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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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If all you knew about Wuthering Heights before you read this review was drawn from the Kate Bush song, don’t worry – you’re not alone! Check out more songs inspired by classic literature here.

10 Books To Help You Sort Out Your Mess Of A Life

Self-help books are a $10 billion industry. Yep, you read that right: $10 billion. Personally, I don’t read a lot of them (I’m just too cynical, and that much eye-rolling makes me tired), but I wouldn’t begrudge anyone else a little comfort, or motivation, or whatever else they get out of them. Obviously, I’m in the minority, because that $10 billion doesn’t come from nowhere! I have occasion to wonder, though, whether some of these personal improvers have ever tried turning to other types of books for help.  There are very important lessons buried in the pages of the classics, best-sellers, even pop-science books – after all, storytelling traditions (which began with fiction) have given us the entire accumulation of human wisdom. So, before you pick up the latest manual from a self-help guru, maybe try checking out one of these ten books to help you sort out your mess of a life. (I’ve even highlighted what I consider to be the key lesson from each one, to make the selection process as easy as possible…)

10 Books To Help You Sort Out Your Mess Of A Life - Text Overlaid on Image of Hand Reaching Out of Dark Water - Keeping Up With The Penguins

The Alchemist – Paulo Coelho

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Paulo Coelho’s famous allegorical tale is as close to a self-help/fiction hybrid as you can get. The Alchemist follows the story of an Andalusian shepherd as he pursues his dreams of finding buried treasure beneath the Egyptian pyramids. It’s a quick read, almost like a fairytale, and hippies the world over swear by it for teaching the power of manifestation and the path to true happiness. Read my full review here.

Key Lesson: Sometimes the universe conspires to give you exactly what you need, as our Andalusian shepherd finds time and time again. But you should also learn from his mistakes: sometimes you search the world over to find what’s waiting for you at home.

The Age of Innocence – Edith Wharton

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You might not think it, but you can learn a lot from the self-involved social climbers of late 19th century New York. If you look closely, you’ll find Edith Wharton’s beautifully intricate book The Age Of Innocence is all about conformity, lost opportunity, and self-determination. The protagonist, Newland Archer, is so caught up in doing what is expected of him and saving face that he misses his chance to be truly happy. Even worse, when he gets a second chance later in life, he misses it, because he’s a big ol’ chicken. Read my full review here.

Key Lesson: Martyrdom gets you nowhere. You might think you’re winning the war by keeping everybody else happy, but you’re kidding yourself. Don’t be such a fraidy-cat!

The Rosie Project – Graeme Simsion

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

I’m not sure that the key lessons of The Rosie Project come so much from its story as it does the way that Graeme Simsion tells it. He’s able to show very deftly, through characterisation and dialogue, how terrible humans are at correctly attributing the behaviours and decisions of others, and ourselves. Even if you don’t want to look at it that deeply, it’s a fun quirky story about finding love, even where you’re not expecting it. Read my full review here.

Key Lesson: Try looking at yourself from someone else’s perspective once in a while, and give other people the benefit of the doubt.

The Dressmaker – Rosalie Ham

The Dressmaker - Rosalie Ham - book laid on a wooden table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Another Australian bestseller, with another important life lesson for you: The Dressmaker is a dark, gothic story of a young woman’s return to the town and the townspeople that have haunted her all her life. Come for the fun fashion tips and the Aussie vernacular, stay for the cautionary tale about dealing with trauma and moving on with your life. Read my full review here.

Key Lesson: Revenge may taste good, but it’s destructive as hell, and the people who have loved and supported you will get caught in the crossfire. Focus on living well for yourself, and you’ll be surprised what you can move past.

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

The One Hundred Year Old Man Who Climbed Out The Window And Disappeared - Jonas Jonasson - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Even if it turns out that The One-Hundred-Year Old Man Who Climbed Out The Window And Disappeared doesn’t help you sort out your mess of a life, I can guarantee it will at least give you a few belly laughs, and that can’t hurt! Allan Karlsson’s century of adventures takes him all over the world, he rubs shoulders with world leaders and household names, and he always manages to squeeze his way out of tight spots with a little help from his friends.

Key Lesson: Never burn a bridge – you never know when you might need to cross it again. You’ll be surprised what political differences can be overcome when you share a few laughs and a bottle of vodka.

The Brain That Changes Itself – Norman Doidge

The Brain That Changes Itself - Norman Doidge - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

The Brain That Changes Itself is actually laid out quite similarly to a self-help book, and reads a lot like one, even though it’s focused on the science underpinning neuroplasticity. It’s not perfect – Doidge has a few puritanical hang-ups, and ignores a number of ethical dilemmas when it comes to animal testing – but he still has plenty to teach you about how your brain works, and how to use its capacity for change to your advantage. Read my full review here.

Key Lesson: Your brain isn’t set in stone. There are ways to tweak your wiring, so you can function better and lead a happier life. It’s all within your reach, even without a neurology degree or an endless supply of pharmaceuticals.

The Husband’s Secret – Liane Moriarty

The Husband's Secret - Liane Moriarty - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Liane Moriarty is renowned for her ability to write complex, charming stories with seemingly impossible internal struggles, and The Husband’s Secret is no exception. A woman finds a note, written in her husband’s hand, and the envelope says she should only open it in the event of his death. What’s a girl to do?

Key Lesson: Pandora was right to open the damn box. Don’t let your secrets fester; they’ll infect your entire life, and it will all come out in the end, no matter how clever you think you are.

The Happiest Refugee – Anh Do

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

Anh Do is a study in overcoming adversity. His memoir, The Happiest Refugee, tells the story of his family’s harrowing escape from post-war Vietnam, and his life in Australia. He’s a comedian, yes, but the book isn’t all quick quips and punchlines; in parts, he’s heartbreakingly honest about times of anger, resentment, and loss. Read my full review here.

Key Lesson: Anh lays it out for you, pure and simple – work hard, smile, and show up at the right time.

Wild – Cheryl Strayed

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Before I picked up Wild, I’d pictured Cheryl Strayed as a bored mid-30s housewife who packed in her perfect life to “find herself”. And I was very, very wrong. When she undertook her solo hike along the Pacific Crest Trail, she was in her 20s, recovering from heroin addiction, had barely a dollar to her name, and she was still grieving the sudden loss of her young mother. Her memoir has lots of gory details about the trials and tribulations of her time on the trail, and it’ll touch you in ways you don’t expect. Read my full review here.

Key Lesson: You can persist through just about anything (seriously, if Cheryl Strayed can hike hundreds of miles while blistering and bleeding in too-small boots, you can sort out your mess of a life). Also, hiking is not the same as walking, don’t kid yourself.

Crime And Punishment – Fyodor Dostoyevsky

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

This suggestion might seem like it’s coming out of left field, but stay with me: Crime And Punishment is more relatable than you’d expect. Raskolnikov makes a whole lotta bad choices, even though he started out with great intentions, and he’s crippled by anxiety and paranoia – who among us can’t relate to that, just a little? Read my full review here.

Key Lesson: Chances are, you’re getting in your own way. Focusing on your worries and fears will probably be what makes them a reality. Also, don’t be an axe murderer. Even if you have really good reasons, just… don’t.


Honourable mentions go to Jane Eyre and The Picture of Dorian Gray, both of which taught us whatever you hide in the attic will eventually come to bite you in the arse. What important lessons have you learned from classic books and best-sellers? Tell me in the comments (or share with us all over at KUWTP on Facebook!).

7 Literary Heroes Who Are Actually Garbage People

Have you every really thought hard about some of our literary heroes? When you look closely at their behaviour, they’re often not the loveable salt-of-the-earth types we like to think they are. I’ve written before about unlikeable narrators, but I don’t think that being “unlikeable” necessarily makes you a garbage person, nor does being a garbage person ipso facto make you “unlikeable”. In fact, some of the ones I include on this list are downright endearing and charming. I’m very aware that this post might be controversial as fuck, because our literary heroes are beloved by readers and coded well by authors to hide their true colours – but when has that ever stopped me? Let’s take off the rose-coloured glasses, people! Here are seven literary “heroes” who are actually garbage people.

7 Literary Heroes Who Are Actually Garbage People - Text Overlaid on Image of Superhero Wall Mural - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Toad (The Wind In The Willows – Kenneth Grahame)

The Wind In The Willows - Kenneth Grahame - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Toad is a jovial kind of guy, great fun to have at a party, but damn! In the real world, he’d be Elon Musk. He loves his friends, and they do the best they can to help him, but it’s all to no avail: he’s too stubborn and arrogant to listen to them. There’s also the little matter of Toad’s grand theft auto. By the end of The Wind In The Willows, he’s an escaped felon, and he cons his friends to harbour him – a fugitive! – making them criminals as well. Worst of all, he never faces any consequences for his actions. Garbage behaviour all-round from this lovable rogue…

Tom Sawyer (The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn – Mark Twain)

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn - Mark Twain - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Tom’s only an adolescent in Mark Twain’s adventure stories, but he’s well on his way to becoming a career criminal – possibly even a charismatic cult leader. He’s so caught up in his youthful folly, inspired by the adventure stories he’s read himself, that he can’t see past the end of his nose in the real world. Huck Finn would’ve done just fine rescuing Jim, the runaway slave, if Tom hadn’t tripped him up every step of the way trying to make things “proper”. Plus, he’s a fuckboy of the first order.

Mr Rochester (Jane Eyre – Charlotte Brontë)

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Look, even I (of the cold dead heart) get sucked in to the love story of Jane Eyre, so I don’t begrudge anyone getting a little twinkle in their eye when they read about the “dark, strong, and stern” Mr Rochester. But we have to face facts, Keeper-Upperers: he literally locked his goddamn wife in the motherfucking attic. I don’t care that he was “tricked” into marrying her; he needs to take some stinkin’ responsibility. Not to mention he negged Jane at every opportunity and basically only made himself emotionally available to her when his life fell apart and he needed her to put it back together. Boo!

Heathcliff (Wuthering Heights – Emily Brontë)

Wuthering Heights - Emily Bronte - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Speaking of the Brontës: Heathcliff is the quintessential literary hero who was actually a garbage person. I know he had a rough trot being orphaned and everything, but heck! So did Cinderella, and she made herself useful, cleaning the house and caring for animals and stuff, instead of getting all butt-hurt about the girl next door marrying someone else and ruining everyone’s lives in revenge. Look at the plot of Wuthering Heights: the whole thing is basically Heathcliff’s fault! He’s an abusive a-hole, he screwed up his family for generations, and – not satisfied with that! – he continues to freak people out after he shuffles off the mortal coil, joining Cathy in a moor-haunting creepy ghost double-act.

Everyone (Vanity Fair – William Makepeace Thackeray)

Vanity Fair - William Makepeace Thackeray - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Fine, this one is kind of a gimme: Thackeray literally called Vanity Fair “the novel without a hero”, but they were all just so garbage I couldn’t help but include them. George Osbourne, for starters, was so up-himself he couldn’t touch his toes, and he had to be talked into marrying Amelia after her family went bankrupt. He went through with the wedding, because “honour” (what a guy!), but just kept shagging her friends on the side until he got himself killed at war. Next up, there was William Dobbin, who sulked for years about Amelia’s shitty taste in men, and ultimately harangued her into marrying him too. Throughout it all, Amelia just wouldn’t. stop. whining. and she did very little to take control of her own destiny, or even just make her own choices. Plus, her kid was a right pain, and she thought the sun shined out his wazoo. Blegh!

Arthur Dent (The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy – Douglas Adams)

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

I know that the Brits are super-proud of their stiff upper lip thing, but Arthur Dent takes it to the next level. The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy begins with the actual destruction of the entire Planet Earth, but Dent doesn’t shed a single tear. He doesn’t grieve for the loss of the entire human race, not one bit. How self-centered do you have to be that you don’t find a minute to mourn the passing of an entire population? He just goes on belly-aching, with nary a thought for those poor perished souls. Smh.

Lemuel Gulliver (Gulliver’s Travels – Jonathan Smith)

If you only read the first couple parts of Gulliver’s Travels, while he’s gallivanting around Lilliput, you’d think he was alright. A bit slow on the uptake, maybe, given that he keeps taking all these voyages that end in disaster, but not an actual garbage person. That is, until, you reach the end: you’ll realise what a twat the man actually was. He abandons his wife and family time and time again for these ridiculous “adventures” (that always end with someone trying to kill him, and a botched escape). When he finally comes home for good, he decides he finds Mrs Gulliver “disgusting” and treats her like absolute shit for the rest of their lives. Garbage person!


And an honourable mention has to go to Harry Potter: there were so many wonderful characters in that book, and yet the main character was an angsty, arrogant emo-kid who was told repeatedly throughout his entire adolescence that the whole world revolved around him, so (of course) he believed it. Can you think of any others? Don’t hold back, Keeper-Upperers! Tell me about them in the comments (or vent over at KUWTP on Facebook!).

What Makes A Book A Classic?

What makes a book a classic? There are about as many answers to that question as there are booklovers. When I started the Keeping Up With The Penguins project, my goal was to catch up on all the classic books that everyone else seemed to have already read, even though I only had the most nebulous idea of what that actually meant. In categorising my reviews, I’ve used the rough guesstimation that books over 100 years old that are still in circulation must be classics, but over time I’ve come to realise that this might not be the only measure. So, let’s take a look at this eternal question and answer it for ourselves: what makes a book a classic? 

What Makes A Book A Classic? - Text Overlaid on Collage of Penguin Classics Book Covers - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Is “Classic” Even The Right Word To Use?

First off, let’s make sure we’re all talking about the same thing. Classic books are those we hold up as being exemplary or noteworthy in some fashion (more on that in a minute). Whether or not a book is considered a “classic” will change over time, between readers, and so forth. It’s a floating target, unlike related concepts like “the canon”.

The canon is more like a specific list of books that are considered “essential” in our understanding of a period, area, or group. That’s why you might hear reference to the “Western canon” (which would include books like David Copperfield, The Divine Comedy, and The Adventures Of Huckleberry Finn), or the “African American canon” (which would include books like Beloved, I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings, and Their Eyes Were Watching God). The canon is usually presented as a reading list, by a university or publisher. Consider it the cousin that comes to your classic books barbecue wearing an Armani suit.

Is every classic book written by a dead, white man?

Let’s address the big, hairy problem right up front: too often, when we talk about “classic” books, we’re talking about the ones written by dead white men. Straight men, non-disabled men, and men of wealth and power. There are exceptions, of course – Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray, for instance, or the works of the Brontë sisters – but for the most part, it’s privileged white dudes all the way down.

I don’t think there’s anyone out there who honestly believes that those men are the only ones who wrote books worthy of being designated as classics, so why are writers of other identities so often overlooked? Reasons abound, to be honest, and I could probably write a thesis on the topic. For now, suffice to say, I think it’s a combination of a few factors: historically, white men were the only ones who had the opportunity to write (by virtue of their wealth and power) and the networks to disseminate their stories; the stories they published reflected a prevailing worldview, which made them popular; and the ivory towers were mostly staffed by more white men, who felt most comfortable teaching their students books written by people who looked like them (meaning students of that particular identity were more likely to take up a pen, see-it-to-be-it and all). On and on the cycle goes…





So, we must do what we can to redress the balance. Make sure that the criteria you choose to judge for yourself what makes a book a “classic” isn’t exclusionary. When you find yourself perusing shelves of classics, look for the works by women, by people of colour, by people with disabilities, by LGBTIQ+ people – any work from a perspective that has been marginalised in the past. Request those books, review them, recommend them, and make sure they get the recognition they deserve. By the magic of the internet, these works are now reaching previously-unimaginable audiences, and the publishers and gatekeepers are hearing the demands of readers to expand their catalogue. Keep fighting the good fight!

Criteria to Consider When Defining Classic Books

Let’s get to the fun stuff! How do we decide whether a book should be called a “classic”?

Age

This is the most common, and most obvious, criterion: age. Or, put another way, we can be fairly confident that a book that has endured for decades or centuries – that has “stood the test of time”, if you will – is a classic. It’s a great idea because it’s easily quantifiable; there’s nothing subjective about how many years a book has been around, which means fewer arguments. But how old does a book have to be to be a “classic”, exactly? I used the nice round figure of 100 years, for simplicity, but that (of course) shifts year-by-year, and it’s a little long in some people’s estimation. Some experts suggest “generations”, rather than an exact number of years, because books that endure past those who were alive when it was first published must have something good going on. It’s an idea.

Of course, either yardstick would exclude books that many booklovers consider to be classics regardless: think To Kill A Mockingbird, or The Grapes of Wrath. That’s why some have suggested the creation of a new category, the “modern classic”, for those books that aren’t quite old enough to be considered classics proper, but are well on their way.



Literary Merit

I think we can all agree that simply being old isn’t enough: what else makes a book a classic? The next most obvious criterion is whether or not it’s any good. An old book can hang around for lots of reasons, but in order for us to consider it a “classic” it should probably pass some test of merit. I’m sure you can see why this is problematic, though; gauging the quality of a book is deeply subjective (just ask anyone who’s been to a book club!).

A comprehensive discussion on how to determine literary merit is probably a bit beyond me and my scope here on my lil’ blog. What I will say is that I think it’s important to recognise that “good” doesn’t necessarily mean “readable”. For instance, I can acknowledge that The Life And Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman has a lot of literary merit, while also simultaneously believing that it sucked from a contemporary reader’s standpoint. A book’s literary merit and whether it is fun to read are two completely separate matters. And, failing a final ruling from an all-powerful dictator, it’s probably going to be up to each of us to decide for ourselves what constitutes “literary merit” and whether a book has it or not (for the time being).

Cultural Contribution, Significance, and Popularity

Books don’t exist in a vacuum: they affect the world around them, and in turn take on new meanings when the world around them changes. Take, for instance, George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty Four. His themes and imagery of surveillance, censorship, misinformation and government control are constantly evoked in political debates, and his work has taken on scary new resonance over the last few years. There are others, too, like Catch-22 or Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, that are so pervasive they actually become part of our cultural lexicon. We continue to read and reflect on these books because they’ve made such significant contributions to our world; they’ve become, in effect, household names.

Within literature itself, the significance and popularity of a book is often marked by its influence on other, subsequent works. Sometimes this as obvious as a direct adaptation (look at how many contemporary takes we have on Pride And Prejudice, for example, and Little Women). Often, though, it’s much more subtle, with recent works calling upon or emulating styles and themes of classic books. I think it’s only fair that we consider these kinds of literary and cultural contributions when deciding what makes a book a classic, as they make it possible for a book to a book to retain its popularity over time.



Historical Record and Influence

One of the most wonderful things about the written word is the way that it endures, and what it can tell us about the past. Even though, as we’ve acknowledged, perspectives on the past have all to often come from privileged white men with their own inherent biases, they still managed to record details that might have otherwise been lost, and we’re better able now than ever before to think critically about them as sources of historical record. Consider classic books such as Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, which has taught us so much about the Middle Ages, or more recently the works of Dickens and the Brontës, which have given us a multi-layered understanding of the mores of Victorian England.

Some classic books take it one step further, and actually influence the course of history. The best example of that has to be Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, often called The Great American Novel, and credited – by Abraham Lincoln, no less! – with prompting the American civil war and the crusade to end slavery. It’s a high bar, no doubt, but this kind of historical influence is surely at least part of what makes a book a classic.

How Italo Calvino Defined Classic Books

Unsurprisingly, writers have thought a lot about this question (because, really, it concerns them most of all). Italo Calvino, a beautiful Italian author, wrote a whole book on the subject – Why Read The Classics? – and gave us a list of definitions that he felt, considered as a whole, would bring us closer to understanding what makes a book a classic. I’ve reproduced a few of my favourites here:

“A classic is a book which with each rereading offers as much of a sense of discovery as the first reading.”

“A classic is a book which even when we read it for the first time gives the sense of rereading something we have read before.”

“A classic is a book which has never exhausted all it has to say to its readers.”

“Classics are books which, the more we think we know them through hearsay, the more original, unexpected, and innovative we find them when we actually read them.”

“‘Your’ classic is a book to which you cannot remain indifferent, and which helps you define yourself in relation or even in opposition to it.”

Italo Calvino, “Why Read The Classics?”

He concludes that a universal definition of a classic book is basically impossible, and “there is nothing for it but for all of us to invent our own ideal libraries of classics”.





So, what makes a book a classic? I’m with Calvino, it’s ultimately up to each of us to decide for ourselves. That said, I think age, literary merit, cultural contribution, and historical influence are all good factors to consider. I think it’s also important that we do everything we can to ensure that we don’t end up lost in the cock forest (as Benjamin Law once so delightfully put it), and include classic books written by women, people of colour, and other marginalised groups. What do you think makes a book a classic? Tell me in the comments (or share your thoughts over at KUWTP on Facebook!).

The Best Mothers In Literature

Last year, I did a post on the best fathers in literature, and I think it’s high time the ladies got a look in. That’s just, like, the rules of feminism! William Ross Wallace, U.S. lawyer and poet, said back in the 19th century that “the hand that rocks the cradle is the hand that rules the world”, and it’s just as true today, but don’t be fooled! The best mothers in literature aren’t all gentle, maternal wallflowers. Here’s a list of my favourites…

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Marmee (Little Women – Louisa May Alcott)

I figured we’d get the obvious pick out of the way straight up: you’ll be hard-pressed to find a list of the best mothers in literature that doesn’t feature Marmee, from Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women. Everyone comes for the all-American-girl archetypes of the March sisters, but Marmee is the real star of the show. She runs a huge household on the smell of an oily rag, with her husband off at war, all the while still prioritising generosity and charity, and yet she doesn’t seem to be a martyr. Marmee has an incredible sense for exactly what each of her daughters need, be it tough love or gentle comfort, and she dishes it out accordingly. Imagine if she and Atticus Finch got together, they’d probably fix the world…

Úrsula Iguarán (One Hundred Years of Solitude – Gabriel García Márquez)

If life-span were the criterion by which we judged the best mothers in literature, Úrsula from One Hundred Years Of Solitude would surely get the gong. She lives to be over 150 years old, all the while caring for three subsequent generations of her family. And that’s not all! She rolls up her sleeves and renovates her whole house herself (more than once!), runs a business, and keeps all the plates spinning with enviable aplomb. She keeps the whole family in check, and acts as a touchstone for rationality and practicality in Márquez’s whirlwind multi-generational epic.

Catelyn Stark (A Game Of Thrones – George R.R. Martin)

A Game of Thrones - George R R Martin - Book Laid On Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

I know the direwolf is the sigil of House Stark in George R. R. Martin’s A Game of Thrones, but Catelyn Stark, in my mind, is a damn lioness. She’s fiercely protective: just try looking at one of her kids a bit funny, and you’ll find yourself on the receiving end of some serious wrath! Catelyn shows us that being a good mother doesn’t always mean being warm and gentle – or even present. Sometimes, the best thing you can do for your kids is storm off across the country and raise hell on their behalf. And before you say it, I can forgive her for being a bit rough on Jon Snow; it can’t have been easy raising the kid you believe is the living, breathing evidence of your otherwise-wonderful husband’s infidelity…

Sunyan Woo (The Joy Luck Club – Amy Tan)

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The Joy Luck Club‘s founder, Sunyan Woo, isn’t one to wallow. Instead of getting rightfully depressed about her very shitty life circumstances, she cops on with it, basically manifesting the happiness she so desperately wishes for her family. She makes some heartbreaking sacrifices, even knowing all the while that her daughters will never truly understand the choices she makes, but believing firmly in what is best for them. We usually think of “good” mothers as giving their kids everything they want, and the kids smiling and thanking them endlessly, but there’s another side to it in real life. Sunyan Woo is a wonderful example of that type of good motherhood.

Addie Bundren (As I Lay Dying – William Faulkner)

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OK, I’m well aware that this is a controversial inclusion in a list of the best mothers in literature, but I stand by it. Addie dies pretty early on in As I Lay Dying – hope I didn’t spoil that for you, but heck, the title is a pretty big clue – and there’s really only one chapter written from her perspective. And yet, Faulkner still manages to tell us so much about her! I feel like I know her personally. Through her reflections, and those of her family, we know that Addie did pretty well to plan the hand she was dealt in life… but she reveals to us that she didn’t lose touch with who she truly was, someone who didn’t wish to be a mother, and didn’t relish the job, despite all the social pressure to feel differently. She cared deeply for her family, but she was also movingly honest about not quite fitting the mould her life had cut for her. I found it refreshing and incredibly endearing.

Molly Weasley (Harry Potter – J.K. Rowling)

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Molly Weasley from the Harry Potter series is the Marmee for this generation. Sure, everyone goes ga-ga over Lily Potter’s big “sacrifice”, but in our heart of hearts we all know we’d rather be mothered by the hard-arse matriarch of the Weasley family. She cares deeply and tenderly for all of her children, taking in Harry and Hermione as her own as well, but she’s never a soft touch and she doesn’t hesitate to dole out the discipline as required (which, given that she raised two identical-twin pranksters, is pretty often). I challenge you to read her immortal line – “Not my daughter, you bitch!” – and tell me to my face you don’t get chills.

Ma Joad (The Grapes of Wrath – John Steinbeck)

The Grapes Of Wrath - John Steinbeck - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Another American classic, another incredible matriarch – what is it in the water on that side of the world that helps them write the best mothers in literature? Ma Joad is the true hero of Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, and that’s a hill I’m happy to die on if you want to argue the point. She whips up meals out of thin air, miraculously keeping starvation at bay for the whole family. She shields the still-warm corpse of her own mother from the rest of them to ensure they reach California safely. She calms the nerves of her pregnant daughter, and delivers the baby herself when the time comes. I could give a hundred other examples, but I’m sure by now you’re as convinced as I am that she is the backbone of the Joad family.

Miss Honey (Matilda – Roald Dahl)

Miss Honey is proof that motherhood is not to be found only in blood or biology. Matilda‘s birth parents are all kinds of awful (Dahl did have a real knack for writing shitty guardians), but in Miss Honey this young girl finds the love and support she needs. Like any other mother, Miss Honey sees Matilda’s special talents and incredible intelligence, and goes above and beyond to protect and nurture her. In each other, Matilda and Miss Honey find their real family, and it’s so touching – far more than you’d expect from a children’s book!

Helen Graham (The Tenant of Wildfell Hall – Anne Brontë)

The Tenant of Wildfell Hall - Anne Bronte - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

The best mothers in literature haven’t always been recognised as such. In fact, Helen Graham – the titular Tenant of Wildfell Hall – was so shocking, so controversial, so blatantly feminist that Charlotte Brontë forbid the book’s republication after Anne’s death. The notion that a woman(!) would think for herself, and escape her philandering drunk of a husband to start a new life with her adored son instead of just, y’know, putting up with it, was not only confronting to rigid Victorian sensibilities – it was literally illegal. Thankfully, we can now recognise Helen Graham as the brave feminist icon she is, and admire her incredible commitment to taking care of her child, flying in the face of all social expectations.

Who do you think are the best mothers in literature? I would love some more examples of wonderful WOC and LGBTIQ+ mothers – they’ve historically been so underrepresented in books, and we need to redress that balance! Drop some suggestions in the comments (or tell everyone over at KUWTP on Facebook!).

Trivia Questions About Books And Literature: Answered!

One of the occupational hazards of being a book reviewer and blogger is that all your friends assume that you are a literary expert, and you’ll be able to handle all the bookish questions at pub trivia. Don’t get me wrong: I normally do pretty well, but I’ll never forget the soul-crushing shame of totally blanking on the question “Who wrote the American classic Gone With The Wind?” (it was Margaret Mitchell, by the way – I’ll never forget again!). To save you all the same embarrassment, I thought I’d put together a list of some common and interesting trivia questions about books and literature, alongside the correct answers (although, as you’ll soon see, “correct” is a relative concept and it almost always depends who you ask…).

Trivia Questions About Books And Literature Answered - Text Overlaid on Image of Pub Wall and Booths - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Firsts

What was the first novel ever written?

The Tale of Genji is, as far as we know, the world’s first full-length novel. It was written in 1008 by Japanese noblewoman Murasaki Shikibu.

What was the first book published by movable type?

Johann Gutenberg, who invented movable type in 1440, printed the first book, a Latin Bible (now called the Gutenberg Bible) in 1445.

What was Stephen King’s first published novel?

Carrie. Although it wasn’t technically the first book he wrote, it was the first one picked up and published (by Doubleday, in 1974).

When was the New York Review Of Books first published?

1 February 1963. The Review, which begot the New York Times Best Seller List, sold out of its first print run (100,000 copies), and its editors received over 1,000 letters from readers asking that they continue.

When was the first Harry Potter book published?

Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone was first published by Bloomsbury in the U.K. on 26 June 1997.

 Biggests and Bests

What is the most expensive book in the world?

This depends who you ask, what measure you use, and how you define… well, “book”.

Most recently, in 2017, the printer’s manuscript of Joseph Smith’s Book of Mormon sold for $35 million. That’s a fair chunk of change, but purists will debate whether a printer’s manuscript counts as a “book”.

Likewise, in 1994, Bill Gates purchased the Codex Leicester, the notebook of Leonardo da Vinci (the original, and the only copy) for $30.8 million, which adjusted to today’s money comes to about $50.9 million – an even bigger chunk of change. But, once again, people will argue that a hand-written notebook doesn’t really count as a “book” by today’s standards.

There are a handful of other religious and hand-written texts that are “books” by some measure and have sold for similar amounts. However, the most widely accepted answer to this trivia question is The Birds Of America by John James Audubon. One of only 119 printed and bound copies known to exist sold at auction in 2010 for $11.5 million (which comes to about $12.9 million now).

What is the best-selling book of all time?

Once again, it depends on how you define “book”, how fastidious you are about the accuracy of calculations, and whether you want to take into account the time period over which the total number of books were sold (as most best-seller lists today do).

Typically, the Holy Bible is considered to be the best-selling book of all time, with an estimated 2.5 billion copies sold since 1815 (and 2,200 language and dialect translations to boot). However, as I’m sure you can imagine, the records of sales over that length of time are patchy at best, many copies of the Bible are distributed for free (as opposed to “sold” in the traditional sense), and as such the estimation of total sales is very rough.

The Lord Of The Rings is the next most common answer, though some people dispute its inclusion for consideration as it is a series (rather than an individual “book”). It’s estimated to have sold approximately 150 million copies since it was first published in 1954, and those figures are comparatively very accurate. The Hobbit, too, has sold some 100 million copies in its own right.

The biggest total sales figure I could find for an individual, stand-alone book (that no one could dispute), with the most accurate numbers possible, is that of Le Petit Prince (The Little Prince), first published in French in 1943. It has sold 140 million copies since then. However, the most recognisable answer (and the one your quizmaster would likely be looking for at pub trivia) is Harry Potter And The Philosopher’s Stone, which has sold 120 million copies since 1997 (meaning it has sold far better over a much shorter period of time, which is usually a factor in the calculation of best-sellers).

Who is the best-selling fiction author of all time?

Are you sick of me saying “it depends” yet? 😉

The most commonly accepted answer is Agatha Christie; she personally authored 85 novels, and has sold well over 2 billion of them (and those figures are relatively reliable). However, William Shakespeare is estimated to have sold approximately the same number of copies across his 42 published plays and poems, though the figures are a little more sketchy and over a much longer time period – it’s up to you whether he “counts”.

J.K. Rowling is the worlds richest author (having claimed the title from James Patterson a few years ago), so she’s considered the “best selling” in terms of profit from her creation.

There are also a number of extremely popular authors (including Jane Austen, Miguel de Cervantes, and Arthur Conan Doyle) for whom no accurate figures on book sales can be found, so theoretically it could also be any of them.

In the end, this question is pretty much unanswerable, so you’ll just have to take a stab as to which answer you think the quizmaster is after, as opposed to which one is technically “correct”.

What is the best-selling children’s book of all time?

Ah, now we’re back on solid ground! Publisher’s Weekly ran a very helpful study of this topic back in 2000, and they determined that the best-selling hard-cover children’s book of all time is The Poky Little Puppy, and the best-selling paperback children’s book of all time is Charlotte’s Web.

Now, we could start to quibble about what counts as a “children’s book” and how PW reached their conclusions, but why make things harder on ourselves?

What is the biggest/longest book of all time?

There are two primary ways to determine the size or length of a book: word count, and page count. The latter is a bit controversial, because it’s so dependent on formatting, but it’s also a lot easier to calculate.

The winner on both fronts, technically, is Artamène ou le Grand Cyrus, published in the 17th century. It comes in at a whopping 13,095 pages (published over ten volumes, because obviously), or 1,954,300 words.

However, the “official” Guinness World Record holder (and thus the most commonly accepted answer) is À la recherche du temps perdu (In Search of Lost Time, or Remembrance of Things Past) by Marcel Proust. It boasts 3,031 pages over seven volumes, or 1,267,069 words.

Whichever answer you prefer, it’s clear that the French are the wordiest writers!

Literary Awards

What year were the first Pulitzer Prizes awarded?

1917. The awards were established by provisions in the will of Joseph Pulitzer, a Hungarian-born American newspaper publisher, thus their focus on journalism.

Which British prime minister was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature?

Winston Churchill. He got the gong in 1953 “for his mastery of historical and biographical description as well as for brilliant oratory in defending exalted human values”.

Which American science-fiction and fantasy writer has won the Hugo Award for best science-fiction novel three years running (2016, 2017, 2018)?

N.K. Jemisin. She won for The Fifth Season, The Obelisk Gate, and The Stone Sky, respectively in each year.

When did the Booker Prize change its name to the Man Booker Prize, and why?

This award was called the Booker Prize from 1969 to 2001. In 2002, the Man Group PLC came on board as a sponsor, and that year the name was changed accordingly. But earlier this year, the Man Group announced they would no longer be providing sponsorship; a charitable foundation called Crankstart has taken the reins now, but the name will revert to simply the Booker Prize (which I think is a shame, because the Crankstart-Booker has a nice ring to it, don’t you think?).

Bonus points: Yann Martel was the first winner of the newly re-named Man Booker Prize in 2002, for his book Life Of Pi.

What is the main criterion for the Miles Franklin Award?

The Miles Franklin Award winner each year must be “a novel which is of the highest literary merit and presents Australian life in any of its phases”.

Titles And Text

Opening lines make for really popular trivia questions, because they’re easy to write and score. Check out my list of great opening lines in literature here, and my list of even more great opening lines in literature here.

Where does the book Fahrenheit 451 get its name?

The book’s tagline explains its title: “Fahrenheit 451 – the temperature at which book paper catches fire, and burns”.

Bonus points: Bradbury chose the title after asking an expert regarding the temperature at which book paper will burn, but he may have been slightly misinformed. 451 degrees Fahrenheit is actually the auto-ignition point of paper, the temperature at which it will catch fire without being exposed to an external flame, and even that number varies depending on the experimental conditions under which it is tested.

Fill in the blanks of this Shakespeare quote: “All the world’s a stage, And all the ___ and _____ merely _______.”

“All the world’s a stage, And all the men and women merely players.”

Bonus points: The line is taken from As You Like It (Act II, Scene VII).

True or false: Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes never actually used the now-famous line “Elementary, my dear Watson”.

True. Holmes would, now and then, refer to things as being “elementary”, and he did also call his sidekick “my dear Watson”, but he never once used the two together. He did, however, say “Exactly, my dear fellow” relatively often.

What title did Jane Austen originally give to the book that was eventually published as Pride and Prejudice?

First Impressions.

Which American classic was published in Swedish with the translated title “A Man Without Scruples” (“En Man Utan Skrupler”)?

F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby.

Bonus points: Fitzgerald actually considered multiple alternate titles for his most-famous work, his favourite reportedly being “Under The Red, White, and Blue” (which his wife, Zelda, hated).

Characters

What names did Charles Dickens consider for his character in A Christmas Carol before settling on “Tiny Tim”?

“Small Sam” and “Puny Pete” – they both sound ridiculous, but I swear I’m not making it up!

Which fictional book character has featured as a major character in more films than any other?

Sherlock Holmes – the fictional detective has featured in 223 movies.

Bonus points: second place goes to Dracula, who has featured in 217.

What is the shared birthday of Bilbo and Frodo Baggins from The Hobbit and Lord Of The Rings?

22 September. The two central characters were  born on the same day, but in different years: Bilbo in the year of 2890, and Frodo in the year 2968, of the Third Age.

In Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, to which superstition does Huck attribute most of his bad luck?

Touching a rattlesnake skin. He was warned not to do so by his travelling companion, Jim the runaway slave, but disregarded his advice.

Daniel Cleaver and Mark Darcy formed a love triangle with the titular character of which 1996 British best-seller?

Bridget Jones of Bridget Jones’s Diary, by Helen Fielding.

Bonus points: the book is actually a loose adaptation of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, with Daniel Cleaver bearing some resemblance to Mr Wickham, Mark Darcy to Mr Darcy (duh), and Bridget Jones to Elizabeth Bennet.

Plots

Which classic book chronicles the history of the French invasion of Russia through the stories of five aristocratic families?

War and Peace (Leo Tolstoy).

Which book is set in Airstrip One, a province of the superstate Oceania in a world of perpetual war and government surveillance?

1984 (George Orwell).

Bonus points: Airstrip One is the new name given to Britain in Orwell’s dystopia.

In The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe, what was the enchanted dessert that the White Witch gave to Edmund?

Turkish Delight.

Early in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Alice shrinks down to a very small size and then has to swim through a river of what?

Her own tears.

What is the name of the virtual utopia that teenager Wade Watts explores in Ernest Cline’s novel futuristic novel, Ready Player One?

OASIS.

Authors

Jim Grant was born in England in 1954, and has published many popular crime thrillers. By which pen name is he better known?

Lee Child.

Which author, best known for his books for children, is credited with popularising the words “gremlin” and “scrumdiddlyumptious”?

Roald Dahl.

Name the four Jane Austen novels that were published during her lifetime.

Sense and Sensibility (1811), Pride and Prejudice (1813), Mansfield Park (1814), and Emma (1815).

Bonus points: Northanger Abbey, Persuasion and Lady Susan were all published posthumously. The Watsons and Sandition were unfinished manuscripts.

By which names are Currer, Ellis, and Acton Bell now better known?

Charlotte, Emily, and Anne Brontë. They chose androgynous pen names because they suspected (quite rightly, as it turns out) that books by women would not be given fair treatment by publishers and the public.

Who Am I? I was born in Australia in 1966. I worked in advertising and marketing at a legal publishing company, and published my first book in 2003. My fifth book, The Husband’s Secret, was published in 2013 and garnered worldwide attention. My next book debuted at #1 on the New York Times Best Seller List, making me the first Australian author to do so. It has since been adapted into a television series by HBO, starring Reese Witherspoon and Nicole Kidman.

Liane Moriarty.


Of course, there are thousands of potential questions in each of these categories: bookish trivia is the gift that keeps on giving! What’s your favourite book trivia question? Ask us in the comments (or over at KUWTP on Facebook!).

8 Books That Will Make You Laugh Out Loud

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

8 Books That Will Make You Laugh Out Loud - Text Overlaid on Image of Woman in White Shirt and Red Pants Laughing - Keeping Up With The Penguins

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

The One Hundred Year Old Man Who Climbed Out The Window And Disappeared - Jonas Jonasson - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

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

The Martian – Andy Weir

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

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

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves – Karen Joy Fowler

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

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

A Short History Of Nearly Everything – Bill Bryson

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

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

Cold Comfort Farm – Stella Gibbons

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

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

Catch-22 – Joseph Heller

Catch-22 - Joseph Heller - book laid on a wooden table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

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

Portnoy’s Complaint – Philip Roth

Portnoy's Complaint - Philip Roth - Penguin Australia Edition Laid Flat On Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

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

The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy – Douglas Adams

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

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


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

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

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

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

#1 Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman

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

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

#2 Fight Like A Girl by Clementine Ford

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

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

#3 All The Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr

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

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

#4 The Book Thief by Markus Zusak

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

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

#6 To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee

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

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

#7 Pride And Prejudice by Jane Austen

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

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

#9 The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

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

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

#10 The Dry by Jane Harper

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

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

#15 Burial Rites by Hannah Kent

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

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

#18 Big Little Lies by Liane Moriarty

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

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

#25 The Happiest Refugee by Anh Do

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

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

#27 The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion

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

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

#29 A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara

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

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

#32 The Lost Flowers of Alice Hart by Holly Ringland

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

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

#33 Crazy Rich Asians by Kevin Kwan

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

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

#45 The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald

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

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

#46 Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë

Jane Eyre - Charlotte Bronte - Keeping Up With The Penguins

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

#47 Normal People by Sally Rooney

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

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

#50 A Game Of Thrones by George R.R. Martin

A Game of Thrones - George R R Martin - Book Laid On Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

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

#52 The Girl On The Train by Paula Hawkins

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

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

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

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

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

#58 The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho

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

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

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

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

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

#62 The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy by Douglas Adams

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

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

#64 Reckoning by Magda Szubanski

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

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

#68 The Martian by Andy Weir

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

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

#84 The Trauma Cleaner by Sarah Krasnostein

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

#88 Call Me By Your Name by Andre Aciman

Call Me By Your Name - Andre Aciman - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

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

#91 My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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