Even though I know very little about most books on The List going in, I can’t help but develop some preconceived ideas. Maybe it’s the cover art, maybe it’s the blurb, maybe it’s a sticker that says “award winner“, maybe it’s a recommendation from a celebrity or a friend; whatever it is, it’s hard to come at a book with a completely blank slate. The great thing about a project like Keeping Up With The Penguins is that it urges me to forge ahead anyway, and sometimes I’m very pleasantly surprised. Sometimes, it’s a let down. But whatever the case may be, I get to share my surprise (pleasant or otherwise) with all of you, Keeper-Upperers! Here are seven books that will take you by surprise (one way or the other).
Surprisingly Relatable: Crime And Punishment – Fyodor Dostoyevsky
OK, I realise that’s a weird thing to say about a book with an axe-murderer for a protagonist, but I swear it’s true! (And I’m not weird. Or murderous. Promise.) Crime and Punishment is a Russian classic, and as such I expected it to be dense, wordy, and dull… but it was none of those things! Granted, I might have to attribute a little bit of the magic to the translator of my particular edition, David McDuff, but he can’t take all the credit! Dostoyevsky wrote a beautiful, intricate novel exploring the anxieties and self-fulfilling prophecies of a man who had great intentions but couldn’t help getting in his own way. Who can’t relate to that? Just a little?
Surprising Plot Twist: We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves – Karen Joy Fowler
I’m cynical to a fault, and always thinking three steps ahead in books and movies. I’m the one who says “I bet this is what happens next!” and ruins it for everyone (I’m sorry, I know, I’m hateful!). That’s why I was so bowled over by a book with a plot twist that I did. not. see. coming! Not for one second! And that book was We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves. It’s one of the very few books for which I give an actual spoiler warning, because the twist is just so damn good I can’t bear the thought of ruining it for someone else. I can’t say any more here, for obvious reasons, but if plot twists are your thing, this one is a must-read!
Surprisingly Tame: Lady Chatterley’s Lover – D.H. Lawrence
When a book gets its publisher prosecuted under the Obscene Publications Act, you expect it to be… well, filthy. The publisher’s note in the front of Lady Chatterley’s Lover actually dedicates the book to the twelve jurors that declared them not guilty. I thought that was really great, at first. As I got further and further into Lady C, I grew to suspect that the jurors voted to acquit Penguin simply because the book wasn’t actually that dirty. Lawrence just gave us a whole lotta quivering wombs and chest-clutching, snore. There’s way better literary smut out there!
Surprisingly Accessible: An Artist Of The Floating World – Kazuo Ishiguro
Kazuo Ishiguro has won pretty much every serious literary award there is, so I expected An Artist Of The Floating World to be dense. I mean, that’s what award-winners are, right? Serious Books For Grown Ups? Turns out, I was dead wrong! This slim tome was a highly engaging and fascinating look into the mind of an ageing Japanese artist. It picks apart the role he played distributing propaganda and dobbing in his mates during the Second World War. If you want to read more “serious” fiction, but you don’t want to wear out your thinking meat, this is a great one to start with.
Surprisingly Masterful: The Adventures Of Sherlock Holmes – Arthur Conan Doyle
They’re just detective stories, right? How good could they really be? Damn good! The Adventures Of Sherlock Holmes is officially my favourite classic short-story collection, and I am in awe of Arthur Conan Doyle’s mastery of the craft. He managed to squeeze incredibly complex, intricate stories into surprisingly few words, while simultaneously making them easy to understand and follow. Seriously, it will take you longer to explain the plot of a Holmes story to a friend than it will for you to read it in the first place. Impressive, eh?
Surprisingly Funny: The One-Hundred-Year Old Man Who Climbed Out The Window And Disappeared – Jonas Jonasson
A book about a centenarian who escapes his nursing home and ends up on the run from a gang of drug dealers should probably be sad, not funny… but it’ll surprise you! The One-Hundred-Year Old Man Who Climbed Out The Window And Disappeared in question is Allan Karlsson, and he has lived one heck of a life. He’s living proof that vodka is cleansing, and you can make friends with just about anybody if you approach them with an open mind. You’ll be rooting for this elderly Swede before you know it, and you’ll get more literal lols out of this story than you can poke a stick at.
Surprisingly Underrated: Cold Comfort Farm – Stella Gibbons
I’d never even heard of Cold Comfort Farm before I pulled my Keeping Up With The Penguins list together – and that’s a goddamn travesty, I’m telling you! Stella Gibbons is the poster-girl for refusing to play by the rules, which is probably why she gets swept under the rug so much. She satirised D.H. Lawrence, pissing off all the fan-boys that (shall we say) appreciated his free-love philosophies. She refused to mix in writing circles, ostracising Virginia Woolf (an enemy no emerging writer needs). And she publicly bemoaned the success of Cold Comfort Farm, like a ’90s pop star that refuses to play their biggest hit. She might have wound up resenting it, but I fucking loved it! It’s hilarious, it’s insightful, it’s brilliant – and atrociously underrated by academics and general readers alike. Do yourself a favour and pick up a copy, if for no other reason than to show the publishers that Gibbons is an author worth remembering (and reprinting).
Life is full of surprises, and so are books. What was the last book to take you by surprise? Tell me why in the comments (or add it to the list over at KUWTP on Facebook!).