalism, declaring it a “national crime” on the island he stole settled, and forbids Friday from practicing it (even though, as I read it, the poor guy had no intentions of eating anyone).





If you can get past all that – and hats off to you if you can, because I really struggled – there’s a bunch of other ways to read this book, which is probably why it has endured as long as it has. It could be read as an allegory for how civilisation develops, a manifesto for neoliberal economic individualism, the importance of repentance, the strength of religious faith, etc. It also marked the beginning of realistic fiction as a literary genre, so (even for all its sins) we owe Robinson Crusoe a pretty huge debt. Defoe spawned many imitators, and castaway novels became extremely popular in the 18th and 19th century. Stories along these lines, of shipwreck and humanity’s triumph, are now called “Robinsonade”. Most of them have fallen into obscurity in the intervening centuries, but Swiss Family Robinson is still kicking – and its homage wasn’t subtle, Johann David Wyss literally borrowed Crusoe’s first name for the family in his story (as the title suggests). And Gulliver’s Travels, which was published a few years after Robinson Crusoe, has largely been read as a rebuttal of Defoe’s optimism. Having read them both now, I can totally see that. A more recent example would be Cast Away, the 2000 film starring Tom Hanks as a FedEx employee who winds up stranded on an island alone for many years.

Look, I didn’t hate Robinson Crusoe. I certainly read it more eagerly than I did Lord Of The Flies. I’m just not on board with the colonialist bullshit it espoused, even in context. I did appreciate the psychological and behavioural struggles that Defoe depicted (with startling accuracy, given that psychology as a field wasn’t born until about three hundred years later), in terms of the effects of isolation on Crusoe’s habits and emotions. For instance, the scene where birds were pecking at his burgeoning crops – a banal regularity for most agricultural farmers – was terrifying and emotionally devastating for Crusoe, alone on an island with few tools and no help, entirely dependent on that crop for his future food security. I was pretty moved by that part, actually, even if he was a racist dickhead.

Most importantly, however, just as reading The Martian convinced me that I couldn’t possibly survive on Mars, reading Robinson Crusoe convinced me that I would never survive being shipwrecked alone on a desert island. I’ve made my peace with it. If it happens, I’ll just drink whatever booze I can pull off the ship, and meet my maker tipsy shortly thereafter. It sounds preferable to fart-arsing around building shelters and fires – I know my priorities.

My favourite Amazon reviews of Robinson Crusoe:

  • “Soooo unhappy with this! Was NOT Robinson Crusoe as ordered but inside government was one world government propaganda. :(“ – Jennifer Kline
  • “This version (hardback, Sterling) is actually pretty nice itself! Good binding, pretty art on dust jacket, and artwork throughout.

    AS FOR THE ACTUAL STORY, it’s awful! What was Daniel Defoe thinking? First novel? Yeah, we can tell, buddy! You just have a 26-year-old white dude stranded on an island for … a long time, and it’s just 150-ish straight pages of us reading how he tames goats and figures out how to grow grapes. Whoop-de-friggin-do! Don’t bother. Read “The Female American” instead. It’s got its own problems, but it’s a heck of a step up from this. My coworker Taylor recommended this to me, and now I know why everyone hates her.” – Cat Grass
  • “Don’t waste your money. I bought this book before reading the reviews and it was the worst mistake of my life. Because I didn’t read the reviews, I have to now get another book.” – Hope Y. Parrish
  • “Christmas gift for grandson…get him off the computer.” – Amazon Customer

11 Best Closing Lines in Literature

Opening lines get a lot of attention – heck, I’ve done round-up posts of them a couple of times over (here and here). But what about closing lines? Authors must be knackered by the time they get around to the end of their book, I’d understand if they just wanted to phone it in… but these guys managed to whip out one final zinger, a deeply satisfying note on which to leave their readers. Here’s my list of the best closing lines in literature.

11-Best-Closing-Lines-in-Literature-Text-Overlaid-on-Image-of-Book-Open-on-Table-with-Coffee-Mug-Keeping-Up-With-The-Penguins

(And if you think it’s possible to write a post like this without spoilers, you need to take a long, hard look at yourself. Don’t you dare complain to me if you read on!)

Gone With The Wind by Margaret Mitchell

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“After all, tomorrow is another day.”

Let’s start with something a little bit hopeful, a little bit inspirational, from the American classic Gone With The Wind. Scarlett O’Hara has been abandoned by her true love, Rhett Butler, and she’s reassuring herself that tomorrow she’ll think of some way to win him back. The beauty of this aphorism is that it can be applied to almost any situation, because (in the end) it’s basically just a statement of fact, but one that sounds good.

Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell

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“He loved Big Brother.”

And now to something chilling and bleak: this terrifyingly cruel outcome for Winston, at the conclusion of Orwell’s dystopian classic Nineteen Eighty-Four. After a few hundred pages of frustration and rebellion against the omniscient dictatorship under which he lives, Winston sadly succumbs to their brainwashing and decides that he loves his leader. I’ll never forget the first time I read it: young, wide-eyed, naive, I struggled to believe that Orwell didn’t give Winston a happily ever after (you know, overthrowing a government). I’m still not over it, to be honest.

The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald

The Great Gatsby - F Scott Fitzgerald - book laid on wooden table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

“So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”

OK, I unashamedly hated The Great Gatsby, but even I’ve got to concede that this is a corker of a closing line. It’s one we trot out whenever someone brings up The American Dream – finding it, losing it, exposing it, whatever – and for good reason. It’s just masterfully crafted, beautifully evocative… is there anything more frustrating than having to acknowledge how good something is when you didn’t like it? Read my full review of The Great Gatsby here.

The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen

The Corrections - Jonathan Franzen - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

“She was seventy-five and she was going to make some changes in her life.”

It’s not like Franzen is known for particularly optimistic takes, and indeed The Corrections isn’t a particularly optimistic book… but, looking at it in isolation, I really like the hopeful ring in this closing line. It’s determined, it’s upbeat – it brings to mind a spritely granny who’s heading out in her active wear for an afternoon power-walk. Right?


The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath

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“The eyes and faces all turned themselves towards me, and guiding myself by them, as by a magical thread, I stepped into the room.”

I’ve said before that The Bell Jar is one of the most beautiful books I’ve ever read – and Plath didn’t miss an opportunity to hit me over the head with one last clanger. I love the discordance of an ending that’s about entering a room (which is where you’d logically expect a story to start, not finish). Read my full review of The Bell Jar here.

Brokeback Mountain by Annie Proulx

“There was some open space between what he knew and what he tried to believe, but nothing could be done about it, and if you can’t fix it, you’ve got to stand it.”

I’ve heard Annie Proulx say in interviews that she’s a bit “over” talking about Brokeback Mountain – in light of the incredibly popular film adaptation – but I can’t help including this closing line in a list of the best. It’s like the literary equivalent of the serenity prayer (accept the things you cannot change, change the things you can, etc.). I think everyone can relate, in some small way, to the pain and disillusionment that Proulx captures here.

The Makioka Sisters by Junichiro Tanizaki

“Yukiko’s diarrhoea persisted through the twenty-sixth, and was a problem on the train to Tokyo.”

I’ll admit I hadn’t actually heard of The Makioka Sisters, let alone read it, before I started putting together this list… but I came across it in another best-of closing lines compilation, and I laughed out loud, disturbing everyone in my immediate radius. It’s just such a wry, blunt statement! As it turns out, Tanizaki’s story is a really heart-wrenching one (from the plot summary, it sounds like the Japanese equivalent of The Grapes Of Wrath), but I love this matter-of-fact translation of its closing line.

The Age Of Innocence by Edith Wharton

The Age Of Innocence - Edith Wharton - Book Laid Flat on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

“At that, as if it had been the signal he had waited for, Newland Archer got up slowly and walked back alone to his hotel.”

Perhaps I only like this one because I thought Newland Archer was a weak-willed nincompoop, and I was happy to see The Age Of Innocence end with him alone and miserable, but it’s still a beautiful closing line. Quick recap: Newland is standing alone outside a building, knowing that his “true love” (with whom he carried on an affair in his youth, behind his wife’s back) is inside, but he lacks the gumption to go in and say hello. Instead, he heads back to his own hotel alone (to masturbate and cry, probably). Read my full review of The Age Of Innocence here.


The Long Goodbye by Raymond Chandler

“I never saw any of them again – except the cops. No way has yet been invented to say goodbye to them.”

Raymond Chandler is beloved for his place writing, and how well he captured Los Angeles’s unique ambience in the early 20th century, but as I said in my review of another of his novels (The Big Sleep), I actually enjoyed his characterisation more. He came up with incredible metaphors and similes to really nail his characters, and a bit of that comes through in this closing line from The Long Goodbye: you can just pictured the beleaguered smirk that accompanies it, can’t you?

A Moveable Feast by Ernest Hemingway

“But this is how Paris was in the early days when we were very poor and very happy.”

Hemingway famously put a lot of effort into his closing lines. He re-wrote the ending of A Farewell To Arms over forty times (and there are still plenty of readers who insist that he got it wrong!), but I don’t think there’s any argument that this closing line, from A Moveable Feast, was his best.

Bridget Jones’s Diary by Helen Fielding

Bridget-Joness-Diary-Helen-Fielding-Book-Laid-on-Wooden-Table-Keeping-Up-With-The-Penguins

“An excellent year’s progress.”

To end back on a lighter note, I love this beauty from Bridget Jones’s Diary. Perhaps it’s not quite as good out of context – Bridget has just summed up her year in alcohol consumed, cigarettes smoked, weight gained and lost, and boyfriends dumped and won – but I think that it holds up. And it’s certainly a line I’ve borrowed myself once or twice around New Year’s Eve…


Which beautiful endings have stuck with you? Which closing lines do you think are the best? Drop your additions to this list in the comments below (or join in the thread over at Keeping Up With The Penguins on Facebook!).


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