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Emma – Jane Austen

Chris Kyle filled up my tolerance bucket to overflowing. By the time I was done with American Sniper, I was desperate to get back to literature that didn’t offend every moral fiber of my being. In my hour of need, I turned to one of the most recognisable female writers of the English language. My sum total experience of Austen beforehand was six aborted attempts to read Pride and Prejudice, and falling asleep during the Keira Knightley film adaptation. I know I’ll have to get around to reading that particular masterpiece eventually (it’s also on The List), but baby steps are the name of the game. So, I decided to start with Emma.

Emma was the last of Austen’s six novels to be completed, after the publication of Pride and Prejudice. A London publisher offered her Β£450 for the manuscript, and asked for the copyright for Mansfield Park and Sense and Sensibility thrown into the bargain. She told him to get stuffed, and in 1815 published two thousand copies at her own expense. She retained all of the copyright, and (more importantly) all of the bragging rights. Slay, Austen, slay!

Before she began writing Emma, Austen wrote to a friend: “I am going to take a heroine whom no one but myself will much like”. From what I can tell, later critics didn’tΒ dislike Emma as much as they simply acknowledged that she was a flawed character (the horror!). The book isn’t even really about her, per se; Emma is actually a satirical novel about manners, hubris, and the perils of misconstrued romance, exploring the lives of genteel women in the early 19th century and issues of marriage, gender, age, and social status. But all I knew about it before I started reading was that it was the basis of the movie Clueless.

Clueless - You're a virgin who can't drive - Emma - Jane Austen - Keeping Up With The Penguins

So, the central character, Emma Woodhouse (“handsome, clever, and rich”), fancies herself to be quite the matchmaker in her small English village. She’s wealthy enough to get by without a husband of her own, but she takes great pleasure in meddling with other people’s love lives. What else was a girl to do before Tinder? Her pet project is Harriet Smith, an unsophisticated, illegitimate seventeen-year-old girl whose only prospect for social advancement is a good matrimonial match. Now, you can look past this pretty weak and flimsy plot to read Emma as a searing class commentary on the right of the elite to dominate society… but, if that’s not your thing, you should know right now: Emma is basically The Book Where Nothing Happens.

I mean it: nothing really happens. Every scene is a visit or a party where bored rich men and women gossip about who will marry whom. Emma tries to set Harriet up with everyone, but they all fall in love with Emma (or her dowry) instead – boohoo. There’s a lot of whining about rich white-girl problems. Now and then, there’s a dramatic declaration of love or a rejected proposal to keep the wheel turning, but otherwise it’s all pretty bland. Most of the story is told through the gossip of the town of Highbury, kind of like the original Gossip Girl.




 

The most interesting and likeable character in Emma was the uncouth Mrs Elton. Mrs Elton has fat stacks of cash, but lacks the manners and social graces that are expected of her in “polite society”. She commits social suicide almost immediately, calling people by their first names (gasp!) and boasting about her family’s wealth (can you imagine?). Emma describes her as “self-important, presuming, familiar, ignorant, and ill-bred”, but I liked her. She was a whole lot more fun than the rest of them put together. Picture an old-timey Kath & Kim character mixing with the upper crust: hilarious! It is Mrs Elton’s lack of social grace that reveals the hypocrisy and the ridiculousness of the gentility. Good on her, I say!

Things start to heat up a bit plot-wise towards the end (in relative terms, anyway): people get sick, peripheral characters die, there’s arguments between friends, and the very-predictable love triangle comes to a head. There’s a happy ending (i.e., everyone gets married), which pretty much makes it a 19th century beach read.


Emma isn’t a horrible book, and I didn’t hate it. Indeed, it’s quite clever and charming, in its own way. There’s some really funny bits, there’s some interesting class and gender commentary… but the pacing is positively glacial, and (as I said before) nothing happens. In terms of this particular edition, the introduction was fine, but the footnotes were absolutely taking the piss. No kidding, there is a footnote providing the definition of “carriage”, but nothing for the word “valetudinarian” (I had to Google it, it means “a person who is unduly anxious about their health”, just so you know). I gave up on the notes a few chapters in, they just weren’t adding much to my reading experience.

My tl;dr summary of Emma would be this: if you get your jollies dissecting the idiosyncrasies of high society in early 19th century England, and don’t mind falling asleep now and then while you’re reading, Emma will make your day. If you’re chasing action and intrigue and shock-twist endings, you might want to give this one a miss. Fingers crossed Pride and Prejudice will give me a bit more to chew on…

My favourite Amazon reviews of Emma:

  • “Boring, BORING, B O R I N G!” – Cliffgypsy
  • “too many similarities between this book and the much better Alicia Silverstone movie Clueless for me to recommend it to everyone but all in all if you like your teen comedies set in Victorian england and not LA, go for it. Grab it before Hollywood discovers the similarities and gets it yanked off the shelf with a court order. Maybe Austen can write her next one based on the plot of Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure. Set it in South Africa during the Boar war or something” – Walter Rice
  • “Tedious and slow. Too much angst and upstanding-ness.” – Iaswa
  • “Normally, “women’s fiction,” focusing on relationships and family, doesn’t interest me much, but Austen writes so well I was able to read all the way through. That emma, what an interfering know-it-all, but the harm is not irreparable.” – Marie Brack

 

The Best Fathers in Literature

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

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

Bob Cratchit (A Christmas Carol – Charles Dickens)

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

Hans Hubermann (The Book Thief – Markus Zusak)

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


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

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

Mr Bennet (Pride and Prejudice – Jane Austen)

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

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




Atticus Finch (To Kill A Mockingbird – Harper Lee)

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

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


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

 

What Do We Think Of The Dymocks 101 For 2018?

Each year, members of the Dymocks Booklovers loyalty club cast their votes for the Top 101 books of the year. This list is typically varied, covering everything from classics to contemporary to cook-books (much like my very own List here on Keeping Up With The Penguins). Indeed, it was the Dymocks 101 (along with the Guardian’s Top 100 Books Written in English) that inspired this project. Last week, Dymocks announced the Top 101 books for 2018. There are a few favourites, a few surprises, and (I’m sure it comes as no surprise) I’ve got a lot of thoughts.

Dymocks Top 101 Books of 2018 - Keeping Up With The Penguins

#1 The Harry Potter Series (J.K. Rowling)

Now, that’s one heck of a resurgence! The Harry Potter series has been lingering around the Top 20 ever since it was released, but I don’t think anyone expected it to hit the number one spot again. Perhaps its renewed popularity can be attributed to the release of the Fantastic Beasts and Where To Find Them film, but would that really have been enough to get the job done? Either way, it’s proof that J.K. has still got it!

#2 All The Light We Cannot See (Anthony Doerr)

All The Light We Cannot See took out the number one spot last year. I had fully expected its popularity to carry over to this year, but I suppose we can hardly blame Anthony Doerr for dropping his spot to the series that achieved once-in-a-generation fame.

#6 The Book Thief (Markus Zusak)

Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief is another previous winner (it took out the number one spot in 2016). I reviewed it myself just last week; I wasn’t the biggest fan, but I can understand its popularity, particularly among young adult readers. Besides, it’s good to see an Aussie author staying front and center, year after year!

#7 Pride and Prejudice (Jane Austen)

So, I’m pretty sure Pride and Prejudice appears in every list of books ever: the best books, the best books written by women, the best love stories, the best social commentaries, and everything else you can imagine. It has definitely appeared in every Dymocks Top 101 list that I can recall, so it’s not going anywhere any time soon! Austen certainly has some dedicated fans, which is all the more impressive given that Pride and Prejudice was published over 200 years ago. Personally, I’ve had a patchy history with Pride and Prejudice (I’ve started and abandoned it no fewer than six times), but I’ve committed to reading it in full now that it appears on The List!

#10 To Kill A Mockingbird (Harper Lee)

I am so, so glad to see To Kill A Mockingbird rank so highly! It has received a lot of attention lately, with the release of Go Set A Watchman (which, thankfully, does not appear in this top 101 – I’m hoping Dymocks Booklovers took into account the ethical concerns surrounding its publication when casting their votes). Plus, issues of racial injustice in the U.S. are coming to the fore on an unprecedented scale, and there was considerable controversy concerning this American classic having been banned in some school districts.


#12 1984 (George Orwell)

I can happily admit that 1984 absolutely got my vote this year – and every year! It is one of my long-time favourite books, and its ongoing – increasing! – relevance and poignancy is a testament to Orwell’s masterful writing. Plus, Orwell’s Animal Farm also appears in the Dymocks 101 for 2018 (coming in at #54).

#14 The Girl On The Train (Paula Hawkins)

I was a little surprised to see The Girl On The Train still ranking so highly, but I’m happy for Paula Hawkins – she worked really hard for years to achieve this kind of “overnight success”. In fairness, I do still see photos of this one all over Instagram, so it probably shouldn’t have been that much of a surprise after all πŸ˜‰ Read my full review of her bestselling psychological thriller here.

#19 The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (Douglas Adams)

Now this one was no surprise at all! Like Pride and Prejudice, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy gets a spot on almost every best-of-books list ever. It has ranked highly in the Dymocks Top 101 once again, and – as further testament to its popularity – I can confirm that I’ve had a devil of a time finding it in secondhand bookstores! The best (or most popular) books are always impossible to find secondhand, because people just can’t bear to part with their copies. Fingers crossed I find it soon, so I can bring you a review!

#22 Jane Eyre (Charlotte BrontΓ«)

I was overjoyed to see Jane Eyre – probably moreso than any other book – in this year’s Dymocks 101. It is on my List, of course, and I recently read it for the first time. It is a beautiful, wonderful, timeless book, and I’m telling you right now it will be one of my life-long favourites. Plus, Charlotte is the only BrontΓ« to score a spot on the Dymocks 101, so I guess that settles any debate as to who is the superior sibling in that family! I was pretty shocked that Wuthering Heights didn’t take the honours, to be honest – personally, I think it pales in comparison, but from what I can tell it is the favourite of most contemporary BrontΓ« readers. I guess you never can tell!

#23 The Martian (Andy Weir)

Andy Weir is living the dream. He self-published The Martian for free through his own website when he couldn’t attract the interest of major publishers, and now here he is, years later, with millions of book sales, a major motion film adaptation starring Matt Damon, and a coveted position on the Dymocks list. Plus, his book wasn’t half bad! Hats off to him πŸ˜‰



#25 The Rosie Project (Graeme Simsion)

I mention The Rosie Project not only because it’s on The List, but also because it’s one of my mother-in-law’s special favourites. I actually bought her a copy of the sequel, The Rosie Effect, for Christmas, and Graeme Simsion was kind enough to personally sign it for her. So, he’s clearly a top bloke!

#26 The Good People (Hannah Kent)

I’ve heard so much about The Good People since its release, and it sounds fucking fantastic! By all accounts, its spot in the Dymocks 101 is well-earned. In addition to countless reviews and features on literature blogs, I’ve also heard interviews with Hannah Kent that left me markedly impressed. Even without having read The Good People (yet!), I’ve already recommended it to friends; at this rate, it will definitely make The Next List.

#27 The Great Gatsby (F. Scott Fitzgerald)

Ugh! The Great Gatsby is probably the only entry on this top 101 list that made me recoil. You can read my review of this “great American novel” here, but for now suffice it to say I wasn’t a huge fan. I really don’t understand what all the fuss is about! It’s an unpopular opinion, sure, but I stand by it. Clearly, given its ranking, not many other booklovers feel the same way!

#32 Reckoning (Magda Szubanski)

Reckoning is another book under consideration for The Next List – unfortunately, it came out just a bit too late for the original compilation. Had it come out just a few months later, you can be sure it would have made the cut! For my international friends who might not be familiar, Magda Szubanski is a beloved actress and comedian here in Australia. She came out just before our ridiculous plebiscite vote on marriage equality last year, and she became the de-facto face of the Yes movement (which was, of course, gloriously successful!). Magda is revered as an absolute goddess in my social circles, with good reason. I really wish her memoir had ranked higher in the Dymocks 101, but I consider her inclusion a win for the LGBTIQ community regardless!


#44 The Song of Ice and Fire Series (George R. R. Martin)

Much like Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings, The Song of Ice And Fire series is pretty much guaranteed a spot on the Dymocks 101 for many years to come, thanks to the incredibly popular small-screen adaptation (Game of Thrones). Say what you will about GoT fans, they’re a dedicated bunch!

#50 milk and honey (Rapi Kaur)

Rapi Kaur actually managed to score two books in the Top 101 – her debut, milk and honey, and also the follow up, the sun and her flowers (which came in at #86). Say what you will about her style and technique, I think it’s fucking incredible that two contemporary books of poetry have reached this level of popularity! Through Rupi Kaur, an entire generation is basically discovering representative poetry (Rupi Kaur probably being the first non-white non-male poet that they’ve read since they were forced to study the “classics” in high school), and it’s luring them to explore and purchase more poetry. That’s never a bad thing!

#71 Victoria (Julia Baird)

I’ve got to be honest: I wouldn’t normally pick up a biography of a dead monarch (especially one as done-to-death as Queen Victoria), but I’ve heard about half a dozen interviews with Julia Baird now and gosh-darn-it she has just about convinced me this would be a worthwhile read! She is insightful, conscientious, meticulous, and bloody hilarious! Those qualities, coupled with a recommendation from her friend (and my hero) Anabelle Crabbe, are the best marketing that Victoria could get.

#74 The Alchemist (Paolo Cohelo)

This book will never die! Every hippie I’ve ever met has strongly recommended that I read The Alchemist, and sure enough I’ve heeded their advice and included it on The List. If I remember correctly, in past years The Alchemist has featured much higher in the Dymocks 101, but regardless of the rank, it’s sticking like glue!

#76 The Narrow Road To The Deep North (Richard Flanagan)

Richard Flanagan’s The Narrow Road To The Deep North is probably one of the more literary inclusions in the Top 101, and also in my own List. I recently learned that it was the Man Booker Prize winner of 2014, which will make it my first Man Booker read (ever!)… when I get around to it πŸ˜‰


#77 My Brilliant Friend (Elena Ferrante)

If I’m being frank, I’m of the firm belief that My Brilliant Friend deserved a much higher spot on the Dymocks 101. The first of the Neapolitan Novels from Elena Ferrante was beautiful, in every respect. Even in the English translation, it retained the lyrical rhythm of the original Italian, and depicted (with incredible raw honesty and insight) the coming-of-age of a young woman in trying circumstances. I think, in the future, we will look back on My Brilliant Friend as a literary classic, so here’s hoping that it gets more love from Dymocks Booklovers in coming years.

#82 The Dressmaker (Rosalie Ham)

Again: Aussie authors are doing it for themselves! Woo! I’m really happy about that (shamelessly so), but… I’m kind of surprised at the lasting power of this strangely gothic novel. The Dressmaker has endured for eighteen years so far, despite its esoteric setting (a fictional small Australian country town in the 1950s) and distinctly un-happy ending. So, three cheers for Rosalie Ham! I’m not sure I understand how or why, but she has truly captured the hearts of Australian booklovers.

#94 Little Fires Everywhere (Celeste Ng)

I must say, I’m surprised to see Little Fires Everywhere so far down the Top 101 – probably because I feel like I see it everywhere! Instagram has thousands upon thousands of photos of its distinctive cover, it’s topped so many best-reads lists I can’t even count them all, and it has been reviewed (glowingly) in every major publication that pops up in my inbox. Celeste Ng is fucking slaying it at the moment, and I’m sure next year we’ll see this one in the Top 20.

#98 Goodnight Stories for Rebel Girls (Elena Favilli and Francesca Cavallo)

I love, love, love this concept – stories about fabulous, ground-breaking, unruly women who have forged ahead in their fields and changed the world, written for young girls who would otherwise be forced to resort to fairy tales and Disney movies. There has been a spate of publications in this vein, but Goodnight Stories for Rebel Girls is the original and the best. It just scraped in to the Dymocks 101, but I am so glad to see it there at all! If you have young children (boy, girl, or otherwise), be sure to pick this one up for them; foster a love of reading and accurate representation of women in one fell swoop!




General Comments

Unsurprisingly, we can see a lot of film adaptations appearing in the Top 101. In addition to the ones I’ve listed above, Big Little Lies and The Handmaid’s Tale – both of which had fantastic television adaptations aired over the last 18 months – made the top ten. Furthermore, Simon vs The Homo Sapiens Agenda and Call Me By Your Name (books adapted to films released in the last 6 months, both coincidentally focusing on young gay characters) made the top fifty, which I think is just fucking excellent. Representation matters!

On that note, I was surprised at how few of the standard straight-white-middle-class-male-authored classics made the cut. There was no Dickens, no Twain, no Steinbeck, no Beckett… I’m not sure if this means that Australian booklovers are demanding greater representation and diversity in their reading lists, or whether the team at Dymocks made some executive decisions. Either way, while I’m secretly disappointed that David Copperfield didn’t rate a mention, it’s great to see more diversity on the shelves at the front of the store! (I should mention, though, that while eight of the top ten, and 53% of the list overall, were written by women, but only roughly 10% were written by POC. Stats on other types of representation are tricky to come by!)

On a different note, I feel compelled to mention that one of my favourite things about this year’s Dymocks 101 is that it doesn’t feature a single cookbook! When Jamie’s 30 Minute Meals (or whatever) reached the top 50, it felt like a betrayal of what the list was about. In their absence, there are almost no entries that I outright disagree with (aside from maybe The Great Gatsby, as I mentioned, but I’m a big enough person to acknowledge that that’s a matter of my personal taste rather than the quality of the work.)

What did you think of the Dymocks 101? Did your special favourites make the list? Any glaring omissions as far as you’re concerned? Let me know in the comments (or join the conversation over at KUWTP on Facebook!)

 

Yeah, Totally! 10 Books You Probably Pretend To Have Read

Here at Keeping Up With The Penguins, we have a strict no-judgment policy. (Well, we can judge the books of course, but not each other. Kay?) That’s why you and I can be completely honest with each other: we all pretend to have read books that we really haven’t, right?

A new survey on this topic pops up every couple of years or so (usually when it’s a slow news day for the book blogs or morning television). The results always vary slightly, depending on which country is polled, where they find their participants and how many people they ask. I’ve read a stack of these listicles over the years, and I figured I’d boil them down into my own top ten. I’ve even included a couple that I’m very guilty of lying about myself. Let’s take a look…

10 Books You Probably Pretend To Have Read - Text on Background Grid of Book Covers - Keeping Up With The Penguins

1. 1984 – George Orwell

This one appears on every list I’ve read, and I can’t understand why! Compared to some of the others, it’s a really easy read, so if you’re putting it off and fibbing about it, consider THIS the motivation that you need!

1984 is the prototypical dystopian novel, published back in 1949 (before we knew how bad things would actually get), and yet its relevance in the era of alternative facts increases day-by-day. It gave us “Newspeak”, and “Doublethink”, and – of course – “Big Brother”. It’s probably our familiarity with these concepts that makes us feel comfortable enough to lie about having read Orwell’s masterpiece. I strongly recommend giving it a go – you’ll be pleasantly surprised, I swear!

2. Pride and Prejudice – Jane Austen

I am guilty as charged. I have lied about reading Pride and Prejudice on more than one occasion. In truth, I’ve started – and abandoned – it, no fewer than six times. I abandoned it so hard that I actually lost my copy of it altogether, and had to pick up a new one when I made The List. Fear not, I’ll be forcing myself to read it before the Keeping Up With The Penguins project is through…

3. Ulysses – James Joyce

If you’ve lied about having read Ulysses, it’s hard to blame you. In fact, I take no issue with you carrying on doing so until you die (or someone catches you out, whichever comes first). It’s a notoriously difficult read. Plus, everyone I know who has read it is incredibly smug about having done so. It’s on The List, but believe me, I’ll be leaving it ’til last!

4. War and Peace – Leo Tolstoy

I believed for a long time that everyone lied about having read War And Peace – surely no one actually made it all the way through that behemoth! That was until I watched my husband do it. It took him months, cramming in a few pages every spare moment (on trains, during meal breaks, before bed…). He insists that it’s fantastic and well worth a look, but I’d want to be absolutely sure before making a commitment. Maybe we should try another (shorter!) Tolstoy classic first, like Anna Karenina

5. Fifty Shades of Grey – E.L. James

I was shocked to see Fifty Shades of Grey appear on any of these lists, and yet it keeps cropping up. Surely more people lie and say they haven’t read it?

Fifty Shades of Grey has been widely decried as one of the worst things to happen to popular fiction in the 21st century, but I’ll admit I picked up a copy in a desperate moment (stuck in an airport waiting on a delayed flight, when options in English were limited). If you’re tempted to lie about having read it (when you really haven’t), I wouldn’t bother. Be up front and tell them you get your literary smut elsewhere πŸ˜‰




6. Catch-22 – Joseph Heller

Ah, another book that spawned a cultural catchphrase that has lasted generations. I’d wager there’s plenty of folks out there that are well familiar with the concept of a Catch-22, but aren’t even aware that the phrase was born from a book of the same name. I’m also guilty of having chuckled along meekly when my better-read friends made jokes about this book… but not any more! I read it and reviewed it here.

7. Wuthering Heights – Emily BrontΓ«

I’m just going to say it up front: listening to the Kate Bush song doesn’t count!

BrontΓ«’s super-creepy semi-incestuous gothic romance isn’t for anyone, but I’m not sure it pays to fib about having read it. Wuthering Heights is so multi-layered and chock-full of metaphor that you might not know what you’re agreeing (or disagreeing) with. Check out the highlights (and, let’s be real, a few lowlights) in my review here.

8. The Scarlet Letter – Nathaniel Hawthorne

Here we are: another concept that a lot of us are already familiar with, and yet we all lie and say we’ve read the book (when we really haven’t). Are you sensing a pattern?

I can guarantee you that The Scarlet Letter is not what you’d expect. I thought it would be a full-on treatise about the oppression of female sexuality, with some dirty bits thrown in for good measure, but it was something else entirely. The good news is, I actually reviewed it just this week here on Keeping Up With The Penguins – check it out here!

9. The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes – Arthur Conan Doyle

I can completely understand the temptation not to bother reading the original Arthur Conan Doyle books, because the BBC’s Sherlock series is just so damn good! Still, given that the television program shifts the story to the present day (and likely takes a few other liberties), surely we’re missing out on something if we don’t give the original Adventures of Sherlock Holmes a once-over ourselves. This one is coming up on The List as well…

10. Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland – Lewis Carroll

I thought I’d end on a surprise! Not only is Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland one of the most unexpected entries, but it actually came up as the top result in one survey of the British reading public! Doesn’t that seem odd? A children’s book (a very easy read, it goes without saying) beats out War And Peace! My best guess is that everyone is emotionally attached to the Disney film they grew up with, and they figure it’s just as good. Far be it for me to dissuade them, but in my opinion they’re missing out! Carroll’s true brilliance and cleverness and wordplay can only be seen on the page…

So, these are the books you’ve most likely pretended to have read – was I right? Or do you have some other secret shame? Let me know in the comments below! (Or join the conversation with KUWTP on Facebook!)

 

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First Thing’s First: 9 Great Opening Lines in Literature

Let’s start at the very beginning, shall we? (It’s a very good place to start, or so I’ve heard). I mean that quite literally: this is the beginning of Keeping Up With The Penguins, so why not look at some of the great beginnings in literature?

9 Great Opening Lines in Literature - Text over open book with white pages on black background - Keeping Up With The Penguins

What makes a great opening line? Every writer knows that the opening line is crucial; often, more work goes into that one sentence than any other. Stephen King has described the opening line as an invitation to continue reading, which seems about right. A great opening line gives rise to many more questions than it answers, and it’s curiosity that drags a reader’s eyes down the page. I’m quite partial to opening lines that make me laugh, or take me by surprise in some way – so no “it was a cold and stormy night”s here, thanks!

For all those would-be booklovers out there, I think reading over lists of great opening lines in literature is actually better when you haven’t read many (or any!) of the books in question. If you’ve already read the book, you’ve got a sense of nostalgic attachment (or detachment, depending on whether you enjoyed it) that can cloud your judgment. If you come at a list like this with a blank slate, it lets you evaluate each line without preconceived ideas. So, tell me: do you feel invited to continue reading by any of these?

1. Pride & Prejudice – Jane Austen

“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.”

This opening line appears on every “best of” list ever written, so I figured we’d get it out of the way early here. Pride and Prejudice is chockers with biting sarcasm and satirical wit, for which Austen is famous. You can almost hear her implied eyebrow-raise as you read it.

2. Moby Dick – Herman Melville

“Call me Ishmael.”

And this is the other one that appears on every list. Despite the fact that Moby Dick is a 600-page treatise with nuggets of wisdom on every conceivable subject, these three little words are the most-oft quoted of Melville’s work. (I’ve reviewed Moby Dick in full here!)

Fun fact: Margaret Atwood has confirmed on Twitter that this is her favourite opening line ever.

3. Anna Karenina – Leo Tolstoy

“All happy families are alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”

This cracker from Tolstoy appears on a lot of “best of” lists as well, but the wording varies slightly (depending on how it was translated from the original Russian). It’s one of my personal favourites – not that I’ve ever read Anna Karenina (ha!), but it’s just dark and kind of wry.

4. 1984 – George Orwell

“It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.”

1984 is one of my favourite books of all time, so I’m probably a bit biased including it here, but I always – from the very first read – thought this line was fucking brilliant.

5. The Voyage of the Dawn Treader – C. S. Lewis

“There was a boy called Eustace Clarence Scrubb, and he almost deserved it.”

Bet you weren’t expecting you’d see a children’s book on a list of great opening lines! Sadly, winners like The Voyage of the Dawn Treader are often overlooked in favour of more serious “grown-up” books. Keeping Up With The Penguins would never make such a mistake πŸ˜‰ This line really gives me a giggle, every time I read it.


6. The Heart is a Lonely Hunter – Carson McCullers

“In the town, there were two mutes and they were always together.”

As far as an opening line asking-more-questions-than-it-answers goes, I’m not sure you can get much better than The Heart is a Lonely Hunter! Which town? Who were the mutes? Why were they mute? Why were they always together? I’ve gotta know!

7. Book of Numbers – Joshua Cohen

“If you’re reading this on a screen, fuck off. I’ll only talk if I’m gripped with both hands.”

This is certainly a different approach to the great opening line: directly telling your reader to fuck off. I literally lol’d the first time I saw this one from Book of Numbers. I give Cohen credit here for his huge balls.

8. The Miseducation of Cameron Post – Emily M. Danforth

“The afternoon my parents died, I was out shoplifting with Irene Klauson.”

I’ve never read The Miseducation of Cameron Post, and I know absolutely nothing about it – I came across this line in a post by another blogger on something entirely unrelated. I keep looking at it, because I have no idea whether it should make me feel sad, or incredulous, or angry, or… the only way to find out, of course, would be to read the book! Hats off to Danforth, it’s a great opening line!

9. True Confessions – John Gregory Dunne

“None of the merry-go-rounds seem to work anymore.”

I find this one from True Confessions out-and-out eerie. Merry-go-rounds are kind of spooky in and of themselves, but now none of them work? Why? (And, most importantly, what kind of township needs more than one?) This great opening line would be enough for me to stick Dunne on the “to be read” pile…




There are probably as many great opening lines as there are books and readers. After all, what I find gripping might be an absolute snooze-fest for you, and you might crack up laughing at something that barely raises a smirk for me. Different horses and all that… What do you think? Have I missed your favourite? Let me know in the comments below! (Or join the conversation on the KUWTP Facebook Page!)

 

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The List

By popular demand, here is the complete list of Books I’ve Never Read (But Really Should), all to be reviewed and discussed here on Keeping Up With The Penguins. Click through the links to check out my reviews as I knock them off, one by one…

  1. The Book Thief – Markus Zusak
  2. To Kill A Mockingbird – Harper Lee βœ“
  3. Pride and Prejudice – Jane Austen βœ“
  4. Jane Eyre – Charlotte BrontΓ«
  5. The Hunger Games – Suzanne Collins
  6. The Rosie Project – Graeme Simsion βœ“
  7. The Great Gatsby – F. Scott Fitzgerald
  8. The Dressmaker – Rosalie Ham βœ“
  9. A Game Of Thrones – George R. R. Martin βœ“
  10. Divergent – Veronica Roth βœ“
  11. The Fault In Our Stars – John Green βœ“
  12. The Alchemist – Paulo Coelho βœ“
  13. All The Light We Cannot See – Anthony Doerr βœ“
  14. Still Alice – Lisa Genova
  15. The Husband’s Secret – Liane Moriarty βœ“
  16. The Adventures Of Sherlock Holmes – Arthur Conan Doyle βœ“
  17. The One Hundred-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out The Window And Disappeared – Jonas Jonasson βœ“
  18. The Lake House – Kate Morton βœ“
  19. The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy – Douglas Adams βœ“
  20. The Girl On The Train – Paula Hawkins
  21. Fangirl – Rainbow Rowell βœ“
  22. The Maze Runner – James Dashner βœ“
  23. The Happiest Refugee – Ahn Do βœ“
  24. Paper Towns – John Green
  25. The Martian – Andy Weir βœ“
  26. If I Stay – Gayle Forman βœ“
  27. The Colour Of Magic – Terry Pratchett βœ“
  28. Life After Life – Kate Atkinson βœ“
  29. We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves – Karen Joy Fowler
  30. We Were Liars – E. Lockhart βœ“
  31. A Short History Of Nearly Everything – Bill Bryson
  32. Farenheit 451 – Ray Bradbury βœ“
  33. My Brilliant Friend – Elena Ferrante βœ“
  34. On The Road – Jack Kerouac
  35. Yes Please – Amy Poehler
  36. Girl Online – Zoe Sugg βœ“
  37. A Brief History Of Time – Stephen Hawking βœ“
  38. The Brain That Changes Itself – Norman Doidge βœ“
  39. American Sniper – Chris Kyle
  40. Wild – Cheryl Strayed
  41. The Pilgrim’s Progress – John Bunyan βœ“
  42. Robinson Crusoe – Daniel Defoe βœ“
  43. Gulliver’s Travels – Jonathan Swift βœ“
  44. Clarissa – Samuel Richardson βœ“
  45. The Life And Opinions Of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman – Laurence Sterne βœ“
  46. Emma – Jane Austen
  47. Frankenstein – Mary Shelley βœ“
  48. Sybil – Benjamin Disraeli
  49. Wuthering Heights – Emily BrontΓ«
  50. Vanity Fair – William Thackeray
  51. David Copperfield – Charles Dickens
  52. The Scarlet Letter – Nathaniel Hawthorne
  53. Moby Dick – Herman Melville
  54. Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland – Lewis Carroll
  55. Little Women – Louisa May Alcott βœ“
  56. The Adventures Of Huckleberry Finn – Mark Twain βœ“
  57. Strange Case Of Dr Jekyll And Mr Hyde – Robert Louis Stevenson
  58. The Picture Of Dorian Grey – Oscar Wilde βœ“
  59. Dracula – Bram Stoker
  60. Kim – Rudyard Kipling βœ“
  61. The Call Of The Wild – Jack London βœ“
  62. The Golden Bowl – Henry James βœ“
  63. The Wind In The Willows – Kenneth Grahame βœ“
  64. The Thirty-Nine Steps – John Buchan βœ“
  65. The Age Of Innocence – Edith Wharton βœ“
  66. Ulysses – James Joyce βœ“
  67. A Passage To India – EM Forster βœ“
  68. Gentlemen Prefer Blondes – Anita Loos βœ“
  69. Mrs Dalloway – Virginia Woolf
  70. Lolly Willowes – Sylvia Townsend
  71. The Sun Also Rises – Ernest Hemingway
  72. The Maltese Falcon – Dashiell Hammett βœ“
  73. As I Lay Dying – William Faulkner
  74. Brave New World – Aldous Huxley
  75. Cold Comfort Farm – Stella Gibbons βœ“
  76. Nineteen Nineteen – John Dos Passos βœ“
  77. Tropic Of Cancer – Henry Miller βœ“
  78. Scoop – Evelyn Waugh βœ“
  79. Murphy – Samuel Beckett βœ“
  80. The Big Sleep – Raymond Chandler βœ“
  81. Party Going – Henry Green
  82. The Grapes Of Wrath – John Steinbeck βœ“
  83. All The King’s Men – Robert Penn Warren βœ“
  84. The Heat Of The Day – Elizabeth Bowen βœ“
  85. The End Of The Affair – Graham Greene βœ“
  86. The Catcher In The Rye – JD Salinger
  87. The Adventures of Augie March – Saul Bellow βœ“
  88. Lord Of The Flies – William Golding βœ“
  89. The Prime Of Miss Jean Brodie – Muriel Spark βœ“
  90. Catch-22 – Joseph Heller
  91. The Golden Notebook – Doris Lessing βœ“
  92. A Clockwork Orange – Anthony Burgess
  93. A Single Man – Christopher Isherwood βœ“
  94. In Cold Blood – Truman Capote
  95. The Bell Jar – Sylvia Plath βœ“
  96. Portnoy’s Complaint – Philip Roth βœ“
  97. Money: A Suicide Note – Martin Amis βœ“
  98. An Artist Of The Floating World – Kazuo Ishiguro βœ“
  99. Amongst Women – John McGahern βœ“
  100. True History Of The Kelly Gang – Peter Carey βœ“
  101. She Came To Stay – Simone De Beauvoir βœ“
  102. The Divine Comedy – Dante Alighieri
  103. My Brilliant Career – Miles Franklin
  104. Crime And Punishment – Fyodor Dostoyevsky βœ“
  105. Don Quixote – Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra βœ“
  106. The White Mouse – Nancy Wake βœ“
  107. The Narrow Road To The Deep North – Richard Flanagan βœ“
  108. The Turn Of The Screw – Henry James βœ“
  109. Lady Chatterley’s Lover – DH Lawrence

Entries marked with a check are texts that I have already procured, and a review will be coming soon on Keeping Up With The Penguins. The rest of them? Well, they’re the reason I’ll be drinking the house wine for a few years…

What do you think? Have I missed your favourite? Spot any glaring omissions? Get in touch to let me know (and subscribe to my mailing list below to stay up to date!).


On The Road – Jack Kerouac

It’s certainly the season for dramatic gear shifts. I’ve gone from hyper-masculine military memoir American Sniper, to subtle 19th century social satire Emma, and now on to the quintessential American road trip novel: Jack Kerouac’s On The Road. It’s never boring keeping up with the Penguins, I tell ya!

On The Road is based on the 20-something Kerouac’s travels across the United States in the years following WWII. In fact, it’s more than “based on”: it’s basically a true story with a bunch of fake names to protect the guilty. Kerouac spent years scrawling drafts in various notebooks before finally gritting his teeth and sitting down at his typewriter. He spat out the entire thing on a single scroll of paper. Yes, you read that right. The original scroll stretched over 120 feet (and it sold in 2001 for $2.43 million). By the time the book was finally published in 1957, Kerouac was thirty-five years old. Critics have said that Kerouac spent the first half of his life struggling to write On The Road, and the second half of his life trying to live it down.

What did he have to live down, exactly? On The Road went gangbusters upon its release, after all. The New York Times called it “the most beautifully executed, the clearest and the most important utterance yet made by the generation Kerouac himself named years ago as ‘beat’, and whose principal avatar he is”. That’s a rave review right there! But Kerouac learned quickly that coining the name of a generation, and being their “avatar” no less, ain’t all beer and skittles. Interviewers badgered him with constant questions about “Beat” culture, and showed relatively little interest in his actual work. As you can imagine, Jack got jack of it pretty quickly (ha!).

I’d heard of the “Beat generation” before I sat down to read On The Road, but couldn’t have told you a damn thing about it. Luckily, On The Road is basically a crash course for-dummies guide, so I’m all across it now. The Beat generation was effectively a literary movement that emerged in the late ’40s and early ’50s. Kerouac and his buddies (on whom the characters in On The Road are based) were basically the Tumblr kids of their day. The Beat generation were characterised by their rejection of traditional values (especially the materialism underpinning American culture at the time); as such, they’re well renowned for their spiritual quests, their drug use, and their raunchy sex lives.




 

In terms of plot, On The Road follows the narrator Sal Paradise on a series of hodge-podge journeys back and forth across the United States. It is split into five parts.

Part One (1947) covers Sal’s first trip from New York to San Francisco (via Denver), and back again (via Bakersfield). Sal is a pretty flawed human; he lacks any real conviction, he drinks a little too much, and he has terrible luck with women. Still, despite his shortcomings, he had a certain chutzpah that I admired. He certainly wasn’t too proud to ask his aunt or friends for money. There was no machismo bullshit, which felt like a breath of fresh air when it comes to young white male characters. Anyway, Sal is basically just looking to party on with his friends across the country. He’s particularly keen to hang out with the other central character, free-spirited maverick Dean Moriarty. Sal also ends up having a brief dalliance with a Mexican girl named Terry on the return journey, but he abandons her to carry on home. Like I said, he’s not exactly a stand-up guy.

Part Two (1948) begins with Sal in Virginia. Dean comes to join him, and from there they drive to New York, then to New Orleans, then to San Francisco. They make friends and party with people all along the way, and the trip ends with Sal taking the bus back to New York once more.

In Part Three (1949), Sal takes the bus from New York to Denver, then trudges on to meet up with Dean (who is having serious woman troubles) in San Francisco. Together, they bounce around the country a bit (Sacramento, Denver, Chicago, Detroit), dreaming up hair-brained schemes that never quite pan out. They eventually return to New York, where Dean knocks up a(nother) girl. It was around this point that I figured out the Beat generation actually invented Uber. Seriously: Sal and Dean travel the country using ride-sharing programs organised by the travel bureaus of each city. Who knew?

Anyway, Part Four (1950) sees Sal leave Dean (who is now living an almost-normal domestic life), and take a crazy bus journey through Washington D.C., Ashland, Cincinnati, and St Louis, before meeting up with a different friend (Stan) in Denver. Dean quickly ditches his new life, and comes to join them in a beat-up old car. The three of them drive it across Texas and down into Mexico, where they party on until Sal gets dysentery. It’s a major buzz-kill. Dean ditches him there, which is not very neighbourly of him, but sadly not out of character.

The final section, Part Five, is only a few pages long. Sal has recovered and returned to New York. He has settled down with a new wife (Laura). They plan to move to San Francisco together, but Dean shows up and fucks with their plans. The story ends with Sal’s sensible friend (Remi) refusing to give Dean a lift across town. Sal gets a bit wistful about it, the end.


If you were able to bear with me through that summary, well done. If you struggled, be warned that you might struggle following the book as well. The writing is pretty frantic, in line with Kerouac’s dedication to a style of “spontaneous prose” (i.e., he types out whatever comes off the top of his head in the moment, and all editing can go to hell). It’s worth muddling through, though, for the character sketches, which are absolutely sublime:

“Marylou was watching Dean as she had watched him clear across the country and back, out of the corner of her eye – with a sullen, sad air, as though she wanted to cut off his head and hide it in her closet, an envious and rueful love of him so amazingly himself, all raging and sniffy and crazy-wayed, a smile of tender dotage but also sinister envy that frightened me about her, a love she knew would never bear fruit because when she looked at his hangjawed bony face with its male self-containment and absentmindedness she knew he was too mad.”

My favourite character was actually one of the bit-players: Sal’s aunt. She puts him up whenever he’s bored of catching busses, and she sends him money whenever he asks. To put it another way, she puts up with all his bullshit without complaint, but commands enough respect that Sal really cares about her opinion of him. He says of her: “My aunt once said that the world would never find peace until men fell at their women’s feet and asked for forgiveness”. That line really stuck with me, more than anything else from On The Road, and I’ve used it at least a dozen times since. It seems particularly poignant given the global revolt against “Weinstein culture” over the past 18 months.

On The Road is to the Beat generation of the ’40s and ’50s what The Sun Also Rises was to the Lost generation of the ’20s. You’ll often see them compared, held up side-by-side. I’m going to plant my flag and say that On The Road was the better of the two, because to my mind it presented a far more self-aware and nuanced treatment of masculinity. I’m not sure I’d call it a Recommended read, though. I can see why American beatniks and hippies loved it, but for me it was just okay. Check it out if you like crazy roadtrips and don’t mind listening to people ramble when they’re high.

My favourite Amazon reviews of On The Road:

  • “Disappointed. It read like a poorly written diary. The main characters wasted much of their life and I felt like I was wasting mine reading about it.” – Linda Carroll
  • “This is a book. It has words in it that create sentences which in turn create paragraphs. Amazing.” – Amazon Customer
  • “Book made me want to leave my family for adventure.” – Amazon Customer
  • “I thought this was “on the road” by the famous TV personality John Karult. What a disappointing surprise.” – Frederick R. Dublin