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The Great Gatsby – F. Scott Fitzgerald

The recent Keeping Up With The Penguins trend of reviewing short-novels-by-dead-white-guysthat-got-turned-into-movies ends (promise!) with The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald.

This is a beautiful Penguin edition of the 1925 novel; I picked it up from my favourite secondhand bookstore (as always), and yet it looks brand new, never read. In the front they’ve printed Fitzgerald’s original dedication, to his wife Zelda. I thought that was really sweet… until I later learned that she was quite a piece of work, and would probably have kicked up a royal stink if he hadn’t dedicated the book to her. What a boss!

Fitzgerald began planning The Great Gatsby in 1923, but it was a long and laborious process to get to the finished product. In his first year of writing he pumped out 18,000 words, only to scrap it all and start again. There were stacks of revisions, even entire chapters re-written, before it went to press. Fitzgerald also changed the title more often than he changed his underpants. His reported favourite was “Under The Red, White and Blue”, but it was vetoed by his publishers (and his wife, ha!).


The Great Gatsby, in its final form, received mixed reviews and sold “poorly” – just 20,000 copies in its first year. Fitzgerald died in 1940 believing himself to be a failure (boohoo). Shortly after his death, the book experienced a strong resurgence, thanks in large part to the Council on Books in Wartime that distributed 155,000 copies to American soldiers fighting in WWII. It is now considered a contender for that ever-elusive accolade: The Great American Novel. It has been adapted for film, television, literature, opera, ballet, radio, and even computer games. I vaguely remember seeing the 2013 movie at some point, but my memories are mostly just glitter and sparkly costumes. The only concrete fact that my brain saw fit to retain was that Leonardo launched a thousand memes.

Leonardo Di Caprio as Jay Gatsby - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Anyway, what’s the story? Well, a young Yale graduate slash Great War veteran (Nick Carraway) moves to Long Island to work as a bond salesman and basically sort himself out. He ends up friends with his rich neighbour – Jay Gatsby – who throws a lot of fancy parties. (He’s really rich, okay? It’s very important that you know that.) So, Nick just kinda hangs out there a bit; his only other social outings are visiting his flapper cousin and her philandering husband, who live just up the road. As I was reading, I couldn’t stop asking myself: what’s the point? I mean, a swotty young guy discovers that he likes drinking and pretty girls, and he hangs around his rich neighbour’s hectic parties – so what?

Later, we find out that Gatsby is actually in love with Nick’s beautiful cousin, and has quasi-stalked her for years (but we’re supposed to think that’s romantic, not creepy). He uses Nick to engineer a rendezvous, and finally gets into her pants. They continue hooking up on the sly for a while, until her husband Mr Philanderer finds out and gets all jealous (ironic). There’s a crazy show-down at a hotel in the city, and the beautiful cousin runs over her husband’s mistress in Gatsby’s car (yes, shit really escalated, but it’s not over yet). Because of the car, everyone assumes that Gatsby is the one who was driving, and it’s all very I Know What You Did Last Summer. The mistress’s husband avenges her death by killing Gatsby, and then himself. The beautiful cousin gets back with her husband, and they run away together. Nick tries to throw a funeral for Gatsby and nobody comes. The end.




Fitzgerald famously drew inspiration from the parties he attended in Long Island in the early 1920s, and many true events from his life are reflected in the plot (he fell in love with a girl and needed to “prove himself” with material success before he could marry her, and so on). You don’t have to try too hard to pick apart the Very Important Themes in The Great Gatsby, a lot of stuff about the façade of class mobility in America and the excesses of wealth and the recklessness of ambitious youth. Blah, blah, blah… It all boils down to a cautionary tale, and a pretty boring one at that. How many times do we need to expose the “underbelly” of the Great American Dream? It is a myth, we get it. I mean, maybe they didn’t back in the 1920s, but we’ve all seen American Beauty now, so I’m not sure how much The Great Gatsby adds to that narrative.

I fail to understand how this has become a staple of the high school English syllabus. Is it because it’s a “classic” that’s short enough to squeeze into a teenager’s limited attention span? Do the grown-ups think it’s “relateable”? The characters do all talk and act like rich, indulgent teenagers I suppose, like an old-timey version of The OC. I know I’m not an authority, but I think there are better choices for reading assignments. I mean, as far as the literary merit goes, to me Fitzgerald sounded like a wannabe poet trying too hard to write romantic prose. He told a friend that he wanted The Great Gatsby to be a “consciously artistic achievement”, but it came off sounding like desperate, over-reaching wank half of the time.

So, in conclusion, no. Not for me. No, thank you. My tl;dr summary is this: a shady rich guy gets taken in by a slapper, and owning a fancy car comes back to bite him in the arse. I really didn’t care about the characters or the story at all, and finer examples of American literature abound as far as I’m concerned – but by all means, check this one out for yourself if you want to see just how far it falls short of its reputation.

My favourite Amazon reviews of The Great Gatsby:

  • “Hated this book. It was a total waste of time. If I wanted to be depressed and read about unfaithfulness in marriage, I would read the court records. Don’t know why this is a classic.” – Amazon Customer
  • “Wow, even better than the Cliff notes I read in High School.” – Marc Reeves
  • “I had to buy this for my son for school. He did not like the book but that’s not Amazon’s fault…” – D. Basuino
  • “One star is too many, but it is the minimum.
    The only reason I read this was for a class. I gave the teacher a stinker review as well.The book is a pointless exercise in futility about pointless stupid people. The only point to the story is that people with money are just as trashy, if not more so, than people without. The characters have no development, are barely two dimensional, do stupid things for no reason and face no consequences for their veniality.This books is the literary equivalent of being stuck in a window seat on a airplane for 14 hours needs to a drunken, smelly creep with bad breath and smelly gas who talks at you for the whole flight about his pointless job. For being such a thin book, it is the hardest reading I have ever had to do.Of course, it is even more aggravating that the kindle edition costs $11 for a book you can get at a bookstore for less than a dollar.” – Heinrick Ludwig von Mencken

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

11. Who would be the next big BookTube star?

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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




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


Nineteen Nineteen – John Dos Passos

Nineteen Nineteen is the second book of a trilogy, now called the U.S.A. trilogy, by American writer John Dos Passos. The first book of the trilogy (The 42nd Parallel) was published in 1930, followed by Nineteen Nineteen in 1932, and the finale (The Big Money) in 1936. They were all published together in a single volume for the first time in 1938. They are widely considered the peak of Dos Passos’s career, and it was off the back of these books that Jean Paul Sartre said he considered Dos Passos to be “the greatest writer of our time”. I think all of this begs an obvious question…

… why have so few people heard of Nineteen Ninteen, or John Dos Passos?

Well, here we have yet another 20th century writer who lives in the inconceivably-large shadows of Fitzgerald and Hemingway. Indeed, they were all good friends, the three of them (at least initially, but more on that in a second). Alas, in the intervening decades, Dos Passos has receded from view while the other two have continued to loom large.

Nineteen Nineteen was Dos Passos’s response to the Great War, in which – like Hemingway – he served as an ambulance driver. He had always had communist leanings, but after the conflict he travelled with Hemingway to Spain, and that’s where things got hairy. Dos Passos found the viciousness of some of the communist revolutionaries confronting (to say the least), and his reaction led to a falling out with Hemingway, who didn’t find their approach as bothersome. Thus began another great literary feud: Dos Passos headed home to write about the everyday lives of characters affected by WWI (with special attention to the social and economic forces that shaped their lives) while Hemingway wrote letters to Fitzgerald, saying that Dos Passos was a “second-rate writer with no ear” and “also a terrible snob”. As best I can tell, they never made up.



Though he found the situation in Spain pretty challenging ethically, Dos Passos never entirely gave up his communist cause. He found new conviction when he saw the widening gulf between the rich and the poor in his home country. By the time he got back, the glittery days of the Jazz Age were long gone, and the combined forces of the crash, the Great Depression, and the rise of fascism were tearing his world apart. Depicting the truth of this state of affairs in literature became Dos Passos’s passion, and you can see that in the way he wrote Nineteen Nineteen.

It’s hardly a straight-foward novel, in that it’s a highly experimental fusion of fiction and journalism. There are four different narrative “modes”. The first is the most recognisable to contemporary readers, narrative fiction that follows the lives of a few key characters (twelve across the trilogy as a whole, but they’re not linked in any significant way). Then, there are the “Newsreel” sections; these contain collages of newspaper clippings, song lyrics, and front-page headlines (drawn almost entirely from the real-life Chicago Tribune). There are also, in the third mode, short biographies of public figures. I only recognised the names of a couple of former Presidents, but there are plenty of others, including “The Body Of An American”, which tells the story of an unknown soldier killed in WWI. And I’ve saved the weirdest mode for last, the “Camera Eye”: autobiographical stream-of-consciousness passages, which seem to be Dos Passos’s way of inserting himself and his own personal perspective into the story.

The alternative and experimental modes can be discombobulating, but at least they’re all really distinct in style. You never wonder what it is exactly you’re reading, because Dos Passos has signposted it really clearly for you. I read later that his “Newsreel” and “Camera Eye” sections were inspired by modernist innovation and the emergence of “mass communication” through television and the telegraph. Can you imagine if he’d lived to see Twitter?



Dos Passos was clearly trying to Do Something Different(TM). Nineteen Nineteen, with all these different modes, isn’t cohesive or continuous at all. It’s a series of fragments, more like a creative writing class notebook than a complete novel (and this edition came complete with doodled illustrations, too). At a guess, I’d say I was able to properly comprehend maybe half of it. I struggled to follow what was going on in the narrative sections, because it was broken up by all the other stuff, so I’m not confident in giving you a complete plot summary here.

What I will say, content-wise, is that there’s a lot of sex and violence, and Dos Passos isn’t shy. I don’t mind graphic books, but I figured I’d mention it as a heads up if you do. What did bother me, though, was the recurring motif of men trying to convince their lovers to get abortions, and blaming the women for getting pregnant in the first place. Ugh!

Oh, and a passable knowledge of French would really come in handy reading this one, especially towards the end. Without it, you’re going to end up Google Translating a lot, like me.



Dos Passos does succeed in his primary objective, however, to hammer home his communist message. He has no sympathy at all for his “upwardly mobile” characters, but simultaneously he’s very kind and generous to his down-and-out victims of capitalist society.

In the end, I really felt nothing for this book. I could appreciate that Dos Passos was being really very clever and experimental and all of that, but perhaps just too much so for me to actually enjoy reading. I read later that Nineteen Nineteen has been adapted a number of times for radio and stage – don’t ask me how, holy Oprah, but I won’t be seeking them out. I’m a firm believer, as I’ve said before, that loving a book simply means that you’ve come to it at the right time in your reading life; maybe if I’d come to Nineteen Nineteen at some other time, I’d feel differently about it. As it stands, right now, I’m a bit sick of enduring 500+ pages of old white men telling me that war and capitalism are bad. Sorry, Dos Passos (if it’s any consolation, I wasn’t that big on your frenemies Fitzgerald and Hemingway, either).

My favourite Amazon reviews of Nineteen Nineteen:

  • “First book of the Trilogy was very good. This one just drones on and on and on with few interesting characters and interminable descriptions of the labor struggle. Can’t wait to finish because I want to get on to the last installment. I know now why Dos Passos played third fiddle to Hemingway and Fitzgerald.” – JB Haller
  • “I am not a fan of the camera eye. In addition, longsentenceswithallwordsattacheddonotworkwellforme. Well written prose and interesting narrative from an historical standpoint. I took a two-book pause between its predecessor 42nd Parallel and 1919. I may take a two-decade pause until I open The Big Money, well well after I’ve read Ragtime, Manhattan Transfer, and Berlin. Alexander Platz.” – Amazon Customer


50 Books To Read Before You Die

It’s a new year, and that means it’s reading resolution time. I’ve written before about how to read more, how to read more classic books, and how to read more diversely, so you can check out those posts if that’s what you’re after. But if you’re setting a more general goal this year, or looking for a fun reading challenge, this is the list for you. I’ve pulled together this list of fifty books to read before you die.

Now, these aren’t necessarily the “best” books, they’re not even the books I enjoyed the most – heck, I haven’t even read a few of them myself (yet). I certainly wouldn’t say these are the only books you should read, or that reading this list will make you definitively “well read” somehow. These are simply fifty of the books I think are well worth reading, listed here (in no particular order) alongside the reason I think you should give them a go…

50 Books To Read Before You Die - Text Overlaid on Image of Bookshelves Leading To Heavens - Keeping Up With The Penguins

1. Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White

Let’s ease into it with a children’s book, something swift and sweet. Even if you already read Charlotte’s Web as a child, it’s wonderful to revisit it as an adult. This book has much to teach us about friendship, diversity, and determination.

2. Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë

Jane Eyre - Charlotte Bronte - book laid on a wooden table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

I know Jane Eyre isn’t without it’s problems (there’s the Creole wife locked in the attic by the romantic lead, for starters), but it’s a classic for a reason. It’s compulsively readable, beautifully rendered, and this Brontë sister has been called the “first historian of private consciousness”. Reading this book will show you where masterful first-person narration truly began. Read my full review here.

3. How To Win Friends And Influence People by Dale Carnegie

Oi! If you’re scrolling past this one, thinking “I don’t read self-help books” with a smug smile, you stop right now! How To Win Friends And Influence People isn’t so much a self-help book as it is a guide to being more polite and nice to others in your day-to-day life. I think the world could do with a bit more politeness and niceness, don’t you?

4. In Cold Blood by Truman Capote

In Cold Blood - Truman Capote - book laid on wooden table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

In Cold Blood wasn’t the first true crime book, but it can (probably) claim the title of the first “non-fiction novel” without much contest. In Capote’s account of a mass murder in Kansas, we can see the origins of all contemporary true crime and investigative journalism. Set aside your qualms about his liberal creative license – it’s a cracking yarn! Read my full review here.

5. Diary Of A Young Girl by Anne Frank

The first, and most obvious, reason to read Diary Of A Young Girl is an act of remembrance: the story of Anne Frank, and the countless others who perished and suffered alongside her, should be remembered by all who continue to populate this planet. I’d like to add a second, literary reason: I have yet to read a WWII historical fiction novel that comes even close to capturing the hope, horror, and heart-wrenching honesty of this young woman’s record of her experiences.

6. A Game Of Thrones by George R.R. Martin

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

Even if you’re not normally a fantasy reader – I’m certainly not! – A Game Of Thrones is a good one to start with, mostly due to the enduring popularity of the HBO series. If you’ve seen it (and probably even if you haven’t) you’ll find the plot and characters at least somewhat familiar. That makes the whole thing easier to follow. And, let’s be honest, the main reason to read this book before you die is so that you can look down your nose at the know-it-alls who claim they never watched the series because they read the books. Who are they kidding? Read my full review here.

7. A Short History Of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson

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

Even if you don’t necessarily need to know, in your day-to-day life, the origins of our universe and everything in it… it can’t hurt to have some idea, can it? A Short History Of Nearly Everything will give you the beginner’s guide to answering some of the big scientific questions of our time. Bonus: it’s all written in a highly accessible, folksy style that lets the mind-boggling facts speak for themselves without bogging you down in academic jargon. Read my full review here.

8. Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf

Mrs Dalloway - Virginia Woolf - book laid on wooden table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

You could probably read Mrs Dalloway fifty times over before you die, to the exclusion of all else, and still not understand quite everything Woolf was trying to say. I found it tough to persist with it when I knew that so much was flying over my head, but I still think it was a book worth reading. Mrs Dalloway has much to teach us about gender, perspective, human relationships – and even if we finish it having understood only a little, we still come out ahead, right? Read my full review here.

9. Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Americanah - Chimananda Ngozi Adichie - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

If you’ve seen her TED talk, you already know that Adichie is amazing, and her best known book – Americanah – will certainly give you a lot of food for thought. I realise that many of the books on this list are from the American literary tradition, so consider this book a kind of counterpoint to that. In it, Adichie examines the symbolism of America as a concept, and the ramifications of cultural imperialism across the world.

10. The Catcher In The Rye by J.D. Salinger

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

Almost everyone was forced to read The Catcher In The Rye in high school, but it’s worth re-visiting (and definitely worth reading for the first time, if you managed to escape that particular rite of passage as I did). It’s a gritty coming-of-age novel, without the sparkle we’ve come to associate with hopeful young adult offerings of the 21st century. Plus, Holden Caulfield isn’t half as unlikeable as everyone makes out. Read my full review here.

11. The Adventures Of Sherlock Holmes by Arthur Conan Doyle

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

This is the original collection of short stories that birthed a huge body of work around the world’s most famous fictional detective, and you should read it before you die on that basis alone. But if that’s not enough to lure you in, trust me when I say The Adventures Of Sherlock Holmes is a fun read! The stories aren’t particularly scary or spooky, but they’re always delightful and clever. It’s also a great example of how we can say a lot with a few words: Doyle was the master of economical use of language. Read my full review here.

12. My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante

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

Elena Ferrante, whomever she might be, is (in my humble opinion) one of the greatest writers of literary fiction in our time. Sure, it’s fun to venture down the rabbit-hole of sussing out her true identity, but the real reason to read My Brilliant Friend is bigger than that. These English editions are beautifully translated by Ann Goldstein (#namethetranslator), in a way that retains the rolling lyricism of the original Italian. They paint vivid pictures of life in mid-20th century Naples for two young girls growing into adulthood from poverty. A must-read before you die! Read my full review here.

13. The Satanic Verses by Salman Rushdie

The Satanic Verses - Salman Rushdie - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

This is the book that saw a fatwa issued against Salman Rushdie, forcing him into hiding for many years. And with a title like The Satanic Verses… come on, don’t you want to see what all the fuss was about?



14. Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell

1984 - George Orwell - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

This is the book that “activated” me as a teenager, the one that opened my eyes to the way my world could be manipulated and distorted by power structures beyond my young imagining. Nineteen Eighty-Four remains the pinnacle of dystopian fiction because it takes on startling new resonance every single year, with every crazy event of our increasingly mixed-up world.

15. The Fault In Our Stars by John Green

The Fault In Our Stars - John Green - Book Laid On Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Look, The Fault In Our Stars isn’t a great work of literature. I’m not sure it’s even a good work of contemporary young adult literature. But it is beloved by an entire generation of teens that are growing up fast. I think we should all read it now so that we’ll have something in common to discuss with the doctors who care for us in our nursing homes. Read my full review here.

16. Strange Case Of Dr Jekyll And Mr Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson

Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde - Robert Louis Stevenson - book laid on wooden table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

I know – I know – that even if you’ve never read this classic novella, you’ve used the phrase “Jekyll and Hyde”, or heard it somewhere and (thought you) understood what it meant. I say you owe it to the English idiom to read its story of origin, Strange Case Of Dr Jekyll And Mr Hyde. For bonus points, you can check out Catch-22 as well! Read my full review here.

17. Lady Chatterley’s Lover by D.H. Lawrence

Lady Chatterley's Lover - DH Lawrence - book laid on wooden table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

The trial(s) regarding the prohibition of Lady Chatterley’s Lover were world-changing, in the sense that they provided a legal basis upon which we get to access ground-breaking and subversive literature today, even when governments and school boards would prefer that we didn’t. However, when you actually read this supposedly-erotic tome, it really serves as a good reminder that controversy sometimes amounts to no more than a storm in a tea cup. Read my full review here.

18. Moby Dick by Herman Melville

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

I can feel you rolling your eyes! And, believe me, I understand. Moby Dick is a six-hundred page book about whales. The size of whales. The smell of whales. The slew of artworks featuring whales. The stories of whales in religion. There’s only so many whales a reader can take! But I would suggest you give it a go, and stick with it for as long as you can. Melville experimented with form and style throughout, so some chapters and passages read completely differently to the last – there’s surely something for everyone (even if they’re not that big on whales). Read my full review here.

19. The Year Of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion

The Year Of Magical Thinking - Joan Didion - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

It’s a sad fact that at some point in life, each and every one of us will experience loss, grief, and mourning. The Year Of Magical Thinking is widely considered to be the epitome of memoirs on that experience, Joan Didion’s account of the year following the death of her husband. It’s a must-read before you die, so that you might be a little better prepared for another’s death (or better understand a long-ago passing).

20. Pride And Prejudice by Jane Austen

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

If you ask a random stranger on the street to name a “classic book”, with no other prompting, most of them will probably say Pride And Prejudice. It’s another one of those books that we all think we “should” read, and sometimes that kind of pressure is too much. I know I tried many times, and failed, until I finally picked it up at the right moment. Austen penned a brilliant and timeless tale of a man who changes his manners and a woman who changes her mind – stick with it until it sticks with you! Read my full review here.

21. To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee

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

Maybe it’s a cliche, but it’s a cliche for a reason: To Kill A Mockingbird is the poster-child of books you should read before you die. It was Harper Lee’s only true novel, and what a novel it was! It has shaped politics, legal thinking, and morality debates in America and around the world for decades now. Not to mention the legion of kids named Atticus, after the eternal patriarch and impassioned lawyer… Read my full review here.

22. We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler

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

This is a selfish inclusion on this reading list, I grant you, but I stand by it: I think everyone should read We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, if for no other reason than I want them to. There’s a huge plot twist about 70 pages in, and – desperate as I am to talk about this book – I live in constant fear of spoiling it for someone. I won’t stop recommending this book until every reader has read it, and I can have spoiler-y discussions to my heart’s content! Read my full review here.

23. Love In The Time Of Cholera by Gabriel Garcia Marquez

Love In The Time Of Cholera - Gabriel Garcia Marquez - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Most other lists of books to read before you die include Marquez’s One Hundred Years Of Solitude. It’s a great book, no contest here, but I think that Love In The Time of Cholera is a better one to start with, especially if you’re new to the literature of South America and the tradition of magical realism.

24. I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou

I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings - Maya Angelou - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings is a miraculously poetic autobiography (well, perhaps not so miraculous, given that Angelou was, in fact, a poet). You will want to clutch this book to your chest and give it a great big hug. It’s tells the (true!) story of a young woman transformed, how she overcame indignity and prejudice to reach a place of self-possession and determination.

25. Harry Potter (series) by J.K. Rowling

Harry Potter And The Philosophers Stone - JK Rowling - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

OK, this is technically seven books (making this a list of 56 books to read before you die, if you want to be a rule ninny), but who could pick just one from the series that changed the world? And, come to that, who hasn’t read at least one of the Harry Potter books yet? Come on! Get caught up with the rest of the world, if you haven’t already. This one’s a gimme.

26. Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons

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

It’s a crying shame that more readers haven’t yet encountered Cold Comfort Farm. It lurks in the shadows of early 20th century classic literature, mostly because Stella Gibbons thumbed her nose at the “literati” (D.H. Lawrence and Virginia Woolf in particular). She refused to play by the rules of networking and deference, and her sales and reputation suffered for it. You should read this book before you die, just to make sure Gibbons’s comedic brilliance won’t be forgotten, no matter how much the literary giants wanted it to be. Read my full review here.

27. Waiting For Godot by Samuel Beckett

Waiting For Godot - Samuel Beckett - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

A couple of blokes stand around, chatting, waiting for their mate – don’t you want to know if he ever shows up? It’s a tragi-comedy, sure to tickle the funny bone of all readers with a darker sense of humour. Plus, Waiting For Godot is a play, and that was definitely Beckett’s natural talent, the best way to experience his (at-times very esoteric) writing.

28. Call Me By Your Name by Andre Aciman

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

If you could use a little romance in your life (without all the naff cliches that are normally found in the pages of Harlequins, or Fabio clutching a buxom blonde on the cover), Call Me By Your Name is the salve for what ails you. Your heart will wrench, your toes will tingle, as you read this beautiful account of a clandestine love affair in 1980s Italy.

29. Little Women by Louisa May Alcott

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

For too many years, Little Women was written off as foolish, simplistic, fluff “for girls”, and excluded from the literary canon. My challenge to all of you is this: find an edition with a decent introduction that describes Alcott’s life and politics, and then read this subtle but subversive story. You’ll see it in a whole new light, as I did! Read my full review here.

30. Zen And The Art Of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert M. Pirsig

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance - Robert M Pirsig - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Zen And The Art Of Motorcycle Maintenance holds the world record (literally, it’s in the Guiness book) for being – get this – the most-often rejected book that went on to be a best-seller. I can only imagine the strength of will and self-belief it took for Pirsig to persist after receiving his 121st rejection letter… all that zen thinking must have done wonders!

31. How Proust Can Change Your Life by Alain de Botton

How Proust Can Change Your Life - Alain de Botton - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Look, if we’re being honest (which, of course, we always are), the main reason to read this book before you die is to work out whether it’s worth giving Proust himself a go. In Search Of Lost Time is the longest book in circulation, too long to bind in a single edition, so let de Botton decide for you whether or not to pick it up. Hopefully, reading How Proust Can Change Your Life, you’ll get an idea of whether it’s worth it. It probably is, but even if not, it’s nice to know that Proust could change your life, at least.

32. We Wish To Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families by Philip Gourevitch

The literary world has dedicated millions and millions of pages to accounts of the world wars, but there are other conflicts just as worthy of our attention. We Wish To Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families is one such crucial account of the 1994 Rwandan genocide, in which over one million people met their untimely violent deaths.

33. Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland by Lewis Carroll

Alice's Adventures in Wonderland - Lewis Carroll - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Yes, I’m including yet another children’s book, because sometimes they have more to teach us than anything written for grown-ups. In this case, read Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland to experience and marvel at Carroll’s masterful word play – it just doesn’t quite translate in its full glory to the Disney screen adaptation (or any other!). Read my full review here.

34. The Grapes Of Wrath by John Steinbeck

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

It’s rare that a book is so good that it makes me angry: The Grapes Of Wrath is one on that short list. I was so gripped by the story of the Joads, a family attempting to escape the economic desolation of the Dust Bowl, that I found myself furious that no one had ever told me how damn good it was! Plus, this book will (sadly) have a recurring timeliness as we inch closer to a climate change doomsday… Read my full review here.

35. The Feminine Mystique by Betty Friedan

The Feminine Mystique - Betty Friedan - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Second-wave feminism has long been superseded, and it’s easy for us now to decry it for all its problems, but I think it still behoves us to examine its origins as we continue to beat a path towards gender equality. The Feminine Mystique is the book widely credited with kicking things off for the second wave, and it holds up surprisingly well compared to some other feminist texts of the time.

36. The Trial by Franz Kafka

The Trial - Franz Kafka - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

If you can’t quite bring yourself to pick up Crime And Punishment (though you shouldn’t be afraid, it’s actually really good!), here’s a more accessible alternative. The Trial tells the story of a man who is arrested and put on (you guessed it) trial, answerable to a remote authority that we don’t quite understand, for supposed crimes that are never quite revealed to us.

37. Leaves Of Grass by Walt Whitman

The Complete Poems of Walt Whitman - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Picking up a copy of Leaves Of Grass is kind of like opening a choose-your-own-adventure novel. Whitman first published it as a collection of twelve poems in 1855, but then spent many years re-writing and adding to it, so that the final compilation included well over four hundred pieces. Whichever edition you choose, you’ll find it to be a wonderfully sensual collection that straddles philosophies, movements and themes.

38. The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy by Douglas Adams

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

Here’s another slim tome that we should all read for the pure fun of it: The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy. It’s ridiculous, satirical, and comforting all at once – not to mention hilarious! Plus, you’ll finally get to understand all those hip references to taking towels on holiday, and the number forty-two, and that constant refrain “don’t panic”… Read my full review here.

39. Hidden Figures by Margot Lee Shetterley

Hidden Figures - Margot Lee Shetterley - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Shetterley spent six years working on this biographical story, an account of the lives and works of three NASA mathematicians that history might otherwise have forgotten (thus, the title: Hidden Figures). If you’re asking yourself why their figures may have been hidden from view: well, they were women, for one thing, and women of colour at that, working in a field heavily dominated by men. Their contributions to the space race were invaluable, and this book seeks to set the record straight.

40. Atonement by Ian McEwan

Atonement - Ian McEwan - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

McEwan is pretty damn prolific, and yet somehow the premises of his stories are always jaw-droppers. If you’re unfamiliar with his work, I would recommend starting with this one, his best-known book, Atonement. In it, one young girl’s mistake has spiralling ramifications. Lives are ruined, including her own, and she has to contend with how to (you guessed it) atone for her role in the whole mess.

41. The God Of Small Things by Arundhati Roy

The God Of Small Things - Arundhati Roy - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

The God Of Small Things was Roy’s debut novel, and it made one heck of a splash – can you imagine winning the Booker Prize your first time out? Not only that, she did a Harper Lee, and stepped back from writing and publishing for twenty years! Her follow-up wasn’t published until 2017 (sophomore slump be damned!). But for a fine examination of how small things affect our lives in big ways, you’ve got to go back to the start with this one.

42. Inferno by Dante Alighieri

The Divine Comedy - Dante Alighieri - Keeping Up With The Penguins

It seemed only right to include at least one foundational text, a story that has influenced literature in such a way that we still hear its echoes today, in this list of books to read before you die. I chose Inferno, the first of Dante’s Divine Comedy trilogy. It’s a narrative poem, depicting Dante’s descent through the circles of Hell. Reading it as a contemporary reader, you’ll appreciate how it illuminates the endurance of human nature. We really haven’t changed all that much since Dante dreamed up fitting punishments for our sins in the 14th century…

43. The Color Purple by Alice Walker

The Color Purple - Alice Walker - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

It never ceases to amaze me how the wowsers can completely miss the point when it comes to literature. The Color Purple has been consistently censored and banned in various ways ever since it was first published in 1982, usually on the grounds of its “explicit” depictions of violence. And yet, the whole point of the story was to reveal to an indifferent audience the violence wrought upon black women in the American South in the 1930s. Read this book before you die, and show the nay-sayers where they can stick their “concern” for your delicate sensibilities!

44. Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides

Middlesex - Jeffrey Eugenides - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Eugenides reportedly sat down to write Middlesex, an intersectional bildungsroman and family saga, after finding that other accounts of intersex lives and anatomies were insufficient in promoting understanding. In so doing, he’s woven together two intricate experiences: that of intersex people, and that of Greek immigrants, in 20th century America. It’s a lot to tackle all at once, but Eugenides got a Pulitzer Prize for his efforts, and that ain’t no small thing.

45. I Am Malala by Malala Yousafzai

Remember the fifteen-year-old girl who was shot by the Taliban for standing her ground when it came to her right to an education? This is her story, I Am Malala. It plays out against the horrifying backdrop of the rise (and fall) of the Tehrik-i-Taliban in Pakistan. This book is so detailed, so earnest and fierce, that it is still banned in many schools of that region – making it, in my eye, all the more essential reading.

46. The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

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

The Handmaid’s Tale was originally published in 1985, but boy-howdy did it come into its own these past few years! I felt like I couldn’t take a step in any direction without running into Gilead-themed protests, the HBO adaptation, the sequel, or some other homage to Atwood’s dystopian story of ideology and control.

47. This House Of Grief by Helen Garner

This House Of Grief - Helen Garner - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Helen Garner is an unimpeachable darling of the Australian literary community, and it’s tough to narrow down down this selection to just one book from her incredibly varied back-catalogue… but in the end, I went with This House Of Grief. It’s her account of the murder conviction of a man who drove his three children into a dam, killing them, in 2005. It is haunting in the extreme; you won’t be the same after reading it (just as Garner has said she was never the same after writing it).

48. Beloved by Toni Morrison

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

Did you know that Beloved is actually based on the real-life story of an African-American slave? Her name was Margaret Garner, and she escaped Kentucky in 1856. She fled to Ohio, by then a free state. Morrison, who by then was already regarded in some circles as America’s greatest novelist, came across Margaret’s story, and she was driven to write this imagined account of a former slave living in Ohio. She dedicated it to “sixty million and more” – the number of Africans, and their descendants, who died as a result of the slave trade.

49. Gentlemen Prefer Blondes by Anita Loos

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

I will never, never, stop being bitter about the fact that The Great Gatsby is held up as the definitive Jazz Age novel, when Gentlemen Prefer Blondes is so much better! Why would you want to read about a miserable rich stalker throwing fancy parties, when you could instead read the fictional diaries of a woman willing to exploit the gender roles of 1920s America for all they’re worth? It’s hilarious, it’s brilliant, and it’s taught me more about that period than anything Fitzgerald ever scribbled down. Read my full review here.

50. Ulysses by James Joyce

Ulysses - James Joyce - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Yes. It’s here. On this list. If I have to read Ulysses (and the Keeping Up With The Penguins reading list dictates I must), then you have to read it. At least give it a go! I’m a firm believer that we should all read the books that intimidate us, like trying new foods or travelling someplace unfamiliar, and hey – it might not be as bad as we all think!

And there we have it! How many of these books have you already read? What books do you think everyone should read before they die? Add your recommendations in the comments below!


The Best Books I Read In 2019: Year In Review

Another year is drawing to a close, which means it’s time for another obligatory year-in-review post, a round-up of all the best books I read in 2019. This year, I reviewed 51 books (though a 52nd will squeeze in just after Christmas, before the new year ticks over), and once again they spanned centuries and categories like you wouldn’t believe. That’s one of my favourite things about the Keeping Up With The Penguins project: the variety! I’ve covered everything from Pulitzer Prize winners (old and new) to little-known autobiographies, from Great American Novels to books in translation from Sweden, from hilarious Jazz Age social commentary to re-imaginings of Australian folklore. Here’s the best of what I’ve read this year, from start to finish…

Year In Review - The Best Books I Read in 2019 - Text Overlaid on Darkened Image Of Open Day Calendar - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Little Women – Louisa May Alcott

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

Like almost everyone, I think, I sat down with my copy of Little Women carrying a heavy burden of skepticism. I assumed it was going to be fluffy, saccharine, a relic of the days before feminism taught the world that women were powerful. How lucky I was to pick up this edition, with its incredible introduction that detailed for me the life and politics of Louisa May Alcott. It really opened my eyes to what she was trying to do with this book, and how she cleverly – but subtly – subverted the weight of expectation that was thrust upon her. Read my full review here.

Portnoy’s Complaint – Philip Roth

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

Here’s another one I never thought I’d be including in a list of my best reads of the year. Portnoy’s Complaint, by all accounts, was a self-indulgent romp through the mind of an upper-middle-class Jewish American man, obsessed with sex and his mother (naturally). There was no way, I thought, I could possibly relate to, let alone laugh at, his neurotic monologue. Once again, the Keeping Up With The Penguins project has me eating my words: this book was hilarious! I cackled over poor Portnoy’s complaints, his childhood anecdotes, and his unbelievable knack for getting in his own way. Read my full review here.

The Bell Jar – Sylvia Plath

The Bell Jar - Sylvia Plath - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Alright, here’s one I knew I’d love: I just had no idea how much. I saved up reading The Bell Jar for the moment I thought I needed it, and I’m so glad I did. It was searing, it was heart-breaking, it was gut-churning, it was tear-jerking, it was breath-taking. It’s a modern classic for a reason, Keeper Upperers, and it was so good I almost gave up reading and writing altogether when I finished it. Why bother, when something so beautiful already exists in the world? Trigger warnings aplenty, however – you’ve been warned. Read my full review here.

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 lot like one of those boggy marshes with hidden patches of quicksand (I know, it’s not an elegant metaphor, but bear with me): it looks plain, maybe a little boring, but if you don’t keep your wits about you as you wander through, you could find yourself sinking and struggling to get free. Wharton’s prose is deceptively simple. What appears to be a description of a carriage or a house actually contains crucial commentary about the world her characters lived in and the way it worked. If you let your mind drift, you’ll miss it, and have to track back through the pages to pick it up again. Wharton was a trailblazer for 20th century female authors in America, and The Age Of Innocence totally holds up. Read my full review here.

Cold Comfort Farm – Stella Gibbons

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

Poor Stella Gibbons. I’d never heard of her, nor Cold Comfort Farm (her best-known work, which isn’t saying much) before I put together my Keeping Up With The Penguins reading list. In fact, it would seem that most people – outside of the very well-read English Literature elite – have never heard of her. She wrote dozens of books, and yet it took me a year to track down any of them. Why is she so underappreciated? Well, it would seem she had the audacity to parody D.H. Lawrence, the beloved grand-daddy of horny male writers in her time (and now, come to that), and she pissed off Virginia Woolf into the bargain. Essentially, Gibbons refused to play by the rules, and as a result, those in the powerful literary cliques sought to pull her from our shelves. I’d say that makes reading Cold Comfort Farm a political act. 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

Mark Twain’s books are divisive, I won’t deny it. I can certainly see the problems in his treatment of race in America, problems that have seen his books banned from many school libraries and removed from many a syllabus. But I really enjoyed The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, in spite of myself. I loved the way he used dialect, the way he crafted his characters’ speech to tell the reader as much about them as what they were saying. The writing was brilliant, masterful, immersive, and compelling. I wasn’t as sold on Tom Sawyer, but they can’t all be winners. Read my full review – of both! – here.

An Artist Of The Floating World – Kazuo Ishiguro

An Artist Of The Floating World - Kazuo Ishiguro - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Are you tired of me explaining all the ways in which my preconceived ideas have been kicked in the bum this year? I hope not, because here comes another one. Kazuo Ishiguro is a Nobel laureate, getting the gong for literature back in 2017. I assumed, coming to his work knowing that, that it would be Very Literary(TM). To put it bluntly, I thought it would be dense, bleak, boring, and written for people far smarter than me. I was surprised, when I finally came across a copy of An Artist Of The Floating World, to see how slim it was, and even more surprised by how quickly I powered through it. I’ve talked before about how I’ve largely gone off WWII historical fiction, but this is one I can get behind. It’s set in Japan shortly after the conflict ended, and it follows a few days in the life of an artist who is not only “of the floating world”, but also created propaganda posters for the government. Read my full review here.

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

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

When I finished reading The One-Hundred-Year Old Man Who Climbed Out The Window And Disappeared, I knew I’d found my go-to cheer-up read for many years to come. It does exactly what it says on the tin: it tells the story of an old bloke who jumped out of his nursing home window to avoid a birthday party, and the role his life’s adventures play in what unfolds after that. It stretches far past the bounds of believability, but it’s so fun and so funny that all is forgiven. This is the book I thrust into a friend’s hands if they’re having a down day. 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

I must admit, even if I hadn’t enjoyed Pride And Prejudice, it would be getting a spot on this round-up of the best books I read this year, purely for the fact that I finished it! Long-time Keeper Upperers will know that I’ve been engaged in a brutal stand-off with this book for many years. I’ve picked it up no fewer than six times, only to quickly abandon it and move on to something else shortly thereafter. But now, I can proudly declare that I have read Jane Austen’s beloved prototypical romance, and I finally understand what all the fuss is about. My experience(s) with Pride And Prejudice just go to prove, once again, that it is crucial – crucial! – that a book comes to you at the right time in your reading life. Read my full review of the book here, and the movie adaptation here.

Gentlemen Prefer Blondes – Anita Loos

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

Gentlemen Prefer Blondes is, by a long way, the book I have recommended most often and most vehemently this year, to anyone who’ll listen (and even to those who won’t). I was completely knocked off my feet by this charming little tome, stylised as a series of diary entries chronicling the adventures of society darling Lorelei Lee. If you’ve seen the movie and figured that you didn’t need to read the book (or if you didn’t even know there was a book, no judgement!), you’re dead wrong. This is the most astute, insightful, and witty take on gender roles in the Jazz Age (and all subsequent ages) that I have ever read. Forget about Gatsby (ugh): leave your copy at a local Little Library, and curl up instead with this absolute gem. Read my review of the book here, and the movie adaptation here.

The Grapes Of Wrath – John Steinbeck

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

Have you ever read a book that was so good it made you angry? That’s what happened to me when I read The Grapes Of Wrath. I was nonsensically angry with every single person in my life who had read it and hadn’t (a) recommended it to me immediately, and (b) warned me about how gut-punchingly good it was. I didn’t want to like it. Steinbeck shamelessly ripped off years of work, that of a woman who history has all but forgotten. But the story of the Joads, their migration across America to seek their fortunes (i.e., survive), moved me in ways I can barely describe. It’s all the more incredible, too, for its startling relevance in a climate that is rapidly changing… Read my full review here.

True History Of The Kelly Gang – Peter Carey

True History Of The Kelly Gang - Peter Carey - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Upon reflection, this might be my year of reading (and loving!) dialect, because – like with Huck Finn, and a few others on this list – what drew me in most to Carey’s reimagining of an Australian folk “hero” was the way he represented an early Irish-Australian accent on the page. True History Of The Kelly Gang is the first book I’ve ever read that has, in my expert-by-virtue-of-living-here opinion, accurately and beautifully represented Australian speech in a way that doesn’t make the reader want to claw their own eyeballs out. And if that doesn’t sell you on it, consider this: Carey imagines an internal world for Kelly that few have considered before reading this work, but simultaneously allows the reader room to make up their own mind about his morality or lack thereof. A must-read Australian novel! Read my full review here.


And there we have it, Keeper Upperers – an even dozen! What do you think of the best books I read this year? What were the best books YOU read this year? Add your recommendations to the comments below, or tell me on the thread over at Keeping Up With The Penguins on Facebook!

If you want to check out more of my best-of recommended reads, try this list of the best books I’ve read so far, earlier in the year.

11 Best Closing Lines in Literature

Opening lines get a lot of attention – heck, I’ve done round-up posts of them a couple of times over (here and here). But what about closing lines? Authors must be knackered by the time they get around to the end of their book, I’d understand if they just wanted to phone it in… but these guys managed to whip out one final zinger, a deeply satisfying note on which to leave their readers. Here’s my list of the best closing lines in literature.

11-Best-Closing-Lines-in-Literature-Text-Overlaid-on-Image-of-Book-Open-on-Table-with-Coffee-Mug-Keeping-Up-With-The-Penguins

(And if you think it’s possible to write a post like this without spoilers, you need to take a long, hard look at yourself. Don’t you dare complain to me if you read on!)

Gone With The Wind by Margaret Mitchell

Gone-With-The-Wind-Margaret-Mitchell-Book-Laid-on-Wooden-Table-Keeping-Up-With-The-Penguins

“After all, tomorrow is another day.”

Let’s start with something a little bit hopeful, a little bit inspirational, from the American classic Gone With The Wind. Scarlett O’Hara has been abandoned by her true love, Rhett Butler, and she’s reassuring herself that tomorrow she’ll think of some way to win him back. The beauty of this aphorism is that it can be applied to almost any situation, because (in the end) it’s basically just a statement of fact, but one that sounds good.

Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell

1984 - George Orwell - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

“He loved Big Brother.”

And now to something chilling and bleak: this terrifyingly cruel outcome for Winston, at the conclusion of Orwell’s dystopian classic Nineteen Eighty-Four. After a few hundred pages of frustration and rebellion against the omniscient dictatorship under which he lives, Winston sadly succumbs to their brainwashing and decides that he loves his leader. I’ll never forget the first time I read it: young, wide-eyed, naive, I struggled to believe that Orwell didn’t give Winston a happily ever after (you know, overthrowing a government). I’m still not over it, to be honest.

The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald

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

“So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”

OK, I unashamedly hated The Great Gatsby, but even I’ve got to concede that this is a corker of a closing line. It’s one we trot out whenever someone brings up The American Dream – finding it, losing it, exposing it, whatever – and for good reason. It’s just masterfully crafted, beautifully evocative… is there anything more frustrating than having to acknowledge how good something is when you didn’t like it? Read my full review of The Great Gatsby here.

The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen

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“She was seventy-five and she was going to make some changes in her life.”

It’s not like Franzen is known for particularly optimistic takes, and indeed The Corrections isn’t a particularly optimistic book… but, looking at it in isolation, I really like the hopeful ring in this closing line. It’s determined, it’s upbeat – it brings to mind a spritely granny who’s heading out in her active wear for an afternoon power-walk. Right?


The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath

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“The eyes and faces all turned themselves towards me, and guiding myself by them, as by a magical thread, I stepped into the room.”

I’ve said before that The Bell Jar is one of the most beautiful books I’ve ever read – and Plath didn’t miss an opportunity to hit me over the head with one last clanger. I love the discordance of an ending that’s about entering a room (which is where you’d logically expect a story to start, not finish). Read my full review of The Bell Jar here.

Brokeback Mountain by Annie Proulx

“There was some open space between what he knew and what he tried to believe, but nothing could be done about it, and if you can’t fix it, you’ve got to stand it.”

I’ve heard Annie Proulx say in interviews that she’s a bit “over” talking about Brokeback Mountain – in light of the incredibly popular film adaptation – but I can’t help including this closing line in a list of the best. It’s like the literary equivalent of the serenity prayer (accept the things you cannot change, change the things you can, etc.). I think everyone can relate, in some small way, to the pain and disillusionment that Proulx captures here.

The Makioka Sisters by Junichiro Tanizaki

“Yukiko’s diarrhoea persisted through the twenty-sixth, and was a problem on the train to Tokyo.”

I’ll admit I hadn’t actually heard of The Makioka Sisters, let alone read it, before I started putting together this list… but I came across it in another best-of closing lines compilation, and I laughed out loud, disturbing everyone in my immediate radius. It’s just such a wry, blunt statement! As it turns out, Tanizaki’s story is a really heart-wrenching one (from the plot summary, it sounds like the Japanese equivalent of The Grapes Of Wrath), but I love this matter-of-fact translation of its closing line.

The Age Of Innocence by Edith Wharton

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“At that, as if it had been the signal he had waited for, Newland Archer got up slowly and walked back alone to his hotel.”

Perhaps I only like this one because I thought Newland Archer was a weak-willed nincompoop, and I was happy to see The Age Of Innocence end with him alone and miserable, but it’s still a beautiful closing line. Quick recap: Newland is standing alone outside a building, knowing that his “true love” (with whom he carried on an affair in his youth, behind his wife’s back) is inside, but he lacks the gumption to go in and say hello. Instead, he heads back to his own hotel alone (to masturbate and cry, probably). Read my full review of The Age Of Innocence here.


The Long Goodbye by Raymond Chandler

“I never saw any of them again – except the cops. No way has yet been invented to say goodbye to them.”

Raymond Chandler is beloved for his place writing, and how well he captured Los Angeles’s unique ambience in the early 20th century, but as I said in my review of another of his novels (The Big Sleep), I actually enjoyed his characterisation more. He came up with incredible metaphors and similes to really nail his characters, and a bit of that comes through in this closing line from The Long Goodbye: you can just pictured the beleaguered smirk that accompanies it, can’t you?

A Moveable Feast by Ernest Hemingway

“But this is how Paris was in the early days when we were very poor and very happy.”

Hemingway famously put a lot of effort into his closing lines. He re-wrote the ending of A Farewell To Arms over forty times (and there are still plenty of readers who insist that he got it wrong!), but I don’t think there’s any argument that this closing line, from A Moveable Feast, was his best.

Bridget Jones’s Diary by Helen Fielding

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“An excellent year’s progress.”

To end back on a lighter note, I love this beauty from Bridget Jones’s Diary. Perhaps it’s not quite as good out of context – Bridget has just summed up her year in alcohol consumed, cigarettes smoked, weight gained and lost, and boyfriends dumped and won – but I think that it holds up. And it’s certainly a line I’ve borrowed myself once or twice around New Year’s Eve…


Which beautiful endings have stuck with you? Which closing lines do you think are the best? Drop your additions to this list in the comments below (or join in the thread over at Keeping Up With The Penguins on Facebook!).


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

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

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

Read Instead: Gentlemen Prefer Blondes by Anita Loos

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

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

Read Instead: David Copperfield by Charles Dickens

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

Don’t Read: Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury

Read Instead: Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell

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

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

Read Instead: Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë

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

Don’t Read: The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne

Read Instead: The Age Of Innocence by Edith Wharton

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

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

Read Instead: The Grapes Of Wrath by John Steinbeck

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

Don’t Read: The Golden Bowl by Henry James

Read Instead: Literally anything else.

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


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

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

The Adventures Of Augie March – Saul Bellow

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

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

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

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



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

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

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



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

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

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



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

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

My favourite Amazon reviews of The Adventures Of Augie March:

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

5 Books You Should Have Read In High School

There are many books we first encounter as required reading in high-school. I think that’s a real shame, because we would get so much more out of them if we came to them later in life. I’m seeing that a lot with books from my original reading list that I never had to read before this blog (even though they’re high-school syllabus standards); The Catcher In The Rye is a good example. That said, I can concede there are some classic books that are perhaps best suited to high-school students.

I should say at the outset that I’m generally opposed to enforced reading. I think the best way to foster a true love and appreciation for reading and writing is to allow kids to read and write what interests them. If a kid wants to read poetry or sci-fi or graphic novels, and write book reports on their favourites, then we should let them. Who cares if other kids are reading something different? It’s school, not a book club. Still, if we’re going to insist on required reading, here are five books that I think you should read in high-school (or should have read in high school, if you’re of a certain age)…

Gentlemen Prefer Blondes by Anita Loos

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I can already hear the shocked gasps: “But it’s all about sex! We can’t let kids read inappropriate things like that!”. And to that, I say this: The Great Gatsby, ubiquitous in high-schools, is all about conspicuous consumption, crime, and violence. Why are we so much more comfortable letting our kids read about someone getting shot than someone getting laid?

I thought The Great Gatsby sucked, and I’ve made no secret of that fact. Gentlemen Prefer Blondes is an infinitely better book. It’s funnier, it’s more insightful, it’s more clever in its use of language and dialect. Loos did far more interesting things with perspective in narration. It’s set in Jazz Age America, just like Gatsby, but it would give kids a much more nuanced view of that period and it would teach them more about life and literature (see above). Plus, it’s a lot more fun! Read my full review here.

Diary Of A Young Girl by Anne Frank

I read Diary Of A Young Girl for the first time in high-school, and I’m so, so glad I did. I think it was a key moment in my empathic development. Reading about a girl to whom I thought I could relate (roughly the same age, bookish, introspective), in the midst of such atrocity and fear, taught me a lot at a very pivotal time. Granted, it might be a bit much for some teenagers, especially those at the younger end of the age bracket, but if they can handle The Book Thief then they can handle Anne Frank’s real-life account. In fact, those two books would make for really good paired reads. It would generate some great in-class discussion about our different perspectives on WWII and what we can learn through both fictional and non-fictional accounts.

Go Tell It On The Mountain by James Baldwin

This is one I’d like to suggest in place of The Catcher In The Rye. As I mentioned earlier, I loved the Salinger book, but if we’re going to be assigning coming-of-age books to teenagers we need to make them representative. All too often, assigned high-school texts – Catcher among them – feature straight white teenage males, somewhere on the spectrum from middle-class to transitory poverty. Even though they’re so common in literature, those characters only reflect the lived experience of a relatively small segment of the population. Go Tell It On The Mountain is one of many, many alternatives to those stories, and it’s a good one (especially as it would seem James Baldwin is disappearing from classrooms – bring Baldwin back!). Baldwin’s semi-autobiographical bildungsroman tells the story of a young black man in 1930s Harlem, and it explores complex intersectional identities in race and religion.

Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury

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Firstly, all current high-school students should read Fahrenheit 451 because it’s still disturbingly relevant. Forces of oppression are still working to keep us mollified, keep us sedated, and keep us quiet – and this book is a great vehicle to teach and discuss that reality. Secondly, given the depth and breadth of dystopian fiction out there, I worry that if they come to this one too late in life – as I did – it’ll be ruined for them. Fahrenheit 451 reads like an intro-to-dystopia book, as far as I’m concerned. It’s not as complex as other, later works that high-school students are likely to encounter as they enter adulthood. Heck, even some of the most recent young-adult offerings – like The Hunger Games – are far more weighty; Fahrenheit 451 is just too short to build a world as complex and multi-layered as a series that stretches over multiple books. Often, I’ve found, when someone says they love Fahrenehit 451, they read it for the first time in their teens and it blew their minds. I say let’s keep that tradition alive. Read my full review here.

The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes by Arthur Conan Doyle

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The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes is a collection of short stories, so it won’t be particularly laborious for teens who find reading tough. Holmes is a pervasive pop-culture figure, so this book could be considered his “origin story”, a gateway to hundreds of other books and films that feature the tough-talking private detective. The mysteries that he investigates are fun, never too gory or terrifying. And it’s a particularly good book for would-be budding writers, because there’s a lot to be learned from Doyle’s economy of language and the way he sets up a twisty story. Even though I didn’t read this one in high-school myself, I’m sure if I had I would have loved it. Read my full review here.


I want to reiterate that I think it’s crucial kids be able to seek out and choose their own reading material. This post is not a list of commandments, and I wouldn’t expect that every teenager would love and appreciate all (or even any) of these books. Still, if I’m thinking back on my own reading life, and the books that I wish I’d read or books I’m glad I read in high school, these all rank really highly. What books do you think you should have read in high school? Tell me in the comments (or join the thread over at Keeping Up With The Penguins on Facebook!).

And while we’re talking coulda-woulda-shoulda, why not check out this list of books that will help you sort out your life?


My Favourite Fiction and Non-Fiction Book Pairings

A couple weeks back, I posted a list of read-alike book recommendations, and had a lot of fun doing it! So, I thought it would be fun to do the same again this week, but with a twist. This time around, I’ll be recommending books in fiction/non-fiction pairs. I’ve tried to pick books that approach the same topic or theme, but from different directions. And these recommendations are coming to you in just the nick of time for Non-Fiction November! Here are my favourite fiction and non-fiction book pairings…

My Favourite Fiction and Non-Fiction Book Pairings - Text Overlaid on Distorted Greyscale Image of Library Shelves - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Life After Life by Kate Atkinson (Fiction) should be paired with I Am, I Am, I Am by Maggie O’Farrell (Non-Fiction)

Let’s start with the big stakes, right up front: these books both deal with the fragility of life, the ever-looming spectre of death, and how the smallest moments in our lives can have very big consequences. Life After Life is a novel that tells the life stories of one young woman growing up in the 20th century. Every time she dies, her life begins anew, and her decisions lead to different versions of her life each time. How could that possibly be paired with a non-fiction book? Well, I Am, I Am, I Am is the memoir of Maggie O’Farrell, and it details seventeen (count ’em!) close brushes she’s had with death, each focusing on a different part of the body.

Read my full review of Life After Life here.

Still Alice by Lisa Genova (Fiction) should be paired with The Brain That Changes Itself by Norman Doidge (Non-Fiction)

These two books offer two very different perspectives on our brains, how they work, and what happens when they stop working the way that they should. Lisa Genova’s break-out novel, Still Alice, tells the story of a successful, happy woman who is diagnosed with Early-Onset Alzheimer’s Disease, and details her slow descent into a horrible fate. Genova really cleverly shows the reader the way that the disease affects perspective and eats memories – bring tissues! The Brain That Changes Itself, on the other hand, is an accessible but clinical look at the way our brains adapt to trauma and damage, revealing the untold potential of our thinking meat if we learn how to train it properly.

Read my full review of Still Alice here, and The Brain That Changes Itself here.

Bonus book recommendation: I really took issue with the way that Doidge described animal research in The Brain That Changes Itself. For an alternative perspective on that subject in fiction, you should pick up We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler.

We Need To Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver (Fiction) should be paired with A Mother’s Reckoning by Sue Klebold (Non-Fiction)

You’d be hard pressed to find someone who hasn’t, at one time or another, been moved to tears by news of another mass shooting in America. It’s an ever-present threat to the lives and safety of children in that country, and it has been approached a number of different ways in literature. Lionel Shriver’s We Need To Talk About Kevin is a fictional take on a mother’s relationship with a school shooter, and the various ways that family relationships can become tangled with terrible results. A Mother’s Reckoning is the real-life story of the mother of a Columbine shooter, Sue Klebold. She talks with heart-wrenching honesty about living in the aftermath of the tragedy, and her struggle to piece together what happened.

Bonus book recommendations: If you enjoyed Shriver’s fictional take on this subject, try Nineteen Minutes by Jodi Picoult. If you want to learn more about the real-life events of Columbine, check out Columbine by Dave Cullen, who uncovered some horrific truths.

The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas (Fiction) should be paired with Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson (Non-Fiction)

The Hate U Give was the young-adult read of 2017. It put racism in today’s America, particularly in terms of police violence, on the agenda for many a reader who might not have otherwise considered the issue in their daily lives. Just Mercy will take your understanding of this issue to another level; it follows the story of a young lawyer defending a black man of a heinous crime, a la Atticus Finch, and in so doing it highlights issues of race within the criminal justice system. You will find both of these books challenging and confronting, but in the best possible ways.

All The Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr (Fiction) should be paired with The Tattooist of Auschwitz by Heather Morris (?)

OK, fine. Technically The Tattooist of Auschwitz is a fictionalised story… but(!) it is very firmly rooted in the real-life experiences of Ludwig (Lale) Sokolov, a Slovakian Jew, Holocaust survivor, and Auschwitz-Birkenau tattooist. So, I say it counts! Morris spent hundreds of hours interviewing this incredible man and researching minute details, originally envisaging a screenplay about his life but in the end writing a book, thinly veiled as fiction. It’s a great accompaniment to Anthony Doerr’s All The Light We Cannot See, a fully-fictional story about a young French girl and a German orphan boy, and how their lives weave together over the course of the Second World War.

Read my full review of All The Light We Cannot See here.

The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald (Fiction) should be paired with One Summer by Bill Bryson (Non-Fiction)

I’ve made no secret of the fact that I really, really didn’t enjoy The Great Gatsby, and I happen to think it is one of the most over-rated books in the world… but, for better or worse, it’s held up as the defining novel of the Jazz Age in America, and people continue to read it in their hundreds and thousands each year. While I’d prefer to recommend Gentlemen Prefer Blondes as an alternative, it is fiction, so if you’re looking for a more factual version of events from that era you should check out Bill Bryson’s One Summer. Even though he sets out to describe one specific summer from that period (thus, the title), in his trademark folksy style Bryson manages to work in a lot of fun facts and interesting anecdotes from across the 1920s.

Read my full review of The Great Gatsby here.

The Color Purple by Alice Walker (Fiction) should be paired with I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou (Non-Fiction)

These two go together like bread and butter. Like wine and cheese. Like books and shelves. You really can’t have one without the other. Both The Color Purple and I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings take place in the segregated American South of the 1930s, and both are written by incredible black American women. The former is a fictional epistolary novel about the bonds of sisterhood, while the latter is an autobiographical account of overcoming trauma and racism through strength of character (and a love of literature). Both very worthwhile reads, whatever your bent!

Looking back over this list of recommended fiction and non-fiction book pairings, I realise they’re all incredibly heavy and emotional. So, let’s end on a happier note, shall we? Just for fun, try pairing The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy with A Brief History Of Time. The true nature of our universe, as described by Stephen Hawking in the best-selling popular science book of all time, will blow your mind in wonder. And then, just when you find yourself in need of a laugh, you can turn to Arthur Dent’s misadventures through space and time in Douglas Adams’ hilarious novel. You can find my reviews of Hitchhiker’s Guide here, and A Brief History Of Time here.

Wondering which ones to start with? Check out this post I pulled together about what I call the “literature wars”: fiction versus non-fiction, which is better? If you’ve got another good pairing to suggest, please leave it in the comments below (or share with us over at KUWTP on Facebook!).

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