Keeping Up With The Penguins

Reviews For The Would-Be Booklover

Lord Of The Flies – William Golding

What do you know: here we have another staple of high-school reading lists that I somehow never encountered in the course of my own education. This very edition of Lord Of The Flies, in fact, once belonged to “James Wells Year 9”, according to the inside front cover. I’m sure he’s a swell kid, but his highlighting of key passages was really distracting (though it disappeared by about the half-way point so I’m guessing he never finished the book – hopefully, he found a love of literature elsewhere…).

Lord Of The Flies was William Golding’s first novel, published in 1954. It wasn’t an immediate success. It sold fewer than three thousand copies in the first year, and promptly went out of print entirely. Golding eventually found his audience and went on to have a glowing literary career, winning the Nobel Prize For Literature in 1983. He was also knighted, in 1988.

The introduction to this Faber “Educational Edition” makes some insightful remarks about the fact that Lord Of The Flies came so soon after WWII. The world had just seen previously-unimaginable atrocities, far removed from everyday life, and it had made everyone all-too aware of humanity’s true nature. “Ultimately, Mr Golding’s book is valuable to us,” the introduction says, “not because it tells us about the darkness of man’s heart, but because it shows it…” (pg. xii).

The story starts with a war-time evacuation, and a plane-full of British boys crashing on an isolated Pacific island. Golding really drops the reader right into the action; I’m not sure I would have had a damn clue what was going on if I wasn’t already familiar with the plot through the osmosis of pop-culture references. He quickly introduces two boys, the fair-haired take-charge hero Ralph and the overweight asthmatic Piggy. They find a conch, and Ralph uses it to summon all the other survivors. As far as I’m concerned, Piggy is more likeable than the rest of them put together; he insists that they “put first things first and act proper”, which made me chuckle.

The boys are a rag-tag assortment that includes a musical choir, already operating under the leadership of Jack Merridew. These boys don’t take too kindly to Ralph appointing himself head honcho. Ralph’s key policies are that they should have fun, survive, and maintain a smoke signal, apparently in that order (so he really needs to work on his priorities). The choir grumbles, but eventually submits to Ralph’s vision for life on the island; Jack decides they’ll take on the role of hunters, and they spend most of their time trying to kill animals for food. The group maintains a veneer of democracy (at first) by agreeing that whoever is holding the magical conch should be allowed to speak and receive the silent attention of the rest of the boys. I don’t know why everyone spends so much time talking about the pig’s head, when really Golding’s characters spent an inordinate amount of time arguing over that bloody shell…

They create a fire using Piggy’s glasses, a good start, but everything turns to shit pretty quickly. The boys start fighting among themselves, and let the fire languish while they hang out on the beach. Oh, and they imagine up a “beast” that they believe is stalking them from the woods. Jack Merridew lures the boys away from their “work” on the fire, with a view to hunting this supposed “creature”. The smoke signal dies out, duh, and they miss the opportunity for rescue by a passing ship.

Jack, fed up with Ralph’s pragmatism and Piggy’s whining, tries to start a new group. One by one, the boys abandon Ralph to join Jack, lured by the smell of sizzling pork (yes, they manage to kill a pig and cook it, but not one of them thinks to go fishing, for fuck’s sake). The members of the new tribe start doing weird shit, painting their faces and making sacrifices to the “beast”. Not sure what was in that pork, but it was nothin’ good. They end up beating a kid to death – Simon, the poor epileptic who had hallucinated the pig’s head talking to him in one iconic scene.

Jack’s New Tribe(TM) decide that Piggy’s glasses, the only means of creating fire on the island, are the real symbol of power. Finally, they’re thinking sensibly! They steal the glasses from Ralph and Piggy, the last hold-outs of the old group. When Ralph confronts Jack about the theft, a fight ensues, and everyone on Ralph’s side is crushed to death (RIP Piggy). The conch is also shattered in the confrontation, which is Golding’s heavy-handed attempt at symbolising the end of civility and the boys’ final transition to savagery. (Yeah, maybe scratch that thinking-sensibly part…)

Ralph manages to escape their clutches, so they hunt him through the woods, setting fire to everything in the process. He’s just about ready to give himself up for dead when he runs into a British naval officer, whose party had seen the smoke from the raging fire and come to investigate. The boys are “saved”, but they all start crying when they realise what they’ve become. The officer makes fun of them, he’s kind of a dick actually, for acting like they were at war… only to turn around and gaze at his own war ship (awkward!). Yep, Golding kept the heavy-handed symbolism going right to the bitter end.

I really didn’t enjoy Lord Of The Flies. In fact, I kind of resented it. Assigning it to school kids feels like force-feeding them a cautionary tale: “behave the way that the hypocritical adults tell you to, or look how you’ll end up!”. Really, could it be any more patronising? In the beginning, I wondered if maybe I was just coming to this book too late in life (like I did with Fahrenheit 451), but that’s not it: honestly, my anti-establishment tendencies have only softened with age. Had I been required to read this in school, I probably would have ended up sent to the principal’s office for accusing some poor English teacher, in all earnestness, of trying to brainwash us into accepting everything they said without question (yes, I was a bit of a handful). As it stands, Lord Of The Flies wasn’t a winner for me, and I doubt I’ll ever pick it up again. It’s definitely not a book I’d want with me on a desert island, even for the hilarious irony.

I think I might be the only one who’s down on it, though. Stephen King, in particular, is a very vocal fan, and has borrowed heavily from it in his own writing; he also penned an introduction to the 2011 edition, celebrating the centenary of Golding’s birth. And public interest in Lord Of The Flies has led to the release of two film adaptations (1963, 1990). Production of another adaptation, with an all-female cast, was announced by Warner Bros in 2017; before I read the book, I was all in favour of a woman-centric re-boot, but now I feel like the project will be a huge waste. The story of Lord Of The Flies is so deeply rooted in patriarchal bullshit, I’m not sure it can be saved, even if we make them all girls. I’d much rather see that film’s budget reallocated to producing and marketing a story written by women that reflects a genuinely female experience. Someday, when I run the world…

My favourite Amazon reviews of Lord Of The Flies:

  • “It isn’t a story filled with hope. The human race is a disgrace.” – James Asherton
  • “‘Food for thought’, and I imagine that anyone who likes this book would also enjoy it if a restaurant hid razor blades in their dish. Like with real food, ‘food for thought’ should be enjoyable, healthy, and should not make you feel sick after consuming it. This book is garbage. It’s unhealthy, and it will likely make you feel sick. I do not recommend consuming this ‘food for thought’. I am not impressed. If someone wants to make a point in literature, there are better ways of going about it. This book is actually just malware for the brain. It’s best not to read it, but if you already did, sort it out the best you can. Good luck.” – S. DANIELSON
  • “The reviews on this book were more fun to read than the actual book itself.” – Lilian
  • “This book was only boring because it is not the type of book i like but it was interesting to read.” – jack gartner
  • “Hated it. If your looking for a book that describes the scenery 90 percent of the time. This book is for u.” – Joe Pena
  • “This book doesn’t deserve a review. With all due respect, Golding couldn’t write a good book to save his life. His writing is reminiscent of Tolkien’s; he comes up with a great story, and then ruins it with horrible writing….” – Amazon Customer
  • “I had to read this book for literature class I hated it. my teacher rattled on about the symbolizm in this book.It was so boring and kinda no girls, wasnt they suposed to repopulate the world after nuclear war so not possible with only boys. The one thing i found interesting was how they acted like wild animals after they had been on the island a while.that was kinda cool.But it was to confusing” – Amazon Customer

My Reading List Page Count: 109 Classic and Best Seller Books From Shortest to Longest

I’m becoming a bit obsessed with looking at my reading list for this project from different angles. I’ve created a bookish timeline to see what period I’m covering, and a world map to look at all the different places I’m travelling, through the magic of the written word. And here’s a peek behind the book blogger curtain for you: I can actually see what searches people use to find Keeping Up With The Penguins, and it would seem that a lot of you are curious about the page counts of classic and best seller books. So today, I’m going to arrange my entire TBR from longest to shortest by page count.

My Reading List Page Count - 109 Classic and Best Seller Books from Shortest to Longest - Text Overlaid on Image of Open Book on Grass and Leaves - Keeping Up With The Penguins

(Note: these are the page lengths of the actual editions I own, so it might differ from what Wikipedia says or the copy you have at home.)

The Thirty-Nine Steps by John Buchan: 138 pages
The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark: 150 pages
A Single Man by Christopher Isherwood: 152 pages
Murphy by Samuel Beckett: 158 pages
A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess: 160 pages
Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson: 161 pages
The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho: 167 pages
Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf: 172 pages
The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy by Dougals Adams: 180 pages
The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald: 184 pages
Amongst Women by John MaGahern: 184 pages
The Wind In The Willows by Kenneth Grahame: 192 pages
The End Of The Affair by Graham Greene: 192 pages
Party Going by Henry Green: 192 pages

The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammet: 201 pages
Brave New World by Aldous Huxley: 201 pages
An Artist Of The Floating World by Kazuo Ishiguro: 206 pages
As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner: 208 pages
Lolly Willowes by Sylvia Townsend Warner: 222 pages
Scoop by Evelyn Waugh: 222 pages
If I Stay by Gayle Forman: 224 pages
The Picture Of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde: 224 pages
The White Mouse by Nancy Wake: 224 pages
We Were Liars by E. Lockhart: 227 pages
Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury: 227 pages
The Catcher In The Rye by J.D. Salinger: 230 pages
The Happiest Refugee by Anh Do: 232 pages
My Brilliant Career by Miles Franklin: 232 pages
Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons: 233 pages
The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath: 234 pages
A Brief History Of Time by Stephen Hawking: 241 pages
Gentlemen Prefer Blondes by Anita Loos: 243 pages (*also contains But Gentlemen Marry Brunettes, which I also read.)
The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway: 247 pages
Little Women by Louisa May Alcott: 248 pages
The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne: 250 pages

The Turn Of The Screw by Henry James: 272 pages (*also contains The Aspen Papers, which I definitely did not read. I’ve had my fill of Henry James.)
Portnoy’s Complaint by Philip Roth: 274 pages
Lord Of The Flies by William Golding: 285 pages
Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe: 286 pages
Frankenstein by Mary Shelley: 288 pages
The Call Of The Wild by Jack London: 288 pages (*also includes White Fang, which I didn’t read. Too much puppy torture!)
Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift: 292 pages
Still Alice by Lisa Genova: 293 pages
The Dressmaker by Rosalie Ham: 296 pages
The Age Of Innocence by Edith Wharton: 301 pages
To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee: 309 pages
On The Road by Jack Kerouac: 310 pages
A Passage To India by E.M. Forster: 312 pages
Lady Chatterley’s Lover by D.H. Lawrence: 314 pages
Wild by Cheryl Strayed: 315 pages
The Girl On The Train by Paula Hawkins: 316 pages

Kim by Rudyard Kipling: 322 page
We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler: 323 pages
Yes Please by Amy Poehler: 329 pages
My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante: 331 pages
The Adventures Of Sherlock Holmes by Arthur Conan Doyle: 334 pages
Paper Towns by John Green: 336 pages
Tropic Of Cancer by Henry Miller: 336 pages
The Heat Of The Day by Elizabeth Bowen: 336 pages
The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion: 336 pages
Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland by Lewis Carroll: 336 pages
In Cold Blood by Truman Capote: 343 pages
Girl Online by Zoe Sugg: 344 pages
The Fault In Our Stars by John Green: 352 pages
Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë: 354 pages
The Martian by Andy Weir: 369 pages
The Maze Runner by James Dashner: 371 pages
The Pilgrim’s Progress by John Bunyan: 373 pages
The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins: 374 pages

The One-Hundred-Year Old Man Who Climbed Out The Window And Disappeared by Jonas Jonasson: 384 pages
Money: A Suicide Note by Martin Amis: 394 pages
Pride And Prejudice by Jane Austen: 398 pages
Dracula by Bram Stoker: 400 pages
The Husband’s Secret by Liane Moriarty: 406 pages
Sybil by Benjamin Disraeli: 412 pages
The Grapes Of Wrath by John Steinbeck: 416 pages
She Came To Stay by Simone de Beauvoir: 416 pages
The Adventures Of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain: 416 pages (*also includes The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, which I did read, too)
The Brain That Changes Itself by Norman Doidge: 432 pages
American Sniper by Chris Kyle: 448 pages
Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell: 459 pages
The Narrow Road To The Deep North by Richard Flanagan: 467 pages
Nineteen Nineteen by John Dos Passos: 469 pages
Emma by Jane Austen: 474 pages
True History Of The Kelly Gang by Peter Carey: 478 pages

Divergent by Veronica Roth: 489 pages
Clarissa by Samuel Richardson: 516 pages (*but this is an abridged edition, the full version is literally one of the longest books ever written.)
Catch-22 by Joseph Heller: 519 pages
All The Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr: 531 pages
The Adventures Of Augie March by Saul Bellow: 536 pages
The Golden Bowl by Henry James: 547 pages
The Colour Of Magic by Terry Pratchett: 569 pages
The Book Thief by Markus Zusak: 584 pages
The Life And Opinions Of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman by Laurence Sterne: 588 pages
Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë: 590 pages
The Golden Notebook by Doris Lessing: 596 pages
The Lake House by Kate Morton: 608 pages
Life After Life by Kate Atkinson: 622 pages
The Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri: 656 pages
Crime And Punishment by Fyodor Dostoyevsky: 656 pages
The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler: 672 pages (*note: also contains other stories)

All The King’s Men by Robert Penn Warren: 672 pages
A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson: 687 pages
Ulysses by James Joyce: 719 pages
Moby Dick by Herman Melville: 720 pages
A Game Of Thrones by George R.R. Martin: 864 pages
Vanity Fair by William Makepeace Thackeray: 883 pages
Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra: 1056 pages
David Copperfield by Charles Dickens: 1057 pages

The strangest thing I noticed: page length has very little to do with how long a book feels. Mrs Dalloway felt like a much longer read than My Brilliant Friend, and yet the latter is nearly twice as long in page count. It also felt like a much longer read than The Prime Of Miss Jean Brodie, but in reality they’re about the same length. Weird, eh? Really, you can’t tell much from a book’s page count at all. Some of the classic books, which we all assume will be long and meaty, have the fewest pages, while some of the most-recent best-sellers are doorstops.

So, here’s my total (I know you’re all dying to know): accounting for a few pages of notes skipped here and there and a couple of combination editions where I didn’t read the second book, the Keeping Up With The Penguins project has me reading 40,700 pages. Not bad! And, of course, you can find links to every single review here (I update the list with the new one published each week). If you’re curious about how many pages are in your TBR, you can find page counts for most editions of most books on Goodreads (and you can friend me while you’re there!). How many pages is your current read? Add to the list in the comments below (or join the thread over at KUWTP on Facebook!).

All The King’s Men – Robert Penn Warren

It’s been a while since I visited the American South in literature. I think my last sojourn was The Adventures Of Huckleberry Finn, some time ago. That’s how I came to reach for All The King’s Men, the Pulitzer Prize-winner by Robert Penn Warren in 1946. I was actually surprised, looking at the inside cover, to find it was written so long ago; it reads like a far more contemporary novel and as recently as 2006 the New York Times called it “the definitive novel about American politics” (though, that was pre-Trump, so it’d be understandable if their position has changed).

Our narrator is Jack Burden, a former history student and newspaper columnist turned personal aide. He recounts for us the meteoric rise of Governor Willie Stark in the American South in the 1930s. He’s fascinated, and at times disgusted, by the larger-than-life populist leader. Stark transforms over the course of the novel from idealistic lawyer to hardened (and extremely powerful) politico. Burden faithfully documents the evolution of “The Boss”, and the role of his doctor friend Adam Stanton, who is not-very-subtly painted as the polar opposite of Stark. Stanton is the man of ideals, the angel on one shoulder, while Stark is the pragmatic and corrupt devil on the other.

The chapters are loooooong, and intense. Warren really doesn’t give the reader many opportunities to pause and catch their breath. He also uses decidedly non-chronological storytelling, but it’s not a jumpy timeline (think more Mrs Dalloway than The Narrow Road To The Deep North). Warren uses the shifts in time to highlight the connections between characters and continuities in their stories, how Burden and Stark and Stanton’s lives all weave together. That means there are a few stories-within-the-story, most notably a detailed history of Jack’s uncle (whom he researched in pursuit of his American History degree), and also Jack’s own life (which he tells, bizarrely, in the third person). Jack wouldn’t have been much fun at parties, actually, with his penchant for endless nihilistic philosophising. It takes the deaths of a few of his mates, and his biological father, for him to even contemplate the notion that he has to take some personal responsibility for what happens in his life, instead of attributing it all to what he calls “the Great Twitch”. That said, some of his introspective bullshit was actually quite funny:

“‘Can I see the cutting?’ I asked. I felt all of a sudden that I had to see it. I had never seen an operation. As a newspaperman, I had seen three hangings and one electrocution, but they are different. In a hanging you do not change a man’s personality. You just change the length of his neck and give him a quizzical expression, and in an electrocution you just cook some bouncing meat in a wholesale lot. But this operation was going to be more radical even than what happened to Saul on the road to Damascus. So I asked could I see the operation.”

pg. 477

All The King’s Men is very dude-centric, if that’s not already obvious: it fails the Bechdel Test in spectacular fashion, with nearly 700 pages of white dudes talking to one another about power, clapping themselves on the back for gaining power, and ever-striving to become more powerful than some other white dude. There are a couple of love interests and mistresses, and these are the only appropriate roles for women in that world, it would seem. Jack devotes quite a long passage to his regret at never having fucked his first love, and of his wife he simply says “Goodbye Lois, and I forgive you for everything I did to you,” (pg. 462).

Warren fills the hole where the women should be by making a Very Big Deal of biological paternity, and how one’s father affects one’s sense of identity and morality. It’s central to every plot-line and character arc; the book would perhaps be more accurately called All The King’s Daddy Issues. Stark, in becoming a Governor through patronage and intimidation, becomes a surrogate father for all of them: deeply flawed, but influential, and impossible to ignore or reject. The thrust of the story, it would seem, is that Jack comes to realise that no man or father (not the man who raised him, not his bio dad, not Willie Stark) is invulnerable to corruption or temptation. Oh, and it’s impossible to remain a passive observer of anything, no matter how hard you try. Whatever you do, it will catch up with you, etc. Such profound, very wow…

The character of Stark is famously rumoured to have been inspired by the real-life Louisiana Governor Huey P. Long. They both earned themselves many political enemies (Long in the real world, Stark in the fictional one) while retaining huge popular appeal with their constituents. They also meet the same end, assassinated by a physician in the state capitol building. Even though the parallels are abundantly clear, Warren strenuously denied that he intended to honour Long through the Stark character, and also rejected the theory that he intended to declare support for the man’s assassination. In fact, Warren claimed that All The King’s Men was “never intended to be a book about politics” (fucking lol, alright mate, odd choice of subject matter then).

There’s a surprisingly happy ending, all things considered. Yes, there’s a lot of death and bloodshed, but Jack gets the girl, reconciles with his father(s), and carries on living the good life. I was expecting something far more bleak, but Warren managed to pull a Happily Ever After out of his hat.

Tl;dr? A bunch of white dudes chase political power in the Great Depression-era American South, in the hopes that it will help them all overcome their Daddy Issues (and, spoiler alert, it doesn’t work).

My favourite Amazon reviews of All The King’s Men:

  • “I am a business professor so the long involved descriptions of his angst drove me crazy.” – CP
  • “Somewhat tedious” – Carol Weidensaul
  • “Greek drama set in depression era Louisiana. Sad,” – Martha Failing
  • “This edition appeared to have been translated by a child. I got a real book from the public library. Very disappointed.” – Gwen Luikart
  • “Thought it stunk.” – Barbara J Mason
  • “Had to read this for my AP English class. -10/10 stars, would not recommend, take regular english instead.” – Emmy

The World-Changing Magic of Books in Translation

As far as unsung heroes go, the world of literature has plenty, but there’s one group in particular who are too easily and too often overlooked: the translators. Think about how different (and dull!) our reading lives would be without Don Quixote, or One Hundred Years Of Solitude, or The Little Prince, or Anna Karenina, or Kafka On The Shore, or The Odyssey, or Waiting For Godot, or any of the thousands of other translated works. What’s more, imagine of those classic works of languages other than English weren’t accessible to later writers, as sources of education and inspiration – it’d be a very bleak literary landscape indeed. So, that’s why today I want to take a look at the world-changing magic of books in translation: how translation works, why it’s important, and some great translated books worth reading.

The World-Changing Magic of Books in Translation - Text Overlaid on Image of Open Language Dictionary with Magnifying Glass - Keeping Up With The Penguins

How Book Translation Works

So, if we’re talking a bare-bones definition, book translation is the translation of prose and poetry into languages other than that in which the original work was written. That could mean translating older classical works, like Dante’s The Divine Comedy, or more contemporary books, like The Invented Part (which won the award for Best Translated Work of 2018). The most obvious reason to translate a book, of any age, is to help it reach a wider audience of people who wouldn’t otherwise get to read it. That said, the true value of books in translation is much, much greater than that. Translation expands and increases a book’s longevity, it helps readers access stories of places and people who experience life in very different ways (which has been shown to increase empathy and basically make us better people), and it has great educational value beyond the field of literature – to linguistics, to history, and to other social sciences.

I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but books are long and translating hundreds of thousands of words’ worth of a story takes equal parts talent and tenacity. And the act of translating a creative work is very different to that of translating, say, a technical manual or other more straightforward texts. Translating books is a delicate balancing act between faithfulness to the original work and creating a good book in and of itself.

Ultimately, translators aim to evoke the same feelings in the reader and stay true to the artist’s vision, while also creating what is effectively new work in a different language, one that can stand alone as a great read without the reader ever needing know it was written differently (unless they cared to find out). The translator doesn’t just interpret the text word by word into a new language; they also need to find ways to communicate humour, irony, and other idiomatic forms of expression, and that’s not always a one-for-one equation (take a look at any list of idioms translated literally into English, and you’ll see what a job they have cut out for them).

The translator can’t necessarily rely, the way a writer can, on shared or assumed knowledge in the reader, given that language is so closely tied to geography and community. Culture, customs, and traditions that are a given in one part of the world might be virtually inexplicable in the other, and it’s the translator’s job to find an explanation that makes sense. This ain’t just plugging six hundred pages word-by-word into Google Translate; it’s a unique creative process, whereby a translator creates a book with the same spirit and energy, changing and interpreting as need be without corrupting the original.

And pour some out for the translators of poetry, for crying out loud: their work is extra complex, focusing as they must on staying true to the way a story is told and its ideas communicated through verse, not just the story itself.

The Role Of Translators in Literature

This is why I make a point of naming the translator in my reviews of translated books. I mean, aside from anything else, they deserve recognition for their work, but also we must remember that no two translators will approach a work in the same way, and that can give very different results. Take, for instance, Crime and Punishment; I loved the version I read, which was translated by David McDuff, but I can’t really attest as to whether the other translation are as engaging and funny as his. What if they interpreted key passages differently, or chose different words to describe something, and in so doing communicated a completely different meaning?

“There’s not a single word in any of the languages I translate that can map perfectly onto a word in English. So, it’s always interpretative, approximate, creative. Anything that is, itself, a ‘linguistic’ quality will by definition be anchored in a particular language – whether it’s idiom, ambiguity, or assonance. All languages are different.”

Daniel Hahn (Former chair and committee member of the Translators Association, also on the board of modern poetry in translation)

And, by extension, all translations are different. All translators produce a unique work of literature, even where the original-language text is the same. I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention here the #namethetranslator movement, which has brought much attention over recent years to the art of book translation and the role of the translator in expanding our literary world. Be sure to look into it if you want to know more, and support the growing recognition of the role of translators in the publishing industry.

Why don’t people read more books in translation?

Well, I think it’s abundantly clear already why book translation matters, but that’s not reflected in the book sales: books translated into English are notoriously difficult to sell, which makes publishers reluctant to take on the additional cost of acquiring a foreign-language novel and paying someone to translate it (and then paying someone to edit it, and so on). This leads publishers to sometimes (allegedly) attempt to obfuscate the fact that a book is translated, burying the translator’s name deep in the fine print of the inside jacket. Only 633 newly-translated fiction books were published in English in the U.S. in 2016, barely even a drop in the ocean of 300k new books published each year. Less than 3% of books published in the U.S. each year are translations of any kind. So, fewer sales, hidden labours: despite book translation’s long and vital history (see The Oxford History of Literary Translation), we seem to be collectively forgetting why book translation matters in our reading lives, and we’re not supporting it with our consumer dollars.

But with the growth of Amazon, and the wider accessibility of literature more generally, appetite for diverse and balanced literature is growing – and, with it, demand for translated books. Readers are increasingly pressuring publishing houses to provide books, fiction and non-fiction, that expand their horizons and reflect the diversity of authors and stories that are now accessible by the click of a button on other online platforms. So, perhaps we are on the verge of a renaissance of sorts, where we remember why book translation matters and vote with our consumer power to show much we value it as an art form.

Translated Books Worth Reading

Given that a lot of the titles for the Keeping Up With The Penguins project were drawn from the Guardian’s list of the 100 best books written in English, I haven’t reviewed all that many books in translation (yet!). However, of those I have read, these ones are the stand-outs:

And drawing upon my reading life prior to this book blogging project, I also really enjoyed Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert and translated by Lydia Davis, and Thus Spoke Zarathustra by Friedrich Nietzsche and translated by R.J. Hollingdale. You might also want to check out some of the recently-translated award winners and short-listed titles: Remains Of Life, The Beekeeper, and Flights. I’m also super-excited to read the forthcoming translated title The Eighth Life.

Which are your favourite books in translation? Drop your suggestions in the comments (or tell everyone over at KUWTP on Facebook!).

Don Quixote – Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra

There are a handful of really chunky books on my original reading list, and this is one of them: Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra. It seems like an age since I tackled any book even close to this long (David Copperfield was probably the only one that came close). I made sure to allot plenty of time and brain space for these 982 pages (plus introductory essays and notes). And I’m glad I did; it felt really good to immerse myself properly in Cervantes’ world, and stick with the one story for a while.

Don Quixote (original title: “El Ingenioso Hidalgo Don Quixote de la Mancha”) was published in two parts, in 1605 and 1615, with the first English translations appearing in 1612 and 1620, respectively. That makes it one of the oldest books in the Keeping Up With The Penguins project, as well as one of the longest. It’s widely considered to be one of the most influential works of the literary canon, a foundational piece of modern Western literature. Don Quixote was officially deemed the Greatest Book Of All Time by the Nobel Institute, the various editions have sold in excess of 500 million copies worldwide, and this particular translation from John Rutherford won the 2002 Premio Valle Inclán Prize for Translation. Not bad, given that Cervantes was basically unknown before the first part was published, and spent much of his life on the run (he escaped prison – not once, not twice, but four times total).

The premise is this: a member of the lesser Spanish nobility (a “hidalgo”), Alonso Quixano, becomes unhealthily obsessed with chivalric romances. He takes it into his head to become a “knight-errant”, roaming the country performing acts of chivalry under the name of Don Quixote de la Mancha. He ropes in Sancho Panza, a simple farmer with champagne dreams and a beer budget, to work as his squire. The book forms an interesting bridge between the early medieval romances, which were episodic and strung together a series of adventures with the same characters, and later modern novels, which focused more on the psychological evolution of its characters and their internal worlds. In Don Quixote, Cervantes managed to do both.

It all feels surprisingly familiar. Even the chapter titles sound like episodes of Friends: “Chapter III which relates the amusing way in which Don Quixote had himself knighted”, and so on. Cervantes certainly didn’t have any designs on founding the Western literary canon or anything of the sort. He just wanted to write a fun story that would give people a laugh or two, which is probably why his story is still so widely accessible and enjoyable for today’s readers. Of course, our understanding of it has changed over time; at first, we read it as a comic novel, as Cervantes intended, but then we started to read it as a tragic statement on disillusionment in society after the French Revolution. Later, we came to appreciate Don Quixote as a critical social commentary, but now we’ve circled around to finding it funny again. That said, I must say I’m stuck in the 20th century as far as literary critique of this one goes; critics in that era came to view the story as a tragedy, where Don Quixote’s simple idealism is rendered useless by a harsh reality. Sure, there are plenty of quick quips and slapstick encounters, but really, the truth at the heart of the story is a real bummer.

As I read it, Don Quixote seemed to be suffering from a debilitating delusional disorder, and yet everyone in his world just humoured him as he lived out his imaginary life. He was a danger to himself and others, and in today’s world we’d almost certainly subject him to some kind of psychiatric hold and get him treatment. What’s worse, he pulled Sancho Panza down with him, in a heart-breaking foile à deux that sees them repeatedly beaten, half-starved, and living in itinerant poverty for most of the book. The humour, in my view, was particularly dark, given that this ageing man’s poor mental health was the butt of most of the jokes. I found it all horribly sad.

And, of course, it’s hopelessly and irretrievably sexist, a product of its time. Almost every bloke is chasing after some beautiful woman’s virginity, which he calls her “honour” or her “jewel”, treating it as some prize they earn for gross displays of machismo. And there’s a lot of Madonna/whore smack talk. Really, the only man who seems woke in any measure is Sancho Panza, believe it or not. He has no interest in oppressing women, he just wants to get rich and fat. I respect that. Sancho’s long-suffering wife was my favourite character in the whole book, too:

“‘… you do as you please, because that’s the burden we women were born with, obeying our husbands even if they are damn fools.'”

Teresa Cascajo (page 520)

I hope I’m not putting you off, though, because honestly Don Quixote wasn’t bad. I just feel compelled to share the alternative view, like I’m the lone port in a sea of “but it’s so funny!”.

I particularly enjoyed instances of Cervantes breaking the fourth wall; he was way ahead of his time in terms of being meta. His characters were aware that they were being written about, and he often made direct nods and call-outs to the reader. In Part One, he included many back-stories of minor characters, and then in Part Two, he outright apologised for his many digressions and promised the reader to focus on the matter at hand (while simultaneously whingeing that his “narrative muse” had been restrained – and never fear, he still managed to cram plenty of these hilarious digressions into the second party anyway). I heard that several abridged editions actually remove some or all of these extra tales, focusing exclusively on the central narrative. That’s a shame, because some of them are really good – so, if you’re going to read Don Quixote, make sure you go with the OG full-version.

Trying to summarise or explain the full plot of Don Quixote is a fool’s game, and I’m not going to try it here. Over the course of their travels, the dynamic duo meet innkeepers, sex workers, goat herders, soldiers, priests, escaped convicts, and spurned lovers, and Quixote manages to turn each and every encounter into a chivalric adventure of some kind. As much as he loves to intervene and prevent injustice, he’s also kind of an entitled prick and often refuses to pay his debts, which results in many near-scrapes and public humiliations (with poor Sancho often bearing the brunt). In the end, Quixote is strong-armed into returning home to live out the rest of his life as he really is, Alfonso Quixano, and he dies (essentially of depression) in the final chapter. I told you, it’s a real bummer!

There are a lot of fun facts and trivia in Don Quixote‘s history, particularly when it comes to language and translation. Firstly, its widespread popularity is the main reason modern Spanish exists in its current form, which is no small feat for one humble comic novel. Within the text itself, there are actually two types of Spanish spoken: a contemporary version spoken by most of the characters, which more or less matches today’s language, and Old Castillian, used by Don Quixote. It’s kind of like having the main character of a book speak Shakespearean English, while the rest of them speak like you and me; indeed, that’s how most contemporary English translations tell the story.

We also get a lot of proverbs and idioms from Quixote, like “tilting at windmills” (taken from one of his early adventures, where he attacks windmills believing them to be sentient giant enemies), and also from mis-translations of Quixote. The proverb “the proof of the pudding is in the eating” is widely attributed to Cervantes, but it didn’t actually appear in Don Quixote until a 1700 English translation. The original phrase was translated more literally to “you will see when the eggs are fried”, meaning something more like “time will tell”. Really, we’ve spent a couple hundred years mistranslating Quixote, and now we’re spending another couple hundred trying to correct all those mistakes. There have been five new English translations published since 2000. Obviously, I can’t speak to all of them, but I think John Rutherford did a cracking job with this one, so I’d highly recommend first-timers pick it up (and, as always, don’t skip the introduction – it’s full of interesting background and context that will help you understand and enjoy the story).

Don Quixote is a great book to read bit-by-bit; you want to sip it like wine, not chug it like beer. I’m really glad I set a lot of time aside to enjoy it properly. I think binge-reading it would make the episodes feel really repetitive, or ridiculous, or both. Plus, through the magic of incremental effort, the 982 pages fly by, and you’ll feel silly for ever having been intimidated by this doorstop book. Give it a go, and hustle back here to reassure me that this tale of an ageing poor man’s mental illness is at least equally as tragic as it is comic (it can’t just be me!).

My favourite Amazon reviews of Don Quixote:

  • “I never read it and thought it was about time. Now I know and I’m of the believe that Mr Quixote and President Trump are kissing cousins” – Amazon Customer
  • “IS TO BIG” – Amazon Customer
  • “it is too long and too old. i got into the parts where he was fighting but everything else was a bore” – jeff rack
  • “5 star book, 1 star kindle version. Book stops approximately half way through, like, in mid-sentence. Had to go to the paperback to finish.

    Like the movie “Saving Private Ryan” ending (spoiler alert) just before they actually find Private Ryan.

    Like the movie “The Martian” ending with the dude still on Mars.

    You get the idea.

    Lame.” – Fake Geddy Lee
  • “It is supposedly a great Spanish classic but it is as bad as Shakespear. I got very little out of it.” – George Fox
  • “What an awful book. An old madman cruising the countryside and dragging his poor servant with him. Just an awful book.” – Bruce E. Paris

Movie Review: Divergent (2014)

Alright, I didn’t love Divergent the book (to say the least), so I went into Divergent the movie feeling hopeful. I mean, I could hardly enjoy it any less… could I? I quite liked The Hunger Games movies, which are comparable in almost every way on paper, so it didn’t seem that much of a logical leap. Plus, Divergent pulled in over $289 million after its release in 2014, so plenty of others have found something in it worth watching.

Veronica Roth, author of the Divergent series, sold the film rights to the first book before she’d even graduated from her Creative Writing degree (show-off). When she first saw the script, she said: “Reading a script is a really interesting experience. I’d never read a script before.” At that point in development, the film was given a budget of $40 million, but that was quickly doubled after the success of The Hunger Games. The production companies, naturally, gave some jargon-y explanation about owning the economics of production, but let’s call it how it is: they realised that young adult dystopian science-fiction action movie adaptations were hot, hotter than they could have imagined, and they wanted to cash in. To avoid any accusations of a rip-off (unsuccessfully, in the end) they made sure to emphasise Divergent‘s urban setting, and they used a much harsher colour scheme (meaning that some scenes were annoyingly dark, while others were startlingly bright). Devoted moviegoers, however, saw through these token efforts, and called them out on it. Ultimately, what truly separates these film franchises is their quality. The Hunger Games is a good book that spawned a good series of films. Divergent is not, and it didn’t.

Yep, I was disappointed – once again – I’m afraid. The film starts with a whole bunch of voice-over exposition, and I literally groaned out loud. It was almost as cliche a technique as the book’s opener, which had the protagonist describe her own reflection in detail. And the cliche punches just kept rolling in: they colour-coded all the factions, for instance, to make sure the audience didn’t have to work too hard keeping them all straight. It was all downhill from there…

Despite all the usual movie-buzz rhetoric around finding a director who was a “perfect fit” to “bring the Divergent world to life”, Neil Burger was an odd choice. By the looks of his IMDB page, he really hadn’t directed all that much before taking on this multi-million dollar juggernaut: a TV movie, a couple TV episodes, a couple movies I’d never heard of. The lead actress, Shailene Woodley, had slightly more experience at least. She starred in the film adaptation of The Fault In Our Stars the same year as Divergent was released, plus she was the original Kaitlin Cooper in The OC years before, so she pretty much covered all the teenage fangirl bases across a couple of generations. She was the only actress they considered for the lead role of Tris, apparently – no one else auditioned for the part. Having seen the finished product, and knowing what I do now about the director, I suspect that perhaps simply no one else wanted it.

I don’t want to sound like I’m shitting all over Divergent indiscriminately. I loved Kate Winslet’s role, for instance. I mean, Winslet is a goddess, whatever she does, but in this film she was particularly impressive. She was five months pregnant during filming, so they had to use the usual strategically-placed props to hide her growing bump; I take particular glee in spotting those on-screen, so that part was fun for me (they used above-the-waist shots, close-ups, positioning, folders, and tablets, in case you were wondering). Winslet is quoted as saying it’s the first time she played a “baddie”. She took the role of Jeannine, the head of the Erudite faction, because she wanted to do something drastically different from her usual roles, and also something her children could watch – mission accomplished! It’s always jarring to hear her speak with an American accent, but she was fantastic (and she rocked the platinum-blonde hair, too).

Another positive note: the train-jumping scenes made me giggle, though probably not for the reasons Burger and Roth intended. It seemed a bit too realistic, much like trying to catch a train in Sydney peak-hour, except their post-apocalyptic service is far more reliable – still running, even in the midst of a civil war. 😉

Divergent was quite faithful, as far as adaptations go. Most of the differences between the movie and book were purely cosmetic (the content of Tris’s aptitude test, for instance) or changed for clear logistical and practical reasons (they had to cut the scene where the kid gets stabbed in the eye with a butter knife, and the sex scene, to keep the PG-13 rating they needed for their intended audience). A handful of minor characters were cut, no one memorable. I’m sure die-hard fans of the book were mostly satisfied with their efforts.

Yes, I’m scraping the bottom of the barrel for positivity here: this movie was just so bad! It was full of holes and inconsistencies. One that really bugged me was how all the Dauntless initiates miraculously “mastered all forms of combat and weaponry” in, like, two weeks. Tris even got a montage, for crying out loud. Compare that to the real world, where the cast had to be trained in bootcamps for two full months before filming even started, and Woodley had to undergo several days of firearms training to prepare for her role. Plus, there was a whole lot of needle-sharing going on with all these serums being injected every two minutes, which really grossed me out. I guess Hep-C and HIV aren’t a problem after the apocalypse?

Oh, and that apocalypse that they never explain! This was a problem in the book, too: Roth gives the flimsiest-ever back-story, and it just seems unbelievable that no one ever questioned this stupid faction system that was obviously destined to fail. They never explained why or how a society that holds itself out as being destitute, or at the very least resource-scarce, can somehow maintain a huge fenced border, an endless supply of hallucinogenic drugs for training their armies, LCD screens on every available surface in the Erudite compound, and trains that run continuously when only the Dauntless use them (heck, even my relatively well-off city in my relatively well-off country can’t keep much-needed trains running past midnight).

The whole reason I usually enjoy YA film adaptations more than the original books is that they usually cut out all the angst-ridden internal teen monologue narration. That always allows the action to come to the fore and the story tells itself. Not so in the case of Divergent; Burger decided to open and close with what may be the cringiest voice-over of all time. Take Tris’s closing thoughts:

“We’re like the Factionless now. We’ve left everything behind, but we found ourselves and each other. Tomorrow we may have to fight again, but for now we’ll ride the train to the end of the line. And then, we’ll jump.”

Tris (Voiceover) – Divergent (2014)

And yet, despite all this unmitigated crap, the film was a huge commercial success. I mean, they really needed it to be – the marketing campaign cost at least $50 million, on top of their outlay for all the flashy special effects and a cameo for Veronica Roth herself. If they hadn’t pulled in big audience, someone somewhere would have been very fired. Luckily, proper film critics aren’t swayed by swanky marketing, and they almost all had much the same opinion as me: Divergent is generic, it’s predictable, and it’s full of holes. One guy even said it was “barely diverting”, which made me laugh more than any of the lame attempted jokes in the movie itself.

Still, $289 million at the box office isn’t to be sniffed at. They went on to produce a sequel, Insurgent, with a new script writer and a good director. It got slightly better reviews than its predecessor, and took a few million more in sales. But they got over-confident: they decided to split the third movie into two, and Allegiant (Part I) was an absolute stinker. Even worse than the first, believe it or not. Critics panned it, universally, and its box office takings were half that of the previous installment. It pretty much scuppered the chance of getting Part II off the ground, because both the star (Woodley) and the new director (Robert Schwentke) quit in the wake of its horrific failure. There’s some reported plans to turn it into a TV movie or some such nonsense, but if there’s any justice they’ll let it die a quick death and spare us any further pain.

So, which was better, the movie or the book?

Ugh. That’s like asking whether I’d prefer to be stabbed in the right eye or the left. I suppose I’d have to say the book, but that’s only because I think it’s great that it encouraged so many young adults to get into reading for fun. Really, it’s the best house on a bad block. The movie wasn’t worth the time I wasted searching for it on Netflix, let alone actually watching the thing.

Divergent – Veronica Roth

I know there’s still a lot of ingrained snobbery and elitism that causes some readers to look down their noses at young adult books, but it’s hard to argue with the power of a juggernaut like Divergent, whatever you might think of the genre. It was a New York Times Best Seller (a couple times over, actually), and a Goodreads Choice Awards winner (Favourite Book Of The Year in 2011). According to Publisher’s Weekly, the combined three volumes of the series sold over 6.7 million copies in 2013 alone. Whatever we might think of it, clearly Veronica Roth’s dystopian world has captured more than a few minds and hearts…

So, just to be clear, I’m reviewing the first book in the Divergent series (also, confusingly, called Divergent), a trilogy of dystopian young adult novels (it’s followed by Insurgent, then Allegiant) set in post-apocalyptic Chicago. Roth’s meteoric rise is all the more enviable when you learn that Divergent was published less than a year after she earned a degree in Creative Writing from Northwestern University; in fact, she’d sold the film rights before she’d even graduated. But don’t let the green-eyed monster overtake you just yet, my honest review is still to come…

See, Divergent doesn’t exactly start strong (and, spoiler alert, it doesn’t improve much along the way). Roth opens her story with the old protagonist-examines-her-reflection-in-the-mirror trope, ugh. She gives some kind of half-arsed explanation as to why she’s only allowed to look in the mirror once a month or something, but it still irked me. It’s such a lazy way for a writer to “show” the reader what a narrator looks like, I couldn’t help but roll my eyes.

This central character, Beatrice (well, “Tris”, as she’s later known), and her family are among the survivors of some unspecified apocalyptic event (and yes, it’s extremely frustrating that Roth doesn’t give us any more details on the back-story, but that’s the least of our problems here). What we do know is that everyone is now divided into five “factions”, based on their dispositions and inclinations. The Abnegation are the selfless ones, the Amity are the peaceful ones, the Candor are the honest ones, the Dauntless are the brave ones, and the Erudite are the smart ones. They’re kind of like the castes in Brave New World, but not quite so hierarchical; each faction has a different role to play in society, and theoretically they should all work together in harmony.

Kids are raised in the faction of their parents (in Tris’s case, Abnegation) until they turn sixteen, at which point they are given an “aptitude” test and forced to choose a permanent faction for themselves at the creatively-named Choosing Ceremony. No, I’m not kidding. Anyone who doesn’t complete initiation into their new faction becomes “factionless” (the creativity just keeps on coming), and is forced to live in poverty on the streets, reliant on charity to survive. Tris’s aptitude test shows that she could belong to any one of three factions, and thus she is “divergent”. An early warning: do not attempt to turn this into a drinking game by doing a shot every time someone uses the word “divergent”, because you will die. Tris pretty much whacks you over the head with her divergence for the rest of the book.

The test administrator warns her to keep her divergence under her hat, so Tris takes her word for it and acts like she’s normal. She chooses to join the Dauntless faction, much to her parents’ dismay, and her brother simultaneously fucks off to the Erudite (so a double-whammy for Abnegation).

Tris’s instructor at the Dauntless compound is “Four”. Roth said he was originally the protagonist in her first draft of the novel, but she switched to Tris’s perspective because she felt it “worked better”. Four tells Tris and the rest of the Dauntless initiates that they’ll be tested again and again, and only the top ten candidates will be accepted into the faction. The guy’s welcome speech could use some work, tbh.

You can smell the relationships forming a mile off, they’re all very predictable. Tris befriends some of her fellow transfer initiates (Christina, Al, and Will), comes into conflict with others (Peter, Drew, and Molly), and falls head over heels in love with Four. And later on, one of her chosen friends betrays her. It’s all rather uninspired and cliche, but we persist!

It turns out that these “tests” for the Dauntless initiates are mostly a series of drug-induced hallucinations while they’re hooked up to technological gizmos. They’re forced to face their worst fears in a simulation, and beat them. Roth said she was inspired in part by learning about exposure therapy in an introductory psychology course. Important note: this is a very gross misrepresentation of what exposure therapy is actually about, and how it works for people with phobias and other anxiety disorders. If Roth has scared anyone off seeking treatment with this story, I will be very, very cross.

Anyway, Tris’s divergent abilities actually give her an advantage in this fucked-up testing scenario, and she (quite rightly) exploits it to make sure she gets that top ten ranking. But of course, no one likes a kiss arse, so the other initiates attack her and do their best to take her down a peg.

Meanwhile, in Grown Up World, the Erudite faction are stirring dissent against Abnegation. See, the selfless ones were given the role of governing the city, because they’re so selfless and all, but the clever ones are pretty fed up with that situation. They accuse the Abnegation leaders of abusing their children (and Four brings Tris into one of his fear simulation thingos, revealing that he was indeed abused by his Abnegation father, so not everything the Erudite are saying is fake news). The dispute reaches crisis point when the Erudite inject all of the Dauntless with a serum that allows them to be controlled in one giant simulation. The Erudite mobilise them as an army, stage a coup, and take down the Abnegation.

To put this in terms everyone will understand, let’s highlight a few of the very obvious Harry Potter parallels: in the Divergent world, the Gryffindors and the Ravenclaws (who are actually just clever Slytherins in disguise) gang up on the Hufflepuffs. You following?

It turns out that the Erudite serum doesn’t actually work on divergent members of the faction, which is why the test administrator encouraged Tris to keep it to herself; if she can’t be controlled, she’s a threat to the system and the whole Erudite plot to gain power. The divergent kids, led by Tris and Four (oh yeah, turns out her boyfriend is also divergent, vomit), rebel against the Erudite, uniting to disable the simulation. Once that’s handle, they escape to the Amity compound – that’s the nice faction, remember them? They don’t get much of a look-in in the story otherwise. Both of Tris’s parents are killed in the fight, the military conflict remains unresolved, and that’s where Divergent ends. To find out what happens next, you’ll have to buy the next book (duh).

I think my feelings have been made abundantly clear already, but just in case, I’ll say it straight: the writing isn’t good. It’s full of lines like this:

“I watch the light leave Will’s eyes, which are pale green, like celery.”

Divergent (p. 96)

I mean, come on! Tris gets sweaty palms, a lot. As in she mentions it on practically every page, and it really wears thin very early on. There’s also a lot of references to necks, and a lot of chapters and sections that start with “the next morning”. I thought initially that Divergent must have been self-published, without professional editing, because really this is the type of shit that would have been picked up by even a first-time editor. But nope! This book went through the full rigors of Harper Collins’s editorial process, and still came out this way. *shrugs*

If you think I’m being too persnickety, let’s take a step back and look at Divergent more broadly: it really doesn’t break any new ground. A young adult book that explores an adolescent’s relationship to adults and authority in a dystopian future is hardly revolutionary. Tris’s whole character arc is simply coming of age through a series of choices, always between conforming and choosing her own path – nothing new there, either. I read one review that sung the praises of how Roth “critiqued the illusion of democracy” (whereby citizens are able to “choose” which faction they join but are indoctrinated through the initiation process regardless of what they choose), but that seems to be an optimistically retro-fitted analysis at best. Roth really doesn’t explore that idea at all; it seemed to me more of a convenient plot point to get everyone divided into groups, given that the idea of a Sorting Hat was already taken.

The religious overtones are interesting, though. Roth says in the first sentence of her Author Acknowledgements: “Thank you, God, for your Son and for blessing me beyond comprehension”, so she’s clearly down with the Squad. There’s a very clear Point(TM) in the intellectual Erudite (read: genetics researchers, stem-cell harvesters, Galileo, etc.) being painted as control-hungry villains, pitted against the righteous, pious, and persecuted Abnegation. It gives me really bad vibes, actually. I mean the Erudites, who are clearly coded as academics and experts, are the “evil” ones, and in the world of Trump and Brexit it seems to reinforce a particularly scary position that experts are part of some kind of conspiracy to screw the everyman. I’m not sure if Roth intended to write a conservative religious call-to-arms, but that’s how it came across to me.

I’m not much good at content warnings, but Divergent probably warrants a few. There’s a lot of violence (including some sexualised violence), a major suicide as a plot point, and plenty of other distressing shit. This makes it all the more baffling that it’s recommended reading for young adolescents – why are we so much more willing to let kids read about men killing each other than we are men kissing each other? It’s a more confronting, more violent version of The Hunger Games. I know it’s gross to lump all female-protagonist-dystopian-future-YA novels into the same basket, but in this case they really are very similar on a lot of levels. I’ve also heard Divergent has a lot in common with The Maze Runner, which is also on my reading list – stay tuned for my thoughts on that front…

As I was putting together this review, I started to feel really guilty that I didn’t like Divergent more, like I was doing a disservice by hanging shit on something that legions of young readers really love. I promise, I’m not here to yuck anyone’s yums, and if you enjoyed Divergent, power to you! No hard feelings! It’s just not for me. I couldn’t help but laugh at times at how truly bad I found it. I thought it was ridiculous, but that doesn’t mean I don’t respect the fans Roth has won herself around the world, and the power that a beloved series like this can have in ensuring the continuing literacy of younger generations. (Please forgive me for how old that makes me sound!) As I said in the beginnings, elitists and snobs might look down their noses at a series like this, but I’m not one of them. I won’t be reading any more of Roth’s work, but I don’t begrudge anyone who finds joy in it.

My favourite Amazon reviews of Divergent:

  • “Funny as he’ll” – derrick
  • “thia is the sort of series tat doesnt deserve a 3 star rting its so bad sory for bad typing I am uinf a small kindle in bed.” – S. Berestizhevsky
  • “Cool I get to be review 44,444. 4s are my lucky number.


Anyway. I guess I am Divergent because this book is just…bad. I couldn’t get through more than 100 pages. It never got better. The premise is just, dumb. It’s basically a rip-off of the sorting hat from Harry Potter mixed with Hunger Games without all the action. The protagonist is supposedly the only person with a mind of her own in the entire book (besides some of the poor homeless/blue-collar workers who we should feel SO sorry for and look down on, in spite of them making up most of our actual society). She is labeled “divergent”, which is unspeakable. And basically, she doesn’t fit in. Poor girl. That’s about it. I don’t know why I even gave it two stars. I guess I’m feeling generous.

    I read that this book was written in a month. Sounds about right.” – Kristen

  • “Oh boy how to begin? This book is garbage! Utter garbage. I’m sorry, this review is literally better written than this book. Don’t waste your money. Also don’t buy books go to a library they’re dying.” – Amazon Customer
  • “Daughter disappointed dont know why” – Amazon Customer

Movie Review: Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953)

It took quite a few iterations for this film to reach our screens: Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, the 1953 musical comedy, was based on the 1949 stage musical of the same name, which was in turn based on the 1925 comic novel of the same name by Anita Loos. All the work was worth it, though; it was the ninth-highest grossing film that year, taking $5.3 million at the box office (on a budget of $2.3 million), and it stars, of course, the incomparable Marilyn Monroe in one of her most iconic roles.

One of my favourite things about films of this era is that they put the credits right at the beginning, before you’re tired and hungry for (more) snacks. It’s a good thing, in this case, because I needed laser-sharp focus to find Anita Loos’ name! She’s buried right at the bottom, beneath the other screen-writers, which seems a bit rough given that the entire story and its characters were her creation. And here’s another fun fact I picked up about how work was valued on this film: despite Monroe’s role as the titular Blonde that Gentlemen Prefer, she was only paid her usual contract salary of $500 per week, while her co-star Jane Russell, earned a whopping $200,000. It seems hard to believe now, but at the time Jane was actually the more experienced and well-known actress of the two.

Anyway, to the plot: there are some significant departures from Loos’ book, which shouldn’t be surprising given the telephone-game of adaptations it went through to get to the screen. In Gentlemen Prefer Blondes the movie, Lorelei Lee (Monroe) and Dorothy Shaw (Russell) are showgirls, rather than society girls, and the timeline has been shifted up a few decades so it’s no longer set in the Jazz Age. Lorelei is engaged to Gus Esmond, a dorky-looking fellow who falls all over himself to buy her things and treat her well. However, he’s simultaneously under the thumb of his wealthy father, who believes the fun-loving money-hungry Lorelei to be a bad influence (imagine!).

Dorothy isn’t attached, and she seeks a different kind of love to Lorelei. She’s drawn to men who are good-looking and fit, regardless of their prospects. About twenty minutes in, Lorelei declares in frustration (which had me in hysterics):

“You don’t want to end up in a loveless marriage, do you? If a girl spends her time worrying about money, she doesn’t have no time for love! I want you to find happiness, and stop having fun.”

Lorelei Lee, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953)

Lorelei plans to marry Esmond in France, and they’ve got tickets to sail there together, but Papa Esmond intervenes. He forces his son to stay at home and plants a private investigator on the cruise liner, to keep an eye on her (more on that in a minute). Esmond sends Lorelei off with a blank cheque and tells her not to worry, he’ll meet her there, but also warns her to behave herself, lest any stories of her misadventures get back to his father.

The private dick is Ernie Malone, and he seems to take the place of DA Bartlett and Major Falcon from the book. The whole storyline of Lorelei’s former life of felonies and her role in military espionage is removed. Instead, Malone falls in love with Dorothy, and has to balance his desire to impress her with his obligation to tail Lorelei and catch her in a compromising position. Dorothy initially fobs him off, preferring the all-male Olympic athletics team on board (which seemed just a convenient excuse for an extremely camp scene of mostly-naked men in beige boxers dancing flamboyantly for her in a gym, heaven!), but eventually she comes to return Malone’s affections.

Naturally, Lorelei gets herself into trouble. She meets and charms the rich geriatric Sir Francis “Piggy” Beekman, owner of a diamond mine, much to the chagrin of his wife (who is also on board). When Lorelei and Piggy are alone in her cabin, he recounts his travels to Africa and demonstrates how a python squeezes a goat by hugging her close (wink-wink) – the perfect moment for Malone to snap a picture of them.

Dorothy spots Malone hustling away with his camera, and she and Lorelei concoct a scheme to get Malone drunk and steal the film from him. Lorelei lures him to her cabin, and they convince him to drink up with what is now my favourite rhyming toast of all time:

“There was an old fellow named Sidney

Who drank ’til he ruined a kidney

It shrivelled and shrank, but he drank and he drank

And he had fun doing it, didn’t he?”

Lorelei Lee, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953)

Of course, with encouragement like that, Malone writes himself off. (Oh, okay, fine, Lorelei spikes his drink and I find that a really gross and creepy addition to the story that I’d rather forget, so let’s not mention it again.) The girls find the incriminating film in his pants (not a euphemism) and Lorelei takes it straight to Piggy, bragging about her cleverness and discretion. He offers her a thank-you gift, and she asks for Lady Beekman’s diamond tiara. I actually like this version of that particular sub-plot better than the book; it’s sacrilegious, I know, but it’s a lot less convoluted than Lorelei convincing him to buy her one and Lady Beekman chasing her across the world to steal it.

When the ship arrives in France, Lorelei and Dorothy hit the shops hard. It’s all going swimmingly for them, until they’re abruptly ejected from their hotel and Esmond’s cheque bounces. It turns out that Malone had a recording device planted in the room, in case his Peeping Tom routine didn’t work out, and he’s shared his findings with Papa Esmond. Lorelei’s engagement has been unceremoniously called off. Esmond shows up to confront her about her indiscretion, and she shuts him down with her now-iconic performance of Diamonds Are A Girl’s Best Friend, making it abundantly clear to him that women are sensible to chase the security that money brings and forget about love.

While she’s thawing out Esmond’s cold dead heart through the power of song, Lady Beekman files charges against her for the theft of the tiara, and when Lorelei comes off stage she is arrested. Dorothy convinces Lorelei to just give the damn thing back, but when they go to retrieve it they find it’s missing from her jewellery box. The two of them concoct another hair-brained scheme, to have Malone track down Piggy while Dorothy disguises herself as Lorelei (complete with blonde wig and fake accent) to present at court. Sure enough, Malone reveals in court that Piggy had the tiara all along, Lorelei is exonerated, and the day is saved!

In the final scenes, Esmond has decided he’s ready to forgive and he and Lorelei go to leave the club together, but Papa Esmond shows up to make one last attempt at destroying their future happiness. He accuses Lorelei of being after her fiance’s money, at which she laughs and tells him not to be silly – she’s after his! Then she gives a rather impressive speech about how money is an asset for a man in the same way looks are an asset for a woman in this bullshit patriarchal society we’ve created. After all, she implores him, if Papa Esmond had a daughter, he’d want the best for her and that would mean marrying a man with a fortune – why should he begrudge Lorelei the same? He agrees, and the film ends with a joint wedding for Lorelei and Dorothy, marrying Esmond and Malone respectively. It’s a very sanitised ending compared to the book…

… but, really, the whole film is a rather sanitised version of Loos’ original creation. They’ve erased Lorelei’s diary completely from the plot, and thereby taken away a lot of her cleverness. She comes across as a simple gold-digger, practically two-dimensional, instead of the insightful, witty woman we came to know and love through her journal. The only upside is that Dorothy has a lot more agency in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes the movie. She’s a lot more decisive, and much more likeable and relatable as a result. Plus, she has dynamite outfits! In fact, all of the costumes are perfection. I can’t resist the visual appeal of a camp musical, I’m a sucker for it!

Monroe and Russell were both widely praised for their performances, even by critics who weren’t otherwise impressed by the movie version of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, and I can see why. They’re both incredibly compelling, and they steal every scene. Monroe’s performance of Diamonds Are A Girl’s Best Friend is, as I said, iconic – I couldn’t look away! – which is how it came to inspire homages from performers like Beyonce, Madonna, and Kylie Minogue. That said, it shouldn’t overshadow the equally-brilliant performance by Russell, with her sharp wit and wry one-liners bringing a much-needed cleverness to an otherwise flimsy over-simplified story. The film doesn’t move as quickly as the book, much is lost in translation, but thanks to Monroe and Russell there are still many knowing nods and knee-slapping laughs to be had.

So, which was better, the movie or the book?

The book, definitely, but the movie was still great fun. Plus, with a run-time of 91 minutes, it’s the perfect lazy hungover Sunday film, one to watch when you don’t want your thinking meat to work too hard and you’re in the mood for some glitz and glamour.

Gentlemen Prefer Blondes – Anita Loos

Warning: this particular book review might get a little ranty. Gentlemen Prefer Blondes is a comic novel written by Anita Loos, first published in 1925 – one of several novels published that year that are famous for their depictions of the Jazz Age in America. It’s a travesty that this wonderful, hilarious, insightful book lives under the inconceivably large shadow cast by The Great Gatsby. Gentlemen Prefer Blondes was a huge success immediately upon publication; the entire first print run sold out the first day it went into stores, it was a best-seller in thirteen different languages, and it counts among its fans James Joyce and Edith Wharton (who called it the Great American Novel). So, why is it always overlooked in discussions of the modern classics? Yet another example of how we value stories about and by men over those of women, hmph! (Yes, I’m getting ranty, I did warn you!)

The book’s full title is Gentlemen Prefer Blondes: The Illuminating Diary of a Professional Lady, and this edition also contains its sequel, But Gentlemen Marry Brunettes, which was published two years later. The introduction to this volume is quite good, and highly readable. It contains gems like:

“It could be said, therefore, that Loos did not write a version of Beauty and the Beast; instead, she rewrote Beauty as the Beast.”

Regina Barreca (Introduction, Penguin Twentieth-Century Classics Edition)


“The men who perpetually orbit around Lorelei and Dorothy have two major problems: they have too much money in their bank accounts and too much time on their hands. Lorelei and Dorothy are able to solve both their problems at once.”

Regina Barreca (Introduction, Penguin Twentieth-Century Classics Edition)

Loos said she was inspired to write the book after watching her friend, intellectual H.L. Mencken, reduced to a character she likened to a lovestruck schoolboy in the presence of a sexy blonde woman. Mencken was a good sport about it; he read her draft, loved it, and saw to its publication. Of the particular brand of humour she displays in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, Loos said:

“In those days I had a friend, Rayne Adams, who used to say that my slant on life was that of a child of ten, chortling with excitement over a disaster…. But I, with my infantile cruelty, have never been able to view even the most impressive human behavior as anything but foolish.”

Anita Loos

And my personal favourite Loos anecdote:

“… during a television interview in London, the question was put to me: ‘Miss Loos, your book was based on an economic situation, the unparalleled prosperity of the Twenties. If you were to write such a book today, what would be your theme?’ And without hesitation, I was forced to answer, ‘Gentlemen Prefer Gentlemen’ (a statement which brought the session abruptly to a close).”

Anita Loos

Alright, alright, I’ll stop quoting Loos (even though I could do it all day, she was endlessly quotable!) and get down to business. Going in, I thought that Gentlemen Prefer Blondes would be The Great Gatsby meets Bridget Jones’s Diary, but in reality it was more like Gatsby meets The Intimate Adventures of a London Call Girl. It’s fun, and silly, but also insightful and powerful. Actually, charming is probably the best word for it. I couldn’t help but continue through reading But Gentlemen Marry Brunettes as well, so taken was I with Loos’ characters and prose.

The premise of the story is this: beautiful blonde Lorelei Lee decides to try her hand at writing a diary, because a gentleman friend suggested that her thoughts would make for an interesting book. Gentlemen Prefer Blondes is presented as a transcript of that journal, complete with spelling and grammatical errors that say much about Lorelei’s personality and position. She had been working in the movies in Hollywood, she tells us, when she met Mr Gus Eisman, a button manufacturer from Chicago. He decided that her line of work in Hollywood was not becoming for a woman of her potential, so he installed her in a New York apartment and committed a small fortune to “educating” her. What follows from these opening pages, the entire book, is a knowing wink at every woman who has ever copped a barrage of mansplaining from their boss or their boyfriend or the bloke buying their drinks in a bar.

In the course of her “education”, Lorelei meets Gerry Lamson, a married novelist. He is so taken with her that he decides to divorce his wife, on the proviso (of course) that she’ll leave Eisman and run away with him. Lorelei is flattered, naturally, but wishes to avoid the scandal of involvement in a divorce proceeding, and also worries that Eisman might cancel her European cruise ticket if she takes up with another man. Plus, Gerry’s kind of a bore.

Lorelei is also very concerned about her friend, Dorothy, who she believes to be “wasting her time” with a magazine writer named Mencken (a shout-out to Loos’ real-life friend and inspiration for the story), when she could be lavishing her attentions more strategically in the direction of the wealthy movie producer Mr Goldmark. So, to draw her friend away from such fruitless pursuits, Lorelei brings Dorothy with her on the cruise and they set sail for Europe together (with Eisman promising to meet them there).

To Lorelei’s dismay, she discovers that former District Attorney Bartlett is also on board, and she reveals to the reader how she came to know him (and why she’s so distraught at his presence). See, Lorelei once worked as a stenographer in her hometown for one Mr Jennings. Upon finding out that he was a sexual predator, she became “hysterical” and shot him. It sounds brutal, but her re-telling of these events is actually one of the funniest parts of this entire hilarious book. Bartlett is the attorney who prosecuted the case, with little success; apparently, the gentlemen of the jury were so “moved” by Lorelei’s “testimony” (wink-wink) that they acquitted her without question, and the judge – equally taken with her – gifted her the money she needed for a ticket to Hollywood.

Anyway, after some shenanigans on board (involving Bartlett and some military espionage), Lorelei and Dorothy eventually arrive in London. They encounter several impoverished aristocrats who are selling off their jewels to wealthy Americans. One particular £7,500 tiara catches Lorelei’s eye; what’s a poor girl to do but seek out a wealthy man to buy it for her? She settles on Sir Francis Beekman (whom she calls Piggie). He’s rich, but also married (duh) and notoriously stingy. Still, using a heady combination of flattery and promises of discretion, Lorelei convinces him to buy the coveted tiara for her.

With that taken care of, Dorothy and Lorelei head to Paris, but unbeknownst to them Lady Beekman is hot on their tails, hell-bent on confronting Lorelei about this tiara business. In thirty-five years of marriage, she says, her husband has never once bought her a gift, and she accuses Lorelei of having seduced him. Lady B tries to get her lawyers to steal the tiara back, but Lorelei manages to trick them with a fake one, and everyone goes home happy

When Eisman arrives in Paris, he quickly hustles the girls onto the Orient Express and takes them to Vienna. En route, Lorelei meets staunch Presbyterian moralist and prohibitionist Mr Henry Spoffard. He is (you guessed it) filthy rich, old money from Philadelphia. Eisman is quickly discarded. On one of their early dates, Spoffard takes Lorelei to see Dr Sigmund Freud, who says he cannot possibly analyse her because she has never repressed a desire in her entire life (accurate). Spoffard also later introduces Lorelei to his mother; she’s a tough old battle-axe, but Lorelei wins her over with champagne and charm. When Spoffard proposes, Lorelei accepts, albeit begrudgingly; she finds him rather repulsive, but he has money and prospects enough to make her happy.

When they get back to New York, Lorelei decides that she should “come out” into polite society, now that she’s marrying into the fold, so she plans a debutante ball for herself (honestly, I love this woman!). The party lasts three days, and makes the front pages of the newspapers. Lorelei has so much fun that she decides she might not marry Spoffard after all. She gets Dorothy to tell him that she is pathologically indulgent and extravagant (not that much of a stretch), while she goes on a mammoth shopping spree, charging everything to Spoffard’s accounts. When she stops for lunch, she meets a fascinating screen-writer, who convinces her that she should go ahead with the marriage so that her new husband will finance his film projects and she can star in them. It takes a bit of wrangling to unring the bell, but Lorelei – resourceful, clever Lorelei – manages to convince her fiance that it was all a misguided test of his love, and he remorsefully agrees not just to marry her, but finance the first film of her new friend. And so ends Lorelei’s diary, and Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.

(And in the sequel, But Gentlemen Marry Brunettes, Lorelei gives up her film career after she has a child. She decides to become an “authoress”, after all the fun she had writing her diary, and her first project is to tell Dorothy’s life story.)

So, we arrive back at my “controversial” opinion, which I will repeat once more for the cheap seats in the back: Gentlemen Prefer Blondes is an infinitely better book than The Great Gatsby. They take place in a comparable setting, but Loos’ effort is just so. much. better! I think it’s too easily written off as a funny little story about a silly gold-digger, but scratch the surface and you’ll find a compelling and hilarious account of gender roles, politics, and power in 1920s America. It’s a story about resourcefulness, determination, strategy, and relationships. Compare that to stinkin’ Gatsby, which is pretty much just a cautionary tale about how rich people aren’t as happy as they look – pffft! What a tragedy that Gentlemen Prefer Blondes isn’t the book that teenagers are forced to read in high school; I’m sure it’d teach them a lot more about life, and heck, it’d be a lot more fun for them to read!

Yes, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes is a Recommended read here at Keeping Up With The Penguins. I particularly encourage you to give it a go if you think that I must be wrong and Gatsby is the definitive Jazz Age novel. And, I’m sure I don’t need to say this to the booklovers, but just in case you need a reminder: don’t judge the book by its movie.

My favourite Amazon reviews of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes:

  • “The air head who overrates her intellectual prowess is cute, but this book is a one trick pony. Lorelei simply sees life as “diamonds are a girl’s best friend,” she wants to shop for hats, men are her sugar daddies. I’m sure this book was uproariously funny in the 1920’s.

I guess you had to be there.” – J. Rodeck
  • “It wasnt the play its the novel and im an so not satisfied” – Raven Lyons

Movie Review: Fahrenheit 451 (2018)

As our own world comes to increasingly resemble the dystopian futures described in post-apocalyptic speculative fiction novels, we’ll inevitably see more and more of those works emerge, just to remind us how truly fucked we are. This week, I read and reviewed Ray Bradbury’s iconic treatise on censorship and authoritarianism, Fahrenheit 451, and now I turn to the most recent movie version.

Before it premiered at the Cannes Film Festival, the arrival of HBO’s Fahrenheit 451 was heralded by a particularly eerie Tweet. It offered us the immortal tagline: “Fact. Fiction. It all burns.” Ramin Bahrani started developing this adaptation back in 2016, and last year it finally reached our screens. Mel Gibson was reportedly planning to direct, with Tom Cruise in the lead, but their conflicting schedules led them both to pull out; Brad Pitt was also briefly considered for the role. I, for one, am incredible glad the Calendar Gods that stymied those ideas, because I’m not sure I could have convinced myself to watch 100 full minutes of those ageing white dude-bros trying to save the future. As it stands, Bahrani ended up writing and directing the production, which was the best possible outcome for all involved.

His opening credits were genius: shot after shot of classic books and artworks distorting as they burn. It’s truly haunting watching Pride And Prejudice, As I Lay Dying, Lolita, Moby Dick, Their Eyes Were Watching God, The Aeneid, and I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings get eaten up by flames, particularly when the images are interspersed with footage of Nazi book burnings. And if that’s not enough of a whammy, the credits give way to a really powerful shot of a man striking a match and staring into the flame. So, I think it’s already clear: I loved Bahrani’s direction. Later, he layered in these CCTV-like shots which chillingly reinforced the sense of everyone being surveilled, as a mechanism of control. Brilliant!

Just a few minutes in, it was obvious that Bahrani wasn’t sticking faithfully to Bradbury’s book. I mean, it’s hard to blame him – I know there are plenty of fans of the original material who would see me tarred and feathered for even suggesting this but I think the changes improved the story dramatically. Guy Montag (played by Michael B. Jordan) is no longer an oblivious middle-aged grunt with a miserable wife, but a young and energetic public figure, the face of the Firemen – and black. I debated whether to even bring this up, because it shouldn’t matter (and in an ideal world, it wouldn’t), but it’s important to celebrate filmmakers who get it right: the POC casting in this film was amazing, without the hollow ring of tokenism that so often plagues films trying desperately to appeal to “woke” audiences.

There’s plenty here for those audiences to sink their teeth in to, a whole new tree grown organically from the roots of Bradbury’s story under Bahrani’s tender loving care. Fahrenheit 451 is clearly heavily influenced by the success of Black Mirror, being very similar in tone and approach. I also noted several nods to Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four (the “FREEDOM IS CHOICE” mantra reminiscent of Orwellian slogans, and a secret diary hidden from an all-seeing household appliance), and also Huxley’s Brave New World (a populace mollified through medicated eye-drops). Given that these three books are often listed together as some kind of classic dystopian trifecta, the homages make sense. I appreciate that Bahrani didn’t shy away from the common ground.

The story is still set in an unspecified future time, after a Second Civil War, where books are banned but all information is now accessed through a state-controlled heavily-censored version of the internet called “The 9”. It’s basically a 24-hour news channel with a social media overlay. The imagery of “likes” and “stories” seemed a strong indication that the filmmakers intended to stay very faithful to Bradbury’s anti-mass media message, if not his plot. The firemen still burn books, as we know (but they call them “graffiti”), and Montag is their poster boy, unquestioningly spouting the party line at every opportunity.

It’s not just about physical books, though: the list of contraband has been expanded and updated for this century’s viewership. The Firemen also shut down people who upload electronic books and host them online (there’s a great visual of a fireman destroying a computer server with the old-fashioned technology of a strongly-wielded axe). These are electronic “burnings”, and the perpetrators (called “Eels”) are punished by having their online identities erased, which makes it practically impossible for them to function in the world.

When Montag starts to come around to the idea that, hey, maybe something’s hinkey with this whole set-up, we see that he has a stash – not of books, but of random ’90s crap: a cassette, a film reel, a computer mouse. It made me wonder whether they were perhaps diluting the censorship message too much, making it more about the technology and the mechanism of distribution rather than the power of knowledge and information itself. Montag does still steal a book, from the home of the old lady who chooses to burn with her book collection rather than live without them. He takes Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s Notes From The Underground, which seems fitting.

Montag’s disillusionment reaches fever pitch when he starts hanging out with Clarisse (played by Sofia Boutella). Ah, Clarisse! Believe it or not, she is given an actual back-story and some actual agency in this version of the story! Her Manic Pixie Dream Girl qualities in the book version irritated me to no end, so I literally fist-pumped when I realised Bahrani had taken a different approach for her character. Clarisse in Fahrenheit 451 the movie is actually an informant, trying to get her own sentence for infractions reduced by feeding the Firemen information on where they can find the book-hoarding Eels. She tells Montag the true history of books and how they came to be banned, in direct contradiction to his boss Captain Beatty’s version of events. Montag’s all “Awesome, I’m on your side now, teach me how to read this book I stole from the lady you dobbed in!”, and away they go.

I’m not going to lie, Fahrenheit 451 on-screen is still a pretty dude-centric story, at least in the beginning. They cut out Montag’s wife, for one thing, so that halved the number of female characters drawn from the original book. Until about mid-way through, only Clarisse and a female news reporter were allowed to speak. Thankfully, in the second half, more female characters are introduced; not only do they get to speak, they sometimes get to speak to each other, and take on leadership roles – a vast improvement over Bradbury’s original version, don’t you think?

The movie also does a much better job of highlighting Montag’s hypocrisy. He beats up and burns book owners by day, then reads with Clarisse by night. It really only occurred to me while watching the film how sympathetic the book was to him – he really is a garbage person, all told. At least until he decides to go out, and help the rebels: they have a plan to encode books into DNA (“Omnis”), that will be reproduced and disseminated throughout the world through animals, making any attempt to censor or destroy them impossible.

I’m not going to pretend I completely loved and understood this whole “Omnis” plot point, but I decided to just go with it. The Eels implanted some poor bird with this magical book DNA, and it was Montag’s job to steal a transmitter that would allow them to track its flight to Canada (where books aren’t banned and forcing mutant birds to mate and spread isn’t illegal, just creepy). He pulls it off, in the sense that the bird gets away, but Captain Beatty (Michael Shannon) shows up and he is pissed that his golden child has joined the Dark Side.

In this version, Beatty survives, but Montag doesn’t fare as well. Beatty literally incinerates him with his flame-thrower (and you thought your boss was bad!). I wanted to come up with a clever play-on-words about Montag dying by the flaming sword he lived by, but I couldn’t quite nail one down, so just pretend I used one here and chuckle appropriately. It’s a much more fitting and realistic ending for Montag, I think, but the true horror is tempered by the whole hope-springs-eternal thing, in the form of a magical mutant bird escaping safely…

My only real quibble with Fahrenheit 451 the movie was the fact that all the actors seemed to forget to react to the heat of the flames (and a lot of shit gets burned, so I noticed this every couple of minutes). I know it’s a post-apocalyptic future and everyone’s all hardened and everything, but sheesh – I reel when I open a gas oven! That shit is HOT! It’s normal to at least squirm a little when a house burns down around you.

But it would seem that reviewers and film critics took far more issue with Fahrenheit 451, and almost none of them liked it as much as I did. Rotten Tomatoes gives it an aggregated approval rating of just 35%, saying it “fails to burn as brightly as its classic source material”. Published reviews have been mixed at best, with most of them criticising Bahrani’s attempts to modernise the story for a contemporary audience. Fahrenheit 451 did get a handful of miscellaneous Emmy notifications, but won none of them. To be quite honest, I really don’t understand all the hate – I loved it!

So, which was better, the movie or book?

The movie. The movie, a hundred times over. I really didn’t love the book as much as I’d expected to, but the movie blew me away. It would seem that I’m out of step with the rest of the world – confessing to liking any movie more than the book is sacrilegious, and this one got more bad reviews than most – but I’m saying it loud and saying it proud. I’ll probably never flick through the pages of Fahrenheit 451 again, but I can’t wait to re-watch the movie with my husband and point out all my favourite bits again and again.

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