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Sibling Rivalry: Who Was The Best Brontë?

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

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Who Were The Brontës?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Emily Brontë 

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

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

Charlotte Brontë 

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

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

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

Anne Brontë 

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

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

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

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

Branwell Brontë 

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

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

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

So, who was the best Brontë?

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

Jane Eyre – Charlotte Brontë

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

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

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

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




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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘A pit full of fire.’

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

‘No, sir.’

‘What must you do to avoid it?’

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

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

My favourite Amazon reviews of Jane Eyre:

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

 

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Wuthering Heights – Emily Brontë

OK folks, let’s be real here: before you read this review, you should know that I’m not going to shake the Earth with it. It turns out, Wuthering Heights has been reviewed and critiqued approximately eighty billion times already. My copy (purchased for $10, once owned by but never borrowed from the library of Riverside Girls’ High, according to the stamp in the front) has a Preface, Chronology, Introduction, Further Reading List (pages!), a Note on the Text, a Genealogical Table, a Bibliographical Notice for the author, and an Editors Preface to the New [1850] Edition… not to mention that the text itself is followed by 13 pages of notes. How can I possibly add to an analysis that’s already longer than the book? I’ll give it a shot, but I’m not optimistic… 😉

(A hot tip for those of you yet to read Wuthering Heights: given how many characters Emily Brontë names for their parents, and how many of them marry their cousins, an edition with the aforementioned Genealogical Table in the front is really handy!)

So, it’s 1801, right. This moody guy, Heathcliff, lives with his daughter-in-law and her new husband (his own son having perished, at some point). The DIL is hot, but they’re all kind of rude and weird. Their kindly neighbour – who’s trying to narrate this mess – comes to have a sleepover, but they stick him in a really strange room and he has nutty dreams and sees a ghost. He bails quick smart. Then, presto, we kind of switch narrators, because that kindly neighbour – safe, back at his place – gets bored at dinner and makes his housemaid give him all the dirt on those whack-jobs up the road. So, it’s the narrator narrating the narration of his housemaid. Got it?

It turns out: that Heathcliff guy was once a ruffian street-kid, with a Cinderella-esque upbringing (once the dude who took him in died, the rest of the family started being really mean). Catherine (we’ll call her Cathy Senior for clarity – you’ll see why in a minute) was a saucy little minx, who flirtatiously tortured Heathcliff for years, but she ultimately decided to marry the snooty guy next door instead. It was a hella dramatic household – years of drunken rages and fights and marriage proposals and death. It’s great tea, but damn, I wanted to tell them all to just calm down for a minute.

Heathcliff went on a sulky walkabout after his true-love-slash-adopted-sister married the snooty guy. Cathy Senior is overjoyed when he eventually returns, which makes Mr Snooty super jealous. Then, Mr Snooty’s sister takes a fancy to Heathcliff, and Cathy Senior is so not jealous of them that she goes proper bonkers and locks herself in her room.

Heathcliff does actually take Mr Snooty’s sister for a wife (seemingly because they both just fancied a shag and this was the only way to get one back then), but being back living with the adopted family that hates him isn’t great for his mental health. Guys, this is just Volume I. Strap in!




I can see why Wuthering Heights has been picked apart so many times – there’s clearly layers of metaphor and hidden meaning, but (unlike Mrs Dalloway) that doesn’t mean that a surface reading isn’t perfectly enjoyable. Of course, you’ve got to keep track of all the love triangles dodecahedrons and set aside any qualms you have about incest…

In Volume II, Heathcliff decides he doesn’t give a damn who’s married whom, and sneaks in to see Cathy Senior while Mr Snooty is at church. They pash for a bit, but she’s still bonkers, and Mr Snooty ends up catching them at it. It turns out Cathy Senior was knocked up (though none of them have mentioned it up until now) – the shock of the whole situation sends her into pre-term labour, and she dies not long after the shorty drops.

This, in turn, makes Heathcliff even more mental (losing his true-love-slash-adopted-sister and all), so Mr Snooty’s sister leaves him… but it turns out she was knocked up as well (gasp!). She runs away to the country to have the kid and eat a lot of peaches… then the story jumps ahead 13 years, and she dies too. I’m serious! I’m not making this up, I swear.

Cathy Junior (yes, Brontë named both characters Cathy, it’s crazy) is a mad little scamp; she thinks her cousins are living far, far away… but it turns out they’re living up the road with Heathcliff, and when she finds out she gets proper pissed off. She becomes secret pen pals with Heathcliff’s son and they trade notes via the milkman for a few days, until they decide they’ve fallen in love. (It kind of seems like deciding you want to marry the guy you’ve been messaging on Tinder for a few days… only that guy is your cousin and living with your mother’s ex-lover and it’s all really fucked up!)

He's Your Cousin - Mean Girls - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Heathcliff isn’t at all bothered by the incest, and approves of the match. He’s so determined that Cathy Junior should marry his son that he takes her hostage, knocks her around a bit, and tells her that he won’t release her to see her dying dad until she’s got a ring on it. The whole thing is a study in Stockholm syndrome and domestic violence, and by all rights I should have been shocked and confronted… but I was so confused and bored by their dramatics that it passed by me with barely an eyebrow raised.

To skip ahead to the end (which I’m sure we’re all eager to do by this point): Heathcliff dies and the implication seems to be that he and Cathy Senior go on to have a rollicking good time in the afterlife, haunting the moors and so forth. Cathy Junior outlives her cousin-husband, and eventually falls in love with her other cousin (even though he’s really stupid). They… live happily ever after? I guess?


The thing is, while I was reading Wuthering Heights, I was having a pretty tough time personally – putting on pants in the morning was about all I could manage, let alone immersing myself in Brontë’s madness. I’ll definitely read this book again, not because the first time was so good, but because I could not possibly have got everything out of Wuthering Heights that it has to offer, when so much of my brain space was occupied with other things. Ergo, at this point, I can really only recommend it to someone who’s got the emotional and mental stability to enjoy it properly.

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

My favourite Amazon reviews of Wuthering Heights:

  • “This book wasn’t particularly good and it wasn’t particularly bad. I don’t really like this style but I’m reading the classics so that I can say that I did.” – the1cuttiepoo
  • “Classic Victorian plot of everyone being too proud to be happy.” – Jamie K Devine
  • “A serious and depressing masterpiece where Heathcliff is an evil jerk and everyone dies….” – David Allen Patterson

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The Pilgrim’s Progress – John Bunyan

After I finished Little Women, I couldn’t help but pick up John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress. It was Louisa May Alcott’s father’s favourite book; he would read it aloud to his children, and encourage them to act it out, so it’s no surprise that she referenced it a lot in her work. Plus, its influence is clear in literature generally: most notably, William Thackeray’s Vanity Fair is named for one of its settings. It also crops up in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, The Scarlet Letter, Jane Eyre, The Grapes of Wrath, and a bunch of others. The Pilgrim’s Progress is one of the most significant works of English literature, widely billed as being the first English novel. It has been translated into over 200 languages, and it has never been out of print. So, are you convinced? I am!

The book’s full name is The Pilgrim’s Progress from This World, to That Which Is To Come. Bunyan began work on it while he was in the pokey; he was imprisoned for violating the Conventicle Act, which forbade people from gathering for religious services outside the Church of England in the 17th century. Bunyan, of course, did not give a shit, and he got busted preaching in a field. The first edition was published in 1678, while he was still locked up, and then the expanded edition came out after he was freed, in 1679. All up, there were twelve editions published in his lifetime, each with new revisions. This version, the Penguin English Library Edition, reproduces the original as closely as possible, with just a few slight tweaks to spelling and punctuation for the comfort of the contemporary reader.

It reads like a part-poem, part-play, part-story. The narrator recounts a dream that he had in jail about a pilgrim – Christian – who abandons his wife and children to hike to Heaven. Well, as best I can tell, he read the Bible and he freaked the fuck out (don’t all good pilgrimage stories start that way?). He is weighed down by a “great burden” (the knowledge of his “sin”), and he convinces himself he’ll sink on down to Hell if he doesn’t get his shit together – so off he goes!

Then there’s a second part about his wife and children following him, which I thought was kind of nice. If only all authors had dedicated sequels to the forgotten wife!



Bunyan’s allegorical tale, the academics say, stands out above his predecessors because his language was simple and straightforward, making it easier for the everyman to understand. To put it more simply, it’s The Divine Comedy for dummies: Dante’s work, and the similarities between them, are so obvious it’s like a brick hitting you over the head. Bunyan’s prose is a lot simpler to be sure, but in my mind Inferno is still the clear winner – if nothing else, it’s a lot more exciting. Plus, The Pilgrim’s Progress just isn’t very funny! The only laughs I got were from things that probably weren’t meant to be funny, like:

“She is a bold and impudent slut; she will talk with any man.”

Talk! Imagine! What a strumpet!

There are no chapters in this edition (or any other, as far as I can tell), which is annoying – it’s just one big block of text. Normally, I use those pauses in the narrative to scribble down my notes, and think over what I’ve just read. Putting the book down to do all that, without a chapter break, feels like interrupting someone in the middle of a monologue. I suppose it’s forgivable, being that it was the first English language novel in history and no one had told Bunyan about chapters and all, but still… ugh.

At least it doesn’t require much background knowledge of religion. And all of the characters have helpfully-descriptive names like “Faithful” and “Talkative” – makes it pretty easy to keep them all straight. And Bunyan wasn’t entirely without humour in this regard; he was a Protestant, and not all that fussed with the Catholic Church, so he named the decrepit and harmless giant character “Pope”. Ha!


It’s impossible to deny Bunyan’s impact on English literature, and the respect afforded to him as a result of that. No one dares hanging any shit on him for using the “it was all a dream” trope – I mean, he’s probably the reason that trope exists to begin with! That said, I would only recommend The Pilgrim’s Progress to people who read the footnotes. You need to have a deep abiding curiosity about the tradition of literature, and/or God, to get much of it. If that doesn’t sound like you, give Dante’s Inferno a go instead, or skip the centuries-old religious allegories altogether.


My favourite Amazon reviews of The Pilgrim’s Progress:

  • “Strange print style… great literature thouh. But the way it’s presented on paper is like a kids big coloring book. It’s like a picture book, but they forgot to add the pictures.” – orson orson
  • “The quality of the book exceeded my expectations.” Patricia M Nulf
  • “This book is about as far away from biblical salvation as you can be. The main character had to work for his salvation which is not what the bible teaches. John 6:47, Romans 4:5, Eph 2:8-9If you wish to confuse someone and see your friend or relative in hell, get them this book.” – Dave Nesbitt
  • “Tedious” – Amazon Customer9
  • “Like the names of the people.” – Amazon Customer
  • “this book has you lookin at your faith” – Debra Carroll
  • “This was a gift for my husband. I have not heard comments from him.” – SLC

 

How To Read More Outside Your Comfort Zone

This month, we are getting our butts in gear and reading more – actually reading more, not just resolving to do it because it’s a new year. You can check out part one of my How To Read More series here: it has a bunch of excuse-busting advice on everything, from making time to read to making it more affordable. This week, we’ll focus on something we all need from time to time: how to read more outside your comfort zone. More specifically, how to get out of the rut of your favourite genre, or time period, or author, or subject, or format. Given that the whole Keeping Up With The Penguins project was created in service of this goal, I think I’m in a pretty good position to give you some hot tips. So, here we go!

How To Read More Outside Your Comfort Zone - Keeping Up With The Penguins

“But why do I have to get out of my reading comfort zone? It’s comfortable!”

There’s nothing wrong with having a favourite or preferred genre. I’m sure you also have a favourite food, and a favourite colour, and a favourite item of clothing. But if you eat nothing but hamburgers and paint your whole house pink and wear that one pair of jeans every single damn day… well, you’re going to end up malnourished and smelly in a house that looks like a unicorn fart. The same goes for reading.

Reading is the easiest (and cheapest) way to expand your world. You can travel to any geography, and any time period, without leaving that comfortable butt-groove on your couch. It forces you to walk in the shoes of people from different religions and cultural backgrounds, people who grew up without your privileges, people facing challenges you can’t even imagine, and people so unfamiliar to you they may as well be from a different planet (indeed, sometimes they are). Think of sampling new genres like you would trying a new cuisine, or painting your house a new colour, or buying a new pair of jeans. Sometimes change feels good, doesn’t it?

“But other genres are for losers!”

Admit it: there’s a tiny part of you that thinks romance novels are for saps, or sci-fi books are for nerds, or fiction books are for hippies. That’s okay! The stink of literary elitism sticks to all of us, even when we try our darnedest to get away from it. Somewhere along the way, some of it inevitably seeps in. The “literary fiction versus commercial fiction” divide is the classic example, and it’s been around since Gutenberg. (And there’s a great discussion of book snobbery from Girl With Her Head in a book here.)

I’ll make a confession here: I’m not perfect (*gasps from crowd*), and I’ve fallen into this trap a time or two myself. Poetry books are for people smarter than me, I thought. Romance books are for old women with no excitement in their lives. Young Adult novels are for people who never grew up. But guess what: the best thing about starting Keeping Up With The Penguins is that it forced me to overcome all of those prejudices and it levelled out my reading-playing field.

It turns out, I am smart enough to read and understand The Divine Comedy. The Dressmaker, which I thought was going to be a light rom-com best suited to ladies who would save their Singer sewing machine in a house fire, actually turned out to be a really gothic Australian story with a really twisted ending. There’s a lot of value to be found in The Book Thief, and The Hunger Games, and We Were Liars, even if you’re a decade older than the target market.

So, get off your high horse, like I had to, and you’ll be surprised what you find.

“But I won’t enjoy reading different genres, I know I won’t!”

You will.

Seriously, stop fighting me on this! Look what happened to me when I read Portnoy’s Complaint: I was very sure that there was no way a self-indulgent monologue from a privileged straight man in 20th century America could tickle my fancy. It was totally outside of my usual tastes, and I just knew I would find it annoying and frustrating and boring… except that I ended up laughing out loud dozens of times, and chewed through the book at the speed of light. It might be “off brand” for me, it might be problematic in a number of ways, but damn it: I had fun.

That’s the thing about having fun while reading: it sneaks up on you when you least expect. And, to be honest, if you’re a voracious enough reader to have a strong feeling about your favourite genre (or author, or time period, or whatever), you can stomach a book or two that doesn’t have you leaping for joy. It won’t kill you to suffer through a tome that you don’t love now and then. This is advice specifically for people who love to read one particular type of thing: if you’re struggling to read anything at all, by all means stick with your favourites until you’re back in your reading groove. But everyone else: stay with me!

Step One: Read A Book Recommended By A Friend Or Loved One

We’ve all got one: a book that a cousin or co-worker has been bugging us to read. We put them off because it just doesn’t sound like our kind of thing. We try to be polite about it, but we come up with every excuse under the sun: I’m not reading much right now, I’m in the middle of a series, my to-be-read pile is huge…

Well, stop it.

Give it a go! They’ll probably even loan you their copy, if you’re reluctant to shell out on one of you rown. The pressure of someone knowing that you’re reading their special favourite, and the risk of them asking you how its going, will be enough to push you out of your comfort zone and into a brand new book world.

Proof, meet pudding: this is actually how I discovered Harry Potter. A friend of mine from school had read it and loved it, and one night I was sleeping over at her house and she forced it into my hands. The rest is history!

Bonus tip: If you’re competitive (or really desperate), introduce a quid pro quo: tell them you’ll read their special favourite if they’ll read yours.

Step Two: Read A Book That Crosses Genre Boundaries

Let’s be real: there aren’t many books published nowadays that fit neatly into one genre or another. In fact, a lot of them end up in the miscellaneous grab-bag of “literary fiction”, which is applied so widely as to be pretty much meaningless. So, make like a mother that blends spinach into a kid’s hamburgers. Find a book that crosses a new genre with something that’s familiar to you.

If you’re normally a romance reader, try reading a sci-fi book with a love story. If you’re a true-crime junkie, look into detective classics like The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes. Think of it as a half-way bet: you don’t need to jump completely in the deep end, but you’re dipping your toe in the shallows outside your comfort zone.

My real-life example: I’m not really a fantasy reader. I usually find it too hard to keep track of eight hundred different characters spread across four different made-up countries, especially because they all usually have practically the same unpronounceable name… but I am a politics junkie. So, A Game of Thrones was perfect for me! It has all of the political intrigue, plus the fantasy elements to keep it fresh.

If nothing else, undertaking this exercise will give you a better understanding of what it is specifically that you enjoy in books, and that will open you up to new and different books that feature those elements.

Step Three: Try Alternating Books You Read

It’s not rocket surgery: for every one of your preferred genre that you read, you have to read something different.

This strategy is super-easy for people who fall firmly into either the Fiction or Non-Fiction camp. If you normally read all fiction, think about the subject of your last fictional read (WWII France, a dystopian future, whatever) and find a non-fiction book on that topic. This works in reverse, too – if you just read Wild, try reading The Call Of The Wild or another adventurous fiction story, for example.

If you need a little more inspiration, you could try joining a Goodreads challenge, or hooking up with a group that are doing some kind of book bingo (I love fellow book blogger Theresa Smith Writes for these!). There are also a bunch of book challenges and book checklists that you can “tick off” (virtually, or literally) over on Pinterest.

Step Four: Focus on Authors, Instead of Genres

If you can’t quite bring yourself to peruse the Romance section, or wade through a sea of sci-fi/fantasy novels, you could try finding new authors that interest you instead. Commit to reading their books regardless of the subject or format.

Try searching for popular authors from a country that you’ve never read (bonus points if their books are in translation, like Elena Ferrante), or authors who are experts in a field that interests you (like Lisa Genova, the neuroscientist who wrote the best-seller Still Alice). This trick will work for almost any author that comes from a different walk of life to you, and it has the bonus side-effect of prompting you to read more diversely too!

More Quick Tips for Reading Outside Your Comfort Zone

  • If you’re not normally a biography/autobiography reader, try finding one written by or about someone you admire. That way, you get outside your comfort zone without feeling like you are (which is the best way to do it sometimes).
  • Take a look at the New and Noteworthy section of your local library, or independent bookstore – heck, you can even try the Amazon homepage. This is where you’ll often find debut novels from first-time authors, and other books that have a bit of a “buzz” about them.
  • Read a book about a place you’re going, or a place you’ve been. Nothing will get you excited for your upcoming trip to Spain more than a book set there, or nostalgic for your time road-tripping the U.S. than a book about those travels.
  • Find a book set in a time period you’ve never read before. Whether it’s 300 years ago or 300 years into the future, it’ll force you to look beyond your current bookshelf and further afield.
  • Look for a list of authors that inspired your favourites. You’d think this wouldn’t help at all, but you’ll be surprised! J.K. Rowling has said she is inspired by Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, and Louisa May Alcott. Roxane Gay reaches for Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence when she needs inspiration. Ernest Hemingway loved Emily Brontë (among others). As you can see, this is a deep well!
  • If you really want to shake things up, force yourself to look outside your usual format, too! This move ain’t for beginners, but it’s damn effective. If you normally read novels, try picking up a play or a poetry collection. If you prefer short stories, give a graphic novel a go. This is probably the trickiest way to go about getting out of your reading comfort zone, because it can take you a little while to adjust, but if you stick with it you’ll reap a lot of benefits (and probably discover a few new favourites!).


In the end, there’s nothing wrong with having a favourite genre (or author, or time period, or whatever). If what you’ve got is working for you, by all means stick to it… but if, for whatever reason, you’re curious about broadening your horizons, give any one of these tips a go and see where it gets you (spoiler alert: it’ll be somewhere good!). Have you tried stepping outside of your reading comfort zone lately? Have any of these tips worked for you in the past? Let me know in the comments (or tell us over at KUWTP on Facebook!).

Check out the next installment of this series – How To Read More Diversely – here.

Year In Review: Keeping Up With The Penguins Recommended Reads

With the year drawing to a close, I figured I should go ahead and do the traditional book blogger Year In Review post. In 2018, I reviewed 46 books across over two dozen genres and categories, with publication dates stretching over seven centuries. I’ve read Victorian classics, contemporary best sellers, religious allegorical poetry, true crime narratives, non-fiction popular science, 20th century award winners, and everything in between. And, believe it or not, I’m not even half-way through The List! So there’s plenty more good stuff to come in 2019, folks, trust me 😉

I set the bar for my Recommended reads pretty damn high. Higher than Oprah’s Book Club. Higher than Reese’s Hello Sunshine. Higher than your bookstore’s best seller shelf. My minimum criterion is the question: “Is this a book I would recommend to absolutely anyone, even if I know nothing about their reading tastes?”. And, so far, only nine books have made the cut. Here they are: the Keeping Up With The Penguins Recommended Reads of 2018.

Year In Review - Recommended Reads - David Copperfield, In Cold Blood, Jane Eyre, To Kill A Mockingbird, and more - Keeping Up With The Penguins

David Copperfield – Charles Dickens

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

Dickens once said that David Copperfield was his “favourite child”, and I can see why. It’s a sprawling biographical novel following the Cindarella-esque rise of David, a forlorn child who grows through hardship to achieve his dreams. I strongly recommend David Copperfield to anyone who likes… books. (And, even if you don’t, I hear the audio-book version is fantastic, so you should give that a go.) Read my full review of David Copperfield.

In Cold Blood – Truman Capote

In Cold Blood - Truman Capote - Keeping Up With The Penguins

In 1959, Truman Capote read a piddly little piece in The New Yorker about the murder of a well-liked Kansas family. Over half a century later, here I am: recommending his novelistic true-crime book to anyone who will listen. Capote takes a few liberties with the truth in In Cold Blood, sure, so it’s no fun if you’re a kill-joy and you take it all too seriously… but you should read it, nonetheless. I’ll definitely read this chilling, but enthralling(!), book again. Read my full review of In Cold Blood.

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves – Karen Joy Fowler

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

This is literally the most under-rated, overlooked recommended read that I’ve encountered thus far. I really drank the Kool-Aid with this one – I started recommending We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves to people I barely know, before I’d even finished it! But it is crucial that you don’t read my review before you read the book in full for yourself. You’ll kick yourself later if you spoil the “shocking plot twist”!

A Short History Of Nearly Everything – Bill Bryson

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

A Short History Of Nearly Everything is perfect for anyone who finds themselves in desperate need of a few fun facts that can be delivered smugly, perhaps over a water cooler or during knock-off bears. Sure, some of the science is a little outdated, but I think we can forgive Bryson for calling Pluto a planet over a decade ago. This book is accessible, engaging, and I can guarantee it’s the most fun you’ll ever have reading about science. Read my full review of A Short History of Nearly Everything.

Jane Eyre – Charlotte Brontë

Jane Eyre - Charlotte Bronte - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Jane Eyre was the first book from The List to truly take my breath away. It is an amazing exposition of the patriarchal and class constraints of the 19th century, as experienced by a clever, funny woman who was way beyond her years. The hot romance will make you feel like a bad feminist, but just go with it – Jane Eyre is absolutely teeming with redeeming qualities, and a highly recommended read here at Keeping Up With The Penguins. Read my full review of Jane Eyre.

The Adventures Of Sherlock Holmes – Arthur Conan Doyle

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

Doyle once said that The Adventures of the Speckled Band, from this very collection, was his favourite Sherlock Holmes story. I, personally, couldn’t narrow it down to just one! I loved A Scandal In Bohemia (featuring the enigmatic Irene Adler), The Red-Headed League, and The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle. Ultimately, though, the entire collection is highly readable, endlessly entertaining, and will definitely leave you wanting more. Read my full review of The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes.

To Kill A Mockingbird – Harper Lee

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

It might be cliche to cite this as one of your favourite books of all time… but I don’t give a damn. I wholeheartedly recommend To Kill A Mockingbird. Read it out of curiosity. Read it for the cultural capital. Read it for the nostalgic kicks. Read it for the questions it raises. Read it for its timeliness and resonance. Whatever your reason, just read it! It is accessible, appropriate, and engaging for all readers – of any age – anywhere in the world. Read my full review of To Kill A Mockingbird.

My Brilliant Friend – Elena Ferrante

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

More than any other contemporary read for Keeping Up With The Penguins, Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend lives up to the hype. In fact, it exceeds it! I’ve recommended it to every single person I’ve encountered since I turned the final page (even if they didn’t ask). My recommendation goes double – triple! – if you enjoyed Looking for Alibrandi as a teenager. I am very sure that in fifty years, we will consider My Brilliant Friend a classic of our time, the same way we think of Austen or the Brontës today. Get in early, and read it! Right now! Read my full review of My Brilliant Friend.

Crime and Punishment – Fyodor Dostoyevsky

Crime and Punishment - Fyodor Dostoyevsky - Book Laid On Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

This is definitely the most unexpected Recommended read here at Keeping Up With The Penguins. I went in expecting a really dense and heavy read, a real slog to get through… and found, instead, a hilarious, engaging, and relatable (!) story that has stuck with me ever since. I strongly recommend getting your hands on this edition, the David McDuff translation published by Penguin Classics. There have been at least a dozen other translations published since Dostoyevsky’s death, but I can’t vouch for any of those – the art of translation can really make or break your enjoyment of a book. I’m so glad I bit the bullet and gave Crime and Punishment a go; if you keep an open mind, I’m sure you’ll ultimately feel the same! Read my full review of Crime and Punishment.

What are your top recommended reads of 2018? Make sure you submit them for consideration in the compilation of The Next List! (Or you can share them over at KUWTP on Facebook!).

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

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

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

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

The Great Gatsby – F. Scott Fitzgerald

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

Read my full review of The Great Gatsby here.

A Clockwork Orange – Anthony Burgess

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

Read my full review of A Clockwork Orange here.

Wild – Cheryl Strayed

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

Read my full review of Wild here.

Wuthering Heights – Emily Brontë

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

Read my full review of Wuthering Heights here.

The Scarlet Letter – Nathaniel Hawthorne

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

Read my full review of The Scarlet Letter here.

As I Lay Dying – William Faulkner

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

Read my full review of As I Lay Dying here.

The Girl On The Train – Paula Hawkins

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

Read my full review of The Girl On The Train here.

The Divine Comedy – Dante Alighieri

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

Read my full review of The Divine Comedy here.

The Sun Also Rises – Ernest Hemingway

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

Read my full review of The Sun Also Rises here.

American Sniper – Chris Kyle

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

Read my full review of American Sniper here.

Paper Towns – John Green

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

Read my full review of Paper Towns here.

The Turn Of The Screw – Henry James

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

Read my full review of The Turn Of The Screw here.

The Picture of Dorian Gray – Oscar Wilde

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

Read my full review of The Picture Of Dorian Gray here.

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

My Brilliant Friend – Elena Ferrante

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

and that’s where it ends!




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

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

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


My favourite Amazon reviews of My Brilliant Friend:

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

 

The Turn Of The Screw – Henry James

Henry James could never be accused of being concise. The Turn Of The Screw is what he called a “tale” – a fictional story with a single plot, too long to be a “short story” (today we call them novellas). In addition to these “tales”, he wrote plays, criticisms, autobiography, travel stories, and some twenty novels (including The Golden Bowl, also on The List). Wordy bastard.

James got ample validation in his time: magazine publishers went gaga for tales towards the end of the 19th century. They were the perfect length to publish in serialised form – not so long that readers would lose interest, but long enough that you could guarantee that sales of the magazine would peak for at least a few weeks (cha-ching!). The Turn Of The Screw was one such story; it appeared in Collier’s Weekly magazine between January and April 1898. It was later published as a stand-alone book, and then eventually revised for what is now called the New York edition (where James made substantial changes, including the ages of central characters). As much as James could really drone on, The Turn Of The Screw is (ironically) the shortest work on the list (the next shortest is Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde) – it’s so short that it’s usually published now in combination with another of his works, The Aspen Papers (as is my edition).

James loved ghost stories – and he wrote quite a few – but he was bored by the tropes of the genre. He preferred stories that, as he put it, “embroidered the strange and sinister onto the very type of the normal and easy”. Or, to put it in words that an actual human would use, he liked it better when the “ghosts” could easily be tricks of the mind, or something equally normal in day-to-day life, but the reader is left wondering… what if?

He certainly stuck to that formula with The Turn Of The Screw. It’s kind of a story-within-a-story – an unnamed narrator listens to a friend read a manuscript, apparently written by some long-dead former governess. The governess was hired to look after two young orphans, their surviving uncle having no interest in raising them himself. The eldest, a boy, had been expelled from boarding school, and the governess is scared to ask why – so she sets about taking care of the children and educating them without seeking any additional information, while the uncle goes off cavorting and demands he be kept out of it.

The governess worries that she’s going crazy, because she starts seeing mysterious figures (a man and a woman) that no one else can see – never a good sign, eh? They come and go, in a way that seems – to the governess – very ghosty. She then learns that the previous governess and her secret lover are both dead, and deduces that they are now (obviously) haunting the children.

What is it about young children that makes any story instantly more creepy? The kids seem to know the ghosts, but they won’t give the governess a straight answer when she asks about them. The youngest (a girl) gets so upset by the governess’ incessant questioning that she demands to be taken away and never see the governess again. It seems like a bit of an overreaction to me, but kids aren’t known to be reasonable. Then, later that night, the governess discovers the reason for the young boy’s expulsion – he was “saying things” (old-timey schools were very harsh, it would seem). As they’re having a heart-to-heart about it, the male ghost appears, and the governess tries to shield the young boy… only to look down and find that the kid has died! When she looks up, the ghost has gone. WTAF?!

It’s a simple enough story (there’s no sub-plots, nothing else going on, it’s all very straight-forward), but James’s meandering prose makes it seem a lot more complicated. Even though it’s short, it’s a really dense read, and it took me forever to get through it. At first, I thought I was struggling because I’d picked it up in the midst of a really intense wine hangover, but the more I read the more confident I became that the fault lay with James and his inability to coherently articulate a thought.

“I could only get on at all… by treating my monstrous ordeal as a push in a direction usual, of course, and unpleasant, but demanding, after all, for a fair front, only another turn of the screw of ordinary human virtue.”

One of James’s more readable passages, from Chapter 22

As far as literary critique goes, the central question seems to be: are the ghosts real, or is the governess just bonkers? On the one hand, the story alludes to Jane Eyre and the governess can be likened to both the character of Jane and the character of Bertha (the mad wife that Rochester locked in the attic). This would seem to indicate that she is, in fact, nuts. On the other hand, nothing that James writes actually confirms this, and what fun is a ghost story if it was all a delusion in the end? In the end, all critics pretty much fall into one of three camps:

1) The governess was crazy;

2) The governess was not crazy, and ghosts are real; or

3) Trying to work it all out is stupid, it defeats the purpose and ignores the masterful way that James created ambiguity in his storytelling.

Which camp am I in? Well, to be honest, I’m not sure I really care enough to pitch a tent in any of them. Perhaps I lean towards the third camp, because I think that anyone who claims to have “the answer” is full of themselves, but I also think that the idea of a “crazy” governess makes for a much more interesting story. More than anything, I think that James would be grossly pleased with himself if he knew that we were all still arguing the point, well over a century after publication. The only way to really “figure it out” is to read it for yourself and decide on your own.

My tl;dr summary of The Turn Of The Screw would be this: a governess goes bonkers and starts seeing ghosts (that may or may not be real), kind of like an old-timey Sixth Sense, but told in the wordiest-possible way.

P.S. I figured, while I was at it, I’d go ahead and read The Golden Bowl next… and my review is up now!

My favourite Amazon reviews of The Turn Of The Screw:

  • “This book was supposed to be a horror/mystery/thriller type story and I saw nothing scary about it. What I did see was two maids who couldn’t keep from gossiping and making up tales with absolutely nothing to give them credence.” – Paula
  • “There are no more commas left in the world for anyone else because Henry James USED THEM ALL.” – BarbMama
  • “It is SO boring. Takes pages and pages to get to the point which is about some woman with an overactive imagination. Had to stop reading it (very rare for me).” – Meandering
  • “…. I would highly recommend this book to anyone who liked WUTHERING HEIGHTS, which belongs in the same genre and in the same rubbish bin….” – Richard Niichel

The Best Fathers in Literature

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

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

Bob Cratchit (A Christmas Carol – Charles Dickens)

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

Hans Hubermann (The Book Thief – Markus Zusak)

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

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

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

Mr Bennet (Pride and Prejudice – Jane Austen)

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

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

Atticus Finch (To Kill A Mockingbird – Harper Lee)

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

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

And you can read my complete love letter to Atticus Finch here (yes, believe it or not, I’ve got more to say).

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

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