Keeping Up With The Penguins

Reviews For The Would-Be Booklover

The Best Fathers in Literature

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

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

Bob Cratchit (A Christmas Carol – Charles Dickens)

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

Hans Hubermann (The Book Thief – Markus Zusak)

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

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

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




 

Mr Bennet (Pride and Prejudice – Jane Austen)

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

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

Atticus Finch (To Kill A Mockingbird – Harper Lee)

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

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


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

 

Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland – Lewis Carroll

It seems fitting that, for the only bona-fide children’s book on The List, I picked up a gorgeous illustrated edition brand-new from my favourite second-hand bookstore. As Alice herself says, “What is the use of a book without pictures, or conversation?”.

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

Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland was published in 1865, written under the pen name Lewis Carroll (real name: Charles Lutwidge Dodgson). Carroll had taken a little boat ride in 1862 with his friend Henry Liddell’s three daughters. Because boats can be boring as fuck, Carroll improvised a story about a bored little girl named Alice who goes looking for adventure, to keep the three girls entertained for the ride. They loved it so much that the character’s namesake – Alice Liddell – asked him to write it down for her, and he set about it the very next day.

Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland – the story of a fantasy world down a rabbit hole, complete with anthropomorphised animals, chess pieces, and cards – has become one of the most enduring literary nonsense books of all time. Its characters and imagery are basically inescapable in popular culture: from film, to theater, to rock bands, to costumes, to homewares, precocious little Alice can be found everywhere. Amazon lists the age-range for the book as 8-11 years, but fuck that – it’s a story for all ages, and ageism is for cissys anyway.

I was somewhat familiar with the story already, despite never having seen the Disney film. (I’ll pause for effect here, to allow you to process your shock.) My parents opposed the American cultural imperialism perpetuated by Walt Disney, so I instead grew up with the real-action version on VHS. In the course of putting together this review, I went back and watched clips of it on YouTube, and the nostalgia hit me like a fucking brick!

Don’t fall into the trap of thinking you shouldn’t bother reading the original Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland just because you saw the film a million times when you were a kid. Reading the book is a completely different experience to watching the movie. The cleverness of the wordplay is a lot more noticeable in writing, for starters. I was a tiny bit heartbroken to realise that my favouritefavouritefavourite line from the movie doesn’t work quite as well in print…

“‘Why did you call him Tortoise if he wasn’t one?’ Alice asked.
“We called him Tortoise because he taught us,” said the Mock Turtle angrily: “really you are very dull!”

(try reading it aloud if you don’t get it)

… but that’s the exception rather than the rule. As you’d expect, given the way that Carroll came up with the story, the best way to experience Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland is probably to read it aloud to children. That way, you get the full impact of its genius.

Trying to describe the plot of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland – covering off all the major characters and misadventures – in a couple of paragraphs for a review is basically impossible. Not because the story is difficult to follow, by any means, but because it’s all higgledy-piggledy nonsense, and you just sort of have to go along with it. A girl falls down a rabbit hole, eats and drinks a lot of weird crap, grows and shrinks inexplicably, meets a lot of talking animals, battles evil queens and narrowly escapes having her head chopped off… on and on it goes! It’s both the best and worst acid trip you’ll find in all of literature.




Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland is so nonsensical that it basically becomes a blank canvas onto which you can project any type of story you want. For example, my preferred fan-theory-slash-alternate-reading is that Alice is the victim of a severe mental illness (she experiences auditory and visual hallucinations, delusions of grandeur, substance abuse, animal cruelty – it’s all there!). You could also read it as a vegan manifesto, if you want – especially one particular scene where the Red Queen introduces Alice to a mutton joint (would you cut or eat someone to whom you had just been introduced? the story asks). Carroll worked in a bunch of lessons on mathematics and logic, if you’re into that sort of thing. Literary scholar Melanie Bayley argued that Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland should actually be read as a scathing satire of new modern mathematics emerging in the mid-19th century. That’s not really my bag, but I’m sure Carroll was clever enough to do it! The most obvious allusions, though, are the historical references and the lessons in philosophy:

“‘Contrariwise,’ continued Tweedledee, ‘if it was so, it might be; and if it were so, it would be; but as it isn’t, it ain’t. That’s logic.'”

Clever fucker, wasn’t he? 😉

Carroll also liked a bit of poetry in his prose, and towards the end the verses become longer and more frequent. Everyone comes to Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland for the Jabberwocky poem, but my personal favourite is Old Father William (and I’ve somehow memorised every single word without realising it!).

None of this did Carroll much good in his day. Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland was very pointedly not named in an 1888 poll of the most popular children’s stories. It received pretty poor reviews, with critics paying more attention to the pretty pictures than to the story itself. It cruised along, almost unnoticed, until the very late 19th century when it won a new legion of fans – including (reportedly) Queen Victoria, and a young Oscar Wilde.

Still, Carroll got the last bloody laugh, didn’t he? The book has never been out of print. There are now over a hundred English editions, and editions in no fewer than 174 other languages. And, if that weren’t enough, little smart-arse Alice continues to be a major source of influence and inspiration for art across the spectrum, over a century after that boring boat trip. My tl;dr summary would be this: Alice is probably a delusional alcoholic, but reading Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland is a fun little trip down memory lane, regardless. Read it to feel like a kid again!

P.S.: Why is a raven like a writing desk? Carroll got so sick of people asking him that he wrote, in a later edition:

“Enquiries have been so often addressed to me, as to whether any answer to the Hatter’s riddle can be imagined, that I may as well put on record here what seems to me to be a fairly appropriate answer, ‘because it can produce few notes, though they are very flat; and it is nevar put with the wrong end in front!’ This, however, is merely an afterthought; the riddle as originally invented had no answer at all.”

I, for one, think that this is a super-lame and boring answer. I prefer the solution suggested by Sam Lloyd (a “puzzle expert”, which I can’t believe is a real job): “because Poe wrote on both”. Geddit?

My favourite Amazon reviews of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland:

  • “NO ILLUSTRATIONS!!!” – Steven Josefowicz
  • “Great great great
    I travelled in space love it!” – insect
  • “Womp wompPay for what ya get. Words on paper.” – Amazon Customer
  • “It’s a classic! Everybody knows that. Right now it is especially meaningful because the characters in Trumps WhiteHouse are so much like the characters in Alice’s “Wonderland.”” – Carol Elkins

 

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Sibling Rivalry: Who Was The Best Brontë?

Now and then you get a random cluster of super-successful people, all from the same family. There’s multiple household names on these particular family trees, recognisable the world over. In the ’80s, it was all about the Jacksons. The ’90s and ’00s had the Baldwins and the Wayans and the Arquettes. Today, you’ve probably got a favourite Hemsworth or Gyllenhaal or Franco. But back in the 19th century, they had the BrontĂ«s.

Who Was The Best Bronte? Text Box Overlaid on Green Pattern and Book Covers - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Who Were The Brontës?

There’s not a whole lot of sex/drugs/rock’n’roll in the BrontĂ« story, but bear with me. In 1812, a clergyman from a barely-literate Irish family (that’d be Patrick BrontĂ«) met and married the love of his life, Maria. They rapidly produced six offspring: Maria (born 1814), Elizabeth (1815), Charlotte (1816), Branwell (1817), Emily (1818) and Anne (1820). (OK, maybe there was a bit of sex… unprotected sex, apparently.)

To accommodate the expanding brood, Patrick moved his family to the village of Haworth, West Yorkshire. Even though the town’s population had grown exponentially, there was no sewerage or sanitary systems. The water supply was constantly contaminated by the rotting corpses in the cemetery up the hill (D-minus for the town planner). Food was scarce, and everyone survived (barely) on a steady diet of porridge and potatoes. Life expectancy for residents was around 25 years, and infant mortality was nearly half, so getting all of the BrontĂ«s up past knee height was a pretty significant accomplishment.

Unfortunately, even though the kids held up alright, their mother didn’t fare so well, and she died the following year. Her sister moved in with Patrick shortly after to help with running the house, but he needed a bit of peace and quiet (or a better education for the rugrats, or both). He found the kids places at a reputable charitable school not far away. Of course, even “reputable” charitable schools in those days had pupils so malnourished that they lost their eyesight, and rats would gnaw on their extremities at night, so it’s all relative.

Sure enough, the Brontës started dropping like flies. By 1825, both Maria and Elizabeth (the two eldest) were dead from illnesses contracted at school. Patrick got fed up with his kids dying, so he brought the remaining ones back home pronto.




Having suffered stoically through all this death and porridge, now finding themselves quite alone in the middle of nowhere, the remaining BrontĂ« sprogs – Charlotte, Emily, Branwell, and Anne – took to making up stories for their own entertainment. They created the fictional worlds of Angria and Gondal, writing stories and poems and feeding off one another’s creativity. In fact, they wrote more as children than any of them managed as adults. Just goes to show what lengths kids would go to keep from getting bored when they don’t have iPads.

In 1846, Charlotte, Emily and Anne had a collection of poems published under their pen names (Currer, Ellis, and Acton Bell). Branwell was making a pest of himself (more on that in a second), and contributed very little to their literary efforts from that point onward. Their isolation meant that the BrontĂ«s created their own kind of literary tradition – relatively untouched by the influence of others that came before, and one that could not be replicated by others that came after. Their creative output was, of course, cut short by their untimely deaths (Emily and Branwell bit the dust in 1848, Anne kicked the year after that, and Charlotte made it all the way to 1854). Still, their reputations continued to grow after their deaths. They are now considered to be one of the most influential literary families of all time, and their home in Haworth is a pilgrimage site (the BrontĂ« Parsonage Museum) for booklovers from around the world. None of the BrontĂ«s bore any children, so any genetic genius died out with paper Patrick; sadly, he outlived all of his children, dying in 1861.

Parents are probably supposed to say that they don’t have a favourite kid, and Patrick undoubtedly loved them all, but we are under no such obligation! Debate has raged for over a century now: who was the best BrontĂ«? Let’s take a look at the contenders…

Emily Brontë 

Emily gets pretty much all of the love nowadays. She only wrote one novel – Wuthering Heights – which I once described as a bad-boy’s decade-long over getting friendzoned. It’s a pretty spooky read, full of hauntings and moors and incestuous marriages and stuff. I suppose it’s also a pretty good “eternal love” story, if you’re into that kind of thing. Critics have been analysing Wuthering Heights for decades (I gave it a shot, too), and I’d bet they’re not even halfway done – there’s enough layers of metaphor to keep them at it for a while yet. It’s definitely the most iconic BrontĂ« novel (but could we really say that it’s the “best”? hmmm…)

As for the woman herself, Emily was a bit of a character. She had a bit of trouble holding down a job – mostly because all of the jobs for unmarried women her age at the time involved looking after kids, and she didn’t like that. In fact, she once told the pupils at the school where she taught that she preferred the school dog over all of them (same, girl, same). That teaching gig was the only one she ever had. She shrugged off the pressure to become a governess like her sisters, and focused intensely on her writing. She was the determined, hard-working, creative, childless-by-choice one. The media would probably call her a “nasty woman” if she were around today.

Charlotte Brontë 

I must say I’m very biased here, because Charlotte’s magnum opus – Jane Eyre – is one of my favourite books of all time. Charlotte was the “first historian of the private consciousness”, writing a story where all of the action is told through the eyes and experiences of the central character. She pretty much invented first-person narration as we understand it today. Jane Eyre tells the story of a young governess who survives a shitty childhood (complete with evil stepmother, and a boarding school that violates every health code ever), only to fall in love with her boss (who happens to be keeping his mad wife locked in his attic). It was a deeply feminist book, very progressive for its time, and so much more accessible and readable than Wuthering Heights! A highly recommended read here at Keeping Up With The Penguins 😉

Anyway, Charlotte was the pretty, popular one. Case in point: she received a pretty steady stream of marriage proposals throughout her life. One bloke, Reverend Henry Nussey, wrote her a letter asking for her hand – she turned him down because she just wasn’t that into him, and she thought (probably rightly) that being married to a clergyman would be boring as fuck. Another reverend – David Pryce – met her once (once!) at a tea party before he popped the question. She turned him down as well, figuring (once again, probably rightly) that he was bonkers. She did finally marry a curate (Arthur Bell Nicholls) – but even he had to propose twice before she finally conceded. No man was gonna hold Charlotte down!

Turns out, getting married was probably a bad call on her part anyway: Charlotte died less than a year after the ceremony, and it would seem that it was extreme morning sickness that done her in. Her death certificate listed “phthisis” (acute tuberculosis) as the cause of death, but today’s medicine points to an evil foetus as the more likely cause. Still, Charlotte did manage to out-live all of her siblings, and she was certainly more prolific than any of them. That’s a pretty strong case for her being the best BrontĂ« of all time, don’t you think?

Anne Brontë 

When you start Googling people’s opinions on who was the best BrontĂ«, you’re going to come across a squillion articles talking up Anne – the “forgotten” BrontĂ« sister. People seem to really sympathise with poor little Anne, younger sister to two of the greatest female writers of all time. They do have a point: Emily and Charlotte would have been tough acts to follow.

Still, I’m not sure Anne is as “forgotten” as everyone says. Her book The Tenant of Wildfell Hall is certainly having a resurgence at the moment. It’s the story of a woman living in (you guessed it) Wildfell Hall; she really wants some alone-time, but drunk fuckboys keep coming at her from all directions. Anne basically used this book to sub-tweet all of her siblings. She sent up Charlotte and Emily, who wrote angry hard-drinking men as irresistibly attractive love interests, and her brother Branwell, who was himself an angry hard-drinking man in life. All of her writing had pretty strong moral messages, and her female characters were Strong Independent WomenTM, which was pretty controversial for the time.

Charlotte certainly wasn’t a fan of her younger sister’s work. She actually prevented The Tenant of Wildfel; Hall being republished after Anne’s death, saying “Wildfell Hall it hardly appears to me desirable to preserve. The choice of subject in that work is a mistake, it was too little consonant with the character, tastes and ideas of the gentle, retiring inexperienced writer.” She sounds mad jelly, doesn’t she?

Anne has historically been a dark horse for the title of the best BrontĂ«, but judging by how much love she’s got on the internet over recent years, she’s probably the frontrunner now.

Branwell Brontë 

If you want to talk about the real forgotten BrontĂ«, spare a thought for poor drunk Branwell. Popular opinion would have it that Anne is the one who got shafted, but I’m sure you have never read anything by Branwell – in fact, you probably didn’t even know there was a BrontĂ« brother until now. Right?

In his younger years, Branwell’s father and sister thought he was an absolute genius – he was the darling of the family, intelligent and talented and driven. But, like so many white male boy-wonders before and since, his life quickly descended into a spiral of debt and addiction. Anne took pity on him and got him a job, but mad-dog Branwell got himself fired for having an affair with his boss’s wife (!). He frittered away the money he borrowed from his father (and, reportedly, stole from his employer), drinking and partying in establishments of ill-repute. He’d have been a fun guy to have along on a night out, but you probably wouldn’t have trusted him with your wallet.

As far as his writing goes, he and Charlotte actually co-wrote a book called Juvenilia when they were children. He followed that up with assorted pieces of poetry and prose. Things looked promising for Branwell when he got a few articles published in local newspapers… but he was ultimately waylaid by his love for opium. Branwell’s work is difficult to find today, and he’s barely a blip on the literary critique radar. He lives eternally in the shadow of his sisters, and you’d be hard pressed to find someone who’d unironically call him the best BrontĂ«.

So, who was the best Brontë?

Well, obviously, my vote is with Charlotte (and I give an honourable mention to Branwell, for being such a hot mess). But the true winner is up to you! Cast your vote by commenting below (or telling us your favourite over at KUWTP on Facebook), and subscribe to Keeping Up With The Penguins to be the first to know when we decide the winner 😉

 

Jane Eyre – Charlotte BrontĂ«

There was no possibility of picking up another treatise on how tough it is to be a white man that day… (without driving myself completely bonkers). That’s how I came to read Jane Eyre.

Jane Eyre - Charlotte Bronte - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Charlotte BrontĂ«’s masterpiece was originally published in 1847 under the title Jane Eyre: An Autobiography and “edited” under the pen name Currer Bell. All of the BrontĂ« sisters took on gender-ambiguous nom de plumes, assuming (quite rightly, it turned out) that literature written by women wouldn’t get a fair shake. Charlotte was once told by Robert Southey that “literature cannot be the business of a woman’s life: and it ought not to be”. Firstly, fuck that guy. Secondly, I’m glad Charlotte didn’t listen to him, because her shit is brilliant.

Charlotte was, as you’ve probably guessed, the older sister to Emily BrontĂ« (I reviewed Wuthering Heights a little while back). Emily gets all of the love and accolades, but it was Charlotte that truly revolutionised the art of first-person fiction (i.e., she was the first to really write about what was going on in people’s heads). She has been called “the first historian of private consciousness”, and her influence can be seen in the work of dudes like Proust and Joyce. She internalised the action the way that no one before her could, and was one of the first to explore classism, sexuality, religion, and feminism in the way we do today. So, when it comes to the BrontĂ« sibling rivalry, I’m going in to bat for Charlotte.

By the way, if I sound at all like I know what I’m talking about, it’s because the introduction to this edition is off the chain. It’s insightful, helpful, and intelligent – without going over your head. Plus, I just fucking loved Jane Eyre. I absorbed the book like a brand-new sponge baptised in bathwater.




Right from the outset, Jane Eyre is pretty gripping. Jane – the main character, duh – is ten years old, her parents are dead, and she has been sent to live with her nice, rich uncle… but he dies too, so she’s raised by her evil stepmother, alongside her three bratty cousins. Life’s pretty terrible for Jane, but it is beautifully written. I tend to feel pretty disconnected from literature of this period (as most would-be bookworms do); I don’t understand the language, the imagery, the style, and the metaphor. All of it seems anchored in a context that I don’t know enough about to fully comprehend… but not so with Jane! I was immediately immersed in her world. She feels everything so keenly, and passion drips from every word – I mean, she’s a very intense girl, but Charlotte BrontĂ« is artful enough to keep it from sliding into melodramatics. It’s everything that My Brilliant Career should have been.

Jane winds up in a boarding school, and the drama doesn’t stop: she’s pretty mercilessly bullied for a while, the girls are all kinds of weird, and her first best friend Helen Burns dies of tuberculosis. This is where we first see BrontĂ« really draw from her own life (I should do a shot every time an author in this project “writes what they know”). Helen’s death eerily mirrors the deaths of BrontĂ«’s own younger sisters: Elizabeth and Maria BrontĂ« both died of tuberculosis in childhood, as a result of the conditions at their school. So this whole section of the plot is basically Charlotte saying a big ol’ “fuck you” to so-called charitable institutions.

When Jane is done with school, she is transferred to the Thornfield mansion, and introduced to her new master Mr Rochester. Now, here’s what you’ve got to understand: I didn’t really like Rochester much, mostly because he constantly talks over and down to Jane, and he’s basically just a pompous, self-absorbed fuckboy of the highest order… but I found the initial flirtations between he and Jane very romantic. I really wanted to be a keener, more critical feminist, but this shit had me all aflutter. I’m pretty confident that every strong, independent woman who has had the misfortune of falling in love with a man can relate.


The saving grace is that Jane Eyre is a blatant proto-feminist call to arms. BrontĂ« doesn’t even try to hide it in layers of metaphor, like so many other writers of the time. She literally tells us, through Jane, that she thinks women are equal to men and it is absolute bullshit that they aren’t treated as such. She was so woke for her time that it confused the hell out of critics. One Ms Elizabeth Rigby wrote, in her “scathing” review, that “no woman trusses game and garnishes dessert dishes with the same hands, or talks of doing so in the same breath” and as such Jane Eyre must have been written by a man… or, at least, by a woman “so depraved as to have long forfeited the society of her own sex”. Fuck yes, Charlotte BrontĂ«, fuck yes! Troll reviews like that are how you know you’re on the right track.

It’s true that – panty-dropping for Rochester aside – Jane is a bad bitch. She fawns over him privately, sure, but in his company she makes every show of having no time for his bullshit. On the eve of their engagement, she says:

“Here I heard myself apostrophized as a ‘hard little thing’; and it was added ‘any other woman would have been melted to marrow hearing such stanzas crooned in her praise.’

I assured him that I was naturally hard – very flinty, and that he would often find me so; and that, moreover, I was determined to show him divers[e] rugged points in my character before the ensuing four weeks [engagement] elapsed: he should know fully what sort of bargain he had made, while there was yet time to rescind it.”

… and she proceeds to torture him mercilessly every damn day. Jane Eyre was the Beyonce’s Lemonade of its time.

If you’re tempted to roll your eyes right now, stop and think about it: this was a really scathing commentary on class and gender roles back in the day. Of course it wasn’t perfect – Jane doesn’t exactly call Rochester out on his treatment of his “savage Creole” wife that he hid in the attic, and there’s a few moments of superiority and white-saviourism – but it’s hardly fair to put a 21st century head on Charlotte BrontĂ«’s shoulders. As it stands, in her own context, she was a true radical.

And lest this talk of radical feminism scare you off, you should know that Jane Eyre is still fucking hilarious. You wouldn’t call it a “comedy” per se, but I literally laughed out loud countless times. Jane is so witty and dry and clever – maybe a touch too earnest and self-deprecating at times, but it’s endearing. Shit like this had me in hysterics:

“‘No sight so sad as that of a naughty child,’ he began, ‘especially a naughty little girl. Do you know where the wicked go after death?’

‘They go to hell,’ was my ready and orthodox answer.

‘And what is hell? Can you tell me that?’

‘A pit full of fire.’

‘And should you like to fall into that pit, and to be burning there for ever?’

‘No, sir.’

‘What must you do to avoid it?’

I deliberated a moment: my answer, when it did come, was objectionable: ‘I must keep in good health, and not die.'”

Jane Eyre is an amazing exposition of the patriarchal and class constraints experienced by a clever, funny woman over the course of a decade in the 19th century. The hot romance will make you feel like a bad feminist, but just go with it. Jane Eyre is absolutely teeming with redeeming qualities, and highly recommended by Keeping Up With The Penguins (and, as we all know, there is no higher praise than that!).

My favourite Amazon reviews of Jane Eyre:

  • “This version is “illustrated” with reproductions of paintings that have nothing whatsoever to do with the text. For example, in the middle of a description of Sundays at the Lowood school, when the girls had to walk two miles to church services in the snow, there is a picture of a Native American spearing a buffalo.” – J. W. Shields
  • “I could have read Dostoyevsky, Proust, Tolstoy, or O’Connor. I could have read Don Quixote a second time or sailed again with Captain Ahab on his philosophical quest. Instead, I wasted a few weeks reading this glorified soap opera with what is perhaps one of the most unintentional comic endings in all of literature. Onward, Sancho, onward!” – Nemo
  • “Gee, this is a classic. But I was shocked by the unremitting sadism in it and soon stopped reading it.” – U. S. ‘nAye
  • “The floral print came off and not noticing this, it transferred to my leg while wearing shorts. Other than that the book is great…” – Nancy Host
  • “I read this against my will.” – Erik

 

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7 Books Recommended by Ernest Hemingway

Ernest Hemingway was no slouch when it came to writing, as we’ve established, but perhaps his true talent actually lay in reading. He would read anywhere up to ten books at a time, plus squeezing in at least a few newspapers and journals every single day. He would travel with a huge bag full of books for reading on the journey. The dude was voracious, in more ways than one.

In 1934, aspiring writer Arnold Samuelson knocked on Hemingway’s door, and asked to pick his brain. It was a ballsy move, given that Hemingway had a reputation for (a) being grumpy, and (b) liking guns. And yet, Samuelson wound up becoming Hemingway’s only true protĂ©gĂ©, working in his employ and following him around the world for nearly a year. During that time, Hemingway was kind enough to jot down a list of books that (according to him) all writers must read. Samuelson kept the list, and published it in his book With Hemingway: A Year in Key West and Cuba. Hemingway told Samuelson not to bother with writers of the day, and focus on becoming better than his favourite dead white guys: Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Flaubert.

Then, the following year (1935), Hemingway wrote a piece for Esquire magazine (Remembering Shooting-Flying: A Key West Letter). Perhaps inspired by his list for Samuelson, he digressed from his point briefly to give us another list – the books he desperately wished he could read again for the first time. In fact, he put his money where his mouth is, and said that he would rather have another chance to read any one of them for the first time than have an income of a million per year. Big talk, eh? He lamented that there were “very few good new ones”, and that perhaps his days of enjoying previously-undiscovered literature were behind him (so dramatic).

Anyway, given that the guy clearly knew his shit, it might be high time we review a list of books recommended by Ernest Hemingway. (Pay extra-close attention if you’re an aspiring writer, there’s bound to be something in here for you…)

7 Books Recommended by Ernest Hemingway - Green and White Text overlaid on Greyscale Image of Ernest Hemingway - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Madame Bovary – Gustave Flaubert

I’ve mentioned before that I think Emma Bovary is one of the best “bad women” in literature. Flaubert’s Madame Bovary follows the story of her attempts to escape the intolerable boredom of her provincial married life. She descends into a spiral of alcoholism, adultery, and debt, unraveling and undone by her unwieldy desires. It is a story exquisitely told, and the woman isn’t exactly painted in the best light – so it’s no surprise that it was right up Hemingway’s alley.

Dubliners – James Joyce

Dubliners is a collection of fifteen stories, all centered around Joyce’s distaste for his ‘dear dirty Dublin’, exposing the corruption, vulgarity, and heartlessness of his city of birth. The collection was the first notable publication of 20th century realist literature coming from Ireland, and to this day it is celebrated for its artful depiction of the infamous Dublin accent. Dubliners doesn’t appear on The List (I’m tackling Ulysses instead), but Hemingway’s recommendation of this gritty, brutal read still counts for something.


Anna Karenina – Leo Tolstoy

Another one of my favourite bad women – are you sensing a theme in Hemingway’s favourites? Anna Karenina is widely considered to be one of the best love stories (indeed, one of the best novels) ever written, so hats off to Tolstoy. Anna, a beautiful but self-indulgent woman, seeks the love of Count Vronsky (who is definitely not her husband), and basically sets fire to her 19th century Russian life. Tolstoy’s writing is beautiful, passionate, and intense – not for the faint of heart, though undoubtedly easier to tackle than the doorstop-worthy War & Peace (which also featured on Hemingway’s lists).

The Brothers Karamazov – Fyodor Dostoyevsky

Hemingway didn’t want to make it easy for us! Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment is hard enough to wade through, but Papa took it one step further and recommended The Brothers Karamazov, an even more complicated and controversial novel. The story kicks off with the murder of cruel and corrupt landowner Fyodor Karamazov, and follows the fallout in the lives of his three sons (well, four, if you count the illegitimate son posing as a manservant). It’s a detective story, in a way, but it’s no Sherlock Holmes – you’ll need your thinking cap on for this early post-modernist tome.




 Wuthering Heights – Emily BrontĂ«

Wuthering Heights definitely one of Hemingway’s more readable suggestions, so it might be best to start here if you’re new to the game. I once described Emily BrontĂ«’s only novel in a single sentence thus: A bad boy’s decade-long butthurt over getting friendzoned, culminating in his death – at which point, he and his true love spend eternity haunting their old stomping grounds, while their surviving children enter into incestuous marriages. Yes, it’s a long sentence, but I still think it’s a fairly accurate summary. You can check out my full review here.

The American – Henry James

Hemingway was the archetypal American “ex-pat” (because we only call brown people “immigrants”). He spent a decent chunk of his life in France and Spain, shooting and fishing and running with bulls. So it’s no surprise that he was really into The American, a story of a wealthy American man trying to marry into the French aristocracy. James dissects the cultural differences between Americans and Europeans in a melodramatic, but ultimately kind of comedic, way. James is one of the only authors to appear twice on The List – my reviews of The Turn of the Screw and The Golden Bowl are coming soon!

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn – Mark Twain

Hemingway is quoted as saying he considered The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn “the best book an American ever wrote”, and that it “marks the beginning of American literature” (kind of like Lennon saying that, before Elvis, there was nothing). It’s a big call, but I think we can all agree that Huck Finn is one of Twain’s most enduring and celebrated works, at least. It is the sequel to his previous (also renowned) The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, and it explores the conflict between civilisation and nature – a lofty topic if there ever was one. My review of this one is also coming soon on Keeping Up With The Penguins

In the end, you can be pretty confident that any book recommended by Ernest Hemingway is going to be a heavy read. Everything he loved explored the underbelly of humanity in some way, and it seems like they got bonus points if they did it in Europe, or featured bad women front and center. What do you think of Hemingway’s recommended reads? How many have you read? Let me know in the comments below (or tell us over at KUWTP on Facebook!).

 

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The Sun Also Rises – Ernest Hemingway

A little while back, I conned my mate Andrew into visiting a secondhand bookstore with me (my friends know that I’m prone to this kind of maneuver). While were were there, another patron overheard me (loudly) bitching about how difficult it was to find a well-preserved copy of Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises. She tapped me on the shoulder, pulled this copy off the shelf, and handed it to me so sweetly I almost cried. Well, of course, all of this happened on the very day that I had no cash on me – so Andrew swooped in and bought it for me. What a champion!

The Sun Also Rises - Ernest Hemingway - Keeping Up With The Penguins

I was eager to read more Hemingway. I first encountered his short story Hills Like White Elephants at uni, and I’ve re-read it a thousands times since; it was very formative for me. Other than that, my only real exposure to Hemingway was Kat’s succinct analysis in 10 Things I Hate About You (of course).

Kat on Hemingway - 10 Things I Hate About You - Keeping Up With The Penguins

The Sun Also Rises, Hemingway’s first novel, was published in 1926. He actually pulled a sneaky trick to make sure he got the publisher that he wanted for it. While under contract to Boni & Liveright (with whom he was unhappy for some reason), he submitted a hastily-written satirical novella that he knew they would reject, effectively terminating his contract on the spot. This allowed him to submit The Sun Also Rises to Scribner’s, and the rest is history.

The story follows a group of American and British migrants who travel to Pamplona to watch the running of the bulls and the bullfights. Of course, Hemingway was the king of “write what you know”, so the story is very closely based on his own trip to Spain in 1925. The characters were real people in Hemingway’s circle, and the action is based on real events. Apparently, he had originally intended to write a non-fiction book about bullfighting, but he decided that his experiences had given him plenty of content for a novel – and the result was The Sun Also Rises.

So, what’s it like? Well, it seems to confirm the worst of what people say about Hemingway. It’s all brooding white guys, drinking a lot, and butting bruised masculine egos. The women are either shrill harpies or desirable floozies. Nothing much seems to happen in the first part, and you’ve got to keep a weather eye out for the details that make the actual story. A boy likes an unattainable girl, who shags all of his rich friends but sticks him in the friendzone. The boy goes fishing with those friends, and the girl tags along. Everybody drinks.


The dialogue is so sparse and hard to follow that I almost missed what seems to be the focal point of the novel: Jake (the protagonist) is literally impotent, thanks to a nasty war wound. Once I cottoned onto that, I couldn’t decide whether it made The Sun Also Rises better or worse. I know that his injury symbolises the disillusionment and frustration of his entire cohort, not to mention Jake’s own metaphorical impotence in navigating friendships and politics in post-war Europe, but… it’s just a little obvious, isn’t it? A little too neat? I mean, a man gets his dick blown off and starts questioning the meaning of the world without his masculinity in it: pfft.

As much as Hemingway is the darling of the American literary canon, not everybody loved The Sun Also Rises, so I know I’m not alone here. A reviewer at the Cincinnati Enquirer wrote at the time that The Sun Also Rises “begins nowhere and ends in nothing”, which I thought was particularly pithy. Even Hemingway’s own mother wasn’t a fan: she hung shit on him for wasting his talents on such filth, writing to him “Surely you have other words in your vocabulary than ‘damn’ and ‘bitch’ – every page fills me with a sick loathing”. You can’t please everyone…

Anyway, Jake’s love interest is Brett – and wherever she goes, trouble follows. Men fall over themselves for her: they drink too much, and fight one another. I liked Brett in so much as she was unashamed about enjoying sex and chasing good times – there’s not enough of that in female characters, even today – but I certainly didn’t idolise her the way that Grown Up Literary Critics seem to. To me, she was a mere receptacle for all of the projections, hopes and frustrations of men. She lacked any true independence or self-determination. It’s all well and good to commit yourself to the ho-life, but damn girl – have a sense of who you are!




 

Jake’s defective junk is the primary obstacle to their having a relationship – which seems kind of quaint and ridiculous to a post-Sexual Revolution reader. If Brett and Jake had heard of cunnilingus, The Sun Also Rises would have played out differently. Of course, that would depend on Hemingway opening his mind to the sexual agency of a woman. You can be damn sure that if the situation were reversed, and Brett had had her lady parts blown off in the war, Hemingway would have been writing a life of endless blow jobs for Jake – a “happy ending” as it were (ha!).

This is yet another book from The List that makes it abundantly clear to me how little humanity has changed over time (see also: Dante’s The Divine Comedy). Nearly a century after its publication, I still recognise Hemingway’s descriptions of pre-gaming for the fiesta (akin to skulling Vodka Cruisers at home before jumping in the Uber to the club). All the men around Brett are just bitching about how they’ve been “friendzoned”, the way that angry young men do on the internet today. Technology might progress exponentially, and the new cycle might move ever-faster, but those same base urges come forth one way or another.

I think I’ll need to give The Sun Also Rises another read or two before I write it off completely. Another friend (who loves it) asked me what I thought after I’d finished, and (very gently) pointed out all the ways in which I was wrong. It has been critiqued to death, along with all of Hemingway’s other works, and a spot of Googling reveals all kinds of readings that I overlooked. Spoilers actually save the day with this one – it’s actually better if you know the history and the themes going in. The Sun Also Rises should really be appreciated as art, moreso than as a story in and of itself.

My tl;dr summary would be this: it’s a self-indulgent story about drunk Americans and Brits trying to fuck one another and ignore their existential crises in Spain, whinging and bruised male egos galore. Proceed with caution.

My favourite Amazon reviews of The Sun Also Rises:

  • “Of course I’m missing the point. Literary scholars be damned. This one was just a lot of drinking and yapping away about seemingly insignificant things. The title, I can only surmise, refers to those drinking nights that extend until, you guessed it, the sun rises.” – 3MAT3
  • “I tried to like it. I was in Pamplona and San Sebastian. 20 years ago, and 15 years ago, and 10 years ago, and 2 weeks ago, I started it. I couldn’t stand it. Nothing is worse than a writer penning a story about writing. The book is a cliche. And, Hemingway was a wimp. He drank wimpy drinks. Mojito? Bellini?” – Duff
  • “good writing, no use of pointless big words, not all of us went to harvard, hemingway gets that.” – Lucas Rascon
  • “Easy to read. Mostly pointless – but I guess that’s the point.” – Stanley Townsend
  • “It’s a masterpiece. If you can handle all the drinking, the bitch called Brett, and a pain in the as s named Cohn. But, it’s a classic and Hemingway will at least teach you how to drink absinthe, if you’re too scared to learn his powerful and dangerous approach to descriptive prose, which I highly recommend, as it beats bullfighting for a living, or looking for a male meal ticket, at which Brett excels. Five obligatory stars. If you hated it, you have no soul.” – Pyrata

 

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Literature Wars: Fiction Versus Non-Fiction

This week, I had the pleasure of reviewing and recommending Bill Bryson’s A Short History of Nearly Everything, one of just seven non-fiction books on The List. I’ve powered through a lot of fiction so far for Keeping Up With The Penguins, so switching to a non-fiction book was a great change of pace.

It got me to thinking: why do we choose fiction over non-fiction, or vice versa? Is one better than the other? I thought I’d break down the literature wars: fiction versus non-fiction.

Literature Wars Fiction Versus Non Fiction - Black Text Overlaid on Image of Man Facing Away on a White Background - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Who’s Reading What?

There have been a few different surveys on this subject, and they all show pretty much the same thing. For starters, there’s a significant gender differential: men lean towards non-fiction, while women lean towards fiction. There’s also an age difference, with young readers far more likely to read fiction, while older readers (especially baby boomers) prefer non-fiction. Basically, you can safely assume that the majority of young women are going to prefer novels, while male baby boomers are going to want a biography or a popular science book.

I’m not sure how much that really tells us, though. I started to think about the fiction versus non-fiction debate in terms of a metaphor. Something like this: non-fiction is the main course, and fiction is dessert. They serve different purposes, and having too much of one and not enough of the other is ultimately dissatisfying. The “right” ratio, though, depends almost entirely on someone’s personal preference (and yes, maybe that’s influenced by your age or gender, but it will vary widely regardless).

Some people just “aren’t dessert people”, and they’d rather have a second helping of chicken while everyone else scoops out the ice cream. Other people happily forego the main course altogether and have dessert-for-dinner. In the middle are the majority, people who prefer some reasonable combination of the two most of the time. That’s definitely where I fall.

Why Storytelling Matters

Noel Gallagher once famously told GQ Magazine that he thought fiction novels were a “waste of time”, and he’s not the only one who feels that way. There is a perception among some readers that non-fiction is somehow “smarter” than fiction. This is usually rooted in the idea that non-fiction deals in facts and data, while fiction falls into the realm of “escapist storytelling”.

However, the reality (and the science!) doesn’t quite back that up. In fact, non-fiction is often limited in its ability to communicate ideas and concepts because it is inextricably tied to objective realities. This is where fiction’s flexibility becomes its greatest asset. Take a book like Brave New World, for instance: Aldous Huxley communicated some very important ideas about society and power through the creation of a imaginary future world. Setting the story in this fictional context created an engaging, provoking piece of work that people wanted to read. If Huxley had written a dry treatise on what he thought was wrong with the way society was headed, would we still consider it a classic? Would we still teach it in the classroom today? Probably not.




Why Logic Matters

Fiction is not without its limitations. The only “requirement” of fiction is that it makes logical sense to the reader, no matter how preposterous the premise. If I may get a bit pretentious for a second, this idea goes all the way back to Aristotle. He told us, in Poetics, that logic is all that’s necessary to hold a story’s plot together. Readers will only accept a fictional story if the plot follows some kind of logical sequence – no one teaches the reader what this logic is, their brains make those computations all on their own, but it has to be there. In one sense, this is great, because the more logical cause-and-effect fiction we read, the better we become at understanding and interpreting these concepts (albeit subconsciously).

But have you ever heard that old maxim the truth is stranger than fiction? So many writers have stories about being unable to publish their non-fiction work, purely because it doesn’t follow these logical rules. To make another slightly-pretentious call-out, it was Mark Twain who said “Fiction is obliged to stick to the possibilities; truth isn’t.”

What this means is that reading fiction exclusively will rob us of the opportunity to read and appreciate real-life stories that don’t follow the “rules”. Non-fiction can break all the rules it wants, but it has to get published (which is tough, if the reader finds it unbelievable because it doesn’t follow Aristotle’s cause-and-effect logic), and people have to actually read it in order to benefit. If we don’t have access to these stories, we miss out on the opportunity to learn more about how the world actually operates around us.

What’s About What’s Good For Your Brain?

Setting aside the logic issue for a second, scientific methods have demonstrated in a number of different ways that reading fiction is actually really good for your thinking meat. Remember how your brain is able to discern whether a story makes logical sense or not without you having to learn an algorithm first? Well, the more fiction you read, the better you become at understanding those patterns – and those patterns, it turns out, are a crucial element of empathy.

Reading fiction helps the reader learn to identify thought patterns, predict behaviour, understand perspective, and navigate emotional situations and moral dilemmas. Reading about the experiences of fictional people is basically exercise for your brain, making it stronger and priming it to understand your own experience and that of people around you.

We have seen in functional-MRI studies that the brain pathways used to understand fictional stories are the very same ones we use when we’re participating in social situations, and navigating the thoughts and feelings and intentions of others. Put another way, identifying with the feelings and actions of characters triggers the same parts of our brain that are active when we identify with the feelings and actions of real people. Isn’t that cool?

Non-fiction will give you knowledge, that much is undeniable. You’ll learn all about gravity, or origami, or the life of someone surprising, or the habits that will make you more successful – even if the information isn’t presented in a coherent logical narrative. You accrue all of that knowledge and store it for later use. But it’s fiction that gives you the skills to best apply it in your real life.

So, How Do We Choose?

The general consensus seems to be that fiction offers experiential access to new perspectives, increasing your capacity for empathy and basically making you a better person. At the same time, non-fiction feeds your thinking meat new facts and theories, expanding your mind in that way. Experiential wisdom isn’t much use without any knowledge to apply, and vice versa. So, each type of book has its own merit, and each provides its own benefit. In the literature wars of fiction versus non-fiction… it’s a toss-up! Sorry if that sounds like a cop-out, but it’s true 😉

Ultimately, you need to decide for yourself what you enjoy most, what you “feel like” in the moment, and what’s going to meet your goals. If you’re trying to read for fun and your years as a university student have made you involuntarily recoil at anything resembling a textbook, perhaps you should give non-fiction a break and focus on novels for a while (though I would strongly recommend still checking out A Short History of Nearly Everything – I promise it won’t make you want to pull out your eyeballs with a fork). On the other hand, if you’ve read nothing but romance novels for the past seven years, but you’re interested in learning more about the political history of your country, maybe try picking up a non-fiction book from your local library or bookstore and giving it a try.


What do you think? Do you prefer fiction or non-fiction? What was the last book you read outside of your usual preference? Let me know in the comments below (or share with us over at KUWTP on Facebook!).

 

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A Short History Of Nearly Everything – Bill Bryson

I remember reading Bill Bryson’s Down Under as a tween, and while my brain has written over most of the actual content, I do remember howling with laughter. I figured I could do with a bit of a giggle after The Divine Comedy, so I went with A Short History Of Nearly Everything as my next undertaking from The List.

A Short History of Nearly Everything - Bill Bryson - Keeping Up With The Penguins

I wasn’t sure where to find A Short History Of Nearly Everything when I was trawling through my favourite secondhand bookstore. Would it be under History? Science? Reference? Ultimately, I found it buried in the miscellaneous no-mans-land shelf, just below “Philosophy”, which seemed fitting. I thanked my lucky stars that it was a paperback – this book is a monster, and I’ve seen a few hardcover copies that could be used for deadlifts.

One of my favourite things about secondhand books is the inscriptions you find in the front. This one reads: “July ’04 – Dear Rodger, The best present I could find for the Man who knows (nearly) everything! Thanks for your time, encouragement… and straight talking. Good luck with everything and I will see you soon! Lyn x”. Shout out to straight-talking Rodger, wherever he is. I hope he finished the book and (now knowing everything) no longer needs it.


On with the review: A Short History Of Nearly Everything does exactly what it says on the label. It serves as a crash-course introduction to most areas of scientific inquiry, covering off everything from the Big Bang to evolution to quantum mechanics. It sounds like it should be a snooze-fest, I know, but it’s written in a folksy, conversational style that most of the general public will find easily accessible. Proof in the pudding: it was one of the best-selling pop-science books of 2005.

Its big selling point is, of course, that it is Science for the Everyman – but don’t be fooled! There’s some shit in here that will fuck with your thinking meat. I thought I’d burn through it really quickly, given Bryson’s famously-readable voice, but I found I had to go back and re-read a lot of passages a few times over in order to truly wrap my head around their meaning. It’s hard to comprehend, for instance, the true size of the solar system (it turns out those diagrams in your textbooks at school were a lie). Fortunately, Bryson breaks up the hard parts with gossipy tid-bits about the history of science: who slept with whom, who hated whom, who stole ideas and passed them off as their own. He also manages to work in a few laughs.

“Our tolerance for plutonium is zero: there is no level at which it is not going to make you want to lie down.”

More than anything, Bryson makes it abundantly clear how little we actually know – even about things that we think we know. Fascinating stuff.

Haters on the internet have pointed out some factual errors and inaccuracies (of course), but in large part these are solely due to new discoveries made, or reclassifications, since publication. A Short History Of Nearly Everything is over a decade old, for fuck’s sake – I think we can forgive Bryson for saying that Pluto is a planet.

A Short History Of Nearly Everything is perfect for anyone who finds themselves in need of fun facts that can be delivered smugly, over a water cooler or knock-off beers. I will definitely read it again, just for fun, and so it gets the coveted status of Recommended here at Keeping Up With The Penguins.

My favourite Amazon reviews of A Short History Of Nearly Everything:

  • “too technical for my 95 year old mother” – SQ
  • “To be Terse; Good!” – Samoa Tech
  • “Not a huge fan of books. You’ve got to make it interesting to get me to read it. And even though I recently purchase a terrific new two-pack of 2.0 readers right here on Amazon for dirt cheap, I still can’t read this tiny little type. This book tries to jam pack very large quantities of words into a few pounds of paper. It’s unreadable.
    I am an author and despite my dislike of books in general, I bought this to see what the bestselling authors were up to. I was very disappointed. It’s like going to a restaurant where they care nothing about quality as long as you feel fat.
    Keep writing Bill! Or hiring people to do it for you! Keep jamming words into best selling books! People seem to love them, and I think they sometimes feel smart just knowing someone might see the book hanging around in their living room.
    I WOULD recommend, on the other hand, a good Oliver Stone documentary. If you want to learn things.” – Mark Urso
  • “This is probably a great book but I am not smart enough t read it. Seriously Im not trying to be funny

.. and Im suppose dto be kinda smart.” – michael s wolf

 

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A Complete(ish) Beginner’s Guide to Really Old Poems

This week on Keeping Up With The Penguins, I reviewed The Divine Comedy – Dante Alighieri’s narrative poem dating back to the 14th century. It’s the oldest book on The List, and the only poem on there too. I’d heard about Inferno (the first “book” of The Divine Comedy) all my life, but I had only the vaguest idea what it was actually about. As I thought about it a bit more, I realised there’s a whole bunch of really famous, really old poems that I’ve never read. I’ve bluffed my way through conversations about The Iliad, and snoozed through a film adaptation of Beowulf, but for the most part those poems remained a mystery to me. I figured I couldn’t be the only one, so I set about learning everything I could about them, all so I could bring you this: the complete(ish) beginner’s guide to really old poems.

The Complete(ish) Beginner's Guide To Really Old Poems - Text Overlaid on Image of Hand Written Page - Keeping Up With The Penguins

The Epic of Gilgamesh (Approx. 2,000 BC)

You thought The Divine Comedy was old? We’re talking really old here today. The Epic of Gilgamesh is widely regarded as the earliest surviving great work of literature, dating all the way back to ancient Mesopotamia. Of course, a poem that old has been rehashed and rebooted so many times that we have no idea who wrote it anymore. At one point, five different stories were combined into a single epic poem and immortalised in the “Old Babylonian” version (scratched into a few tablets in the 18th century BC), and that remains the oldest surviving version of The Epic of Gilgamesh .

I’m assuming you’re not exactly up on your Mesopotamian history (I’m sure not), so the story might be a bit hard to follow, but it’s so crazy it’s worth bearing with me. This bloke, Gilgamesh, was the king of Uruk (an ancient city in modern-day Iraq). He was a bit of a dick to his people, so the gods created Enkidu, a “wild man” that could only be civilised through a crazy fuck fest with a local harlot (I’m not kidding). Once he got that out of the way, Enkidu challenged Gilgamesh to a fight. Gilgamesh won, but they had a laugh about it and an ancient Mesopotamian beer together afterwards. They became great friends, and worked out a plan to kill Humbaba The Terrible. See, Humbaba was guarding the sacred tree in the Cedar forest, and they wanted to chop it down to do some home improvement projects (or something). Meanwhile, the goddess Ishtar was pissed that Gilgamesh rejected her booty call, so she sent down the Bull of Heaven to sort him out… but he and his new buddy Enkidu took him down, too. Killer team, these two!

Anyway, the gods were pretty shitty that their “wild man” went off script like that, so they sentenced him to death. Gilgamesh was really cut up about losing his bro, so he wandered off into the woods to try and find the “secret to eternal life”. He looked long and hard, but only found some old dude who fed him annoying platitudes about death being part of life. Boo. Gilgamesh thought he might be onto something with a magic flower for a minute, but then a snake came along and ate it, so he was back to square one. In the end, he returned home and became a magnificent ruler, dying of old age.

The Epic of Gilgamesh hits the trifecta of being super-old (indeed, the oldest!), a crazy good epic story (see above), and pretty damn significant in literary terms. We knew almost nothing about the Sumerians (who lived in that area and wrote the thing all that time ago) prior to the discovery of these tablets. Plus, a lot of the story mirrors or echoes stories from the Bible, which wasn’t written until much later. Great floods, divine punishment – is The Epic of Gilgamesh corroborating evidence for these stories, or did the Christians just blatantly rip them off? Academic debate rages on…

You can get The Epic of Gilgamesh here.


The Iliad & The Odyssey (Approx. 900 BC)

We have to skip ahead quite a way to find what we can call the oldest surviving work of Western literature. Long after the Sumerians chipped away at tablets, the Ancient Greeks jumped on the bandwagon and started committing stories to written poetry. The Iliad and The Odyssey are widely attributed to our new friend Homer, but he was old and blind and never wrote anything down, and the stories had been on the Ancient Greek grapevine for quite a while, so it’s kind of controversial to definitively say that he “wrote” them. Either way, these poems were #1 on the charts in Ancient Greece, and their influence on art, literature and culture continues to this day.

The Iliad is an epic poem depicting a few weeks in the final year of the Trojan War, when there was big beef between King Agamemnon and the warrior Achilles (yep, like that thing on your foot, same one). The poem is super long, though, and it pulls in all kinds of history and prophesies for the future and stuff, so it basically tells the story of the whole war as well as a bunch of Ancient Greek legends. It was followed by The Odyssey, a sort of sequel, written not long after. This might be one of the few instances in history where the sequel is sexier than the original, because The Odyssey follows the story of Odysseus trying to get home after a big one out at Troy. His wife – Penelope – thought he was dead, so we also get the story of how she fought off all the fellas trying to slide into her DMs now that she’s single again. Both of these poems were originally composed in what’s now called Homeric Greek (Homer was such a big deal, he got a dialect named after him), and likely floated around in oral traditions (i.e., slam poets performing it on the street for cash) for quite a while before anyone could find a pen.

A couple extra fun facts for you: The Odyssey was kind of the first feminist poem, because women actually got to speak and make decisions and stuff (Penelope was a bad bitch, she totally ran things). And we refer to long journeys as “odysseys” now, which – you guessed it – we get from the poem. So as you can see, these poems – and our mate Homer – are a Big DealTM.

You can get a gorgeous leather-bound copy of The Iliad and The Odyssey together here.


The Mahābhārata (Approx. 900 BC)

Around the same time, one of the two major Sanskrit epics of ancient India emerged: the Mahābhārata. Indians generally attribute the poem to Vyasa (a Sanskrit name meaning, literally, “compiler”). He is revered as a deity in most Hindu traditions, being one of the Chiranjivins (immortals), and there is a festival (Guru Purnima) held in his honour each year. Funnily enough, he’s also a central character in this epic poem he wrote – fancy that! Academics and experts have tried their best to work out an accurate history of the poem (epics like that don’t just appear, you know, they are composed in bits and pieces over time). As best we can tell, the oldest written parts still in existence date back to about the 5th century BC, but the poem itself emerged at least a few centuries before that.

The Mahābhārata has many different translations, the most common of which describes it as “the great tale of the Bhārata dynasty”. It tells the story of the Kuruksetra War, in great, great detail. Two cousins got into a hectic fight about who should be next in line to the throne, and next thing you know there’s a great whopping battle and a whole bunch of casualties and everyone heads into the afterlife. I know most epic poems are long (it’s kind of their defining characteristic), but get this: it is the longest epic poem still known to us today (and the longest one ever written, as far as we know). Unsurprisingly, then, in addition to the big war, it covers all kinds of other shit: philosophy, religion, royalty, family conflict, friendship, death, and everything else you can imagine. The longest version has about 200,000 lines, plus a bunch of parts that aren’t actually poetry at all (“prose passages”). That’s ten times the length of The Iliad and The Odyssey combined. So if you want to give this one a crack, you’re going to need to allot a lot of time.

In terms of literary significance, ancient Indian texts often don’t get the attention they deserve in the West (we’re too busy figuring out whether Homer actually wrote shit down himself or whether someone else did it for him). Chances are, you hadn’t even heard of The Mahābhārata until right now. You might have heard of the Bhagavad Gita though (“the song of the Lord” for Hindu Indians), so take heart: the Gita is actually an extract from The Mahābhārata. In that sense, in terms of significance, this epic poem is on par with the Holy Bible. Let that sink in.

You can get The Mahābhārata in full here, or the Bhagavad Gita section here.

The Aeneid (19-29 BC)

Yes, a lot of stuff happened poetry-wise over the following centuries, but we can skip over it all to catch up to the Aeneid: an epic poem of Ancient Rome written by a bloke called Virgil (and it’s finally recent enough that we can lock down to a relative certainty who wrote what, yay!). Virgil was king shit when it came to poetry in Ancient Rome; he wrote this one and a handful of others that pretty much defined this period in literature.

As far as The Aeneid goes, it took him ten years to write it, so he worked bloody hard to get it right. It’s actually modelled off the Iliad and the Odyssey, so it’s stacks on stacks of brilliance. The Aeneid tells the story of a Trojan guy called Aeneas; he actually featured in the Iliad too, so it’s kind of like Virgil’s homage to Homer (and maybe an attempt to outdo him, just a little bit). The poem is split in half, and each section split into six (so twelve “books” all up). The first half covers Aeneas getting the fuck out of Troy after the Greeks came around and destroyed the joint (remember that wooden horse?). He and his Trojan buddies sail to Italy, with the larrikin idea of founding a new empire (Rome). Aeneas has a bit of a rough trot with curses and weather events and stuff. He even finds the love of a good woman, only for her to kill herself when he sails off to get on with his Rome-founding. When he finally makes it to Italy, he randomly descends into the underworld, and has a chat with his dead Dad. Finally, he comes back up and they’re in Italy ready to do some founding, and everything’s grand…

… until Aeneas kills one of the local herdsman’s pets, and there’s some drama over whether he’s an eligible suitor for the princess of the day. This kicks off a war, and Aeneas has to get his arse in gear to pull some troops together. There’s some nail-biting back-and-forth between the warring factions, lots of people die (which seems to be a common theme in these poems), but ultimately Aeneas and his posse are victorious. And Rome was built in a day! (Just kidding…)

Virgil actually died on a research trip to Greece while he was editing The Aeneid. He told everyone to burn the manuscript when he died, but no one listened – so even though he spent ten years working on it, we’ve ended up with some half-arsed epic poem that the writer probably wasn’t even happy with, and we hold it up as one of the greatest pieces of Latin literature ever written. It’s a cornerstone of the Western canon, and just about everyone who learns Latin is still forced to memorise at least part of it. Its influence can be seen in almost everything that came after it (including the following poems listed here)…

You can pick up a great translation of The Aeneid here.




Beowulf (975 AD)

Now we’re back on our own side of the Christ divide, and onto texts that were actually written in English. Beowulf is the oldest one of those (though the date of its actual composition is still up for debate, and nerdy academics get really fired up about it). Unfortunately, we have no bloody idea who actually wrote it, so the nerds literally just refer to them as “the Beowulf poet” (very creative).

So, there’s this pub in Denmark, right? (Seriously, this is how it actually starts). All the king’s soldiers have beers there after they’re done fighting battles. They sing, trade gifts, and have a jolly good time. They’re not very considerate of their neighbours when leaving the premises, though, and in this case their neighbour is the swampland demon Grendel. He gets the shits with their carry-on, so he goes on a killing spree every night until they quieten down. Then, a bloke living in Geats (that’s Beowulf!) hears about the big demon and figures he could take him, so he sails to Denmark.

This Beowulf character is actually pretty good; he manages to defeat Grendel and tear off his arm, even though he’d been out drinking with the boys all the night before. The Danes are all very grateful, but Grendel’s mother is really ticked off about her dead son, so she comes seeking revenge. She doesn’t kill Beowulf straight away, but she kills one of the king’s mates and runs away, figuring he’ll come chasing after her (which he does – men are stupid). She and Beowulf have this crazy underwater battle, and he manages to come out a winner again. Everybody’s happy!

You’d think that would be the end, but no. Beowulf heads home to Geats and ends up becoming king. Everything’s chill for a while, until some kid wakes up a dragon, and Beowulf ends up having to sort that out too. He’s gone a bit soft in his old age, and he dies of a whopping great dragon bite. His people burn him on a pyre, and he’s buried with a bunch of treasure.

There’s only one surviving original manuscript and it is literally about 1,000 years old. It nearly burnt to a crisp in a fire in 1731, so you can bet they’re keeping a bloody close eye on it now. J.R.R. Tolkien was obsessed with it, and literary criticism of Beowulf pretty much began with him. It’s still super-popular and modern versions and adaptations are being released all the time (remember the movie with Angelina Jolie a few years ago?), moreso than any of the other poems on this list.

You can get a highly-acclaimed version (and even a bilingual edition) of Beowulf here.


The Divine Comedy (1321 AD)

And here we are, back where I began with this week’s review: The Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri. The Divine Comedy is a narrative poem split into three parts (Inferno – the most famous – then Purgatorio and Paradiso), describing Dante’s journey through Hell and Purgatory, and eventual arrival in Heaven. It is widely considered the preeminent work in Italian literature. The Divine Comedy was so influential that it pretty much single-handedly cemented the Tuscan dialect (the one that Dante wrote in) as the official Italian language. Can you imagine a book deciding what language a country speaks today? Crazy!

Dante was so heavily influenced by Virgil (remember him from the Aeneid?) that he made him one of the characters, alongside himself, in the poem. Dante and Virgil (the characters) take a nice little trip down into the underworld, making their way through increasingly awful circles of hell until they get to the center where the worst sinners hang out. As if that wasn’t bad enough, they then hike up the Mountain of Purgatory, where’s it pretty much more of the same but with less skin-flaying; everyone’s just hanging around praying, trying to get into Heaven. Finally, Virgil buggers off, and Dante meets up with the chick he had a crush on back in the mortal realm. She guides him through Heaven, and there’s lots of praising the Lord and stuff. Nice, eh?

When it first came out, The Divine Comedy was super-popular and everyone thought it was great… but then the Enlightenment happened and everyone just sort of forgot about it for a while. It didn’t come back into fashion until the 1800s, but it’s remained on the radar ever since. All kinds of writers and poets (T.S. Eliot, Samuel Beckett, C.S. Lewis, James Joyce, etc.) show evidence of its influence in their work. People keep re-translating the original, and there are new versions published all the time. It has inspired paintings, sculptures, films, video games, and just about every other media we have. Just goes to show: everything old is new again, eventually!

You can get the complete version (Inferno, Purgatorio, and Paradiso) in English here, or a bilingual edition (English-Italian) here.

Paradise Lost (1667)

And, finally, almost four millennia from where we began back in ancient Mesopotamia, we land on Paradise Lost: an epic poem written by John Milton in 17th century England. It is usually discussed right alongside The Divine Comedy, because they cover off a lot of the same stuff, and are relatively close together in time (compared to the gaps between the others, anyway).

Milton’s poem starts in the middle of the action: Satan and a bunch of his rebel angel buddies have been banished to Hell, and he’s trying to get the rabble into some kind of order so they can get on with the demon business of corrupting all of Mankind. Satan draws the short straw, and has to make his way back up onto earth to find the Garden of Eden where Adam and Eve are hanging out. He transforms himself into a snake, cons Eve into eating one stinking apple and – just like that – all of humanity is doomed. Job done, says Satan. He leaves Adam and Eve alone to bone, and trots triumphantly back to Hell.

When he gets there, he has a big humble brag about what a great job he’s done taking down Paradise, but he craps on a bit too long and, before he can finish, he and all his mates transform into snakes permanently. Meanwhile, back on Earth, Adam and Eve have gone crawling to God. Adam’s having hallucinations about what’s going to happen to Mankind now that they’ve cocked everything up, and he is freaking out. God kicks them out, telling them to go sit outside and think about what they’ve done, and that’s pretty much where humanity is at now. The end.

It might seem like your basic Christian story, just throwing a bit of glitter on some Bible stories and calling it a day, but Paradise Lost has sparked generations of debate and controversy. Everyone seems to agree that it’s brilliant, but there have been some almighty arguments about what Milton was trying to say and whether we’re supposed to agree with what he said. Paradise Lost, like the others, continues to be seriously influential in art, music and literature today. In fact, you’ve probably watched a movie or listened to an album or looked at a piece of art influenced by Milton’s masterpiece, and just not realised it.

You can get the complete text of Paradise Lost here.


Phew! We made it. There are, of course, many significant and brilliant poems that occurred in the intervening years of this timeline, but these are the big ones – the ones that are probably going to come up in conversation or at a pub trivia night. Now, at the very least, your eyes won’t glaze over completely.

Subscribe Here To Get The Complete(ish) Guide in PDF - Keeping Up With The Penguins


Have you read any of these really old poems? Has this guide inspired you to seek any of them out? Let me know in the comments (or share over at KUWTP on Facebook!).

 

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The Divine Comedy – Dante Alighieri

The Divine Comedy is special in the context of this project for a few reasons. It’s the oldest title on The List – Dante began writing it in 1308, and completed it in 1320. It’s also one of the very few not originally written in English. Dante was one of the first writers of the Middle Ages to produce work on a serious subject (the redemption of humanity and all that) in the low and vulgar Italian – normally, that kind of thing would be written in high-falootin’ Latin. And, finally, it’s the only poem (albeit a novel-length “narrative poem”) on the current List. So, this review is really one of a kind!

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

The Divine Comedy is a quasi-autobiographical poem (that reads like a book for the most part) about Dante’s “journey” through the three realms of the dead (Hell, Purgatory, Heaven). It makes sense, then, that it’s divided into three parts, each containing 33 cantos and an introduction (a canto is something like a chapter, I think – I don’t know much about poetry, don’t @ me).

This is the unabridged Carlyle-Okey-Wicksteed translation. Apparently, it’s perfect for readers who are completely unfamiliar with Italian (ding, ding, ding, that’s me!). I’d like to pretend that I chose this copy specifically for that reason, but really this is the only complete copy that I could find while trawling the secondhand bookstores. First-time readers should be prepared, regardless of what version you pick, that most of the reading is in the footnotes. Seriously, there’s one at the end of basically every line. You’ll need two bookmarks for this bad boy.

A fun fact: Dante originally called this work “The Comedy of Dante Alighieri, a Florentine by birth but not in character”. So, would have known right from the outset that he is both petty and hilarious: an excellent combination. It ended up getting shortened to just “The Comedy”, and then a bunch of fanboys added the “Divine” later.

Hell (“Inferno”) is – obviously – the best part. Each sin gets its own “circle”, and some particularly brutal form of poetic justice. My favourite one was the fortune tellers forced to walk around with their heads fixed on backwards. According to Dante, they’re unable to see what is ahead for all eternity, because that’s what they’d tried to do as mortals. Burn!

“We went with the ten Demons: ah, hideous company! but, ‘In Church with saints, and with guzzlers in the tavern.”

I think, secretly, the reason that everyone loves Inferno so much is that traversing through Hell gives Dante ample opportunity to just hang shit on everyone who had pissed him off in his life. It’s proof that humans haven’t changed that much in the last 700 years, we’re all just petty sacks of shit. The (many) footnotes give helpful insights as to what Roberto Luigi or whoever did to piss Dante off so much that he stuck him in the third circle of Hell. Good on Dante, I say! If people wanted you to write nice things about them, they should have treated you better.

There were a lot of helpful diagrams included with this edition, and I referred back to them a lot. Given that I received no religious education outside of “say please and thank you and don’t talk with your mouth full”, it was hard for me to keep track of who went where in Hell, and why. The explanatory notes crapped on a lot about geography and astronomy though (“the position of this particular mountain relative to the position of the sun and the appearance of the constellation Aries at exactly 7PM blah blah blah…”); I guess it’s all very important to serious grown-up readers, but I let it fly right over my head. I’m here for a good time, not a geography lesson.




I knocked over Inferno pretty quickly, and it was great. I could see why people bang on about it so much, but… well, the rest of The Divine Comedy was a bit of a slog, to be honest. Things started to drag from the start of Purgatory (“Purgatorio”): there was less humour, less drama, and it was hard to stay awake.

My lack of religious education started to really trip me up around that point, too. It seems that a bunch of sinners end up on Purgatory Mountain as well (I thought that was what the Hell Pit was for?), and they’ve got to sort their shit out as they climb up towards the Garden of Eden. Purgatory is pretty much Hell with less burning and more praying. The Hell Pit didn’t sound like much fun, I suppose (too much hard labour and skin sloughing off and ice lakes and stuff – reconsider your need to travel), so if you can hang out with all the gluttonous perverts on Purgatory Mountain, that would probably be the better deal.

Anyway, Dante – having schlepped through all the circles of Hell, sidestepping the demons – works his way up Purgatory Mountain, where every man wanted to stop and chat and ask Dante to put them in his prayers. Great. It turns out, he did it all so he could get to the top (“Paradiso”) and hang out with Beatrice, the dead girl he used to have the hots for. Only, when he gets there, she starts yelling at him and telling him he ain’t shit and he got up to too much sinning back in the mortal realm to ever be with a girl like her. Wtf?

I was very over The Divine Comedy by that point, and I had no time for Beatrice at all. I couldn’t work out why Dante was so into her; after she was done yelling, she just stood around smiling and coughing a lot. She was also a bit up herself; she literally said to him “don’t look at me, I’m so beautiful you’ll die, mate”. There were also no sexy bits.

All of this is to say I completely glazed over for most of Paradiso. It started to read like a medieval Wikipedia article, and the footnotes stretched on for pages at a time.

“
 the union of the divine and human natures in Christ is the point which Dante declares will be as clear to souls in bliss as ‘the initial truth which man believeth,’ or is as clear to Justinian as that ‘every contradiction is both false and true.’ Now ‘the initial truth which man believeth’ is not a generic term for axiomatic truth, but a specific reference to the ‘law of contradictories’ on which the whole system of Aristotelian logic is build up. It asserts that the propositions: This is so and this is not so cannot both be true in the same sense and at the same time. And it follows immediately from this fundamental axiom, that of the two propositions “all A’s are B’s” and “some A’s are B’s” or of the two propositions “no A’s are B’s” and “some A’s are B’s”, one must be true and the other false. They cannot both be true or both false in the same sense at the same time
” – an actual extract from the footnotes, snore.

I think the thrust of it all was that humans need to pipe down with all of their “thinking” and “reasoning” because God has this shit worked out already and we shouldn’t fuck with it. But humans are probably too dumb to understand that anyway, so… just carry on, I guess? Paradiso had started to feel like a Where’s Wally, with my eyes desperately scanning every page for a phrase that made any sense at all. I was so, so grateful to be done with it – I don’t think that’s what Dante was going for, but here we are.

My tl;dr summary of The Divine Comedy overall is this: Inferno is hilarious and great, Purgatorio is just okay, Paradiso is a heap of shit. Read Inferno, and don’t bother with the rest (unless you need a sleep aid).

My favourite Amazon reviews of The Divine Comedy:

  • “I never got this book. Did I order it?” – Dean
  • “well bound and looks great under my Dante bust.” – Robert W.
  • “This book really drags… it’s very long and redundant. The three places are all the same and paradise is anticlimatic. The main caracter is anoying. it’s confusing. the imagery is hard to imagion and to understand. The best part was his trip threw hell so I see why that’s the part people reference the most. I wouldn’t read it again and I do not recommend it and I do not see how reading it makes you smart or enlightened. It board me.” – porscha

 

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