Keeping Up With The Penguins

Reviews For The Would-Be Booklover

Best Of: Keeping Up With The Penguins tl;dr Reviews

If there’s one thing I pride myself on here at Keeping Up With The Penguins, it’s my tl;dr reviews of classic and popular literature. I aim to tell you everything you need to know about a book in a single sentence, summing up the entire plot and my reaction to it. This past year, I’ve reviewed a stack of wonderful books, and I think it’s high time we revisit some of them – the tl;dr version 😉

P.S. If you’re feeling a little out of the loop, “tl;dr” stands for “too long; didn’t read”. It’s frequently used across the internet to indicate a very brief summary of a very long preceding ramble…

tl;dr Reviews of Classic Literature - Text on Blue Background with Images of Book Covers - The Divine Comedy, Wuthering Heights, The Scarlet Letter, The Great Gatsby, The Picture of Dorian Gray, and The Turn Of The Screw

The Great Gatsby – F. Scott Fitzgerald

My tl;dr summary is this: a shady rich guy gets taken in by a slapper, and owning a fancy car comes back to bite him in the arse. All the characters talk and act like self-indulgent teenagers – it’s basically an old-timey version of The OC.


Read my full review of The Great Gatsby.

A Clockwork Orange – Anthony Burgess

My tl;dr summary would be that everyone is evil, there are no good guys, and everything sucks. If you can accept that reality with a heaping serve of extreme violence, then this might be the book for you.


Read my full review of A Clockwork Orange.

Wild – Cheryl Strayed

Tl;dr? Wild is Eat, Pray, Love meets Survivor. I would recommend it to mid-20s fuck-ups like me, who don’t mind clumsy metaphors.


Read my full review of Wild.

Wuthering Heights – Emily Brontë

Tl;dr? Wuthering Heights is a bad boy’s decade-long butthurt over getting friendzoned. If that appeals to you, and you don’t have any personal emotional turmoil going on, go for it.


Read my full review of Wuthering Heights.

The Scarlet Letter – Nathaniel Hawthorne

The Scarlet Letter is a good one to talk about at parties, but if it’s tl;dr, just picture an old-timey Gilmore Girls.


Read my full review of The Scarlet Letter.

As I Lay Dying – William Faulkner

My tl;dr review: Faulkner drunk texts the death and burial of a Southern woman with a crazy family.


Read my full review of As I Lay Dying.

The Girl On The Train – Paula Hawkins

My tl;dr summary would be this: a barren, drunk, stalker “girl” witnesses what could be a clue to what could be a crime, and you’ve got to swim through some very choppy waters to get yourself back on solid ground after that. If you’re a thriller aficionado you might find it cliche, and if you’re in a dark place it might trigger some stuff for you: you’ve been warned.


Read my full review of The Girl On The Train.

The Divine Comedy – Dante Alighieri

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


Read my full review of The Divine Comedy.

The Sun Also Rises – Ernest Hemingway

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


Read my full review of The Sun Also Rises.

American Sniper – Chris Kyle

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


Read my full review of American Sniper.

Paper Towns – John Green

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


Read my full review of Paper Towns.

The Turn Of The Screw – Henry James

Tl;dr? A governess goes bonkers and starts seeking ghosts (that may or may not be real, no one can figure it out), kind of like an old-timey Sixth Sense but told in the wordiest possible way.


Read my full review of The Turn Of The Screw.

The Picture of Dorian Gray – Oscar Wilde

A tl;dr review of The Picture of Dorian Gray: imagine giving Kim Kardashian or Paris Hilton immortal youth, and and endless supply of drugs and alcohol.


Read my full review of The Picture of Dorian Gray.

Can you give me a tl;dr summary of your favourite read this year? Drop it in the comments below (or share it over at KUWTP on Facebook!).


My Brilliant Friend – Elena Ferrante

Confession: I’ve been a bit apprehensive about posting this review, simply because I’m not sure that I could possibly do Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend justice. It is, quite frankly, one of the best books that I have ever read. It starts right inside the front cover: three straight pages of adoring reviews, from the stock-standard “one of the greatest novelists of our time” from the New York Times, to the highly apt “Imagine if Jane Austen got angry and you’ll have some idea of how explosive these works are” from The Australian, to the best (and most creative) “Ferrante writes with the kind of power saved for weather systems with female names, sparing no one” from the LA Times. Of course, I couldn’t help but wonder if they were over-stating things just a smidge… but they weren’t. Ferrante’s writing is just that damn good.

My Brilliant Friend is the first book in the Neapolitan series of novels (published 2012-2015). It follows the lives of Elena Greco (the narrator) and Rafaella “Lila” Cerullo, as they pull themselves up from their humble origins in a poor neighbourhood on the outskirts of Naples. This version is translated from the original Italian by translator Ann Goldstein – and damn, she did one hell of a job! She somehow retained the rolling lyricism of the original Italian, with no awkward or stilted language – not a single hint to the reader that the work was not originally written in English. The translation is truly a work of art, in and of itself.

I had very determinedly not read anything about My Brilliant Friend or Elena Ferrante prior to opening the book (as is my custom: I like coming to new books with a clean slate)… but it was hard! Elena Ferrante is the darling of the literary world, and I have an unhealthy level of curiosity about her. Her name is a pseudonym, and the true identity of the author has been withheld to this day – which is incredible given that we live in the digital age, and Time named her one of the most influential people of 2016! We know that she was born in Naples in 1943, she has a classics degree, she is a mother, and (we infer) she is no longer married. Speculation as to her true identity is, of course, absolutely rife, but Ferrante herself has repeatedly argued that anonymity is a precondition for her work. She says: “books, once they are written, have no need of their authors”. Academics and literary critics have reached various conclusions as to who the “real” Elena Ferrante is, but I’ll leave it up to them – doesn’t all the guesswork spoil the fun?

Anyway, to the book: once you make it through pages and pages of praise and acclaim, My Brilliant Friend kicks off with an Index of Characters, which I thought was really interesting. It evoked the Genealogical Table in the front of my copy of Wuthering Heights, and – much like Brontë’s classic – the guide really came in handy, because the Italian names all look remarkably similar at times, and almost every character has multiple nicknames. Yikes! The prologue sets up the series’ premise: a woman (Elena) receives a phone call from the son of a friend (Lila), saying that his mother has gone missing. Elena suspects that the “disappearance” is deliberate, and she takes it upon herself to record the details of Lila’s life, a passive-aggressive attempt to stop her vanishing into thin air. Basically, it’s a fictionalised biography, written out of sheer stubbornness. From that moment, Ferrante had me hooked!

(Boilerplate spoiler warning, as much as I hate them: I figure My Brilliant Friend is good enough, and recent enough, to warrant at least a perfunctory heads-up.)


Elena begins the story with their shared childhood, in 1950s Naples. She and Lila grew up in poverty, surrounded by domestic violence, class struggles, community politics, and very little in the way of parental supervision. Neither set of parents expects the girls to receive much of an education, despite the fact that they both show remarkable academic talent. Their lives diverge when Lila’s parents refuse to allow her to continue with school, while their teacher convinces Elena’s parents to cover the costs of further education.

Ferrante’s writing is so beautiful, and chock-full of insight! She gives one of the most beautiful and articulate descriptions of a panic attack that I have ever read, describing it as “dissolving margins”. There have been rumours (of course!) that Ferrante may, in fact, be a male writer, but from reading My Brilliant Friend I find that hard to believe. Ferrante writes about developing breasts (and the male curiosity about them) in a way that could have been lifted from my very own pubescent head. The only male writer I’ve come across that has ever come close to reaching that level of insight into the female mind was William Faulkner, in a single chapter of As I Lay Dying. So, no, I don’t believe Ferrante is a man. And I could natter on about her literary mastery forever, but I’ll try to restrain myself…

Back to the story: while Elena continues with school, Lila works in her father’s cobbler business, and develops new dreams and schemes of designing her own line of shoes, with a view to making enough money to lift the family out of poverty. Lila grows disarmingly beautiful (of course), attracting the attention of every boy in the neighbourhood. A young man from a powerful local family takes it into his head that he wants to marry her, and her family puts the pressure on (after all, he’s rich enough to own a car, and he bribes them by buying them a television of their very own)… but Lilia – headstrong, determined, contrary Lila – digs in her heels. She convinces the local grocer, Stefano, to propose instead, and he gets the family onside by offering to finance Lila’s shoe project.

Now, you might think from this (very brief, I’ll admit) description that Lila is the “brilliant friend”. She is, indeed, incredibly smart – as well as beautiful, cruel, opportunistic, and ambitious, with just a hint of a soft underbelly. Ferrante flips this notion on its head, though, when Lila reveals in the moments before her wedding that she considers Elena to be her “brilliant friend”. It’s a really touching scene between them, and I was gripping the book hard and blinking a lot as I read…

Lila’s marriage doesn’t get off to a flying start, exactly. Her new husband, Stefano, betrays her trust completely, by inviting her former suitor (the young, rich, powerful guy with the car and the television and the bad attitude) to the wedding, and Lila discovers that her new hubby actually sold him the prototype of her shoe line – the shoes that Stefano told her he would treasure forever and never let go. As far as she’s concerned, he can get in the bin…

and that’s where it ends!




It is, honestly, the cruelest ending I have ever read. I mean, it’s fantastic (!), and this is exactly how a series should be done, but Jesus wept… it’s not a cliche cliffhanger, nor is everything wrapped up neatly in a bow. The story just stops! Ferrante has said that she considers the Neapolitan series to be a single book, split into four volumes primarily for reasons of length, which makes sense of the ending somewhat. But still! I wasn’t prepared! I didn’t have a copy of the next book (The Story Of A New Name) ready to pick up, and I’ve got dozens of books to go on The List before I can add any new ones! Gah!

I want to emphasise that this Keeping Up With The Penguins summary skips over a lot, because My Brilliant Friend is incredibly complex and detailed. It covers everything – burgeoning womanhood, the politics of small communities, the ramifications of war, poverty, domestic violence, sexual violence, literacy, friendship, betrayal, revenge, how women’s lives are shaped by class and status, maternity, familial obligation, social responsibility, intelligence… heck, just listing all of the themes, with a brief description of how Ferrante handles them, would make for a prohibitively long review.

Needless to say, My Brilliant Friend is a Recommended read here at Keeping Up With The Penguins. In fact, I’ve recommended it to every single person I’ve encountered since I turned the final page. That goes double – triple! – if you enjoyed Looking For Alibrandi as a teenager. I am very sure that in fifty (or seventy, or a hundred) years, we will consider My Brilliant Friend a classic of our time, the same way we consider Austen and the Brontës. Get in early, and read it now!


My favourite Amazon reviews of My Brilliant Friend:

  • “Spoiler Alert: Nothing of interest ever happens.” – Laurien in Oregon
  • “Nice. But more relevant for women…” – Amazon Customer
  • “And this is book1 out of 4! I frankly don’t think the characters are so interesting that they need to be captured in eighty squillion words. Having had said this, the author is brilliant at capturing voices and the vibe.” – D O WilshynskyDresler
  • “I don’t think I”ll finish. Boring me to death. I’m about 30% through and it’s like listening to a grandma ramble about her hardscrabble childhood. Very repetitive and not my grandma, so I don’t care.” – calamityj
  • “I got to the end of My Brilliant Friend and felt like I was missing something. Perhaps it was the plot. It went like this: two girls are friends/enemies, they get their periods and grow up, one gets married and he turns out to be a jerk. And this plot starts out in the most bizarre way. These two girls start walking up these stairs which reminds her of another story and that story reminds her of a different story until you have this Inception-like mess of stories within stories. They don’t reach the top of the stairs until 10 chapters later and by this point I’m not even sure what’s going on anymore. Is this real or not real? Can someone get Leonardo DiCaprio to spin a top for me and tell me when we get back to reality??….” – Jessica B.

 

Best Christmas Gifts for Book Lovers

It’s the most wonderful time of the year… for book lovers! December is usually a month of restraint, where we resist the urge to buy new books and bookish accessories, in the hopes of an awesome haul from friends and family come Christmas Day. Of course, for non-readers, this can present a bit of a quandary: what should you buy for a bookworm? Don’t books seem too obvious? Never fear, I have you sorted! Here’s a short-list of the best Christmas gifts for book lovers, with something at every price point!

Best Christmas Gifts For Book Lovers - Text Overlaid on A Christmas Scene - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Under $10: Bookmarks

It might seem too simple, but trust me: a great bookmark never goes astray! Every book lover needs a stash of bookmarks, lest they find themselves forced to ruin their precious special editions with dog ears. A gift of bookmarks shows that you’ve noticed your loved one’s reading habit, that you care for them and want what’s best for them (and their books!), which makes them a very thoughtful gift… not to mention insanely affordable! You don’t have to spend much to make a big impression this Christmas. Peter Pauper Press over on Amazon has a huge selection available, all under $10!

Under $20: Literary Mugs

The best accompaniment to a good book, especially when it’s chilly outside, is a hot beverage. And you know what you need for a hot beverage? A fantastic literary mug! My personal favourites are the ones that are heat reactive, revealing new images or words when they’re filled with tea or coffee. I also love mugs with funny bookish quotes, and adorable illustrations. Check these out…

Under $30: Literary Shirts and Tote Bags

Bookworms will never miss an opportunity to share their love for literature through fashion. These gorgeous t-shirts are 100% cotton and emblazoned with detailed illustrations of classic book characters and covers (both masculine and feminine cuts available). A lot of the designs are also available on tote bags, which are the perfect size for carting around stacks of books! Plus, the brains behind the operation – Melissa – is absolutely ace. She’s offering Keeping Up With The Penguins readers a full 20% off anything from her online store over the holidays! Enter the code KEEPINGUPWITHTHEPENGUINS20 and stock up!

Literary Book Gifts Tote Bags and T-Shirts

Get 20% off with code KEEPINGUPWITHTHEPENGUINS20 when you shop here.

Under $50: Book Ends

One of the most precious gifts I ever received was a set of rustic poodle-shaped book ends. A dear friend gave them to me for my 21st birthday, and I have carried them with me all across the country (indeed, eagle-eyed Keeping Up With The Penguins readers will have spotted them once or twice in my Instagram feed). Book ends come in every price range, from under $10 to over $100, but in my opinion the best value is to be found in the middle. You’ll want something on the heavy side, to ensure durability and the capacity to hold up heavier rows of hardcovers and thick tomes. Here are some of my current favourites:

Under $50: Bookish Scarves

Bookish scarves are subtle, but gorgeous – exactly what the book lover needs to stay warm in winter! Plus, scarves are the most versatile fashion item ever, so even if they’re not so into wearing them, you can be pretty sure your book lover will find a use for it somewhere along the line. My favourite bookish scarves are the Austen-themed ones, but there are stacks of others out there: Sherlock Holmes, Alice in Wonderland, generic book cover patterns, library punch cards, other classics…

Over $100: eReaders

If you’re a very generous friend or family member, this is the option for you. Maybe your book lover is stuck in the dark ages (like me!), still carrying paperbacks everywhere she goes. Or maybe you know a bookworm who has been all across eBooks since the beginning, but desperately needs a technology upgrade! Either way, an eReader is the way to go this Christmas. You can get a tried-and-true Kindle, or you can branch out and try one of the many alternatives. You could even get a generic tablet, which works with most eBook formats and has a lot more functionality over and above that! Whichever way you go, your book-loving loved one will love you forever 😉

(Don’t worry, if you don’t have the cash to splash, there are other options! Amazon also sells refurbished models at a fraction of the cost, or you could pick them up a cover for their current reader, or even an Amazon voucher that goes that much further with eBooks!)

Need more ideas? This month, every Keeping Up With The Penguins subscriber gets a FREE Christmas gift guide for book lovers, packed with plenty of ideas for every price range. Enter your email address below to get the complete guide today!

What’s your favourite Christmas gift for book lovers this year? Tell us in the comments below (or share with us over at KUWTP on Facebook!).


 

The Fault In Our Stars – John Green

Well, it’s about time I got around to reading The Fault In Our Stars. After John Green announced the title of this, his sixth book, it immediately rose to #84 on the Amazon.com best-seller list. And that was just the title! (It’s drawn from Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, by the way: “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves, that we are underlings”.) He foolishly promised to personally sign each pre-order, which is how he ended up having to autograph every single copy of the first print run. He even polled the public as to what colour Sharpie he should use, and divvied up the 150,000 copies according to the proportion of the vote that each colour received. That’s peak extra, right there…

Of course, The Fault In Our Stars went on to debut at #1 on the New York Times Best Seller List for Children’s Chapter Books, and it remained there for seven consecutive weeks. It’s also appeared on pretty much every other best seller list known to man, it topped the Time List of Fiction Books for 2012, and recent estimates suggest that there are over a million copies in circulation. It has become the definitive sick-lit Young Adult novel… so, like I said, it’s about bloody time I read it.

The story follows the relationship of the narrator, 16-year-old cancer patient Hazel Lancester, and her 17-year-old amputee boyfriend, Augustus Waters. They meet in a naff support group for teenagers with cancer. I appreciated Green’s skipping over all of the “life-changing diagnosis” tropes – The Fault In Our Stars is a book about living with cancer, which comes as a refreshing change of pace. However, my appreciation of the story pretty much ended there, I’m afraid.


Augustus seems to be more an assortment of affectations than an actual character. In fact, you could call him a Manic Pixie Dream Girl in a way, and it left a yucky taste in my mouth. He has this whole “I carry around cigarettes but never actually light them because it’s a metaphor” thing, and I had to forcibly restrain myself from dry heaving every time it was mentioned.

I know the legions of fans out there will hate me for this, but I really wasn’t drawn into the tragic teenage love story at all. In fact, the only parts that really drew me in were the ones about Hazel’s mother. Hazel describes one particular scene where she was in the ICU, close to death, and she overheard her mother sobbing “I won’t be a Mom anymore!”. That got me right in the feels! Maybe I’m getting old…?

All that said, I’m very aware that I’m very alone in my garbage opinion. The Fault In Our Stars has received massive critical acclaim. It was praised largely for its “humour” (ha!), its “strong characters” (double ha!), language, themes, and perspective on romantic relationships between cancer patients. The very few less-than-positive reviews I came across criticised Green’s choice of subject matter, arguing that it’s exploitative – and I can see where they’re coming from. Green would have been very well aware of the attention that his book would receive, and surely he would (should?) have considered the risk of his making real-life teenage cancer patients circus acts in the lives of his fans. Ultimately, though, it seems like he couldn’t resist the temptation to write the topic that would yank (hard!) on the maximum number of heart-strings. In that, he was definitely successful.




He sold the film rights almost straight away, and the feature film was released two years after publication. It was a huge commercial success too, grossing over $307 million worldwide (on a budget of just $12 million, no less). I watched it myself, after I’d read the book, hoping I’d enjoy the story more if I was one step removed from the teenage girl narration (a la The Hunger Games)… but no dice. It wasn’t a terrible movie, by any means, but I’d struggle to recall a single moment or performance that really stood out for me, gun to my head.

In the end, I’d say the main reason to read The Fault In Our Stars is basically just to catch-up with the rest of the world. Like Harry Potter before it, there’s a whole generation coming up behind us with a deep emotional investment in this book – it’s probably going to be the reason that some teenagers decide to study medicine, or Shakespeare, or any other number of things. If the doctor treating me in my nursing home once loved this book, I’d sure as shit like to have something to say about it, in the hopes that it’d make them like me enough to keep me alive a little longer. I’m all about the long game 😉


My favourite Amazon reviews of The Fault In Our Stars:

  • “There is literally nothing wrong with this book except for one awkward sentence about knees that I wish had been worded better.” – Amazon Customer
  • “The best part of the book is that it’s over.” – David Kim
  • “Lovely book. It’s the first time ever I was rooting for the teenagers to have sex.” – Kris Matsumoto Wong
  • “Tolerable, but not life changing” – Kenneth choi
  • “It’s basically twilight with cancer.” – janathan tatum
  • “These 1-star Amazon reviews are better written than this book….” – Lily Pop

 

9 Best Seller Books Worth Reading

A little while back, I read American Sniper, and I wasn’t a fan. In fact, I was so pissed off, I ended up putting together a list of best seller books that aren’t worth your time. I’ve been thinking about that, and it doesn’t seem fair to tar all best sellers with that same brush – some of them do, in fact, get to the top of these lists by merit. So, as a little in-house counterpoint, I’ve put together a list of nine best sellers worth reading.

9 Best Sellers Worth Reading - Text Overlaid on Black and White Image of a Stack of Books - Keeping Up With The Penguins

What Is A “Best Seller”?

A “best seller” is generally understood to be a book that has been included on one (of many) lists of top-selling titles. These lists are indeed usually based on sales figures and library-borrowing records, but they may also use other criteria (including, controversially, editorial discretion). The most famous of these lists is, of course, the New York Times Best Seller List, which has been running since 1974. Granted, snapping at its heels is the Amazon Top 100, which reflects the brute number of books sold through that platform over the given period, but it’s still the NYT ranking that you’re likely to see used in publisher promotional material.

Actually, when you start digging into the history of the New York Times Best Seller List, you learn a lot about how we value books and authors, trends in publishing over time, and the ways in which best seller lists don’t always reflect the reality of “best” or “selling” (ironically enough). For instance, there have been 780 books reach the #1 spot since the list was created, from 249 authors – so, one can logically deduce that the best predictor of having an NYT best seller is, well, having another NYT best seller. In a different vein, the genre of likely #1s has shifted – away from literary and historical fiction, and towards mysteries and thrillers. Neither of these trends necessarily reflect the truth of book sales. After all, do you really believe that the public is only buying books by authors they’ve read before, or abandoning historical fiction in favour of a new generation of detective novels?


Top Selling Versus Best Seller: Spot The Difference!

Let’s take a look at authors, shall we? Stephen King has had the most New York Times #1 Best Seller books by a single author, coming in at thirty-five (though James Patterson overtakes him when you take into account co-written books, with sixty-three unique titles). But when you look at the best-selling authors of all time, using more objective figures, it’s actually a dead heat between Agatha Christie and William Shakespeare, both of whom are estimated to have sold between two and four billion books each. Danielle Steele and Enid Blyton come in behind them, with several hundred million books apiece – King and Patterson don’t even rate a mention! In fact, the first author that appears in both lists, as far as I can tell, is J.K. Rowling (who has sold some 500 million, at last count).

As to the books themselves, The Da Vinci Code is the longest-running #1 book – it held the consecutive spot for 59 weeks… but not consecutively (it only managed 14 weeks in a row). The longest consecutive run was a relatively little-known romance novel called Love Story, which managed to hold onto the number one spot for 41 weeks straight. And, yet, according to the Guinness Book of World Records (is there any higher authority?), the Bible is the longest-running best-selling book of all time, with over 5 billion copies sold and distributed around the world. The Da Vinci Code has sold a paltry 80 million copies, by comparison, far fewer than Don Quixote (500 million), or The Hobbit (100 million).

These discrepancies, between the “top selling” books and the “best seller” books, occurs in large part because best seller lists only take into account sales over a specific period. In, say, a random week of 2003, The Da Vinci Code may well have sold more copies than the Bible… but the same cannot be said over a period of a hundred years or more. The problem is that most people don’t understand what “best seller” actually means, and it’s easy to confuse it with “top selling”… and this is the power of social proof that publishers exploit to convince us to buy a new release.

You can read more about the calculation of best sellers here, but for now, suffice it to say that being a “best seller” doesn’t necessarily make a book one of the “best”… So, I’ve sifted through historical records of New York Times best selling fiction, Guardian best seller lists, Publishers Weekly sales figures, and more, to find the diamonds in the rough. Here are nine best seller books worth reading…




Lolita – Vladimir Nabokov (Best Seller in 1958)

The fact that Lolita cracked the #1 position on the New York Times Best Seller List is particularly noteworthy, given the uphill battle that Nabokov faced to even get it published in the first place. American publishers were (probably rightfully) concerned about its content: it is, after all, an intense, graphic depiction of a stepfather’s repeated assaults on a young girl, and there is no happy ending for anyone involved. I know it sounds awful, but I promise you it’s some of the most beautiful prose you’ll ever read. In fact, Lolita is one of my favourite books of all time (and it very almost never saw the light of day!).

Everything You Always Wanted To Know About Sex* (*But Were Afraid To Ask) – David Reuben (Best Seller in 1970)

You might think, given my penchant for literary smut, that this is a dirty book – and, you know what, I’m sure there are some very conservative folks out there who would call it so… but really, Everything You Always Wanted To Know About Sex* (*But Were Afraid To Ask) was one of the first mainstream sex manuals written by a physician, and it was a cornerstone of the Sexual Revolution. I didn’t even realise it had reached the #1 spot on the NYT best seller list until I began researching for this blog. I think you’d be hard pressed to get a book with such a liberal attitude to healthy sex up there today! It has sold over 100 million copies worldwide, and an updated edition entered circulation in 1999.

Harry Potter and The Philosopher’s Stone – J.K. Rowling (Best Seller in 1999)

Not only did Harry Potter and The Philosopher’s Stone soar to the top of the New York Times Best Seller List (as did every other Harry Potter book at some point or another), it hung around so long and remained so popular that the Times ended up creating an entirely separate children’s best seller list, so that J.K. Rowling’s series didn’t hog the spotlight. Honestly, you probably couldn’t find a best seller list that hasn’t featured the Harry Potter books at some point (unless they were deliberately excluded). The series has sold more than 500 million copies worldwide, it is one of the most-translated books in history (over 80 languages), and the final installment (Harry Potter and The Deathly Hallows) holds the record for the biggest first print-run in history (twelve million copies) as well as having sold fifteen million copies in a single day. If all of that isn’t enough to convince you that this ubiquitous series is at least worth a look-in, then perhaps you should consider that you’re probably out of step with an entire generation if you haven’t read it yet 😉




To Kill A Mockingbird – Harper Lee (Best Seller in Multiple Years)

I include To Kill A Mockingbird not just because it’s a fantastic book (read my complete review here) but also because it’s had a really weird trajectory in the best seller lists. It had various peaks and troughs between 1960 and 1961 (though Publishers Weekly confirms that it was one of the best selling books of 1960 in the U.S., and it has sold 40 million copies since publication)… then, it randomly re-emerged in the top 10 in 2016. This late spike is likely attributable to the death of Harper Lee early that year, but it seems like a rather dramatic up-tick to me, and not one that you see often with other books!

Bossypants – Tina Fey (Best Seller in 2011)

I know Tina Fey has a core audience of dedicated fangirls, but I think that she is seriously underrated by the public at large. With the release of Bossypants, her audience expanded exponentially, and she shot to the top of the New York Times Best Seller List. It is an autobiographical comedy, full of hilarious anecdotes, brilliant insights, and sage wisdom – through a deeply feminist lens. Awesome, eh?

Wild – Cheryl Strayed (Best Seller in 2012)

A recommendation from Oprah, and inclusion in her Book Club, is pretty much a one-way ticket to sales success. Plus, when it gets Reese Witherspoon’s seal of approval – not only does she recommend it to her followers, but she buys the movie rights, produces the adaptation, and stars in it – the book is on a gravy train with biscuit wheels. That’s what happened for Cheryl Strayed’s memoir, Wild. I reviewed it for Keeping Up With The Penguins here. It was not at all what I was expecting; I thought I was in for a light and fluffy find-yourself adventure, but instead I got a grueling 1,100 mile hike on the Pacific Crest Trail, fuelled by intense grief and spiritual yearning. It was a great read, and well-deserving of its moment in the sun at the top of the New York Times Best Seller List.


Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close – Jonathan Safran Foer (Best Seller in 2012)

I actually read Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close quite some time ago, long before I started this project, so I hope I’m remembering it correctly. I recall feeling extremely touched by the story, and I could hardly put it down. It’s not hard to see why it peaked at #1 on the New York Times Best Seller list, though – it’s the story of a young boy who traipses all across New York, on the hunt for what remains of his father, who died in the September 11 attacks.

The Martian – Andy Weir (Best Seller in 2015)

The Martian is an incredible self-publishing success story, one of those overnight-successes that was years in the making. Andy Weir had a devil of a time getting an agent interested in his work, so he began publishing The Martian serially, for free, on his own website. After a bunch of readers expressed interest, he released it as a single e-book at the lowest possible price point on Amazon… only to hit the Amazon best seller list for science fiction in the blink of an eye. Sure enough, the big publishers came calling, and before you know it this quiet little book about a man trapped alone on Mars makes its way all the way to the top of the New York Times Best Seller list in 2015. I loved The Martian, it was brilliant and hilarious, and I’ve reviewed it in full here.

A Short History of Nearly Everything – Bill Bryson (Best Seller Over Time)

It’s a really, really tough slog to get a popular science book to the top of any best seller list… and, yet, Bill Bryson’s A Short History of Nearly Everything ended up on the Guardian’s list of the top 100 selling books of all time in the U.K.! Along these same lines, I didn’t see Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time (which I reviewed this week by the way) at the top of any list, but the most recent estimates suggest that, since its publication, there has been a copy sold for every 750 people on the planet, so that’s a pretty damn good record. I would definitely say that one (or both!) of these true best sellers are worht reading, even if you don’t think you’re into science – you’d be surprised how often little fun facts about black holes and the theory of gravity come in handy 😉


Have I missed one of your best seller favourites? Let me know in the comments below (or tell me over at KUWTP on Facebook!).

 

A Brief History of Time – Stephen Hawking

Earlier this year, the world lost renowned British physicist Stephen Hawking. The guy had more accolades and letters after his name than you could poke a stick at, but he also had a slow-progressing form of motor neurone disease. It slowed him down not at all, and he survived well past even the most optimistic prognosis. Over the course of his long life, he developed gravitational singularity theorems, predicted that black holes emit radiation (what we now call Hawking radiation, after him), set out a theory of cosmology unifying general theory of relativity and quantum mechanics, and worked at (or ran!) basically every respected scientific institution on the planet. It’s all very impressive, and yet what he is perhaps best known for in the public consciousness is his book A Brief History of Time: From the Big Bang Theory to Black Holes.

In 1983, Hawking went to his buddy at the Cambridge University Press, and put forward a whacky idea: he wanted to publish a popular science book, covering the most complex theories of physics in the scientific world. In the first draft, he used a stack of mathematical equations to illustrate his points, and this is when Hawking’s publisher gave him some world-changing advice: the publisher said that for every equation in the book, the readership would be cut in half (figuring, quite rightly, that people in airport bookshops would be put off by long strings of numbers). Hawking took the advice on board, went away and removed every single equation from the book, bar one (I bet you can guess which 😉 E=MC2). All of the concepts are illustrated instead with diagrams and other drawings, which is no mean feat. And, what do you know, the strategy worked! The book sold over 10 million copies in the first twenty years; according to the foreword in this edition, the most recent estimates suggest that there had been one copy sold for every 750 people on the planet.

The first edition of A Brief History of Time was published on April Fool’s Day in 1988. It’s kind of hard-science-for-the-everyman – it covers cosmology (the study of the universe) from all angles, including the structure, origin, and development of the universe, and how it’s all going to end up. So, that’s some tall order! It all starts with the Big Bang, and this is where I got my first interesting insight from Hawking. He contended that we shouldn’t really bother trying to work out what there was before the Big Bang, because during that period the universe was so small and dense that all of the laws of science as we understand them now completely broke down – so, anything that happened before that point could not possibly affect what we observe today. Cool, eh? It all comes back to his central thesis:

“The eventual goal of science is to provide a single theory that describes the whole universe.”

See, science has two major theories that kind-of explain most stuff on their own. The theory of relativity explains all the big stuff (galaxies, planets, gravity, etc.), while quantum mechanics explains all the teeny-tiny stuff (atoms, electrons, elements, etc.). The problem is… well, they don’t quite match up. We can’t apply the theory of relativity on a small scale, and quantum mechanics doesn’t work on a large scale. Uh-oh! Hawking was totally across it, though, and his life’s work was in service of furthering the search for a single unifying theory that could bring the two together.


The 1996 edition of the book – the one that I read, pictured above – and its subsequent editions also discuss the possibility of time travel, mostly in relation to wormholes. It sounds real cool, but it’s pretty tough to wrap your head around. Hawking does a great job of providing a straightforward no-nonsense explanation of the basics, but damn, it would have been great if he gave a few more tangible examples, or a metaphor or two, now and then. I found myself really missing Bill Bryson’s conversational folksy style in A Short History of Nearly Everything (my full review here). A Brief History of Time is a very dry read in comparison, and if you’re not scientifically minded you’ll probably find yourself needing to re-read some paragraphs a few times to make sure you fully comprehend what he’s on about. He does start using more metaphors and stuff as the concepts get more complex (thank goodness!), but by then it’s a little late in the game.

There is a very helpful glossary in the back of the book… but, like I found with Moby Dick, there are no notes or indications in the text itself as to which words are defined for you. This is particularly unhelpful in non-fiction books like A Brief History of Time that rely so heavily on technical terms. Why do publishers do this?!

I must admit, there was a lot more God ChatTM than I was expecting. Hawking referred back to religion at least once every chapter or two, discussing whether it was possible that the Big Bang was the result of divine intervention and so forth. I understand that he must have copped questions in that vein all his life, but I was still a bit disappointed by it. Surely scientific endeavour is about more than just… well, figuring out whether there’s a big guy upstairs.

(And, speaking of disappointment, I also noticed that in his Acknowledgments section, all of Hawking’s “secretaries” were women, while all of his “assistants” in research were men. I know it seems like a small thing and I shouldn’t speak ill of the dead, but I would have hoped that one of the most brilliant minds of a generation would have been a little more cognisant of how he valued the work of both genders. Just saying!)




On the other hand, I was pretty impressed with the final chapters: Hawking was all about not only finding a unified theory of everything, but also making it accessible. He dedicated himself to finding a theory that could be easily explained to everyone (even dummies like me!), and he was highly critical of elitism in hard science. I think elitism of all kinds stinks, so I’m super glad Hawking through his considerable weight behind dismantling it in his academic circles (step one: publish the most widely read popular science book of all time, check!).

If it all sounds like a bit much for you, never fear: in 2005, Hawking collaborated with Leonard Mlodinow to produce A Briefer History of Time, an abridged version of the original book with some updated content. That’s probably a good place to start if you’re really at sea with all this cosmology business. I wouldn’t bother with the movie, though – the 1991 release A Brief History of Time is actually a documentary film about Hawking that just happens to share the title with the book, rather than an adaptation of the book itself.

Overall, I’d say that A Brief History of Time will be great for you if you’re after an introduction to all the fundamentals of hard science and cosmology, and you’re determined enough (slash clever enough) to persist through some rather dry writing. If you’d rather have a laugh with a light read, and you’re not taking the subject too seriously, maybe check out A Short History of Nearly Everything instead.


My favourite Amazon reviews of A Brief History of Time:

  • “This is a great book and fun read for cannbis smokers. Every paragraph had me pausing and in deep thought. I am now reading Brian Green’s Fabric of the Cosmos and I’m glad I read this book 1st.” – J. Swanke
  • “Not enough info. I was expecting” – sandnella
  • “Interesting text, it follows my thoughts concerning the Big Bag Theory and infinity.” – Gary Gardner
  • “Time is too brief to read this book.” – Henryu Porter
  • “Wow very tough read. You need to be a rocket scientist to understand it.” – Joe Plotnick
  • “His work is all bogus aimed at puzzling people with false pictorial work, wrong concepts. There is no black hole with a conical shape. This work is a big gossip.” – Honorable Sir.

 

Why Don’t Women Win Literary Awards?

There are certain literary awards that have serious brand value. Even if you’re not a bookworm you recognise their names, and you might have even bought a book or two because you’d heard of its win and figured it must be good. That’s the real value of these prizes: it’s not so much about the monetary value of the prize itself, but the boost in visibility and longevity of a writer’s career. That’s why it stinks that women miss out so often (particularly when they have the audacity to write about women). Of course, there are plenty of prizes specifically for women (The Women’s Prize for Fiction in the UK being one example), but for whatever reason (and I have a few ideas) they don’t seem to carry the same cachet. Why don’t women win literary awards? Looking at past winners like Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird (she scored the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1961), it’s really hard to fathom a reason. So, let’s take a look at some of the fantastic women who have beat the odds and won a major literary award…

Why Don't Women Win LIterary Awards? Keeping Up With The Penguins

Pulitzer Prize

The Pulitzer Prize is a U.S. award that celebrates excellence in literature, as well as journalism and musical composition, established in 1917. It is currently administered by Columbia University in New York, and winners are awarded $15,000 in cash. The first woman writer to win the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction actually came pretty early on: Edith Wharton got the gong for The Age of Innocence in 1921. Since then, though, women have won the Pulitzer just 28 times – that’s 29 out of 91 awards (taking out the years that the prize wasn’t awarded at all), a mere 32%. For an entire decade, in the 1950s, no women won at all – the jury recommended Elizabeth Spencer for The Voice At The Back Door in 1957, but the Pulitzer board declined to award it to her.

Still, among that third of the winners, there are some personal favourites of mine: Margaret Mitchell (for Gone With The Wind in 1937), and our girl Harper Lee (for To Kill A Mockingbird in 1961). Notable WOC winners include Alice Walker (for The Color Purple in 1983), and Toni Morrison (for Beloved in 1988).


Nobel Prize for Literature

The Nobel Prizes are basically a hot mess as far as gender equality is concerned. As of 2017, Nobel Prizes had been awarded to 844… and 48 women. Taking out the awards given to companies and organisations, that’s just 5% of Nobel Prizes going to the gender that makes up half the population. Tsk tsk!

Of those 48 winners, fourteen have received the Nobel Prize for Literature. Selma Lagerlöf went first, winning the prize in 1909 (six years after Marie Curie famously became the first female winner ever, getting the Nobel Prize for Physics). The committee cited their “appreciation of the lofty idealism, vivid imagination and spiritual perception that characterise her writings”. Next was Grazia Deledda, who won in 1926 “for her idealistically inspired writings which with plastic clarity picture the life on her native island and with depth and sympathy deal with human problems in general” (who writes those press releases?!). More recently, Alice Munro won in 2013 for mastering the contemporary short story, and Svetlana Alexievich won in 2015 for her “polyphonic writings”, which the committee called a “monument to suffering and courage in our time”. But, of course, all of those came before this year’s scandal

Miles Franklin Award

It’s not just the international and American committees that overlook women for literary awards; we’ve got some problems at home, too. Domestically, women have historically been rather underrepresented in the Miles Franklin Award – which is kind of ironic, given that it is named for its creator, famed Australian writer Miles Franklin (who wrote My Brilliant Career, which I reviewed here). This disparity has led to the creation of the Stella Prize, which addresses the gender imbalance by specifically recognising the literary achievements of Australian women. It seems to be working, at least in some measure, because women are getting a bit more of a look-in with the Miles Franklin since the Stella Prize was introduced – Josephine Wilson won for Extinctions in 2017, Sofie Laguna for The Eye of the Sheep in 2015, and this year Michelle de Kretser for The Life To Come. Let’s hope that trend continues!




Man-Booker Prize

The Man-Booker Prize (often referred to simply as the Booker Prize, as it was formerly known) is awarded to the best English-language novel published in the U.K. each year. Traditionally, it was awarded only to authors from Commonwealth countries (plus Ireland and Zimbabwe), but a recent (controversial!) change saw it opened up to entrants from any country. Since 1969, 31 men and 16 women have won the prize – and, believe it or not, this is one of the better examples of gender equality in international literary awards. It’s not exactly a high bar, eh?

The first female winner of the Man-Booker was Bernice Rueben in 1970; she won for The Elected Member, a book about an amphetamine addict who sees silverfish everywhere (I’m not kidding). Arundhati Roy also won in 1997 for The God of Small Things, and literary darling Margaret Atwood won in 2000 for The Blind Assassin. And this year, Anna Burns got the gong for Milkman (which is already on The Next List!). But I’m still pretty mad that Karen Joy Fowler’s We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves (my review here) lost out to Richard Flanagan’s The Narrow Road To The Deep North in 2014, though…

National Book Award

This is probably the only award that has comparable brand-recognition as the Pulitzer in the U.S., though it’s perhaps not as recognisable in the rest of the world. The National Book Award(s) are awarded annually to American authors, across multiple categories. The selection panels can arrive at a winner using any criteria they deem fit, as long as it falls within the guidelines set forth by the National Book Foundation. The NBAs were established in 1936, suspended briefly during the Second World War, and continued from 1950. In the awards’ history, female winners have included Joyce Carol Oates in 1970 (for Them), Ursula K LeGuin in 1973 (for The Farthest Shore), Alice Walker in 1983 (for The Color Purple), E. Annie Proulx in 1993 (for The Shipping News), and Patti Smith in 2010 (for Just Kids). This is an impressive list, but once again, women represent only 25% of the National Book Awards winners overall.


Important Note: the stats on how many of these women are women of colour aren’t readily available (funny that, eh?), but I’m going to hazard a guess that it is far too few… and the same definitely goes for trans and queer women.

Doesn’t it seem ridiculous that women are the primary consumers (and writers!) of fiction, and yet they win proportionately very few literary awards? It’s certainly not because they’re not talented, or keep writing only fluffy “chick-lit” (though that term makes me want to vomit). Looking over this list, it’s plain to see that they’ve got the writing chops for literary fiction. The only logical conclusion is that female writers just aren’t taken as seriously as their male counterparts, and the ripple effects of this is huge: women writers receive less money, less exposure, and fewer opportunities to develop and distribute their art (which means that even fewer women are enticed into the creative industries to begin with – you’ve got to see it to be it, after all!).

How do we fix this? Well, we need to exert our consumer pressure on the selection panels for starters (the director of the National Book Awards has given us a head start on that). We need to make a point of spending our precious consumer dollars on those women who do win now and then. We need to vote for politicians that fund and support women in the arts, and we need to support corporates that chip in, too. Plus, we need to share articles like this one far and wide, of course 😉 to bring attention to the issue. Have you got any other ideas? Let me know in the comments below (or tell us over at KUWTP on Facebook!).


 

To Kill A Mockingbird – Harper Lee

Harper Lee is pretty much my hero. Her author bio in the front of To Kill A Mockingbird lists “being alone” as a hobby. She refused most requests for public appearances and interviews from 1964 until her death in 2016. As if that weren’t enough, she refused to write an introduction to her world-changing novel, saying: “introductions inhibit pleasure, they kill the joy of anticipation, they frustrate curiosity…. Mockingbird still says what it has to say; it has managed to survive the years without a preamble.” Basically, she didn’t have time for anyone’s shit, and I respect the hell out of that.

To Kill A Mockingbird was first published in 1960, and found immediate success – far beyond Lee’s expectations! She thought it would be a short, quiet novel, and hoped only that it would be treated kindly by the handful of reviewers she thought might look it over. Since then, it has never been out of print. The cover of my edition (published by Arrow Books in 1997) says it has sold over 33 million copies. Best of all, it won Lee a Pulitzer Prize – and, despite his best efforts, her buddy Truman Capote could never top that. It is also widely considered to be a contender for that ever-elusive accolade of The Great American Novel.

The story is set in the fictional town of Maycomb, Alabama, during the height of the Great Depression. The narrator, Scout, is an adult recounting a story from her childhood – events that, funnily enough, bear many similarities to events that actually occurred in Lee’s own hometown (Monroeville, Alabama) during her childhood. Scout lives with her older brother (Jem), and their widowed lawyer father (Atticus), and they are visited each summer by a young chap called Dill (who, Lee confirmed, was based on her friend Capote). The three children basically run amok around the town, as you could in those days, and they become a bit obsessed with their recluse neighbour, Arthur “Boo” Radley. Meanwhile, a local judge assigns papa Atticus a very important case, defending local black man Tom Robinson, who stands accused of raping a white woman.

Now, here’s what you’ve got to understand about me: normally, characters like Atticus – the Upstanding Moral CitizenTM types – piss me right off. I have very little time for martyrs in real life, let alone in fiction. And, yet, I fell immediately head-over-heels in love with this incredible, principled man. His steadiness, his sense of justice, his determination, his honesty… I can see how he has become a kind of real-life folk hero for lawyers in the South (seriously, they’ve got an Atticus Finch Society). I haven’t felt this much adoration for a wise old owl character since Dumbledore. I do, of course, take issues with the white saviour trope, and Lee has been rightly (and roundly) criticised for that, but I couldn’t help but admire her regardless. Crafting a character with such moral fortitude, without having them come off as preachy or holier-than-thou, takes a certain kind of mastery – you got to give it to Harper Lee, she fucking nailed it!


Anyway, back to the story: the whole town turns on the Finches, believing them to be “n***er-lovers” (their words, obviously) because Atticus plans to give Tom Robinson a rigorous defence. The community’s feelings intensify when Atticus is able to definitively establish at trial that the accusers are lying – in fact, the white woman (Mayella Ewell, the eldest daughter of the town drunk) was attempting to seduce Tom Robinson, and she was beaten by her father when he caught her. Despite the overwhelming evidence presented for the defence (Tom has a disability that would prevent him from inflicting the injuries of which he stands accused), the jury still votes to convict.

As if that weren’t heartbreaking enough (literally, I was gripping the book so hard my knuckles turned white), Tom is subsequently killed by prison guards when he attempts to escape. Atticus is really shaken by this turn of events, as he truly believed that he could have had Tom acquitted on appeal. The Finches don’t have much time to grieve, however, because Mayella’s father – Bob Ewell – has it in for Atticus, who he believes made a fool of him at trial.

The climax of the story comes with Bob attacking the children, Scout and Jem… and none other than Boo Radley (that reclusive neighbour they were obsessed with a couple years back) comes to their rescue. Bob cops a knife to the chest, and this is where my personal reading of the story seems to differ from everyone else’s. I was of the impression that the identity of Bob’s true killer was deliberately left a mystery – as I was reading it, I got a real sense of ambiguity about the attribution of blame. Atticus believed that his son, Jem, had stabbed Bob, while the sheriff believed it was Boo Radley, and ultimately they “split the difference” and decided that Bob fell on his own knife. However, it would seem (as best I can tell from reading other reviews online, and watching the film) that everyone else agrees Boo Radley definitely wielded the weapon. Personally, I like my ending better, but horses for courses and all of that.



So, obviously, To Kill A Mockingbird is a pretty searing commentary of racial injustice in the Deep South. It also has a lot to say about the loss of innocence. The title itself is a reference to Atticus’s philosophy that it is a “great sin” to kill a mockingbird, because they never harm other creatures and create nothing but beautiful music for all to enjoy. Lee draws on this mockingbird motif a lot, especially when she’s making a point about moral courage and compassion (Tom Robinson, and later Boo Radley, being the metaphorical mockingbirds). Given its themes and message, the novel has (unsurprisingly) often been compared to other modern American classics, such as The Catcher in the Rye, and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. I must say, though, in my (not-very-humble) opinion, it leaves all of them in the dust – it is just so damn good!

I know that everyone comes for the message about racial injustice, but I’m equally here for Lee’s treatment of gender roles. She was years ahead of the world in terms of intersectional feminism, crafting characters (like Scout’s aunt, and her teacher) that demonstrated how class and gender intensify racial prejudice; those characters that most vocally adhere to gender roles of the time also have deeply vested racist and classist attitudes. Scout, on the other hand, flagrantly violates the expectations of “young ladies”, wearing overalls and fighting boys, in the same way that she violates the script for white children by developing a close relationship with her black nanny, attending a black church, and sitting in the black section of the local courthouse during trial.

I mentioned the film a minute ago: I watched it, not long after finishing the book, and it is also bloody fantastic. Gregory Peck stars as Atticus Finch, and he won an Oscar for his performance (he probably deserved five of them, but I’m not in charge of these things). Lee was so pleased with the film and his performance that they became lifelong friends. It is definitely one of the best film adaptations I’ve seen of any book. There’s another adaptation that sounds really interesting, too: a play performed in Harper Lee’s hometown every year. White male audience members are “selected” for the jury in Tom Robinson’s trial, which is held in the actual town courthouse, and the audience is segregated for the scene. I’m putting that on my bucket list!


Unsurprisingly, given its continuing relevance, To Kill A Mockingbird is still taught in pretty much every American high school. Indeed, I remember some classes in my own Australian high school reading it as well. You’d think that its message of tolerance, compassion, fairness, and courage is one that we’d universally agree should be imparted to students… but, incredibly, this has been challenged and removed from classrooms so often that it earned a spot on the American Library Association’s list of the 100 most banned books. These challenges are usually based on the use of racial epithets (despite the fact their contextual relevance) and other “profanity”, but sometimes they swing the other way – some parents have actually complained that the racism of the time was not condemned strongly enough by the protagonist and her family. She really couldn’t win, but I get the impression that the haters really didn’t get her down. She was living her best life, out of the spotlight, never reading her own press. Ultimately, To Kill A Mockingbird isn’t perfect – as I mentioned, Atticus Finch is a white saviour in sheep’s clothing, and there’s a certain overreliance on stereotypes and caricatures of black Americans in characterisation – but it achieved massive cut-through, so perhaps we should consider it a great start for people interested in learning about racial injustice through fiction.

I always swore that I’d never read Go Set A Watchman. It was billed as “the only other novel that Lee ever published”, a sequel of sorts, but it was little more than a first draft of what became To Kill A Mockingbird. I have a number of ethical concerns about how it came to see the light of day. Many friends and others close to Lee have publicly confirmed that she was in no fit physical or mental state to satisfactorily consent to its publication; she was experiencing blindness, deafness, and cognitive impairments towards the end of her life, “coincidentally” around the same time that her new lawyer miraculously “discovered” the manuscript in a safe deposit box. The whole thing stinks to high heaven. And, yet, I loved Lee’s writing so much that I was desperate to read more of it, and I almost wavered… but I can’t quite shake the voice in my head that says it is wrong to read a book that is only accessible due to the exploitation of an elderly woman. So, I’ll satisfy myself with re-reading To Kill A Mockingbird, over and over again.

I don’t think it will come as any surprise, but I’m going to say it for the record, anyway: I wholeheartedly recommend To Kill A Mockingbird. Read it out of curiosity, read it for the cultural capital, read it for nostalgia, read it for the questions it raises – just read it! It is accessible and engaging for all readers, of any age, anywhere in the world.

My favourite Amazon reviews of To Kill A Mockingbird:

  • “It’s the book alright. Looks like a book. Feels like a book. It’s all there. Good product.” – judybubble
  • “Tequila mocking bird was awful. Complete miss representation, there was not one mocking bird drinking tequila. The book wasn’t even set in Mexico. And who the heck was Boo Radley. So confused and disappointed. If you are going for a good read try green eggs and ham. It has a fitting title and contains both green eggs and ham throughout the thrilling novel.” – Annonymis
  • “DO NOT READ, I WAS EXPECTING A GOOD BOOK, YET IT IS FULL OF TYPOS, YES TYPOS, I CANNOT READ THIS GARBAGE. I HAVE BEEN TOLD BY MANY THIS IS A CLASSIC, YET IT IS MORE CLASSLESS THAN ANYTHING. PAGE 243, HARPER MISSPELLS MAYELLA, SHE SAYS MAYEILA, A BSOLUTELY DISGUSTING.” – S. Super
  • “Sickeningly boring, the 4.5 star ave. ignites skeptical feelings of doubt in my fellow man’s ability of sound judgment. I almost dropped out of school because of the torcherous dribble of saliva it seemed to precipitate with each read.” – jesse
  • “Author does a completely inadequate job of explaining how to kill one.” – Lauren’s Dad
  • “…. Overall, don’t bother with “To Kill A Mockingbird.” A better title would if been “To Disappoint A Reader.” Simply terrible.” – Amazon Customer
  • “I bought this for my wife. She loves Gregory Peck. Watchedthe movie again the other week ago, and we lasted about 15 minutes, and then switched to Antiques Roadshow or something.FEU” – Freud

 

10 Brilliant Writers To Follow On Twitter

I think one of the greatest tragedies of our time is that Oscar Wilde never had Twitter. I realise that makes me sound like the most millennial millennial that ever millennial-ed, but seriously! Take a look over his body of work (I reviewed The Picture of Dorian Gray this week, by the way), and you’ll quickly realise that his Twitter feed would have been absolute fire. The good news is that today’s writers do have Twitter, and I can tell you right now that they would have made him proud! Whether you’ve been Tweeting for years or you’re just now setting up your account, here’s my list of 10 brilliant writers to follow on Twitter.

10 Brilliant Writers to Follow on Twitter - grey lettering overlaid on blue image of a hand holding a phone with the Twitter log in screen - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Celeste Ng (@pronounced_ing)

If you haven’t seen copies of Little Fires Everywhere… well, everywhere, then you haven’t been paying attention. Celeste Ng’s success is well-deserved, of course, but her Twitter feed is criminally underrated. To start with, her handle is hilarious – she’s not afraid to make fun of herself and the world around her.

J.K. Rowling (@jk_rowling)

I don’t care if you like Harry Potter or not, J.K. Rowling’s Twitter is a must-read. She comments on everything – from Harry Potter fan theories to politics to Eurovision – and uses the platform to make direct contact with her fans. She is a Twitter master!

Amna Saleem (@AGlasgowGirl)

I have been following Amna Saleem for quite a while, and I love finding her Tweets in my timeline, like hilarious hidden treasures. She is a comedy writer from Scotland, and her insights on race, culture, and family life will make you weep (appreciatively).


Jennifer Down (@jenniferdown)

I’m not going to lie, my fangirling over Jennifer Down is almost creepy. I got to meet her at the Sydney Writer’s Festival, and it was pretty much the highlight of my year. Of course, she’s a brilliant writer (buy her incredible books here and here!), but her Twitter feed is all killer, no filler. I have literally lol’d on pretty much a daily basis ever since I followed her, she is just so damn relateable. Do yourself a favour…

Kaz Cooke (@reallykazcooke)

Kaz Cooke wrote basically the only pregnancy book worth reading (Up The Duff), and her feed is full of cartoons, hot takes, and the best of Aussie baby-boomer real talk.

Behrouz Boochani (@BehrouzBoochani)

You might not have expected to see someone like Behrouz Boochani on this list, but his might just be the most important account here. Behrouz Boochani is a novelist, documentary filmmaker, and journalist, currently detained on Manus Island by the Australian government for the “crime” of seeking asylum in Australia. His Tweets are eye-opening, terrifying, and motivating. It is the best inside account we have of what is being done to asylum seekers in our name…




Roxane Gay (@rgay)

Roxane Gay just goes from strength to strength – Bad Feminist, then Hunger, then Difficult Women… and her Twitter feed is full of the same brilliance. But, if I’m being really honest, the main reason I follow Roxane Gay is right there in her bio: “If you clap, I clap back”. She promises, and she delivers. Her clap-backs are epic! I have no idea where she finds the emotional wherewithal, but damn, I’m here for it!


Rebecca Slater (@slatterbrain)

Rebecca Slater wrote my favourite piece of 2018, it is hands-down one of the best things I’ve ever read, and she is the one to fucking watch, I’m telling you! Get all over her Twitter right now, so you can say you followed her when…

Maxine Beneba Clarke (@slamup)

Maxine Beneba Clarke’s Twitter feed covers just about everything of interest (to me): politics, race, haters, poetry, prose, literacy, journalism, real-talk, and – most of all – hella relateable comedy. Come for the mind that brought you The Hate Race, and stay for excerpts from conversations with children that will have you howling.

Quinn Eades (@quinn_writes)

I first discovered Quinn when he wrote what I considered to be the definitive series of essays on the Australian marriage equality vote of 2017, and I’ve been following his work ever since. His poetry is unflinching and beautiful, his book is incredible, and his Twitter feed is everything queer, sarcastic, and fantastic.




Honourable mentions, of course, to @LeeLinChinSBS and @cher – not technically authors, but two Tweeters that make the platform worthwhile, as far as I’m concerned. If either of them ever leave Twitter, I will follow them in protest. And, well, there’s me! @shereestrange


Do you have any other favourite writers on Twitter? Make sure to drop their handles below for me (or share the love over at KUWTP on Facebook!).

 

The Picture of Dorian Gray – Oscar Wilde

The Picture of Dorian Gray has a special place in my heart, but probably not for the reason you’d expect. See, I have a talent for stumbling upon amazing secondhand bookstores everywhere I go, and my honeymoon was no exception! While searching for cheap happy hours in Tel Aviv, my new husband and I discovered The Little Prince Bookstore & Cafe, where I picked up The Collins Collected Works of Oscar Wilde for just $20AUD (one of my best book bargains ever!). Every time I look at this book, I think back to that amazing trip. I decided to read The Picture of Dorian Gray next because I’d read somewhere that Oscar Wilde was a big fan of Henry James, but I tried not to hold that against him. Plus, my new husband had read the entire collected works upon our return to Australia, and he promised me I’d love it.

The Picture of Dorian Gray is a philosophical novel, kind of along the same lines as Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, but cleverer and more subtle. It exists in several versions, and has one hell of a history. Basically, Oscar Wilde submitted the manuscript (his only novel) to Lippincott Monthly Magazine in 1890, and they agreed to publish it… but, unbeknownst to Wilde, the editor cut out about 500 words, worried that all the references to adultery and homosexuality would offend the delicate sensibilities of the British literary critics. They managed to get offended anyway, even with the offending passages removed, and thus began a year of barbs exchanged via the British press. Wilde published pieces defending the nature of his art, while the reviewers trolled him endlessly and basically accused him of trying to turn everybody gay. In 1891, The Picture of Dorian Gray was published as a stand-alone book for the first time, and Wilde had made significant revisions (he threw in seven additional chapters, and a preface detailing his defence of the rights of the artist). This final version is the one included in the Collins collection.

So, what’s it all about? Well, the protagonist – Dorian Gray – is a beautiful young man, a lost soul in many respects. He encounters an artist, Basil Hallward, who falls head over heels in love with him (kinda – in this version, Basil is more into his art and sees Dorian as his “muse”, but in the original uncensored version it was all about the gay lust). Basil convinces Dorian to pose as the subject of a full-length oil portrait. While Dorian is posing, one of Basil’s friends drops by – one mister Lord Henry. Now, this is a deal-with-the-devil kind of story, and in this case Lord Henry = Devil, just so you know…


Dorian is seduced by Lord Henry’s hedonistic approach to life; he espouses indulging every whim and desire for beauty and sensuality. Basil finishes the portrait, and Dorian laments (out loud!) that he must grow old while the painting will remain young and beautiful forever. The magical wish-granting fairy overhears him (I assume – Wilde never really explains how this happens) and the portrait begins to age, while Dorian remains in his first blush of youth.

Dorian totally ghosts Basil (smh), and he chases after Lord Henry, living a life of immoral pleasures. Dorian has pretty much sold his soul but at least he sold it for a bunch of money and booze and drugs and sex – that’s worth it, surely! There’s no woo-y supernatural bullshit; it’s all presented as a completely normal and realistic turn of events that Dorian would remain young and beautiful while the portrait grows old and haggard, and you get totally lured into the story without needing to check your critical thinking skills at the door.

The Picture of Dorian Gray is packed with historical and literary references. I confess, I let them fly over my head for the most part – I didn’t even bother to check the footnotes most of the time (what a philistine!). You’ll probably get more out of the story if you look them up, but even if you don’t it’s abundantly clear that Mr Wilde was a very smart chap. This whole story is about aestheticism and the double-lives we all lead, and he picks it apart beautifully without once sounding like a snob. I bet he would have had some real shit to say about Instagram if he were alive today.




Wilde wasn’t just a clever cookie, he was also endlessly quotable! I felt like every page had some kind of zinger that I wanted to jot down. On page one(!), he says “there is no such thing as a moral or immoral book”, which is just a damn good point. On page three, he points out that “there is only one thing in the world worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about”. On and on it goes…

Wilde also had a deep emotional investment in his only novel. He once said:

“Basil Hallward is what I think I am; Lord Henry is what the world thinks of me; Dorian is what I would like to be – in other ages, perhaps.”

To his credit, this was a fun read! It probably doesn’t quite rise to the level of Recommended for Keeping Up With The Penguins, but I’m still in awe of it. My tl;dr summary would be this: The Picture of Dorian Gray is a novel about giving Kim Kardashian or Paris Hilton immortal youth and an endless supply of drugs and liquor. Imagine how that works out…


My favourite Amazon reviews of The Picture of Dorian Gray:

  • “Early it was moving ver slow. After Dorian killed the painter, it moved and finished. Finally it came to an end. End was good.” – Musari Sub
  • “It is a book. What is not to like” – JAC
  • “This book is creepy. I had to sleep with the lights on. I felt like I was going to have a heart attack.” – Lavender Murray
  • “Just read the book I hate being alive it’s a good book everyone knows it just read it amazon sucks” – Alex
  • “I ordered this for my daughter. It was as described in the description.” – Dale LePrad
  • “The entire book can be paraphrased in two sentences and you will wish it had been.” – Nickalaus Luger

 

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