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David Copperfield – Charles Dickens

Who would have thought this day would come so soon? Here it is, folks: my first wholehearted unreservedly Recommended read on Keeping Up With The Penguins. It’s David Copperfield, from the master himself Charles Dickens.

Honestly, though, it was kind of a stacked deck: not just because Dickens is the Grand Poobah of English literature, but also because – for me – he’s inextricably linked to the memory of my late grandfather, who idolised Dickens and practically memorised every word he wrote. Clearly, I was genetically predisposed to enjoy his work. This gorgeous two-volume set was plucked from my grandparents’ collection, and I’m sure Granddad would have been damn proud that I finally got around to reading it.

David Copperfield appeared first in a twenty-month serial from 1849 to 1850, before being published as a novel (and, after the mess that was Vanity Fair, that was almost enough to put me off!). The Introduction didn’t inspire much optimism, either: it was written by J.B. Priestly who didn’t seem to be all that big a fan, to be honest. And he kindly pointed out that Dickens employed severe Victorian censorship on all sexual matters (booo!).

Priestly can suck it, though, because Dickens is a fucking God. I get it now. David Copperfield is a long book, don’t get me wrong, but I fucking devoured the thing like a drunk woman eating a kebab. Every word is purposeful, every character is a delectable caricature, every element of the story is consistent and compelling, and every emotion beautifully captured and rendered. Priestly hung a lot of shit on Dickens for what he called “supermarket” writing: novels were the primary source of family entertainment at the time (the Netflix of Victorian England, really), so Dickens had to write about politics for the fathers and adventures for the sons and romance for the mothers and daughters. Priestly didn’t like that, but I thought it’s precisely this”chuck-in-a-bit-of-everything” style that makes David Copperfield such an incredible book.




The story of David Copperfield begins with his birth to a rather mopey young widow, and his early years being raised by her and her housekeeper. His mother remarries early on, but his New Daddy is an abusive son of a bitch and Dave is promptly sent off to a prison disguised as a boarding school. The kid meets some good chaps there, but it all-around sucks, and even his exodus is a bit of a bummer as it comes on account of his mother’s untimely stress-related death. New Daddy fires the nice housekeeper and sends Dave off to work in a wine factory (I didn’t think that bit sounded so bad, but the kid really hated it). Things get increasingly shit for young Dave, with starvation and his landlord going to prison and everything, so he takes it into his head to run away and find his rich old aunt.

Then things start looking up: he finds Aunt Betsey, she takes him in and sets him up for life. She is undoubtedly the baddest bitch in this story, and I adored her. She has no hesitation in telling people to fuck right off when they stick their noses in, and she protects and cherishes this charming old guy Mr Dick (the bloke’s a few sandwiches short of a picnic, but Betsey makes damn sure no one is shipping him off to a home). Betsey sets Dave up in a school without daily beating or torture (fancy!), and sponsors his gap-year to travel and “find himself”.

Dave finally settles down into a respectable profession, and promptly falls in love with his boss’ daughter. She’s extremely basic, but Dave doesn’t seem to notice, and he finally gets to marry her after her father croaks – only, she’s not that great at wifeing, and she dies pretty soon after, too. Dave’s mates get into all sorts of trouble with money and politics and love, and there’s some unpleasant business with women falling from grace and turning to lives of prostitution and such – all of the characters weave in and out of Dave’s life, and yet are described so richly and have such entertaining development that you never once lose track of who they are or what they’re about.


In the end, a bunch of his mates ship off to Australia to start over, another bunch of them die (that’s how you can tell the story’s wrapping up – a device I’m noticing is rather common in 19th century literature), and Dave marries the girl who’s secretly pined after him all his life. He becomes a successful writer and spawns a bunch of kids, the good guys live happily ever after, and the bad guys go to prison. Isn’t that fucking great?!

My favourite thing about Dickens, though, is that I never once felt like I was missing the point – which is the feeling I get with basically every classic book or poem I read. Dickens was never condescending, and yet his writing never went over my head (despite the 150-year time lapse). I didn’t even roll my eyes that much at the privileged white guy writing about privileged white guys: there was a whole lot less sexism than I expected, and most of the female characters were strong and sassy and ran circles around a lot of the ones written today (hats off to Aunt Betsey!). Of course, there’s a whole stack of issues with lack of representation in this kind of literature, and I’m not blind to that… but it didn’t stop me really loving this book.

Dickens said that David Copperfield was his “favourite child” and I can see why. This has been the best outcome of The List so far, and even if I were to stop right here (which I won’t), I’d be coming out ahead. I strongly recommend David Copperfield to anyone who likes… books. (And, even if you don’t, I hear the audio-book version is excellent, so give that a crack.)

My favourite Amazon reviews of David Copperfield:

  • “Smartly written trash, no doubt – but trash nonetheless. About 1 million words of it!” – Alex Kane
  • “Charles Dickinson is a timeless writer” – thimble19
  • “Charles Dickens won’t read this so it doesn’t matter what I say…” – Katie Barnes

 

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How To Read More Outside Your Comfort Zone

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

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

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

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

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

“But other genres are for losers!”

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

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

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

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

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

You will.

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

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

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

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

Well, stop it.

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

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

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

Step Two: Read A Book That Crosses Genre Boundaries

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

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

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

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

Step Three: Try Alternating Books You Read

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

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

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

Step Four: Focus on Authors, Instead of Genres

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

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

More Quick Tips for Reading Outside Your Comfort Zone

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


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

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

Year In Review: Keeping Up With The Penguins Recommended Reads

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

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

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

David Copperfield – Charles Dickens

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

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

In Cold Blood – Truman Capote

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

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

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves – Karen Joy Fowler

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

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

A Short History Of Nearly Everything – Bill Bryson

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

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

Jane Eyre – Charlotte Brontë

Jane Eyre - Charlotte Bronte - Keeping Up With The Penguins

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

The Adventures Of Sherlock Holmes – Arthur Conan Doyle

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

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

To Kill A Mockingbird – Harper Lee

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

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

My Brilliant Friend – Elena Ferrante

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

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

Crime and Punishment – Fyodor Dostoyevsky

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

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

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

How To Remember What You Read

It’s all well and good to read a lot of books. You flip those pages every night before bed, at every bus stop, and on every lunch break. You watch your bookshelf pile up with tomes you’ve torn through in record time. But what good is all that effort if you don’t remember what you read?

“I cannot remember the books I have read any more than the meals I have eaten; even so, they have made me.”

Ralph Waldo Emerson

All respect to Ralphie, but remembering what you read is where it’s at. A friend of mine Tweeted the other day that they got half-way through reading a book and realised they had already read it – and that ain’t good! If you’re in the same boat, you’re in luck, because this happens to be my specialty. See, in a former life, I was a psychology graduate (with first class honours, thank you very much!). When I started thinking about what I could tell my friend on how to remember what you read, my brain instantly whirred into cognitive psychology mode, throwing up theories of memory processing and forgetting curves. The fact that I remember any of that stuff – stuff I read in textbooks over five years ago – should be the proof in this bloggy pudding. Don’t worry, I’m not going to get all technical on you – here are my best, practical tips on how to remember what you read.

How To Remember What You Read - white text overlaid on image of a woman reading in light from a window - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Get Familiar

Before you even open a book, you should get familiar with what you’re about to read. This applies equally to fiction and non-fiction. If you’re about to read the memoir of a prominent member of the French Resistance, you probably want to have some background knowledge on WWII. Likewise, if you’re reading a fictional story set in 19th century London, you’ll understand (and therefore remember) a lot more of what’s going on if you’ve got some basic background knowledge to start off with.

Think of this strategy like fishing with a net: your prior knowledge is the 'net' in your memory, and bits of information from the book are the 'fish'. Without a net, they swim right past you, but if you've got a good strong net in place, you're going to catch (remember) a lot of stuff.Click To Tweet

It doesn’t have to be a long and drawn-out research process. Usually, just reading the introduction is enough – it will usually give you some kind of political and socio-economic context for a work of fiction, or a background on the author and the subject matter for non-fiction. If you want to go a little deeper, you’ve probably got a device in your pocket (or maybe you’re holding it in front of your face right now!) that can connect you to literally everything you might need to know about that book. So, really, it’s not that hard! 😉

I really should have done this myself when I read A Passage To India. There was no introduction in my edition, but I forged ahead without taking the time to research any further, and I ended up having to stop and Google things constantly as I was reading.

Focus!

The idea of remaining actively engaged in a single pursuit for any extended period of time is kind of a joke in the age of instant notifications and the 24-hour news cycle. Believe me when I say, though, that you’ll notice a huge difference in how you remember what you read if you make an effort. Don’t have the TV on “in the background”, don’t check your phone, don’t cook dinner with one hand and hold your book with the other (besides being bad for memory, that’s just dangerous!). Even if you can only give 20 minutes of focused attention per day, or 10 minutes, or 3 precious minutes before your kids wake up, do it. Take whatever time you can to focus wholly and solely on what you’re reading.

In fact, it’s probably better to do it that way. Even without modern distractions, the average human brain has trouble staying completely focused for long stretches, but finds it relatively easy to maintain focus for shorter periods of time. Find whatever time period is optimal for you, and commit to using it for focused reading every day.

Sure, it might take you months to get through a book if you’re reading it in ten-minute bursts, but so what? It’s a huge mistake to get all hung up on reading “fast”. Burning through a book quickly is actually detrimental to your recall. When you space out your reading – a few chapters here, a few chapters there – you force your brain to shift the new information from working memory to long-term storage (because you’re going to need it later when you pick it up again). It’ll stick around in long-term storage for a while, especially seeing as you’re rehearsing the memory every time you go to knock out a few more pages. If you read the entire book in a single sitting, your brain doesn’t need to store as much information – after all, you’re not going to need to remember where to pick it up again, are you? Your brain will abandon all that lovely gooey information in favour of something more valuable that it will actually need later. So, read in short, focused bursts, and you’ll find you retain a lot more.

Think About What You’re Reading

I know, I know, this sounds laughably obvious, but hear me out! You’d be surprised at how many of us read passively, not really thinking about what we’re taking in and just letting the words wash over us. That can feel really good (like mindlessly binge-watching 22 episodes of a ’90s sitcom), but it’s not great if you’ve set a goal of remembering what you read.

So, what’s the easiest way to engage your brain? Challenge it! Find ways to put it to work. Your brain is like a border collie: it wants work to do, and if you don’t give it any, it’s going to run off and find something else to play with (or take a nap in the sun).

Try these tricks to get your brain into gear as you’re reading:

  • Ask yourself questions about what you’re reading as you go. “Why would the protagonist do that? Is it what I would do if I were in her shoes? What do I like about the way this author writes? What’s the point that the author is trying to get across here?” It sounds really basic, but pausing after every few pages and posing a question like this to yourself will force your brain to actively engage with the content to formulate an answer, and that’s, like, nine-tenths of the effort getting it to store the information for recall later.
  • Pause and visualise a scene or a character. Imagine what they look like, what they sound like, and make the whole thing as vivid as possible using the details that the author has given you.
  • Link what you’re reading to things that you already know. That could mean putting the background knowledge to use, or it could simply mean finding parallels between the book and your life experience. Say the author mentions someone’s birthday – see if you can figure out a way to remember that (maybe it’s the same day as your wedding anniversary, or a week before a major public holiday).
  • Stop at the end of each section or chapter, and try to paraphrase what you’ve just read to yourself. What happened? What did the author explain? What new information came to light? What do you need to remember?

Bonus: these tips won’t just help you remember what you read, they’ll also help you understand and apply what you read, so it’s a win-win-win!

Take Notes

For me, this is the most crucial step in remembering what I read. I’m constantly pausing to scribble something down – a great line, a thought I’ve had about a character, something interesting the author has done with perspective… In fact, it was these notebooks full of scribbles that gave rise to Keeping Up With The Penguins! 😉

There are different schools of thought as to whether it’s “okay” (or even optimal) to write in the books themselves – notes in the margins, highlighting or underlining the text, etc. At the end of the day, whether you choose to write in your books is between you and whatever God you believe in. I’m from the school that says writing in books is sacrilegious, and I will never, ever do it as long as I live. That’s why I always have a notebook on me when I’m reading. I never write essays or anything particularly long-winded – it’s mostly bullet-points and diagrams, sometimes a paragraph or two if I’m really moved by what I’m reading.

The most important thing about taking notes is that you take them, regardless of how or where. Find a method that works for you, one that you’re likely to stick with. It might sound like a chore, but if your goal is remembering what you read, this is probably the best thing you can do – writing information down helps you to remember it, whatever your learning style, whatever you’re reading. Plus, you’ll have the notes to refer back to later if the memory doesn’t stick!

Read Out Loud

If “thinking about the book you’re reading” sounded too obvious, then this one undoubtedly sounds too silly.  I mean, what kind of loon reads out loud to themselves, right? Loons that want to remember what they read, that’s who!

Reading out loud gives your brain additional ways to code and retain the information. In addition to remembering reading the words visually, you have the opportunity to remember hearing them, and producing them with your own speech. This is particularly important if you’re an auditory learner (who learns best by listening, rather than by reading), but it will be helpful for anyone. There are a number of other benefits, too: for instance, if you tend to read for speed, reading out loud forces you to slow down and really think about what’s in front of you.

You get bonus points if you re-read and/or repeat crucial parts of books this way. I don’t think it will come as any great surprise that repetition is great for strengthening memory. If there are particular parts of the book that you really need to lock in your mind-safe, try reading them once and taking notes as you go, then going back later and reading the relevant parts out loud to yourself.

Teach Someone Else (Preferably, A Toddler)

There are about a dozen different sayings and quotes about this, and they all boil down to the same thing: you’ll understand and remember something better if you teach it to someone else. That’s because your experiential memory is the strongest kind there is (you’re more likely to remember something you experience than something you read), so you should really be taking advantage of that.

Nobel Prize-winning physicist Richard Feyman’s technique for remembering what you read included this vital step. The “Feynman Technique” (creative name, eh?) includes choosing and learning about a concept, then doing your best to explain it to a toddler. That will help you identify any gaps in your own understanding, at which point you can return to your materials and review them until you’re ready to try again. Clearly, it worked for him!

The whole idea of explaining it to a toddler, rather than an adult, is that it forces you to condense your learning and simplify the concepts, ensuring that you truly understand what it is that you’re passing on rather than just regurgitating fancy words. If you can’t explain it to a toddler, you probably don’t understand it well.

If you don’t have a toddler on hand, that’s okay – you can still pass on your new-found wisdom. Participate in a book club, or talk to family and friends who have read the book (or comment on a blog… ahem!). Whatever you choose, the very act of discussing the content with someone else gives your brain all the more opportunity to strengthen the memories by associating them with other things (the conversation you have and your experience of it). The more connections your brain makes between the content and your experiences, the stronger your memory and the longer it will last.

Finally, Choose Wisely

Perhaps this should have come first, but I think it’s a good note to end on: choose the right book. You’re going to have a much better shot at remembering something you find interesting and entertaining than you will something that bores you to tears. Make sure you have a clear idea of why you’re reading the book (for fun, for work, for curiosity’s sake), and why you want to remember what you read (to apply it at work, to ace your exam, to improve your own writing). If you’re just reading a book so that you can say that you did, or because “everyone else is reading it”, you probably have no personal stake in it at all. Your chances of remembering it in great detail won’t be good. Move on to another book – one that’s more suited to your tastes and circumstances and needs. You’ll find that memory comes much easier!

The quality of your reading matters infinitely more than the quantity of your reading. As I said in the beginning, it’s all well and good to be the fastest reader in the world… but what are you actually getting out of those 10 books per week? Far better to take your time and really immerse yourself in a book that you love, and get everything out of it that you can, don’t you think? When you do that, and embed some really strong memories of what you read, you get to carry it with you for the rest of your life.

How’s your book recall? Do you use any of these strategies? Do you have any other tips? Let me know in the comments below (or tell us over at KUWTP on Facebook!).

Money: A Suicide Note – Martin Amis

Remember The Catcher In The Rye? Well, Money: A Suicide Note is basically the grown up’s version. If you like your narrators drunk, rich, and horny, then this is the book for you! Amis reportedly based the book on his experiences as a scriptwriter on the film Saturn 3 (remember that classic?). If this is really what the script-writing life is like, then half the residents of Los Angeles could surely give The Wolf of Wall Street a run for his money.

Money: A Suicide Note follows the story of John Self, a successful ad director who lives for fast food, hard liquor, and hot women. Self travels back and forth between London and New York, trying to get his first feature film project off the ground. Now, Amis very deliberately subverts the tropes of the “Englishman abroad” story; for once, a Brit goes across the Atlantic and isn’t horrified by all Americans. Self actually fits right in.

For the first two thirds of the book, there’s not really much plot – Self just eats and drinks to excess, meets with film stars, and makes rape jokes. (Oh, yeah, you’d better be willing to stomach a barrel of satirical misogyny if you’re going to take this one on.) It’s kind of like a day trip into the mind of Harvey Weinstein.

Self also has a stalker, who calls and bitches him out over the phone whenever he’s in New York. Self calls him “Frank The Phone”. When the plot finally emerges, it builds to a big showdown between the two of them, and that’s when shit really starts to unravel. It turns out that “Frank” is actually Fielding Goodney, his film’s producer. (I was kind of disappointed by that particular plot twist – I thought there would be a Fight Club-esque reveal where the stalker turned out to be a figment of Self’s psychosis.) Not only has Goodney been harassing Self, but the whole film project turns out to be a sham – not only does Self lose every penny he invested, he also loses everything he has (and then some) because Goodney convinced him to personally underwrite all debts and losses. Sucks to be him, eh?




There’s also a weird wife-swapping love story that weaves in and out. Self has a girlfriend in London (Selina) who hits him up for cash every chance she gets. Around the same time that his career falls apart, he finds out that she is pregnant to one of his business associates. Self isn’t all that shook up by it though, because (funnily enough) he has a thing for that very business associate’s wife. It looks, for a minute, like Money: A Suicide Note might have a “happily ever after” 9well, as happy you can get when a nice-enough woman, burned by an unfaithful husband, gets together with a hedonistic slob)… but Selina pulls off a crazy scheme to break them up. So, in the end, Self is broke, alone, and – oh yeah – he finds out that his dad isn’t his dad, and his car breaks down. It’s a rough time all around.

Don’t go feeling too sorry for him: Self is anything but pitiable. He worships at the altar of money and self-indulgence. He’s a consumerist, in every sense of the world – food, booze, drugs, and women – and his appetite is insatiable. It’s all a very clever metaphor, of course, for 20th century capitalism and greed, but Self is so grotesque that sometimes you forget that Amis is being ironic. Really, Self’s only redeeming quality as a narrator is that he’s quite funny.

“But that’s the whole trouble with dignity and self-respect: they cost you so much fucking money.”

– John Self

Yes, Money: A Suicide Note is endlessly quotable, and Self’s narration is full of gems. Just about every sentence could appear on the bottom of a demotivational poster. In fact, I took the liberty of mocking up a couple…

Erections - Demotivational Poster - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Addictions - Demotivational Poster - Keeping Up With The Penguins

And another fun little quirk of the story: Amis randomly introduces himself as a character! On Page 71:

“I once shouted across the street, and gave him a V-sign and a warning fist. He stood his ground, and stared. This writer’s name, they tell me, is Martin Amis. Never heard of him. Do you know his stuff at all?”

It threw me a little at first, but it was certainly something fun and different. Amis (the character) ends up being a kind of confidant to Self. Self mocks him for “living like a student” (seemingly under the impression that writers get paid big bucks, ha!), but he begrudgingly respects him. Amis tries to warn Self about his self-destructive behaviour, but of course Self doesn’t listen. It was a nifty little narrative technique that I haven’t seen before, so props to (real-life) Amis for that one!


On the whole, Money: A Suicide Note seems a bit dated. It’s very anchored in the 1980s, when pornography was “widely accessible” on VHS (the notion of pornography “addiction” in a time when you had to leave your house to purchase it in hard-copy seems kind of quaint, now, doesn’t it?). If we were try to transplant Money: A Suicide Note into today’s world, the story wouldn’t work – Self would just stare at his phone the whole time, and have UberEats delivered every hour on the hour. Still, if you liked Lolita for Humbert Humbert (but aren’t too hung up on the “beauty” of your prose), you’ll probably enjoy Money. If nothing else, the book is great for a few laughs – thank goodness the humour carries over!

My favourite Amazon reviews of Money: A Suicide Note:

  • “I got this book on a recommendation from an adult film director who named himself after one of the characters. I found it repetitive.” – nestor bloodyvessel
  • “For the most part, I believe drunks like John Self in this novel, crazy people like the Australian pianist in the movie who’s name I can’t remember, and blow-hards like Citizen Kane don’t make interesting protagonists.It takes a Dickens to create works of art based on characters whose mental life seems so circumscribed and repetitive.” – Charles Dickens Dave
  • “I wouldn’t even give it one star. The best word I can find to describe this book is cheesey. It’s about as compelling as a car wreck. I’m wondering how to get rid of it. I can’t recommend it to a friend. It’s not even amusing, just dumb and kind of annoying, especially a few pages before 78, when the narrator mentions the author, Martin Amis, by name as someone whose stalking him. Just dumb.” – A customer

 

Got Beef? Five Famous Literary Feuds

You’d be hard-pressed to find anyone who would call authors of literary fiction “gangster” or “bad-ass”. Sure, some of them like a drink, and some of them have dabbled with hard drugs and guns, but for the most part they’re a retiring lot, content to sit at home alone with a cup of tea and a typewriter (and maybe a cat, for company). They wouldn’t dream of entering into public feuds, exchanging barbs in the media and in their work, calling out their contemporaries for getting back on their bullshit. Right? Wrong! If you look closely, you’ll find a long literary history of roasts, sassy comebacks, and petty revenge! Here’s a list of five famous literary feuds…

Five Famous Literary Feuds - text on a grey square overlaid on a black and white image of an arm-wrestle - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Aldous Huxley vs George Orwell

On the face of it, you’d think that Huxley and Orwell should have been the best of friends. Each penned a novel that has forever changed the way we think about dystopian literature, not to mention the way we think about our own dumpster-fire world. Huxley was even one of Orwell’s teachers at Eton! Comparisons of their work by critics is to be expected, of course, but it turns out that Huxley and Orwell had a sparring match of their own going on…

It all started in 1946. Orwell hadn’t yet written 1984, but he had published a review of We by Yevgeny Zamyatin. In his review, he claimed that:

“Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World must be partially derived from [We]. Both books deal with the rebellion of the primitive human spirit against a rationalised, mechanised, painless world, and both stories are supposed to take place about six hundred years hence.”

George Orwell (1946)

OK, fine, by today’s standards it’s hardly a mic-drop, but this is basically the old-timey equivalent of calling out a rapper for using a ghost writer. Huxley, of course, emphatically denied the accusation of plagiarism, claiming not to have even heard of We until after he had completed Brave New World. Everyone let it go for a few years, until…

… in 1949, after the publication of 1984, Orwell received a letter from one Mr Aldous Huxley. Orwell was expecting yet another glowing review (after all, up until that point, he’d been receiving them from all over the world), and Huxley did begin the letter by praising the book as being “profoundly important”. Things then took a turn, though. Huxley’s position can be best summed up as: “Nice try, buddy, but my dystopian future is way more likely to actually happen than yours. Why you gotta be such a Debbie Downer?”

“… whether in actual fact the policy of the boot-on-the-face can go on indefinitely seems doubtful. My own belief is that the ruling oligarchy will find less arduous and wasteful ways of governing and of satisfying its lust for power, and these ways will resemble those which I described in Brave New World.”

Aldous Huxley (1949)

As best we know, they never buried the hatchet.

Who won? Well, I think we’ve got to call this one a draw. Orwell gets a point for finding (potential) evidence of shady behaviour, but Huxley at least had the balls to tell him off directly. (And by the way, you can read my review of Brave New World here, if you want to see what all the fuss was about…)

Henry James vs H.G. Wells

This is the first of many tales of great literary friendships gone awry. Henry James and H.G. Wells had a once-amiable relationship, built on a foundation of mutual admiration. That all fell to shit when they disagreed on the primary purpose of literature. Wells accused James of treating “like painting [as] an end”, while to him “literature like architecture is a means”. Oooh, snap!

In 1915, Wells published the satirical novel Boon, lambasting James’ writing style. Not many friendships can survive a parody of the other’s work. James accused Wells of producing “affluents turbid and unrestrained” (a stream of wordy shit, basically), and in response Wells called him a “painful hippopotamus” (which is a lot more pithy). The two traded nasty, wounded letters for a while, then their correspondence stopped altogether.

Who won? I’m calling this one for Wells: firstly, because “painful hippopotamus” is a fantastic roast, and secondly, because he kind of had a point. Wells also gets a bonus point for once referring to George Bernard Shaw (in a separate feud) as “an idiot child screaming in a hospital”.

Mark Twain vs Jane Austen

This wasn’t exactly a fair fight, because Jane Austen died several years before Mark Twain was born. However, he dissed her so brutally and so often that it’s surely one of the greatest literary feuds of our time. For instance, Twain once expressed wonder at the fact that Austen had died of natural causes, when – according to him – she should have faced execution for her “literary crimes”. And he didn’t stop there!

“I haven’t any right to criticise books, and I don’t do it except when I hate them. I often want to criticise Jane Austen, but her books madden me so that I can’t conceal my frenzy from the reader; and therefore I have to stop every time I begin. Every time I read ‘Pride and Prejudice’, I want to dig her up and hit her over the skull with her own shin-bone.”

Mark Twain

As if that wasn’t enough, he also said (a few times):

“Any library is a good library that does not contain a volume by Jane Austen. Even if it contains no other book.”

Mark Twain

And also possibly his most pithy insult about one of her novels:

“Once you put it down, you simply can’t pick it up.”

Mark Twain

Who won? Given Austen’s reputation for biting social satire, I’m sure she could have come up with a few retaliatory zingers of her own, had she lived to see what Twain thought of her. As it stands, though, I’ve got to give this one to him. He was brutal!

Charles Dickens vs Hans Christian Andersen

In the 1850s, Andersen was what we might now call a Dickens fan-boy (and it’s not hard to see why). Andersen wrote: “Dickens is one of the most amiable men that I know, and possesses as much heart as intellect”. Big talk, given that (at the time) he’d never actually met the man.

The love was not mutual. Dickens begrudgingly accepted Andersen’s request to sleep in his spare room when he came to Britain for a visit, but before the poor guy even arrived, Dickens was slagging him off to all his mates: “He speaks no language but his own Danish, and is suspected of not even knowing that.”

Andersen’s stay at Casa de Dickens did not improve their relationship. He committed the cardinal sin of overstaying his welcome; Dickens had offered him the use of the guest room for a week, but he ultimately stayed for five. Upon his departure, Dickens was so pissed off that he taped up a note in the room that read:

“Hans Christian Andersen slept in this room for five weeks – which seems to the family AGES!”

Charles Dickens

Andersen was never invited back, and eventually Dickens just ghosted him altogether.

Who won? This wasn’t even a contest: Dickens won by KO.

Salman Rushdie vs The World

Salman Rushdie is basically the Kanye West of literature. He never forgets his enemies’ faces, and he has a never-ending supply of sass. He counts among his foes Cat Stevens (whom he called “stupid”), Kalam Siddiqui of the Muslim Institute (a “garden gnome”), broadcaster Mark Lawson (from whom he once stole a cab, the ultimate insult), and literary journalist James Wood (whom he once accused of having altered a review of his novel to appease his U.S. “paymasters”). He’s had so many feuds, I couldn’t possibly pick just one to cover here.

Salman Rushdie vs John Updike

In 2006, Updike reviewed Rushdie’s book Shalimar The Clown and asked the question: “Why, oh why, did Salman Rushdie… call one of his major characters Maximilian Ophuls?”

In response, Rushdie is quoted as saying: “A name is just a name. ‘Why oh why?’ Well, why not? Somewhere in Las Vegas there’s probably a male prostitute called ‘John Updike’.”

He piled on when talking about Updike’s own upcoming novel (Terrorist), calling it “beyond awful”, and suggesting that Updike “should stay in his parochial neighbourhood and write about wife-swapping, because it’s what he can do”. He also referred to the majority of Updike’s work as “garbage”.

When Rushdie was asked to defend his pettiness, he answered the way we all wish we could sometimes: “I’m allowed to say it, because he was really rude about me.”

Salman Rushdie vs John le Carré

This fourteen-year feud began in 1997, with John le Carré having a big old whinge in the letters section of The Guardian. He complained that he had been unfairly attacked for alleged anti-Semitism.

Rushdie did not take kindly to this, and called him out on it:

“It would be easier to sympathise with [le Carré] if he had not been so ready to join in an earlier campaign of vilification against a fellow writer. In 1989… le Carré wrote an article… in which he eagerly, and rather pompously, joined forces with my assailants.”

Salman Rushdie

But Johnny did not back down without a fight!

“Rushdie’s way with the truth is as self-serving as ever. My purpose was not to justify the persecution of Rushdie, which, like any decent person, I deplore, but to sound a less arrogant, less colonialist and less self-righteous note than we were hearing from the safety of his admirers’ camp.”

John le Carré

Shots fucking fired! Rushdie came back:

“I’m grateful to John le Carré for refreshing all our memories about exactly how pompous an ass he can be.”

Salman Rushdie

And he added, later:

If he wants to win an argument, John le Carré could begin by learning to read… It’s true I did call him a pompous ass, which I thought pretty mild in the circumstances. ‘Ignorant’ and ‘semi-literate’ are dunces’ caps he has skillfully fitted on his own head. I wouldn’t dream of removing them… John le Carré appears to believe I would prefer him not to go on abusing me. Let me assure him that I am of precisely the contrary opinion. Every time he opens his mouth, he digs himself into a deeper hole. Keep digging, John, keep digging. Me, I’m going back to work.”

Salman Rushdie

Thank God we got receipts for all of this!

The two publicly made-up in 2011, with Rushdie calling le Carré’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy “one of the great novels of postwar Britain”, and le Carré conceding that he, too, regretted the dispute. Something tells me that Rushdie may bury hatchets but he keeps maps of where he put them…

Salman Rushdie vs Peter Carey

In Rushdie’s eyes, Peter Carey made a grave mistake when he pulled out of attending a gala hosted by the Pen American Centre in 2015. Carey stated publicly that he objected to Pen awarding a freedom of expression and courage award to the editor-in-chief and essayist of Charlie Hebdo (the satirical French magazine attacked by extremists after that year publishing cartoons disparaging the prophet Mohammed).

Rushdie saw the award as part of the “battle against fanatical Islam”, and said that Carey – along with the five other writers who withdrew their acceptances and refused to attend the event – had “made themselves fellow travellers of that project [fanatical Islam]”, a “very, very bad move”.

He also called them “pussies”.

Carey maintains to this day that Pen has a “seeming blindness to the cultural arrogance of the French nation, which does not recognise its moral obligation to a large and disempowered segment of their population”.

Chances are it’ll be another fourteen years before they make nice…

Salman Rushdie vs Roald Dahl

How anyone could feud with the author of The BFG is beyond me, but Kanye Rushdie managed it. In fairness, Roald Dahl was kind of a prick about the whole thing…

It all started when Dahl publicly denounced Rushdie in 1989, arguing that he basically deserved the fatwa that was placed upon him after publication of The Satanic Verses. Dahl called Rushdie “a dangerous opportunist”, and said that his “sensationalism” was a “cheap” way of making it to the top of a bestseller list.

“[Rushdie] must have been totally aware of the deep and violent feelings his book would stir up among devout Muslims. In other words, he knew exactly what he was doing and cannot plead otherwise.”

Roald Dahl (1989)

It was big talk from Dahl, who was – incidentally – also once placed under police protection after death threats were made against him.

And yet, it would seem that the feud was (unusually, for Rushdie!) a bit one sided. Rushdie never responded publicly, and popular opinion seems to be that Dahl was simply jealous of Rushdie’s success, trying to bring him down a peg or two. This is somewhat substantiated by an (admittedly completely unverified) account I once heard of a journalist telling Dahl that he was off to interview Salman Rushdie for a column, and Dahl (allegedly) responded: “Oh, yes? Well, tell him he’s a shit!”

I don’t know if Rushdie ever got that message – he was probably too busy feuding with everybody else.

Bonus Literary Feuds!

I must also give an honourable mention to William Faulkner, who is quoted as saying that Ernest Hemingway “has never been known to use a word that might send a reader to the dictionary”. Hemingway responded by saying: “Poor Faulkner. Does he really think big emotions come from big words?”. Hemingway might have won that round, but Vladimir Nabokov got the last word on Hemingway:

“As to Hemingway, I read him for the first time in the early forties, something about bells, balls and bulls, and loathed it.”

Vladimir Nabakov

And there concludes my argument that authors are the pettiest, sassiest people on the planet. Are you convinced? Have you heard of any other great literary feuds? Tell me all about them in the comments (or share the gossip over at KUWTP on Facebook!).

The Best Fathers in Literature

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

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

Bob Cratchit (A Christmas Carol – Charles Dickens)

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

Hans Hubermann (The Book Thief – Markus Zusak)

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

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

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

Mr Bennet (Pride and Prejudice – Jane Austen)

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

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

Atticus Finch (To Kill A Mockingbird – Harper Lee)

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

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

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

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

7 Books that Gave Us Words and Catch Phrases We Use Every Day

Ever been stuck in a no-win situation? A ridiculous double-bind? Found yourself hamstrung by bureaucracy? Maybe you’ve been charged a fee for not having enough money in your account, or found yourself unable to get a job without any experience, or denied tenancy in a new apartment without a current personal address. You might have called the situation a “catch-22”, even if you’ve never read the book that gave us the term (maybe you never even knew it was from a book, no judgement!). So many words and idioms slip into our language, but how often do we really know where they come from? Check out these seven books that gave us words and catch phrases we use every day.

7 Books That Gave Us Words and Phrases We Use Every Day - Black Text Overlaid On Image of Open Book Spine - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Catch-22 – Joseph Heller

As I’ve just mentioned, a catch-22 is widely understood to mean a predicament where the very nature of the problem prevents it from being resolved. It originated with Joseph Heller’s book Catch-22: the main character, Yossarian, wants to be excused from flying any more missions in the military (because every time he pilots a military plane, he risks death). He finds himself butting up against “catch-22”: pilots who are declared mentally unfit do not have to fly any more missions, but pilots who request to be declared mentally unfit are clearly of sound mind (as they want to avoid dying), so they must fly. Fun fact: the book might have actually been called Catch-18 (sounds funny, doesn’t it?), as that was Heller’s original title, but he and his publisher agreed to change it when other novels featuring the number eighteen in their title appeared around the same time. (I’ve reviewed Catch-22 in full right here!)

Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde – Robert Louis Stevenson

If someone is referred to as “Jekyll and Hyde”, generally we understand that they have two distinct personalities: one gentle, refined and well-behaved, the other hedonistic, violent and hostile. This is lifted directly from the plot of Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, where the well-respected Dr Jekyll invents a scientific process by which he morphs into Mr Hyde, allowing him to indulge his aberrant urges without fear of losing face (check out my review here for more details!).

Bleak House – Charles Dickens

I had to triple-check this, because it didn’t seem right, but believe it or not it was Dickens who gave us the word “boredom”! English-speakers had been using the word “bore” for about a century, but Dickens was the first to turn the feeling into a noun. It appeared in his 1853 novel Bleak House. How on Earth could we have lived without a word for that? Thank you, Dickens!

Cabbages and Kings – O. Henry

What would you call a tropical nation with an unstable government and an over-reliance on the export of a single product? A “banana republic”, of course! The term is drawn from the novel Cabbages and Kings, published in 1904; it is set in the fictional “Republic of Anchuria” in Central America. The Republic’s primary export was – you guessed it – bananas. Funnily enough, the title of the book was itself drawn from The Walrus and The Carpenter, a poem that appeared in Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.

Don Quixote – Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra

I still remember my mother explaining to me the meaning of the phrase “a pot calling the kettle black”. As I recall, she said that it meant to accuse someone of something that you’re doing yourself – which is pretty much spot on. What she didn’t tell me (not that I blame her) was that the idiom was popularised by Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra in Don Quixote back in the 17th century. He lifted it from the common understanding at the time that both pots and kettles made of cast-iron would get black with soot in the kitchens of the era. It’s pretty bloody enduring as far as idioms go, because we still use it today, some four centuries later!

Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland – Lewis Carroll

Remember I mentioned Alice in Wonderland just before? Well, it warrants its very own spot in this list! Among a whole bunch of funny turns-of-phrase (“through the looking glass”, “down the rabbit hole”, “Cheshire cat smile”, “off with her head”) we get “mad as a hatter” – meaning seriously bonkers! Well, to put it more politely, someone is “mad as a hatter” if they’re behaving erratically, speaking nonsense, or displaying any kind of unusual behaviour. Carroll borrowed the idea from a well-known phenomenon of hat manufacturers being struck down with mercury poisoning (yes, that was a thing). In so doing, he created his character The Mad Hatter, and a phrase that was cemented into the English language. You can read my full review of Carroll’s classic book for children here.

1984 – George Orwell

A lot of the phrases from 1984 are getting extra air-time at the moment, as a lot of Orwell’s predictions seem to be coming eerily true. Of course, we all understand the concept of “Big Brother” – the totalitarian dictator, always watching and thus completely controlling his society.  Orwell also created “Newspeak”, a fictional language that gave us gems like “doublethink” (being able to hold two contrary or opposing ideas at the very same thing). We really do owe him a lot!

Even if you never read a single one of these books, at least you can give a smug smile every time you use one of the phrases, knowing that you’ll be able to explain the origins of them if anyone asks (and even if they don’t!). Are there any words or phrases from literature that I’ve missed? Let me know in the comments (or use them over at KUWTP on Facebook!).

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What’s Your Desert Island Book?

This week on Keeping Up With The Penguins, I’m tackling one of those dinner party questions that haunts all bookworms: what’s your desert island book? I was inspired by Cheryl Strayed’s memoir (Wild, I reviewed it this week); she trekked over a thousand miles on the Pacific Crest Trail, carrying with her Adrienne Rich’s The Dream of a Common Language (which she described as her “religion”), and William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying (which, incidentally, I recently reviewed), among others. It led me to think long and hard about what book I’d want with me if I were lost in the wilderness. I asked KUWTP readers this very question a couple of weeks ago (by the way, are you following us on Facebook and Instagram?), and got some fascinating responses!

It’s tough enough to imagine a situation where you’re stuck on a desert island indefinitely, with just a single book – but there are many factors to consider. Do you take your favourite book? Do you take a really heavy read, one that you’ve been putting off, so that you can capitalise on all that uninterrupted reading time? Maybe you want to choose a really light and funny book that will take your mind off your troubles. Of course, you could think laterally, and take a really thick book with lots of pages, so you can pull out as many as you need to use as kindling for a fire. The KUWTP community came up with a bunch of options for each, so let’s take a look at the definitive KUWTP Desert Island Book List.

What's Your Desrt Island Book? - black text in a square speech bubble overlaid on an image of palm trees, sand and sea - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Ulysses – James Joyce

This one was my idea, mostly because I suspect that being trapped alone on a desert island, with no other entertainment, might be the only circumstance under which I could motivate myself to finish the notoriously unreadable Ulysses. Unfortunately for me, it ended up on The List, but I’m putting it off as long as I can (I’ll let you know as soon as the review is up, wish me luck!). Still, I wasn’t the only one to nominate Joyce’s seminal work as my desert island book for that reason, so it’s nice to know I’m not alone!

Don Quixote – Miguel de Cervantes

Don Quixote was the most popular choice, which took me by surprise! A whole bunch of readers chose this weighty 17th century tome (most editions run to almost 1,000 pages), out of the blue as best I could tell. Perhaps I shouldn’t have been surprised, though – I later learned that Don Quixote is the best-selling single-volume book of all time. With over 500 million copies in circulation, it seems inevitable that at least a few would end up on desert islands…

Collected Works – William Shakespeare

There were a few creative “cheat” choices (among them the Harry Potter series, the New York Trilogy, and the collected works of Charles Dickens), but I think this one technically passes free and clear because it can frequently be found in a single volume (indeed, I own two of them). The Collected Works of William Shakespeare would certainly keep you going for a while, and it covers all manner of genres and storylines, so you can pick whatever you’re in the mood for: comedy, history, tragedy, romance…

Lord Of The Flies – William Golding

I loved this suggestion, purely for the irony: stuck on a desert island, with nothing to read but a book about a bunch of boys stuck on a desert island (that ends pretty badly to boot). Ha! If nothing else, Lord Of The Flies would make a good what-not-to-do manual. Fingers crossed the KUWTP readers that chose this for their desert island read wouldn’t take the story too literally (lest a few pigs meet unkind ends)…

Wuthering Heights – Emily Brontë

As one reader cleverly deduced, one of the most distressing parts of being stuck on a desert island would surely be the intolerable heat. Thus, ever so wisely, she named Wuthering Heights as her desert island book. A story full of chilly winter nights on sweeping moors, complete with howling winds and stiff breezes, would be the perfect antidote to scorching island sun. I almost considered taking this answer for my own, because I didn’t love Wuthering Heights the first time around, and I’ve been meaning to re-read it – deserted on an island would be the perfect opportunity!

Charlotte’s Web – E.B. White

This was, undoubtedly, the cutest choice for a desert island book! Charlotte’s Web would be the perfect cosy, feel-good read, full of childhood nostalgia, to comfort you in your lonely hours. Plus, if I had the chance to ask the desert-island-book-fairy for an audiobook, I’d definitely want the version read by E.B. White himself – could there be anything better?

Shantaram – Gregory David Roberts

Now, this one came out of left field, but the more I looked at it, the more sense it made. A dear friend of mine (who is also, of course, a dedicated KUWTP reader) said that she’d choose Gregory David Roberts’ Shantaram – an Australian novel, published in 2003. It tells the story of a convicted bank robber and heroin addict, who manages to escape prison and flee to Mumbai, India. Coming in at some 900 pages, it’s another desert island book that would keep you entertained for quite a while, if the rescue boat is slow in getting to you. In the end, I had to concede, it’s an excellent call!

Waiting for Godot – Samuel Beckett

I saved my favourite choice for last: Samuel Beckett’s tragi-comedy, Waiting For Godot. This play tells the story of two characters who are waiting for the arrival of a bloke named Godot (thus, the title – der). The ultimate joke is, of course, that he never turns up. Perhaps, if I were actually in the desert-island situation, a book that so closely mirrors my own experience of waiting for rescue without a happy ending wouldn’t be so great for my mental health… but as it stands, I think it’s a fucking hilarious answer, and I’m going to steal it for my own from now on.

So, what’s your desert island book? What do you think of the ones suggested here? Let me know in the comments (or join the conversation over at KUWTP on Facebook!).

Describe A Book In A Single Sentence

To celebrate publishing the first ten reviews here on Keeping Up With The Penguins, I’m going to have a crack at something different today. Taking my inspiration from a game I’ve seen floating around on Twitter (you can follow me there, if you like!), I’m going to try to describe each of those 10 books in a single sentence. If you can’t be bothered to read the reviews in full, consider this your complete “tl;dr” summary guide.

The Hunger Games – Suzanne Collins

A teenage girl is plucked from a life of obscure poverty to fight to the death in a reality show run by the evil dictator of a wealthy capital, and she wins (even though she spends half the time thinking about her love life).

Read my full review here, and buy the book here.

The Scarlet Letter – Nathaniel Hawthorne

The author tells us how much he hates the Puritans over and over again, by having a no-good priest knock up a married woman and let her endure the punishment for years while he escapes scot-free… until her husband returns.

Read my full review here, and buy the book here.

Vanity Fair – William Makepeace Thackeray

300 pages of scandal, love and intrigue in the lives of two young women and the men around them, followed by 300 pages of men going to war, men dying, women crying, and long descriptions of fictional mansions (snore).

Read my full review here, and buy the book here.

My Brilliant Career – Miles Franklin

A 16-year-old girl living in the bush wrote a novel about a 16-year-old girl living in the bush, and how much she wanted a flashy career in the city instead of a stupid husband.

Read my full review here, and buy the book here.

David Copperfield – Charles Dickens

The beautifully-written life story of a man who lived through the Victorian era, from his humble beginnings as the thorn in the side of a bastard stepfather to his happy ending as a successful writer with a wife who actually loves him.

Read my full review here, and buy the book here.

In Cold Blood – Truman Capote

A nice Kansas family of four gets merked for no apparent reason, and the story only unravels through the long, drawn-out investigation and trial of the two perpetrators.

Read my full review here, and buy the book here.

Lady Chatterley’s Lover – D.H. Lawrence

A wealthy paraplegic takes it into his head that his wife should take herself some lovers and get knocked up, only when she does it with the gamekeeper he doesn’t like it so much, and they all end up miserable.

Read my full review here, and buy the book here.

The Book Thief – Markus Zusak

The Grim Reaper tells the story of a young girl whose mother was taken by the Nazis; she learns to read hidden away in the basement of her foster family, and figures out quick-smart why you shouldn’t mouth off about Hitler.

Read my full review here, and buy the book here.

Mrs Dalloway – Virginia Woolf

A brilliant stream-of-consciousness depiction of a day in the life of a wealthy socialite, featuring a peripheral veteran who tops himself, which sounds great except that I’m not smart enough to follow it and most of it made no sense at all.

Read my full review here, and buy the book here.

The Catcher in the Rye – J.D. Salinger

An emo kid bails on his education and spends a few days wandering around New York, getting drunk and smoking cigarettes and chickening out of losing his virginity.

Read my full review here, and buy the book here.

You know, that’s actually harder than you’d think! I probably spent more time working out how to describe books in a single sentence than I did writing the original reviews. Still, I thought I’d work up just one more for you so we can play a guessing game. This is a one-sentence review of the next week’s book… can you guess what it is?

A bad boy’s decade-long butthurt over getting friendzoned, culminating in his death – at which point, he and his true love spend eternity haunting their old stomping grounds, while their surviving children enter into incestuous marriages.

If you know it, let me know in the comments (or tell everyone how clever you are over at KUWTP on Facbeook!). And please feel free to share any one-sentence reviews of your own, I’d love to hear them!

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