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Gentlemen Prefer Blondes – Anita Loos

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

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

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

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

And:

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

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

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

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

Anita Loos

And my personal favourite Loos anecdote:

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

Anita Loos

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

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



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

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

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



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

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

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



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

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

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

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

My favourite Amazon reviews of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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



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



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



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



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



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

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



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

The Bell Jar – Sylvia Plath

I’ve been looking forward to The Bell Jar for a long, long time. Unfortunately, it’s another book that’s practically impossible to find in secondhand bookstores. No one – and I mean no one – seems to want to part with their copy! I checked in every secondhand store, market stall, and charity shop I passed for over a year, with no luck… and then (get this), one day, a dear friend was searching manically for a last-minute gift for me, and she managed to find a copy in the secondhand book store closest to my house. It had come in that very day. She got this gorgeous Faber edition for a song, and it is honestly one of the best presents I have ever received. Isn’t it funny how things work out sometimes?

The Bell Jar is Sylvia Plath’s only novel, published just weeks before her suicide – and that tells you pretty much everything you need to know about the tone of the book. I know trigger warnings are controversial, but surely we can all agree that if there’s any book in the world that deserves one, it’s The Bell Jar? It’s such a stark depiction of depression and suicidality, it could really bring up some stuff for you if you’re not prepared. Readers also widely regard it as a roman à clef, because the main character’s descent into mental illness so closely mirrors Plath’s own struggles. She pretty much just changed the names of people and places (not unlike Jack Kerouac’s On The Road… well, in that regard only).

The story is set in 1953. It opens with a young woman – Esther Greenwood – completing a summer internship at a prominent magazine in New York City, exactly as Plath did (I’m not going to point out every similarity though, because that would get very old very quickly – just trust me that Esther = Sylvia, kay?). Esther had high hopes for the internship, but it’s been nothing like what she expected, and she’s more perplexed than enamoured with the glamourous big-city lifestyle. She returns home, in low spirits, and her mother piles on, telling her that she was rejected by the prestigious writing program she’d set her sights on entering.

So, Esther can’t figure out what the fuck to do with herself. She tries to read Finnegan’s Wake, but gives up on that quick smart. She thinks about marriage and motherhood, but decides she’d rather throw up in her mouth and swallow it. She looks into all of the socially-acceptable “woman jobs” available to her (like stenography), but they bore the pants off her. Given her options, it’s hardly a surprise that she winds up extremely depressed.


Her mother takes her to see a psychiatrist, who apparently got his education from one half-hearted read of One Flew Over The Cukoo’s Nest. He gives her a horrific round of ECT, and she (quite rightly) refuses to return. His “treatment” makes everything worse instead of better, culminating in a suicide attempt. Esther survives… barely.

Her mother has her committed, and she finally receives some actual therapy from a non-idiot, including properly-administered ECT, after which her condition greatly improves. She takes many steps towards rebuilding her life and her mental health, and she says she feels as though the “bell jar” of her depression has been lifted (thus, the title). The book ends with her talking about her fear that the bell jar would again descend one day – it’s kind of ambiguous, but also beautiful.

I had such high expectations of The Bell Jar, after years of hearing how fantastic it was, and I was convinced there was no way it could possibly live up to the hype… but, of course, it fucking did. The prose was so damn beautiful, I was almost angry. I started wondering why I should bother writing or reading anything else in the world, when something this good already exists. I wanted to throw my gorgeous Faber edition across the room… but, of course, I couldn’t, because I was clutching it so hard.

The Bell Jar touches on many major themes and issues, but not in a way that feels Loftily Literary(TM) – it all just emerges naturally from the story. Take, for instance, the questions Plath raises about the role of women in society, and the constraints of gender roles for women in mid-20th century America. Esther feels the usual pressure to be a “good girl” and become both self-sufficient and married with children, but she lacks the resources and opportunities to become truly independent. Then, on top of that, Plath has a lot to say about mental health treatment – especially for women – in that era, showing us the good, the bad, and the ugly of how it could all unfold.


Unfortunately, Plath’s real-life story has a much more tragic end; she died by suicide barely a month after publication of The Bell Jar in the U.K. It wasn’t published in the U.S. until 1971, as per the wishes of her husband and mother. I think her death is all the more tragic for how it’s impacted our reading of her work. We’re so obsessed by the autobiographical nature of it, especially in light of her death, that we seem to overlook the artistic triumph of this (ultimately fictional) book. We miss the proverbial wood for the trees, or whatever.

I read one review that said Plath’s suicide so soon after publication meant that there have been “few innocent readings” of The Bell Jar, which I thought was a beautiful way of putting it. It’s practically impossible to read this book without, on some level, searching for insights into Plath’s real life and death. Still, for the sake of art, we should really try.

Even though The Bell Jar was her only novel, there’s still plenty more Plath in my future; she’s widely credited with advancing the genre of confessional poetry, more than any of her contemporaries, so I’ll be seeking out her collections, not to mention her diaries and letters. Her work is hardly a barrel of laughs, but if you’re in a mentally stable place and equipped to cope with what it brings up for you, it is so, so worth it. I one-hundred-percent recommend The Bell Jar, one of the few books I’ve ever read that truly exceeds the hype.

My favourite Amazon reviews of The Bell Jar:

  • “Every girl should love this by age 15 and be embarrassed that they did by age 35.” – Jonathan AW Edwards
  • “What light-hearted fun this was! A comedy romp from beginning to end. Highly recommended if you need cheering up.” – Katie Krackers
  • “There was sticky brown stuff all over the book including on the inside.” – Lilian
  • “Does what it says on the tin.” – Carl Sanders
  • “Noice” – Jacob Bradley
  • “Overly sensitive privileged white girl rejects a guy, doesn’t get into the writing course she wants. Tries to read James Joyce, thinks about death, tries to kill herself. Has a bunch of shock treatment.
    Maybe you have to be young and angsty to appreciate it.
    I am not young, and successfully medicated. Even it my most angsty, this would have been a drag.
    Bonus points for language usage.” – Amazon Customer
  • “It was a good 47 minutes” – Amazon Customer

10 Rejected Books That Went On To Be Ridiculously Successful

If you can’t handle rejection, then writing is definitely not your game. It takes a certain kind of resilience to persist with your work when everyone you send it to rejects it outright. This week, I reviewed The Martian; Andy Weir was rejected by so many literary agents that he took his destiny into his own hands and self-published his book, making it available (for free!) through his website. Now, just a few years later, he’s a best-selling author, with a film adaptation starring Matt Damon that has taken over $600 million at the box office. This is the type of “overnight success” story that was years in the making, and gives hope to struggling writers everywhere. Let’s take a look at some of the other brave souls that persisted with their rejected books and went on to be ridiculously successful.

10 Rejected Books That Went On To Be Ridiculously Successful - grey text on a white background with a black image of a hand making a thumbs down - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Carrie – Stephen King

Stephen King – now a household name – received thirty rejections from publishers for his first offering, Carrie. One rejection letter read: “We are not interested in science fiction which deals with negative utopias. They do not sell.” King was so disheartened, he reportedly threw the manuscript in the bin… but his wife, the story goes, fished it back out and harangued him into giving it another go. Shortly after, King received a telegram that read: “CONGRATULATIONS. CARRIE OFFICIALLY A DOUBLEDAY BOOK. IS $2500 ADVANCE OKAY? THE FUTURE LIES AHEAD. LOVE, BILL.”

King went on to sell the paperback rights for $40,000, and Carrie sold over a million copies in its first year… and thus launched one of the most successful literary careers of our time. It just goes to show!

Still Alice – Lisa Genova

Still Alice - Lisa Genova - book laid on wooden table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Lisa Genova sent out the manuscript for Still Alice about 100 times, by her own calculation, and often she didn’t even receive the validation of an actual rejection – many literary agents just didn’t reply to her at all. Fed up, she self-published, and eventually attracted the attention of Gallery Books (an imprint of Simon & Schuster). Still Alice hit the New York Times best-seller list, and stayed there for forty weeks. Julianne Moore won an Oscar for her starring role in the film adaptation. Genova is laughing all the way to the bank! (Read my full review of Still Alice here!)

The Great Gatsby – F. Scott Fitzgerald

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

We don’t know exactly how many times The Great Gatsby was rejected by publishers, but we do know that one called it “an absurd story”, and another (bafflingly) suggested that he’d “have a decent book if [he’d] get rid of that Gatsby character”. When publishers are saying that your titular character needs to get in the bin, you’d be forgiven for thinking a career change might be in order!

Still, Fitzgerald didn’t have the good sense to give up. Today, The Great Gatsby has sold over 25 million copies, been translated into 42 languages, and adapted to six successful films… not to mention being the subject of countless high-school book reports! (Read my full review of The Great Gatsby here!)

A Wrinkle In Time – Madeleine L’Engle

Madeleine L’Engle has spoken publicly about the rejections (26, count ’em!) that she received for A Wrinkle In Time. Apparently, publishers thought that the children’s book dealt “too overtly” with the problem of evil, and that it would be “too difficult” for the juvenile target market. She was 40 years old by the time a publisher finally gave her a shot. A Wrinkle In Time ended up winning the Newbery Medal, the Sequoyah Book Award, and the Lewis Carroll Shelf Award, as well as selling over eight million copies. It was adapted for television in 2001, and in film earlier this year.

Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone – J.K. Rowling

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

Speaking of children’s books, J.K. Rowling has to have the best told-you-so rejection story of all time! Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone actually found a literary agent relatively quickly – and it was a ray of hope for Rowling, who had written the story sitting in Edinburgh cafes while she and her daughter lived on public benefits. But despite the agent’s best efforts, the first book in the Harry Potter series was rejected twelve times back-to-back. A last-ditch effort saw them send it to an editor at Bloomsbury – and he might never have taken it on if his eight-year-old daughter hadn’t found the first chapters in his office, and nagged him for a copy of the book so that she could read it all. The rest, as they say…

… actually, that’s not all! Despite his daughter’s enthusiasm, the Bloomsbury editor recommended that Rowling “get a day job”, because the sales of Harry Potter were unlikely to pay the bills. She received an advance of just £1,500. That was in 1996; now, 22 years later, the books have sold over 450 million copies worldwide, broken records for fastest-selling books in history, and the film adaptations have grossed over seven billion dollars. Rowling’s “day job” is now roasting trolls on Twitter.

That’s not to say her journey with rejection was over. She penned The Cuckoo’s Calling, a novel for adults, under the pen name Robert Galbraith, and found herself once again on the receiving end of a bunch of rejection letters. Most editors seemed to think it was “good”, but the market too saturated to take a risk on an “unknown”. When it did get picked up, The Cuckoo’s Calling only sold about 500 copies domestically… until the true identity of the author was revealed, propelling it to the top of the amazon.co.uk best-seller list overnight. Rowling gets the last laugh, once again!

Catch-22 – Joseph Heller

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

A popular myth suggests that Joseph Heller decided to name his satirical WWII novel after the twenty-two rejections he received from publishers. That’s not quite true, but it’s accurate in one respect – Heller did, indeed, cop twenty-two rejection letters, one of which actually said: “I haven’t the foggiest idea about what the man is trying to say. Apparently the author intends it to be funny.” Ouch!

Heller remained bitter about Catch-22’s reception for the rest of his life, because the zingers didn’t stop once it was accepted for publication. A review in The New Yorker said that Catch-22 “doesn’t even seem to have been written; instead, it gives the impression of having been shouted onto paper. What remains is a debris of sour jokes.” Never mind that it went on to sell over ten million copies… I guess you can’t please everyone! (Read my full review of Catch-22 here!)

The Lord Of The Flies – William Golding

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William Golding copped a respectable twenty rejections for The Lord Of The Flies. One called it “an absurd and uninteresting fantasy which was rubbish and dull.” I’m sure there’s plenty of high-school students, forced to read it for English classes, that would agree, but that’s beside the point: the book has sold over fifteen million copies worldwide, it has been adapted into four different films, and it is frequently features on lists of the best books ever written.

Dubliners – James Joyce

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

Now, I can’t say I blame publishers for taking their time to warm up to James Joyce’s writing. He is, after all, notoriously difficult to read… but it would seem that they more often took issue with his “obscenity” than with his obfuscating prose. He received twenty-two rejections for Dubliners over the course of nine years, but he stuck to his guns. He wrote to one editor (in response to charges of obscenity): “I have written my book with considerable care, in spite of a hundred difficulties, and in accordance with what I understand to be the classical tradition of my art.” (Oh, yeah, he was also super humble.)

When a publisher did eventually take the bait, his troubles weren’t over. They told him that he wouldn’t receive any royalties for his work unless it sold more than 500 copies. It sold 379 in the first year – Joyce having failed to game the system, even though he bought 120 copies himself. In the vein of that old unappreciated-in-his-time cliche, Joyce is now one of the most influential and regarded writers of the 20th century.

Lolita – Vladimir Nabokov

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It’s equally unsurprising that Nabokov had a hard time finding a publisher for Lolita; after all, it’s a dark and disturbing story of obsessive love, kidnapping, and sexual abuse. One editor said of the manuscript: “It is overwhelmingly nauseating, even to an enlightened Freudian. To the public, it will be revolting. It will not sell, and will do immeasurable harm to a growing reputation… I recommend that it be buried under a stone for a thousand years.” (Emphasis mine – I added it because damn, that’s cold!)

Lolita was passed over at least five times by major publishers, forcing Nabokov and his agents to look outside the U.S. for publishing partners. Eventually, it was published (in 1955, not even a decade into that thousand years the editor demanded), and went on to sell over 55 million copies. It turns out when revolting stories are beautifully written, the public can forgive a little nausea. 😉

Zen and The Art of Motorcycle Maintenance – Robert Pirsig

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I’ve saved the best for last: Zen and The Art of Motorcycle Maintenance literally holds the record (the Guinness Book of World Records record, to be precise) for the most-often rejected best-seller: knocked back 121 times. Can you imagine the kind of determination it takes to persist through that storm of rejection?

The editor that eventually accepted the story was quite melodramatic about it all: “It forced me to decide what I was in publishing for,” he said, and “the book is brilliant beyond belief… it is probably a work of genius and will, I’ll wager, attain classic status.” So, it would seem that wading through that sea of rejections was worth it! I’m sure Pirsig is eternally grateful to have finally found an editor that believes in his work that way.

Imagine what kind of world we’d have without Harry Potter, or Lolita, or any of the other book on this list, if those publishers had had their way! Do you have a favourite author rejection story? Tell it in the comments (or over at KUWTP on Facebook!).

No one wants to be a reject! Help Keeping Up With The Penguins keep on keeping up, throw your change in the tip jar here:


10 Surprising Book Recommendations From Brilliant Minds

One of the short-cuts booklovers often use when picking their next read is taking book recommendations from people they admire. It’s not a bad strategy (and I do what I can to help by offering a list of Keeping Up With The Penguins recommendations, by the way). Sometimes, though, the recommendations can surprise you. You’d think that brilliant scientists and writers and world-leaders and business people would recommend heavy non-fiction, business strategies, self-help guides, manuals, textbooks… but you’d be wrong. Here’s a list of ten surprising book recommendations from brilliant minds.

10 Surprising Book Recommendations From Brilliant Minds - text overlaid on an image of Barack Obama standing in front of an American flag - Keeping Up With The Penguins

I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings – Maya Angelou

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

You can find I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings, the 1969 autobiography of American poet Maya Angelou, on the shelves of memoirist Mary Karr, former U.S. president Bill Clinton, and reigning Queen of the World: Oprah Winfrey. This coming-of-age story features strong themes of resilience, overcoming trauma, and strength of will, not to mention love of literature. This is one to read when you need help overcoming your baggage.

Moby Dick – Herman Melville

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You’d think that a really dense, 600-page treatise on a mad ship captain’s quest to quell a giant albino whale wouldn’t have many fans… but Moby Dick comes highly recommended by a really wide assortment of brilliant minds. Steve Jobs’ biographer listed it as one of the books that strongly influenced the Apple founder. Ray Bradbury is quoted as saying that Moby Dick’s impact on him lasted over half a century. Other devotees include Morgan Freeman, Chevy Chase, and Barack Obama. There are so many possible interpretations and allegories to be read into Moby Dick, it makes sense that so many people would find what they’re looking for in its pages. I took a crack at it here.

The Bluest Eye – Toni Morrison

The Bluest Eye is another favourite of Oprah, and is also recommended by American literary darlings George Saunders and Dorothy Allison. But that’s not the only one of Morrison’s works that rates a mention. Barack Obama has recommended her later novel, Song of Solomon, and my hero Roxane Gay has sung the praises of the Pulitzer Prize-winning Beloved. Whichever one you choose, Toni Morrison is clearly worth a read.

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn – Mark Twain

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Perhaps the highest praise, the strongest recommendation, is that which comes from other authors. Stephen King, Ernest Hemingway, and Henry Miller have all professed their admiration for Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. That said, none of them are shy about providing book recommendations – Stephen King frequently gives shout-outs to his favourite books on Twitter, Henry Miller wrote a whole book on the subject (The Books in My Life), and Ernest Hemingway drunkenly scrawled a list of books he recommended for writers, which was dutifully transcribed by his protégé. Still, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn rates a special mention from each of them, and its influence is clear in their work. Read my full review here.

Ulysses – James Joyce

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I’ve made no secret of the fact that I’m terrified of taking on Joyce’s Ulysses. It is notoriously unreadable, and yet it comes highly recommended by some brilliant literary minds. Vladimir Nabokov, Joyce Carol Oates, and Dana Spiotta all cite its incredible influence, so maybe I’m going to have to suck it up and give it a go. Oates does concede that it’s “not easy”, but apparently every page is “wonderful” and well worth the effort – so there’s some hope yet!

To Kill A Mockingbird – Harper Lee

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Like Moby Dick, To Kill A Mockingbird is often listed as a strong contender for that ever-elusive commendation of being called The Great American Novel, and for many Americans loving this book has become a patriotic act. One of the heroes of American comedy in the Trump presidency – Alec Baldwin –  has said it’s his favourite… but the recommendation that matters most is surely that from our Queen, Oprah. She has shared her love for a few other books on this list, but is quoted many times as saying that Harper Lee’s 1960 novel is her all-time most favourite. She has been recommending it to everyone since she read it for the first time in high school, where she started pushing it on all the other kids in her class. And, not least of all by any means, I recommend it too

The Catcher In The Rye – J.D. Salinger

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

Most of us seem to remember The Catcher In The Rye as little more than a rambling stream-of-consciousness novel we were forced to read in high school (well, that, or as the favourite book of many murderers, but I digress…), and yet it comes highly recommended by none other than Bill Gates. Gates famously loves literature – he reads about 50 books per year, and frequently reviews his favourites online – and he counts The Catcher in The Rye as one of the best. Salinger’s most famous work is also beloved by writer Haruki Murakami and playwright Samuel Beckett. I didn’t mind it either, check out my review here 😉

Little Women – Louisa May Alcott

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Little Women is too-often dismissed as sentimental garbage… a big, huge mistake! It has been talked up by some truly amazing women, and I figure if it’s good enough for them it’s good enough for me! American poet Eileen Myles says it was the first book that they fell in love with. Poet and biographer Maya Angelou (who wrote one of the other recommended reads, remember?) said that, even though the little women were white, she found herself relating to them as though she was sitting there with them in their kitchen. Hillary Clinton has said that she felt like she lived in Jo’s family, and thinks the message of balancing the various demands in women’s lives still resonates today. And J.K. Rowling lists Alcott’s protagonist, Jo March, as her favourite character in literature:

“It is hard to overstate what she meant to a small, plain girl called Jo, who had a hot temper and a burning ambition to be a writer.”

J.K. Rowling

Bonus: as much as Rowling loved Jo March, she actually lists Jane Austen’s Emma as her favourite book of all time (check out my full review here), and says she has read it at least twenty times.

1984 – George Orwell

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I’ll admit, my personal bias is at work here, because I absolutely loved George Orwell’s 1984, and I recommend it myself every chance I get. But I’m not alone: Richard Branson, founder of the Virgin empire, has recommended that everyone read the dystopian novel as a timely reminder of the importance of vigilance and skepticism when it comes to power structures.

The Brothers Karamazov – Fyodor Dostoyevsky

Russian writer Fyodor Dostoyevsky is probably better known in the public consciousness for his earlier novel, Crime and Punishment (which, incidentally, Joyce Carol Oates also recommends – she says it’s more readable than you’d expect, and I happen to agree). And yet, it is The Brothers Karamazov, a far heavier book published a decade later, that comes highly recommended by brilliant minds. Minds as varied as Ernest Hemingway, Albert Einstein, Hillary Clinton, Laura Bush, Haruki Murakami, and… well, erm, Vladimir Putin and Joseph Stalin. Make of that what you will!

What do you think of these book recommendations? Have these brilliant minds missed any of your special favourites? Let me know in the comments below (or tell me over at KUWTP on Facebook!).

Want more surprising book recommendations? Throw some change in the tip jar, so I can keep on Keeping Up With The Penguins and bring you more!



The Craziest Writing Methods of Famous Authors

When we start talking about how our favourite writers write, I think all of us conjure up one of two mental pictures. We either imagine the disciplined, dedicated writer (like Stephen King) with his set schedule and his carefully-arranged study, or we think of the heavy-drinking night owl (see: Hunter S Thompson), who obliterates their body and mind but vomits out genius works of art at random. Authors certainly exist right across that spectrum, but it’s always more fun to read about the latter 😉 Here are some of the craziest writing methods of famous authors, the bizarre habits and creative processes that have produced amazing works of literature.

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Jack Kerouac & His Scroll

Jack Kerouac spent years scribbling down notes for On The Road in his various journals before he actually sat down at a typewriter and got on with it. He went from one extreme to another, though. He decided that having to stop for anything would be an unwelcome distraction in his creative process, so he procured a single 120-foot scroll of paper, and thus began typing his manuscript. His work poured forth, and he wrote the entire draft in what was effectively a single burst, barely stopping for food and water. When he was done, he just rolled it back up, and marched on down to his editor’s office. Of course, his sensible editor told Kerouac that he was out of his mind, and he’d need to type it up on normal pages in order for them to edit it – in response, Kerouac threw a tanty and stormed out.

Kerouac was also highly superstitious (about his writing, but also life in general). He tried out various rituals to get the creative juices flowing: writing only by candlelight, writing by a full moon, praying before sitting down to write, standing on his head (yes, really). Clearly, something worked, because he is now considered the darling of the Beat generation literary movement.

Maya Angelou & Her Hotel Room

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

Maya Angelou took Virginia Woolf’s maxim (that a woman needs a room of one’s own) to the next level. She rented a hotel room in her hometown by the month, and used it as her “study”. At 6:30AM each morning, she would head over there and spend the morning writing. She specifically requested that management remove all paintings and decorative items from the room (too distracting), and forbid housekeeping staff from cleaning the room (lest they inadvertently throw away a scrap of paper containing a line of genius). She stocked the room herself with a thesaurus, a dictionary, the Bible, and a few crossword puzzles; she believed her “Big Mind” would sort out problems in her work if she kept her “Little Mind” occupied with something else.

Of course, she never actually slept there. She would leave around 2:00PM, run her errands, and then review the pages she’d written that day at home after dinner. She is cited as saying she’d inevitably scrap most of them, but keep the process up until she had about fifty good pages that she was happy with. And that’s how her work was born.

Aaron Sorkin & His Broken Nose

Granted, Aaron Sorkin isn’t an “author” in the same sense as everyone else on this list – he’s actually a screenwriter, the mind behind A Few Good Men, The Social Network, and The West Wing. Still, his process is definitely bonkers enough to warrant inclusion here!

“Writing never comes easy,” he once said. “The difference between Page 2 and Page Nothing is the difference between life and death.”

In 2011, Sorkin arrived at an Emmy event with a broken nose. When pressed by the media, he confessed that the injury was incurred as part of his writing process. It turns out, Sorkin workshops his dialogue… with himself, reading his lines out loud into a mirror. While working on a script, he became so enraged with his character’s situation that he head-butted the glass! He was probably on to something good, but… sheesh.

Victor Hugo & His Bare Arse

I’m not being funny: Victor Hugo literally wrote The Hunchback of Notre Dame in the nude. He was working to an incredibly tight deadline in 1831, and found himself becoming distracted by, y’know, leaving the house all the time. So, what’s a writer to do?

Well, the obvious: Hugo bought himself a big bottle of ink, and asked his valet to confiscate all of his clothes. You can’t go out and have a good time and miss your deadline if you’ve got nothing to wear! Hugo fought off the cold by wrapping himself in a huge grey shawl, and set about writing out the manuscript, all the while in his birthday suit.

It’s unconventional, but you’ve got to give it to Hugo: it’s genius!

Kazuo Ishiguro & His “Crash”

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This is perhaps the grown-up’s version of Kerouac’s scroll. It was 1987 when Kazuo Ishiguro convinced his wife to let him try something a little weird. No, not that! He convinced her to take on all of his housework and emotional labour (like wives have done for centuries before, but I digress), he completely cleared his calendar, and planned an entirely new approach to his book. He did nothing but write from 9:00AM-10:30PM, six days a week. He allowed himself an hour each day for lunch, and two for dinner (what a slacker!). He didn’t answer the phone once in this time, or even look at a piece of mail. His plan was to reach a mental state in which his “fictional world was more real to him than the actual one”. Apparently it worked, because this process produced The Remains of the Day. The first draft took him four weeks, writing free-hand on his writing slope.

In fact, Ishiguro still writes all of his first drafts on that writing slope. When the time comes to type them up, he uses a computer that dates back to 1996 – it’s not connected to the Internet. Neither of these habits are particularly kooky. What really disturbed me was reading Ishiguro quoted in an interview as saying that, while he was working on The Buried Giant, he didn’t watch a single episode of Game of Thrones. Apparently, he wanted to remain focused on his own fictional world, and he was worried that taking an hour to watch an HBO series once a week would “tamper with the world that he set up”. It’s all well and good to sacrifice for your art, but surely there are limits to what a human being can endure! 😉

James Joyce & His Crayons

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For anyone who has read James Joyce’s work, it won’t come as any surprise to see him included in this list. He wrote one of the most notoriously unreadable novels in the history of English literature (Finnegans Wake); it took him seventeen years to complete, and every sentence is so oblique that most people need a companion guide to read alongside it. (I’m not game enough to take it on just yet – Ulysses is on The List, but I’m so apprehensive that I’ll probably leave it until last.)

Why seventeen years? Well, firstly, Joyce considered hammering out two whole sentences to be a “good day’s work”, so he wasn’t the most prolific guy. Secondly, he was working at a pretty serious disadvantage: he was almost blind. He was horribly near-sighted, and ended up developing iritis (a painful eye condition, the result of rheumatic fever). He had twenty-five eye surgeries in an attempt to improve his condition, with no luck. So, he took to writing with large blue pencils and crayons, laying on his stomach in bed, wearing a big white coat.

It sounds nuts, but there was actually method to his madness! The colourful writing implements were big enough and bright enough to help him see what he was writing. He also believed that the white coat reflected more light onto the page in front of him. As for laying on his stomach in bed, well: there probably aren’t many more comfortable ways to get your eyes as close to the page as possible. Maybe he wasn’t that crazy after all!

Friedrich Schiller & His Rotting Apples

Of course, I’ve saved the best for last. Friedrich Schiller’s mate, Goethe, has dobbed him in as having probably the craziest writing method of all time. See, Goethe stopped by Schiller’s house one night, and – finding that his friend was out and about – decided to wait, and have a snoop around.

He noticed a strange smell emanating from the bottom drawer of a desk, in the study where Schiller would work. Goethe leaned down, opened it, and found… a pile of rotting apples.

No joke: Schiller had deliberately stored a bunch in a drawer, and waited patiently for them to go off. He told his wife that the odor was “inspiring”, and he “could not live or work without it”. That woman deserves an actual medal, because what the actual fuck?! According to Goethe, the smell was so overpowering that it was enough to make you lightheaded. I’m not one to judge, but… Schiller was off his head.

Writers are hardly known for being well-adjusted and sensible, but this lot really take the cake. Have you heard about any other crazy writing methods of famous authors? Are you inspired to develop one of your own? Let me know in the comments below (or tell us over at KUWTP on Facebook!).

7 Books Recommended by Ernest Hemingway

Ernest Hemingway was no slouch when it came to writing, as we’ve established, but perhaps his true talent actually lay in reading. He would read anywhere up to ten books at a time, plus squeezing in at least a few newspapers and journals every single day. He would travel with a huge bag full of books for reading on the journey. The dude was voracious, in more ways than one.

In 1934, aspiring writer Arnold Samuelson knocked on Hemingway’s door, and asked to pick his brain. It was a ballsy move, given that Hemingway had a reputation for (a) being grumpy, and (b) liking guns. And yet, Samuelson wound up becoming Hemingway’s only true protégé, working in his employ and following him around the world for nearly a year. During that time, Hemingway was kind enough to jot down a list of books that (according to him) all writers must read. Samuelson kept the list, and published it in his book With Hemingway: A Year in Key West and Cuba. Hemingway told Samuelson not to bother with writers of the day, and focus on becoming better than his favourite dead white guys: Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Flaubert.

Then, the following year (1935), Hemingway wrote a piece for Esquire magazine (Remembering Shooting-Flying: A Key West Letter). Perhaps inspired by his list for Samuelson, he digressed from his point briefly to give us another list – the books he desperately wished he could read again for the first time. In fact, he put his money where his mouth is, and said that he would rather have another chance to read any one of them for the first time than have an income of a million per year. Big talk, eh? He lamented that there were “very few good new ones”, and that perhaps his days of enjoying previously-undiscovered literature were behind him (so dramatic).

Anyway, given that the guy clearly knew his shit, it might be high time we review a list of books recommended by Ernest Hemingway. (Pay extra-close attention if you’re an aspiring writer, there’s bound to be something in here for you…)

7 Books Recommended by Ernest Hemingway - Green and White Text overlaid on Greyscale Image of Ernest Hemingway - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Madame Bovary – Gustave Flaubert

I’ve mentioned before that I think Emma Bovary is one of the best “bad women” in literature. Flaubert’s Madame Bovary follows the story of her attempts to escape the intolerable boredom of her provincial married life. She descends into a spiral of alcoholism, adultery, and debt, unraveling and undone by her unwieldy desires. It is a story exquisitely told, and the woman isn’t exactly painted in the best light – so it’s no surprise that it was right up Hemingway’s alley.

Dubliners – James Joyce

Dubliners is a collection of fifteen stories, all centered around Joyce’s distaste for his ‘dear dirty Dublin’, exposing the corruption, vulgarity, and heartlessness of his city of birth. The collection was the first notable publication of 20th century realist literature coming from Ireland, and to this day it is celebrated for its artful depiction of the infamous Dublin accent. Dubliners doesn’t appear on The List (I’m tackling Ulysses instead), but Hemingway’s recommendation of this gritty, brutal read still counts for something.

Anna Karenina – Leo Tolstoy

Another one of my favourite bad women – are you sensing a theme in Hemingway’s favourites? Anna Karenina is widely considered to be one of the best love stories (indeed, one of the best novels) ever written, so hats off to Tolstoy. Anna, a beautiful but self-indulgent woman, seeks the love of Count Vronsky (who is definitely not her husband), and basically sets fire to her 19th century Russian life. Tolstoy’s writing is beautiful, passionate, and intense – not for the faint of heart, though undoubtedly easier to tackle than the doorstop-worthy War & Peace (which also featured on Hemingway’s lists).

The Brothers Karamazov – Fyodor Dostoyevsky

Hemingway didn’t want to make it easy for us! Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment isn’t that tough to get through, but Papa recommended The Brothers Karamazov, a more complicated and controversial novel. The story kicks off with the murder of cruel and corrupt landowner Fyodor Karamazov, and follows the fallout in the lives of his three sons (well, four, if you count the illegitimate son posing as a manservant). It’s a detective story, in a way, but it’s no Sherlock Holmes – you’ll need your thinking cap on for this early post-modernist tome.

Wuthering Heights – Emily Brontë

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Wuthering Heights definitely one of Hemingway’s more readable suggestions, so it might be best to start here if you’re new to the game. I once described Emily Brontë’s only novel in a single sentence thus: A bad boy’s decade-long butthurt over getting friendzoned, culminating in his death – at which point, he and his true love spend eternity haunting their old stomping grounds, while their surviving children enter into incestuous marriages. Yes, it’s a long sentence, but I still think it’s a fairly accurate summary. Read my full review here.

The American – Henry James

Hemingway was the archetypal American “ex-pat” (because we only call brown people “immigrants”). He spent a decent chunk of his life in France and Spain, shooting and fishing and running with bulls. So it’s no surprise that he was really into The American, a story of a wealthy American man trying to marry into the French aristocracy. James dissects the cultural differences between Americans and Europeans in a melodramatic, but ultimately kind of comedic, way. James is one of the only authors to appear twice on The List – check out my reviews of The Turn of the Screw and The Golden Bowl!

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn – Mark Twain

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Hemingway is quoted as saying he considered The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn “the best book an American ever wrote”, and that it “marks the beginning of American literature” (kind of like Lennon saying that, before Elvis, there was nothing). It’s a big call, but I think we can all agree that Huck Finn is one of Twain’s most enduring and celebrated works, at least. It is the sequel to his previous (also renowned) The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, and it explores the conflict between civilisation and nature – a lofty topic if there ever was one. Read my full review here.


In the end, you can be pretty confident that any book recommended by Ernest Hemingway is going to be a heavy read. Everything he loved explored the underbelly of humanity in some way, and it seems like they got bonus points if they did it in Europe, or featured bad women front and center. What do you think of Hemingway’s recommended reads? How many have you read? Let me know in the comments below (or tell us over at KUWTP on Facebook!).

A Complete(ish) Beginner’s Guide to Really Old Poems

This week on Keeping Up With The Penguins, I reviewed The Divine Comedy – Dante Alighieri’s narrative poem dating back to the 14th century. It’s the oldest book on The List, and the only poem on there too. I’d heard about Inferno (the first “book” of The Divine Comedy) all my life, but I had only the vaguest idea what it was actually about. As I thought about it a bit more, I realised there’s a whole bunch of really famous, really old poems that I’ve never read. I’ve bluffed my way through conversations about The Iliad, and snoozed through a film adaptation of Beowulf, but for the most part those poems remained a mystery to me. I figured I couldn’t be the only one, so I set about learning everything I could about them, all so I could bring you this: the complete(ish) beginner’s guide to really old poems.

The Complete(ish) Beginner's Guide To Really Old Poems - Text Overlaid on Image of Hand Written Page - Keeping Up With The Penguins

The Epic of Gilgamesh (Approx. 2,000 BC)

You thought The Divine Comedy was old? We’re talking really old here today. The Epic of Gilgamesh is widely regarded as the earliest surviving great work of literature, dating all the way back to ancient Mesopotamia. Of course, a poem that old has been rehashed and rebooted so many times that we have no idea who wrote it anymore. At one point, five different stories were combined into a single epic poem and immortalised in the “Old Babylonian” version (scratched into a few tablets in the 18th century BC), and that remains the oldest surviving version of The Epic of Gilgamesh .

I’m assuming you’re not exactly up on your Mesopotamian history (I’m sure not), so the story might be a bit hard to follow, but it’s so crazy it’s worth bearing with me. This bloke, Gilgamesh, was the king of Uruk (an ancient city in modern-day Iraq). He was a bit of a dick to his people, so the gods created Enkidu, a “wild man” that could only be civilised through a crazy fuck fest with a local harlot (I’m not kidding). Once he got that out of the way, Enkidu challenged Gilgamesh to a fight. Gilgamesh won, but they had a laugh about it and an ancient Mesopotamian beer together afterwards. They became great friends, and worked out a plan to kill Humbaba The Terrible. See, Humbaba was guarding the sacred tree in the Cedar forest, and they wanted to chop it down to do some home improvement projects (or something). Meanwhile, the goddess Ishtar was pissed that Gilgamesh rejected her booty call, so she sent down the Bull of Heaven to sort him out… but he and his new buddy Enkidu took him down, too. Killer team, these two!

Anyway, the gods were pretty shitty that their “wild man” went off script like that, so they sentenced him to death. Gilgamesh was really cut up about losing his bro, so he wandered off into the woods to try and find the “secret to eternal life”. He looked long and hard, but only found some old dude who fed him annoying platitudes about death being part of life. Boo. Gilgamesh thought he might be onto something with a magic flower for a minute, but then a snake came along and ate it, so he was back to square one. In the end, he returned home and became a magnificent ruler, dying of old age.

The Epic of Gilgamesh hits the trifecta of being super-old (indeed, the oldest!), a crazy good epic story (see above), and pretty damn significant in literary terms. We knew almost nothing about the Sumerians (who lived in that area and wrote the thing all that time ago) prior to the discovery of these tablets. Plus, a lot of the story mirrors or echoes stories from the Bible, which wasn’t written until much later. Great floods, divine punishment – is The Epic of Gilgamesh corroborating evidence for these stories, or did the Christians just blatantly rip them off? Academic debate rages on…

You can get The Epic of Gilgamesh here.

The Iliad & The Odyssey (Approx. 900 BC)

We have to skip ahead quite a way to find what we can call the oldest surviving work of Western literature. Long after the Sumerians chipped away at tablets, the Ancient Greeks jumped on the bandwagon and started committing stories to written poetry. The Iliad and The Odyssey are widely attributed to our new friend Homer, but he was old and blind and never wrote anything down, and the stories had been on the Ancient Greek grapevine for quite a while, so it’s kind of controversial to definitively say that he “wrote” them. Either way, these poems were #1 on the charts in Ancient Greece, and their influence on art, literature and culture continues to this day.

The Iliad is an epic poem depicting a few weeks in the final year of the Trojan War, when there was big beef between King Agamemnon and the warrior Achilles (yep, like that thing on your foot, same one). The poem is super long, though, and it pulls in all kinds of history and prophesies for the future and stuff, so it basically tells the story of the whole war as well as a bunch of Ancient Greek legends. It was followed by The Odyssey, a sort of sequel, written not long after. This might be one of the few instances in history where the sequel is sexier than the original, because The Odyssey follows the story of Odysseus trying to get home after a big one out at Troy. His wife – Penelope – thought he was dead, so we also get the story of how she fought off all the fellas trying to slide into her DMs now that she’s single again. Both of these poems were originally composed in what’s now called Homeric Greek (Homer was such a big deal, he got a dialect named after him), and likely floated around in oral traditions (i.e., slam poets performing it on the street for cash) for quite a while before anyone could find a pen.

A couple extra fun facts for you: The Odyssey was kind of the first feminist poem, because women actually got to speak and make decisions and stuff (Penelope was a bad bitch, she totally ran things). And we refer to long journeys as “odysseys” now, which – you guessed it – we get from the poem. So as you can see, these poems – and our mate Homer – are a Big DealTM.

You can get a gorgeous leather-bound copy of The Iliad and The Odyssey together here.

The Mahābhārata (Approx. 900 BC)

Around the same time, one of the two major Sanskrit epics of ancient India emerged: the Mahābhārata. Indians generally attribute the poem to Vyasa (a Sanskrit name meaning, literally, “compiler”). He is revered as a deity in most Hindu traditions, being one of the Chiranjivins (immortals), and there is a festival (Guru Purnima) held in his honour each year. Funnily enough, he’s also a central character in this epic poem he wrote – fancy that! Academics and experts have tried their best to work out an accurate history of the poem (epics like that don’t just appear, you know, they are composed in bits and pieces over time). As best we can tell, the oldest written parts still in existence date back to about the 5th century BC, but the poem itself emerged at least a few centuries before that.

The Mahābhārata has many different translations, the most common of which describes it as “the great tale of the Bhārata dynasty”. It tells the story of the Kuruksetra War, in great, great detail. Two cousins got into a hectic fight about who should be next in line to the throne, and next thing you know there’s a great whopping battle and a whole bunch of casualties and everyone heads into the afterlife. I know most epic poems are long (it’s kind of their defining characteristic), but get this: it is the longest epic poem still known to us today (and the longest one ever written, as far as we know). Unsurprisingly, then, in addition to the big war, it covers all kinds of other shit: philosophy, religion, royalty, family conflict, friendship, death, and everything else you can imagine. The longest version has about 200,000 lines, plus a bunch of parts that aren’t actually poetry at all (“prose passages”). That’s ten times the length of The Iliad and The Odyssey combined. So if you want to give this one a crack, you’re going to need to allow a lot of time.

In terms of literary significance, ancient Indian texts often don’t get the attention they deserve in the West (we’re too busy figuring out whether Homer actually wrote shit down himself or whether someone else did it for him). Chances are, you hadn’t even heard of The Mahābhārata until right now. You might have heard of the Bhagavad Gita though (“the song of the Lord” for Hindu Indians), so take heart: the Gita is actually an extract from The Mahābhārata. In that sense, in terms of significance, this epic poem is on par with the Holy Bible. Let that sink in.

You can get The Mahābhārata in full here, or the Bhagavad Gita section here.

The Aeneid (19-29 BC)

Yes, a lot of stuff happened poetry-wise over the following centuries, but we can skip over it all to catch up to the Aeneid: an epic poem of Ancient Rome written by a bloke called Virgil (and it’s finally recent enough that we can lock down to a relative certainty who wrote what, yay!). Virgil was king shit when it came to poetry in Ancient Rome; he wrote this one and a handful of others that pretty much defined this period in literature.

As far as The Aeneid goes, it took him ten years to write it, so he worked bloody hard to get it right. It’s actually modelled off the Iliad and the Odyssey, so it’s stacks on stacks of brilliance. The Aeneid tells the story of a Trojan guy called Aeneas; he actually featured in the Iliad too, so it’s kind of like Virgil’s homage to Homer (and maybe an attempt to outdo him, just a little bit). The poem is split in half, and each section split into six (so twelve “books” all up). The first half covers Aeneas getting the fuck out of Troy after the Greeks came around and destroyed the joint (remember that wooden horse?). He and his Trojan buddies sail to Italy, with the larrikin idea of founding a new empire (Rome). Aeneas has a bit of a rough trot with curses and weather events and stuff. He even finds the love of a good woman, only for her to kill herself when he sails off to get on with his Rome-founding. When he finally makes it to Italy, he randomly descends into the underworld, and has a chat with his dead Dad. Finally, he comes back up and they’re in Italy ready to do some founding, and everything’s grand…

… until Aeneas kills one of the local herdsman’s pets, and there’s some drama over whether he’s an eligible suitor for the princess of the day. This kicks off a war, and Aeneas has to get his arse in gear to pull some troops together. There’s some nail-biting back-and-forth between the warring factions, lots of people die (which seems to be a common theme in these poems), but ultimately Aeneas and his posse are victorious. And Rome was built in a day! (Just kidding…)

Virgil actually died on a research trip to Greece while he was editing The Aeneid. He told everyone to burn the manuscript when he died, but no one listened – so even though he spent ten years working on it, we’ve ended up with some half-arsed epic poem that the writer probably wasn’t even happy with, and we hold it up as one of the greatest pieces of Latin literature ever written. It’s a cornerstone of the Western canon, and just about everyone who learns Latin is still forced to memorise at least part of it. Its influence can be seen in almost everything that came after it (including the following poems listed here)…

You can pick up a great translation of The Aeneid here.

Beowulf (975 AD)

Now we’re back on our own side of the Christ divide, and on to texts that were actually written in English. Beowulf is the oldest one of those (though the date of its actual composition is still up for debate, and nerdy academics get really fired up about it). Unfortunately, we have no bloody idea who actually wrote it, so the nerds literally just refer to them as “the Beowulf poet” (very creative).

So, there’s this pub in Denmark, right? (Seriously, this is how it actually starts). All the king’s soldiers have beers there after they’re done fighting battles. They sing, trade gifts, and have a jolly good time. They’re not very considerate of their neighbours when leaving the premises, though, and in this case their neighbour is the swampland demon Grendel. He gets the shits with their carry-on, so he goes on a killing spree every night until they quieten down. Then, a bloke living in Geats (that’s Beowulf!) hears about the big demon and figures he could take him, so he sails to Denmark.

This Beowulf character is actually pretty good; he manages to defeat Grendel and tear off his arm, even though he’d been out drinking with the boys all the night before. The Danes are all very grateful, but Grendel’s mother is really ticked off about her dead son, so she comes seeking revenge. She doesn’t kill Beowulf straight away, but she kills one of the king’s mates and runs away, figuring he’ll come chasing after her (which he does – men are stupid). She and Beowulf have this crazy underwater battle, and he manages to come out a winner again. Everybody’s happy!

You’d think that would be the end, but no. Beowulf heads home to Geats and ends up becoming king. Everything’s chill for a while, until some kid wakes up a dragon, and Beowulf ends up having to sort that out too. He’s gone a bit soft in his old age, and he dies of a whopping great dragon bite. His people burn him on a pyre, and he’s buried with a bunch of treasure.

There’s only one surviving original manuscript and it is literally about 1,000 years old. It nearly burnt to a crisp in a fire in 1731, so you can bet they’re keeping a bloody close eye on it now. J.R.R. Tolkien was obsessed with it, and literary criticism of Beowulf pretty much began with him. It’s still super-popular and modern versions and adaptations are being released all the time (remember the movie with Angelina Jolie a few years ago?), moreso than any of the other poems on this list.

You can get a highly-acclaimed version (and even a bilingual edition) of Beowulf here.

The Divine Comedy (1321 AD)

And here we are, back where I began with this week’s review: The Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri. The Divine Comedy is a narrative poem split into three parts (Inferno – the most famous – then Purgatorio and Paradiso), describing Dante’s journey through Hell and Purgatory, and eventual arrival in Heaven. It is widely considered the preeminent work in Italian literature. The Divine Comedy was so influential that it pretty much single-handedly cemented the Tuscan dialect (the one that Dante wrote in) as the official Italian language. Can you imagine a book deciding what language a country speaks today? Crazy!

Dante was so heavily influenced by Virgil (remember him from the Aeneid?) that he made him one of the characters, alongside himself, in the poem. Dante and Virgil (the characters) take a nice little trip down into the underworld, making their way through increasingly awful circles of hell until they get to the center where the worst sinners hang out. Then they hike up the Mountain of Purgatory, where’s it pretty much more of the same but with less skin-flaying; everyone’s just hanging around praying, trying to get into Heaven. Finally, Virgil buggers off, and Dante meets up with the chick he had a crush on back in the mortal realm. She guides him through Heaven, and there’s lots of praising the Lord and stuff. Nice, eh?

When it first came out, The Divine Comedy was super-popular and everyone thought it was great… but then the Enlightenment happened and everyone just sort of forgot about it for a while. It didn’t come back into fashion until the 1800s, but it’s remained on the radar ever since. All kinds of writers and poets (T.S. Eliot, Samuel Beckett, C.S. Lewis, James Joyce, etc.) show evidence of its influence in their work. People keep re-translating the original, and there are new versions published all the time. It has inspired paintings, sculptures, films, video games, and just about every other media we have. Just goes to show: everything old is new again, eventually!

You can get the complete version (Inferno, Purgatorio, and Paradiso) in English here, or a bilingual edition (English-Italian) here.

Paradise Lost (1667)

And, finally, almost four millennia from where we began back in ancient Mesopotamia, we land on Paradise Lost: an epic poem written by John Milton in 17th century England. It is usually discussed right alongside The Divine Comedy, because they cover off a lot of the same stuff, and are relatively close together in time (compared to the gaps between the others, anyway).

Milton’s poem starts in the middle of the action: Satan and a bunch of his rebel angel buddies have been banished to Hell, and he’s trying to get the rabble into some kind of order so they can get on with the demon business of corrupting all of Mankind. Satan draws the short straw, and has to make his way back up to Earth to find the Garden of Eden where Adam and Eve are hanging out. He transforms himself into a snake, cons Eve into eating one stinking apple and – just like that – all of humanity is doomed. Job done, says Satan. He leaves Adam and Eve alone to bone, and trots triumphantly back to Hell.

When he gets there, he has a big humble brag about what a great job he’s done taking down Paradise, but he craps on a bit too long and, before he can finish, he and all his mates transform into snakes permanently. Meanwhile, back on Earth, Adam and Eve have gone crawling to God. Adam’s having hallucinations about what’s going to happen to Mankind now that they’ve cocked everything up, and he is freaking out. God kicks them to the curb, telling them to go sit outside and think about what they’ve done, and that’s pretty much where humanity is at now. The end.

It might seem like your basic Christian story, just throwing a bit of glitter on some Bible stories and calling it a day, but Paradise Lost has sparked generations of debate and controversy. Everyone seems to agree that it’s brilliant, but there have been some almighty arguments about what Milton was trying to say and whether we’re supposed to agree with what he said. Paradise Lost, like the others, continues to be seriously influential in art, music and literature today. In fact, you’ve probably watched a movie or listened to an album or looked at a piece of art influenced by Milton’s masterpiece, and just not realised it.

You can get the complete text of Paradise Lost here.

Phew! We made it. There are, of course, many significant and brilliant poems that occurred in the intervening years of this timeline, but these are the big ones – the ones that are probably going to come up in conversation or at a pub trivia night. Now, at the very least, your eyes won’t glaze over completely.

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Have you read any of these really old poems? Has this guide inspired you to seek any of them out? Let me know in the comments (or share over at KUWTP on Facebook!).

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What To Say To Your Tinder Date About Books You Never Read

There’s no use hiding it: we all pretend to have read books we really haven’t. Mark Twain once famously described a “classic” as a book that people praise and don’t read. These fibs aren’t such a big deal when you’re having a casual chat with your family over lunch, or talking to a stranger at a bus stop… but what about the high-stakes of a first date? Favourite books are a go-to conversation starter, but what if you’ve never read their beloved Hemingway or Faulkner? It could throw your perceived compatibility with that hottie into peril. It’s fake-it-or-make-it time! To save you dashing to the bathroom to read a Wikipedia summary, I’ve put together a cheat sheet: here’s what to say to your Tinder date about books you never read.

What To Say To Your Tinder Date About Books You Never Read - Black Text in Yellow Square on Image of Couple Sitting In The Sun - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (Robert Louis Stevenson)

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

Don’t say: “It’s all about the monster within, you know?”
Do say: “Ah, the prototype of doppelgänger literature!”

Luckily, Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde is popular and enduring enough to have become an English idiom, so you probably know more about it than you think. It’s a super-short novel (closer to a novella), and yet it’s packed to the rafters with symbolic meaning. It can be interpreted as a metaphor for just about anything you want! Bonus points if you reference my favourite analysis: that Stevenson wrote Dr Jekyll as a closet homosexual, and the emergence of Mr Hyde was a metaphor for his rampant gay sex drive. You might even get the chance to take the intellectual upper-hand if your date calls it “The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde”; Stevenson intentionally (and infuriatingly) excluded the preposition from its original title.

I’ve actually posted a full review of Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde just this week, so you can check that out if you need more detail.

The Sun Also Rises (Ernest Hemingway)

The Sun Also Rises - Ernest Hemingway - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Don’t say: “I just love how Hemingway would show, not tell!”
Do say: “While it lacks Hemingway’s characteristic sparseness, it’s a fascinating insight into the changing role of men after the First World War.”

The Sun Also Rises isn’t my favourite from Hemingway’s works (see my review here for details), but a lot of people love it so it might crop up in conversation. If you can, steer the conversation towards the origins of the story in Hemingway’s own life. No one’s quite sure whether Hemingway was rejected from the military due to his poor eyesight, or whether he just wussed out of being a soldier and snagged a position as an ambulance driver instead. Either way, themes of rejection and cowardice and male insecurity are present in all of his work. The Sun Also Rises is a “roman à clef” (a true story dressed up as fiction) based on the lives of Hemingway and his friends in the “Lost Generation”.

Hint: Hemingway is famously nicknamed “Papa”, so you’ll sound like a real literary insider if you call him that now and then.

Moby Dick (Herman Melville)

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

Don’t say: “That’s the long one about the whale, right?”
Do say: “Although his masterpiece is a harder slog for the contemporary reader, Melville was undoubtedly superior to Hawthorne.”

If your Tinder date says that Moby Dick is their favourite book, you can be pretty confident you’ve found someone who’s super patient and very persistent. After all, they finished and (apparently) loved a 600-page epic set on board a 19th century whaling ship. Melville experimented with perspective, narrative technique, chronology, and just about everything else that makes a book a book, so Moby Dick is a really tricky read. Like Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, there are so many different meanings and interpretations of Moby Dick that you can make up pretty much anything you like and it will probably sound alright. If you want to seem like you really have your finger on the pulse, talk about the significance of the work in the present-day context of climate change. Captain Ahab’s attempts to bring the white whale into submission drove him mad and ultimately led to his demise, which could be a metaphor for humanity’s struggle to control and dominate the environment.

Ulysses (James Joyce)

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

Don’t say: “It’s, erm, a really hard read, isn’t it?”
Do say: “The focus on his delivery and his experimentation with form and style have really detracted from a true understanding of the work in the popular consciousness.”
Alternative do say: “How about I buy us another round?”

If you ask them, the Ulysses-lover will probably tell you that they are also patient and persistent, but beware: you might find that they’re pretentious and a little bit snobby as well. Ulysses is notorious for being one of the most difficult English-language books in the history of literature, and I see no shame in ‘fessing up that you’ve never read it (and probably never will). If you’re really determined to show off for them, however, you could ask them how they think it compares to Mrs Dalloway. Virginia Woolf’s novel was, in effect, a response to Joyce’s Ulysses, mirroring its style and form. Both take place over a single day, written in a hectic stream-of-consciousness style, and focus primarily on the lives of two central characters while others weave in and out.

Alternatively, you can simply insist on buying another round and change the subject entirely. It’s up to you.

As I Lay Dying (William Faulkner)

As I Lay Dying - William Faulkner - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Don’t say: “There’s so many different narrators, it’s too hard to keep track!”
Do say: “Faulkner is so skillful in the way he truly immerses the reader in the culture and vernacular of communities completely foreign to the mainstream.”

Faulkner famously claimed that As I Lay Dying was written and published in a single draft. He said that he wrote the whole thing in six weeks, while working his day job in a power plant. Either he’s a real show-off, or a damn dirty liar. Still, he’s probably the most renowned author of the Southern Gothic genre, and he won the Nobel Prize for literature. As I Lay Dying tells the story of the death and funeral of a Southern matriarch, through the perspective of fifteen different characters in her family and community. The overriding message is that dying can be a relief from the suffering one experiences in life, and families are bonkers.

Bonus tip: pretty much every Faulkner novel features a death and/or a funeral of some kind, so if your date starts talking about any of his other works, just ask him what he thought about Faulkner’s depiction of funeral rites in that context. Works like a charm! Plus, you can read my review of As I Lay Dying right here, if you want to make sure you’ve got it locked and loaded.


If you’re wondering what to say to your Tinder date and the book they mention isn’t listed here, do what I always do when I’m stuck: ask a lot of questions. People love talking about themselves and why they love what they love, so it shouldn’t be too hard to get them on a roll. Make sure you come back here as soon as the date is over and let me know which one I missed, so I can update this post accordingly! (You could also put out a cry for help over at KUWTP on Facebook!)

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What’s Your Desert Island Book?

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

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

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

Ulysses – James Joyce

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

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

Don Quixote – Miguel de Cervantes

Don Quixote - Miguel de Cervantes - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

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

Collected Works – William Shakespeare

The Collected Works Of William Shakespeare - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

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

Lord Of The Flies – William Golding

Lord Of The Flies - William Golding - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

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

Wuthering Heights – Emily Brontë

Wuthering Heights - Emily Bronte - Keeping Up With The Penguins

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

Charlotte’s Web – E.B. White

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

Shantaram – Gregory David Roberts

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

Waiting for Godot – Samuel Beckett

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

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



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

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