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The Age Of Innocence – Edith Wharton

The path to equality and representation for women is paved with the works of women like Edith Wharton. The Age Of Innocence was her twelfth novel, published in 1920. It went on to win the 1921 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. The committee had initially agreed to give the award to Sinclair Lewis for Main Street, but the judges wound up rejecting his book on political grounds… making Wharton the first woman to win, in the award’s history. She had the hustle, she fought the good fight, and she won in the end, which makes me so damn happy. Plus, The Age Of Innocence is one of Roxane Gay’s favourite books, so…

The most important thing to know when it comes to The Age Of Innocence is that you need to guard against being fooled by its subtlety. On its face, it’s a slow-moving society story of upper-class New York City at the end of the 19th century, but its critique and commentary goes so much deeper than that! You’ve really got to keep your wits about you as you’re reading, because it’s all so subtle – it’s a lot like Jane Austen’s Emma, in that regard. You’ll fall into the trap of thinking you can let your mind drift for a second, because Wharton’s just describing the carriages in the street or something, but next thing you know you’ve missed a crucial insight into the politics of this Gilded Age society, and you’ve got to go back and read it all again (as I did, on more than one occasion). It’s not a fast-paced story, but a lot is communicated very quickly, if that makes any sense. Even the title itself, four simple words, is an ironic comment (with multiple layers) on the polished veneer of “society” in New York, given its nefarious undercurrents and machinations. So, Wharton don’t play, people: strap in.

The Age Of Innocence starts with Newland Archer, rich boy heir to one of New York City’s “best” families, all set to marry the naive pretty-young-thing May Welland. Newland’s at the opera, fantasising about how wonderful his upper-crust life is going to be… until his fiance’s beautiful cousin, the Countess Ellen Olenska, shows up, and it all goes straight to hell.

The Countess is “exotic” and “worldly” (the number of euphemisms they all find for “slutty” is amazing), everything Newland’s fiance is not. He quickly announces his engagement to their families, figuring that the declaration would “lock him in” and get the Countess out of his head, but (as I’m sure you can guess) it does diddly-squat to temper his arousal.


The Countess announces that she wants to divorce her husband, and her family freaks the fuck out. This is the 1870s, after all, so divorce is a very dirty word. Newland, being a lawyer and a friend of the family (a cousin-in-law to be, ahem!), is charged with convincing her to just stay married to the creepy old Polish guy that beat her and locked her in a closet (or something like that, the reasons for the marital discord aren’t made all that clear). Newland manages to convince her, but it’s tough going; he keeps getting distracted by his boner.

When he finally gets his hand off it, he marries May, but (surprise, surprise) he’s fucking miserable. He works up the nerve to leave her, with a view to following the Countess back to Europe, but when he tries to do his “it’s not you, it’s me” speech, May interrupts him and tells him she’s pregnant. And the Countess knows – May told her a couple of weeks ago (even though she “wasn’t sure” – I guess they didn’t have early-detection pee sticks back then?). The implication, and you might have to read it a couple times over to pick it up, is that May suspected the affair all along and magicked up this pregnancy to put an end to it.

Newland pretty much just gives up on life at that point, and anything resembling joy. He settles in for a lifetime of baby-making and boring New York dinner parties. The novel concludes twenty-six years later, after May dies and Newland takes his son to Paris. The kid, completely innocently, had heard that his mother’s cousin lived there, and he arranges for them to pay her a visit – the cousin being… the Countess! But don’t worry, there’s no romantic reunion happily-ever-after bullshit here; Newland is too chicken to see his former paramour, so he just sends his son up to visit while he waits outside. The end.



Wharton later wrote of The Age Of Innocence that it allowed her to escape back to her childhood in America, a world that she believed had been destroyed by the First World War (a fair call, that particular conflict really fucked shit up on a number of levels). Generally, it’s thought to be a story about the struggle to reconcile the old with the new, and Wharton stops just short of landing on one side or the other. In fact, even though it’s dripping with social commentary and satire, Wharton’s book doesn’t outright condemn pre-war New York society. It’s like she recognises its ridiculousness, but wants to reinforce that, well, it wasn’t all bad. Basically she’s saying that the past was just okay, but the present isn’t all get-out either. Seems fair enough, no?

This book really resonated with me in ways I didn’t expect. You’d think we’ve have come so far as a society over the past century that the behaviours and mores of late 19th century New York would be virtually unrecognisable. But take this, for example: the scene where Newland is trying to convince the Countess not to go ahead with her divorce is eerily reminiscent of the remonstrances received by people who came forward as part of the #metoo movement.

“Well, then: is it worth while to risk what may be infinitely disagreeable and painful? Think of the newspapers – their vileness! It’s all stupid and narrow and unjust – but one can’t make over society.” – p. 96

Plus, there’s a really interesting dichotomy between the two primary female characters (May and the Countess – the latter being a character I once described as one of the best bad women in fiction). Of course, upon its initial publication, reader sentiment was pretty heavily weighted in May’s favour. After all, she was the good little wife, standing by her man and making babies and all that. But in the intervening century, the tables have turned, and now she’s often read as a manipulative bitch who basically trapped a man in a loveless marriage through pregnancy. She’s the woman all the Men’s Rights Activists warn us about. On the other hand, the Countess has become the poster child for The Woman Question and the constraints of gender roles for women in society. To be honest, though, I think they’re both alright; Newland is the one who’s deserving of our disdain, the sooky little fuck-boy…

Anyway, even if you’re not into all this social commentary stuff, The Age Of Innocence is still worth a read, for Wharton’s mastery of the craft of writing alone. Her subtlety, her insight, her cleverness – it’s all sublime. And the story itself isn’t half-bad, if you’re paying close attention. My tl;dr summary is this: a bunch of WASPs in old-timey New York pretend that a bloke isn’t having an affair with his wife’s slutty cousin (even though he very obviously is), and he stays with his wife after he knocks her up (because he’s such a swell guy). It’s a challenging read if you’re used to fast-paced action and sparse prose, but it’s well worth the effort (so much so that I included The Age Of Innocence in my shortlist of Classic Books Worth Reading).


My favourite Amazon reviews of The Age Of Innocence:

  • “Excellent book, as relevant today as when it was first published. The song that comes to mind is Dolly Parton’s Jolene.” – Amazon Customer
  • “There’s no violence, no sex and nothing to hold your interest …” – SMMc
  • “#richvictorianpeopleproblems” – Taylor
  • “I do not consider this an annotated book. It only has a few definitions.” – Susan B. Banbury
  • “We purchased one for my mother when she had shingles and was in incredible pain. It helped her, and she raved about it so much that we bought three more! I have arthritis throughout my body, and I’m getting the best sleep I have in years.” – Kindle Customer
  • “I found this very aggravating to read. I just wanted to grab Newland Archer and shake some sense into him. Written by a woman who made the male characters look stupid.” – Jim W
  • “Poor plot and well written” – Marilyn Austin

Gentlemen Prefer Blondes – Anita Loos

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

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

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

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

And:

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

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

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

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

Anita Loos

And my personal favourite Loos anecdote:

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

Anita Loos

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

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



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

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

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



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

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

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



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

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

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

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

My favourite Amazon reviews of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes:

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

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

9 Classic Books Worth Reading

Reading the classics can be tough, there’s no doubt about that. Many of them are written with old and unfamiliar language conventions, there’s all kinds of cultural references that have since fallen from collective memory, and the content isn’t always that relatable. I think, though, that most people are scared of classic books for a different reason. They worry that they’re not “smart enough” or “well read enough” to understand or enjoy them. I know that’s how I felt before I started the Keeping Up With The Penguins project. I was sure any classic book I tried to read would go right over my head. Now, having read a lot of the classics on my original reading list, I’ve changed my mind. I can guarantee that reading the classics won’t always be as difficult or as scary as you think. I posted earlier this year about how to read more classic books, but if you’re struggling to figure out where to start, here’s a list of nine classic books worth reading.

9 Classic Books Worth Reading - Text Overlaid on Darkened Image of Stack of Books - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Jane Eyre – Charlotte Brontë

Jane Eyre - Charlotte Bronte - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Charlotte might have been the most duplicitous and judge-y of the Brontë sisters, but in my view she also wrote the most accessible books. Wuthering Heights, from her equally-revered sister Emily, was really quite complicated and dark and I struggled with it, but Jane Eyre was fantastic! There are no real language barriers to overcome, the characterisation was superb (in fact, Charlotte was once called “the first historian of the private consciousness”), and the story was quite straightforward. Of course, the leading man, Mr Rochester, is problematic AF and you do have to take off your feminist-ideals hat to enjoy the romance properly, but if you can manage that, you’ll find a lot to love in this classic book. Read my full review here.

The Adventures Of Sherlock Holmes – Arthur Conan Doyle

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

Arthur Conan Doyle is probably the only doctor in the history of the world who had to use writing as a side-hustle to earn some extra cash. That’s how he came to write The Adventures Of Sherlock Holmes, a series of extremely popular mysteries featuring the character now considered to be the world’s most famous fictional detective. I love recommending this collection to people who are a bit time-poor or find themselves easily distracted while reading; the stories are short, Doyle’s economy of language was masterful, and they’re non-chronological, meaning they can be read in any order. Most of all, they’re extremely enjoyable and highly satisfying. If you like the BBC’s Sherlock series, you must give the original a go. Read my full review here.

Pride And Prejudice – Jane Austen

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

Long time Keeper-Upperers are probably shocked to see Pride And Prejudice on this list. I don’t blame them: I dragged my feet for so long on this book. But when I finally sat myself down, and rolled up my sleeves, and dove in to Austen’s best-loved work, I found myself pleasantly surprised. It’s a great Austen for beginners, because the dialogue and language don’t feel too stilted, and the romance will be familiar to anyone who has ever read a book or seen a movie. Lizzie and Darcy’s relationship has been adapted, interpreted, satirised, and re-written so many times, it’s basically an archetype at this point. Read my full review here.

David Copperfield – Charles Dickens

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I think a lot of people are put off David Copperfield by its sheer size; most editions run to 1000+ pages, and my own copy had to be published in two volumes because it was too long to hold together as a single book. It’s probably not a good one to pick up if you’re not in the mood to commit to one story for a good long while. That said, Dickens called David Copperfield his “favourite child”, and I can see why. It’s a beautiful, clever, epic tale of a Victorian man’s life, styled as an autobiography, with something for everyone: action, adventure, mystery, romance, politics, and more. I said in my review that I “devoured the thing like a drunk woman eating a kebab”, and I think that sums up pretty well why I think it’s one of the best classic books worth reading. Read my full review here.

Little Women – Louisa May Alcott

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

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: it is crucial – CRUCIAL! – that when you pick up a copy of Little Women for the very first time, you find an edition with a really good introduction that explains Louisa May Alcott’s life and politics for you before you begin. Her story of the four March sisters in Civil War-era New England is often written off as sentimental fluff, a “book for girls”, which is a damn shame. I think it’s largely because people don’t take the time to understand Alcott’s motivations for writing the book, the position she held in society and in her family, and the subtle ways in which she subverted the tropes of a “moral story for young women”. If an edition with a great introduction isn’t forthcoming, you can always start with my review, where I detail a lot of the aspects I found interesting. I highly recommend giving this one a go around Christmas time; the iconic opening scene will get you in the holiday spirit. Read my full review here.

The Adventures Of Huckleberry Finn – Mark Twain

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

I think most non-academic readers groan when they encounter a book written in dialect. When it’s done poorly, it makes reading the book a real chore. Luckily, Mark Twain’s The Adventures Of Huckleberry Finn flows so naturally you won’t even notice the clever ways he manipulated language to depict the Southern drawl. Huck Finn is a confronting novel, at times, and certainly controversial, for many reasons: violence, racial epithets, white-saviour storylines, all of which have led to it being challenged and banned at various points in time. But it’s still a classic book worth reading! The characters of Huck and Jim jump off the page, and you won’t be able to pull yourself away from their adventures down the Mississippi River. Read my full review here.

The Age Of Innocence – Edith Wharton

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Fine, I’ll concede: if you struggle with subtle stories, The Age Of Innocence might not be the one for you, but maybe you should give it a go anyway. I was constantly surprised reading Wharton’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel; it seemed to move so slowly, and yet she could find a way to make an important point or a pithy social critique while describing a house or a garden bed. Her female characters in particular are beautifully complex and flawed, and I fell in love with the way that Wharton used them to make ever-relevant comments about the role of women in society. Plus, it’s the story of a social scandal on the scale of Brangelina; you’ll come out of this book on either Team Countess Olenska, or Team May Welland, I guarantee it. Read my full review here.

The Grapes Of Wrath – John Steinbeck

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

Speaking of social critiques, The Grapes Of Wrath is eerily current. Save for a few technological advances, I would completely have believed (had I not seen the date on the inside cover) that this was a contemporary novel set pretty much in the present day. Its perspectives on capitalism, automation, climate change, class warfare, and workers’ rights are scarily relevant in a post-Trump and post-Brexit world. Plus, the story – especially its end (which I won’t spoil here, but I do in my review, be warned!) – is hauntingly beautiful, and the matriarch Ma Joad is now my favourite character in all of American literature. Read my full review here.

Crime And Punishment – Fyodor Dostoyevsky

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

To say I approached Crime And Punishment with trepidation would be a gross understatement. I was fully convinced (with no true factual basis, mind you) that the Russian classics were dense and dull, and I would be in for a rough time with Dostoyevsky’s tale of a young man who tries to commit a moral murder. I was – I’ll say it loud and proud – absolutely wrong. This book had me cackling with laughter the whole way through, and finding myself (worryingly) relating to the anxious axe-murderer. Make sure you pick up the David McDuff translation, as I did – I can’t attest to any of the others, but he did a bang-up job! Read my full review here.


Of course, all books are worth reading in some measure, but I think these classic books have something special to offer, especially if you’re just wading into that part of the literary world for the first time. Have I skipped over your favourite classic? Got any other classic books worth reading to suggest? Drop them in the comments below (or over at KUWTP on Facebook!).

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

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

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

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

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



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



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



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



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



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



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

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



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

13 Books That Will Start Debate In Your Book Club

Nothing is more dreary than a book club where everyone agrees all the time. I mean, you don’t want punches thrown or anything, but a good-spirited lively debate is the dream. And for that kind of conversation, you need to pick the right kind of book. It’s not about having everyone like it, it’s about everyone having something to say about it, one way or the other. Choosing a controversial book not only livens up the night, but it forces everyone to actually read the damn thing (I’m looking at you, Susan!). If they haven’t, and they try to contribute to the conversation, it will become abundantly obvious very quickly, and they’ll be shamed into better book club behaviour in the future. Here are my suggestions to get the ball rolling: 13 books that will start debate in your book club.

13 Books Guaranteed To Start Debate In Your Book Club - Text Overlaid on Image of People Gathered and Reading - Keeping Up With The Penguins

The Husband’s Secret – Liane Moriarty

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

This is the classic Pandora’s box story. In The Husband’s Secret, a woman finds an envelope written in her husband’s hand, that says she is only to open it in the event of his death… but he’s still alive. Would you open it, or would you let him keep his secrets? And, if you reached for the letter-opener, what would you do with its contents? You’ll be surprised how much you learn about your fellow book club members when you put these questions to them… Read my full review here.

We Need To Talk About Kevin – Lionel Shriver

We Need To Talk About Kevin - Lionel Shriver - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Everyone will agree that something has gone terribly wrong in Eva’s family, but that’s probably where the consensus about We Need To Talk About Kevin will end. Is Eva a bad mother? Is Kevin a bad kid? Where do we draw the line between nature and nurture? Can one fix the other? It’s a confronting story, but it’s one that’s sure to get people talking.

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

Now, I’m famously hesitant to say too much about We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, because I can’t bear the thought of spoiling the plot twist for the uninitiated. So, the first (safe) question I would ask is this: who saw it coming? (And I’m very sure anyone who says they did is lying!) Follow up: was it a good twist, or a bad one? And there are plenty of other questions raised by this Man Booker nominee, but to find them you’ll have to read it for yourself… 😉 Read my full review here.


Sophie’s Choice – William Styron

Make sure you stock up on tissues! Sophie’s Choice is a heart-breaking, gut-wrenching read, guaranteed to elicit some strong feelings from even the stoniest-hearted members of your book club. Even though the title only offers the singular, in reality Sophie makes a number of choices along the way, which means you can ask the same question a dozen times and get different answers: would you have made the same choice?

The Age Of Innocence – Edith Wharton

The Age Of Innocence - Edith Wharton - Book Laid Flat on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

The Age Of Innocence is a very subtle novel, and many people give up on it. For those who persist, however, it raises a lot of interesting questions about the roles of women, even in today’s society. Are you Team May Welland, or Team Countess Olenska? How has our perception of their behaviour changed since the book was first published? Read my full review here.

Honourable Mention: A lot of these same questions could be asked of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. It’s a quicker read, and much more light-hearted, if your book club is more inclined to those choices. Read my full review here.

Men Explain Things To Me – Rebecca Solnit

Speaking of gender roles… this is an evocative title to suggest for mixed company, so unless you’ve assembled an entirely woke and left-leaning book club, prepare for fireworks! In Men Explain Things To Me, Solnit explores through a series of comic essays the ways in which men and women speak to one another. It’s sure to elicit some amazing anecdotes from the other attendees, if nothing else!


A Game Of Thrones – George R.R. Martin

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

A Game Of Thrones is a longer book club would normally need, but (almost) everyone is already familiar with the story thanks to the hugely successful HBO adaptation, which makes it a much quicker read than other lengthy tomes. And there’s your first grenade: try asking whether anyone thinks the book is better than the show! If that doesn’t get things started (fat chance), ask: who deserves the Iron Throne?  And let the games begin! Read my full review here.

Little Fires Everywhere – Celeste Ng

Little Fires Everywhere - Celeste Ng - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Little Fires Everywhere is a book with no minor characters. Everyone has a unique viewpoint, and all of them are a shade of grey. That means that everyone in your book club will relate to them differently, and will be able to mount a legitimate case for their preferred narrative. Who chose right, and who chose wrong? You’ll stay up all night hashing it out!

Portnoy’s Complaint – Philip Roth

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

This one is not for the faint of heart If members of your book club shy away from profanity, or smut, or even just crude comedy, they’re going to have a lot of strong opinions about Portnoy’s Complaint! But that’s the idea, remember? Enjoy debating the relative merits of Roth’s particular brand of comedy. Read my full review here.


The Immortalists – Chloe Benjamin

The Immortalists raises many interesting questions, but surely the most pressing (and the most interesting for your book club) is this: would you want to know the date of your own death? And, if you did, how would you choose to live? In Chloe Benjamin’s beautiful novel, four adolescents are faced with that very question, and each of them handle it very differently. Are you inclined to search for love? Security? Longevity? Everyone in your book club will have a different answer – that’s the fun!

To Kill A Mockingbird – Harper Lee

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

Try taking everyone back to the books you read in high-school. It gives you the chance to ask the attendees questions like whether they like it more or less than they did back then. And do the first-timers feel differently to the re-readers? And even above and beyond the nostalgic elements, To Kill A Mockingbird ticks a lot of debate-starter boxes: social justice, race in America, you name it. Does it hold up? Or has it aged past relevance? And, if nothing else, the themed cocktails practically mix themselves. Read my full review here.

The Power  – Naomi Alderman

The Power - Naomi Alderman - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Technically, this is a young adult novel, so that alone might make it a somewhat controversial choice for an adult book club. Make sure everyone holds fire on their opinions until they’ve read it, though – The Power could change a few hearts and mind. In this incredible book, women gain an incredible physical power that gives them, for the first time in history, a physical, political, and social advantage. How would that change the world? Is it for the better, or worse? Debate and decide for yourselves 😉

The Turn Of The Screw – Henry James

The Turn Of The Screw - Henry James - book laid on wooden table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Let’s end on a fun note: a ghost story! The Turn Of The Screw is the perfect choice around Halloween. It’s short, but meaty, and it leaves just enough of a mystery dangling to start debate in your book club. Are ghosts real? Or is the governess who sees them just… crazy? What’s been lost in the translation of a story within a story? And why the heck was Henry James so wordy?? Read my full review here.

Bonus points: You could pair this one with the contemporary adaptation The Turn Of The Key, by Ruth Ware.



That should be enough to keep your book club meetings lively for the next year or so: my work here is done! What book has sparked debate in your book club? Add it to the list in the comments (or over at KUWTP on Facebook!).

What Is The Great American Novel?

I’ve reviewed a handful of American classics for Keeping Up With The Penguins, and I’ll be reviewing a few more yet. Whenever I start researching one of them, I’ll always come across a think-piece or a comment thread somewhere debating whether or not the book should be considered the Great American Novel. I’ve referenced the concept a few times myself, but never really addressed the elephant in the room: what is the Great American Novel, exactly? Where did it come from, and why is it so contentious? Now seems as good a time as any to take a look…

What Is The Great American Novel? - Text Overlaid on Image of American Flags - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Origins of The Great American Novel as a Concept

It was, of course, a dead white guy who first coined the phrase “the great American novel”. John William DeForest published an essay in 1868, a few years after the end of the Civil War, in which he defined it as “the picture of the ordinary emotions and manners of American existence”. America, at the time was a pretty nebulous concept in and of itself; the North and South were barely reconciled, and it was a time of self-conscious tumult in the American identity. American literature was also relatively new; the colonials had written books, of course, but the development of a unique and entirely separate literary tradition in the New World took over a century. So, DeForest’s search for a single book that unified and reflected an all-encompassing American experience was laughably ambitious.

He didn’t have much luck, by the way. Even by his own standard, DeForest said that the composition of the Great American Novel had not yet been achieved. Harriet Beecher Stowe came close, he said, with Uncle Tom’s Cabin, but didn’t quite get the gong. He was also pretty dismissive of the next-closest option, Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter. As far as DeForest was concerned, the definitive Great American Novel couldn’t be far off – he had no idea we’d still be arguing over his little thought exercise 150 years later…


How Do We Define the Great American Novel?

We’ve spent a great deal of the intervening century-and-a-half debating DeForest’s idea, and proposing our own definitions and criteria by which we could judge the Great American Novel. Journals and periodicals over the rest of the 19th century featured countless essays by other writers keen to expand on his proposition. The subject became a safe retreat on slow news days for newspapers of the 20th century. And now, we have the internet, which is littered with listicles and slide-shows of the contenders, and more than one “hot take” on why the Great American Novel could never really exist anyway (party poopers).

Of course, there’s no ultimate authority to decide who’s right and who’s wrong, so there’s plenty of fodder to keep us arguing for another hundred and fifty years or so (assuming America lasts that long… eeek!). Above and beyond the criteria we’ve proposed to define a classic book (literary merit and so forth), here are a few suggested definitions we could use to determine what is the Great American Novel.

“The novel is a true and honest reflection of the age.”

Put another way, the Great American Novel must perfectly capture the spirit and culture of a given period in the United States. This one is interesting, because it leaves scope for a different Great American Novel for each era. Examples might include The Great Gatsby, which captured the Jazz Age, or On The Road, reflecting the Beat Generation.

“The novel had a significant cultural impact.”

Now, this is a wily one, because who’s to say what’s “significant”? Heck, who’s to say what’s “cultural impact”? It’s one of those I’ll-know-it-when-I-see-it definitions, which can be problematic. So far, the best we can do is rely upon a general agreement regarding “significance” among academics and general readers alike. To Kill A Mockingbird would probably pass the test, given how it revolutionised America’s understanding of social justice and race.

“It must encompass the entire nation, and not be too consumed with a single region.”

This is a lofty goal. It’s one worth considering, of course, but I can’t think of a single contender that actually manages it. The States, united as they may be, are incredibly varied and diverse. Is it really possible for a single book to encompass them all? (If you can think of one, please suggest it in the comments!)

“Its author must have been born in the U.S., or have adopted the country as his or her own.”

Initially, I bristled at this one. It seemed too emblematic of the cultural imperialism perpetuated by America over the last century or so. It would necessarily exclude writers like Vladimir Nabokov, who was Russian-born but authored Lolita, undoubtedly a contender for the Great American Novel by other measures. Surely, the content of the work should bear more weight than the passport of the writer. Perhaps it would be better to say that the author must be deeply knowledgeable about the state, culture, and perspective of the “average” U.S. citizen (if there is such a thing).

“The author uses the literary work to identify and exhibit the language of American people, and capture their experience.”

That’s better! By this measure, books like The Adventures Of Huckleberry Finn fit the bill perfectly. It highlights the use of vernacular, and furthers the cause of using fiction as a source of historical record. Plus, it recognises the uniqueness of the American experience and aspirations, which are undoubtedly different to those found and felt elsewhere.

“It has to be read by or familiar to a large number of Americans.”

This one seems fair enough. I think the addition of the familiarity element is important: these days, relatively few Americans have read Moby Dick in full, for instance, but I guarantee almost all of them would recognise the title. They’d probably even be able to give you a brief, largely accurate, summary of the plot and its themes. That’s a level of saturation that’s hard to ignore.



But, if we’re determined to be cynical, we could conclude that it’s impossible to define or determine what is the Great American Novel. A.O. Scott once proposed that the Great American Novel was effectively a myth, likening its existence to urban legends and conspiracies:

“… the Great American Novel, while also a hybrid (crossbred of romance and reportage, high philosophy and low gossip, wishful thinking and hard-nosed skepticism), may be more like the yeti or the Loch Ness monster – or Sasquatch, if we want to keep things homegrown. It is, in other words, a creature that quite a few people – not all of them certifiably crazy, some of them bearing impressive documentation – claim to have seen.”

A.O. Scott (2006)

All respect to Scott, but even though we all know Big Foot probably doesn’t exist, we still spend hundreds of thousands of tourist dollars searching for him every year. If the debate over what constitutes the Great American Novel keeps people buying and reading books, I’ll go down stoking the flames of this debate.

The Great American Novels

It’s practically impossible to give an exhaustive list of contenders for the Great American Novel. You’d have to scan all four corners of the internet, and fall down so many rabbit holes, to find every single title that’s ever been floated as a possibility. So here are a few that seem to crop up more often than most:

The Scarlet Letter – Nathaniel Hawthorne

The Scarlet Letter - Nathaniel Hawthorne - Reviewed on Keeping Up With The Penguins

Even though DeForest, the daddy of this whole debate, wrote off The Scarlet Letter, it’s still widely considered to be one of the earliest examples of the Great American Novel. It’s certainly highly recognisable, it’s had significant cultural impact (as judged by its many adaptations and call-backs in subsequent art), it recorded a unique period in American history (puritanical New England), and as far as we know it was a fairly accurate representation of the era.

Moby Dick – Herman Melville

Moby Dick - Herman Melville - book laid on wooden table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Moby Dick is another uniquely American novel – even though, ironically, very little of the action took place on American soil. The story of Ahab and his white whale can be read as a metaphor for just about anything: democracy, man’s relationship with God, man’s relationship with nature (and, more recently, climate change), a critique of capitalism, a critique of slavery, and so on. Plus, it has become culturally ubiquitous, imitated and appropriated by everyone from artists to politicians to academics.

The Adventures Of Huckleberry Finn – Mark Twain

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

Hemingway once said that “all modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called Huckleberry Finn…”. As I was reading it, I could see that Papa was right: in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, plain to see are the origins of subsequent literary icons like The Catcher In The Rye. Plus, it is one of the best renderings of American vernacular that I have ever read. Most admirably (depending who you ask), Twain managed to simultaneously exhibit the racist history of the American South, while critiquing it and proposing a new way forward.

The Great Gatsby – F. Scott Fitzgerald

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

As I mentioned earlier, The Great Gatsby has become synonymous with our recollection of the Jazz Age in America. It’s likely the most aspirational of these contenders for the Great American Novel, highlighting the American desire for wealth and success and all its trappings, as well as the sordid underbelly of the “American dream”. That said, could we really consider it a reflection of a universally American experience? Probably not. But its fans and adherents are so damn vocal, we’ll probably never be able to cross it off the list entirely.

The Grapes of Wrath – John Steinbeck

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

The Grapes Of Wrath depicts a particularly dark time in America’s history, the Great Depression in the dust bowl of the South. Steinbeck also focused on the experiences of the working class, the “Average Joes” (or Average Joads, as it were), an experience not often explored in the other contenders listed here. It is, to some minds, not quite as iconic as books like Moby Dick or Gatsby, but it does an incredible job of recording and reflecting a uniquely American language and experience in ways that other contenders lack.

The Catcher In The Rye – J.D. Salinger

The Catcher in the Rye - JD Salinger - book laid on wooden table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Here’s another American experience not often captured in other contenders for the Great American Novel: that of the disaffected youth. Holden Caulfield has become perhaps one of the most iconic teenage characters of all time, even beyond the American literary tradition, and you’d be hard-pressed to find a definition of coming-of-age literature that doesn’t cite The Catcher In The Rye somewhere along the line. Sounds like a significant cultural impact to me!



On The Road – Jack Kerouac

On The Road - Jack Kerouac - book laid on wooden table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Another period – this time, the Beat Generation – another definitive novel. Jack Kerouac’s On The Road stands out among its contemporaries. It’s more than just a road-trip novel, more than just a sordid exhibition of the beatniks and their free-loving drink-and-drug-fuelled adventures. It’s an exploration, once again, of American longing, aspiration, and search for meaning. It also has much to say regarding waste and futility in a changing world. Plus, best of all, we can be pretty damn sure of its accuracy in depicting an American experience, being taken – as it was – pretty much directly from Kerouac’s diaries, a very faithful roman-a-clef.

To Kill A Mockingbird – Harper Lee

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

Just last year, Americans voted To Kill A Mockingbird to be their best-loved novel in the Great American Read survey, so its popularity, recognisability, and endurance are pretty much unquestionable. It remains a fixture on school reading lists, likely for its heady combination of coming-of-age, social justice, and earnest idealism tempered by harsh reality. To be honest, I can’t think of a single definition of the Great American Novel that it doesn’t pass in some measure; it’s one of the strongest contenders to date.

Beloved – Toni Morrison

Beloved - Toni Morrison - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

To Kill A Mockingbird might be the general readership’s favoured choice, but Toni Morrison’s Beloved came out on top in a New York Times survey of 125 writers. Its rise to canonical status has been remarkably quick; just 20 years after its initial publication, it was already considered to be a staple of university reading lists, and Morrison is now listed alongside Melville, Hawthorne, and Twain as one of the greatest American writers of all time. Its perspective and its story are unique in this list, and that in itself highlights the problems with our current understanding of the Great American Novel (more on those in a minute).



Gentlemen Prefer Blondes – Anita Loos

Gentlemen Prefer Blondes - Anita Loos - Books Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Granted, this might be a selfish inclusion, because I personally think that Gentlemen Prefer Blondes is a far better book and a far better reflection of the Jazz Age than stupid Gatsby (and I suspect it’s been overlooked because of the entrenched sexist attitudes that lead us to value the stories of men above those of women, but that’s a rant for another day). But I stand by it, because I’ve got a highly-respected vote in my favour: Edith Wharton, an incredible American writer in her own right, called it the Great American Novel. It’s an honest and true reflection of a perspective on the Jazz Age that has often been marginalised (that of women who empowered themselves through sexuality), and surely that counts for more than its comparative lack of popularity.

Problems With Defining The Great American Novel

Surely you can already see the problem here? On this list of ten contenders, only three were authored by women, and only one by a woman of colour. That’s not a result of my own biases, I promise you. Every list of Great American Novel contenders is very white, and very male.

Ironically, the whole concept began with the work of a woman (DeForest said that Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin was the closest he had seen to the Great American Novel, remember?), and yet we’ve historically excluded female authors and female perspectives from these discussions. This goes double – triple! – for people of colour (encompassing Native Americans, African Americans, and later migrants). And there’s a whole stack of other marginalised experiences that rarely get a look in, too…

When we exclude marginalised authors, we exclude marginalised experiences from the narrative, and if that continues we will never have a Great American Novel that is truly representative of an American experience. Part of defining the Great American Novel for the future is redefining what constitutes an American experience, and who belongs in the picture.

It’s not as if there’s a lack of options! Consider books like The Color Purple, The Joy Luck Club, The Book Of Unknown Americans, Americanah, An American Marriage – all of them depict a uniquely American experience, outside the narrow defines of white male privilege.




Still, even with these problems and a marked lack of diversity, the ideal of the Great American Novel will probably never die. In fact, one could argue it’s more important now than ever, in a time of major shifts in an American identity (shifts in culture are always reflected in literature, sooner or later). What do you think constitutes the Great American Novel? Can you come up with any contenders I haven’t listed here? Tell me your ideas in the comments (or join the conversation over at KUWTP on Facebook!).

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

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

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

The Alchemist – Paulo Coelho

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

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

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

The Age of Innocence – Edith Wharton

The Age Of Innocence - Edith Wharton - Book Laid Flat on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

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

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

The Rosie Project – Graeme Simsion

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

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

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

The Dressmaker – Rosalie Ham

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Brain That Changes Itself – Norman Doidge

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

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

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

The Husband’s Secret – Liane Moriarty

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

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

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

The Happiest Refugee – Anh Do

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

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

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

Wild – Cheryl Strayed

Wild - Cheryl Strayed - book laid on wooden table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

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

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

Crime And Punishment – Fyodor Dostoyevsky

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

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

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


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

Award Winning Books Worth Reading

Booklovers take their book-loving seriously, and their opinions vary – widely. So any award that picks one book as the “best” of a given year or genre is always going to be controversial. Literary awards honour the great authors of our time, and winning a major one pretty much guarantees that a book will fly off the shelves as people to scramble to see whether it’s worthy. It’s a high-stakes game, this literary award business! Today on Keeping Up With The Penguins, we take a look at some of the major awards and ask the sixty-four thousand dollar question: are there any award winning books that are worth your time?

Award Winning Books That Are Worth Your Time - Text Overlaid on Image of Trophy and Sparkly Lights - Keeping Up With The Penguins

The Major Literary Awards

Let’s take a quick look at some of those major awards and prizes, shall we?

  • The Booker Prize is awarded each year to the best original novel, written in English, that’s had a print run in the U.K.
  • The Nobel Prize in Literature is awarded annually to an author (supposedly from any country, but more on that in a minute), who has produced “in the field of literature the most outstanding work in an ideal direction”.
  • The Pulitzer Prize for Fiction recognises a distinguished work of fiction by an American writer (usually themed around American life) published in the preceding calendar year.
  • The Hugo Awards are named for Hugo Gernsback (founder of revolutionary sci-fi magazine Amazing Stories); they recognise the best science-fiction and fantasy works of the preceding year.
  • The Miles Franklin Literary Award is awarded each year to “a novel which is of the highest literary merit and presents Australian life in any of its phases”. (The Stella Prize is also awarded each year to a female writer, in response to a perceived gender bias in the selection of Miles Franklin winners. Both awards are named after legendary Australian author [Stella] Miles Franklin.)
  • The PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction is awarded annually to American authors of fiction who have produced the year’s “best” works. The organisation claims it to be the “largest peer-juried award in America”.
  • The National Book Awards are presented each year by the National Book Foundation in the U.S., and traditionally includes two lifetime achievement awards.
  • The Women’s Prize for Fiction is the UK’s most prestigious annual book award for fiction written by a woman.

This is, obviously, a very, very small sample of a rather large pool of major literary prizes. There are dozens of others in every country, and across every conceivable genre and market.

Booker Award Controversies

Controversy plagues every literary award, in one way or another, and the sniping only grows bigger and uglier as the award becomes more prestigious. If we’re going to look at some examples, we might as well start right at the top, with the Man Booker.

Take, for instance, the great Trainspotting drama of 1993. Two judges threatened to quit the Booker committee after Irvine Welsh’s “vulgar” novel was named on the long-list that year. The book offended their feminist sensitivities, so much so that it was subsequently pulled from the short-list. Welsh didn’t respond well (even by my low standards); he called the prize imperialist, and said that “any claim that it’s an inclusive, non-discriminatory award could be demolished by anybody with even a rudimentary grasp of sixth-form sociology”.

The shit-slinging doesn’t stop there. In 2001, A.L. Kennedy said that the Booker is “a pile of crooked nonsense”. Her experiences on the committee in the ’90s had convinced her that the winner was determined only by “who knows who, who’s sleeping with who, who’s selling drugs to who, who’s married to who, whose turn it is”. She also claimed to be the only judge who had read all 300 novels under consideration – yikes.


The same year that Kennedy called bullshit, there was an unrelated whoops-y in the announcement of the winner. Life Of Pi had pretty long odds, until the prize’s website accidentally announced it as the winner a week before the official decision. I’d imagine the originator of that particular fuck-up had to go into some kind of witness protection, because bookies have been known to take baseball bats to kneecaps and they had to pay out all of the bets when the leak later proved to be correct.

The most recent revelations about more Booker scandals (oh yeah, there’s plenty more!) can be found here.

And, lest you get the impression that the Booker is the worst of the lot, let me tack on a couple of Nobel disasters. The Swedish award has long been the target of accusations of political bias and Eurocentrism in their selection process. Leo Tolstoy and Anton Checkov never got the gong, oversights that have been widely attributed to Sweden’s long-held antipathy towards Russia. On multiple occasions, other authors from outside of Europe have also been controversially and bafflingly snubbed; in 1974, Grahame Greene, Vladimir Nabokov, and Saul Bellow were all over-looked in favour of a joint award to Swedish authors Eyvind Johnson and Harry Martinson, who (to this day!) remain relatively unknown outside their home country. (And you should know, they were both Nobel judges themselves – a pure coincidence, I’m sure, but…)



It’s all enough to make you wonder whether the awards mean anything at all. I don’t think I’d be out of line in saying that merit clearly isn’t the only criteria at play in picking the winners. But, despite the drama, now and then these committees pick a winner that is, y’know, actually a winner. Let’s take a look at some of the award winning books that are worth your time…

Award Winning Books That Are Worth Your Time

The Age of Innocence (Edith Wharton)

The Age Of Innocence - Edith Wharton - Book Laid Flat on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction (1921)

Leading the charge, we’ve got The Age of Innocence (and you can check out my full review for the run-down). The committee almost overlooked this early 20th century gem, but in the end Wharton’s competition was disqualified on political grounds. And that’s the story of how she became the first female winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction *fist pump*. Now, this isn’t to say that gender equality was achieved as of that moment – it was one very small step, and one could perhaps even question its ongoing relevance given the way that women have been overlooked for literary awards in the century since – but you never forget the first 😉 And if that’s not reason enough to invest your eyeballs, the story’s pretty damn good! Buy it here.

The Martian (Andy Weir)

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

Winner of the Hugo Award (2016)

Not all award winners are lofty works of literary fiction, only comprehensible to English majors 😉 The Martian scored a Hugo Award, and went on to become one of the biggest break-through sci-fi novels of the past decade. I was pretty hesitant when I first picked it up, because sci-fi isn’t my go-to genre and I’m skeptical of any film adaptation starring Matt Damon, but goshdarn it was funny! I cackled out loud on every other page (check out my full review); Weir’s characterisation and voice is strong and direct and hilarious. Plus, the premise is pretty compelling – a lone man abandoned on a planet, forced to find a way to survive on meager rations until help arrives – and it forces the reader to confront the terrifying thought of what they’d do in that situation. Buy it here.

To Kill A Mockingbird (Harper Lee)

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

Winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction (1961)

Forty years after Edith Wharton got the gong, Harper Lee was called up – for her first (and only) novel, To Kill A Mockingbird. It’s one of the only books I’ve read that’s truly exceeded the hype, and I’m not sure I can recommend it more highly than that (I mean, the hype is considerable). I completely understand if you take issue with some of the racial politics of the book, especially given that it has been so widely and consistently lauded with nary a mention of some of its more problematic elements, but the writing is exquisite, so I’d say it’s worth a look regardless (check out my review here to see why). Plus, it’s had many tangible real-world impacts since its release – consider the formation of the Atticus Finch Legal Society, for instance – so reading it will get you up to speed on that front, too. Buy it here.

The Slap (Christos Tsiolkas)

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Winner of the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize (2009) (and the ABIA Book Of The Year, and the ABA Book Of The Year, and a bunch more)

Christos Tsiolkas won nearly every major literary award in Australia – except the biggie, the Miles Franklin (for which he was short-listed) – with The Slap. I read it a few years ago, and I don’t mind confessing: I had to take a few runs at it. I bought a copy in a fit of unbridled optimism about my future reading life (it’s a long book), only to pick it up once every couple of months, and then abandon it after a few pages. It followed me, languishing in the bottom of a suitcase, as I moved up and down the country. When I finally got around to finishing it, I was so glad I’d persisted! The catalyst of a slap at a family barbecue sets off a chain of reactions, sucking multiple characters and families into a vortex. This one would be particularly good for readers overseas who still think of Australia as the home of Skippy and Crocodile Dundee; Tsiolkas’ treatment of Australian suburbia and community is searing, confronting, and insightful. Buy it here.

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

Winner of the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction (2014)

I know, I know, I squeeze this one in with just about every list of recommended books I write here on the blog: I make no apologies. We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves definitely deserves its place here. I wouldn’t recommend reading my review until after you’ve read the book; the plot twist is just so damn good, don’t let anything ruin it for you! I’m this book’s biggest advocate and proponent now, and I think its relatively understated popularity is infuriating. And, let’s be honest, I’m still bitter that it lost out to The Narrow Road To The Deep North for the Booker Prize in 2014; luckily, the folks judging the PEN/Faulkner saw sense. Buy it here.

Cold Comfort Farm (Stella Gibbons)

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

Winner of the Prix Femina Vie Heureuse Anglais (1933)

Stella Gibbons was snubbed by the literary world for the most part, so she makes it into this list by the skin of her teeth. Her crime was satirising D.H. Lawrence and his contemporaries, making fun of their horniness-masquerading-as-moral-philosophy and their attempts to write vernacular. Luckily, she still managed to score a gong or two, and in all honesty Cold Comfort Farm deserved a lot more. It’s really the only novel for which Gibbons is remembered (also a shame, because she was pretty damn prolific), and even then it’s not all that widely read, not even in academia. It’s a snarkier, sassier, more modern Jane Austen – a great one to read when you need a good laugh! Buy it here.

I’m actually pretty behind in reading the award winners, so there’s every chance I’ve missed some fantastic worthy inclusions here – please give me your suggestions in the comments (or tell me over at KUWTP on Facebook!).

You know what’s more valuable to me than that Nobel money? Any change you could spare to help Keeping Up With The Penguins keep on keeping up! Click the banner to help us out:



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.

Why Don’t Women Win Literary Awards?

There are certain literary awards that have serious brand value. Even if you’re not a bookworm you recognise their names, and you might have even bought a book or two because you’d heard of its win and figured it must be good. That’s the real value of these prizes: it’s not so much about the monetary value of the prize itself, but the boost in visibility and longevity of a writer’s career. That’s why it stinks that women miss out so often (particularly when they have the audacity to write about women). Of course, there are plenty of prizes specifically for women (The Women’s Prize for Fiction in the UK being one example), but for whatever reason (and I have a few ideas) they don’t seem to carry the same cachet. Why don’t women win literary awards? Looking at past winners like Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird (she scored the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1961), it’s really hard to fathom a reason. So, let’s take a look at some of the fantastic women who have beat the odds and won a major literary award…

Why Don't Women Win LIterary Awards? Text on background of orange, typewriter, newspapers and laptop -Keeping Up With The Penguins

Pulitzer Prize

The Pulitzer Prize is a U.S. award that celebrates excellence in literature, as well as journalism and musical composition, established in 1917. It is currently administered by Columbia University in New York, and winners are awarded $15,000 in cash. The first woman writer to win the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction actually came pretty early on: Edith Wharton got the gong for The Age of Innocence in 1921 (and I reviewed it here, by the way). Since then, though, women have won the Pulitzer just 28 times – that’s 29 out of 91 awards (taking out the years that the prize wasn’t awarded at all), a mere 32%. For an entire decade, in the 1950s, no women won at all – the jury recommended Elizabeth Spencer for The Voice At The Back Door in 1957, but the Pulitzer board declined to award it to her.

Still, among that third of the winners, there are some personal favourites of mine: Margaret Mitchell (for Gone With The Wind in 1937), and our girl Harper Lee (for To Kill A Mockingbird in 1961). Notable WOC winners include Alice Walker (for The Color Purple in 1983), and Toni Morrison (for Beloved in 1988).

Nobel Prize for Literature

The Nobel Prizes are basically a hot mess as far as gender equality is concerned. As of 2017, Nobel Prizes had been awarded to 844… and 48 women. Taking out the awards given to companies and organisations, that’s just 5% of Nobel Prizes going to the gender that makes up half the population. Tsk tsk!

Of those 48 winners, fourteen have received the Nobel Prize for Literature. Selma Lagerlöf went first, winning the prize in 1909 (six years after Marie Curie famously became the first female winner ever, getting the Nobel Prize for Physics). The committee cited their “appreciation of the lofty idealism, vivid imagination and spiritual perception that characterise her writings”. Next was Grazia Deledda, who won in 1926 “for her idealistically inspired writings which with plastic clarity picture the life on her native island and with depth and sympathy deal with human problems in general” (who writes those press releases?!). More recently, Alice Munro won in 2013 for mastering the contemporary short story, and Svetlana Alexievich won in 2015 for her “polyphonic writings”, which the committee called a “monument to suffering and courage in our time”. But, of course, all of those came before this year’s scandal

Miles Franklin Award

It’s not just the international and American committees that overlook women for literary awards; we’ve got some problems at home, too. Domestically, women have historically been rather underrepresented in the Miles Franklin Award – which is kind of ironic, given that it is named for its creator, famed Australian writer Miles Franklin (who wrote My Brilliant Career, which I reviewed here). This disparity has led to the creation of the Stella Prize, which addresses the gender imbalance by specifically recognising the literary achievements of Australian women. It seems to be working, at least in some measure, because women are getting a bit more of a look-in with the Miles Franklin since the Stella Prize was introduced – Josephine Wilson won for Extinctions in 2017, Sofie Laguna for The Eye of the Sheep in 2015, and this year Michelle de Kretser for The Life To Come. Let’s hope that trend continues!

Booker Prize

The Booker Prize is awarded to the best English-language novel published in the U.K. each year. Traditionally, it was awarded only to authors from Commonwealth countries (plus Ireland and Zimbabwe), but a recent (controversial!) change saw it opened up to entrants from any country. Since 1969, 31 men and 16 women have won the prize – and, believe it or not, this is one of the better examples of gender equality in international literary awards. It’s not exactly a high bar, eh?

The first female winner of the Booker was Bernice Rueben in 1970; she won for The Elected Member, a book about an amphetamine addict who sees silverfish everywhere (I’m not kidding). Arundhati Roy also won in 1997 for The God of Small Things, and literary darling Margaret Atwood won in 2000 for The Blind Assassin. And this year, Anna Burns got the gong for Milkman (which is already on The Next List!). But I’m still pretty mad that Karen Joy Fowler’s We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves (my review here) lost out to Richard Flanagan’s The Narrow Road To The Deep North in 2014, though…

National Book Award

This is probably the only award that has comparable brand-recognition as the Pulitzer in the U.S., though it’s perhaps not as recognisable in the rest of the world. The National Book Award(s) are awarded annually to American authors, across multiple categories. The selection panels can arrive at a winner using any criteria they deem fit, as long as it falls within the guidelines set forth by the National Book Foundation. The NBAs were established in 1936, suspended briefly during the Second World War, and continued from 1950. In the awards’ history, female winners have included Joyce Carol Oates in 1970 (for Them), Ursula K LeGuin in 1973 (for The Farthest Shore), Alice Walker in 1983 (for The Color Purple), E. Annie Proulx in 1993 (for The Shipping News), and Patti Smith in 2010 (for Just Kids). This is an impressive list, but once again, women represent only 25% of the National Book Awards winners overall.


Important Note: the stats on how many of these women are women of colour aren’t readily available (funny that, eh?), but I’m going to hazard a guess that it is far too few… and the same definitely goes for trans and queer women.

Doesn’t it seem ridiculous that women are the primary consumers (and writers!) of fiction, and yet they win proportionately very few literary awards? It’s certainly not because they’re not talented, or keep writing only fluffy “chick-lit” (though that term makes me want to vomit). Looking over this list, it’s plain to see that they’ve got the writing chops for literary fiction. The only logical conclusion is that female writers just aren’t taken as seriously as their male counterparts, and the ripple effects of this is huge: women writers receive less money, less exposure, and fewer opportunities to develop and distribute their art (which means that even fewer women are enticed into the creative industries to begin with – you’ve got to see it to be it, after all!).

How do we fix this? Well, we need to exert our consumer pressure on the selection panels for starters (the director of the National Book Awards has given us a head start on that). We need to make a point of spending our precious consumer dollars on those women who do win now and then. We need to vote for politicians that fund and support women in the arts, and we need to support corporates that chip in, too. Plus, we need to share articles like this one far and wide, of course 😉 to bring attention to the issue. Have you got any other ideas? Let me know in the comments below (or tell us over at KUWTP on Facebook!).

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