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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.)

Note: I loved David Copperfield SO MUCH that I included it in my shortlist of Classic Books Worth Reading here.

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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10 Long Books Worth Reading

Long books often get a bad rap, and it’s not without reason. Sometimes, you just look at an 800-page doorstop and think… yeah, nah. Reading three or four shorter books seems so much easier. I’ve written before about how quick reads are great for busy people, and I certainly wouldn’t begrudge anyone their inclination for a shorter tome. But, as with everything, one doesn’t necessarily have to come at the expense of the other. When I read Don Quixote, I made sure to clear my reading schedule for a good four weeks, to allow myself time to fully immerse myself in Cervantes’ world and take in his episodic plot bit by bit – and I’m so glad I did! If we eschew all long books because we’re intimidated or we assume they’ll bore us, we’re going to miss out on some great reads. So, if you decide the time is right to full invest yourself in one long (long!) book, you want to make sure it’s a good one, right? I’ve got your back: here are ten long books worth reading.

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

801 pages

Fantasy books tend to be doorstops, more so than other genres, and I’m pretty sure there’s a fantasy reader or two out there looking at A Game Of Thrones and thinking “pffft, that’s not long!”. Well, for regular readers, it is! And I’m not normally one for fantasy books. I get lost in the names of characters and places and magical stuff, and find myself having to double back a lot to keep it all straight. The great thing about A Game Of Thrones is that we’re all already familiar with the plot (or, at least, the basic premise) having seen the HBO adaptation. That makes it much easier – and quicker! – to read than coming to it completely cold. The other reason this long book is worth reading? When snobs say “Oh, I haven’t seen the TV series, I read the book”, you can say “Yeah, me too!”, and watch them pout. Hehehe! Read my full review of A Game Of Thrones here.

A Little Life by Hanya Yanaghiara

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

720 pages

There’s nothing little about A Little Life (I think I could use my paperback edition to do deadlifts, I can’t imagine what the hardcover would be like!), but it’s one of those long books worth reading just to see what all the fuss is about. Trigger warnings aplenty: most readers call this one “devastating”, and that’s understating it. But this searing examination of life in New York, the riveting realities of trauma, and the heartbreaking intensity of love and loyalty is totally worth it when you’ve got the time and mental stability for it. It was also shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 2015, if that makes any difference to you.

The Eighth Life by Nino Haratischvili

The Eighth Life - Nino Haratschvili - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

934 pages

When Scribe reached out to me last year and said they had a new book for me to read, about a family cursed by a secret chocolate recipe, my response was something along the lines of: HECK YEAH! When a huge package arrived in the post a couple days later, I didn’t connect the dots – I thought someone had mailed me a brick as a prank. But no, it was The Eighth Life (translated into English by Charlotte Collins and Ruth Martin). The days of the sweeping multi-generational epic are not over, friends! This one follows the Jashi family over the course of a century, as they survive the rise and fall of the Soviet Union. You get to see how world politics plays out on a personal level (and, yes, there is magical cursed chocolate).

The Golden Notebook by Doris Lessing

The Golden Notebook - Doris Lessing - Book Laid Face Up on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

576 pages

The Golden Notebook is, technically, the shortest on this list of long books worth reading – but if you’re not used to reading long books, it won’t feel that way! I suppose, if we’re being technical, it’s more like five books in one. Doris Lessing has written a story that could stand alone (“Free Women”), and then weaved in four separate “notebook” narratives, written by her protagonist. This book is unique in its structure and form, and it has a lot to say about the nature of identity, relationships, and womanhood. I can guarantee you’ve never read anything else like it. Read my full review of The Golden Notebook here.

A Short History Of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson

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

686 pages

The title says it all, really: A Short History Of Nearly Everything. Bill Bryson is, as always, concise and funny and warm and whimsical, but even a “short” history of “nearly everything” is going to make for a damn long book. Luckily, Bryson has had a lot of practice at writing about lofty topics for the everyday reader, so he makes 680+ pages of physics, biology, history, sociology, and mathematics incredibly engaging and compulsively readable. Even though it’s perhaps a little out of date now (my edition still says Pluto is a planet, whoops!), it will still give you a lot of fun facts for the next time you’re stuck for words around the water cooler. Read my full review of A Short History Of Nearly Everything here.

Under The Dome by Stephen King

Under The Dome - Stephen King - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

880 pages

Stephen King is known for writing long books – real long! – and Under The Dome is no exception. The good news is that it was his 58th book, so he had plenty of practice under his belt and knew just how to keep the reader interested in his doorstop book. Using multiple perspectives (to keep things fresh), he tells the story of a town suddenly cut off from the rest of the world by a large, invisible barrier (the titular “dome”). It’s not as horror-y as some of his other offerings (no mass slaughters at high schools or cursed dogs here!), but it is still as chilling and spooky as you’d hope from the master.

Crime And Punishment by Fyodor Dostoyevsky

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

671 pages

DON’T STOP READING! I know you must be feeling super cynical about seeing Crime And Punishment – a dreary, depressing Russian classic – on a list off long books worth reading. I understand that you might be thinking “ugh, if I’m going to spend that much time on one book, it’d better be something that brings me joy”. I know all of your preconceived ideas because I had the same ones, and I am happy to report that I was completely wrong. Crime And Punishment is not dreary or depressing at all! In fact, my edition (the translation to English by David McDuff) made me laugh ’til I cried, and I found myself totally relating to and rooting for a literal axe murderer. Read my full review of Crime And Punishment here.

The Secret History by Donna Tartt

The Secret History - Donna Tartt - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

629 pages

If you feel like you need some likeable characters (some axe murderers you can root for, perhaps), The Secret History is probably not the best long book to start with. That said, it’s still compelling and compulsive, in a way that only Donna Tartt can be. This book follows a group of college students who are studying the classics, and the… shall we say, bizarre, twisted, fucked-up mess they make for themselves. It’s a fascinating character study, but with enough mystery and action to keep you flicking through hundreds of pages.

David Copperfield by Charles Dickens

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

1057 pages

Here it is: the big daddy, the grand poobah, of long books – and yet, it’s one I almost forgot to include. See, I don’t even really think of David Copperfield as a long book. Maybe that’s partly because my edition was split into two volumes, about five hundred pages a piece, but I think it’s mostly because it just didn’t feel like a long book. I read it so fast, I was so gripped and entertained the whole way through the protagonist’s life story, I pumped through it as quickly as I would any standard-length contemporary novel. This is the perfect pick for readers who normally enjoy history or biography, because it has the incomparable benefit of not having to stick to the rigid rules of the “truth” 😉 Read my full review of David Copperfield here.

Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy

Anna Karenina - Leo Tolstoy - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

784 pages

Yes, yes, it’s another Russian classic, but any list of long books worth reading is incomplete without Anna Karenina. If nothing else, it’s worth picking up just for the immortal opening line: “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way”. Surely, that alone is enough to draw you in! It actually shares a lot in common with many of the other books on this list: the characters aren’t (necessarily) likeable and they do horrible things to one another, it’s a rich world drawn in great detail, it’s indulgent, it’s tragic… Consider this your option for “levelling up” your long-book-reading game.


All told, this list comes to 7738 pages – surely that’s enough to keep you going for a while! No? Add your recommendations for long books worth reading in the comments below!

Book Reviews By Category

American

The Adventures of Augie March – Saul Bellow
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn – Mark Twain
The Age Of Innocence – Edith Wharton
All The King’s Men – Robert Penn Warren
As I Lay Dying – William Faulkner
The Catcher In The Rye – J.D. Salinger
Gentlemen Prefer Blondes – Anita Loos
The Grapes Of Wrath – John Steinbeck
The Great Gatsby – F. Scott Fitzgerald
Little Women – Louisa May Alcott
Moby Dick – Herman Melville
On The Road – Jack Kerouac
Portnoy’s Complaint – Philip Roth
The Scarlet Letter – Nathaniel Hawthorne
The Sun Also Rises – Ernest Hemingway
To Kill A Mockingbird – Harper Lee

Australian

The Dressmaker – Rosalie Ham
The Husband’s Secret – Liane Moriarty
My Brilliant Career – Miles Franklin
The Narrow Road To The Deep North – Richard Flanagan
The Rosie Project – Graeme Simsion
True History Of The Kelly Gang – Peter Carey

Books In Translation

The Alchemist – Paulo Coelho
My Brilliant Friend – Elena Ferrante
The One-Hundred-Year Old Man Who Climbed Out The Window And Disappeared – Jonas Jonasson
She Came To Stay – Simone de Beauvoir

Children’s

Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland – Lewis Carroll
The Wind In The Willows – Kenneth Grahame

Classic

The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes – Arthur Conan Doyle
Clarissa – Samuel Richardson
David Copperfield – Charles Dickens
Don Quixote – Miguel de Cervantes
Emma – Jane Austen
Gulliver’s Travels – Jonathan Swift
Jane Eyre – Charlotte Brontë
The Life And Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman – Laurence Sterne
The Picture of Dorian Gray – Oscar Wilde
The Pilgrim’s Progress – John Bunyan
Pride And Prejudice – Jane Austen
Robinson Crusoe – Daniel Defoe
Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde – Robert Louis Stevenson
Sybil – Benjamin Disraeli – Coming Soon!
Vanity Fair – William Makepeace Thackeray
Wuthering Heights – Emily Brontë

Fantasy

The Colour Of Magic – Terry Pratchett
A Game Of Thrones – George R.R. Martin

Horror

A Clockwork Orange – Anthony Burgess
Dracula – Bram Stoker
Frankenstein – Mary Shelley

Memoir & Autobiography

American Sniper – Chris Kyle
The Happiest Refugee – Anh Do
The White Mouse – Nancy Wake
Wild – Cheryl Strayed
Yes Please – Amy Poehler

Mystery & Thriller

The Big Sleep – Raymond Chandler
The Girl On The Train – Paula Hawkins
The Lake House – Kate Morton
The Maltese Falcon – Dashiell Hammett
The Thirty-Nine Steps – John Buchan

Non-Fiction

The Brain That Changes Itself – Norman Doidge
A Brief History Of Time – Stephen Hawking
A Short History of Nearly Everything – Bill Bryson

Poetry

The Divine Comedy – Dante

Russian

Crime And Punishment – Fyodor Dostoyevsky

Science Fiction

Brave New World – Aldous Huxley
The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy – Douglas Adams
The Martian – Andy Weir

True Crime

In Cold Blood – Truman Capote

Young Adult

The Book Thief – Markus Zusak
Divergent – Veronica Roth
Fangirl – Rainbow Rowell
The Fault In Our Stars – John Green
Girl Online – Zoe Sugg – Coming Soon!
The Hunger Games – Suzanne Collins
If I Stay – Gayle Forman
The Maze Runner – James Dashner
Paper Towns – John Green
We Were Liars – E. Lockhart

Book Reviews By Title

A

The Adventures of Augie March – Saul Bellow
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn – Mark Twain
The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes – Arthur Conan Doyle
The Age Of Innocence – Edith Wharton
The Alchemist – Paulo Coelho
Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland – Lewis Carroll
All The King’s Men – Robert Penn Warren
All The Light We Cannot See – Anthony Doerr
American Sniper – Chris Kyle
Amongst Women – John McGahern
An Artist Of The Floating World – Kazuo Ishiguro
As I Lay Dying – William Faulkner

B

The Bell Jar – Sylvia Plath
The Big Sleep – Raymond Chandler
The Book Thief – Markus Zusak
The Brain That Changes Itself – Norman Doidge
Brave New World – Aldous Huxley
A Brief History of Time – Stephen Hawking

C

The Call Of The Wild – Jack London
Catch-22 – Joseph Heller
The Catcher In The Rye – J.D. Salinger
Clarissa – Samuel Richardson
A Clockwork Orange – Anthony Burgess
Cold Comfort Farm – Stella Gibbons
The Colour Of Magic – Terry Pratchett
Crime And Punishment – Fyodor Dostoyevsky

D

David Copperfield – Charles Dickens
Divergent – Veronica Roth
The Divine Comedy – Dante
Don Quixote – Miguel de Cervantes
Dracula – Bram Stoker
The Dressmaker – Rosalie Ham

E

Emma – Jane Austen
The End Of The Affair – Graham Greene

F

Fahrenheit 451 – Ray Bradbury
Fangirl – Rainbow Rowell
The Fault In Our Stars – John Green
Frankenstein – Mary Shelley

G

A Game Of Thrones – George R.R. Martin
Gentlemen Prefer Blondes – Anita Loos
The Girl On The Train – Paula Hawkins
Girl Online – Zoe Sugg – Coming Soon!
The Golden Bowl – Henry James
The Golden Notebook – Doris Lessing
The Grapes Of Wrath – John Steinbeck
The Great Gatsby – F. Scott Fitzgerald
Gulliver’s Travels – Jonathan Swift

H

The Happiest Refugee – Anh Do
The Heat Of The Day – Elizabeth Bowen
The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy – Douglas Adams
The Hunger Games – Suzanne Collins
The Husband’s Secret – Liane Moriarty

I

If I Stay – Gayle Forman
In Cold Blood – Truman Capote

J

Jane Eyre – Charlotte Brontë

K

Kim – Rudyard Kipling

L

Lady Chatterley’s Lover – D.H. Lawrence
The Lake House – Kate Morton
The Life And Opinions Of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman – Laurence Sterne
Life After Life – Kate Atkinson
Little Women – Louisa May Alcott
Lolly Willowes – Sylvia Townsend Warner
Lord Of The Flies – William Golding

M

The Maltese Falcon – Dashiell Hammett
The Martian – Andy Weir
The Maze Runner – James Dashner
Moby Dick – Herman Melville
Money – Martin Amis
Mrs Dalloway – Virginia Woolf
Murphy – Samuel Beckett
My Brilliant Career – Miles Franklin
My Brilliant Friend – Elena Ferrante

N

The Narrow Road To The Deep North – Richard Flanagan
Nineteen Nineteen – John dos Passos

O

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

P

Paper Towns – John Green
Party Going – Henry Green
A Passage To India – E.M. Forster
The Picture of Dorian Gray – Oscar Wilde
The Pilgrim’s Progress – John Bunyan
Portnoy’s Complaint – Philip Roth
Pride And Prejudice – Jane Austen
The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie – Muriel Spark

Q

R

Robinson Crusoe – Daniel Defoe
The Rosie Project – Graeme Simsion

S

The Scarlet Letter – Nathaniel Hawthorne
Scoop – Evelyn Waugh
She Came To Stay – Simone de Beauvoir
A Short History of Nearly Everything – Bill Bryson
A Single Man – Christopher Isherwood
Still Alice – Lisa Genova
Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde – Robert Louis Stevenson
The Sun Also Rises – Ernest Hemingway
Sybil – Benjamin Disraeli – Coming Soon!

T

The Thirty-Nine Steps – John Buchan
To Kill A Mockingbird – Harper Lee
Tropic Of Cancer – Henry Miller
True History Of The Kelly Gang – Peter Carey
Turn Of The Screw – Henry James

U

Ulysses – James Joyce – Coming Soon!

V

Vanity Fair – William Makepeace Thackeray

W

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves – Karen Joy Fowler
We Were Liars – E. Lockhart
The White Mouse – Nancy Wake
Wild – Cheryl Strayed
The Wind In The Willows – Kenneth Grahame
Wuthering Heights – Emily Brontë

X

Y

Yes Please – Amy Poehler

Z

Book Reviews By Author

A

The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy – Douglas Adams
Little Women – Louisa May Alcott
Money – Martin Amis
Life After Life – Kate Atkinson
Emma – Jane Austen
Pride And Prejudice – Jane Austen

B

She Came To Stay – Simone de Beauvoir
Murphy – Samuel Beckett
The Adventures of Augie March – Saul Bellow
The Heat Of The Day – Elizabeth Bowen
Fahrenheit 451 – Ray Bradbury
Jane Eyre – Charlotte Brontë
Wuthering Heights – Emily Brontë
A Short History of Nearly Everything – Bill Bryson
The Thirty-Nine Steps – John Buchan
The Pilgrim’s Progress – John Bunyan
A Clockwork Orange – Anthony Burgess

C

In Cold Blood – Truman Capote
True History Of The Kelly Gang – Peter Carey
Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland – Lewis Carroll
Don Quixote – Miguel de Cervantes
The Big Sleep – Raymond Chandler
The Alchemist – Paulo Coelho
The Hunger Games – Suzanne Collins

D

The Divine Comedy – Dante
The Maze Runner – James Dashner
Robinson Crusoe – Daniel Defoe
David Copperfield – Charles Dickens
Sybil – Benjamin Disraeli – Coming Soon!
The Happiest Refugee – Anh Do
All The Light We Cannot See – Anthony Doerr
The Brain That Changes Itself – Norman Doidge
Crime And Punishment – Fyodor Dostoyevsky
The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes – Arthur Conan Doyle

E

F

As I Lay Dying – William Faulkner
My Brilliant Friend – Elena Ferrante
The Great Gatsby – F. Scott Fitzgerald
The Narrow Road To The Deep North – Richard Flanagan
If I Stay – Gayle Forman
A Passage To India – E.M. Forster
We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves – Karen Joy Fowler
My Brilliant Career – Miles Franklin

G

Still Alice – Lisa Genova
Cold Comfort Farm – Stella Gibbons
Lord Of The Flies – William Golding
The Wind In The Willows – Kenneth Grahame
Party Going – Henry Green
Paper Towns – John Green
The Fault In Our Stars – John Green
The End Of The Affair – Graham Greene

H

The Dressmaker – Rosalie Ham
The Maltese Falcon – Dashiell Hammett
A Brief History Of Time – Stephen Hawking
The Girl On The Train – Paula Hawkins
The Scarlet Letter – Nathaniel Hawthorne
Catch-22 – Joseph Heller
The Sun Also Rises – Ernest Hemingway
Brave New World – Aldous Huxley

I

A Single Man – Christopher Isherwood
An Artist Of The Floating World – Kazuo Ishiguro

J

The Golden Bowl – Henry James
Turn Of The Screw – Henry James
The One-Hundred-Year Old Man Who Climbed Out The Window And Disappeared – Jonas Jonasson
Ulysses – James Joyce – Coming Soon!

K

On The Road – Jack Kerouac
Kim – Rudyard Kipling
American Sniper – Chris Kyle

L

Lady Chatterley’s Lover – D.H. Lawrence
To Kill A Mockingbird – Harper Lee
The Golden Notebook – Doris Lessing
We Were Liars – E. Lockhart
The Call Of The Wild – Jack London
Gentlemen Prefer Blondes – Anita Loos

M

A Game Of Thrones – George R.R. Martin
Amongst Women – John McGahern
Moby Dick – Herman Melville
Tropic Of Cancer – Henry Miller
The Husband’s Secret – Liane Moriarty
The Lake House – Kate Morton

N

O

P

Nineteen Nineteen – John dos Passos
The Bell Jar – Sylvia Plath
Yes Please – Amy Poehler
The Colour Of Magic – Terry Pratchett

Q

R

Clarissa – Samuel Richardson
Portnoy’s Complaint – Philip Roth
Divergent – Veronica Roth
Fangirl – Rainbow Rowell

S

The Catcher In The Rye – J.D. Salinger
Frankenstein – Mary Shelley
The Rosie Project – Graeme Simsion
The Prime Of Miss Jean Brodie – Muriel Spark
The Grapes Of Wrath – John Steinbeck
The Life And Opinions Of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman – Laurence Sterne
Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde – Robert Louis Stevenson
Dracula – Bram Stoker
Wild – Cheryl Strayed
Girl Online – Zoe Sugg – Coming Soon!
Gulliver’s Travels – Jonathan Swift

T

Vanity Fair – William Makepeace Thackeray
Lolly Willowes – Sylvia Townsend Warner
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn – Mark Twain

U

V

W

The White Mouse – Nancy Wake
All The King’s Men – Robert Penn Warren
Scoop – Evelyn Waugh
The Martian – Andy Weir
The Age Of Innocence – Edith Wharton
The Picture Of Dorian Gray – Oscar Wilde
Mrs Dalloway – Virginia Woolf

X

Y

Z

The Book Thief – Markus Zusak

“You’re Not Good Enough”: Classic Books Edition

A little while ago, I came across this fun literary game on the amazing Fiction No Chaser blog. Here are the rules:

  • Write 30 character names on separate slips of paper
  • Put them all in a jar, and shake them up good
  • Randomly choose two names from the jar for each question

For each of the fifteen questions, you have to decide which of the two characters you’d choose, and which one is “not good enough”. Sounds fun, right? Jess and Teagan at Fiction No Chaser played using Harry Potter characters. I decided I’d try it with characters from classic books I’ve reviewed here on Keeping Up With The Penguins. Here goes…!

You're Not Good Enough Literary Game - Classic Books Edition - Keeping Up With The Penguins

1. You only have one more spot on your spelling bee team. Who do you pick?

Tom Sawyer (The Adventures of Tom Sawyer) or Ishmael (Moby Dick)

It’s got to be Ishmael! If he spent all that time reading up about whales, he’s surely picked up a decent vocabulary along the way.

2. Both characters want to kill you. Which one would you kill to save yourself?

Mr Hyde (Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde) or Toad (The Wind In The Willows)

Oh, if it’s within my power, I’m taking down Mr Hyde. I don’t like my chances, he’d probably be able to take me down with his brute strength, but I couldn’t possibly kill the lovable rogue Toad.

3. You’re on The Bachelor/Bachelorette, and you’re down to these two characters. To whom will you give the final rose?

Sherlock Holmes (The Adventures Of Sherlock Holmes) or Dr Frankenstein (Frankenstein)

Sherlock, no question! I feel like his super-powers of deduction and reasoning would come in handy in a relationship. Plus, Dr Frankenstein was a big ol’ whiner. I’d spend half my life reassuring him that he hadn’t destroyed humanity or whatever, and running from the vengeful monster…


4. You’ve been chosen to participate in The Hunger Games. Who would most likely volunteer in your place?

Huckleberry Finn (The Adventures Of Huckleberry Finn) or Alice (Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland)

Huck would jump in for me, for sure! He’d welcome the adventure, and surely fare better than poor innocent wide-eyed Alice.

5. You’re stranded on an island with an active volcano. Who would you throw into the volcano as a sacrifice?

Holden Caulfield (The Catcher In The Rye) or Jane Eyre (Jane Eyre)

Oh, this is a cruel choice! I guess I’d have to sacrifice Holden, though I do have a soft spot for that wayward ruffian…

6. You’re the next DC/Marvel superhero (with your own TV show, of course!). Who is your sidekick?

Raskolnikov (Crime And Punishment) or Jay Gatsby (The Great Gatsby)

There is no way I’d be able to put up with that creepy stalker nincompoop Jay Gatsby for more than five minutes – it’d turn me into a villain, for sure! Raskolnikov is my guy (at least I know he’s handy with an axe).


7. You’re the manager of an avocado-admiring company. Who would you fire for lack of communication skills?

Clarissa Dalloway (Mrs Dalloway) or Dr Watson (The Adventures Of Sherlock Holmes)

Yes, this is an extremely weird question, but a game’s a game. Dr Watson is a spectacular communicator, he narrates all of the Holmes stories and does a damn fine job, so Clarissa is a goner. She’s probably got a party to plan anyway, or flowers to buy, or something.

8. You’ve just finished a book in which your favourite character dies. Which character is most likely to comfort you?

Don Quixote (Don Quixote) or Lorelei Lee (Gentlemen Prefer Blondes)

Sheesh, I’m not sure either of them would be much comfort! Don Quixote would probably go charging off in search of the author, to avenge my grief, and get distracted along the way. Lorelei would probably just pour some champagne and take me out to a fancy party. Actually, that doesn’t sound so bad. Lorelei it is!

9. You’re back in high school. Who’s most likely to be part of the popular clique?

Clarissa Harlowe (Clarissa) or Robinson Crusoe (Robinson Crusoe)

I feel like Crusoe would more likely have been the weird kid, trying to impress people by jumping off the roof or rolling around in the mud. Clarissa was an elegant and refined lady, so she was probably no Regina George, but she would’ve been popular nonetheless.


10. The day has arrived: you’re finally a year older! Who would have the nerve to forget your birthday?

Jo March (Little Women) or Hester Pyrne (The Scarlet Letter)

Jo would never do such a thing to me! It’d be Hester for sure. She’s too preoccupied, with fending off village gossip and lusting after her baby daddy and raising her kid and everything.

11. Who would be the next big BookTube star?

Elizabeth Bennet (Pride And Prejudice) or Mr Darcy (Pride And Prejudice)

This is the ultimate showdown! It’s almost too hard to choose… but I think it would be Lizzy. Mr Darcy would think that YouTube stardom was beneath him, or some snooty shit like that. Still, I like to think once they were married and happy, and they’d got over all their pride and prejudice, they’d make a cute BookTube duo and do videos together.

12. Sleepover time! You can only invite one person. Who would it be?

David Copperfield (David Copperfield) or Heathcliff (Wuthering Heights)

Look, I’m going to make an unexpected choice here. I’ve made no secret of the fact that I think Heathcliff is a knob… but I’d kind of want to hang out with him a bit, just to see what all the fuss is about. Bonus points if Cathy’s ghost shows up, and I get to see them go into full across-the-divide breakdown mode.


13. Bam, you’re pregnant! Who is the father/mother?

Captain Ahab (Moby Dick) or Lemuel Gulliver (Gulliver’s Travels)

Why do I get two men who both go gallivanting off around the world with little regard for the wives and families they leave at home alone for years at a time? Ugh! I think I’d go with Ahab. At least he had passion, I can respect that. Gulliver was a real prick to his wife, especially in the end, and I’d hate to be tethered to his high-and-mighty sanctimoniousness for life.

14. You’ve just sent a super-important text message. Who would leave you on Read?

Dr Jekyll (Strange Case Of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde) or Dorian Gray (The Picture Of Dorian Gray)

Both of them! Literally, both of them are too self-absorbed to bother responding to my text messages. Well, Dr Jekyll might get back to me someday, on his deathbed maybe…

15. You’ve just woken up in your childhood home, and it’s time for breakfast. Your mother is gone, and replaced with…?

Mr Rochester (Jane Eyre) or Emma Woodhouse (Emma)

Oh, I hope it would be Emma! For all her faults, she did a wonderful job of taking care of her father, and I’m sure she’d cook up something delicious (or have her household staff do it, at least).




That was fun, for something different! If you give it a go, be sure to drop a link in the comments below so I can check it out. Did I make a bad call on any of these? Let me know!


10 Things That Will Make Me Pick Up A Book

It’s the bookworm’s perpetual dilemma, wondering what to read next: how to choose from that towering to-be-read pile? Whenever I’m perusing my own shelves, or those of a bookstore or library, there are a few things that will always push me to pick one book over another. I saw a little while back that The Hungry Bookworm did a post on this very topic as part of a Top Ten Tuesday prompt (hosted by The Artsy Reader Girl), so I thought I’d borrow the idea. Here are ten things that will make me pick up a book (almost) every time…

1. The book is about an experience that’s different to my own or unfamiliar to me.

As far as I’m concerned, one of the best things about reading is getting to live a thousand lives. Whether it’s the chance to be an ageing gay man travelling the world, or the American children of Chinese immigrants, or the founder of an underground book club for women in Iran, I want to live it all through literature. Bonus points if it’s an #ownvoices book – I’m far more likely to pick it up if that’s the case!

2. The book has beautiful cover art.

Save your “don’t judge a book” speech. I’m really not that fussy about my book covers, not in the way I know some other booklovers are. I once knew a woman who would only read first-edition hardcovers, can you imagine? I’m fine with movie poster covers or plain-Jane block lettering on a pastel background… but I can’t deny there’s a special place in my heart for beautifully designed paperbacks. I love covers that catch the eye with clever design and colour!

3. I’ve heard other readers talk about the book (even if they hated it).

I have a hard time convincing authors that even bad reviews can be a good thing. I’ve picked up more than a few books after hearing critical comments from others, and loved them. Word of mouth is still the most powerful marketing tool when it comes to books, and I’m far more likely to pick up a book if someone else has talked to me about it. That’s why it’s so important that we booklovers take the time to leave a short review on sites like Goodreads and Litsy – whether what you have to say about the book is good, bad, or somewhere in between.

4. The book has a premise that bowls me over.

A judge is called to the case of a seventeen-year-old boy refusing medical treatment on religious grounds, and she must decide whether to force him to live or let him die. A man tracks down the victims of vicious online public shaming, and uses them as a lens through which we can examine our digital world. A small town wakes to find that overnight the ocean has receded. Don’t they all sound really good? I’m a sucker for a strong premise, no matter the subject or genre. If a one-sentence summary of the book makes me go “ooooh!”, I’m picking it up for sure!

5. The author wrote another book that I loved.

I picked up Great Expectations because Charles Dickens knocked it out of the park with David Copperfield. I picked up Purple Hibiscus because Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie killed it with Americanah (also because the two editions had beautiful matching cover art – see point number 2). I picked up Depends What You Mean By Extremist because I found John Safran’s Murder In Mississippi so gripping. This strategy doesn’t always outright guarantee a great read, but it usually works.

6. The book suits my mood at the time.

Sometimes, I’m looking for a book that will affirm whatever I’m currently feeling. In that case, say I was experiencing a loss, I might turn to The Year Of Magical Thinking. Other times, I’m looking for a book to take my mind off things. Then, if I was feeling down, I might pick up The One Hundred Year Old Man Who Climbed Out The Window And Disappeared for a few laughs. I hold off on books that are heavier or more challenging until I’m in a good frame of mind; that way, I can be sure I’ll handle it and get everything out of the book that I can. My attempt to read Wuthering Heights when I was emotionally preoccupied was a total disaster!

7. It’s a non-fiction book on a niche subject.

I love a book that delves into the nitty-gritty of something! I tore through a 450+ page history of the humble mosquito. I adored The White Mouse, a small print-run autobiography of an amazing woman of whom most people have never heard. I’m really looking forward to learning how Proust might change my life from Alain de Botton’s book. As long as the author is passionate and excited about their subject, no matter what it is, I’ll get passionate and excited, too!

8. It’s a pervasive and influential book that I’ve seen referenced elsewhere.

Vanity Fair was named for a setting in John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress. A colleague who transferred left me a farewell note that said “so long, and thanks for all the fish” – I had no idea what that meant until I finally read The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy. There’s an Alabama legal society named for the fictional Atticus Finch. I love picking up books that help me understand the origins of concepts, characters, idioms, and ideas we take for granted.

9. The book is different in content and style to whatever I’ve read most recently.

I know a lot of readers love to do “book flights” (which I call falling down a reading rabbit hole). They find a subject or a writer or a genre, and read as many books in that one area as they can until they get tired of it or find something new or exhaust their options. I’m not one of those readers. My tolerance for same-ness is usually one book. Occasionally, usually by accident, I’ll read a couple of similar books back-to-back, and it always makes me antsy. It’s a one-way ticket to Reading Slumpville! So, if I’ve just read a gritty account of an Australian true crime, I might reach for a classic romance or a collection of essays next, just to keep things varied and interesting.

10. The book was shortlisted for an award.

Note that I do say shortlisted – I don’t pay all that much attention to the actual winners of major literary awards. In fact, I usually don’t realise that a book has actually won a prize until after I’ve finished reading it and I’m starting to write up a review. I do, however, really enjoy looking over award shortlists. I always end up adding most (or all) of them to my to-be-read list. With the growing push for diversity and inclusion, these lists are usually goldmines of wonderfully varied reads with literary chops. Plus, picking a winner is basically a crapshoot, so I may as well just read them all and love them all for what they are!



What makes you pick up a book? Do you go for cover art as well? Do you stick with your favourite authors or genres? Or is it something else entirely that makes you pull one down from the shelf? Tell me in the comments!

7 Classic Books For People Who Don’t Read The Classics

Are you still searching for a bookish new year’s resolution? “Start reading the classics” might be a good one, but I wouldn’t blame you if you were feeling a bit intimidated. Classic books have a reputation for being long, dense, and difficult to understand. If you were forced to read a few in high school, that was probably enough to put you off them for life. The trick is to find a few that will ease you in. That’s why I’ve put together this list of classic books for people who don’t read classic books. I tried to pick classics that are easy to read, in terms of both language and content (no trigger warnings required, though there will always be some darker themes, can’t avoid those). These reads will get you into the rhythm, and hopefully help you develop a taste for classic books.

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Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë

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Charlotte Brontë has been called the “first historian of private consciousness”, which means she was one of the first writers to do first-person narration really, really well. Jane Eyre is the story of a young woman (named Jane Eyre, duh) coming of age in Victorian England. She’s a bit down on her luck, with dead parents and mean stepsisters and everything, but a position as a governess for a strange and alluring man could turn things all around for her… It’s the perfect classic to start with if you’ve got feminist leanings but you’re still a sucker for a good romance. Read my full review here.

The Adventures Of Sherlock Holmes by Arthur Conan Doyle

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

You might think you’re already familiar with Sherlock Holmes – he is, after all, the world’s most famous fictional detective, and one of the most commonly used and adapted characters in English literature. All that familiarity and context will make Doyle’s original short story collection, The Adventures Of Sherlock Holmes, a fun and easy read. Even if you’ve been living under the world’s largest rock and know nothing about Holmes and his trusty sidekick Dr Watson, you’ll still find these stories are quick, clever, and rollicking good fun. Read my full review here.

The Age Of Innocence by Edith Wharton

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In addition to a classic book with an intricate love triangle, when you pick up The Age Of Innocence you’ll also get a piece of history. It’s written in remembrance of a long-lost time, that of Gilded Age New York, and it’s also the first book written by a woman to win the Pulitzer Prize. That makes Wharton a trailblazer, as well as a teller of cracking yarns. You do need to keep your wits about you as you read this one, because she weaves all kinds of interesting comments and observations into passages as simple as the description of a house facade. If you want a classic book you can sink your teeth into, on a long flight perhaps, this is the one for you! Read my full review here.

David Copperfield by Charles Dickens

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I know I promised you some short and snappy classic reads, so I understand if you’re looking at a copy of David Copperfield right now and thinking I’ve led you up the garden path. The thing is, even though this is a long book in terms of page count, I was so enthralled by it and the pages flew by so fast that it felt like a regular-length novel. It’s written in the style of an autobiography, telling the life story of (you guessed it) a man called David Copperfield. Dickens was the master of writing something for everyone; he knew that his books were used for family entertainment, so he weaved in politics, romance, adventure, and intrigue, and seasoned it with humour and horror, to make sure readers of all ages and inclinations would enjoy his books. Read my full review here.

Little Women by Louisa May Alcott

Little Women - Louisa May Alcott - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Little Women wasn’t even considered to be a “real” classic until very recently. It has historically been written off as sentimental fluff, and many critical readers have turned their noses up at it. Luckily, I’m here to testify the truth of the matter, just for you Keeper-Upperers: this book is brilliant. Yes, it’s easy to read, and yes, at face value it can come across a little earnest, but lurking below the surface are all manner of feminist principles and class commentary and Alcott’s trademark subversion of expectations. I’m glad to see it has claimed its rightful place in the American literary canon! This is the classic book to read when you want a cozy family story with an edge. Read my full review here.

Emma by Jane Austen

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It took me a while, but I’m finally coming around to Austen, and to Emma in particular. I know most readers would probably recommend Pride And Prejudice for first-timers, but I actually found Emma to be a better introduction. It’s a gentle book, in the sense that most of the action takes place around bored wealthy white people visiting each other’s houses, but it’s also incredibly clever and witty and wise. Emma is a book that will marinate in your mind long after you’ve finished it. Pick it up if for no other reason than to find out what all the fuss is about. Read my full review here.

Frankenstein by Mary Shelley

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Mary Shelley put pen to paper and created Frankenstein in order to win a bet, and with that the whole genre of science fiction was born. If you’re a sci-fi reader, you should read this one to see the origins of your preferred genre brought to life (much like the monster, ha!). It’s written in an epistolary style – in letters, and diary entries, and so forth – which means it’s easy enough to pick up and put down, great for reading when you’re likely to experience distractions. That said, you’ll never want to put it down, because it’s just so gripping! Read my full review here.



What classic books would you recommend to people who don’t normally read classic books? Add to this reading list in the comments below!

7 Classic Books You Can Skip Reading (And What To Read Instead)

I don’t think anyone should read the classics just so they can say they’ve “read the classics”. Sometimes books are glorified and lionised for reasons other than readability. Take Moby Dick, for instance: it’s a fascinating book, one worth reading and understanding from an academic standpoint, but that doesn’t make it an enjoyable reading experience for most booklovers. Earlier this year, I talked about how to read more classic books, and I still think that’s a laudable goal… but consider this post the counterpoint, a list of classic books you can skip reading (and some suggestions as to what you can read instead).

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Don’t Read: The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald

Read Instead: Gentlemen Prefer Blondes by Anita Loos

If you’ve followed Keeping Up With The Penguins for a while, you had to know this would be the first cab off the rank. I’ve made no secret of the fact that I hated The Great Gatsby, and if anything my distaste for it has only grown over time. I have no idea why it’s so popular, especially in high-school reading lists. A privileged white guy discovers it’s fun to have money and party with pretty girls, then his friend dies and nobody comes to the funeral – smh. Maybe it was a revelation for some, but certainly not for me. I found Gentlemen Prefer Blondes superior in just about every way. First, it was funny. Second, it was incredibly insightful. Third, it privileged the voices of characters that Fitzgerald mercilessly marginalised (i.e., women). Trust me, you’ll have way more fun reading about Lorelei’s adventures in love and high society than you will reading about Gatsby borderline-stalking his married ex-girlfriend.

Don’t Read: The Adventures Of Augie March by Saul Bellow

Read Instead: David Copperfield by Charles Dickens

When I read The Adventures Of Augie March, I could tell straight away that Bellow owed a huge debt to Dickens in general, and to David Copperfield in particular. Bellow basically took Dickens’ style of storytelling and transplanted it into 1920s Chicago. I don’t think he did a great job of it, though. Augie is barely a character, he has no agency in his own life, and any other character you might actually care about only appears for a page or two. David Copperfield, on the other hand, was full of fun and intrigue and heartbreak and glory; Dickens was the master of writing books that had something for everyone, and writers like Bellow tackle that legacy at their own peril. When in doubt, go for the OG.

Don’t Read: Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury

Read Instead: Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell

I love the story of how Ray Bradbury came to write Fahrenheit 451. He found a library that would let him use a typewriter for 10c per hour, and he got to work, writing his magnum opus for the princely sum of about nine bucks. It’s a great story-behind-the-story, and I talk more about it in my review, but unfortunately a handful of speed-writing sessions in a library basement doesn’t a masterpiece of modern literature make. Fahrenheit 451 is a really short book, and it reads like a good first draft (which, basically, it is). I feel like almost everyone who loves it read it for the first time in high school, when the idea that a government might gain too much power and people would be forced to rebel was a game-changer. In my view, Nineteen Eighty-Four is the superior dystopian classic: it’s given us so much iconic imagery (Big Brother, the ubiquitous ever-watchful screen, etc.), the prose is straightforward but gripping, and Orwell has a lot more room to explore the ideas of his imagined future.

Don’t Read: The Life And Opinions Of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman by Laurence Sterne

Read Instead: Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë

OK, The Life And Opinions Of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman was one of the first full-length novels written in the form we recognise today, so I can’t be too hard on Laurence Sterne for not exactly nailing it. But don’t be fooled by the title, it’s a study in irony: there’s very little of Tristram Shandy’s life, or opinions, in this book. It’s mostly a meandering chat about philosophy, politics, and his father’s household staff. The language is really inaccessible for most contemporary readers, and I had trouble staying awake. Jane Eyre came later, yes, so Charlotte Brontë had more literary influences to draw upon and she took less of a risk creatively. Still, whichever way you slice it, Jane Eyre is still a far more engaging and readable story. It actually does what it says on the tin, for one thing, in telling Jane’s life story, and Charlotte Brontë has since been called the “first historian of the private consciousness” for her incredible rendering of her protagonist’s inner world.

Don’t Read: The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne

Read Instead: The Age Of Innocence by Edith Wharton

I expected so much more of The Scarlet Letter, based on its reputation. I thought I was in for a treatise on the control of female sexuality, I wanted a take-down of the patriarchy, I hoped there might even be a few dirty bits. I was sorely disappointed, on all counts. Hawthorne sought to make a single point – that the Puritans sucked – and he made it again, and again, and again. The Age Of Innocence (another later book, but an infinitely better one) had a much more nuanced look at gender roles and societal pressure in America. It’s a lot more subtle, which means you have to play close attention, but I’d much rather that than the way that Hawthorne whacked you over the head with his symbolism…

Don’t Read: The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway

Read Instead: The Grapes Of Wrath by John Steinbeck

If you’re going to have a stab at writing the Great American Novel, I think it’s cheating to set your story in Europe. I know, I know, Hemingway was “writing what he knew”, but what he knew was a bunch of drunk blokes and one token woman (whom they all wish to sleep with, natch) enjoying their time as spectators to animal cruelty and exhibiting some pretty gross xenophobia. Also, Hemingway was clearly a terrible lover, because not one of his characters in The Sun Also Rises seemed to realise there were alternatives to vanilla P-in-V sex. Snore. Steinbeck’s The Grapes Of Wrath was actually set in the States (point one!), and told what I think to be a far more important story about the lives of rural and impoverished Southerners during the Great Depression. Instead of dilly-dallying about feeling sorry for themselves, every character sacked up and shipped out to make the best of unimaginably shitty circumstances. It sounds like an uplifting read as I’m describing it here, and it was in part, but trust me: Steinbeck had perfected the art of the emotional gut-punch, so there’s plenty of those to be found here, too.

Don’t Read: The Golden Bowl by Henry James

Read Instead: Literally anything else.

I really am loath to tell anyone not to read a book. Even when it’s a book I hated, a book that made me want to pull my eyes out and soak them in water, I’ll usually tell people to give it go and decide for themselves. I never want to discourage anyone from reading, and even in my most negative reviews I try to find something positive to say about the book in question. But for The Golden Bowl, that was damn near impossible. I have never read a book more impenetrable! I had to resort to reading chapter summaries online as I went, to make sure I was actually following what was going on. James seemed hell-bent on confusing and frustrating the heck out of his reader. Maybe he had a nice turn of phrase or two on occasion, and the plot itself (or what I could decipher of it) wasn’t terrible, but reading The Golden Bowl was enough to make me swear off reading anything else he’s written for the rest of my goddamn life. I can’t really think of a comparable title to encourage you to read instead, I hated it that much. Do yourself a favour and pick up something completely different: The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, for instance, or Little Women, or Cold Comfort Farm.


What classic book do you think you could have skipped reading? What would you say would be a good one to read instead? Drop your recommendations in the comments below, or join the thread over at Keeping Up With The Penguins on Facebook!

If it’s summer where you are (it’s certainly heating up here!), be sure to check out this guide to the best classics to put in your beach bag.

The Adventures Of Augie March – Saul Bellow

The blurb from Martin Amis on the back of this edition says: “The Adventures Of Augie March is the Great American Novel. Search no further.” That’s a big call, but Amis is by no means the only one to make it. Since its publication in 1953, The Adventures Of Augie March has won the National Book Award for Fiction, it has been named in at least three best-novels-in-English lists (from Time Magazine, the Modern Library, and the Guardian), and Saul Bellow was eventually awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. The committee cited the “human understanding and subtle analysis of contemporary culture that are combined in his work” – whew! If I hadn’t included this one in my Keeping Up With The Penguins reading list, I would’ve felt like I was missing out.

The continued blurb below the pull-quote from Amis made The Adventures Of Augie March sound like Rudyard Kipling’s Kim meets J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher In The Rye, set in Chicago during the Great Depression. And the comparison titles don’t end there; the introduction to this edition compares it to The Great Gatsby, which immediately got me offside because my dislike of Fitzgerald’s work has only grown over time. (And not to get ahead of myself, but within a few pages I could see that Bellow owed a huge debt to Dickens via David Copperfield, and the influence of The Adventures Of Huckleberry Finn was also abundantly clear. There! I’m done!)

Setting the Gatsby comparison aside, the introduction did give me a few fun facts about Bellow’s back-story and origins (which is why I always read the introduction, even at the risk of spoilers). Bellow was born in Quebec, and his parents smuggled him across the Great Lakes when he was an infant. He didn’t discover that he was an “illegal immigrant” until he signed up for the United States armed forces during the Second World War. I’d imagine that led to a rather awkward conversation at the next Bellow family Christmas!

As much as I enjoyed those insights, I must say I didn’t love this edition. It’s probably the first Penguin book with which I’ve found fault. The print has really tight spacing, with almost no white space on the page, which makes it really tough on the eyes (I’m not old, and I don’t wear glasses, so I feel pretty confident that I wasn’t imagining it). You should know going in that this review must be unavoidably coloured by my frustration with the actually practice of reading Augie’s adventures. As hard as I’ve tried to rise above it, I can’t deny that book design matters, and it will definitely impact a reader’s impression of a story…



So, the story follows Augie March’s teenage years and adulthood, starting with some very humble beginnings in 1920s Chicago. Augie, along with his brothers Simon and George, are raised by their mother and a crotchety boarder who fills a grandmother-type role in their lives. Their father is nowhere to be found, they’re broke as heck, and their mother’s eyesight is slowly failing, so it’s pretty shitty circumstances all ’round. It’s clear from the outset that Augie has very little agency in his own life; he pretty much just lets things happen to him and around him, and he doesn’t do much to push his life in any particular direction.

At one point, he is almost adopted by a wealthy couple who spoil him beyond measure. At another, he resorts to stealing books and re-selling them to make his living. His most unusual and unexpected adventure, by far, was the time he followed a wild and irrepressible young lady, Thea (for whom, it goes without saying, he has a huge boner), down to Mexico and fails in his efforts to help her set up a business catching lizards with a trained eagle. Hard to imagine where it all went wrong, eh? He has a lot of jobs, in a strange variety of fields: a dog groomer, a butler, a shoe salesman, a paint-seller, a coal miner, a union organiser… eventually, he settles into the merchant navy during WWII. And, believe it or not, all of Augie’s adventures are loosely based on Bellow’s own life experiences. What a life he led!

Fair warning: the story gets very heavy and quite graphic about mid-way through, when Augie helps his housemate through a botched back-alley abortion. I haven’t found many other reviews that bring this up, but I feel like those scenes and all their gory detail could be real triggering for some folks. So, bear that in mind!



Anyway, Augie seems pretty happy in the merchant navy, until his boat sinks and he finds himself trapped on a life-raft with a clown called Basteshaw. It’s a long and convoluted passage of the book, written in a quasi-surreal style, before Augie is rescued. Once he’s back on dry land, he returns to Stella – the woman he married before he sailed – and the story concludes with them cobbling together a very dubious existence in France. Augie gets involved in some shady business dealings, and Stella pursues her career as an actress. The end.

Yes, Augie and his women – the course of love runs anything but smooth. None of the ladies are particularly noteworthy: it seems like Bellow just put them in the story to prop up Augie’s development arc, with the exception of Thea. She’s the one that drags him to Mexico, and the only female character with any real backbone or agency. She dumps him when he gets kicked in the head by a horse and loans all his money to another woman (the two incidents are not as unrelated as they may appear, trust me).

It would seem that The Adventures of Augie March was Bellow’s attempt to subvert the tropes of the all-American hero. He gave Augie a fairly standard American hero backstory – comes from humble beginnings, pulls himself up by his bootstraps, sometimes acts outside the law – and he’s got all the typical heroic personality traits, like intelligence and compassion. But Augie never actually acts like a hero! He lets himself get pulled into the plans and schemes of others, and he watches those around him grow more and more successful in their own pursuits, while he just kicks around, jumping from one coattail to another. The critics have said that Bellow was Making A Point(TM): that intelligence and goodwill are of no value if their possessor has no self-awareness and no clear goal. It’s a good point, and it’s well made in the sense that the reader desperately wants Augie to get his shit together and is constantly frustrated in that desire. I’d say he’s probably one of the most annoying characters I’ve ever read, in that regard.



It’s a deeply American novel in that it’s all about the pursuit of happiness. Bellow explores a lot of extremes: alienation and belonging, poverty and wealth, disadvantage and privilege, failure and triumph. His influence on subsequent writers – Cormac McCarthy, Joseph Heller, Jonathan Safran Foer, and the OP fanboy Martin Amis – is clear.

All that said, I found The Adventures Of Augie March a real slog to read. I think that was partly due to the book’s design, as I said, and having to persist with it for so long (over six hundred pages of tiny text! gah!). But, mostly, I think it was the fact that I just couldn’t invest in it emotionally. The characters I cared about and enjoyed reading – for instance, Mimi, the victim of the botched abortion – were all bit-players. I could have happily put this one down mid-way through, never picked it up again, and lived a long happy life not knowing or caring what happened to Augie March. It’s a strange outcome, given that I loved so many of those comparison titles I listed at the beginning. The Adventures Of Augie March wasn’t particularly obtuse or pretentious, two elements of literature that really bug me, so on paper I should have really loved it… I just didn’t! I persisted ’til the end, just so I could bring you this review in good conscience. You’re welcome.

My favourite Amazon reviews of The Adventures Of Augie March:

  • “American Novel. Period. Look no further. Doesn’t even matter that it was written by a liberal because the Democratic Party was actually relevant when Bellow was alive.” – Caddy
  • “Not the great American novel. Good, but not in the upper echelon of literature. You will, of course, disagree with me. I’ll read it again.” – Earnest
  • “Yes Ok the book deals well with relationships but to allude that Augie March had adventures is misleading. The most interesting part of the book is the “hero’s” name and the lizard. Yes Augie you “… may well be a flop”, that was the most relevant statement in the book and it came on page 536. I just wanted the book to get started and it was over.” – A Customer

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