Keeping Up With The Penguins

Reviews For The Would-Be Booklover

The Narrow Road To The Deep North – Richard Flanagan

Another confession from the life of the would-be booklover: I haven’t kept up with the Man Booker prize winners. In fact, The Narrow Road To The Deep North was my very first. The Booker is pretty much the most prestigious international literary award that a book can win, so I had high expectations for Richard Flanagan’s sixth novel…

From the blurb: “August, 1943. In the despair of a Japanese POW camp on the Thai-Burma death railway, Australian surgeon Dorrigo Evans is haunted by his love affair with his uncle’s young wife two years earlier. Struggling to save the men under his command from starvation, from cholera, from beatings, he receives a letter that will change his life forever.” So, we can tell right from the outset that The Narrow Road To The Deep North ticks a bunch of boxes: historical WWII novel, love affair, heavy themes, horrific setting, a sliding doors moment… and, to top it all off, in the Acknowledgements section Flanagan says he was inspired by his father’s experiences as a Japanese POW, so we can probably tick off “write what you know” as well. These are all the criteria for a Man Booker, right?

OK, I’ll stop being sassy. (Just kidding, I can’t turn it off.)

It’s the story of Dorrigo, a POW doctor who can’t stop obsessing over a few lusty weeks with his aunt-in-law back home. It’s another jumpy timeline, which I didn’t love, especially given that in this one there were no helpful year/place markings at the beginning of any of the chapters; the reader is expected to just bloody well figure it out as they read (even though the chapter might be happening ten years after or thirty years before the one preceding). Flanagan really wanted the reader to work for it. He didn’t even bother with inverted commas around his dialogue; I know it’s “artistic” to do that, but it always strikes me as pretentious and try-hard. Hmph.


Anyway, The Narrow Road To The Deep North spirals out around one particularly horrific day on the Burma Railway in August 1943. Some chapters build up to it through Dorrigo’s pre-war childhood and courtship with his wife, while other chapters focus on the post-war lives of Dorrigo, his fellow prisoners, and his prison guards. So, yeah, it’s kind of sprawling and epic; the timeline runs to about a century all up.

(Oh, and you might think that the title refers to the railway they were building, but actually Flanagan borrowed it from a 17th century haiku poet, Matsuo Bashō, whose book “Oku no Hosomichi” translates roughly to “Narrow Road To The Interior” or “The Narrow Road To The Deep North”.)

From the beginning, the book is kind of a mixed bag. Some passages are really great and poignant and immersive, while others seem really over-wrought and ridiculous. The Romeo and Juliet-esque plot twist was a bit much (both Dorrigo and his aunt-in-law, the one with whom he was having the affair before he went off to war, believe the other to be dead, and this little miscommunication fucks up their entire lives). I’m not a romantic, so their whole tragic love story really didn’t “move” me in the way I think Flanagan intended. All the chapters set in Australia basically amounted to a bunch of bellyaching about how Dorrigo really enjoyed fucking women who weren’t his wife. That just wasn’t fun for me, and – taking off my sassy-pants for a minute – I’m not sure it makes for good literature.


On the other hand, I quite enjoyed the sections focusing on the POWs on the railway. That sounds twisted, I know, but those parts were straightforward, no bullshit, and totally gripping. Flanagan did not sugar-coat the realities of war at all, and for me that’s huge points in his favour. There were no ellipses, no fading to black: he described the full physical horror and indignity suffered by the POWs, not to mention their mental anguish, in complete and gory detail. So, as I’m sure you can guess, The Narrow Road To The Deep North is not one for readers with sensitive stomachs (or souls) – I’m a tough bitch, and even I felt queasy in places.

So, it covers off two major themes: the effects of war, and the nature of love. They’re pretty lofty themes, and a lot to tackle in a single book (which is probably why it seemed that Flanagan did the former so much better than the latter). To be quite frank, I think Flanagan would have been better off just chopping off the entire first third off the book, getting rid of it altogether. The story wouldn’t have lost anything that wasn’t reiterated and reinforced later on anyway. It’d be like cutting off a gangrenous limb (the way Dorrigo had to do on the Burma Railway, incidentally).

It’s a better book than All The Light We Cannot See, I’ll give it that; in fact,  it’s probably one of the better historical WWII fiction books I’ve read in that it highlights quite well the ongoing and intergenerational effects of war (setting it apart from the ones that end on V Day). I suppose I can even (begrudgingly) see why it beat out We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves for the Man Booker in 2014; it’s a more “literary” book in that snooty, elitist sense… but I know which one I’d rather read, and which one I’d recommend more highly. Can you guess? 😉

My favourite Amazon reviews of The Narrow Road To The Deep North:

  • “I picked 4 because of the start of the book. It tired in well, but took a bit to catch my attention. It was dreary and sad and I enjoyed it.” – Megan Vandewall
  • “Why can’t writers just tell a story, instead of trying to be clever? I’m not sure Flanagan actually has a decent story to tell, but this is a piece of junk.” – ggh
  • “The protagonist is an unappealing narcissist with a sophomoric attitude towards love.” – S. Luke
  • “Had trouble reading and staying interested in it. Too much narrative.” – saunabear
  • “Horrible pictures in my mind! Don’t need any more examples of man’s ability to be cruel and stupid. I’m going to go hug my cats.” – Diane Denham

8 Books That Will Make You Laugh Out Loud

I don’t think that funny books get enough attention. We give awards to sweeping epics about wars, we send books about children in mortal peril straight to the top of the best-seller list, and we spend decades critiquing classics about dysfunctional families and ghosts. Meanwhile, books that make you laugh – and books about sex, too, but that’s a matter for another day – tend to be shrugged off. They’re not considered Serious Books For Grown Ups(TM), and I think that’s a real shame! The world is depressing enough; sometimes, curling up with a book that will make you chuckle is just the thing you need to take your mind off it. So this week I’m giving you full permission to indulge your desire to giggle: here are eight books that will make you laugh out loud.

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

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When I told my mother the title of this book, she literally snorted, so I think that’s a pretty good sign. The One-Hundred Year Old Man Who Climbed Out The Window And Disappeared is written in a dead-pan, nonchalant style that only becomes more and more hilarious as the circumstances of the old man in question become more and more ridiculous. The stark contrast between the matter-of-fact storytelling and the multiple murders and car-jackings will definitely tickle your funny bone. I hope it’s equally as funny in the original Swedish… (and, I’m sorry, but the movie was nowhere near as funny. Stick to the book if you’re after a chuckle!)

The Martian – Andy Weir

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A situation this dire – a man abandoned, trapped, alone on the red planet, dozens of years and thousands of miles away from any hope of help – shouldn’t be funny… but the voice that Weir creates for his hero, Mark Watney, in The Martian is so strong and so believable that you’re completely swept away in his unfailing sense of humour and optimism. He had me literally laughing out loud from the very first page. Plus, there are lots of swears (take that as a recommendation or warning, whatever your preference). And once again, the book is way funnier than the movie!

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves – Karen Joy Fowler

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I’m sure all long-time Keeper-Upperers are well and truly sick of me recommending this book at every opportunity, but people: I PROMISE, it’s THAT GOOD! We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves is not a “funny” novel in the sense that it’s actually a really heart-wrenching story, but I guess my sense of humour just aligns with the protagonist’s perfectly because I was laughing out loud the whole way through. Rosemary narrates a scene of a couple breaking up in a university cafeteria in the opening pages, and I was cracking up so hard my husband could hear me from the other end of the house.

A Short History Of Nearly Everything – Bill Bryson

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I can hear your skeptical groans: how could a popular science book be funny? Suspend your disbelief, people, because A Short History Of Nearly Everything totally is! Set aside your preconceived notions, forget all about trying to read A Brief History of Time and falling asleep: Bill Bryson has the chops as a comic writer, and manages to communicate all the science-y concepts and jargon with his trademark folksy style. And he’s not afraid to shy away from poo jokes, which is surely huge points in his column! If you’re not convinced, you can check out my full review here, or pick up any of his others and you’ll see what I mean – I also highly recommend his hilarious book Down Under, about his travels through Australia.

Cold Comfort Farm – Stella Gibbons

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It really saddens me that Cold Comfort Farm doesn’t feature more often in lists of funny books, so I’m doing what I can to redress the balance here. I must stress that you shouldn’t read extracts from the book or passages in isolation, even if you really want to get a feel for it before you plunge in. The introduction to my edition included a few “funny bits”, and I was scratching my head; I seriously thought the writer must have broken her funny bone because they made no sense at all on their own. The humour of the book, and its brilliance, really comes from reading it in its entirety because a lot of the comedy relies on context. I really recommend this one if you’re already familiar with Austen or the Brontës or D.H. Lawrence and his cronies – really, any of the English lit classics of the early 19th and 20th centuries, because this book satirises the heck out of all of them, to great effect! Read my full review here.

Catch-22 – Joseph Heller

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I know I was hanging shit on heavy, bleak military stories a minute ago, and Catch-22 forces me to admit that they can be funny… just not often. That said, I really don’t think you need to be into military fiction to enjoy Heller’s magnum opus: the humour of Catch-22 comes from the fact that it is so damn relatable for anyone who has any experience at all with bureaucracy (so, basically everyone). It’s a dark satire, sure, but it offers comic relief at its finest. Most of the jokes come within the first 200 pages or so, and Heller just pretty much repeats them from there on out (as I mentioned in my review), but they’re REALLY funny jokes so I think we can forgive him.

Portnoy’s Complaint – Philip Roth

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Here’s another one that’s hilarious because it’s just so damn believable! Sure, not everyone can relate directly to the trials and tribulations of a Jewish boy growing up in mid-20th century America, but Roth’s characterisation is so superb that you would totally believe, if you hadn’t seen the cover, that Portnoy’s Complaint was just an alarmingly honest and frank memoir. Everyone – myself included – makes a meal of that one scene that features the narrator doing something unspeakable with a piece of liver that his mother then cooks for the family dinner, but the humour can be far more subtle and far-reaching than that. Plus, the salacious side of essentially listening in to a psychotherapy session about sex and mothers is just too good to resist!

The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy – Douglas Adams

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

So, I must admit, I’m including this sci-fi classic mostly because I feel like I would be subjected to a hailstorm of hate mail if I didn’t. People who love The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy feel really passionately about it, even if they’re not usually sci-fi readers. The story follows the adventures of Arthur Dent, a befuddled Englishman who finds himself rescued from Planet Earth’s destruction by a kind-hearted alien. It’s funny, it’s clever, it’s light-hearted – I probably didn’t LOL as often as I did with some of the other books on this list, but I certainly enjoyed reading it. Ultimately, I think it’s a great comfort read, and most of the joy comes from knowing the punchlines before you read them.


Please join me in sharing the love for books that will make you laugh out loud! What books give you the giggles? Tell me in the comments (or join the thread over at KUWTP on Facebook!).

Cold Comfort Farm – Stella Gibbons

I know you’re not meant to judge a book by its cover, but let the booklover who is without sin cast the first stone. This cover of Cold Comfort Farm looked really cute when I first pulled it from the shelf, but when I examined it closely… I didn’t get it ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ It seemed to be a series of in-joke caricatures that made no sense to me whatsoever. Then, the introduction kept calling Cold Comfort Farm a “comic” novel and it included all of these excerpts… but none of them were funny? Apparently, Gibbons sought to parody the “rural” genre, which I’ve never heard of, let alone read. None of this boded well.

Now, I’m going to assume that most of you have never heard of Cold Comfort Farm either. I certainly hadn’t before I pulled together The List. Stella Gibbons seems to be the poor cousin of early 20th century authors, ignored by academics and readers alike. Cold Comfort Farm was her first book, published in 1932, and she went on to write 23 additional novels in her lifetime but this is the only one that remains in print. Speaking of her first book, she once said:

“[Cold Comfort Farm is like] some unignorable old uncle, to whom you have to be grateful because he makes you a handsome allowance, but who is often an embarrassment and a bore; skipping about, and reminding you of the days when you were a bright young thing. To him, and his admirers, you have never grown up… The old monster has also overlain all my other books, and if I do happen to glance at him occasionally, I am filled by an incredulous wonder that I could have once been so light-hearted.”

So, yeah, she was pretty over it, like a would-be rockstar that only ever had one hit song and was forced to play it ad infinitim for the rest of his career. Most people who have heard of Stella Gibbons don’t even realise that she wrote anything else.

Even in her own time, she wasn’t all that popular with her contemporaries. Virginia Woolf once wrote to Elizabeth Bowen, after Gibbons won a literary prize:

“I was enraged to see they gave the £40 to Gibbons; still now you and Rosamond [Lehmann] can join in blaming her. Who is she? What is this book? And so you can’t buy your carpet.”

BURN! But the disdain was mutual: Gibbons refused to join literary circles and cliques, knowing full well that she wasn’t making any friends for herself when she satirised their work. She just didn’t give a fuck at all, tbh. As per the introduction:

“To satirise the sexual values of DH Lawrence at this time was to outlaw oneself deliberately from any intellectual elite. Intellectuals were enslaved to Lawrence – especially the men, of course, for whom his gospel of sexual freedom chimed very nicely with what they actually wanted to do.”

I think you can see what I’m working up to here: Stella Gibbons was a bad bitch who called ’em how she saw ’em, and she wrote Cold Comfort Farm with her tongue planted firmly in her cheek. Spoiler alert: it is actually funny! I’d say it lands somewhere between Jane Austen and Fawlty Towers. I really enjoyed it, in spite of myself (and its cover – maybe there is something to that whole “not-judging-a-book” business after all…).


To the story: it is set in some unspecified future time period, shortly after “the Anglo-Nicaraguan wars of 1946” (bear in mind that Gibbons was writing in the early 1930s, and had no idea what was coming world-war-wise). The book’s heroine, Flora Poste, finishes school only to find herself suddenly orphaned at the ripe old age of 19 years. She has no means of supporting herself, being as she says “possessed of every art and grace save that of earning her own living”. What’s a girl to do? Find a rich relative and mooch off them until she can secure a satisfactory husband, of course!

“No limits are set, either by society or one’s own conscience, to the amount one may impose on one’s relatives.” – Flora Poste (Cold Comfort Farm)

She turns down offers of bed and board from several well-to-do cousins, for one reason or another, and eventually settles on “visiting” her (very) distant relatives at the isolated Cold Comfort Farm (some way outside the fictional village Howling, Sussex). They agree to take her in so that they may atone for some unspecified wrong they wrought upon her father years ago. On the farm lives the matriarch, Aunt Ada Doom, the whole extended family of the Starkadders, and their stuff – and they are all BAT. SHIT. CRAZY.

Flora, not one to muck around, sets about civilising them all and teaching them about sponges and contraception and other modern conveniences that would make their farm less of a hell-hole (and them a little more… presentable). She’s basically Mary Poppins, bringing metropolitan values and comforts to the sticks.

It’s not a straightforward story to read, for a few reasons. The story goes in bursts and starts, takes weird turns, and never really provides a satisfactory ending. In fact, it’s kind of like someone telling you their dream at times (but a funny one, not one that bores the pants off you). You also have to translate some of the fake idioms and slang, which Gibbons used to parody the novelists that used phonics to portray accents and local dialects (looking at you, DH Lawrence!). An example: “mollocking” is Seth’s favourite activity, and Gibbons never tells you exactly what it is… except that it always seems to precede the pregnancy of a maid (HA!). But don’t let the threat of made-up vernacular put you off: it’s still infinitely more readable than the modernist novels published around the same time (*cough*Mrs Dalloway*cough*).


Gibbons tried to capitalise on what little momentum Cold Comfort Farm generated; she published a collection of short stories – Christmas at Cold Comfort Farm – in 1940, and then another – Conference at Cold Comfort Farm – in 1949, but neither of them made much of a ripple. Still, the original novel continued on its merry way, and it has been adapted for the screen several times (including twice by the BBC). It hasn’t shaken the world: I’d probably call it one of the best classics you’ve never heard of.

So, yes, I must concede, my initial impressions were totally inaccurate. Cold Comfort Farm is fucking hilarious. It’s clever and sarcastic and satirical, but I’m hesitant to provide you with many (any!) excerpts to back up my claims, because the introduction tried to do that and failed so spectacularly. Cold Comfort Farm’s humour is entirely contextual; the only way to really “get it” is to read the book in its entirety. I completely agree, however, with the handful of fans out there who say that it is criminally underrated (much like one of my other favourites), and my not having encountered it before now seems an absolute travesty. It’s definitely worth a look if you can find a copy – tell a friend!

My favourite Amazon reviews of Cold Comfort Farm:

  • “I just am not in the mood for so much drama” – Ursula Guevara
  • “Bored me to tears…too long and meaningless. A young girl with nothing to do with her life takes over others. There’s a secret in her family’s past that is not revealed by the end of the story” – Monica
  • “Not that great” – margaret murphy
  • “If you are a fan of Cold Comfort Farm, you will like this book.” – Ms Lauri Gillam
  • “Sadly, no explicit sex, but terrific humor” – Francis Assaf

9 Great Books That Haven’t Been Made Into Movies… Yet!

The book-to-film adaptation is pretty much standard for every best-seller nowadays. Sometimes, books are picked up by film production companies before they’re even released, because the buzz around them is so big. Film producers are pretty non-discriminatory: they’ll take on anything they think might be a money-maker. Heck, even the self-help book Queen Bees and Wannabes was given the treatment and became the immortal film Mean Girls (it is a vital and very important movie, don’t @ me). A lot of readers resent this constant churn, believing that movie-makers ruin their favourite stories in translation, but even the most cynical booklover can’t deny that movies get people more interested in the books that inspired them. The Lord Of The Rings movies triggered a massive surge in sales for the fantasy series, with over 25 million copies flying off the shelves worldwide after their release. All of this begs the question: why are there still a handful of good books that haven’t been made into movies… yet?

9 Great Books That Haven't Been Made Into Movies... Yet - Text Overlaid on Image of Unspooled Film - Keeping Up With The Penguins

The Alchemist – Paulo Coelho

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I covered this off in my review of the hippie classic, but just in case you missed it: The Alchemist, a fable about chasing your dreams and self-belief, has never been made into a movie. There have been attempts, of course. Warner Bros bought the rights in 2003, but nothing really came of that. Then Harvey Weinstein took them on, but he didn’t seem to be in any rush, because it took until 2015 for him to secure a director and a lead actor and then… well, Weinstein got what was coming to him. It’s looking unlikely that The Alchemist will be coming to cinemas any time soon.

Why hasn’t The Alchemist been made into a movie yet?

The delay seems to be mostly attributable to Coelho’s own reluctance to sell the rights in the first place. He has said that he believes “a book has a life of its own inside the reader’s mind”, and that movie adaptations rarely live up to them; basically, he’s worried that filmmakers will butcher his life’s work, and there’s plenty of evidence to suggest that could well be the case. Weinstein got the closest of anyone so far, but I don’t think I need to explain to you why that venture isn’t going to work out. I guess we’ll all just have to wait for another film mogul to convince Coelho that it’s worth doing right (and probably shove even bigger stacks of money his way). IMDB has a page suggesting the film is “in development”, but that means sweet fuck-all…

The Secret History – Donna Tartt

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You’d think that this one would be a walk-up start, because all the elements are there! Donna Tartt’s The Secret History tells the story of a cabal of Classics students (yes, even pretentious nerds can have cults) at an Ivy League university who try to get away with murdering one of their own. It’s got mystery! It’s got suspense! It’s got intrigue! And given that Tartt’s equally popular book, The Goldfinch, is set to be released as a film very soon, it seems strange that this one hasn’t been picked up.

Why hasn’t The Secret History been made into a movie yet?

It’s not for lack of trying! Alan J Paukla was the first to realise its potential; he picked it up, and roped in Joan Didion and John Gregory Dunne to write the screenplay. Sadly, Paukla was killed in a car accident in 1998, and the project died with him. Gwenyth Paltrow later showed some interest, and picked up the rights with her brother. They agreed to develop the film with Miramax, but then, again sadly, their father passed away and they were understandably distracted. Now the rights have reverted back to the author, and she has refused to sell them on again as yet; perhaps she suspects that the project is cursed and wants to avoid any more tragedies…

One Hundred Years Of Solitude – Gabriel García Márquez

It’s been well over fifty years since One Hundred Years Of Solitude was published, and yet there have never been any real attempts (that we know of) to turn it into a movie. The book checks a bunch of boxes: an idyllic setting (a town in beautiful Central America), social currency (with its critique of capitalism and everything), a colourful family (the Buendias, seven generations of them!), and classic magical realism (a la Amelie or Chocolat). So, where the heck is our movie?

Why hasn’t One Hundred Years Of Solitude been made into a movie yet?

Well, if I’m being honest, it’s largely because Márquez was a real stick in the mud. He famously refused to sell the rights to his beautiful book, knocking back all comers, regardless of what they offered him. Giuseppe Tornatore got the closest, but Márquez literally told him that he would only sell the rights if the director agreed to “film the entire book, but only release one chapter – two minutes long – each year for a hundred years”. That would be an artistic triumph, to be sure, but probably not the most practical project to get off the ground. Plus, the book is rumoured to be “unfilmable”, with a bunch of characters all sharing the same name, and tricky bits that would probably require massive amounts of hallucinogens to properly envisage, so… maybe the producers didn’t try that hard to get Márquez’s blessing. Netflix announced last month that they’ve purchased the rights (now that Márquez isn’t around to give them a hard time), and his sons will serve as executive producers. So, maybe soon…?

Life After Life – Kate Atkinson

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Look, pulling together a script (and a film) about a woman who lives her life over and over again, dozens of times, with those lives taking her all around Europe over the course of the 20th century, probably wouldn’t be easy… but heck, if Kate Atkinson can make it work as a book (and I think she did!), it can be done. Life After Life is high-concept, but no more so than other time travel and speculative fiction films, so what’s the hold-up?

Why hasn’t Life After Life been made into a movie yet?

Beats me! Lionsgate announced in 2014 that they had acquired the rights to an adaptation, and even went as far as to secure Semi Chellas (of Mad Men) and Esta Spalding (of The Bridge) as screenwriters. They’re the same production company responsible for Twilight and The Hunger Games, so we know they can do it! But they’ve been alarmingly quiet about the project since then; even Kate Atkinson’s website doesn’t say any more than that. I’ll be keeping an eye on the IMDB page, but no news doesn’t seem like good news…

The Catcher In The Rye – J.D. Salinger

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C’mon, we all remember this one! Most of us read The Catcher In The Rye in high school, but I didn’t – I covered it last year in the early days of the Keeping Up With The Penguins project. It was the OG young adult novel, before young adult was even a thing, and it’s especially resonant now with our increased awareness around mental health issues in teenagers. Plus, it’s set in New York, an iconic visual setting that’s incredibly popular with filmmakers.

Why hasn’t The Catcher In The Rye been made into a movie yet?

J.D. Salinger famously swore, up and down, no two ways about it, that The Catcher In The Rye would never be made into a film. He thought that the first-person narration would sound “cheesy” if it were ever to be adapted. Even since his passing back in 2010, his estate has stayed firm in adhering to his wishes; he went so far as to write them into his will. All of Hollywood’s best and brightest have tried to wear them down: John Cusack once said he deeply regretted never having the opportunity to play Holden Caulfield, Marlon Brando wanted to have a go at getting up on screen, as did Jack Nicholson, Tobey Maguire, and even Leonardo DiCaprio. But Salinger was so firm in his insistence that his agents didn’t even bother showing him offers from the heavyweights Harvey Weinstein and Steven Spielberg. So, don’t hold your breath, people!

Don Quixote – Miguel de Cervantes

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We’ve had more than ample time to get this project off the ground: Don Quixote was first published in 1605, before movies were even in the realm of imagination (so de Cervantes could hardly object to the adaptation of his work). It’s a hilarious story of misadventure and mishap, there are clearly no copyright issues or existing contracts to get in the way, and historical movies of that time period were all the rage for a time… and yet, no dice!

Why hasn’t Don Quixote been made into a movie yet?

Pick your poison. It’s too long, they say: the epic novel runs to well over 1,000 pages and follows dozens of different storylines along the way. Plus, it’s cursed! Terry Gilliam, of Monty Python fame, tried to film his version (The Man Who Killed Don Quixote), but a series of calamities shut down production indefinitely, and all of his attempts to revive it so far have been unsuccessful. There have long been rumours of Disney versions coming – one animated, one live-action – but they’ve never materialised, and no one quite knows why. In fact, Don Quixote is so notoriously unfilmable that Gilliam’s failure became the subject of a documentary that did actually get released, Lost In La Mancha – that might be as close as we ever get!

All The Light We Cannot See – Anthony Doerr

All The Light We Cannot See - Anthony Doerr - Book Laid On Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

It might be a little premature to include All The Light We Cannot See on this list, seeing as it was only released a few years ago, in 2014. The entwined stories of a young blind girl in Occupied France and a German boy plucked from an orphanage to join the Nazis as a radio technician captivated the world, and Doerr won the 2015 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. That’s why I included it my List of books to read for this project, and I reviewed it in full here. Still, in the age of instant gratification, five years seems an awfully long wait for a film that would be so hotly-anticipated… don’t you think?

Why hasn’t All The Light We Cannot See been made into a movie yet?

Who bloody knows? The rights were instantly acquired by 20th Century Fox upon release, so all signs looked good. Then there was a Netflix announcement last month about a mini-series a la Big Little Lies on HBO. But there’s been no news since then – as far as we know, there’s no director, producers, or actors on board. So, I guess it’s a case of hurry up and wait!

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

Here’s another WWII-era novel screaming out for a film adaptation: this time, from Nobel Prize-winning Japanese writer Kazuo Ishiguro. His story focuses on retired Japanese artist Masuji Ono, who is forced to confront the role he played in the war and its impact on his reputation as he struggles to secure happy marriages for his daughters. An Artist Of The Floating World is a little nutty in the timeline (I’ll tell you more about it in my review coming soon), but there’s no flashy magical realism or any of the other logistical problems that could gum up the works in producing a film. Plus, two of Ishiguro’s other books – The Remains Of The Day and Never Let Me Go – have been adapted by Hollywood, so clearly he doesn’t object to the idea.

Why hasn’t An Artist Of The Floating World been made into a movie yet?

I have searched high or low, all over the internet, and I cannot find a single of the film rights even being sought, let alone acquired or acted on. In fact, aside from a few bloggers and commentators expressing concern that a future film adaptation might white-wash the story (as, unfortunately, has happened with so many other Asian books and films), no one seems to be talking about this potentially award-winning film at all. Maybe I should look into it myself, eh? 😉

Brave New World – Aldous Huxley

Brave New World - Aldous Huxley - book laid on a wooden table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

OK, so, technically this dystopian classic has been made into two for-TV movies, and there have been a bunch of other types of adaptations as well, but I’ve decided they don’t count. I want to see Brave New World, with all its sex and drugs and open rebellion against the World State, in full technicolour on a huge screen with surround sound, please! This story couldn’t be more topical, with the masses separated into castes and numbed to their outrage with government provision of various sedatives, so the world is well and truly primed for this movie done properly. (I reviewed the book in full here, by the way, if that description has you wanting more!)

Why hasn’t Brave New World been made into a movie yet?

Because everyone’s too hell-bent on putting it on TV again! The production companies have signed on Spielberg, for pity’s sake, and they’ve got one heck of a budget, but it looks like the next version is going to be filmed as a miniseries to air on the Syfy channel, instead of a big-screen blockbuster. Boo, I say! Leonardo DiCaprio has made noise about adapting Brave New World to film before, though, so I’m hoping he’ll keep fighting the good fight, especially if the miniseries does well and reignites some interest…


Writing up this list might have been a bit silly on my part, because now I’m desperate to see all of these films and none of them exist yet! Wahhhh! What book do you think deserves a big-screen adaptation? Tell me in the comments (or over at KUWTP on Facebook!).

The Alchemist – Paulo Coelho

I think I’ve seen The Alchemist under the arm of just about every hippie I’ve ever met… and I’ve never once asked any of them about it, for fear that it would “change my life” or “give me a new perspective” or “open my mind to spirituality” or some shit. Maybe that makes me a cynic, but so be it! The point is that, like most of the books on The List, I knew very little about The Alchemist going in, but in service of my aim to Keep Up With The Penguins, I went in regardless.

The cover of this edition promises “a fable about following your dreams”, and I suppose it delivered, technically. Like any fable, it wasn’t a tough read, and I burned through it in just a few hours (the fastest I’ve finished any book for this project, as I recall). The Alchemist reads like a fairytale, with very simple and straightforward language; I wondered if it read the same way in the original Portuguese, but I guess I’ll never know.

Oh, yeah, a bit of background: Paulo Coelho is a Brazilian author, and The Alchemist was originally written in Portuguese (“O Alquimista”). This version was translated into English by Alan R. Clarke, and it has been translated into some 70 other languages as of 2016.


Anyway, The Alchemist is an allegorical novel. It starts with an Andalusian shepherd, Santiago, having recurring dreams about finding treasure buried under the Egyptian pyramids (haven’t we all?). He stumbles across a Romani fortune-teller, who confirms his suspicion that the dream is prophetic – and believe you me, in my head I’m screaming “BUDDY, THIS IS NOT A GOOD PLAN!”, but he doesn’t hear me. Then he sits down to have a chat with a King disguised as a pauper, who tells him:

“When you want something, all the universe conspires in helping you achieve it.”

(So, The Secret totally ripped him off, but that’s not my business.)

Anyway, the rest of the book is pretty much Coelho reinforcing that rather trite philosophy, over and over again. Santiago’s journey to Egypt is a total shit-fight. He gets robbed, and has to work in a jewellery store for a year to make his money back. Then he makes his way through the desert, encountering mortal peril every step of the way and buddying up with a bloke who really wants to become an alchemist (don’t get excited, he’s not the titular character). They find an oasis, and there Santiago falls in love with a girl (conveniently forgetting all about the merchant’s daughter who he also “loved” back in Spain). He leaves her hanging to travel the rest of the way through the desert, and en route he meats The Actual Alchemist(TM), who teaches him to “listen to his heart” (very insight, much wise).

The two of them come within a bee’s dick of becoming collateral damage in a tribal war, and when Santiago finally makes it to the bloody pyramids, he gets the living shit beat out of him by a local gang. Then – awesome timing! – he has another “prophetic”  dream that tells him the stinking treasure is actually buried under a tree in his hometown. I swore, loudly, when I read that part.


I know, I know: it’s a beautiful story about overcoming obstacles and faith and persistence and all of that… but let’s be real, sometimes you’re better off just calling it a day and heading back to your sheep and the merchant’s daughter. Maybe that means you miss out on the treasure, but you get beaten and robbed and taken prisoner far less frequently.

Coelho wrote the book almost as quickly as I read it; it took him just two weeks, in 1987. He later explained that he was able to spew it out so quickly because the book was “already written in [his] soul”. And that tells you pretty much everything you need to know about Coelho.

Maybe there’s something in his whole faith and persistence shtick, because The Alchemist’s success came from pretty humble beginnings. It was not an instant best-seller, by any stretch. Coelho first sold it to a small publishing house, who gave it a small print run in Brazil, but they ended up handing him back the rights because they figured they’d backed the wrong horse.

via GIPHY

But Coelho kept the hustle alive: he self-published, and fought the good fight, until finally – finally – his book took off in France, and became an “unexpected” best-seller in the mid ’90s. It’s a great testament to the power of word-of-mouth marketing, because this was pre-Facebook and (until he hit the big time) Coelho had no budget for any other publicity.

Given The Alchemist’s enduring (eventual) popularity, you might be surprised to learn it’s not yet been adapted for the big screen. Coelho was reluctant to sell the rights, believing that “a book has life of its own inside the reader’s mind” (or some hippie shit like that), and film adaptations rarely live up to the book. But, over time, he “opened his mind” to the possibility (and, I’d imagine, the piles of money offered that got bigger and bigger – even hippies can’t resist the lure of fat stacks). Warner Bros bought the rights in 2003, but the project stalled for several years. Then, in 2008, Harvey Weinstein announced that he had bought the rights and would produce the film himself. By 2015, he’d secured a director, and a lead actor, but then… well, yeah. Weinstein had some other shit going on. He ain’t going to be producing anything for a while. So, Coelho keeps the money, and he doesn’t have to see his magnum opus butchered on the big screen by a notorious sexual predator. Everyone’s a winner!I can see why hippies love The Alchemist. I was right in my suspicion: there’s a lot of spirituality and listening to your heart and all that guff. I’m definitely too cynical for this book – or maybe the book is too earnest, whichever you prefer. As the New York Times said, it’s more self-help than literature. I’d describe it as The Secret meets The Divine Comedy. The main tick in its column is that it’s an all-ages read, as far as I can tell, so if you’re looking to cheer up a stressed-out kid this would be a good one to read out loud to them. If you’re reading it alone… well, at least it’ll be over quickly. And maybe you’re not dead inside like me, so you might even enjoy it.

My favourite Amazon reviews of The Alchemist:

  • “Really was expecting something life altering. My dog chewed up the book when I was 18 pages in and I should have let her finish….” – jane
  • “Too much words like all his books!” – george raven
  • “Meh. I’m going to finish it, but only because they said It couldn’t be done.” – Andy Robertson
  • “Follow Your Dreams. That’s it. Save your money for your dreams – nothing wrong with this book but no more uplifting than the Facebook posts your friends send for free.” – West Coast Dreamer
  • “Apparently, if you are a man, the world will arrange itself to make sure you are happy. If you are a woman, your job is to sit yourself at home and wait for your main to come back and fulfil you, no matter how long that takes, because that’s your job. You don’t get your own destiny, you get to deal with his….” – Alison
  • “My personal legend is complete and the sun is setting on the mountains to the north. My treasure is having been able to complete this stupid book and put it away forever.” – Laura WG
  • “What a sappy story. If you want to drink syrup, by all means read this book.” – Dixie Dome
  • “A novel for stoners. What a regrettable purchase.” – NJ

What Do We Think Of The Dymocks Top 101 for 2019?

It’s that time of year again! Members of the Dymocks Booklovers club (over 11,000 of them!) have cast their votes, and the Australian bookseller chain has announced the winners: their Top 101 books for 2019. I really appreciate that Dymocks goes to the effort of asking their loyal customers what they think (instead of just relying on the figures of the current best selling books in Australia), and I love looking through this list each year and seeing where the trends and loyalties have shifted among my fellow booklovers. As always, there are a bunch of old favourites, plenty of new entries, and many from my own bookshelves. Here’s what I reckon about the Dymocks 101 for 2019…

Dymocks Top 101 Books 2019 - Text in Speech Bubble Overlaid on Image of Bookstore Shelves - Keeping Up With The Penguins

#1 Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman

Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine - Gail Honeyman - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

BAM! I knew this book was popular – I’ve seen it all over #bookstagram for months – but I had no idea it was THAT popular! Either I underestimated its power, or Gail Honeyman has secret powers to mobilise a formidable army of loyal Australian readers to vote Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine into the top spot. I recently picked up this one in a fit of (probably only perceived) peer pressure; I feel like I’m the only booklover left who hasn’t read it! It sounds a lot like a female-led The Rosie Project, so I’m cautiously curious.

#2 Fight Like A Girl by Clementine Ford

Fight Like A Girl - Clementine Ford - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

And BAM – another surprise! Clementine Ford is a very divisive figure in Australia, in feminism and in the media more broadly. Fight Like A Girl is her treatise, a call to arms, for her unapologetically angry, at times confronting, at times challenging, always impressive, sociopolitical philosophy. If you’d asked me before the Dymocks Top 101 list was released, I would have said there was no way such a controversial book – non-fiction and female-authored, come to that – would crack the top twenty… but here we are! (Boys Will Be Boys, Ford’s follow-up to Fight Like A Girl, also made the list, coming in at #12.)

#3 All The Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr

All The Light We Cannot See - Anthony Doerr - Book Laid On Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Ah, now we’re back on more predictable ground: All The Light We Cannot See was #2 in the Dymocks list last year, so it’s roughly maintained its spot. I’d imagine we’ll see it hanging around in the Top 101 for a while yet. It’s a Pulitzer Prize-winning WWII historical fiction novel (and they’re so hot right now!) that follows the lives of a blind French girl and an orphaned German boy, whose paths cross over the course of the conflict. Read my full review here.

#4 The Book Thief by Markus Zusak

The Book Thief - Markus Zusak - book laid on wooden table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Two remarkably similar (in premise, if not tone) historical WWII fiction novels, with female child protagonists, back-to-back in the Dymocks 101: clearly, there’s a deep interest in these kinds of stories, and they have a loyal fan base! The Book Thief was published back in 2005, and it’s featured in the list since then. It was #1 in 2017, the year that I put my Keeping Up With The Penguins reading list together (which is how I found myself picking it up to begin with). Clearly, it’s got some serious staying power! This is another one I’m sure we’ll be seeing in the Top 101 for many years yet… Read my full review here.

#6 To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee

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

To Kill A Mockingbird, Harper Lee’s classic tale of racism and loyalty in the American South, has nudged up a few spots this year (from #10 back in 2018). I think it might make its way even higher over the next couple of years, as the Trump presidency plays itself out and the world tries to claw its way back. This remains a canonical text for our understandings of how the personal is political (and, indeed, how the political is personal). It’s not without its flaws of course, but I loved it. Read my full review here.

#7 Pride And Prejudice by Jane Austen

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

Again, no surprises here: Pride And Prejudice is right where we left it last year, in the #7 spot of the Dymocks Top 101. It is popularly considered the most loved of Austen’s works, and it’s probably the best known (if not the best flat-out) English-language novel of the 19th century. I’d be gob-smacked if it dropped out of the top ten any time soon! In fact, I challenge you to find any list of “100 best books” that doesn’t include this classic.

#9 The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

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

It’s taken a while, but The Handmaid’s Tale is finally getting the worldwide recognition and adulation it deserves – buoyed no doubt by the incredibly popular television series, and the countless hours and pages of commentary it spawned. Like all good dystopian fiction, Atwood’s Republic of Gilead has ever-startling resonance for our real-world struggles with gender, class, and exploitation.

#10 The Dry by Jane Harper

The Dry - Jane Harper - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Isn’t it great to see so many Australian women writers making good this year? The Dry is actually the second of Harper’s novels to make the Dymocks Top 101 Books this year (her more recent offering, The Lost Man, came in at #8). I’m yet to read any of her books, but The Dry is going to be my first – it’s calling me from my to-be-read shelf! As I understand from the blurb, it’s a crime drama set in the hometown of a fictional AFP investigator, Aaron Falk, where he reluctantly investigates the murder of a local family while simultaneously confronting the community that cruelly rejected him decades prior.

#15 Burial Rites by Hannah Kent

Burial Rites - Hannah Kent - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Speaking of Australian women writers, here’s another! Hannah Kent has become somewhat of a darling of Australian literature the last few years, and this is perhaps the best-loved of the books she’s written so far. Burial Rites is based on the true story of Agnes Magnusdottir, who was the last woman put to death in Iceland; she was convicted of murdering two men, including her employer, and this is Kent’s reimagining of her final days. Stay tuned for my review (and also for the film adaptation, which will reportedly star Jennifer Lawrence in the lead!).

#18 Big Little Lies by Liane Moriarty

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

Good thing I didn’t turn “Australian women writers in the Dymocks 101” into a drinking game, because we’d be out of wine by now! Liane Moriarty is an incredible home-grown commercial fiction success story. She was growing in popularity in her own right, but the HBO adaptation of her sixth book, Big Little Lies, has shot her into the stratosphere of literary stardom. I’ve not yet read this one, but I did read her previous novel, The Husband’s Secret (review coming soon!), and it came in on this same list at #78. Her most recent release, Nine Perfect Strangers, came in a bit below this one at #24, but I expect we’ll see it climb higher over the next year or two.

#25 The Happiest Refugee by Anh Do

The Happiest Refugee - Anh Do - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

If you’ll permit me to get a little sappy-slash-political for a minute: I think it’s really wonderful that, in this era of fear-mongering and misinformation, Australian booklovers are still supporting a refugee memoir. Forget what you’ve been told about “boat people” or “illegals” – Anh Do turns all the stereotypes on their head in The Happiest Refugee. After I read it, I gave a copy to my mother for Christmas, and I highly recommend it to anyone who’s not sure where they fall on the issue of refugees coming to our country. It’s vital that we continue to share and celebrate these stories, not just because they’re amazing but also to counterbalance the powerful forces that would see us all divided (in their own interest, of course).

#27 The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion

The Rosie Project - Graeme Simsion - Book Laid On Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Once Bill Gates recommends your book, chances are it’s going to be selling like hot-cakes for a while. And that’s exactly what’s happened to Graeme Simsion with The Rosie Project. He’s managed to parlay his success with this comic novel about the eccentric scientist Don Tillman’s search for love into an entire trilogy, following it up with The Rosie Effect and, just this year, The Rosie Result. I couldn’t help but take issue with some of Simsion’s (mis)representations of life on the autism spectrum, but I can’t deny that this is a wonderful light-hearted read – one to reach for when you need a reminder that the whole world isn’t shit. Also, Graeme Simsion actually re-tweeted my quote of a particularly harsh review, so he’s clearly a good sport! Read my full review of The Rosie Project here.

#29 A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara

A Little Life - Hanya Yanagihara - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

On its face, A Little Life doesn’t have much going for it. It’s a loooooong book, for one – my edition runs some 720 pages! Its author, Hanya Yanaghiara, is a woman of colour, a group too-often underrepresented in lists of best books. And holy heck, it is not an easy read! If you decide to give this one a go, be prepared for long and detailed descriptions of intense and horrific childhood trauma, as well as addiction, relationship breakdown, and all other manner of dark shit. The fact that A Little Life ranked so highly in the Dymocks Top 101 for 2019 is nothing short of a miracle, as far as I’m concerned. It just goes to show: Australian booklovers really are the bravest and the strongest of them all!

#32 The Lost Flowers of Alice Hart by Holly Ringland

The Lost Flowers of Alice Hart - Holly Ringland - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

I must admit, I wasn’t entirely sold on The Lost Flowers of Alice Hart when I first encountered it. The cover art is, as you can see, incredibly beautiful… but a book about flowers? Pass! And then I heard an interview with Holly Ringland. I couldn’t help myself, she had me! Hook, line, and sinker! In this wonderful book, an intense family tragedy sees a young girl, Alice, move in with her estranged grandmother on a native flower farm. Her story spans two decades and says much about the traumas we fear to speak out loud, and the secrets that grow around them. (Oh, and it’s another Australian woman writer – everybody drink!)

#33 Crazy Rich Asians by Kevin Kwan

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

I don’t think the importance of this book – and To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before by Jenny Han, which came in at #77 – can be overstated. Crazy Rich Asians is, of course, delightful and fun and flashy, but it’s also an incredible case study in the impact of good, honest representation. The film adaptation was hugely popular, and I think it was Sandra Oh who said that she cried as she watched it because finally – finally! – there was a film full of people who looked like her. The Asian characters aren’t jokes or side-kicks, but the stars of the show. So, heck yes for Crazy Rich Asians making the Dymocks 101, and here’s hoping it’s a sign of more great #ownvoices success stories to come!

#45 The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald

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

I think my thoughts on this inclusion in the Dymocks 101 list can be almost entirely summed up in a single word: ugh. I know it’s an unpopular opinion, but I think The Great Gatsby stinks. It’s just so boring and hackneyed! A moody white guy discovers that it’s fun to party with pretty girls, then his rich friend dies and no one comes to the funeral. Like… so what? And yet, it appears on this list year after year (though, I do note happily that it’s down a bit from its rank of #27 in 2018). I just don’t understand its enduring appeal! Trust me, read Gentlemen Prefer Blondes instead – it’s a much more fun and interesting take on the Jazz Age in American. Read my full review of The Great Gatsby here.

#46 Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë

Jane Eyre - Charlotte Bronte - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Back to the good stuff: Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë is now one of my favourite all-time books, having read it back in the early days of the Keeping Up With The Penguins project. It’s amazing, but unsurprising, that Charlotte’s masterful rendering of the inner consciousness of a young, scared girl is still so popular centuries later. Here’s another controversial opinion for you: even though she was kind of the bitchy sister, in my estimation Charlotte was the best of the Brontës. (You can fight me on that in the comments if you like!) Read my full review of Jane Eyre here.

#47 Normal People by Sally Rooney

Normal People - Sally Rooney - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

As soon as I saw this book, and that incredible cover art, I just knew it would be wonderful. Normal People kind of exploded after it was placed on the long-list for the 2018 Booker Prize, and I’m still surprised it didn’t make it any further in the process, given its immense popularity and numerous literary commendations. Ostensibly, it’s a story about two Irish girls who study together in Dublin and the relationship they forge between them, but it’s also a deeply political novel that will melt even the hardest of hearts.

#50 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

The popularity of the HBO series pretty much guarantees that A Game Of Thrones will appear in the Dymocks Top 101 list for years to come. I know it’s sacrilegious to admit this, but I’m actually really glad that I watched the TV adaptation before I sat down to read the book. Fantasy stories with dozens of place names and characters and complicated made-up languages drive me up the wall, so having it all straight in my head before I began really helped me properly enjoy Martin’s intricate story of love and war. Read my full review here.

#52 The Girl On The Train by Paula Hawkins

The Girl on the Train - Paula Hawkins - book laid on wooden table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Along with Gone Girl (which came in at #37), this book launched the international publishing trend of Books With “Girl” In The Title. We saw “girls” everywhere: on trains, in windows, being good, being bad, coming, going… The widespread infantilisation of female characters really bothered me, and I’m so glad to see we’re finally at the tail end of it, but The Girl On The Train remains popular enough to earn its spot in the Top 101 (albeit considerably further down than last year, when it reached #14). Read my full review here.

#55 The Narrow Road To The Deep North by Richard Flanagan

The Narrow Road To The Deep North - Richard Flanagan - Book Laid On Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

I have no idea how or why The Narrow Road To The Deep North has risen some twenty spots since last year’s Dymocks book list, but it has! As far as I know, no film adaptation has been announced, no new release has got Flanagan’s name back in the spotlight, no new awards have been given… apparently, booklovers this year just enjoyed it more than last. Strange, eh? I finally got around to reading it recently – my first-ever Booker prize winner! – and I was strangely impressed. As much as I’ve gone off historical WWII fiction (I usually prefer real-life accounts, which I find more impactful), I really appreciated the way that Flanagan didn’t shy away from the gritty, awful realities of war.

#58 The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho

The Alchemist - Paulo Coelho - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

As long as we have hippies on their quest for spiritual awakening, we will have The Alchemist in the Dymocks 101. I can’t honestly say, having read it, that it changed my life or made me look at the world any differently. That said, it was an easy read – almost like a child’s fairytale – and I can see that there’s plenty of fodder to treat it as a sacred text. I wouldn’t tell anyone not to bother reading it, but maybe temper your expectations in terms of its ability to open up your mind to a higher power.

#61 The Subtle Art of Not Giving A Fuck by Mark Manson

The Subtle Art Of Not Giving A Fuck - Mark Manson - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Really, the only surprise here is that The Subtle Art Of Giving A Fuck is so far down the list! This book, with its striking orange cover and its shameless profanity (of which I’m fully in favour), was everywhere in 2018. Perhaps the Dymocks Booklovers are a self-assured literary lot who don’t need self-help gurus to sort out their messy lives? Probably. But I’ll admit, the hype lured me in; I picked up a copy of this one a little while back and I know I’ll have to read it eventually, just to see what all the fuss is about.

#62 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

I cannot recall a single year, in all my time following the Dymocks Booklovers Top 101, where The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy hasn’t featured somewhere. It got a much higher rank last year (#19), but it’s always guaranteed a spot – a testament to its enduring popularity. This book is beloved, not just in the sci-fi community but in the broader general readership. In fact, I had a devil of a time trying to find it secondhand, because no one ever wants to part with their copy! Eventually, I did pick one up, and I’m glad I persisted because it’s an actual honest-to-goodness first edition – it’ll be worth a quid someday!

#64 Reckoning by Magda Szubanski

Reckoning - Magda Szubanski - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Reckoning is the memoir of Australia’s beloved comedian and activist Magda Szubanski. I’ll never forget my overwhelming feeling of joy and relief the day that Australia voted Yes to marriage equality, and I got to see Magda address the gathered crowd in celebration. She is inextricably linked to that campaign in my mind, and I’m eternally grateful for her faith and persistence in changing Australia for the better. Her account of coming to terms with her family history, her sexuality, and her place in the world is truly captivating, a must-read!

#68 The Martian by Andy Weir

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

Andy Weir has one of those overnight-success stories that was years in the making. He slogged away writing The Martian, fielding rejections left and right, until – fed up – he published the whole thing for free on his own website. Now, here he is, eight years later, with millions of book sales under his belt, a major film adaptation starring Matt Damon, a follow-up book on the shelves (and another one in the works, as I understand it), and another year running in the Dymocks 101. See? Persistence pays! Read my full review of The Martian here.

#84 The Trauma Cleaner by Sarah Krasnostein

The Trauma Cleaner is such a remarkable book on so many fronts that I don’t quite know where to begin in describing it. For one, the subject – Sandra Pankhurst – is a trans woman, and (off the back of International Transgender Day of Visibility last week) I think it’s amazing that so many people are connecting with her story, allowing it to resonate, and learning through it. She is also a former sex worker, drag queen, husband – she’s lived one heck of a life! The occupation of “trauma cleaner” is a fascinating, terrifying, and at-times literally unbelievable one; this account will leave your mouth hanging open at the end of every passage.

#88 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

I was really surprised to see that the news of a sequel – for the book, and the film – to Aciman’s juggernaut Call Me By Your Name didn’t give it more of a boost in the Dymocks Top 101 rankings this year. Still, I’m happy to see it here at all! Calling it “one of the great love stories of our time” might be a bit of a stretch, but not a big one. The book depicts a beautiful love affair that blossoms between a confused teenager and an older grad student, against the stunning backdrop of a family home in Italy. The follow-up is sure to be a runaway best-seller, so make sure you get in on this one now (if you haven’t already)

#91 My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante

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

If my vote was the only one that counted, My Brilliant Friend would probably come in at #1 in every Dymocks 101 for the next twenty years or so. As it stands, I’ll have to settle for it coming in here towards the end… for now. Elena Ferrante’s book – the first of her Neapolitan Novels – is quite frankly one of the best I have ever read. The way she weaves the story of two girls growing up, a tenuous and torrid friendship ebbing and flowing between them, in mid-20th century Naples is just… breathtaking. Truly! I’m starting my campaign to get her a ranking she deserves in the Dymocks Top 101 for 2020 right now! Read my full review of My Brilliant Friend here.


Notable Exclusions: I think the fine folks at Dymocks are taking some editorial license and cutting out cook books and other gimmicky options. This Top 101 is light on self-help, and non-fiction across the board (just eighteen non-fiction books, by my count). I’m really surprised that Wuthering Heights wasn’t included (especially after Jane Eyre made the cut!), and there were relatively few classics on the whole, too (only nine included this year).

You might have noticed a generally positive and up-beat tone to a lot of the books on the list. Kate Maynor from Dymocks has confirmed they’re seeing a trend towards what she called “UpLit” – stories in which protagonists have to go through a level of darkness to reach an ultimately redeeming end. That’s hardly a new premise in literature, but I can see why it’s having a resurgence; given the dark times in which we live and work, a little “up” with our lit is a welcome respite.

It’s a shame that Tracker didn’t make the list, and there’s a disturbing (ongoing) trend of under-representation of Indigenous Australian storytelling. It’s great to see more Australian authors on the list each year, but the fact that so few of them are from our Indigenous community really sours it for me.

Dymocks Booklovers have made huge strides in terms of gender equality – the 2019 Top 101 list has reached rough parity – but there’s still a way to go in terms of other intersectional identities. I’ve got my fingers crossed that more marginalised authors make the cut next year; I think disability activist Carly Findlay’s new book, Say Hello, is a strong contender!

What do you think of the Dymocks Top 101 books for 2019? Let me know in the comments below (or join the conversation over at KUWTP on Facebook!).

Check out what I thought of last year’s Dymocks Top 101 list here!

Gulliver’s Travels – Jonathan Swift

If I was all hung up on being technically correct (pfft, you guys wouldn’t believe it was me), this post would be called “Travels into Several Remote Nations of the World by Lemuel Gulliver”. That was the title Jonathan Swift chose for this novel, published under a pseudonym in 1729. He chose to use a pen name because his work was full of political commentary and satire, and his real name was closely associated with the Tories (who had fallen into disrepute, imagine that). He said he wrote the world to “vex the world rather than divert it”. But as time went on, more and more people referred to it as simply Gulliver’s Travels, and here we are.

Gulliver’s Travels reads like the travel blog of a bloke who gallivanted around the world in the 1700s, when atlases were woefully incomplete. The story kicks off with his first voyage, which he dates as occurring in 1699. His ship is wrecked (oh, yeah, you need to know right from the outset that Gulliver is super unlucky), and he washes ashore in the strange land of Lilliput. It is inhabited by a race of tiny people, all less than six inches tall. At first, they’re totally cool with this random giant (Gulliver) showing up in their ‘hood, but they’re (understandably) fucking terrified of the power he wields over them with his size. He learns that they’re kind of loopy, on the whole, and they focus on trivial things. Prime example: they’ve long been engaged in out-and-out military warfare with a neighbouring society of equally-tiny people, because they crack open their eggs at the opposite end. All things considered, Gulliver doesn’t really fit in with the Lilliputians, and he gets the fuck out of Dodge.

Not one to be put-off (oh, yeah, old mate Gulliver is also quite slow on the uptake), he sets out on another voyage in 1702. This time, his fellow sailors abandon him on a peninsula in North Africa. This is pretty much Opposite Land after Lilliput, because the farmer that finds him is 72ft tall and the grass seems as high as the trees back in England. Gulliver – now teeny-tiny, in relative terms – is treated as a side-show curiosity by the giants that take him in, and he is eventually sold as a pet to the Queen of their realm. After a few more adventures (including – and I’m not kidding, I swear – a fight with a gargantuan wasp and an escapade with a monkey), the box that Gulliver’s been living in is picked up by a seagull and dropped out to sea. There, he is rescued by some sailors, regular-sized ones, who return him safely to England once more.


Remember how I said Gulliver is slow on the uptake? Yeah, well, his travels don’t end there. In 1706, he sets off again, and this time his ship is attacked by pirates. This dude must’ve been cursed! He finds himself marooned on a rocky island near India, in a kingdom of people obsessed with music, mathematics, and astronomy… in theory. They’re all book-smart, he quickly finds, but not so good with the practical living. He helpfully points out to the reader that they taught him an important lesson about the blind pursuit of science and art without practical results (and, yes, this was Swift making one of those political points of his about bureaucracy, and the Royal Society’s controversial experiments), before making his way home…

… but not for long. Full of impractical wanderlust-bravado, Gulliver heads back out, this time as the captain of a ship, only to have his crew commit mutiny and abandon him on the first lump of sand they find. That’s where he finds a race of deformed savage human-esque creatures (the “Yahoos”), and he’s rescued by a race of talking horses (the “Houyhnhnms”). I don’t think I need to point out the metaphor here, because Swift hits you over the head with it repeatedly until the end of the book. It’s basically Planet of the Apes, but with horsies. Gulliver lives among the Houyhnhnms (even though they’re highly suspicious of him, with the resemblance he bears to their Yahoo mortal enemies, of course), and he hangs around for a long, long time. Eventually, they kick him out for being too Yahoo-y, and he gets home only to find that he is now repulsed by his own kind. He lives out the rest of his days in his stables, ignoring his wife and chit-chatting to the horses about life and philosophy and whatever. The end.

By now, a lot of the structural elements of Gulliver’s Travels have become stock-standard, but at the time they were downright revolutionary. There’s a clear downward spiral, as the causes of Gulliver’s “travels” become more and more malignant: shipwrecked, abandoned, boarded by pirates, mutinied by his own crew. As that plays out, Gulliver himself devolves from a cheery optimist to a pompous misanthrope. And each section of the novel forms the equal but opposite of the previous part: the Lilliputians are tiny, but then Gulliver finds himself in a society where he’s the tiny one, and so on and so forth.


I can’t say I liked Gulliver’s Travels, mostly because I got increasingly pissed off at the fact that Gulliver seems to completely forget all about his wife and family. Mrs Gulliver is the most sympathetic character in the whole story, no shit. Even though he comes home in the end, he’s spent too much time on Planet Of The Horses and he decides that she’s an “odious Yahoo”, and refuses to have anything to do with her. Sometimes, if he feels particularly benevolent, he’ll “permit” her to sit with him at dinner, as long as she stays at the opposite end of the table and he can stuff his nose with “rue, lavender, or tobacco leaves” to mask her human stench. Oh, and he commands her to answer any questions with the “utmost brevity”, so he doesn’t have to put up with her yammering on. What a guy!

I wondered why more of the book didn’t feel familiar, because I’d watched a film adaptation (on VHS! remember those?) about a hundred times when I was a kid. Then, I looked it up (you can see the trailer here) and worked out that it only covered two of the “several remote nations” to which Gulliver travelled. Apparently a lot of film adaptations do that, because the first couple of “travels” are the easiest to film and communicate on-screen; plus, they’re the most kid-friendly, and Gulliver’s Travels is widely regarded as a children’s book, even though there’s a lot of political commentary and allegory behind the childish imagery. I suppose that makes it an old-timey version of Shrek, really.

Don’t be fooled, though: Gulliver’s Travels has had a considerable impact on literature, and indeed the English language on the whole. In this book, we can find the origins of science fiction, and the structure of the modern novel. Even the term “yahoo” (meaning “a rude, noisy, or violent person” according to the Oxford English Dictionary) is drawn from Swift’s work – another English word that has its roots in classic literature! It’s just a shame I couldn’t enjoy it properly because the main character was such an unremitting arsehole.


My favourite part (not that I felt spoiled for choice) was where Gulliver meets a King, who moonlights as psychic medium John Edward. He can recall people from the dead, but only for 24 hours at a time, and only once every three months. Gulliver talks him into bringing back Aristotle, assorted Roman emperors, dead Kings, and so forth. There’s a really touching passage where he laments the fact that history is written by the victors, and all these dickheads (who he’d been taught all his life were “great men”) were basically the Donald Trumps of their day. All the people who’d stood up to them and fought the good fight had either been forgotten or had their names dragged through the mud. Gulliver declares that he’s fed up with fake news, and he’s calling bullshit on it all – surprisingly poignant, eh?

My tl;dr summary of Gulliver’s Travels: Gulliver leaves his wife and kids at home to gallivant around the world, four times over, even though he constantly meets with disaster and winds up a prisoner in some foreign land or another. He becomes such a twisted misanthrope that he gives up on humanity and lives out his days ankle-deep in horse shit. Sure, the academics will say that it’s an ever-relevant critique of corruption and religion and government… but I can’t get past the wife-abandonment. Gulliver pretty much got what he deserved, is what I’m saying, and his wife could have done so much better.

My favourite Amazon reviews of Gulliver’s Travels:

  • “This was the worst book I have ever read in my entire life. My whole family hates it too. Honestly, I could barley read it for 10 minutes without it putting me to sleep from Gulliver dragging on about garbage no one cares about. I would rather drink a gallon of mayonnaise then read this, actually I would BATHE in mayonnaise for a MONTh then read this book. And don’t even think about saying “oh I bet its not THAT bad,” because it IS THAT BAD! I wish I didn’t have to read this book for my class, but by the time i’m done, I might as well burn the book.” – AmazonShoper
  • “Useless as a book.” – Flordelis
  • “Sucked.” – Morgan
  • “Mostly good stories.” – John H. Long

Award Winning Books Worth Reading

Booklovers take their book-loving seriously, and their opinions vary – widely. So any award that picks one book as the “best” of a given year or genre is always going to be controversial. Literary awards honour the great authors of our time, and winning a major one pretty much guarantees that a book will fly off the shelves as people to scramble to see whether it’s worthy. It’s a high-stakes game, this literary award business! Today on Keeping Up With The Penguins, we take a look at some of the major awards and ask the sixty-four thousand dollar question: are there any award winning books that are worth your time?

Award Winning Books That Are Worth Your Time - Text Overlaid on Image of Trophy and Sparkly Lights - Keeping Up With The Penguins

The Major Literary Awards

Let’s take a quick look at some of those major awards and prizes, shall we?

  • The Man Booker Prize is awarded each year to the best original novel, written in English, that’s had a print run in the U.K.
  • The Nobel Prize in Literature is awarded annually to an author (supposedly from any country, but more on that in a minute), who has produced “in the field of literature the most outstanding work in an ideal direction”.
  • The Pulitzer Prize for Fiction recognises a distinguished work of fiction by an American writer (usually themed around American life) published in the preceding calendar year.
  • The Hugo Awards are named for Hugo Gernsback (founder of revolutionary sci-fi magazine Amazing Stories); they recognise the best science-fiction and fantasy works of the preceding year.
  • The Miles Franklin Literary Award is awarded each year to “a novel which is of the highest literary merit and presents Australian life in any of its phases”. (The Stella Prize is also awarded each year to a female writer, in response to a perceived gender bias in the selection of Miles Franklin winners. Both awards are named after legendary Australian author [Stella] Miles Franklin.)
  • The PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction is awarded annually to American authors of fiction who have produced the year’s “best” works. The organisation claims it to be the “largest peer-juried award in America”.
  • The National Book Awards are presented each year by the National Book Foundation in the U.S., and traditionally includes two lifetime achievement awards.
  • The Women’s Prize for Fiction is the UK’s most prestigious annual book award for fiction written by a woman.

This is, obviously, a very, very small sample of a rather large pool of major literary prizes. There are dozens of others in every country, and across every conceivable genre and market.

Man Booker Award Controversies

Controversy plagues every literary award, in one way or another, and the sniping only grows bigger and uglier as the award becomes more prestigious. If we’re going to look at some examples, we might as well start right at the top, with the Man Booker.

Take, for instance, the great Trainspotting drama of 1993. Two judges threatened to quit the Man Booker committee after Irvine Welsh’s “vulgar” novel was named on the long-list that year. The book offended their feminist sensitivities, so much so that it was subsequently pulled from the short-list. Welsh didn’t respond well (even by my low standards); he called the prize imperialist, and said that “any claim that it’s an inclusive, non-discriminatory award could be demolished by anybody with even a rudimentary grasp of sixth-form sociology”.

The shit-slinging doesn’t stop there. In 2001, A.L. Kennedy said that the Man Booker is “a pile of crooked nonsense”. Her experiences on the committee in the ’90s had convinced her that the winner was determined only by “who knows who, who’s sleeping with who, who’s selling drugs to who, who’s married to who, whose turn it is”. She also claimed to be the only judge who had read all 300 novels under consideration – yikes.


The same year that Kennedy called bullshit, there was an unrelated whoops-y in the announcement of the winner. Life Of Pi had pretty long odds, until the prize’s website accidentally announced it as the winner a week before the official decision. I’d imagine the originator of that particular fuck-up had to go into some kind of witness protection, because bookies have been known to take baseball bats to kneecaps and they had to pay out all of the bets when the leak later proved to be correct.

The most recent revelations about more Man Booker scandals (oh yeah, there’s plenty more!) can be found here.

And, lest you get the impression that the Man Booker is the worst of the life, let me tack on a couple of Nobel disasters. The Swedish award has long been the target of accusations of political bias and Eurocentrism in their selection process. Leo Tolstoy and Anton Checkov never got the gong, oversights that have been widely attributed to Sweden’s long-held antipathy towards Russia. On multiple occasions, other authors from outside of Europe have also been controversially and bafflingly snubbed; in 1974, Grahame Greene, Vladimir Nabokov, and Saul Bellow were all over-looked in favour of a joint award to Swedish authors Eyvind Johnson and Harry Martinson, who (to this day!) remain relatively unknown outside their home country. (And you should know, they were both Nobel judges themselves – a pure coincidence, I’m sure, but…)

via GIPHY

It’s all enough to make you wonder whether the awards mean anything at all. I don’t think I’d be out of line in saying that merit clearly isn’t the only criteria at play in picking the winners. But, despite the drama, now and then these committees pick a winner that is, y’know, actually a winner. Let’s take a look at some of the award winning books that are worth your time…

Award Winning Books That Are Worth Your Time

The Age of Innocence (Edith Wharton)

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

Winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction (1921)

Leading the charge, we’ve got The Age of Innocence (and you can check out my full review for the run-down). The committee almost overlooked this early 20th century gem, but in the end Wharton’s competition was disqualified on political grounds. And that’s the story of how she became the first female winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction *fist pump*. Now, this isn’t to say that gender equality was achieved as of that moment – it was one very small step, and one could perhaps even question its ongoing relevance given the way that women have been overlooked for literary awards in the century since – but you never forget the first 😉 And if that’s not reason enough to invest your eyeballs, the story’s pretty damn good! Buy it here.

The Martian (Andy Weir)

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

Winner of the Hugo Award (2016)

Not all award winners are lofty works of literary fiction, only comprehensible to English majors 😉 The Martian scored a Hugo Award, and went on to become one of the biggest break-through sci-fi novels of the past decade. I was pretty hesitant when I first picked it up, because sci-fi isn’t my go-to genre and I’m skeptical of any film adaptation starring Matt Damon, but goshdarn it was funny! I cackled out loud on every other page (check out my full review); Weir’s characterisation and voice is strong and direct and hilarious. Plus, the premise is pretty compelling – a lone man abandoned on a planet, forced to find a way to survive on meager rations until help arrives – and it forces the reader to confront the terrifying thought of what they’d do in that situation. Buy it here.

To Kill A Mockingbird (Harper Lee)

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

Winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction (1961)

Forty years after Edith Wharton got the gong, Harper Lee was called up – for her first (and only) novel, To Kill A Mockingbird. It’s one of the only books I’ve read that’s truly exceeded the hype, and I’m not sure I can recommend it more highly than that (I mean, the hype is considerable). I completely understand if you take issue with some of the racial politics of the book, especially given that it has been so widely and consistently lauded with nary a mention of some of its more problematic elements, but the writing is exquisite, so I’d say it’s worth a look regardless (check out my review here to see why). Plus, it’s had many tangible real-world impacts since its release – consider the formation of the Atticus Finch Legal Society, for instance – so reading it will get you up to speed on that front, too. Buy it here.

The Slap (Christos Tsiolkas)

Winner of the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize (2009) (and the ABIA Book Of The Year, and the ABA Book Of The Year, and a bunch more)

Christos Tsiolkas won nearly every major literary award in Australia – except the biggie, the Miles Franklin (for which he was short-listed) – with The Slap. I read it a few years ago, and I don’t mind confessing: I had to take a few runs at it. I bought a copy in a fit of unbridled optimism about my future reading life (it’s a long book), only to pick it up once every couple of months, and then abandon it after a few pages. It followed me, languishing in the bottom of a suitcase, as I moved up and down the country. When I finally got around to finishing it, I was so glad I’d persisted! The catalyst of a slap at a family barbecue sets off a chain of reactions, sucking multiple characters and families into a vortex. This one would be particularly good for readers overseas who still think of Australia as the home of Skippy and Crocodile Dundee; Tsiolkas’ treatment of Australian suburbia and community is searing, confronting, and insightful. Buy it here.

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves (Karen Joy Fowler)

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

Winner of the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction (2014)

I know, I know, I squeeze this one in with just about every list of recommended books I write here on the blog: I make no apologies. We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves definitely deserves its place here. I wouldn’t recommend reading my review until after you’ve read the book; the plot twist is just so damn good, don’t let anything ruin it for you! I’m this book’s biggest advocate and proponent now, and I think its relatively understated popularity is infuriating. And, let’s be honest, I’m still bitter that it lost out to The Narrow Road To The Deep North for the Man Booker Prize in 2014; luckily, the folks judging the PEN/Faulkner saw sense. Buy it here.

Cold Comfort Farm (Stella Gibbons)

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

Winner of the Prix Femina Vie Heureuse Anglais (1933)

Stella Gibbons was snubbed by the literary world for the most part, so she makes it into this list by the skin of her teeth. Her crime was satirising D.H. Lawrence and his contemporaries, making fun of their horniness-masquerading-as-moral-philosophy and their attempts to write vernacular. Luckily, she still managed to score a gong or two, and in all honesty Cold Comfort Farm deserved a lot more. It’s really the only novel for which Gibbons is remembered (also a shame, because she was pretty damn prolific), and even then it’s not all that widely read, not even in academia. It’s a snarkier, sassier, more modern Jane Austen – a great one to read when you need a good laugh! Buy it here.

I’m actually pretty behind in reading the award winners, so there’s every chance I’ve missed some fantastic worthy inclusions here – please give me your suggestions in the comments (or tell me over at KUWTP on Facebook!).

The Age Of Innocence – Edith Wharton

The path to equality and representation for women is paved with the works of women like Edith Wharton. The Age Of Innocence was her twelfth novel, published in 1920. It went on to win the 1921 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. The committee had initially agreed to give the award to Sinclair Lewis for Main Street, but the judges wound up rejecting his book on political grounds… making Wharton the first woman to win, in the award’s history. She had the hustle, she fought the good fight, and she won in the end, which makes me so damn happy. Plus, The Age Of Innocence is one of Roxane Gay’s favourite books, so…

The most important thing to know when it comes to The Age Of Innocence is that you need to guard against being fooled by its subtlety. On its face, it’s a slow-moving society story of upper-class New York City at the end of the 19th century, but its critique and commentary goes so much deeper than that! You’ve really got to keep your wits about you as you’re reading, because it’s all so subtle – it’s a lot like Jane Austen’s Emma, in that regard. You’ll fall into the trap of thinking you can let your mind drift for a second, because Wharton’s just describing the carriages in the street or something, but next thing you know you’ve missed a crucial insight into the politics of this Gilded Age society, and you’ve got to go back and read it all again (as I did, on more than one occasion). It’s not a fast-paced story, but a lot is communicated very quickly, if that makes any sense. Even the title itself, four simple words, is an ironic comment (with multiple layers) on the polished veneer of “society” in New York, given its nefarious undercurrents and machinations. So, Wharton don’t play, people: strap in.

The Age Of Innocence starts with Newland Archer, rich boy heir to one of New York City’s “best” families, all set to marry the naive pretty-young-thing May Welland. Newland’s at the opera, fantasising about how wonderful his upper-crust life is going to be… until his fiance’s beautiful cousin, the Countess Ellen Olenska, shows up, and it all goes straight to hell.

The Countess is “exotic” and “worldly” (the number of euphemisms they all find for “slutty” is amazing), everything Newland’s fiance is not. He quickly announces his engagement to their families, figuring that the declaration would “lock him in” and get the Countess out of his head, but (as I’m sure you can guess) it does diddly-squat to temper his arousal.


The Countess announces that she wants to divorce her husband, and her family freaks the fuck out. This is the 1870s, after all, so divorce is a very dirty word. Newland, being a lawyer and a friend of the family (a cousin-in-law to be, ahem!), is charged with convincing her to just stay married to the creepy old Polish guy that beat her and locked her in a closet (or something like that, the reasons for the marital discord aren’t made all that clear). Newland manages to convince her, but it’s tough going; he keeps getting distracted by his boner.

When he finally gets his hand off it, he marries May, but (surprise, surprise) he’s fucking miserable. He works up the nerve to leave her, with a view to following the Countess back to Europe, but when he tries to do his “it’s not you, it’s me” speech, May interrupts him and tells him she’s pregnant. And the Countess knows – May told her a couple of weeks ago (even though she “wasn’t sure” – I guess they didn’t have early-detection pee sticks back then?). The implication, and you might have to read it a couple times over to pick it up, is that May suspected the affair all along and magicked up this pregnancy to put an end to it.

Newland pretty much just gives up on life at that point, and anything resembling joy. He settles in for a lifetime of baby-making and boring New York dinner parties. The novel concludes twenty-six years later, after May dies and Newland takes his son to Paris. The kid, completely innocently, had heard that his mother’s cousin lived there, and he arranges for them to pay her a visit – the cousin being… the Countess! But don’t worry, there’s no romantic reunion happily-ever-after bullshit here; Newland is too chicken to see his former paramour, so he just sends his son up to visit while he waits outside. The end.



Wharton later wrote of The Age Of Innocence that it allowed her to escape back to her childhood in America, a world that she believed had been destroyed by the First World War (a fair call, that particular conflict really fucked shit up on a number of levels). Generally, it’s thought to be a story about the struggle to reconcile the old with the new, and Wharton stops just short of landing on one side or the other. In fact, even though it’s dripping with social commentary and satire, Wharton’s book doesn’t outright condemn pre-war New York society. It’s like she recognises its ridiculousness, but wants to reinforce that, well, it wasn’t all bad. Basically she’s saying that the past was just okay, but the present isn’t all get-out either. Seems fair enough, no?

This book really resonated with me in ways I didn’t expect. You’d think we’ve have come so far as a society over the past century that the behaviours and mores of late 19th century New York would be virtually unrecognisable. But take this, for example: the scene where Newland is trying to convince the Countess not to go ahead with her divorce is eerily reminiscent of the remonstrances received by people who came forward as part of the #metoo movement.

“Well, then: is it worth while to risk what may be infinitely disagreeable and painful? Think of the newspapers – their vileness! It’s all stupid and narrow and unjust – but one can’t make over society.” – p. 96

Plus, there’s a really interesting dichotomy between the two primary female characters (May and the Countess – the latter being a character I once described as one of the best bad women in fiction). Of course, upon its initial publication, reader sentiment was pretty heavily weighted in May’s favour. After all, she was the good little wife, standing by her man and making babies and all that. But in the intervening century, the tables have turned, and now she’s often read as a manipulative bitch who basically trapped a man in a loveless marriage through pregnancy. She’s the woman all the Men’s Rights Activists warn us about. On the other hand, the Countess has become the poster child for The Woman Question and the constraints of gender roles for women in society. To be honest, though, I think they’re both alright; Newland is the one who’s deserving of our disdain, the sooky little fuck-boy…

Anyway, even if you’re not into all this social commentary stuff, The Age Of Innocence is still worth a read, for Wharton’s mastery of the craft of writing alone. Her subtlety, her insight, her cleverness – it’s all sublime. And the story itself isn’t half-bad, if you’re paying close attention. My tl;dr summary is this: a bunch of WASPs in old-timey New York pretend that a bloke isn’t having an affair with his wife’s slutty cousin (even though he very obviously is), and he stays with his wife after he knocks her up (because he’s such a swell guy). It’s a challenging read if you’re used to fast-paced action and sparse prose, but it’s well worth the effort.


My favourite Amazon reviews of The Age Of Innocence:

  • “Excellent book, as relevant today as when it was first published. The song that comes to mind is Dolly Parton’s Jolene.” – Amazon Customer
  • “There’s no violence, no sex and nothing to hold your interest …” – SMMc
  • “#richvictorianpeopleproblems” – Taylor
  • “I do not consider this an annotated book. It only has a few definitions.” – Susan B. Banbury
  • “We purchased one for my mother when she had shingles and was in incredible pain. It helped her, and she raved about it so much that we bought three more! I have arthritis throughout my body, and I’m getting the best sleep I have in years.” – Kindle Customer
  • “I found this very aggravating to read. I just wanted to grab Newland Archer and shake some sense into him. Written by a woman who made the male characters look stupid.” – Jim W
  • “Poor plot and well written” – Marilyn Austin

 

My Bookish Timeline

Have you ever mocked up your bookish timeline? Probably not (I might be the only person nerdy enough to actually think about shit like this). Take a look over your shelves, then: are you mostly in the 18th century? Or do you like to hang out in the years of your youth? It might sound like a really boring exercise, but hold your judgment: it’s actually really interesting to take a look at your books this way. It tells you a lot about yourself and your reading habits, and it might even give you some additional insights into the books themselves. For instance, I remember The Scarlet Letter reading like a way older book than David Copperfield, and yet it turns out they were published in the very same year. So, I couldn’t help myself, I had to know more! I present to you: the Keeping Up With The Penguins bookish timeline.




A Bookish Timeline - Keeping Up With The Penguins


So, all told, my bookish timeline spans 695 years. Only 30 of the 109 books are from this century, and yet, for some reason, the single year that produced the most books on my reading List was 2013. Random, eh? Most of my Recommended reads are from the 19th century (so far, anyway), so maybe I enjoy the classics more than I thought I would. I’d also assumed that perhaps the reason it feels like I’m reading so many novels about WWII is that the bulk of my reading list came from the years immediately after the conflict, but in reality I’m only reading twenty books from the following four decades, so there goes that theory. But putting together my bookish timeline was a fruitful exercise in many other respects, and I reckon you should all give it a go 😉 Drop your most interesting insights in the comments below (or join the conversation over at KUWTP on Facebook!).

 

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